Far Eastern Strategy and The Washington Conference of 1921-22by Edward Wittenberg 
     On November 12, 1921 the five principal naval powers of the post World War I world convened in Washington D.C. to discuss naval disarmament.  These powers--the United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan--controlled the largest naval forces in the world at that time(1).  Each came to the conference seeking an advantageous settlement.  This was especially true in the case of the United States government, which wanted a naval disarmament agreement that could
curb Japanese expansion in the Far East.
     From the outset, the United States quickly took the lead. American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes offered the welcoming address at the initial session. His opening remarks, which shocked even the most vehement advocates of naval disarmament, declared that the United States was ready to scrap nearly thirty
capital ships and to accept a ten year moratorium on capital ship construction(2).  This address quickly brought the conference into focus, and became the foundation upon which all subsequent discussions were based(3).

    The principal goal of the United States at the conference was to contain Japanese expansion in the Far East. To this end, the U.S. sought termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, established in 1902, the establishment of a favorable naval ratio with Japan, and formal recognition of the Open Door policy as embodied in the Nine-Power treaty(4). American policy makers believed that attainment of these objectives would result in an overall reduction of tensions between Japan and the United States(5).  Such and agreement, based upon these goals, would leave America free to pursue her own agenda in the Far East.

     First and foremost, American policy makers wanted to maintain naval supremacy over Japan.  This is hardly surprising considering the growing mistrust between the United States and Japan.  Japan believed the of Asia within her sphere of influence and any attempt to reduce her fleet a serious threat to her national security(6).
     To understand fully the complexities of Japanese-American relations as of 1921, one must look back to the late nineteenth century.  At that time, both Japan and America fought major wars in the Far East.  Japan's war against China in 1894-95 secured Taiwan for the Empire, while the American conflict with Spain brought the Philippines and Guam under U.S. control(7).  Following these conflicts, both the United States and Japan moved to consolidate their holdings, without confronting each other. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that agreements such as the Taft-Katsura, Root-Takahira, and Lansing-Ishii provided the Japanese with tacit approval from the American government for their expansionist policies(8).

     The American view of Japan began to change with Japan's dramatic defeat of the Russian fleet in 1905.  With this impressive, highly unexpected, victory over the forces of the Russian Empire, the American government began to believe that the Japanese fleet could pose a real threat to the American possessions in the Far East(9).

     During World War I, Japan handily defeated Germany's armed forces stationed in the Far East and acquired most of Germany's as League of Nations Mandates following the war(10).  Occupation of Germany's Pacific island possessions placed Japan in a very strong position to dominate the shipping lanes to China and the Philippines.
     To counter the Japanese, American naval strategists began planning for the development of naval bases in the Philippines and on Guam in addition to the naval construction program authorized by Congress in 1916(11).  Realizing that their position in the Western Pacific was barely tenable at best, the American military was forced
to adopt a holding strategy.  The cornerstone of this strategy was the possession of a superior fleet.  And this was a cost that many American politicians were unwilling to underwrite(12).  In this context, the Washington Conference can be seen as the lesser of two evils, with diplomatic intrigue replacing military might as the weapon of

    Following the opening secession, the delegates withdrew to consider its implications.  On November 15, following several days of discussion, both the Japanese and British delegations agreed in principal to the American proposal.  However, the Japanese insisted that the lowest ratio they could accept was ten percent more than
the ratio of 10:10:6 favored in the American proposal(13).  This led to many days of additional deliberation, with the Japanese and American delegations debating the definition of existing strength.  The Americans demanded that ships under construction be counted, while the Japanese countered that only ships actually in service be

     Fearful of a naval arms race with the United States, the Japanese eventually proposed a compromise which was accepted. They argued their willingness to accept the 10:6 ratio provided that construction of U.S. fortifications in the Philippines and on Guam not be expanded.  Japan feared that expanded fortifications in the Philippines and on Guam would threaten her lines of communication. Although the U.S. delegation had been advised by the General Board not to discuss naval bases in the Pacific, the delegation nevertheless proved to be willing to discuss the issue of fortifications, believing that admitting the issue of fortifications to the conference would alleviate Japan's mistrust and facilitate an advantageous settlement.

