“A Lot of Silly Little Cruisers”


—KIPLING, 1897

IN 1921, BRITAIN WAS STILL the first power on earth, but her strategic situation had deteriorated. Germany was defeated, disarmed, and destitute, but Russia, Britain’s ally in the Great War, was gone. America, whose food, munitions, and loans had kept the Allies fighting until two million Yanks arrived in France, had rejected Versailles, refused to join the League of Nations, disarmed, and retreated into neutrality.

Yet Britain still had the most powerful nation in Asia as an ally, and the Anglo-Japanese alliance dating to 1902 had proved its worth in war. Japan had rolled up Germany’s possessions in China and the Pacific. Her warships had escorted the Anzac troops to European battlefields. Her naval dominance of the Far East freed up British fleets to deploy in home waters to defend against the High Seas Fleet. Had Japan been hostile, Britain would have been in mortal peril, a point graphically put by Australian prime minister W. H. “Billy” Hughes:

Look at the map and ask yourselves what would have happened to that great splash of red down from India through Australia down to New Zealand, but for the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. How much of these great rich territories and portions of our Empire would have escaped had Japan been neutral? How much if she had been our enemy?…Had [ Japan] elected to fight on the side of Germany we should most certainly have been defeated.2


WHEN LLOYD GEORGE HOSTED the Imperial Conference of 1921, the critical issue was whether to renew the Anglo-Japanese treaty. While the treaty conflicted with the League of Nations covenant, which outlawed old-world alliances, more critically, it complicated Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes had called in the British ambassador to instruct him on how great an impediment the treaty was to Anglo-American comity. America was brazenly demanding the severance of a Britain alliance vital to the security of the Empire in Asia and the Pacific.

London had no illusions about its ally. Lord Curzon considered the Japanese “restless and aggressive…like the Germans in mentality…. Japan is not at all an altruistic power.”3 Lloyd George felt they “might have no conscience.”4 Yet the benefits of the alliance were apparent. With the Bolsheviks in power in Russia, Britain had as an ally and codefender of India, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the greatest naval power in the western Pacific. Moreover, the Japanese had been scrupulously faithful.

The problem was the Americans, who were demanding that the Anglo-Japanese treaty be scrapped. “It was one of the most crucial national-strategic decisions England had ever had to reach in her history,” writes Correlli Barnett.5 The Cabinet was divided, as several of its most powerful personalities retained a romantic view of Anglo-American cousinhood:

Churchill was half-American by blood and a life-long romantic about the destiny of the English-speaking peoples, while Arthur Balfour and Austen Chamberlain had been earlier believers in pan-Anglo-Saxonism. Balfour had visited America in 1917, and the warmth of his reception had melted even his frosty detachment.6

Canada insisted that U.S. goodwill be maintained, as did Prime Minister Smuts: “The only path of safety for the British Empire is a path on which we walk together with America.”7 But Lord Curzon and Lloyd George wanted to renew the treaty, as did the Foreign Office, Chiefs of Staff, and Pacific Dominions Australia and New Zealand. Without the Japanese alliance Britain was a third-rate power in Asia, and should Japan turn on the empire that spurned her, America would do nothing to save them. The Dutch and French also had Asian colonies they could not protect against a predatory Japan. They, too, wanted the alliance renewed.

Not to renew the alliance…carried with it the likelihood of changing Japanese forbearance towards the British Empire into hostility. The British ambassador in Tokyo warned indeed that Japan would be so mortified and humiliated by British refusal to renew the treaty as to produce an “attitude of resentment and a policy of revenge.”8

Tough-talking “Billy” Hughes asked the critical question: “Is this Empire of ours to have a policy of its own, dictated by due regard to its own interests, compatible with its declared ideals…or is it to have a policy dictated by some other Power?”9

At Versailles, Hughes had sassed President Wilson to his face. When Wilson asked if Australia was willing to risk the failure of the peace conference and a dashing of the hopes of mankind over a few islands in the South Pacific, Hughes, adjusting his hearing aid, cheerfully replied, “That’s about the size of it, Mr. Wilson.”10

