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Disarmament Conferences: Ballets At The Brink

July 2024
16min read

“Almost every time a serious disarmament effort got under way, it barely managed to move forward an inch or two before a great world cataclysm intervened”

As spring moved northward over Europe in 1970, a familiar scene was enacted in Vienna, a city where diplomacy is as much a part of the civic tradition as steelmaking in Pittsburgh. In April, Soviet and American officials exchanged greetings, drank champagne, smiled at news cameras, and then settled down to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, known to headline writers as SALT . So, with the opening of the 1970’s mankind’s long dream of disarmament once more cast its spell. It is a compelling vision. But a glance at the past suggests, even to those not inclined to be cynical, that the hopes of beating even a few surplus spears into pruning hooks will remain, as often before, unfulfilled.

The force that brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the parley was their awareness of the awesome destructive power of their nuclear arsenals. Any limitation on these superweapons will enlarge mankind’s chances of surviving future wars. Yet this awareness of possible disaster goes back beyond the era of the atomic bomb. Since the century’s beginning, military inventions —the submarine, the bomber, high explosives—have been creating an age of overkill. Nations have hesitated to pursue arms races that yearly become more threatening to noncombatants, merchant fleets, cities, factories, the countryside, and even civilized life itself.

A second motive for disarmament is the crushing financial burden of maintaining deadly modern weapons. Sooner or later even the richest nations must stagger under the cost of their military forces.

There are, then, powerful reasons for Moscow and Washington to disarm, at least partially. But there are also reasons why even the obvious gains of arms limitation will not produce quick and easy agreement by both sides. First, there is the technical aspect. To reduce armaments it is necessary to work out a formula by which both parties will remain equally strong as they lay aside their weapons. But this requires some knowledge of the capabilities of both sides, since no country will risk an arms reduction without some idea of the cost in security. The further development of the MIRV (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle) will make such information far more difficult to obtain. A MIRV warhead contains several nuclear bombs, each capable of reaching a different target. If MIRV is perfected, it will be impossible to know how many weapons an enemy nation has put into the business end of its missiles. Thereafter, there will be no way to calculate the relative nuclear forces of opposing nations. Under the circumstances, MIRV may therefore put an insuperable roadblock in the path of the SALT negotiators.

Political considerations, too, limit the prospects for the Vienna negotiators. To take but one example, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. must make their security plans not only with an eye on each other, but with a deep concern over possible conflict with China. What is “safe” for either in the way of arms reduction depends on Chinese intentions. And the purposes of the Chinese Communist regime in Peking, a nuclear power of increasing virtuosity, confuse the calculations of amateurs and experts alike. The supposed science of Kremlinology, which always has inspired wry comments after the experts go wrong, seems marvelously exact when compared to guesswork about China’s plans. While such mysteries persist, there is little ground for optimism about the future of SALT . Ironically, then, the very anxieties that create the pressure for disarmament talks act to prevent their success.

On this subject, however, history is full of ironies. For one thing, almost every time a serious disarmament effort got under way, it barely managed to move forward an inch or two before a great world cataclysm intervened. (A pessimist might remark that the convening of a disarmament conference was a sure sign of international trouble.) For another, it was the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who endowed an annual prize for any man or woman who notably advanced the cause of peace and disarmament. Moreover, recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace have not always been peaceful individuals. One of them, for example, was Theodore Roosevelt, who received the prize in 1906 for helping to end the RussoJapanese war. Yet Roosevelt, in a memorable speech in 1897, told the students of the Naval War College that the diplomat was the servant and not the master of the soldier and that “no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war.” It may be the crowning irony that interest in disarmament rose to its present peak only after invention of the so-called ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb!

European thinkers began to consider disarmament, according to some sources, as early as 1577, when Jean Bodin, a French political economist, gave the matter some attention. But the first prominent discussions of the subject occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when such individuals as the Duc de Sully, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant advanced plans for ending war and thus the need for armaments. On the American side, William Penn produced the Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe . He put his notions into practice in the New World and, without a single soldier, founded a colony among “savage” tribes, where peace lasted upward of seventy years. Benjamin Franklin was convinced that standing armies diminished not only the population but the breed and size of the species. An army in every country, he wrote (perhaps with tongue in cheek), “is in fact the flower of the nation—all the most vigorous, stout, and well-made men in a kingdom are to be found in the army. These men in general never marry.” Among the accusations of the Declaration of Independence against the king of England was that he had forced standing armies upon his American subjects. Washington’s Farewell Address, always a reliable quarry for the opinions of the founding fathers, remarked that “overgrown military establishments … under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and … are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” The eighteenth century thus closed with disarmament well established on the agenda of political philosophy. And the nineteenth opened with the devastating international conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars.

In their aftermath there were numerous unfulfilled propositions for universal peace and disarmament. But it remained for the United States to offer an example of almost unilateral laying aside of weapons after the completion of its own Civil War. Between 1865 and 1900 the people of the United States were too busy developing the trans-Mississippi West, and memories of the Blue and the Gray were too vivid for the nation to take up the sword and shield. Practically speaking, the nation disarmed after the Civil War, reducing the Army to approximately twenty-five thousand men by the 1880’s, enough to handle the Indians but far below the size of the major European forces. The Navy was also cut from its Civil War peak strength to such a level that when a war between Chile and Peru made news between 1879 and 1883, the American government suddenly realized that the Republic of Chile had a better fleet than the United States. Apropos of this petty Latin-American conflict it was rumored that “when Admiral Balch undertook to make some kindly suggestions . . . the Chileans simply told the American admiral, and the American government through him, that if he did not mind his own business, they would send him and his fleet to the bottom of the ocean.” The American Navy began a renaissance in the i88o’s, but until after the turn of the century it was below the strength of the navies of the great powers of Europe.

The end of the nineteenth century opened a brief period of well-publicized international disarmament discussions. The unlikely figure who raised the curtain was the czar of Russia. On August 24, 1898, he issued an invitation to the nations of the world to assemble in a disarmament conference. His motives were less than purely idealistic. The Russian government, like the other Continental powers, had found expenditures for military equipment rising enormously each year after 1890, when the departure of Prince Bismarck from the German government introduced uneasiness throughout Europe. New and costly weapons were being introduced, like the fieldartillery piece that would become known as the French 75 and would become indispensable to armies by 1914. Then, too, naval expenditures were rising alarmingly, because the race to develop thicker armor and more powerful projectiles was increasing the complexity of naval vessels. The particular problem of the czar’s government was that it did not possess enough funds for both the 75’s and the new ships, and therefore wished to obtain a moratorium on land ordnance and put the money saved into the navy. The czar did not explain himself this baldly in inviting the nations to what proved to be the First Hague Peace Conference, held in the de facto capital of the Netherlands in 1899. Nor did he say that one of the originators of his proposition was his finance minister, Count Sergei Witte. He lamented instead “the excessive armaments which weigh upon all nations,” and his aides said that the conference proposal was his own, made in perfect good faith.

The representatives whom the United States sent to The Hague showed how little faith the McKinley administration placed in these royal explanations. The American delegation was led by the former president of Cornell University, Andrew D. White, but he was outshone by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, of the United States Navy, who, following the appearance of his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 in 1890, had become a world-renowned figure. Mahan was possibly the last individual in the United States to have taken a serious interest in disarmament. He believed that great nations must maintain a balance of armed power—an international equivalent of the doctrine of laissez-faire for domestic economies—the free competition in the open market that was indispensable to the moral freedom of individuals. Somehow, Providence would teach the great nations to use their strength only for righteous ends.

At The Hague, Mahan seemed clearly in sympathy with his British counterpart, Admiral Sir John Fisher, equally a believer in force, who perhaps was already drawing plans for what would become the Dreadnought , the first battleship completely equipped with heavy guns, which the British navy under his direction launched in 1906. If there had been any chance of American participation in a disarmament scheme drawn up at the First Hague Peace Conference, Mahan’s arguments would have killed it. At one point there was a possibility that a subcommittee on which he served might come out in favor of a prohibition of asphyxiating gases in warfare. Even this humanitarian idea evoked the captain’s skepticism. Mahan contended that gas might in fact be more humane than projectiles that maimed as well as killed. Besides, he noted, poisonous gases could possibly produce decisive results. Under the weight of arguments like these from many quarters, the czar’s disarmament proposal collapsed. Nothing resulted from the peace conference except the setting up of a tribunal at The Hague to hear and peacefully judge whatever disputes nations might wish to bring before it.

