Washington Naval Conference

The Washington Arms Conference, which is also referred to as the Washington Naval Conference, was a military conference convened by the Congress and President Warren G. Harding in 1921. This conference was the first international conference held in the U.S. and was attended by nine nations which included; Japan, China, United States, France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Britain and Netherlands. The objective of this Conference was to reduce the naval arms race and to come up with security accords in Pacific area.


The American delegation that participated in the conference included the Charles Hughes (Secretary of State), Henry Cabot Lodge, Oscar Underwood, and Elihu Root. The key objective of the Washington Arms Conference for the American officials was to prevent Japan from further naval expansion into the western Pacific waters with regard to fortifications of potentially valuable islands.

Their other objectives were to lessen concerns over probable antagonism with Great Britain, to eradicate Anglo-American tension, to agree upon a good naval ratio and to have Japan officially accept a continuation of the open-door guidelines in China.

Great Britain however had a more careful and tempered approach. Britain proposed some general desires in the conference which were: to achieve peace and stability in west pacific region, prevention of Japanese encroachment into areas under Britain’s influence, prevention of a marine arms race with the U.S. and preservation of security of Hong Kong, Singapore and Dominion countries. Japanese officials on the other hand were more focused on specifics as opposed to the British. They came to the conference with two main objectives: to sign a naval treaty with the US and Great Britain and, to gain official recognition of their special interest in Mongolia and Manchuria. The Japanese officials also strongly demanded that they remained in control of Siberia, Tsingtao and Yap. Japanese officials also raised general concerns about the expanding presence of fleets in the Pacific which were owned by the U.S.

The results of the meeting were drawing and signing of 3 major treaties and minor treaty accords. The three major treaties were the Four-Power treaty, Five-Power treaty, and the Nine-Power treaty.

Washington Naval Conference Treaties

The Four-Power treaty was signed by 4 major allied powers which were; Japan, Great Britain, France and the U.S. in December 1921. The signatories agreed that they would all be consulted in case of a dispute between two of them over Pacific issues. The signatories also pledged joint respect for the mandates and possessions of the other signatories in the Pacific.

Another major treaty was the Five Power treaty of February 1922. This treaty was signed by France, the U.S., Italy, Japan, and Great Britain. The terms of this treaty agreed to avert arms-race by limiting naval construction. The treaty restricted the production of battle ships, aircraft carriers and battle cruises by the signatories. An agreement was reached upon that fixed the tonnages and numbers of capital ships to be owned by the signatories’ navies. They fixed the individual ratios of capital ships to be owned by each of the contracting nations at: 5 each for Britain and the U.S., 3 for Japan, and 1.67 for France and Italy. The nations also decided to discontinue their existing warship/capital ship construction programs for 10 years.

The third major treaty was the Nine-power pact that was signed by the same 5 powers in addition to Portugal, Netherlands, China and Belgium. This treaty was signed to regulate using of submarines and to outlaw the use of toxic gases in military warfare.

Results of the Conference

This conference lead to a successful end to construction of new battleship fleets and the few ships that were constructed were limited in terms of armaments and size. Several of the existing of capital ships was scrapped and some ships that were still under construction were transformed into aircraft carriers instead. However, even with the conference the major naval powers remained suspicious of each other causing them to engage in a short race to build battle cruisers which had been limited to size and not numbers. The naval limitations of the conference also provided a significant amount of savings for the contracting nations. However, as time went by, the saved money was diverted to construction of smaller vessels which were not covered under the treaty. The power pacts and treaties that resulted from this conference were strictly adhered to until mid-1930s when Japan to demand for equality with Britain and the U.S. Japan’s request was denied causing Japan to withdraw its participation in 1936.