Military history


The cost of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” was ghastly: an estimated 9 million dead, 20 million wounded, countless billions of dollars squandered. The revolution in Russia, a by-product of the war, cost millions more lives. To prevent another such slaughter, the Allies vowed to disarm, dismember, and punish the Central Powers and to establish a network of treaties and alliances to insure a permanent peace and to disarm themselves.

The search for everlasting peace began at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, where President Wilson played a leading role. The outcome was the Treaty of Versailles, which contained a covenant establishing the League of Nations, a forum for settling international disputes. Ironically, the U.S. Senate, fearing that participation in the League of Nations might draw America into another European war, refused to ratify the treaty. Thus it fell to the other major wartime Allies—Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan—to enforce the terms of the Versailles Treaty, to launch the League of Nations, and to lead the search for peace.

At the insistence of France, which had suffered most in the war, the terms of the Versailles Treaty were harsh. The crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire was legally dismembered. From it emerged the new, independent nations of Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and the embryo of Yugoslavia. Germany was likewise carved up. The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France. Large areas of eastern Germany were transferred back to the newly reestablished nation of Poland, which was also granted a corridor to the Baltic Sea, terminating in the free city of Danzig. The Rhineland and Saar were occupied by Allied troops. Germany’s colonies in Africa and the Pacific were stripped away. In addition, Germany was required to pay huge reparations to the Allies—upwards of $100 billion, with the down payment, $5 billion in gold, due and payable by May 1921.

Beyond that, Germany was demilitarized. The German general staff and navy high commands were abolished. The German Army was limited to a constabulary force of 100,000 men; the navy to merely 15,000 men. Military conscription was abolished. Voluntary military enlistments had to be long-term: twenty-five years for officers, twelve years for enlisted men; no one could retire before age forty-five; no one could enlist in another service after retirement. Neither the Army nor the Navy was permitted a reserve. German industry was prohibited from building submarines, military aircraft, heavy artillery, tanks, and other weaponry.

When these terms were revealed to the Germans, they were shocked and outraged. At first Friedrich Ebert, President of the newly formed German government, the Weimar Republic, refused to sign the treaty. He did so only after the Allies threatened to invade and occupy all of Germany and to prolong indefinitely the naval blockade. Already under severe attack by militant leftists, the hapless Ebert returned to Germany to find himself a target of militant rightists, who vilified him for betraying Germany.

One of the chief Allied prizes of the war was the Imperial Navy’s High Seas Fleet. At the surrender, its main force, seventy-four ships, had been interned at the British naval base, Scapa Flow. In protest of the Versailles Treaty, on June 21, 1919, German caretaker crews scuttled or attempted to scuttle the fleet. Allied sailors beached twenty-two of the seventy-four exploding and burning ships, but the other fifty-two sank, denying Allied navies ten battleships, five battle cruisers, five light cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers.

Ravaged by disease, famine, and economic chaos, postwar Germany became a political battleground. Armed bands of leftists and rightists fought pitched battles in the streets and attempted to seize by force local and national governments. The rightists were more successful. One extremist band, the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler and composed of murderous, greedy thugs and criminals and quack ideologues who preached hatred of the Versailles Treaty and the Jews, gradually rose to dominate the street fighting.

The Allies posted a Control Commission in Germany to ensure that the prohibition against remilitarization was observed. But the resentful German militarists had not the slightest intention of observing the Versailles Treaty. With the tacit approval of Ebert and his successor in 1925, Paul von Hindenburg, the chief of the Army (Reichswehr), General Hans von Seeckt, and successive chiefs of the Navy (Reichsmarine), admirals Adolph von Trotha, Paul Behncke, and Hans Zenker, in connivance with Gustav Krupp, head of the arms conglomerate, and other German industrialists, pursued military research and development by devious subterfuges. After the Treaty of Rapallo (1922), which reestablished relations between Germany and the Soviet Union, von Seeckt set up secret German infantry, tank, and aviation schools and factories to manufacture military aircraft, artillery shells, and poison gas in Russia. Krupp gained a controlling interest in the Swedish arms firm Bofors, which turned out Krupp-designed artillery and antiaircraft guns. Admirals von Trotha, Behncke, and Zenker maintained Germany’s lead in U-boat technology by creating a Krupp front, IVS, in Holland, which sold submarines or submarine plans to Japan (a would-be enforcer of the Versailles Treaty!), Spain, Turkey, Finland, and other nations.

