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Today, the interest in arms limitation  centers on strategic nuclear weapons.In the ’20s and ’30s it was submarines.

Today, the reality of this search for an accord on the reduction of nuclear arms is that neither the U.S. nor the Soviets are likely to place significant limitations on any weapon systems that might conceivably provide a strategic or tactical advantage in a future confrontation. The failure of the five international naval disarmament conferences held in the interwar period (1919-1935) to either abolish or place meaningful restrictions on submarines, seems to confirm the little likelihood of a satisfactory nuclear arms agreement.

Beginning with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and ending with the London Naval Conference or 1935, the nations viewed the submarine in much the same way as the atomic bomb is viewed today. The submarine was morally abhorrent and became the key to achieving meaningful disarmament in other areas of naval construction. Yet no lasting agreement could be reached to abolish or limit its use and only a “fleet” submarine-tonnage could be agreed to, and then only by the United States, Great Britain, and France, while a maximum displacement per unit was agreed to by all nations.

The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 provided the first opportunity for the major  powers toplace limitations on submarines.

During World War I, Germany bad come very close to achieving control of the seas through the use of its underseas fleet. As might be expected, Great Britain favored total abolition of the submarine at the conference. While the war planners in Washington defended the legitimacy of the submarine and its probable role in a future conflict, they were willing to accept universal abolition. France and Italy saw abolition as a policy of those nations that already possessed adequate navies and who were now attempting to “put the lid on• the other powers. The French and Italian position prevented unanimity regarding abolition. With the birth of the League of Nations, assured by President Wilson’s agreement not to outstrip England in naval construction, the problem of aggregate submarine tonnage, size, and armament was left for the League to consider. In effect, nothing was accomplished except Germany was forbidden to have submarines. By 1920 it was clear that the League of Nations was unable to achieve meaningful disarmament in the naval area and within a few years Germany was rebuilding its U-boat fleet. This failure of the League made an international disarmament conference necessary if the rapidly expanding and costly competition in naval construction was to be brought under control.

The Washington Conference of 1921 was convened at a point in history when a number of important shifts in thinking had taken place. England was slowly realizing that she was no longer queen of the seas, and the United States was increasingly apprehensive about Japan’s emergence as a Pacific power. Although the emphasis of the conference was on capital ships rather than auxiliaries, (as small combatants were classified), some attempts were made to deal with the submarine.

The conferees were able to reach an agreement on capital ship limitation but because of the wide variance in national submarine policies (was the submarine primarily offensive or defensive?) they were unable to reach an accord on submarine limitation. Once again, Great Britain lobbied for abolition while the others favored retention but could not agree on an acceptable overall tonnage for each nation. The United States supported the use of the submarine if rules of civilized warfare were applied. The problem of how many subs, and what size they should be, also blocked progress on the submarine question.

With both abolition and limitation of the submarine impossible because of the perceived naval needs of the various powers, the conference turned its attention to controlling the submarine by legislation. The result was the Root Resolutions, which set down the rules for conducting submarine warfare. Although approved as a separate treaty, the agreement was never ratified as France refused to sign. Thus the resolutions never became binding.

In  the post Washington Conference period, building of the unrestricted ship-types particularly cruisers and submarines — surged ahead and clearly indicated the need for a followon conference to deal with the submarine problem. The Geneva Conference was called for 1927, but only Japan, Great Britain and the United States chose to participate. Because of the incompatible British and American positions regarding the cruiser and the complex technical problems encountered in dealing with submarines, the conference was doomed to be the most unsuccessful disarmament gathering of the twentieth century.

The Geneva Conference failed completely as far as any substantive disarmament or limitation was concerned. A problem of major proportions was the fierce naval competition between Great Brjtain and the United States, with parity in cruisers the major issue. The submarine received much the same treatment as before. The attitudes of the three powers had not changed appreciably from what they had been at Washington six years earlier. The British still favored abolition but were willing to accept a settlement that would give her strategic superiority in relation to the United States and any European power, while Japan wanted desperately to improve her ratio of submarine strength to parity level with the United States and England. The United States favored limitation on the 5:5:3 basis thereby permitting this country to construct moderate sized, long range submarines better suited to operations against either the British or Japanese.

The conference foundered primarily on the cruiser parity issue. Overlooked by American naval men was the fact that the British demand for more cruisers was a reaction to the threat posed to her maritime lifelines by the large numbers of submarines being built by the French.

The London Conference of 1930 was called expressly to extend the limitation agreements reached in 1921 to auxiliary combat vessels. Anglo-American rivalry had subsided due to the acknowledgement that each nation needed different types of naval armaments (e.g., large ships and guns for this country, and more but smaller vessels for England) to meet their particular strategic situation. The United States now supported England’s case for abolition of the submarine thus reverting to the posture first adopted at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. A second reason for this policy shift was the fact that Japan was replacing England as this country’s primary threat.

