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Arms Control Efforts 1920–2020

There was a large effort at arms control after the Great War (World War I). These efforts were driven by the universal revulsion at the devastation and loss of human life. Even after the Great War erupted, the 1916 US Naval Appropriation act (1916) contained a rider authorizing the President, should the opportunity arise, to cut down naval appropriations, and allocating $200,000 for an American delegation to an as yet unknown arms control conference.(1) Perhaps the strongest expression of the need for arms control came after the disaster of the Great War. In the American Civil War, about 620,000 soldiers had been mowed down. In the Great War, the Allies lost around 6,648,300 soldiers; the Central Powers (German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire & Bulgaria) lost 4,353,500 for a total of 10,001,800 dead soldiers.(2) Many civilians also were killed, as this was the first large-scale war in which military forces went after non-combatants.(3) Civilians killed by military actions and crimes against humanity are 626,699 Allies and 1,620,720 Central Powers (including the 1,500,000-person Christian Armenian genocide carried out by nationalist Turks). War and military blockades also killed through malnutrition and disease;(4) 3,377,000 among the Allies and 2,330,000 in the Central Powers. This gives a grand total of 17,956,219 souls who departed in a war that no government wanted. The cost — $200,000,000,000 dollars.(5) A generation was lost. Diplomats swept up the dust and settled matters with a flurry of paper treaties: Treaty of Versailles (1919) for Germany, which was disarmed;(6) Treaty of St. Germain (1919) for Austria; Treaty of Neuilly (1919) for Bulgaria; Treaty of Trianon (1920) for Hungary; and Treaty of Sevres (1920) for Turkey, which ` was expelled from Europe.(7) New countries were created, many along ethnic lines.(8) Germany was presented with a “reparations” bill of $33,000,000,000 dollars.(9)

With all of that damage, one would think arms control would succeed, but it failed. Even though he had supported disarmament after the war, the US President (Wilson) went ahead with building 15 new destroyers. This may have been partially in response to British refusal to support freedom of the seas.(10) There were concerns that Japan and the UK were continuing to build up their navies.(11) This was only one example of many in which politicians went a different way from their rhetoric. The story of the submarine negotiations is another example. What started out as universal condemnation of German “unrestricted” submarine warfare, a term that meant “sinking ships with non-combatant civilians on board”,led to a desire to ban the submarine. One by one, the Allies gave up the idea. The British decided it was “impraticable” to prohibit an “efficient instrument of war”. France agreed. The US buckled. Years later, Germany and the US would be the leaders in unrestricted naval warfare using the submarine. Schelling describes this as an example of how arms control falls apart even when both sides recognize they have an interest in it.(12) The Washington Naval Conference (13) (1921–1922) was attended by nine nations — the United States, Japan, China, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Portugal. The ratio of battleships was set at 5:5:3 — 525,000 tons for the US, 525,000 tons for Britain, and 315,000 tons for Japan. France and Italy got a ratio of 1.67. Aircraft carriers also were limited. Poison gas was banned. The French refused limits on submarines, but there was agreement to give merchant ships warning before being sunk.(14) The agreement was set to run for ten years, but eventually was swept away. The United States invited the British Empire, Italy, France, and Japan to Geneva for a naval conference in 1927. The meeting was over-run by military experts.(15) Nothing came of it. The following year, the British and French cut out the Americans and reached a separate compromise on naval armaments. The French agreed to some submarine limitations. Subsequently, the London Naval Conference in 1930 managed to limit submarines and gun capacities on battleships. France and Italy never signed.(16) The British were allocated 541,700 tons for cruisers, destroyers and submarines, the US 526,200 and the Japanese 367,050. The treaty wrote in an “escape clause” that allowed building more ships in response to a competitor. It wasn’t really arms control. There always is a fear that arms limitations will constrain the unfolding of national strategy if circumstances change. One example is Japan in the mid-1930s, which became frustrated with the limitations imposed by the Washington and London naval treaties of 1922 and 1930 that had restricted it naval rearmament.(17) These treaties were abrogated in 1934. Perhaps one lesson that can be drawn is that if it is to have staying power, an arms limitation treaty must not disadvantage one party or the other. If it does, it will unravel.

Figure 1 - Arms Control Treaties from 1920 to 2020. (Source: Author analysis.)

In Figure 1, we can see that the Washington Naval Treaty was expired by the Second World War, and there was little progress during the inter-war period, in spite of the greatest of motivations.