It was hoped that the conference of 1899 would be followed by others, and a second Hague meeting did assemble in 1907. However, it proved of even less importance than the first. The time, of course, was not right. With war clouds gathering, few statesmen genuinely desired disarmament. The reason was put best by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. When pacifists in Britain urged the advantage of one nation’s, presumably their own, taking the lead in disarming, Sir Edward explained to Parliament: “The difficulty in regard to one nation stepping out in advance of the others is this, that while there is a chance that their courageous action may lead to reform, there is also a chance that it may lead to martyrdom.”

Such views were common in all capitals. King Edward VII privately told his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II that the disarmament talk was “humbug,” a characterization that Wilhelm agreed with and that he immediately conveyed to President Theodore Roosevelt. That Nobel Peace Prize winner was likewise in no mood for dismantling war machines. In 1907, the very year of the Second Hague Peace Conference, he sent the American fleet on the first leg of its trip around the world ("the most important service that I rendered to peace,” he wrote in his memoirs a few years later). His private correspondence for this period abounds with the words fatuous and crank , which he applied to even the most reputable disarmament enthusiasts.

In keeping with this attitude, Roosevelt instructed the American delegation not to show interest in disarmament unless some other nation raised the question. The conference, as expected, produced only additional machinery for voluntary arbitration. It was handsomely housed machinery, thanks to Andrew Carnegie. The millionaire steelmaker, whom Secretary of State John Hay had considered to be on the verge of craziness (though he and other Washington officials treated him with extreme care), founded the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. Carnegie awarded its trustees ten million dollars in bonds of the United States Steel Corporation, and urged them, using his favorite simplified spelling, to “pleas” use the proceeds to abolish war, the foulest blot upon civilization, and thus to hasten the advance of man toward perfection upon “this erth.” He also provided funds for construction of a peace palace as the home of the International Court of Arbitration, or Hague Tribunal, founded in 1899. Member nations of the court contributed the palace’s furnishings. Tourists still admire the clocks, candelabra, vases, rugs, and other elegant items on view. The building itself was dedicated in 1913—one year before the greatest war the world had ever seen.


World War I itself produced a renewal of moral concern about disarmament, reflected in Point Four of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which called for the reduction of armaments “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” The victorious Allies in 1919, however, began their work simply by unilaterally disarming their beaten enemies. Germany had to confine her army to one hundred thousand men and her navy to a few vessels of not more than ten thousand tons displacement, and she was specifically forbidden to manufacture or use heavy artillery and airplanes. (The German general staff, wondrously, managed to test such prohibited weapons by an arrangement with the Soviet Union that lasted until the emergence of Hitler.) With German land power eliminated, the principal arms competition of the 1920'$ was in naval armaments. Here the United States was a leading power. And here the United States emerged as a major proponent of arms limitation.

The American government had several motives. It hoped to limit the size of the Japanese navy, now the world’s third largest, because Japan and America confronted each other directly in the Pacific. The United States also wished to reduce the size of the British navy, partly to stimulate American pride by making the American fleet “second to none” and partly to cut British expenses so that Britain could more readily pay her war debts to the Americans. The opening step in this campaign was the calling of a nine-power conference in Washington in November, 1921, to discuss both naval arms reduction and power balances in the Far East.

The arrangements reached at Washington proved dismaying to admirals of the naval powers. Building plans for new battleships were cancelled, some vessels were abandoned in midconstruction, and some existing tonnage was scrapped. In addition, the British and Americans virtually gave the Japanese control of the western Pacific by promising to erect no further fortifications in their territories west of Hawaii, east of Singapore, and north of Australia. This meant, in effect, that the Philippines and Hong Kong became hostages for Anglo-American good behavior. In turn, the Japanese government accepted for its battleship fleet what came to be called the 5:5:3 ratio. That is, for the approximately five hundred thousand tons of battleships possessed by the British and by the Americans the Japanese should have three hundred thousand tons. The naval powers also limited aircraft carriers, fearing that, otherwise, competing nations might turn excess battleship tonnage into carriers.

