World History 2 197 - 12.1.5 Disarmament and the Commitment to Peace

Still reeling from World War I in the 1920s, the governments of the major powers generally supported disarmament and limited military buildup. There was great hope that the next decades would be peaceful, and many agreements reached in the 1920s reflected this commitment to goodwill among nations. In 1921, the Washington Naval Conference opened to address the issue of the naval arms race that had taken place before and during World War I. U.S. secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes proposed that the three major naval powers—Britain, the United States, and Japan—each scuttle a number of ships and restrict future construction. The Five-Power Treaty that emerged limited the construction of warships and the size of aircraft carriers, then a new style of vessel in the world’s navies. It established ratios for warships whereby Britain and the United States could have the same number, and for every five ships they had, Japan could have three and France and Italy 1.75 each. Britain and the United States were allowed more ships because they maintained fleets in both the Atlantic and the Pacific to protect their colonies.

In Their Own Words

The Western View of Japan

Japan often argued that it was not treated fairly by Western powers at either the Treaty of Versailles negotiations or the Washington Naval Conference in the 1920s. One of Japan’s leading politicians, Okuma Shigenobu, wrote about how the West perceived the Japanese in Illusions of the White Race. As you read his words, look for the evidence he presents for his case.

The white are obsessed with the mistaken theory that they are superior to all other races. This is the most serious obstacle in the way of the realization of racial equality. Now the Japanese, the Chinese, the Mongolian, the Turks, the Indians, the Afghans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Malayans, the American aborigines, and the African peoples are all non-white. They are all held in contempt by the whites. And it is the common belief among the whites that the darker the skin, the more inferior is the race. It is based neither upon science, nor upon any positive experience. It is mere superstition backed by historical prejudices.

The whites are of the conviction that they are too superior a people to be governed by their non-white fellows. Therefore, they demand the privilege of extraterritoriality in the countries of the Asiatic races. They establish their own courts and trample under foot the laws and courts of Asiatic countries. . . . Of all the non-white countries, Japan had taken the lead in adopting the best parts of European civilization—including its military side. She codified her laws, and reformed her police and judicial systems, her military and naval forces, thus placing herself almost on an equal footing with that of the European countries. Therefore, the Europeans were compelled to withdraw their extraterritorial rights from Japan. . . . Some whites regard the development of Japan as an unjustifiable encroachment upon their own rights. They either instigate a non-white race against Japan or plan to organize a league of the white nations to perpetuate a white supremacy in the world. Be it remembered, however, that no unjust and unreasonable agitation against this country will ever succeed, as God never sides with an unjust cause.

—Okuma Shigenobu, Illusions of the White Race

  • What points does Okuma Shigenobu make about Western views?
  • What evidence does he use to back his assertions?

By the late 1920s, optimism was high that the pain of war might be a thing of the past. It was in this spirit that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was written. The pact was a negotiation between U.S. secretary of state Frank Kellogg and Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. Fifteen nations signed it in 1928, and another forty-seven followed over the next years. However, there was no way to enforce it, and no repercussions for signatories that failed to live up to its ideals. Thus, it did little to curb the aggressive military policies of many nations during the following decade.

The same could be said of the League of Nations. Based on high ideals, the League could issue statements, restrictions, or condemnations, but it could not compel other countries to limit their activities. Assessing trade restrictions on a country might have some (minor) impact, but the League had no military arm that could physically intervene in a member country’s actions. Thus, as the 1930s began, it was regularly challenged by aggressive acts across the globe that it was powerless to influence. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. Italy invaded Libya in 1931 and Ethiopia in 1935. The League did protest, especially over the Ethiopian invasion, but it could do little more than impose economic sanctions against Italy, and even these were not upheld by all countries. It was clear the League had no real power and no country need fear it.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax