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The Washington Conference of 1921–1922 was an international diplomatic meeting called by the United States to limit the naval arms race and work out security agreements in the Pacific region. The Washington Naval Treaty (1922) attempted to put a stop to naval competition by limiting the battleship strength of five major naval powers: Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy.

Naval Buildup Post-WWI

After World War I, an international naval arms race was in full swing, with Great Britain, the United States, and Japan all embarking on large, highly expensive naval construction programs. France and Italy were also building up their navies, but on a lesser scale. In the United States, newly-elected President Warren Harding was committed to arms reduction by his campaign promises and felt compelled to call for a naval disarmament conference. Hosted by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, the conference began in Washington, D.C., on November 12, 1921. The five powers were all represented at the meeting, as were China, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium.

Treaties from the Conference

As a result of the conference, the Washington Naval Treaty was signed on February 6, 1922. In the agreement, which is also known as the Five-Power Treaty, the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy all agreed to limit the size of their navies to a fixed ratio. For every five U.S. ships, there were to be only five British ships, three Japanese ships, and 1.75 French and Italian ships. Several other treaties came out of the conference, including a naval limitation treaty. It set proportional limits on tonnage for capital ships and aircraft carriers for the five nations and mandated the scrapping of ships in excess of the tonnage.

Another important treaty, the Four-Power Pact, was signed to satisfy Japan's desire for security. The pact between the United States, Japan, Great Britain, and France stated that none of those powers should increase the defenses of their outlying possessions in the Pacific. The Washington Conference Treaty (1922), which is also known as the Nine-Power Pact, was signed by all five powers, plus China, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal. The cosigners agreed to respect China's independence, aid China in maintaining a stable government, promote an equal trade and industrial policy toward China, and refrain from taking advantage of China's internal weaknesses by seeking special privileges.

Geopolitical Consequences

The Washington Conference Treaty was set to be effective for 15 years, but further conferences were convened well before that date to try to deal with matters left undone. Specifically, the failure to limit cruiser, destroyer, and submarine tonnage meant that the naval arms race was merely shifted downward to the smaller categories of combatant naval ships.

Throughout the 1920s, all the powers, with the exception of the United States, began to build ships in all three categories as rapidly as possible. The major naval powers attempted to rectify the situation at the London Conference of 1930, where Japanese parity in the other vessel classes of ships was recognized. A second conference held in London during 1935–1936 failed when Japan pulled out of all the treaties that came out of the Washington Conference.

Further Reading

Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference, 1921-1922. University of Tennessee, 1970; Chin, Wên-ssu. China at the Washington Conference, 1921-1922. New York, NY: St. John's University Press, 1963.

MLA Citation

"Washington Conference of 1921–1922." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/310035. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2181011

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