Washington Naval Treaty – Winners and Losers

Two of the French Navy’s early treaty cruisers at Toulon during the early 1930s. The ship on the left is either Duquesne or Tourville; the cruiser on the right is Suffren. The two early ships were virtually unprotected, whereas the later Suffren had a narrow 50mm waterline belt over her machinery. She can be identified here by the twin aircraft catapults abaft the second funnel.


The United States attained most of its objectives at Washington: nominal parity with the world’s premier naval power, the British Empire; the termination of a financially unsustainable naval arms race at a point which favoured the US Navy; an end to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, together with a statutory margin of superiority (a ratio of 10:6) over the Imperial Japanese Navy in the crucial capital ship category; and a set of ancillary treaties backed by all the major European powers which would hopefully restrain Japanese expansionism on the Asian mainland. The only major concession was the agreement not to build new military bases (nor to fortify existing ones) in the Philippines or on Guam. This would make the defence of the latter territories against an attack by Japan more difficult, and would imply the despatch of a large expeditionary fleet supported by an array of auxiliary vessels across the broad expanses of the Pacific in the event of conflict.

The United States was a colonial power only by default, not by intention or inclination; Guam had been inherited and the Philippines purchased cheaply following the successful outcome of the war against Spain in 1898. The United States, unlike its co-signatories of the Washington Treaty, was also a nation rich in natural resources. It required only markets overseas for its manufactured goods, hence its espousal of free trade as the first principle of international relations. The great European colonial empires, on the other hand, were predicated on the need not just for markets but for the raw materials from which to produce their manufactured goods. It was the scramble for colonies in Africa and Asia which at the turn of the century had become the focus of European rivalry, whereas it was the conflict between imperialism (which implied exclusive or protected markets) and the principle of free trade which would continue to create tensions between the United States and the other powers, particularly Japan. During the 1930s an increasingly isolationist United States would attempt to resolve the strategic problem presented by the defence of the Philippines by preparing to grant that nation full independence, with its own armed forces. This would enable US security to be focused on the Alaska/Hawaii/Panama triangle favoured by the Republican administration of President Herbert Hoover.

The immense distances involved in naval operations in the Pacific: 5,000 miles or more from the West Coast of the United States to the Western Pacific, 3,000 miles from Pearl Harbor. In the period which followed the Great War the US Navy planned to develop Guam as a forward naval base. Guam could protect US interests both in the Philippines and in China, and has been compared to ‘a lancet pointed to Japan’s side’.1 Under the terms of the Washington Treaty, the USA renounced its right to develop and fortify Guam in return for Japanese acceptance of a 5:3 ratio in capital ships. The US Navy now had to accept that any military expedition to the Western Pacific would have to be conducted by large warships with great endurance, and these would have to be supported by a ‘fleet train’ of supporting vessels and large floating docks. Successive Republican administrations, the natural instincts of which were isolationist, would focus America’s defence on a Pearl Harbor/Alaska/Panama ‘strategic triangle’ which was essentially defensive in its orientation. Britain was compelled to choose between Australia and Singapore for its own forward defensive base, and opted for the latter primarily because it guarded the gateway to the Indian Ocean. This, however, left Hong Kong, halfway between Singapore and the Japanese home islands, out on a limb. Although the intention of Article XIX of the treaty was to make the Western Pacific a ‘zone of peace’, it also had the effect of making Japan the dominant military power in the region.


The British came home from Washington shaken, but having nevertheless secured an end to a naval arms race the country simply could not afford, as well as a network of treaties which on the face of it appeared to guarantee the international stability necessary for the security of the British Empire. However, numerous concessions had had to be made from what was essentially a position of economic and political weakness. The Washington Treaty marked an end to British naval supremacy, leaving Britain with less leverage when dealing with other powers. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was dead, which meant that the Imperial Japanese Navy, built largely with British expertise and assistance, would no longer be able to ‘mind the shop’ in South-east Asia on Britain’s behalf. On the contrary, with Britain’s decision to align herself more closely with the United States, Japan became a potential threat to her possessions in South-east Asia and to the dominions of Australia and New Zealand. These territories could now be defended only by the despatch of a large expeditionary fleet to Singapore, which would have to be further developed (at considerable expense) as a major base. However, whereas the expeditionary fleet envisaged by US policy would be the main US Fleet based on Pearl Harbor, any such British fleet would have to be transferred from the British Isles or from the Mediterranean, and such a transfer could take place only if there were a stable political situation in Europe. The 5:5:3 ratio (for Britain–USA–Japan) agreed at Washington made it impossible for Britain to have material superiority in both European waters and the Far East, and the growing crisis in Europe during the late 1930s would compel Britain to back-track on its assurances to the South Pacific dominions. By May 1939, the fleet to be dispatched had become a fleet, and the journey time had been extended from forty days to ninety days – by September the Chiefs of Staff were informing the military authorities in Malaya that it could be six months!

The British delegation also failed to secure the total abolition of submarines it had set out to achieve. In this they were unable to convince the French, who were adamant that they needed submarines to compensate for their inferiority in capital ships, or the Americans and Japanese, who were interested in developing submersibles based on the German ‘cruiser’ models for strategic scouting in the broad expanses of the Pacific. The British also lost their fight to preserve the G3 battlecruiser programme, these ships being so far beyond the new limits on displacement as to be unacceptable to the other contracting powers. However, they did secure permission to build two new 16in-gun battleships within the new limits, to counterbalance the Japanese and American 16in-gun ships already building.