In Imperial Conference councils, Hughes argued vehemently that the British Empire must not ditch Japan:

[S]hould we not be in a better position to exercise greater influence over the Eastern policy [of Japan] as an Ally of that great Eastern nation, than as her potential enemy? Now if Japan is excluded from the family of great Western nations—and, mark, to turn our backs on the Treaty is certainly to exclude Japan—she will be isolated, her national pride wounded in its most tender spot.11

When the Australians were assured that the League of Nations would prevent aggression, they replied that the United States had not joined the League and was not bound by its decisions.

“What is the substantial alternative to the renewal of the Treaty?” asked Hughes. “The answer is, there is none. If Australia was asked whether she would prefer America to Japan as an Ally, her choice would be America. But that choice is not offered her.”12

Lloyd George wanted to take up the U.S. challenge by standing by the Japanese treaty and building warships. He feared that a Japan expelled from the Western camp might turn to the pariah powers, Germany or Russia. Sir Charles Eliot, Britain’s ambassador to Japan, warned of a Tokyo-Berlin axis if the treaty were terminated. But Churchill continued to press the Cabinet to cast its lot with the Americans:

Churchill, the Secretary of State for War and Air, argued that “no more fatal policy could be contemplated than that of basing our naval policy on a possible combination with Japan against America.” Lloyd George retorted by saying that “there was one more fatal policy, namely, one whereby we would be at the mercy of the United States.”13

All agreed that if the Americans would offer a U.S.-British alliance to replace the Anglo-Japanese treaty, it should be taken up. But no such offer was on the table. Given the U.S. aversion to alliances—the nation had not entered a formal alliance since the Revolutionary War—America was not going to offer Britain war guarantees for her Asian colonies. U.S. Marines were not going to fight for Hong Kong.

The proper course, argues Barnett, would have been to put the issue straight to the Americans: We will terminate our Anglo-Japanese alliance if you will sign an Anglo-American treaty to defend each other’s Pacific and Asian possessions. Otherwise, we will keep the ally we have. Disastrously for Britain, she chose to appease the United States.


“YOU PROPOSE TO SUBSTITUTE for the Anglo-Japanese alliance and the overwhelming power of the British Navy a Washington conference?” Billy Hughes roared when the Commonwealth Conference agreed to terminate the Japanese alliance and attend a Washington conference to reduce the size and power of the Royal Navy.14 At that conference, from November 1921 to February 1922, the British were forced to choose. And the decision seemed predetermined, as the British delegation was headed by Balfour, a believer in the myth of the transatlantic cousins striding arm in arm into the future.

At Washington, Britain terminated her twenty-year-old alliance that had proven its worth in the Great War. The Anglo-Japanese treaty was replaced by the Four-Power Treaty, by which America, Britain, France, and Japan agreed to settle their disputes by diplomacy and to respect one another’s “rights in relation to their insular possessions and insular Dominions in the region of the Pacific Ocean.”15 The Four-Power Treaty had no enforcement provision.

“We have discarded whiskey and accepted water,” said a Japanese diplomat of Tokyo’s lost alliance.16 Britain had done the same.

America’s diplomatic victory would prove a disaster for the British Empire. With the termination of the Japanese alliance, Australia and New Zealand ceased to be strategic assets and became liabilities, as Britain now lacked the naval power to defend the two Pacific Dominions. Now alone in Asia, Britain faced a hostile Soviet Union, a xenophobic China, and a bitter Japan. And America had made no commitment to come to the defense of the British Empire in the Far East.

To Japan, the alliance had been her link to the Allies and great powers. It meant she was not isolated in Asia or in the world. She had as her ally the most respected of the world’s empires. Writes British historian Paul Johnson,

[S]o long as Britain was Japan’s ally, the latter had a prime interest in preserving her own international respectability, constitutional propriety and the rule of law, all of which Britain had taught her.

