Of the Naval Treaty of 1922 and Novel Trends in British America Bashing

The BP debacle has spawned some previously untapped new variants of America bashing in the UK. Not that the British were remarkably behindhand in piling on during the worst of the latest climax in European anti-Americanism that reached its peak several years ago. It was so much the more surprising to learn in an article by Peter Hitchens that appeared on the website of the Daily Mail that his countrymen have been “fawning” on the United States. Of course, the citizens of our mother country are noted for their reserve, but I have visited many British websites and forums in recent years, and never discovered anything that it would ever occur to me to describe as “fawning.” Be that as it may, the Brits, like most Europeans, have remarkably thin skins. They have been dishing out abuse to America with the best of them for years, but, as their response to criticism over the BP affair demonstrates, they can’t take it.

Hitchens’ whining piece complaining about our “hostility” because our President dares to criticize a British company for unleashing the greatest environmental disaster in our history is a case in point. The author wears his paranoia on his sleeve. For example,

Americans may say they love our accents (I have been accused of sounding like Princess Di’) but the more thoughtful ones resent and rather dislike us as a nation and a people, as friends of mine have found out by being on the edge of conversations where Americans assumed no Englishmen were listening.

Perhaps it’s just that the “thoughtful” among my fellow countrymen have been hiding their opinions from me as well all these years, but I can honestly say that I can’t recall a single conversation in which the English were singled out for resentment and dislike, unless Hitchens is referring to George III. On the contrary, other than the occasional Irish Catholic with romantic notions about the IRA, Americans who pay any attention to the English at all tend to be Anglophiles.

Other than that, the article is filled with the usual bitching and moaning about America that we have long been accustomed to. There is one novelty that I haven’t seen elsewhere, perhaps because it is too far-fetched even for most Europeans. Quoting Hitchens,

It was American pressure that forced us out of the first rank of naval powers in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which led to our defeat at Singapore 20 years later.

I had to laugh out loud when I read that bit. It assumes the reader is completely ignorant of the relevant history. In the first place, the treaty didn’t force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers.” It established a ratio of 5-5-3 in fighting ships among the treaty powers England, the United States, and Japan, respectively. The British and U.S. navies were the most powerful in the world at the time. How, then, did the treaty force Britain “out of the first rank of naval powers?” In fact, the Naval Treaty of 1922 was one of the greatest triumphs of common sense over fear and hysteria in the annals of international relations. It ended a nascent arms race and was of great benefit to all the signatories, and not least to the British. At the time the Conference was called, the pound sterling was at its lowest point, British citizens were paying crippling taxes, and England was facing another period of naval expansion they could ill afford, forced on them by the building programs of the United States and Japan.

They owed the United States a massive debt, and every penny they paid would have directly benefited our building program. On paper, at least, we had already passed Britain in naval strength, and our superiority was only likely to increase. Recall that when countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and even Denmark had challenged British sea power in the past, it had led to war with an England which felt her life menaced by rival naval powers. In fact, war with the United States was seriously contemplated at the time by many Englishmen as the only alternative to a ruined England and a disintegrated Empire.

In the upshot, the British delegates were delighted by the agreement, as well they should have been. A crippling arms race was avoided, and taxes were lowered. The treaty was of such obvious advantage to England that the prevailing sentiment in the US media was that we had been hoodwinked. They had good reason to feel that way. In 1920 the United States already had an advantage over England in tonnage of capital ships of 1,117, 850 to 808,200. Our advantage in battle guns was 340 to 284. As provided by the treaty, tonnages were reduced to 525,850, 558,950, and 301,320 for the United States, Great Britain and Japan, respectively, giving a slight advantage to the British. The very real and serious potential causes for war among the signatories were removed for many years into the future.

As for the treaty causing the British defeat at Singapore 20 years later, that claim has to take the cake for the most ludicrous of all the ludicrous charges directed against us from Europe in recent years. How, exactly, would crippling her economy by charging ahead with the building of a fleet of obsolete battleships have helped the British 20 years later? As anyone who knows anything about her situation in the years immediately preceding World War II is aware, the economic burden of rearmament in the face of the German threat was painful enough for her to bear as it was. The cost of maintaining a massive navy in an arms race with Japan and the United States for the preceding 20 years would have made it well nigh impossible. When war did come, Japanese airpower made short work of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, the two battleships that actually were on hand to defend Singapore. In the fighting that followed, a superior British force was defeated by a Japanese army perilously short of supplies in one of the greatest stains on the proud tradition of British arms ever recorded. We Americans don’t blame the Bladensburg Races on anything but the cowardice of our troops and the ineptitude of our commanders. I suggest that the British consider the possibility that they may bear some responsibility for their own abject defeats as well.

Well, we did have a difficult adolescence, and perhaps one can’t blame our dear old mother country for occasionally being a bit testy with us. The next time Hitchens directs his poison pen our way, however, he would probably do well to pick a more convincing grievance than the Naval Treaty of 1922.

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