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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The United States Navy

Thomas P. Magruder
[Rear Admiral, U. S. N.]

published by
Dorrance and Company

The text is in the public domain.

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 p159  VII

The Next Step

There have been volumes written on the cause and prevention of war. It were futile for me to attempt even to draw an outline of so vast a field. However, it may not be amiss to state briefly the psychical effects I have received from my study and observation over a period of many years.

To me it appears that all causes of war may be defined, in the final analysis by two words: (1) Intolerance and (2) Competition. These two words indicate that the cause of war may be either spiritual or material.

Intolerance of rivalry; of freedom; of religion; of resentment against a growing and prosperous neighbor — these have caused wars in the past. Due to education, to rapid communication and transportation and to the more tolerant spirit thereby engendered, it is quite probable that war springing from intolerance will soon be a thing of the past. This optimism, I believe, is justified by the history of international affairs during the past decade.

 p160  More and more does one sense a Will for Peace by the peoples of the civilized nations. And in the nations where the people rule, war based on intolerance has become practically extinct. However, just here one must remember that today many nations are ruled by dictators. Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain certainly are governed by autocratic power vested in one individual. Though a dictator upon his own volition may not declare war in any country, yet he may so act as to commit his country to a policy that inferentially will result in war. A country once in a war, it follows, as night the day, that the people of the country will fight to the bitter end. Such is the power of patriotism.

Competition, or the material cause of war, has always existed. It abides in the present and probably will endure in the future.

Competition for foreign markets, for raw materials, for natural resources, for expansion due to over-population, for the world's carrying trade, for colonial empires and competition in other lesser things — all these abide with us today and surely are to engender friction and differences among the nations. Unless differences among nations are settled diplomatically or by arbitration or in some World Court of Justice, then the settlement is made by the arbitrament of arms. To prevent this last is that which is occupying the minds of all thoughtful and Christian-minded men now in the time of peace.

There is, I think, one kind of competition that  p161 is more provocative of grave international differences than any other — the irrational and insensate competition in armaments; a competition that is based on fear.

It was a statesmanlike conception that made the late President Harding call a conference in 1922, at Washington, in an attempt to limit armaments. The results of that conference are very well known. There were treaties signed limiting the naval power of the several nations. One is familiar with the terms of these treaties, so there is no need now to discuss them.

Over a year ago, President Coolidge invited the great naval powers to a conference at Geneva on the further limitations of naval armaments. Only Great Britain and Japan accepted. However, as these are the greatest naval powers, there was a tripartite convention held in Geneva that lasted from June 20 to August 5, 1927. This conference was a failure. For that reason I shall go into it rather in detail and indicate my opinion as to the causes of the failure. I do this for even a stronger reason, believing as I do, that further limitations of armaments is one of the most practical "next steps" that may be taken in seeking a formula whereby war may be avoided — not that limitation, per se, may end war, for were limitation carried to an extreme, nations could still wage war on the sea with their merchant marines, on land with ploughshares beaten into weapons, in the air with  p162 commercial aircraft, the products of industrial chemical factories, in fact, with all the available resources of their respective nations.

My belief in limitation as a deterrent of war is this: that there can be no sudden fatal attack upon one nation by another when armaments are limited. That thereby there will be no initial grave wounds made in a nation's pride, that would obviate or hinder negotiation. It would give time, before an irrevocable conflict was started, for the exercise of sober judgment and reason.

In the memorandum accompanying the President's message to Congress on February 10, 1927, was the following significant statement:

"The conviction that the competitive augmentation of national armaments has been one of the principal causes of international suspicion and ill‑will, leading to war, is firmly held by the American Government and people."

It is well to keep in mind this pronouncement.

The object of the Conference clearly then was to limit naval armaments further than was done by the Washington treaties. Since the latter placed a limit on the number of battle­ships and aircraft carriers, the Geneva Conference could have continued limitation so as to apply to cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

In accepting the invitation to the Conference  p163 both the Japanese and British Governments made statements presaging difficulty in reaching an agreement.

In the Japanese acceptance, we read:

"4. The Japanese Government are further gratified to learn that it is the intention of the American Government at this time to put forward rigid proposals on the ratios of naval strength to be maintained by the several Powers in the classes of vessels not covered by the Washington Treaty. In order to ensure the success of the proposed negotiations, it seems highly important that, in the matter of these conditions of the limitation of armament, all parties to the negotiations should approach the subject with an open mind, being always guided by the spirit of mutual accommodation and helpfulness, consistently with the defensive requirements of each nation. The Japanese Government confidently hopes that an adjustment will be reached in a manner fair and satisfactory to each of the participating Powers and conducive to the general peace and security of the world."