That was why the destruction of the Anglo-Japanese alliance by the USA and Canada in 1921–2 was fatal to peace in the Far East. The notion that it could be replaced by the Washington Naval Treaty…was a fantasy.17

Arthur Herman, biographer of the Royal Navy, concurs. “Only naval ties with Britain kept Japan on a course of international propriety and rule of law, and constrained its thirst for empire.”18 In severing the alliance, Britain had committed “an act of breathtaking stupidity.”19 Japan no longer had an incentive for good behavior. Treated as a pariah, she began to play the part.

The Japanese Foreign Office that failed to win renewal of the British treaty fell in influence. Japan’s military rose. By 1930, “feeling isolated and vulnerable…Japan had become a military dictatorship ruled by a clique of imperialist-minded generals and admirals.”20


ON THE FIRST DAY of the Washington Conference, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes seized the world’s imagination with a plan to slash the size of all the great navies of the world. No nation would be more affected than Britain, for whom sea power meant survival. As of November 1918, the Royal Navy was still the world’s preeminent sea power, with sixty-one battleships, more than the U.S. and French fleets combined, and twice the battleship strength of the combined fleets of Italy and Japan.21 The Royal Navy deployed 120 cruisers and 466 destroyers, though British admirals felt even this had barely been adequate to defend Britain’s empire and trade in a war where Admiral Tirpitz’s U-boats had taken so terrible a toll.

But by 1921 the British had not laid a battleship keel in five years. The Americans, however, with Asst. Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt the driving force, had been building ships since war was declared in 1917. After Armistice Day, the United States had laid the keels for ninety-seven destroyers and ten cruisers as part of FDR’s drive to make the U.S. Navy the “greatest in the world.”22

Hughes was calling for a ten-year holiday in shipbuilding and the scuttling of British, U.S., and Japanese capital ships until the three navies reached a 5-5-3 ratio. Britain and the United States would be restricted to 500,000 tons, Japan to 300,000. No warship would be allowed to displace more than 35,000 tons. Hughes’s plan spelled an end to the British super-ships.

The Washington Naval Conference, writes James Morris in Farewell the Trumpets, was a “surrender by the British Empire…of the maritime supremacy which had been its inalienable prerogative, and its surest protection since the Battle of Trafalgar…. [T]he Royal Navy was no longer the guarantor of the world’s seas, nor even primus inter pares.”23

As a result of the treaty the British scrapped 657 ships, with a total displacement of 1,500,000 tons; they included 26 battleships and battlecruisers, among them many a proud stalwart of Beatty’s Grand Fleet. Never again would a Fisher at the Admiralty be free to set the standards of the world’s navies according to British requirements. No such magnificent fighting ships as Queen Elizabeth, the apex of British naval assurance, were ever again constructed in British dockyards…. So ended Britain’s absolute command of the seas, the mainstay and in some sense the raison d’être of her empire.24

As Admiral David Beatty, the First Sea Lord, who had commanded the battle cruisers at Jutland, listened to the details of Hughes’s plan, “he came forward in his chair, ‘with the manner of a bulldog, sleeping on a sunny doorstep, who has been poked in the stomach by the impudent foot of an itinerant soap-canvasser.’”25 The official documents of the naval conference, wrote journalist Mark Sullivan, could not

convey as much essential fact to the distant and future reader as did the look on Lord Beatty’s face…when Mr. Hughes, in that sensational opening speech of his, said that he would expect the British to scrap their four great Hoods, and made equally irreverent mention of King George the Fifth.26

“Beatty saw the treaty as an abject surrender,” writes Arthur Herman, “but the politicians forced him and the Admiralty to swallow this deeply bitter pill.”27

Japan took her inferior number as a national insult. This looks to us like “Rolls Royce–Rolls Royce–Ford,” said one Japanese diplomat. Yet the ratios would enable Japan to construct a fleet 60 percent of Britain’s, though Japan had only the western Pacific to patrol while Britain had a global empire.