The victorious Allies, meanwhile, pursued the chimera of an everlasting peace. Initially the League of Nations, headquartered in Geneva, served as the main forum, but the absence of the United States and an unwillingness of the other major powers to surrender national sovereignty undermined its effectiveness. As a result, the major powers pursued other diplomatic avenues. One seemingly promising achievement was the Locarno Pact (1925). Joining with the major powers for the first time since the war, Germany appeared to accept the terms of the Versailles Treaty. It agreed to a permanent demilitarized strip along the Rhine River and swore not to make war with France or Belgium, in return for which Germany was admitted to the League of Nations. Still distrustful of Germany, France entered into separate alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia, in which France guaranteed to protect those nations from German incursions.

The pursuit of peace reached the high-water mark in 1928 with the Pact of Paris (or Kellogg-Briand Pact). In that treaty, fifteen major powers, including Germany, renounced war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately sixty-two nations signed the document, including the United States. The pact, outlawing war, was hailed as a diplomatic triumph, as indeed it was. But this noble document contained no provisions for enforcement; it was merely a declaration.

Beginning at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the major powers had declared their intention to disarm. But the talk was mostly pious hot air. Those nations bordering on Germany—France, Poland, Czechoslovakia—raised and maintained large, well-equipped armies, as did Italy, which in 1922 came under control of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. However, the major powers did enter into a series of naval disarmament treaties that are remarkable in retrospect and that profoundly influenced the course of naval warfare.

The impetus for naval disarmament came from Great Britain. Her motive was to halt the buildup of the United States and Japanese navies, against which Great Britain was no longer able or willing to compete. The idea appealed to President Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding, who took office in 1921, committed to reducing naval armaments and to curbing Japanese expansionism in the Far East. At Harding’s invitation, diplomats and navalists from Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy formally convened amid great pomp and hoopla on November 12, 1921, in Washington, D.C.

Before the Washington Naval Conference convened, the Harding Administration had made the decision—over strenuous objections of the U.S. Navy—to propose a worldwide naval disarmament scheme of drastic and unprecedented dimensions. Speaking first, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes laid out the proposal. He suggested that first, the United States, Great Britain, and Japan should immediately halt building all approved or projected capital ships* and not build any more for ten years. Second, that the three powers should reduce standing naval forces by scrapping in aggregate nearly two million tons of capital ships. Third, that the three major naval powers should aim to achieve by 1942 a capital ship ration of 500,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain, 300,000 tons for Japan, and 175,000 tons each for France and Italy (5:5:3:1.75:1.75) and that auxiliaries (cruisers, destroyers, etc.) should be restricted proportionately.

The conferees—and the world—were stunned. In modern-day terms it was as though the United States had proposed, without prior notice, that the major powers dismantle and scrap half or more of their strategic nuclear forces. Specifically, it meant:

• The United States, making by far the largest concessions, was to scrap or cancel thirty capital ships of about 850,000 tons: fifteen older battleships and fifteen battleships or battle cruisers under construction, including two already launched, and several at 80 percent completion. The retained force was to be eighteen capital ships of 500,000 tons.

• Great Britain was to scrap or cancel twenty-three capital ships of about 590,000 tons: nineteen older battleships and four planned Hood-class super dreadnoughts. The retained force was to be twenty-two capital ships of 600,000 tons.

• Japan was to scrap or cancel twenty-five capital ships of about 450,000 tons: ten older battleships, seven battleships or battle cruisers under construction, and eight planned. The retained force was to be ten capital ships of 300,000 tons.

The complete proposal was very complicated and it led to weeks of tedious, technical haggling. The conferees could not agree on formulas for cruiser limitations, so that class of vessel was exempt, except for a stipulation limiting cruisers to 10,000 tons and 8” guns. The aim of a 5:5:3 ratio among the three major naval powers survived the debates and the treaty was signed in February 1922, to have effect until December 31, 1936.