It proved impossible at the Washington Conference to limit the lesser categories of naval vessels—cruisers, destroyers, submarines—and this failure led to a rivalry among the Big-Three powers during the igao’s. This rivalry has long since been forgotten, but it throws an interesting light on the growing difficulty of making reasonable and effective rules designed to preserve ratios of strength between powers. The issue might be called the “cruiser crisis.”

The problem was to agree on the apparently simple definition of a cruiser. Prior to the conference of 1921-22 it had been a ship of indeterminate size, somewhere between the light vessels known as destroyers and the behemoths known as battleships. To avoid evasion of the battleship-limitation agreement, the conference placed a limit on cruiser size often thousand tons and 3-inch guns. Beyond this a cruiser automatically became a battleship.

The admirals of the American Navy, meeting privately after the conference, decided upon a new construction program of cruisers that would be of this maximum size. The British and Japanese admirals were “isturbed. Such “heavy” cruisers could outgun their smaller, more traditionally sized “light” cruisers—ships of between five thousand and eight thousand tons, armed with 6-inch guns. A running international argument began over how many light cruisers were equal to how many heavy cruisers, and how many of each were needed by the different powers. When a second naval disarmament meeting was held at Geneva during the summer of 1927, these arguments quickly broke it up. The leading American naval officer at Geneva, Rear Admiral Hilary P. Jones, who viewed the world through a porthole, announced that the American Navy needed twenty-five heavy cruisers, no more, no less; and that ended the conference.

For three more years arguments continued to swirl, muddied by technical assertions that could only be tested in combat—the one thing disarmament was supposed to avert. American admirals insisted that light cruisers were inadequate, because if they were approaching a heavy cruiser in a sea duel, the latter’s 8-inch guns could disable them before they came close enough for their own weapons to be effective. But those who wanted the Americans to be restricted to light cruisers pointed out that once within range, the lighter vessels could put more shells into the air because their 6-inch guns took a 100-pound shell, which could be hand loaded more rapidly than the heavier shells of the 8-inchers.


A temporary solution was reached in 1930, when a new naval conference at London set American, British, and Japanese strength in cruisers, destroyers, and submarines at the same ratio as that for battleships—and arbitrarily agreed on a discount system whereby a 10,000ton cruiser equalled 15,166 tons of light cruisers. The slide rule, instead of the statement of good will, had become the instrument of arms reduction.

Two years after the London Naval Conference a grand World Disarmament Conference began its sessions at Geneva, where it continued to meet, at first quite regularly and then ever more desultorily, until it adjourned sine die in 1934. As early as 1926 a “preparatory commission” for this parley began meeting at Geneva. It prepared so thoroughly that according to one of its members, Salvador de Madariaga y Rojo, of Spain, one subcommittee alone used 3,750,000 sheets of typescript, enough to allow the commission’s Polish or Swedish delegation to walk home on a path made of committee paper. But all in vain! Despite speeches from the heads of the approximately sixty delegations, real disarmament would depend on the proposals of the great powers, and each was busy grinding its own axe. The French government proposed a complicated scheme for an international police force, heavily weighted toward its own security. The British government tended to take a hands-off view of land disarmament. The American government under President Herbert Hoover made what at first seemed like an audaciously clarifying proposal: all nations should reduce their armaments by one third. After further thought, it became evident that this economical proposition would play into the hands of Germany, whose armaments were already near zero, and of the Soviet Union, then also weakly armed. Not much more was heard of the Hoover plan. The Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov, went even further and proposed the abolition of all armament. The Russians and Germans in 1930 were poor relations, militarily speaking, always ready to suggest vows of poverty for the entire family of nations. Litvinov’s call produced only embarrassed hostility. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Geneva talks became more and more abrasive. Finally, they were quietly abandoned.