To induce Japan to accept the inferior number, Britain agreed not to fortify any possession north of Singapore. Equally magnanimous, the United States agreed to no further fortification of the Philippines, Guam, Wake, or the Aleutians. Existing bases could be maintained, but any new or strengthened British base north of the Straits of Malacca or U.S. naval base west of Hawaii was prohibited. The seas around China had been turned into a Japanese lake.

How did the Anglo-Saxon powers now propose to guarantee the Open Door in China? They could not. Barnett regards the Washington Naval Conference as “one of the major catastrophes of English history.”28

What had happened to Great Britain?

She had been partially converted to the new creed—true security in the modern world lay in parchment, not sea power. So, she had abandoned her policy of maintaining fleets 10 percent stronger than any two rival powers to accept parity with the United States and inferiority to Japan in the western Pacific. The ten-year naval-building holiday would ensure that British ships remained inferior to newer U.S. ships, and that the shipyards, manpower, and skills that had produced the greatest navy the world had ever seen would disappear for lack of contracts. At the same time, Britain had turned her faithful Japanese ally into a bitter enemy.

Instead of having Japan’s navy protecting British possessions in Asia, Japan now became their most dangerous predator. “[S]o far as the Western Pacific is concerned, the British Empire is left face to face with Japan; no one else, practically, will be there to intervene,” Lord Salisbury explained to the Imperial Conference of 1923.29 On his return from Washington, Balfour was awarded the Order of the Garter, the oldest order of chivalry and highest honor a British sovereign can bestow.

Why did Britain capitulate to Harding, Hughes, and the Americans?

Much of the British elite was in thrall to the myth of the Americans as cousins who saw their destiny as one with the Mother Country. This idealized view overlooked a century of hostility—from the Revolution to the Chesapeake affair, the burning of Washington, the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson’s hanging of the British subjects Arbuthnot and Armbruster on his foray into Florida, the Aroostook War over the border between New Brunswick and Maine, the Trent affair, which brought the nations near to war in 1861, Britain’s building of Confederate blockade runners and raiders like the Alabama, Fenian assaults on Canada, and the 1895 U.S.–British confrontation over Venezuela.

In 1888, when the British minister in Washington, Sir Lionel Sackville-West, was tricked into writing favorably of President Cleveland, this probably cost Cleveland the election and certainly cost Sackville-West his post. To win the Irish-American vote in 1896, the Republicans published a pamphlet, How McKinley Is Hated in England.30 In its 1900 platform, the Republican Party had come close to inserting a pledge to annex Canada.

British elites tended to overlook the tens of millions of Americans of Irish, German, Italian, and East European descent, to whom England was not the Mother Country and the British Empire was no revered institution.

The “special relationship,” writes Barnett, was a “British fantasy. It was love in the perfect romantic style, unrequited and unencouraged, yet nevertheless pursued with a grovelling ardour…. [T]he myth of the special family relationship had become part of the furniture of the British mind.”31The British had forgotten the counsel of Palmerston, who had admonished them never to allow emotional attachments to trump national interests:

It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy…. We have no eternal allies, and we have no eternal enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.32

There was a second reason why Britain surrendered naval supremacy. The national debt had exploded fourteenfold during the war. Half the national tax revenue was going for interest. Lloyd George feared that if Britain took up the U.S. challenge to her naval supremacy by building warships, Americans would demand immediate payment of her war debts. The Yankees now held the mortgage on the empire.

Third, Wilsonianism, the belief that the blood and horror of the Great War had given birth to a new world where men recognized the insanity of war and were disposed to work together for peace, had rooted itself deep in the British soul. Internationalism and pacifism were the bold new ideas. The wicked old days and ways of militarists, navalists, and power blocs were over. It was the time of the League of Nations.