Although the nuclear age started during the Second World War, it was not until approximately 30 years later before some of the first treaties came into effect to limit these dangerous weapons. The first treaties (Antarctic, Outer Space, and Seabed) were merely geographical limitations on the use of arms, but not actual controls over the arms race.

At this time, there is a stall in negotiations on nuclear weapons, and the development of new weapons against if accelerating.

There is virtually nothing on cyber at this time, and it appears that the major cyber powers do not have any motivation to come to an agreement.


(1) U.S. Statutes at Large, H. R. 15946, 64 Cong., Vol. 39, p. 618. referenced by Harley.

(2) Source: Prost, The dead, in Winter (Ed.), THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR, Vol. III, Table 22.1, 587-8, 561–591 (2014)

(3) Even the Roman Army would refrain from violence if shown civilian friendship. See the speech of Agrippa in Josephus, THE JEWISH WAR, Thackeray (transl.), Loeb Class. Lib. 457–481 (1927)

(4) Not counting the Spanish Flu.

(5) Quoted in Tucker, Locarno, 2 VIR. Q. REV. 482, 481–500 (1926)

(6) Conscription abolished; standing army limited to 100,000 men; no military airplanes; small navy; no submarines.

(7) Turkey later recovered with the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)

(8) Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, Jugo-Slavia, Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Esthonia. For Turkey, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, the Smyrna district, Cyprus, the Dodecanese, Hedjaz, Egypt, Lybia, Tunisia, and parts of Morocco were taken away.

(9) The French in 1921 had demanded $80,000,000,000, Germany had offered $12,500,000,000. In 1924 under the Dawes Committee Plan, Germany was loaned 800,000,000 gold marks to prime its economy so it could make payments.

(10) When President Wilson in his Fourteen Points spoke for freedom of the seas, it meant giving up the policy of naval blockade of civilian populations. This had been a key British policy during The Great War, and it lead to many death and untold suffering of non-combatants. When the British refused to consider this, the US threatened to build up a larger navy. The British retaliated by withholding approval of the League of Nations until the US agreed to reduce its naval expansion plans. See Schilling, Weapons, Doctrine, and Arms Control: A Case from the Good Old Days, 7 J. OF CONFL. RES. 197, 192–214 (1962). America’s top code breaker, Herbert O. Yardley in his book THE AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER (1931) cited decrypted cables from the UK discussing the use of a poison to assassinate the US President, who did indeed become sick leading to death upon returning from Europe (p. 237). See also Rucker, Review of The American Black Chamber, 7 INTL. J. NAV. HIST. n.p. (2008) (“Yardley’s most incendiary claim says he, ‘. . . deciphered a telegram which reported an Entente plot to assassinate President Wilson either by administering a slow poison or by giving him influenza in ice.’ Yardley further claims that, ‘President Wilson’s first sign of illness occurred while he was in Paris, and he was soon to die a lingering death.”’)

(11) Iriye, The 1920s: The Security Aspect, THE CAMB. HIST. OF AM. FOR. REL. (VOL. III) 74, 73–87 (1993)

(12) See Schelling, p. 214 “[T]he recognition that one can share an interest in limiting war and weapons even with one’s enemy offers no insurance that those interests can be translated into policy.”

(13) Also named: Washington Arms Conference or the Washington Disarmament Conference.

(14) Proposals were made to designate non-conforming submarine captains as “pirates”, but this was not accepted.

(15) Described by Harley, p. 208

(16) See Myres, Approaches to Disarmament, 17 SOUTHWEST REV. 119–34 (1932) (“Nations are . . . unwilling to disarm because they believe that their interests and even their existence would be jeopardized by such a course of action.” pp. 126–7)

(17) See Patalano, Feigning Grand Strategy: Japan, 1937–1945 172, 159–188 in THE CAMBRIDGE ECO. HIST. OF THE SEC. WORLD WAR, Vol. I, Ferres & Mawdsley, Eds., Camb. U. Press, 2015. (“Younger hawks in both services thought these limitations strangled Japanese ambitions, power and status.”); See also Kuehn, The war in the Pacific, 1941–1945, 420, 420–454 in THE CAMBRIDGE ECO. HIST. OF THE SEC. WORLD WAR, Vol. I, Ferres & Mawdsley, Eds., Camb. U. Press, 2015. (“Additionally, the Naval Arms Limitations Treaty . . . assigned the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) an ‘inferior’ proportion in numbers of capital ships relative to the United States, which caused considerable resentment inside the officer corps of the IJN”)

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