In the British reply was the statement:

"The views of His Majesty's Government upon the special geographical position of the British Empire, the length of inter-Imperial communications and the necessity for the protection of its  p164 food supplies are well known and, together with the special conditions and requirements of the other countries invited to participate in the conversation, must be taken into account."

To understand fully the proceedings of the Conference, it must be kept in mind that all three delegations largely were composed of naval officers. Naval opinion dominated the Conference.

In opening the Conference the Chairman of the Conference, Hon. Hugh Gibson, an American delegate, read a message from the President in which was stated:

"Please assure the representatives of the British Empire and of Japan that I am only interpreting the overwhelming sentiment of the American people in stating that the United States will do its utmost to make such an agreement possible."

He further outlined the policy of America as concerns naval armament. Following are extracts from that statement:

"1. That, in the interest of international understanding, there should be no competition between the three Powers in the building of naval armaments.

"2. That our respective navies should be maintained at the lowest level compatible with national security and should never be of a size or character to warrant the suspicion of aggressive intent.

 p165  "3. That a wise economy in Government dictates that future naval construction should be kept to a minimum.

"4. That the methods and principles of limitation set forth in the Washington Treaty are both practical and effective and should be extended to all categories of combatant vessels of the Three Powers.

"Our policy with respect to naval armaments is guided solely by the desire for adequate defense. We have no intention of maintaining a naval force which could be regarded as a threat to any Power. Neither have we any desire to initiate a competitive building program in any class of vessel which might influence others to lay down more vessels than they would otherwise consider necessary.

"Pursuant to this policy, the United States is prepared to accept a general program providing for as low a total tonnage in each class of auxiliary vessels, on the basis of the Washington Treaty ratio, as will be acceptable to the other Powers here represented. The American delegation has come to the Conference with an estimate of what we consider equitable tonnage allocation in the various categories of vessels, but with no rigid quantitative proposals. We are prepared to discuss the question of tonnages fully and frankly in the light of our several legitimate needs. It is our desire to have a real limitation which would  p166 obviate the necessity for extensive building programs in the future, and we feel that we should therefore keep in mind that the fixing of unduly high tonnages in the various classes of auxiliary vessels would not be calculated to achieve that result."

The American suggestions are based on the following considerations:

"1. That the ratios and principles of the Washington Treaty be applied to cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

"2. That any agreement concluded here by the Three Powers to limit the building of auxiliary vessels should be made co‑terminous with the Washington Treaty and contain the same general provisions for extension or modification. It may be desirable to include an additional provision respecting revision in the event of an extensive building program by a power not a party to any agreement we may conclude.

"3. That, for the purpose of the future limitation of naval armaments, auxiliary vessels be divided into four categories, three of which — namely cruisers, destroyers and submarines — shall be subject to limitation with a fourth category of negligible combatant value not subject to limitation as follows:


Cruiser class, including surface naval combatant vessels between 3,000 tons and  p167 10,000 tons.


Destroyer class, including all surface naval combatant vessels between 600 and 3,000 tons, with a speed greater than 17 knots.


Submarine class, including all vessels designed to operate below the surface of the sea.


An unrestricted class, including other naval vessels of negligible combatant value, the definition of vessels falling in this class to be subject to technical agreement.

"Before suggesting tonnage allocations in the various classes, I desire to state that we frankly recognize that naval requirements are relative, that building programs on the part of one Power may well require corresponding programs on the part of others, and that, if these limits were adjusted for one of the Three Powers, they should be so adjusted for all. The tonnage allocations suggested by the American delegation as a basis of discussion are the following:

Cruiser Class Total Tonnage Limitation
For the United States 250,000 to 300,000 tons
For the British Empire 250,000 to 300,000 tons
For Japan  p168  150,000 to 180,000 tons
Destroyer Class
For the United States 200,000 to 250,000 tons
For the British Empire 200,000 to 250,000 tons
For Japan 120,000 to 150,000 tons
Submarine Class
For the United States 60,000 to 90,000 tons
For the British Empire 60,000 to 90,000 tons
For Japan 36,000 to 54,000 tons

"If any of the Powers represented here feel justified in proposing still lower tonnage levels for auxiliary craft, the American Government would welcome such proposals."

The British statement by Rt. Hon. W. C. Bridgeman, First Lord of the Admiralty, contains among other things the following:

"The great achievements of the Washington Conference of 1921 are not perhaps so generally realized as they deserve to be. Let me recall the situation as its existed before that Conference, little more than six years ago.

"Already then, designs were in contemplation for huge battle­ships of 45,000 tons displacement armed with 18 or 20‑inch guns, while the number of such vessels was only limited by the willingness and capacity of any nation to pay for their construction and maintenance. Each nation was watching another, and the danger of a recommencement  p169 of ruinous competition was imminent.

