From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
If Theodore Roosevelt could spin in his grave, no doubt the former president was a whirling dervish in his crypt Feb. 6, 1922. It was that date 93 years ago when the Washington Naval Treaty was signed, limiting the frenetic Roosevelt’s beloved Navy to no more than 500,000 tons.
For the numbers folks, that breaks down into 15 Colorado-class battleships; 14 Saratoga-class aircraft carriers; 71 Omaha-class light cruisers; 411 Clemson-class destroyers – or any combination thereof.
Also known as the Five-Power Treaty, there was sound reason behind it. Following the aftermath of World War I, some nations were a bit reluctant to stop their war-time build-up of armament, and of particular concern was Japan.
With Congress pushing to end any escalating of warships and armaments – especially between the United States, Great Britain and Japan – Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes invited nine nations to the table at what would be called the Washington Naval Conference that began Nov. 12, 1921. The countries involved were the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, China, the Netherlands and Portugal.
By Feb. 6, 1922, when the conference ended, three major treaties were signed, all named for the level of participation: Four-Power, Five-Power and Nine-Power. Two of them reflected the wariness both the United States and Great Britain had concerning Japan’s continued military build-up and interest in expanding beyond its borders.
The Four-Power Treaty between the U.S., France, Britain and Japan replaced the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1902 between Japan and Great Britain. Should a conflict arise between the United States and Japan, the 1902 treaty would have obligated Great Britain to side with Japan.
The new 1922 pact dictated the four countries would consult each other should a conflict develop between any of them, obligating none to side with the other.
The Nine-Power Treaty invited seven other countries to partake in the party that was the U.S. Open Door Policy in China: equal opportunity for all nations wishing to do business there, with China promising not to discriminate against the other nations. But the treaty also ensured all those who signed the agreement would recognize China’s territorial boundaries, including Japan’s dominance in Manchuria.
Japan and China agreed to their own bilateral pact that returned the Shandong province and railroad to China that Japan had liberated from the Germans during World War I, and Japanese troops would withdraw from Siberia.
The Five-Power Treaty was highly successful as a compromise, since no one was entirely happy with the results. Japan and the United States each wanted a greater ratio of warships and all three nations sought the ability to expand their own Pacific fortifications.
Great Britain and the United States each were allowed 500,000 tons of warships because both countries had colonies flung across two oceans; Japan was held to 300,000 tons and France and Italy each had 175,000 tons, or a 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 ratio.
Japan had sought a greater percentage in the top three ratios at 10:10:7, while the United States, wary of Japan’s growing militarism, wanted a 10:10:5 ratio.
At the time of the treaty, the Navy had commissioned three of the four planned 32,600-ton displacing battleships: Colorado (BB 45), Maryland (BB 46) and West Virginia (BB 48). If you’ve never heard of the fourth, well, that’s because PCU Washington (BB 47), although 75 percent completed, was cancelled to keep the United States in compliance with the new limitations of the Five-Power Treaty. Six more battleships either in planning or building mode were also scrapped: South Dakota (BB 49), Indiana (BB 50), Montana (BB 51), North Carolina (BB 52), Iowa (BB 53) and Massachusetts (BB 54).
The United States tried to affect world disarmament by example, allowing the Navy’s fleet of warships to drop well below even the standards of the original 1922 treaty. It was a lofty idea that never caught on and resulted in “a rapid decline in the strength of our Navy between 1922 and 1930,” according to the 1944 legislative document Decline and Renaissance of the Navy 1922-1944 by Sen. David I. Walsh (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee.
Since surface warfare ships under 1,800 pounds weren’t mentioned in the 1922 treaty, armament on destroyers would become the loophole. The United States, however, was awash in destroyers, with all 267 of the Wickes-Clemson-class destroyers built by 1922. To meet the standards of the treaty, many of those flush-deck, four-stack destroyers were either converted to minesweepers, mothballed or sold to other nations.
A revision during the London Naval Treaty of 1930 between the same countries closed that loophole, regulating “surface vessels of war” that weighed less than 1,850 tons with “guns not above 5.1-inch (130 mm), according to Ship’s Data for U.S. Naval Vessels. By the time of the third revision, the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936, was being held, Japan declared it would no longer abide by the terms of the treaty and Italy also was secretly disregarding it.
As the United States was willingly allowing its naval fleet to fall below readiness standards, another Roosevelt was making his mark. Just like his uncle before him, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a soft spot for the U.S. Navy, having served as Under Secretary to the Navy. After taking office in March 1933, FDR believed the sea service needed to increase its strength at least to the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limits.
In order to help the nation recover from the Great Depression and give the Navy a boost, Roosevelt pushed through Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933. Of the $3.3 billion appropriated, $237 million was set aside to construct Navy warships to help improve the economy with increased employment. The Navy responded by contracting to build 20 destroyers, four submarines, four light cruisers and two aircraft carriers.
As rumblings of aggression began again in Europe and Asia, and with both Japan and Italy openly violating the Washington Naval Treaty, President Roosevelt would embark on the long road to rebuild the U.S. Navy through the Naval Expansion Acts of 1934, 1938 and 1940, followed a few days later by the Two-Ocean Navy Act.
The Washington Naval Treaty, despite hampering the U.S. Navy in maintaining a ready fleet to operate forward across two oceans, did have its silver lining. Two years after the treaty was signed, the nearly-completed hulk of PCU Washington was hauled out to sea and sunk by USS Texas (BB 35) and New York (BB 34) as a test target.
The test would prove there wasn’t enough deck armor on the super-dreadnought and so future battleships – commissioned between 1941-44 — included triple armor plating on the hull: North Carolina (BB 59), Washington (BB 56), South Dakota (BB 57), Indiana (BB 58), Massachusetts (BB 59), Alabama (BB 60), Iowa (BB 61), New Jersey (BB 62), Missouri (BB 53) and Wisconsin (BB 64). All would survive World War II. Of the nine battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor, only three could not be salvaged: Utah (AG-16 formerly BB 31), Oklahoma (BB 37) and Arizona (BB 39), all built before the triple-plating.
The Evergreen State would finally get another ship named for it when the up-armored USS Washington (BB 56), a North Carolina-class fast battleship, was commissioned May 1941, weighing in at 35,000 tons at the cost of around $60 million. After serving throughout World War II, she was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1961.