“Nothing can stop the attack of aircraft except other aircraft.”—U.S. Army General William “Billy” Mitchell. This statement by an early American air power expert became reality through the Five Power Naval Limitation Treaty.
Governmental regulations often do the opposite of what lawmakers intended. The Five Power Naval Limitation Treaty is a poignant example. Despite its drafters intentions, the Five Power Naval Limitation Treaty enabled its signatories’ navies to grow more powerful for two reasons: the five powers produced aircraft carriers, and these aircraft carriers were more powerful than the battleships they replaced.
The Five Power Naval Limitation Treaty, commonly referred to as the Washington Treaty, was signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy. The treaty set out to prevent or at least limit war by weakening the five major navies in the world. Each country was obligated to scrap fully built, partially built, and unbuilt ships by limiting the total tonnage of each country’s naval vessels. “The aggregate tonnage thus to be retained was 525,850 for the U.S., 558,950 for the United Kingdom, 221,170 for France, 182,800 for Italy, and 301,320 for Japan,” according to Britannica.
The treaty was signed in 1922, during the Progressive Era, a time when most Americans, no matter their political philosophy, expected the government to fix societal problems. Major accomplishments of this period include the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration, Prohibition, and the League of Nations. In addition, various arms reduction treaties were designed to put an end to war by preventing nations from arming themselves.
The first reason the Washington Treaty made its signatories’ navies more powerful was that aircraft carriers were prioritized over battleships. At the treaty’s signing, the United States had two battlecruiser hulls but could not complete production due to the new tonnage limit. The small contingent of men in the U.S. military, who thought that air power was the future, convinced the navy to repurpose the hulls to build America’s second and third aircraft carriers, the USS Saratoga and the USS Lexington. In all, seven aircraft carriers were produced before World War II. Until their worth was proven, the greatest factor in the production of aircraft carriers was their low weight, which was a factor solely because of the Washington Treaty. Once World War II began, government officials realized how powerful aircraft carriers were, and the navy built 23 more by the end of the war.
The second reason the Washington Treaty made its signatories’ navies more powerful was that aircraft carriers bolster a navy’s strength. Following the Washington Treaty, in World War II, aircraft carriers dominated the Pacific Front. “In our victory over Japan, airpower was unquestionably decisive. That the planned invasion of the Japanese Home islands was unnecessary is clear evidence that airpower has evolved into a force in war co-equal with land and sea power, decisive in its own right and worthy of the faith of its prophets” in the words of Carl Andrew Spaatz. In every major engagement on this front, aircraft carriers were the linchpins of battle. When torpedo and dive bombers were sent to destroy enemy fleets, their first priority were the lethal aircraft carriers. Only twice did battleships pound each other with their huge guns—once during the Battle of Coral Sea in 1942, and a second time during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was dominated by aircraft carriers and planes. American aircraft carriers demolished both Japanese battleships and aircraft carriers, and unarmed American planes deterred Japanese battleships from attacking. The most compelling evidence of the power of an aircraft carrier is that since World War II no battleships have been built while more than fifty aircraft carriers now exist. The Washington Treaty did not limit naval warfare when it pushed the United States and other countries into building aircraft carriers.
Some argue that the Washington Treaty did reduce its signatories’ naval power. They say that the advent of aircraft carriers had already come. Newer technology almost always replaces old. General Mitchell and Admiral Sims are examples of high-level officers attempting to put aircraft carrier technology into service. One aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was built before the Washington Treaty showing that this technology was already in place. This argument is inadequate because only 24 battleships were commissioned after the treaty while 81 aircraft carriers have been commissioned during the same period.
The Washington Treaty strengthened the navies of the five powers it intended to limit when it led to an increase in the production of aircraft carriers, which were more powerful and more effective than the battleships they replaced.