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What do you know about the Washington Naval Conference, 1921-22?

by Andrew White  |  March 21, 2014  |  4 Comments

Book Review: The Washington Conference, 1921-22.  Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor.  Edited by Erik Goldstein and John Maurer.  Cass.  1944.

With 2014 being the Great Way’s Centenary, there are many books being published on the topic.  My particular personal studies are related to military, political and strategic studies of the British Empire, and how it was lost.  The costs associated with the Great War are certainly apropos the financial strains on Empire.  It so happened that I was led to this book by another that had suggested that the naval agreements, signed at this conference after the Great War, severally damaged Britain’s ability to maintain its naval power with respect to its competitors and so undermined the British Empire.  The suggestion in my mind was that the Conference had been a trigger that led in some way to the downfall of the Empire.  After reading the book, and the context surrounding the period in history, I do not think that the naval limitations agreed to by the UK, United States, Japan, and other states, undermined the British Empire.  In fact, the British Empire was already in serious trouble.  The UK owed the US massive debts from the Great War, and it’s economy was in no fit state to out build any naval competitor.  The US, fast becoming the dominant global trading nation, may have even struggled to swallow the burden needed to surpass Britain’s then current hegemony over the sea in a short period of time.  Even Japan would have struggled to grow its own fleet in order to counter the US in Asia.  All in all the major powers were, it seems, in need of a breathing space.  The big three all compromised in their own way:  Britain to accept US parity in capital ships and tonnage; Japan to accept a 60% ratio to Britain and US; Britain and US not to build up substantial defense facilities on the Japanese doorstep; US to scrap remaining 1918 capital construction.  Everyone could save some money; everyone could build something.

The main beneficiaries of the Washington conference were in fact Italy and France.  Both ended up signing agreements that allowed them to both increase their capital ships and tonnage and also modernize its fleet.  This led, in the case of Italy, to a growing instability in the central Mediterranean that would develop even later in 1940.

After Washington there were other conferences that continued the principle of arms control spanning cruisers, destroyers and even submarines.  By the time these were signed however, the global political situation was deteriorating to the point where the very arms limitations, started in Washington, were to hamper the UK’s and US’s ability to encourage safely Japanese expansionist plans in Asia and German designs in Europe.  Thus the concept of arms limitations outstayed its welcome and was too long the focus of the global powers.

The idea that the British Empire was hamstrung by the Washington agreement due to the arms limitation at the Conference does not seem to justified to me.  Britain was not able to sustain its then plan to build up its own navy.  It was forced to abandon the idea of an independent and purpose built Asian naval force of any size since it was too expensive.  It could not afford to build more capital ships beyond what it ended the Great War with, plus one or two (e.g. Rodney).  WWI had already bankrupted the nation.  It was already robbing Peter to pay Paul.  What the naval agreement did was to help hide the gradual downgrading of the Empires’ greatest single weapon and guardian.  And it also slowed down the growing might of the United States that was soon to become unstoppable with WWII.  The Empire was already lost before 1922.

Thoroughly recommended 9 out of 10

There is a sad/interesting footnote to this book review.  In today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal, there is an article called, “America’s Incredible Shrinking Navy” that looks how the US Government is re classifying minor vessels as “capital” that in turn seems to bolster federal metrics (to make us all feel safer, perhaps).

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Category: analytics  british-empire  business-intelligence  history  politics  

Andrew White
Research VP
8 years at Gartner
22 years IT industry

Andrew White is a Distinguished Analyst and VP. His roles include Chief of Research and Content Lead for Data and Analytics. His main research focus is data and analytics strategy, platforms, and governance. Read Full Bio


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