The Republican Party hailed the collective treaties as “the greatest peace document ever drawn.” It may not have been exactly that, but it was astonishing and significant. The massive naval arms race launched in 1906 with Dreadnought had been stopped in its tracks. It was believed, moreover, that the treaty would curb ese expansionism. In return for a pledge from the United States not to fortify the Pacific islands of Midway, Wake, and Guam, Japan promised to keep hands off Siberia and withdraw ground forces from China’s Shantung Peninsula.

The failure to reach agreement on cruiser ratios caused a boiling controversy between the United States and Great Britain and led to proposals for yet another naval disarmament conference. This was held in Geneva in June 1927. Japan attended, but France and Italy, committed to building cruisers, boycotted the conference. It was just as well. After weeks of haggling, the conferees again failed to reach agreement.

The unresolved cruiser issue and other factors led President Herbert C. Hoover and Britain’s Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to convene yet another naval disarmament conference in London in January 1930. By then the Wall Street “crash” of October 1929 had created worldwide economic instability; the Great Depression was just over the horizon. These dark economic prospects added a sense of urgency to the deliberations and to a determination to put a stop to extravagant expenditures for naval forces.

The five major naval powers attended: the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. The conferees began negotiations from scratch, erecting a sweeping new naval treaty on the foundation of the 1922 Washington treaty. The outcome was a further dramatic reduction in naval forces of the three major naval powers:

CAPITAL SHIPS. The ratio of 5:5:3 was reaffirmed; the “holiday” on new construction extended from 1932 to December 31, 1936, when the treaty was to expire. The United States was to scrap three more battleships, retaining a total of fifteen. Great Britain was to scrap five more battleships, retaining fifteen. Japan was to scrap one battleship, retaining nine. France was permitted to build three new 23,000-ton battle cruisers. Insisting on parity with France, Italy was granted the same right.

CRUISERS. That troublesome issue was finally settled, with Great Britain the winner. The Royal Navy would expand to fifty cruisers (fifteen 10,000-ton “treaty” cruisers and thirty-five light cruisers). The United States would build to thirty-seven cruisers in a mix it did not prefer (eighteen 10,000-ton “treaty” cruisers and nineteen light cruisers). Japan would retain her twelve cruisers in being (eight 10,000-ton “treaty” cruisers and four light cruisers with 8” guns), provided the United States stretched out the completion of three “treaty” cruisers on a certain schedule. France and Italy retained ten new cruisers each.

DESTROYERS. All three powers were to freeze destroyers at existing levels by tonnages. Assuming 1,500 tons per destroyer, the United States and Great Britain would retain 100 each; Japan, seventy. France was allowed forty-eight destroyers; Italy, forty-two.*

Throughout these naval disarmament talks, submarines figured prominently. At the Washington conference in 1921, Great Britain, which had suffered most from U-boats, urged that all submarines be outlawed, like poison gas, and abolished. However, the other major powers—France in particular—opposed abolition. Seeking a compromise, the United States proposed limitations on submarines: 90,000 tons, or about 100 submarines, for the United States and Great Britain; 45,000 tons, or about 45 submarines, for France, Italy, and Japan. But this proposal satisfied no one.

During the submarine debate, an American of towering prestige appeared with sweeping proposals. He was Elihu Root, a former Secretary of War and Secretary of State and U.S. senator, and winner of the Nobel Prize for his tireless peacemaking efforts in various international organizations. Root formally introduced three “resolutions,” the intent of which was to outlaw the submarine as a commerce destroyer, to restore the prize laws in full, and to establish legal procedures to punish any submarine skipper who violated them. The British delegates warmly welcomed the resolutions; the French vigorously opposed them. Privately the United States also opposed the resolutions, but given the reprehensible reputation of the submarine and the high moral ground from which Root spoke, the American delegation found it difficult to publicly oppose Root, and did not.

The Root resolutions provoked a heated and prolonged debate between the British and French delegates. For a time the debate on submarine limitations and the Root resolutions threatened to wreck the Washington conference. To forestall that possibility, the delegates decided to eliminate submarine limitations from the agenda entirely and to deal with the Root resolutions in a separate protocol. Therefore no agreement on submarine limitations was achieved. All five major naval powers were left free to develop any number of submarines as they saw fit. The separate protocol incorporating the Root resolutions was approved in principle, but since it was never ratified by the French government, it had no legal force.