     Japanese military planners had looked long and hard at the issues of fortifications, and came to the conference with two specific proposals.  The first Japanese proposal called for the total disarmament of Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines(15).  In exchange, the Japanese agreed to follow suit on Formosa, the Bonins, and the Ryukyus.  The second proposal, for partial disarmament, would include Guam and either the Philippines or Hawaii.  If this proposal were accepted, the Japanese would disarm either Formosa, the Bonins, or the Ryukyus(16).

     These plans were communicated to Secretary Hughes by the senior Japanese delegate, Baron Kato Tomasaburo. Hughes in turn submitted them to President Harding, who, aware that Congress was not likely to vote funds for the fortification of Guam and/or the Philippines, told the Secretary that any proposal to limit the fortification of Hawaii was unacceptable, but that the proposals to limit the fortifications on Guam and in the Philippines were negotiable, if the Japanese agreed to naval arms limitation(17).

    Having received the President's response, Hughes presentedto Baron Kato a revised plan which permitted Japan to retain superdreadnought Mutsu and the United States to complete two battleships already under construction(18).  The American response also accepted the Japanese proposal, save several modifications, concerning fortifications in the Pacific.  It was made clear that Hawaii was to be excluded and that there was to be a distinct separation between offensive and defensive bases.  Furthermore, Britain, France, and the Netherlands had to be signatories to any fortification agreement.  Most significantly, the Japanese were told that a fortification agreement was contingent on a general agreement on naval disarmament(19).

     After requesting, and being granted, time to consult his government, Kato brought the American counterproposal to the attention of the Foreign Office.  The Foreign Office concluded that the only way Japan could accept the 60% ratio was if a fortification agreement were to be incorporated into the proposed naval agreement.  Upon receiving these instructions, Kato and Hughes, with the British Foreign Minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour, announced that they had reached an agreement on fortifications in the Pacific: The non-fortification of the Pacific  islands was to continue, with the exceptions of Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and "the islands comprising Japan proper, or, of course, to the coasts of the United States and Canada(20)."

     Following this press announcement, Hughes, knowing that the Japanese delegation needed time to decide among themselves just what the phrase "Japan proper" entailed, wisely waited before offering America's definition.  When offered, the American definition included everything west of 180-E longitude and north of the equator to 30-N latitude, just south of the Japanese home islands(21). This was designed to induce the Japanese to include as many islands as possible.  However, the Americans ultimately abandoned the definition of an area defined by longitude and latitude, preferring instead the naming of specific islands and island groups.

    Eventually, treaty Article 19--dealing with fortifications--read as follows:

           The United States, the British Empire, and
          Japan agree that the status quo at the time of
          the signing of the present Treaty, with regard to
          fortifications and naval bases, shall be maintained
          in their respective territories and possessions
          specified hereunder:
            (1)   The insular possessions which the United
          States now holds or may hereafter acquire in the
          Pacific Ocean, except (a) those adjacent to the
          coast of the United States, Alaska, and the
          Panama Canal Zone, not including the Aleutian
          Islands, and (b) the Hawaiian Islands;
            (2)   Hong Kong and the insular possessions
          which the British Empire now holds or may
          hereafter Acquire in the Pacific Ocean, east of
          meridian 1100 east longitude, except (a) those
          adjacent to the coast of Canada, (b) the
          Commonwealth of Australia and its Territories, and
          (c) New Zealand;
            (3) The following insular territories and
          possessions of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, to wit:
          the Kurile Islands, the Bonin Islands, Amami-
          Oshima, the Loochoo Islands, Formosa, and the
          Pescadores, and any insular territories or
          possessions in the Pacific Ocean which Japan may
          hereafter acquire(22).
The article concluded with a general statement about no new fortifications being erected in the territories specified above and no work being undertaken to strengthen the existing fortifications. However, provision was made for the maintenance of such fortifications, including the "replacement of worn-out weapons and equipment as is customary in naval and military establishments in time of peace(23)."

     When Article 19 was adopted, the issue of fortification in the Pacific was, at long last, over and the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922 could be signed.  On the surface, with the adoption of limits on capital ship tonnage, the United States appeared to have achieved its chief objective and the balance of power in the Far East seemed
to have been preserved.  In a strategic sense, however, the Washington Treaty shifted the balance of power.