At the end of the Second World War, the disarmament question was once again thrust forward with a new and terrible urgency, thanks to the atomic bomb. The new desire for disarmament was strongest in the United States, the nation that for a short four years, from 1945 to 1949, possessed a monopoly on nuclear arms. The reason was not only the horror of the world and of many Americans at the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition the highest officials of the American government, sensing that the American monopoly would not continue forever, were looking to the longer future. They felt secure in taking the initiative because they did not think that the Russians would be able to build an atomic device in the same four-year period that had proved necessary for America.

In the immediate postwar months the Truman administration, wishing to make a formal proposal for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations, carefully prepared a case. The details were worked out by a government committee chaired by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and assisted by a board of consultants including the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, David E. Lilienthal. Among other preparations, a cram course in nuclear physics was given Acheson and others on the board by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most distinguished scientists associated with the atomicbomb project. After four days of most careful drafting at the Washington mansion Dumbarton Oaks, the American proposition for a future ban on^atomic weapons and for the international sharing of atomic-energy production (to become known as the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal) was ready. But for the actual presentation of the American proposal to the United Nations in 1946, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and President Truman chose the senior statesman Bernard M. Baruch. This proved to be a fateful decision.

The choice of Baruch was essentially political. Byrnes proposed him to Truman because Baruch was a distinguished citizen of South Carolina, and Truman accepted the aging financier because he had the respect of the most conservative of the republic’s citizens. Because there was considerable opposition to the “idealistic” plan of giving up America’s nuclear secrets, Truman chose Baruch to keep the conservatives off his back on this particular crucial issue. Unfortunately, the overpowering egotism of the old adviser to Presidents tended to turn the whole task into a piece of careerism. Baruch soon got on Truman’s nerves by assailing the President with a long series of advice-giving sessions, leading Truman to describe him privately as “that old goat.” Moreover, he refused to accept the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal as the official American proposition and turned it into the Baruch Plan (under which name it became far better known) by adding what he described as enforcement provisions: whenever a signatory broke the proposed agreement—something to be determined by international inspection—the other signatories might go to the United Nations and demand “swift and sure punishment.” In such a case the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council would not be usable.

Both Acheson and Lilienthal understandably believed this addition to their handiwork to be useless and stupid, for nothing would come of such an appeal to the United Nations, which at that time possessed no military forces at all and was unlikely to possess any of size until at least the twenty-first century. Moreover, the notion of swift and sure punishment was certain to raise the ire of the Russians and probably insure failure of the plan. Nevertheless, Baruch flamboyantly moved ahead and at last made his formal proposal to a meeting of the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission, beginning his speech with a brilliant sentence suggested by his idea man and speech writer, Herbert Bayard Swope (from the Bible, the “best of all possible sources,” said Swope): “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead.”

The Soviet delegation listened impassively to the American proposal and later made its own proposal, which essentially rejected international inspection of nuclear installations on their territory. After many months the issue was dropped. If there was a moment in 1946 when the avoidance of a nuclear arms race was possible, it had definitely passed.

The history of nuclear disarmament has continued erratically from then to the present day. There have been modest successes, such as the limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between the U.S.S.R., Britain, and the U.S. (not acceded to, however, by the new members of the nuclear “club,” France and China), which forbids testing of nuclear bombs or devices above ground or under water. After the United Nations agreed to sponsor a nonproliferation treaty in 1968, the Soviet Union and the United States ratified it in 1969. The SALT talks themselves represent a victory for the advocates of coexistence between the world’s titans. On the other hand the size, the expense, and the dreadful potential of modern armaments has continued to escalate—witness the H-bomb, Polaris, ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), and MIRV . All such recent developments are a long call from the discussions at The Hague in 1899 concerning “the throwing of projectiles or explosives of any kind from balloons” (forbidden by a convention of that conference), or from the ideas of Andrew Carnegie about eliminating armaments and insuring peace for a total cost of less than ten million dollars. Man has made war infinitely more terrifying—enough so, some believe, to frighten himself away from it entirely. And yet it is sobering to recall that well before the turn of the twentieth century Alfred Nobel wrote the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, the famous author of Die Waffen Nieder (Lay Down Your Arms), who had converted him to the cause of world peace, that “my factories may well put an end to war sooner than your Congresses. The day when two army corps can annihilate one another in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”


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