Italy also supported complete elimination of the submarine, but abolition was conditional upon universal acceptance, which all powers recognized as impossible. France and Japan continued to support the submarine as a primarily defensive weapon and were, therefore, opposed to both abolition and drastic limitation in aggregate tonnage or unit size.

With abolition out of the question, a limitation treaty (52,700 tons of submarines) was signed by Great Britain, the United States and Japan — thereby granting Japan parity in subs -while all five nations agreed to a maximum 2000ton displacement and 5.1” gun-size for submarines. The treaty also included an escape clause that permitted any of the signatories to disregard the agreement should any nation engage in construction that they thought threatened their security. In addition, Article 22 of the treaty established international rules to govern the submarine in time of war similar to the Root Resolutions. Ten additional nations eventually agreed to observe these regulations.

The World Disarmament Conference of 1932 proved to be a futile attempt at limitation even though it was in session for over two years. The deepening world-wide economic crisis, the Japanese aggression in the Far East and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany served to negate what little hope remained for a meaningful settlement of the armaments problem. In the United States, both military and political strategists favored either abolition or drastic limitation of the submarine, as they recognized the threat posed to the American fleet by Japanese submarines.

The international situation deteriorated rapidly during the latter stages of the conference with first Japan and then Germany withdrawing. Having failed to achieve any agreement on either land or naval disarmament, the conference skidded to a halt, hard up against the real world of international politics, national interests and fear.

The next international gathering for addressing disarmament was the London Naval Conference of 1935. All the major naval powers had assumed a posture of “all ahead, full” in naval construction in anticipation of a probable conflict. The United States stood with Great Britain and called for abolition of the submarine — not able to foresee the vital contribution of the submarine to the American victory in the Pacific a decade later. Japan demanded parity in all ship types even before the first meeting. World conditions and the attitude of most of the naval powers made it impossible to negotiate a treaty for a reduction or even limitation in the size of navies. It was with this unfortunate commentary that the rather fruitless attempts to abolish or restrict the submarine during the interwar period came to an end.

From the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to the perfunctory London Naval Conference of 1935, the only abolition of the submarine involved Germany, and even this proved to be of a fleeting nature for the Germans were constructing 0-boats again, less than twenty years after tbe Treaty of Versailles. All other attempts to abolish the submarine met with complete failure. Great Britain preferred abolition of the submarine or, failing that, reduction to the lowest possible figure both in individual unit displacement and aggregate tonnage reflecting her dependence upon high seas trade for survival and her nearly disastrous experience at the hands of German submarines in the First World War. The United States’ vacillating stand on abolition, tonnagerestrictions, etc., reflected both the change in potential enemies, — the substitution of Japan for Great Britain — and a changing evaluation of submarine usefulness. With the emergence or Japan as the most likely adversary, it was to the strategic advantage of America to either abolish or place restrictions upon the submarine. France saw the submarine as a great equalizer. It provided a much needed balance to the superior surface fleets of the other major naval powers. To France, the submarine ~ the balance of power in her dealings with the other naval powers, particularly England. Italy was primarily concerned with parity with her principal rival in the Mediterranean, and it mattered little whether submarines were abolished or limited as long as equality with France was a part of the bargain. Although Japan initially supported abolition of submarines at the Paris Peace Conference, she later rejected that position as she became more aware of the submarine’s potential for furthering her Pacific ambitions and defending her empire against any encroachment by the United States.

The generalizations derived from this study of disarmament, applicable to present and future attempts to achieve arms limitations are:

  • Nations will agree to disarmament only to the point that it does not substantially affect their relative strength — whether real or imagined.
  • Nations will reduce armaments in a particular area — weapons delivery systems, etc. — if they retain either superiority or parity with a potential enemy.
  • Nations will usually attempt to retain strength in the area of their most “prestigious” weapons.
  • The perceived role of a nation, and the view of other nations relative to that nation, have a direct relationship to the position assumed at the bargaining table.
  • Both domestic and international economic and political pressures may lead a nation to adopt or reject a weapon that may run counter to military or diplomatic advice.
  • A shift in potential enemies can bring about a corresponding shift in disarmament policies.
  • Limitation of a weapon depends upon universality of agreement. Given the many differences in national ideals, goals, relative strengths, etc., universal agreement is virtually impossible.
  • Progress in disarmament cannot be isolated from other facets of international relations.
  • Success in disarmament hinges ultimately on the willingness of nations to settle their political differences.

These generalizations about disarmament are hardly new, and they shed precious little light on the present disarmament problem. They do, however, reflect lessons learned. At the very least we must expect our diplomats and arms negotiators to carry them to the current bargaining sessions. We cannot afford to learn them anew.

Lawrence Douglas

Naval Submarine League

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