1919: Article 8 of the Treaty of Versailles

1921: Washington Naval Conference

1921: Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments

1923: Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance

1926: Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference

1928: Kellogg-Briand Pact

1932: Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments (and click here for some good cartoons)



Article 8 of the League's Covenant gave the League the task of reducing armaments ‘to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations’.


Nations were anxious to find ways to cut the huge costs of armaments, as well as agreeing in principle with disarmament.  (As President Roosevelt of the USA said in 1931: ‘If all nations will agree wholly to eliminate from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defences automatically will become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation will become secure.’)


A start was made in at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921, when the USA, Britain, and Japan agreed to limit size of navies according to the ratio (5-5-3 - this ratio was changed to 10-10-7 at the London Naval Conference of 1930, and the agreement collapsed altogether in 1935 when the Japanese demanded parity with the USA and Britain). 


Also in 1921, a Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments was set up by the League of Nations to suggest possible initiatives, plans and solutions.  It discussed proposals such as prohibiting chemical warfare and the bombing of civilian populations, and limiting artillery and tanks. What made it unique was that its members were specifically appointed as private individuals, not government representatives. Even so, its members found it difficult to agree; the sticking point was how could a country be guaranteed safety if it gave up its weapons.


The Commission on Armaments presented a draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance in 1923, which proposed to make a war of aggression illegal; if a country was attacked, all countries of the League would send troops to defend it.  It was discussed at the League’s Assembly of September 1923.   But the Assembly rejected the draft treaty after objections from Britain, which feared to commit troops which were needed to defend the Empire.


Therefore, the League set up in 1926: The Preparatory Commission for the Disarmament Conference, being a Commission to prepare for a Conference on the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments.  The size of the different countries’ armies at this time was – France: 733,707; Russia: 562,967; Great Britain: 520,948; Italy: 308,000; Japan: 235,056; the USA: 136,560; and Germany: 99,086.  Again, progress was terribly slow.


Faced with this, therefore, the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand and the US Secretary of State Frank B Kellogg worked outside the League of Nations to persuade 65 nations to sign the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, also known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact (August 1928), in which all the signatories agreed to condemn war as a means of settling disputes.  At the time, it was looked on as a turning point in history, but in effect it achieved nothing.  Of course everybody disapproved of an aggressive war – but the Pact said nothing about what would happen if a country was attacked.  Although at the time it failed to prevent war, the United Nations Charter states that: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’.


After six years of preparations, the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments of 1932-37 (sometimes called the World Disarmament Conference or Geneva Disarmament Conference) eventually met in Geneva under the chairmanship of former British Foreign Secretary Arthur Henderson.  The talks ran into difficulties from the start, because Germany demanded the same level of armaments as other powers, while France wanted Germany to be kept disarmed, and Britain and America were not prepared to offer the unlimited support that France needed to give up its armaments.  Although the conference staggered on until 1937, talks in practice broke down in October 1933 when Hitler withdrew from both the Conference and the League of Nations – for the rest of the 1930s, nations were concerned to increase their armaments to get ready for the war everyone realised was coming.