"The Conference held at Washington put an end to this tendency — a great attainment in itself. But it did more. It proved the possibility of limiting by agreement the scale of armaments to be maintained.

"And so I will begin by an attempt to make clear what are the considerations which govern the position of Great Britain and the British Empire.

"In doing so I shall not be revealing any secrets hitherto unknown. Indeed, I am more likely to be accused of repeating well-worn platitudes.

"Nevertheless, I will, for the sake of clearing the ground for discussion, put the following facts before you, fully realizing that for other countries other considerations deserve the special attention of the Conference.

"First and foremost, there is the insular position of the mother-country, which I represent, and the fact that she is almost entirely dependent not only for raw material but also for her food supplies and her very existence upon free passage upon the seas. It is no exaggeration to say that, if the seas were closed to ships trading with our country, we should be faced with starvation within a few weeks.

"My countrymen would never consent to take any risk of such a catastrophe. This obvious fact places us in a position totally different from that  p170 of any other country in the world, and makes discussion on naval disarmament, I think, more difficult for us than for any other Power.

"The other important factors in our case are the immense length of the routes over which our trade is carried and the very large coastlines which bound the various parts of the Empire, and the necessity of providing reasonable protection for these extensive shores and long lines of communication against any aggression, however unlikely such a menace may appear at the moment to be.

"In this second consideration, more closely than the first, the welfare of the outlying parts of the Empire is very deeply concerned. Our situation is very plain, but its very simplicity is a measure of its vital seriousness to us. At the same time, we feel that there are limitations in naval armament beyond those which have been accepted in the Washington Conference to which we could safely agree if the other Powers found themselves able to consent.

"I have listened with very great interest to the statement made by the Chairman, and with a very large measure of agreement with the principles which underlay it, but I think he will agree with me, and I hope that Viscount Saito, too, will agree with me, that today it will perhaps be better to confine ourselves to our own aspect of the question and not to discuss the proposals which  p171 other countries have made. I think we shall be able to discuss them more fairly and more satisfactorily after we have had a little more time to think them over, and, therefore, rather than discussing the proposals which he has made, I should like to lay before you the proposals which I am authorized to make on behalf of the British Government. I shall do it as briefly as I can and without entering into details, which can be left for examination and explanation later.

"The main proposals which we have to make are:


The extension of the accepted life of the existing capital ships from 20 to 26 years, and a consequent waiver by the Three Powers of their full returned under the replacement tables agreed upon at Washington. Such an arrangement would naturally have to provide for some little elasticity on each side of that figure.


The fixing of the life of other vessels — first, that of 8‑inch gun cruisers at 24 years; secondly, destroyers at 20 years; and, thirdly, submarines at 15 years.


The reduction in the size of any battle­ships to be built in the future from the present limit of 35,000 tons displacement to something under 30,000 tons.


 p172  Reduction in the size of guns in battle­ships from the present limit of 16 inches to 13.5 inches.


Limitation of the displacement of aircraft carriers to 25,000 tons instead of the present limit of 27,000 tons.


Reduction of guns on aircraft carriers from 8 inches to 6 inches.


Acceptance of the existing ratio 5:5:3 for cruisers of 10,000 tons displacement carrying 8‑inch guns. The numbers of these large cruisers which each of the three countries require can be the subject of further discussion.


Limitation of 7,500 tons and 6‑inch guns to be placed on all future cruisers after the number of 10,000‑ton cruisers has been decided upon.


Limitation of displacement of destroyer leaders to 1,750 tons and destroyers to 1,400 tons.


Guns in destroyers to be limited to 5 inches.


With regard to submarines, we have not changed our mind since the Washington Conference, when our delegates expressed their willingness to agree to the discontinuation of the use of submarines in warfare, but we recognize that Powers which  p173 possess fewer of the larger vessels of war regard the possession of submarines as a valuable weapon of defense. At the same time, we feel that, if the proposals we have put forward for the limitation of battle­ships and other more power­ful vessels of war should be accepted, it would not be unreasonable to suggest some limitation in the size, and perhaps also in the number of submarines.

We, therefore, propose that the tonnage of the larger type of submarine be limited to 1,600 and of the small type to 600 tons, and the armament of each to 5‑inch guns. We also think it would be desirable to discuss the possibility of limiting the number of submarines according to our varying requirements; and it must be borne in mind that any limit placed on the number of submarines would make it easier to limit the number of destroyers, and if agreement were reached on these points with other Powers it might be possible also to consider the number of cruisers each of us should possess."

On the part of Japan, Viscount Saito made statements from which the following are extracts:

"The most important object of an agreement  p174 looking to the limitation of armaments lies in preventing the expansion of armaments without at the same time endangering the national security of any Power party to that agreement. Such radical departures from existing conditions, therefore, as may be calculated to shake the foundation on which the sense of security of a nation rests should be carefully avoided."

