Geneva Conference

Badly needed restraints were applied to the naval arms race by the treaties stemming from the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22), but those agreements were largely confined to limitations on battleships and aircraft carriers.

Not surprisingly, some of the signatories — primarily Great Britain and Japan — sought to bolster other parts of their navies in the mid-1920s by concentrating on the construction of cruisers, submarines, destroyers and other smaller vessels. The United States was less inclined to embark on naval building efforts, choosing instead to enjoy the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and to trust the diplomats to keep matters from getting out of hand. By 1926, Britain had 54 cruisers in service, under construction or funded; Japan had 25 and the U.S. only 15 such vessels.

In February 1927, President Coolidge issued a call to the Big Five Powers to meet in Geneva to confront the issue of naval rivalries. Britain and Japan accepted the invitation, but France and Italy declined, citing their current involvement in League of Nations disarmament efforts.

The conference opened in the Swiss city in the spring of 1927, but may well have been doomed from the outset. The participants demonstrated a certain detachment by sending second-rank diplomats, and the start of the talks lacked the dynamic challenge that had been put forth by Charles Evans Hughes in Washington in 1921.

The United States sought to extend the 5:5:3 ratio beyond capital ships to the lesser vessels. The British and Japanese agreed in principle, but then cited various special circumstances that should exempt them from strict adherence to the proposal. Talks dragged on for nearly six weeks during which tensions rose among the former Allies. In early August, the delegates adjourned without reaching any agreement.

Big navy advocates in the U.S. read the failure at Geneva to mean that further arms limitation could be accomplished only by resuming the naval construction race. If Congress would fund a new building program and be willing to outspend the others, then the rivals would be forced to seek an agreement.

In early 1929, Congress provided funding for 15 new cruisers and an additional aircraft carrier, which effectively put Britain on notice that the United States was serious about reestablishing naval parity.


See other foreign affairs events of the Coolidge era.