     Lacking a strong navy and an interventionist Far Eastern foreign policy, the United States was now dependent upon a treaty to stem Japanese expansionism.  U.S. policy makers had failed to recognize the value of Far Eastern outposts as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Japanese.  Being a Far Eastern power,
Japan had bases within easy steaming distance of any potential area of confrontation.

     By contrast, the United States could reinforce its outposts on Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines only after a long and dangerous voyage from San Diego, the main fleet base on the West Coast.  Consequently, America needed strong outposts in the Pacific far more than the Japanese.  Without such outposts, American strategists were forced to adopt a holding strategy for the defense of America's Far Eastern possessions.

    War Plan Orange for the defense of the Philippines is the classic example of War Department strategic thinking during the inter-war years.  It envisioned the small army garrison in the Philippines, supported by a small Asiatic fleet, blunting any Japanese attack.  Having done this, U.S. troops would then withdraw into the Bataan peninsula and the island fortress of Corregidor.  Meanwhile, the main U.S. fleet would form up on the East Coast, steam through the Panama Canal to Hawaii, move on to Guam, and then engage and crush the Japanese fleet.  While this was going on, transports conveying U.S. troops would relieve the garrisons on Bataan and Corregidor(24).

     War Plan Orange, by necessity, required strong bases from which small U.S. forces could operate until relieved by the main fleet.  By negotiating away strategic outposts in the name of political expediency, War Plan Orange was hopelessly compromised.  Yet, it continued to be the basis for U.S. strategy in the Pacific even after
America's entry into World War II.  Because America negotiated away the right to fortify these islands, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and Marines died or were taken prisoner at Bataan, Corregidor, Wake Island, and Guam in the opening stages of the war. And thousands more were to die before final victory was assured.
End Notes
1.  In addition to the Big Five, a delegation from China participated.  Thomas H. Buckley, The United States and the Washington Conference (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1970). pp. 33-36

2.  Ibid., pp. 63-75.  In monetary terms, Hughes' announcement meant that the United States was willing to sacrifice approximately $350,000,000 already invested in a shipbuilding program designed to make the American navy the dominate naval force in the world. For the U.S. naval construction program on 1916, see Ernest Andrade, Jr., "The United States Navy and the Washington Conference," in The Historian XXXI (1969), pp. 345-363.

3.  In terms of tonnage, America would retain eighteen capital ships equalling 500,650, Britain twenty-two equalling 604,450, and Japan ten equalling 299,700. Units could not be replaced for a period of twenty years, and by such time the American and British fleets would total 500,000 tons and the Japanese fleet 300,000. At the end of this period, when new capital ships could be constructed, they were to be restricted in size and tonnage.Ibid, pp. 345.

4.  The Nine-Power Treaty was designed to prevent exploitation of Chinese sovereignty by providing equal access to Chinese markets and offering favoritism to none.  This "Open Door" policy also had the goal of allowing China to develop a stable government without outside interference.  Charles I. Beavens, LL.B., Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949, Vol 2. (Washington: Department of State, 1969), pp. 375-380.

5.  These objectives were determined by the Department of State on the basis of information supplied by the General Board of the Navy.  Buckley, The United States and the Washington Conference, pp. 48-49.

6.  The Japanese government planned to counter any move the conference made to meddle in Asian affairs by pointing out the areas of "interest held by the United States and others.  It also intended to raise issues such as the status of the Philippines and Hawaii, the Monroe Doctrine, the neutralization of the Panama Canal, the removal of economic barriers in India, the Dutch East Indies, and French Indochina.  Furthermore, Japan was fully prepared to complain about the racial discrimination found in the
immigration practices of the United States.  Sadao Asada, "Japan's 'Special Interests' and the Washington Naval Conference 1921-1922," American Historical Review LXVII (1961). pp. 64.

7.  The acquisition of Formosa (Taiwan) strengthened Japan's position in the Far East by providing Japan with a area which could be readily be converted into a fortified position to threaten the Philippines and China. Buckley, The United States and the Washington Conference, pp. 75-77.

8.  The most notorious of these was the Lansing-Ishii Agreement. This treaty was so ambiguous that almost any interpretation could be viewed with some merit.  Ibid, pp. 62.