The Japanese delegation submitted a practical plan of limitation which may be omitted.

It will be noted from the foregoing proposals, that the United States and Japan wanted a real limitation of auxiliary naval craft. That is to say, as regards numbers or tonnage. On the other hand, the British proposals were all in the direction of limiting the size of ships and reducing the calibre of the guns. It is important to note this. For the effort of the British, although admitting parity, was to have a treaty such as to reduce the offensive power of the other Navies.

The British view appeared to be that the discussion was on disarmament. As a matter of fact, it was only to limit armaments.

The British proposed eleven changes in present conditions, resulting from the Washington Conference.

Consider these seriatim: the first proposal was to extend the life of existing capital ships from 20 to 26 years. Having now a superiority, the  p175 British were willing to ensure this for six years longer. The second proposal was fair and would result in a saving to the naval powers. Proposals 3, 4, 5 and 6, all provided for reducing size or armament of vessels.

Proposal 8 is probably the one that caused the most discussion at the Conference.

This requires comment in some detail.

One result of the Washington Conference was to limit cruisers to 10,000 tons and to carry guns not larger than the 8‑inch calibre. Then the British — always having an eye on control of the seas — began building these large cruisers. Not so the United States. America hoped for further limitation and in accordance with the spirit of the Washington Conference. So the Geneva Conference was called and was a failure from the fact that though ostensibly agreeable to parity, the British wished to limit to a small number the Washington cruisers, with a limitation as to size and guns of all other cruisers.

At Geneva the British attempted to restrict the large radius of action, heavily armed cruiser and force the United States to build types it did not need.

After weeks of discussion came an impasse. Finally the British delegation went to London for further instructions and returned with a final proposal, made on July 28, 1927, as follows:

 p176  "1. The combined total tonnage of cruisers, destroyers and submarines below the age‑limit for replacement is not to exceed:

(a) For British Empire and U. S. A. 590,000
(b) For Japan 385,000."

2, 3 and 4 are unimportant.

"5. All other cruisers to be divided into two classes:

(a) 10,000‑ton cruisers
(b) Smaller cruisers of a maximum displacement of 6,000 tons and mounting a gun not exceeding 6 inches in calibre."

"6. 10,000‑ton cruisers to be limited in number:

For British Empire and U. S. A. 12
For Japan 8."

Note the small number of Washington cruisers.

Proposals 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 are not of serious import.

From a consideration of these proposals it is seen that the British were aiming at two targets.

(1) To keep Washington cruisers limited to twelve,


(2) To raise the ratio of auxiliary vessels between  p177 the British Empire and the United States on the one hand and Japan on the other to 5:3.26, instead of the ratio of Washington Conference of 5:3. Why? To obtain the agreement of Japan?

What would have been the result had the American delegation agreed to this proposal?

The United States has now about 90,000 tons of submarines; 270,000 tons of destroyers; 66,000 tons of Richmond type cruisers. Add to this, 80,000 tons of Washington cruisers and the total is 506,000 tons; leaving only about 84,000 tons available to build cruisers, destroyer leaders or what not. And the British would still dominate the seas. On the other hand, if the Washington cruisers were not limited, the United States could build as many as the security of the nation demands. The crux of the situation is that the Washington cruiser can break any British blockade. Washington cruisers are of more value to the United States than any other type of cruiser.

From the foregoing, I summarize that the failure of the Conference was due most probably to the following:

1. The Conference was dominated by naval thought and tradition. Psychologically, the military mind is not one of compromise — as it should be for things military.

2. The British proposals were not for a real limitation, unless such limitation continued their present superiority on the seas.

 p178  3. The attempt of the British to force the United States to agree to build such ships and so to arm them as to make them of little value to the United States. Small cruisers are of importance to Britain by reason of British bases over the world.

4. The attempt by the British to prevent the United States from building the types of ships needed for the security of the nation.

5. And last, but most important, the absence at the Conference of the manifestation of a generous spirit or desire for a limitation of armaments — a spirit that was to have been expected after the results of the Washington Conference.

Though a disappointment, the tripartite conference at Geneva was not without value. The causes for that failure may be overcome in the future and such radical limitations made as to be a "next step" in reducing the possibility of war.

We naval officers know that there may come "a time to kill," "a time of war and a time of peace." For that reason we urge such a navy, as compared to other naval powers, that will mean security to the nation. Disarmament cannot take place until mankind fears God and keeps his commandments. That is the millennium.

For the present every gesture seeking a solution for this, the world's greatest problem, serves a useful purpose in directing thoughtful minds  p179 to the necessity of a continuous search for a formula that may banish from the face of the earth the greatest of all pestilences — War!

The End

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