When the Admiralty began to demand new warships in the 1920s, an exasperated Chancellor of the Exchequer exploded. In a letter of December 15, 1924, to the prime minister that went on “for page after page…using every device of statistics and rhetoric to convince [Stanley] Baldwin of the utter impossibility of war with Japan,” the Chancellor wrote,

A war with Japan! But why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime. The Japanese are our allies. The Pacific is dominated by the Washington Agreement…. Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot menace our vital security in any way. She has no reason whatever to come into collision with us…. [W]ar with Japan is not a possibility which any reasonable government need take into account.33

The Chancellor was Winston Churchill, who wanted the 5-5-3 ratios extended to cruisers, the “basic naval life support system of the empire.”34 Churchill explained his reasoning to Assistant Cabinet Secretary Tom Jones: “We cannot have a lot of silly little cruisers, which would be of no use anyway.”35

Through the 1920s, Churchill insisted that the “Ten-Year Rule” he had drawn up in 1919 as Secretary of State for War and Air be applied. Each year, the Cabinet would gaze out a decade. If no war loomed, rearmament would be put off another year and disarmament by attrition would proceed. In 1928, the Ten-Year Rule was still being pressed on Baldwin’s Cabinet by Chancellor Churchill.

“In the ten years to 1932, the defence budget was cut by more than a third—at a time when Italian and French military spending rose by, respectively, 60 and 55 per cent,” writes Niall Ferguson.36 “By the early 1930s,” adds Paul Johnson, “Britain was a weaker naval power in relative terms than at any time since the darkest days of Charles II.”37

Only weeks after being named Chancellor in 1924, Churchill wrote the secretary to the Cabinet, “asking whether it was not provocative to increase the number of submarines based at Hong Kong from six to twenty-one. ‘Suppose the Japanese owned the Isle of Man and started putting 21 submarines there.’”38

Two weeks later he [Churchill] wrote to Baldwin saying that to accept the construction demands currently being put forward by the Admiralty “is to sterilize and paralyze the whole policy of the Government. There will be nothing for the taxpayer and nothing for social reform. We shall be a Naval Parliament busily preparing our Navy for some great imminent shock—Voila tout!”39

The First Sea Lord, Earl Beatty, who had met Churchill at Omdurman and known him as First Lord of the Admiralty, was astounded by the transformation. “That extraordinary fellow Winston has gone mad,” he wrote Lady Beatty on January 26, 1925.40

Churchill became the great antagonist in Cabinet to a more robust Royal Navy and would remain so until the government fell in 1929. Nor was the navy his only target. Two years into this post, he wrote Clementine, “No more airships, half the cavalry and only one-third of the cruisers.”41Churchill even dared to risk his chancellor-ship to win the fight for naval frugality:

The most dangerous of the disputes for Churchill was over the naval estimates. This was because here he not only performed an extraordinary volte face from his position twelve years before when he had almost broken the Asquith Cabinet with his demand for a larger navy but also in his 1925 demand for a smaller navy took on Baldwin’s closest friends within the government.42

In 1926, Churchill wrote again that he simply could not imagine “what incentive could possibly move Japan to put herself in the position to incur the lasting hostility of England and run the risk of being regarded as a pariah by the League of Nations.”43 Yet there was such an incentive: Manchuria. In 1931, Japan occupied it. In 1932, Britain finally abandoned Churchill’s Ten-Year Rule. But the hour was late and the British position in Asia now perilous to the point of being hopeless. By the early 1930s,

Australia had only three cruisers and three destroyers, and an air force of seventy planes. New Zealand had two cruisers, and virtually no air force. Canada had four destroyers and an army of 3,600. It had only one military aircraft—on loan from the RAF. Britain was not much more provident so far as the Far East was concerned. The building of a modern naval base in Singapore had been postponed, at Churchill’s urging, for five years.44

Correlli Barnett is scathing on Churchill’s opposition to British preparedness:

[T]he “ten-year rule” was a calamitous act of policy…. It provided the Treasury with a simple and effective weapon for crushing any service demand for research and development. The “ten-year rule” was one of Churchill’s least happy contributions to English history, and was to be a major cause of his own difficulties as War Premier after 1940.45

Arthur Herman concurs with Barnett on the disastrous five years of Chancellor Winston Churchill.