Intransigent French resistance to other proposals at the Conference also indirectly benefited the Royal Navy. The United States failed in its efforts to extend the ratio agreed for capital ships to other categories. This meant that there was no legal restriction on the size of the force of cruisers that Britain could keep in service to police her large empire – the current requirement, set on the advice of Admiral John Jellicoe following his tour of the Empire in 1919–20, was for seventy. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the high level at which the qualitative limits were set for this type of vessel (10,000 tons with 8in guns) would ensure that the new ‘treaty’ cruisers were unaffordable in the numbers required. This would drive the British to seek a reduction in those limits at both Geneva 1927 and London 1930; it would also compel Britain to accept quantitative limits which effectively restricted the Royal Navy to fifty cruisers at the latter conference to secure an agreement with the United States and Japan.


Although Japan had ambitions to become a great power, and had made immense strides in that direction during the early part of the century, her industrial infrastructure was not yet fully developed, and her people were regarded by the European imperial powers and by the United States as racial inferiors. Despite her powerful modern navy, Japan therefore lacked the necessary economic and political ‘clout’ to secure a favourable outcome at the Washington Conference. Moreover, the IJN delegation to the Washington Conference was divided by personal and political antagonisms. The experienced navy minister, Kato Tomosaburo, who headed the delegation, held to the view that an arms race with the United States was not in Japan’s interest, and was inclined to accept the 6:10 ratio in capital ships offered in return for concessions on the basing of foreign warships close to Japan. However, this ran counter to the views of the ‘Young Turk’ element in the IJN, who opposed any constraint on the development of the navy and who regarded a 7:10 ratio as the minimum compatible with Japan’s security. The insistence on this 7:10 ratio by the younger Kato Kanji, president of the Staff College and chief naval aide at Washington, split the Japanese delegation and ensured that the treaty would never be accepted by the increasingly influential nationalist faction of the IJN.

Some concessions were obtained by Japan, notably the completion of the 16-inch battleship Mutsu, and the non-fortification of naval bases in the Western Pacific, which gave the IJN uncontested naval superiority in East Asian waters. However, the new imperial defence policy drafted in 1922 and published in 1923 would establish the United States as the most likely hypothetical enemy for the army and the navy, and both services would come to regard war as inevitable given US economic expansion in China and anti-Japanese agitation on the US West Coast. Japan would eventually abandon the treaty in 1936, the first of the five contracting powers so to do.

France and Italy

The Italians were quite happy with the outcomes of the conference. The wheeling and dealing on the Pacific theatre, which were fundamental to the key political negotiations for the other major powers, were peripheral to Italian interests, and Italy was flattered by the offer of parity in capital ships with France,2 an offer which constituted a recognition of her recent efforts to build a powerful modern fleet. Italy now had the naval means to support her long-standing colonial ambitions in North Africa, which would ultimately bring her into conflict with Britain and France.

The French, on the other hand, were devastated. The Marine Nationale could not be renewed during the Great War because the workforce in the dockyards had been redirected into the manufacture of guns and munitions for the French Army. By 1918 the Marine Nationale comprised a large and obsolescent fleet of predominantly pre-dreadnought vintage, fit only for the scrapyard. This was the status quo with which the unholy Anglo-Saxon alliance of Britain and the United States confronted the French at Washington. The resulting treaty placed France well below Japan in the permitted tonnage of capital ships (a ratio of nine ships to five), and on a par with the Italian Fleet. This was seen as incompatible with French security obligations. The French Empire stretched from the West Indies to the south-west Pacific, via Africa, the Indian Ocean and South-east Asia, and was second only to the British Empire in scale and importance. French Indochina was even closer to Japan than Malaya and Singapore (and in 1941–42, ironically, would become the platform for the invasion of both). Moreover, France was traditionally a major European power, straddling both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. Italy, by contrast, was a relatively new country whose navy needed to operate only in neighbouring waters.

When the French delegation returned to France with the treaty, there was considerable anger at the humiliation inflicted by ‘perfidious Albion’ and its American cousins, and much heated debate took place in the French Parliament before the Washington Treaty was reluctantly ratified in 1923. This made the French even more determined to fend off the inevitable attempts by the other major powers to extend the ratios agreed for capital ships to other categories, particularly cruisers and submarines. The latter types would increasingly take on the role of the defence of French trade and the empire.

In truth France’s humiliation was a result of economic exhaustion in the wake of the Great War. When the Marine Nationale finally embarked on its programme of renewal it found that it could neither afford all the ships it wanted – of the twenty-one treaty cruisers requested post-Washington only seven were built – nor find the shipbuilding or military-industrial capacity to deliver them within the contracted time.


Such then were the successes and disappointments which the delegations took away with them in unequal measure from the conference to their respective countries. The following chapters will consider in detail the effects of the Washington Treaty on the subsequent development of the five navies in terms both of their strategic posture and of the ships they chose to design and build within the constraints of the treaty.

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