De Bello

War is a mere continuation of policy by other means
Former Naval Person

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On 12 November 1921 in Washington was opened an international conference on limitation of naval armaments. That conference was bound to shape the policy of naval armaments of the great powers for the next fifteen years. Not much had been expected from the conference, although the general state of minds called for moderation in the matter of armaments - so common was the weary from the Great War, which had brought people so much of loss and suffering. No country (except of Japan perhaps) wished to continue costly armaments, which burdened national budgets, and subsequently the nations themselves. In case of the naval armaments it concerned in the first place the big ships, technically more and more complex, and therefore more and more expensive. To take Great Britain for example, battleship Britannia from the "pre-dreadnought" era, that means from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, cost £1.5 million; battleship Queen Elizabeth, built in the beginning of the First World War, cost already 3 million; battle cruiser Hood (42,000t) cost more than 6 million, and Nelson and Rodney, built in 1920's cost 7 million each.

So, governments, parliaments and people of the main naval powers could not see a convincing need to increase expenditures on naval armaments, especially so that there was no enemy in sight, which would npt be equally exhausted by the war and its outcome. With one exception, and that was Japan, which gained the most from the war without contributing much effort.

The hosts of the conference, American politicians, were under the pressure of their own public opinion, which definitely opposed any new arms race and bearing the huge costs attached. The Americans were also against engagement in potentially dangerous political actions overseas. They could not see much sense in exposing the young generation of Americans to what became the fate of young Europeans in 1914-1918. Politically optimistic views of president Thomas Woodrow Wilson dominated in America: the world of future has to be a world without wars.

On the first day of the conference a real bombshell exploded, although nobody expected it after a rather mild opening speech given by president William Harding. The US Secretary of State, Charles Hughes proposed something that few years before would not come to the worst nightmares of admirals and politicians. According to his proposals, 15 American battleships had to be salvaged immediately. They were old and morally obsolete, for sure, but still represented a combat value and were in active service. Furthermore, construction of another 9 American battleships had to be terminated. All the spared battleships had to be listed by name. Similarly, Great Britain had to part with 19 old battleships and 4 under construction. The Japanese naval forces had to be reduced by 10 old battleships and 6 under construction. This would be a substantial blow to the Japanese armaments plans: they would have to give up their coveted Hachi-hachi plan - Eight-eight plan, which meant building of 8 modern battleships and 8 battle cruisers. Such was the plan fostered in the minds of the Japanese naval strategists, and appealing to all those, who desired further consolidation and expansion of Japan's imperial position.

The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the politician, who made the United States a player in the grand political game, noted that Hughes' plan had caused quite a commotion. Everybody got extremely excited. Every thesis of his speech was greeted to applause, and it ended in a standing ovation. Nobody expected that the first day of the conference would be anything more than an ordinary formality. Only few people had been introduced into Hughes' plan, and no gossips had leaked abroad.

Now came the time of peril to the steel dinosaurs of the seas. Just like their predecessors - the authentic dinosaurs - which perished without food that their habitat was not able to provide, the man-made war machines also were not able to survive the lack of money and the peoples' weariness from the war.

The project of the treaty listed by name the ships that were allowed to survive in each navy. The US Navy was supposed to part with three battleships of the Colorado type (eventually the building of only one, the Washington, was terminated), six battleships of the Indiana type, and six battle cruisers of the Saratoga type. The Royal Navy was supposed to cancel building of four battle cruisers bigger than Hood.

At this point it is worth to describe in details reductions planned for the Japanese fleet, since they had their an impact on the domestic political situation in Japan. Representatives of Japan had committed to cancellation of construction of the ships that were the embodiment of the great national ambitions and pride - they were supposed to become the biggest and the most powerful units in the history of the world naval shipbuilding. Two mighty twin battleships, Kaga and Tosa, whose construction began in 1920, had to be terminated (Kaga was eventually finished as an aircraft-carrier). Each of them had to carry ten 406mm guns and twenty 140mm guns, which would make them superior to any warship of potential opponents; their displacement had to exceed 40,000 tons.

Out of four powerful battle cruisers (Amagi, Akagi, Atago and Takao), which had to develop 30-knot speed with the armament comparable to the battleships (10 guns 460mm and 16 guns 140mm), only Akagi survived - it was negotiated that she would be finished as an aircraft-carrier, but with reduction of the displacement to 27,000 tons. Atago and Takao were salvaged on the slips; Amagi, whose unfinished hull was damaged during the strong earthquake in 1923, was also salvaged, together with the hopes for unlimited naval armaments, produced by hot heads of some young navy officers.

After five weeks of negotiations there was reached an agreement - almost incredible one, considering the weight of the problem and various differences in interests - regarding the formula of the displacement of battleships, which were awarded to the main participants of the conference. That was the famous 5:5:3 formula, which represented the rate of the displacement of the battleships of the United States, Great Britain and Japan. Acording to that formula, the United States and Great Britain were allowed to possess 525 thousand tons, and Japan - 315 thousand tons of that class of ships. In order to realise the dimensions of the deal it is worth to mention that at the beginning of the conference Great Britain possessed 45 battleships, whose combined displacement exceeded one million tons (!), and another 172 thousand tons were under construction.

The United States had 730 thousand tons and 620 thousand tons under construction, while Japan had almost 460 thousand tons and more than 280 thousand tons under construction.

As the conference continued, also France and Italy had joint the negotiations - they were granted displacement share in proportion 1.75 each.

The treaty, signed on 6 February 1922, established the upper limit of capital ships' displacemet for 35,000t and calibre of their main artillery for 406mm (16in).

There were also made provisions concerning cruisers. Their displacement must not exceed 10,000t and the calibre of the main artillery must not exceed 203mm (8in). Since then cruisers displacing 10,000t and armed with 203mm guns used to be called "Washington cruisers".

As to the aircraft-carriers, which at that time were classified as auxiliary ships, their displacement was limited in the same proportions as the battleships'. Hughes had proposed already during the first meeting that the same 5:5:3 formula be accepted for this class of ships, while the upper limit for the United States and Great Britain would be 80,000t (that is maximum three carriers of approx. 27,000 tons). Discussions over the carriers were repeatedly postponed, and it was not until 28 December 1921 that the representatives of participating countries had stated their positions. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., an enthusiast of the newly emerged class of warships, considered that limit highly insufficient, and postulated its increase to 135,000t (equivalent of 5 big carriers). Britain demanded the right to build five big carriers. Admiral Tomosaburo Kato, the Japanese Minister of the Marine, opposed Hughes' original proposal to allocate 48,000 tons to Japan, since then this country would be allowed to build merely... one and a half of a carrier. Admiral Alfredo Acton, Chief of Staff of the Italian navy, also opposed Hughes' plans; proportion 5:1.75 against the navies of the USA and Great Britain, that is 27,000 tons or one carrier, did not satisfy Mediterranean ambitions of the state with the status of a great power. The British First Lord of Admiralty, Sir Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Baron of Fareham, supported him in his opposition, and made emphasis on the claim that aircraft-carriers were fleet auxiliary ships, so it was only proper to have their numbers and sizes appropriate and proportional to the fleet tonnage. For Great Britain he demanded at least five carriers of 135,000t displacement.