At the Geneva conference in 1927, called to resolve the cruiser issue, the question of submarines again arose. The British again proposed that submarines be outlawed and abolished, but neither the United States nor Japan was willing. In any case, with France and Italy absent, discussions of submarine abolition or limitations were meaningless. Nonetheless, some general ideas about submarine limitations were agreed to that, although not binding, would influence future naval arms limitation treaties: new “ocean” submarines should be limited to a maximum size of about 1,600-2,000 tons, coastal submarines to about 600 tons; no submarine should mount guns larger than 5.1”; should tonnage limitations ever be agreed to, the replacement life of a submarine should be fixed at thirteen years.

At the 1930 London Naval Conference, submarines again figured prominently. In his opening remarks, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Albert V. Alexander, urged that the submarine be abolished on humanitarian grounds, or if the delegates could not agree on abolition, that submarines be restricted to purely defensive roles, that the number and size be severely limited, and that operational restrictions similar to the Root resolutions be adopted. Reversing its position at the Washington conference, the United States, in the person of Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, resoundingly endorsed the British position. The Italians also supported abolition, provided all five powers agreed, but since the French and Japanese adamantly opposed abolition, the conferees were forced to abandon that goal and concentrate on limitations.

After much horse trading, the three major naval powers finally agreed for the first time to submarine limitations. They were to restrict submarine forces to 52,700 tons each, to build no submarines larger than 2,000 tons or mount deck guns on submarines larger than 5.1”; the replacement life of submarines was fixed at thirteen years. The 52,700-ton limit forced all three navies to scrap submarines: the United States 16,000 tons; Great Britain 10,624 tons; Japan 25,142 tons.*

To no one’s surprise, France refused to sign the submarine tonnage or type limitations. She then had about sixty 1920s-vintage submarines and was still intent on a buildup to about 100 boats by 1936. Italy, which was vainly attempting to maintain submarine parity with France and then had about thirty 1920s-vintage submarines, also refused to sign.

A watered-down version of the Root resolutions was incorporated into Part IV of the London Treaty as Article 22. Signed by all five major powers, it stated:

(1) In their action with regard to merchant ships, submarines must conform to the rules of International Law to which surface vessels are subject.

(2) In particular, except in the case of persistent refusal to stop on being duly summoned, or of active resistance to visit or search, a warship, whether surface vessel or submarine, may not sink or render incapable of navigation a merchant vessel without having first placed passengers, crew and ship’s papers in a place of safety. For this purpose the ship’s boats are not regarded as a place of safety unless the safety of the passengers and crew is assured, in the existing sea and weather conditions, by proximity of land or the presence of another vessel which is in a position to take them on board.

The London Naval Treaty, which took effect in 1930, twelve years after the conclusion of World War I and at the onset of the Great Depression, finally established honest naval parity between the United States and Great Britain at minimal force levels for each, and, for the first time, placed a limit on submarines of the three major naval powers. In the final negotiations Japan improved her position slightly over the 5:5:3 ratio in cruisers and destroyers, and achieved “parity” in submarine tonnage. Since the prohibition on fortifying United States naval bases west of Hawaii (Midway, Wake, Guam) remained in force, and Japan was believed to be fortifying Pacific islands acquired from Germany in the Versailles Treaty, in the view of many American navalists, the London Treaty gave the Japanese Imperial Navy a decided advantage over the U.S. Navy should war occur.

A final effort to achieve lasting world peace and disarmament took place in Geneva in early 1932. Delegates from sixty of the sixty-four countries of the League of Nations, including Germany, convened for the League’s Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments, or as it was hopefully known, the “World Disarmament Conference.” Although the United States was not a member of the League, President Herbert Hoover proposed to the group that all powers slash existing ground and naval forces by about one-third and eliminate most offensive weapons, such as tanks, large mobile guns, and bombers. He also urged that chemical and bacteriological warfare be abolished and that submarines be severely limited.* The British government submitted equally drastic proposals, including one (the MacDonald Plan) that would establish rough parity in ground forces between Germany and France at a greatly reduced level. But by that time the paramilitary Nazis were the dominant political party in Germany—on the threshold of seizing absolute control—and Japan had arrogantly invaded Manchuria. France therefore rejected any form of disarmament and thus the conference foundered.

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