Churchill applauded rounds of “swinging” budget cuts, which sapped the navy’s resources in the 1920s, including cuts in seaman’s wages. He had pushed through the Ten Years’ Rule and scoffed at the Admiralty’s worries that the Washington treaty would “starve” the empire.46


JAPAN’S INVASION OF MANCHURIA had been in part defensive. Tokyo feared the rising power of the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists of Mao Tse-tung, backed by Stalin, who had expanded Soviet influence and the Soviet presence in China. Still, the invasion of Manchuria violated both the League of Nations Covenant and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. And Japan was a founding member of the League and a signatory to Kellogg-Briand.

Yet, Japan’s occupation of Manchuria did not threaten British interests, which lay in central and south China. Had the Anglo-Japanese alliance not been terminated, a modus vivendi like the British-French entente of 1904 could have been negotiated. As Britain had recognized France’s primacy in Morocco, and France had given up all claims to Suez, Britain could have accepted Japan’s special interest in North China, and Tokyo could have agreed to respect British primacy in South China. By recognizing spheres of influence, Britain and Japan could have resolved the crisis. But that was the now-discredited old-world way of realpolitik.

The League of Nations Covenant required members to act against a breach of the peace. But Britain and France, the two members most devoted to the spirit and letter of the Covenant, lacked the power to impose their will on Japan. And sanctions could lead to war, which would be an invitation to Japan to seize British and French possessions in the Far East, as Japan had rolled up Germany’s possessions in the Great War. And the Americans would do nothing.

Britain was now face-to-face with the consequences of her folly in severing her Japanese alliance and accepting naval inferiority in the Far East to appease the United States. Because of the shipbuilding holiday imposed at the Washington Conference and Churchill’s Ten-Year Rule, the Royal Navy had atrophied.

Where were the Americans for whose friendship Britain had sacrificed Japan? Hoover believed Japan’s move into Manchuria was defensive, to protect its empire against a rising China and an encroaching Soviet Union—and no threat to the United States. But Secretary of State Henry Stimson, the Secretary for War under President Taft, was bellicose. “When Stimson in Cabinet meetings began to talk about coercing Japan by all ‘means short of actual use of armed force,’ the President informed him that this was ‘simply the road to war and he would have none of it.’”47

Former secretary of state Elihu Root, who had negotiated the Root-Takahira Agreement giving Japan a green light in Manchuria in Theodore Roosevelt’s last term, wrote Stimson in protest of his “getting entangled in League [of Nations] measures which we have no right to engage in against Japan,” which had the right to protect herself “against the dagger aimed at her heart.”48

Historian Charles Callan Tansill describes Root as a “realist who did not want war with Japan” and Stimson as “a pacifist who loved peace so much he was always ready to fight for it. He wholeheartedly subscribed to the slogan—perpetual war for perpetual peace.”49

The energetic Stimson, however, who had come to believe that nonintervention in foreign quarrels was an obsolete policy, responded with the “Stimson Doctrine”: The United States would refuse to recognize any political change effected by means “contrary to the covenants and obligations of the Pact of Paris.” Initially rebuffed by the British Foreign Office, which did not consider Britain obligated to defend the territorial integrity of China—an ideal that had never been a reality—Stimson soon brought the British around to his view. It was also adopted by the League of Nations. Thus did Stimson put America and Britain on the path to war with Japan.

