Geneva Naval Conference

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The Geneva Naval Conference was a conference held to discuss naval arms limitation, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. The aim of the Conference was to extend the existing limits on naval construction which had been agreed in the Washington Naval Treaty. The Washington Treaty had limited the construction of battleships and aircraft carriers, but had not limited the construction of cruisers, destroyers or submarines.


In February 1927, President Calvin Coolidge issued a call to the Big Five Powers to meet in Geneva to confront the issue of naval rivalries, as a result of discussions about naval arms limitations at League of Nations disarmament meetings.[1] Britain and Japan accepted the invitation, but France and Italy (the other nations which had signed the Washington Treaty) declined.[2]

The Washington Treaty had defined a ratio of 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 in the strength of capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers) between Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy respectively. The USA sought to use the Geneva conference to extend this ratio to smaller craft, allowing both Britain and themselves cruisers with a total displacement of 300,000 tons, with the Japanese allowed 180,000 tons. At the same time, the USA wanted to avoid further restrictions on the size of individual ships.[3]


The American negotiating position was almost entirely the opposite of what would be acceptable to the British. The Royal Navy was prepared to accept parity with the USA in its cruiser fleet, so long as Britain was able to maintain the very large cruiser force which it felt was necessary to protect the long trade routes of the British Empire. The British estimated they need 70 cruisers totalling 560,000 tons displacement,[4] almost twice the American proposal.

The British counter-proposal was to limit the maximum size and power of each newly constructed cruiser. Under the Washington Treaty, each nation was allowed to build cruisers of up to 10,000 tons displacement carrying 8-inch guns. In practice this had also become a minimum figure, with navies competing to design cruisers of exactly 10,000 tons displacement. Since the British need was for many ships to protect trade, rather than particularly powerful individual vessels, they proposed the reduction of the 10,000-ton and 8-inch limit. Smaller ships would be cheaper and make it easier for Britain to meet its imperial commitments. The USA, in turn, was unwilling to compromise on its plan to build 25 heavy cruisers of 10,000 tons displacement.[5]

The principal Japanese concern was to avoid a repetition of the 5:5:3 ratio. The Japanese naval staff felt that a fleet 70% the size of that of the USA was the minimum required to win a war against the USA. Since the 70% ratio had not been achieved with battleships, it was particularly important to retain it for cruisers.[6] However, since the British and American delegations were unable to reach agreement, Japanese objections were not crucial to the failure of the summit.

In the end, the participants at the conference failed to reach a binding agreement regarding the distribution of naval tonnage.


The question of limitations on cruiser tonnage was raised again at the London Naval Conference of 1930, resulting in the London Naval Treaty. The London Conference succeeded where Geneva failed, in part because the British and U.S. delegations recognized a greater shared interest[7] and the need to cut government expenditure as a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. These events focused minds on the need to reach an agreement.[8]


  1. ^ Marriott, p.12
  2. ^ Potter, p.234
  3. ^ Marriott, p.12
  4. ^ Marriott, p.12
  5. ^ Marriott, p.12-3
  6. ^ Evans and Peattie, p.234
  7. ^ Potter, p.234-5
  8. ^ Marriott, p.13


  • Evans, David & Peattie, Mark. Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1997. ISBN 0-87021-192-7
  • Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. Macmillan, London, 1983. ISBN 0-333-35094-4
  • Marriott, Leo. Treaty Cruisers: The First International Warship Building Competition. Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2005. ISBN 1-84415-188-3
  • Potter, E (Editor). Sea Power: A Naval History, 2nd Ed. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1981. ISBN 0-87021-607-4
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