9.  The Battle of Tsushima proved that Japan possessed a modern, well-armed fleet capable of inflicting serious damage on any opponent and of interdicting Far Eastern shipping lanes.  Ibid, pp. 75-77.

10. The one major exception to Japan's victorious sweep of German forces in the Pacific was Germany's East Asian Cruiser Squadron. This force, consisting of the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, light cruisers Leipzig, Dresden, Nuremberg and Emden along with various merchant and coaling vessels, was commanded by Admiral Maximillian von Spee.  The squadron--minus Emden, which had been detached for commerce raiding in the Indian Ocean-- handily defeated a British force at the Battle of Coronel, off the coast of Chile.  Von Spee's squadron was subsequently defeated by a British force including battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on December 8, 1914. Emden had a successful career as a commerce raider, destroying over 70,000 tons of British shipping before being sunk by the Australian cruiser Sydney.  Anthony Preston, Cruisers (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), pp. 22-34.

11. Japan had begun construction of its own fleet of ships.  The famous "8-8" program--eight large battleships and eight battlecruisers--had been initiated following the war, and fortification of the Mandate islands was also begun at this time.  When the conference convened, the keels of two battleships and two battlecruisers had already been laid.  Ernest Andrade, Jr., "The United States Navy and the Washington Conference," in The Historian XXXI (1969), pp. 349.

12. This reluctance came, in large part, because popular sentiment in the country following World War I encouraged the government to concentrate on America's domestic problems.  Buckley, The United States Fleet and the Washington Conference, pp. 9-16.

13. The entire American plan as handed to the delegates immediately after Secretary Hughes' speech is printed in Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, 78-92.  Ibid, pp. 73.

14. "Ships under construction as well as ships in active service must be counted in proportion to the extent of their completion." Quote by assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., in Charles I. Beavens, LL.B., Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949, Vol 2. (Washington: Department of State, 1969), pp. 84-85.

15. "Guam held securely, with a navy superior to that of Japan, threatens every Japanese interest from Delhi and Korea to Nagasaki and Yokohama."  Quote by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan.  Ibid, pp. 90-91.

16. The Japanese military clearly preferred total disarmament, but were willing to accept the status quo.  Ibid, pp. 93-94.  For further information about island fortifications in the Pacific, see Gerald E. Wheeler Prelude to Pearl Harbor: the United States Navy, 1921-1931, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968), pp. 71-105.

17. The British had introduced an alternative to the ten-year construction moratorium on capital ships.  Instead of a total ban on new construction, they wanted allowance for the gradual replacement of obsolete ships.  Britain's proposal rested on the fact that Admiral Sir David Beatty, hero of Jutland, feared that British shipyards would be wholly outclassed with the orgy of shipbuilding he predicted would occur at the expiration of the ten year limit. Buckley, The United States and the Washington Conference, pp. 87.

18. The Japanese wanted to substitute the aging dreadnought Settsu in place of superdreadnought Mutsu. Ibid, pp. 86-87.

19. For further information, see the diary of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., December 21, 1921. Ibid, pp. 96.

20. Press statement issued December 15, 1921, in Foreign Relations, 1922, Vol. I. pp. 127-130. Ibid, pp. 97-98.

21. Such a definition left the British possessions of Singapore and Malaya outside of the non-fortification zone. Ibid, pp. 98-99.

22. "Limitation of Naval Armament Treaty (1922)," in Charles I. Beavens, LL.B., Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949, Vol 2. (Washington: Department of State, 1969), pp. 351-371.

23. Ibid, pp. 356-357.

24. As a key problem for senior naval officers, War Plan Orange dictated the characteristics for fleet vessels--speed, range, and sea-keeping ability.  War Plan Orange was in large part responsible for the construction of the Panama Canal.  After World War I, War Plan Orange was the basis of U.S. military strategy in the Pacific.  Clay
Blair, Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (J.B.Lippincott Company, 1975), pp. 46-47.
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Beavans, Charles I.  Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949. Washington: Department of State, 1969

Blair, Clay Jr.  Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1975.

Buell, Thomas B.  Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980.

Buckley, Thomas H. The United States and the Washington Conference.  Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

Morrison, Samuel Eliot.  United States Naval Operations in World War II, Vol. 3: The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931-April 1942.  Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1951.

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