When the League voted in 1933 to condemn Japan’s aggression and demand Manchuria’s return to China, Britain voted in favor. Japan walked out. With Hitler now in power in Germany and the specter emerging of a two-front war against Germany and Japan, the British Cabinet began to reconsider the wisdom of having thrown over Japan to appease an America that was now isolationist and indifferent, if not hostile, to British imperial interests. The strongest voice for rapprochement with Japan was that of the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a 1934 memorandum, he warned that British failure to neutralize Japan in the event of a European conflict could prove fatal for the empire:

[I]f we had to enter upon such a [European] struggle with a hostile, instead of a friendly, Japan… if we had to contemplate the division of our forces so as to protect our Far Eastern interests while prosecuting a war in Europe; then not only would India, Hong Kong and Australasia be in dire peril, but we ourselves would stand in far greater danger by a fully armed and organised Germany.50

Chancellor Neville Chamberlain would prove a prophet.

The Washington treaty and Ten-Year Rule reduced the real and relative power of the Royal Navy to levels not seen in centuries. By 1931, the British navy was down to 50 cruisers, 120 destroyers, and only 3 new battleships—to police a world empire.51 The air arm of the Royal Navy, once the largest in the world, had shrunk to 159 planes.52 On the other side of the world, a bitter ex-ally had four hundred planes in the fleet, and to Britain’s four aircraft carriers, Japan had built ten.53

Britain’s Asian empire was now ripe for the taking. Only the Americans could stop Japan, and the Americans, for whom Britain had thrown over her Japanese ally, were not interested. In 1936, Churchill would look back ruefully upon the historic folly in which he had played a leading role:

What a story of folly is unfolded in the efforts of the United States and Great Britain to tie each other down in naval matters! The two great peaceful sea-Powers have hobbled each other, tied each other’s hands, cramped each other’s style, with the result that warlike Powers have gained enormous advantages against them both in the Far East and in Europe. Probably no conscious act of those who seek peace, and who have everything to lose by war, has brought war nearer and rendered aggression more possible than the naval limitations which the two great English-speaking nations have imposed upon each other.54

In 1948, Churchill, looking back in anger, would lay at the feet of the Americans the blame for the naval disarmament of Britain, for which he, as much as any statesman, was responsible:

At the Washington Conference of 1921, far-reaching proposals for naval disarmament were made by the United States, and the British and American governments proceeded to sink their battleships and break up their military establishments with gusto. It was argued in odd logic that it would be immoral to disarm the vanquished unless the victors also stripped themselves of their weapons.55

Yet Churchill had not only gone along with the “odd logic” of naval disarmament by the victorious powers, he had pressed it with “gusto.” In The Gathering Storm, Churchill blames the United States for forcing Britain to terminate her twenty-year alliance with Japan. This insult to Tokyo led directly to the greatest military disaster in British history: the surrender of Singapore and an army of 80,000 British, Australian, and Indian troops, virtually without a fight, to a Japanese army half that size.

The United States made it clear to Britain that the continuance of her alliance with Japan, to which the Japanese had punctiliously conformed, would constitute a barrier in Anglo-American relations. Accordingly, this alliance was brought to an end. The annulment caused a profound impression in Japan, and was viewed as the spurning of an Asian Power by the Western World.56

So wrote Winston Churchill, looking back.

He does not explain why he and his colleagues did not hold fast for the empire and tell the Americans that Great Britain would not throw over a faithful ally who had helped carry the shield of the empire in Asia and the Pacific—unless America was willing to help her hold that shield. It had been at Churchill’s insistence that Britain capitulated to the United States. Nor does Churchill explain his zeal in slashing the Royal Navy as Chancellor of the Exchequer, when, as First Lord, he had been its greatest champion.

Two explanations for Churchill’s conduct come to mind. The first is Churchill’s conviction that the British Lion must ever follow the American Eagle. The second is opportunism. “Anybody can rat,” said Churchill of his switch from Unionist to Liberal in 1904 over free trade, “but it takes ingenuity to re-rat.” Re-ratting to the Tories in 1924, as the Liberal Party was fading away, he was rewarded with an office second only to Baldwin’s. Chancellor of the Exchequer Churchill may have sought to show his gratitude by becoming the most fearless fiscal conservative in the Cabinet. The Royal Navy, the nation, and the empire would all pay a heavy price for his having put budget-cutting ahead of national security.

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