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Jack Weber

The End of the Naval Truce

(January 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.11-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE FIRST international truce for the fixation of naval armaments among the imperialist powers at ratios corresponding to the relation of forces a decade ago, has come to its inevitable end. Theoretically Japan’s denunciation of the Washington Naval Pact of 1922 will dissolve the pact only in 1936; actually the preparations for the fierce, relentless race to win naval supremacy as the preliminary to the second world war, are already under way. The gigantic cartels operating on an international scale are compelled periodically to sign temporary agreements allocating the world’s markets for their mutual benefit. Just so are the national imperialist states forced to resort to diplomatic pacts which, at bottom, grant recognition of the existing division of the world into colonies and spheres of influence belonging to the various capitalist powers. And just as the competing trusts and combines cast aside their agreements the moment they feel that changed conditions permit a greater share of the world market to be wrested from their opponents by a renewal of open warfare; so the truce among the powers is broken the moment the opportunity presents itself to one or more of the imperialist robbers to seize new, undivided territory or to redivide the old at the expense of a weakening competitor. Thus the ending of the naval truce is an additional portent of the nearness of imperialist war.

The Washington “covenant” of 1922 was in reality a treaty that postponed the second world war that already threatened the moment the first had ceased. That war ended in defeat for Europe, victors and vanquished alike, and victory for America. German imperialism came out of the war completely bankrupt and crushed for a long time to come; but British finance capital likewise emerged so much weakened by the struggle that it could no longer maintain its position as sole master of the seas. The American colossus, taking advantage of the entire world situation during the war, had furthered its own exploiting interests at such high speed that it had been transformed in a few short years from a debtor nation still absorbing capital from abroad to develop its productive powers, to a domineering creditor with a total foreign investment almost equalling that of British imperialism. US capitalism had secured an iron grip on the world’s trade and it meant— indeed as a matter of life and death—to keep and to strengthen its hold. But in a robbers’ world in which the advanced capitalist nations ruthlessly exploit the weaker and more backward ones, the possibility of squeezing enormous profits out of the populations of the remotest corners of the earth depends in the last analysis not merely on capitalist technique but on military and naval strength to defend one’s conquests against other robbers. On this score American imperialism, under the leadership then of Wilson, had no illusions and had begun its preparations for the next war even before entering the first.

The first explicit notice that American imperialism was definitely embarked on a course leading to world hegemony, was given to the world by the “1916 program” proposed by Wilson and Daniels for the construction of “incomparably the best navy in the world”. This program contemplated the laying down of such super-dreadnoughts that all the other navies in the world would have been rendered immediately obsolete. In naval warfare—the determining factor in all modern wars being control of the sea lanes—the things that count are the size and range of the floating batteries, the speed of motion which enables the choice, of range of action, and the ability to stand punishment as incorporated in the thickness and arrangement of armor. The battleships planned by the naval arm of American imperialism in 1916 would have outclassed all existing ships in these respects. But before the appropriations already made by Congress could be expended, the US had entered the war and the 1916 program was temporarily shelved. Wilson was too well aware however that the income of the big American bankers was “scattered broadcast over the ocean” in ship bottoms to abandon his goal. Hence in 1919 his message to Congress just before sailing to the Paris Peace Conference stated: “I take it for granted that the Congress will carry out the naval program which was undertaken before we entered the war.” The 1919 program as outlined by Secretary Daniels stunned the world. In three years time the US was to lay down and to complete as much as possible ten super-dreadnoughts, six battle cruisers, ten scout cruisers and one hundred and thirty other ships. Nor was this to be the end, for a second three year program was in store after the first.

Under the reign of imperialism the armaments of any single capitalist power are either actually or potentially weapons aimed at all the others ... The two powers that felt most keenly the threat of US capitalism were naturally Japan and England. The latter was being challenged openly and directly for supremacy on the seas. Despite the fact that at the end of the war the British possessed a fleet far greater than the fleets of all the rest of the world combined, their navy was far too costly to be maintained during peace by a nation on the verge of bankruptcy. And besides the new American battleships would render powerless by their size, speed and concentration of fire, the largest fighting ships in the English fleet. Japan knew that the new fleet was intended to solve the first immediate and primary problem of American imperialism: mastery of the Pacific for the exploitation of the vast Chinese market and the control of Asia. The world has moved since prewar days, but all that has changed within the ring of capitalist powers are the major rivals in the coming war and the main scene of battle. The technique and the productive powers of American capitalism are the most advanced in the world, but to use to full advantage its mighty forces, fettered by the national boundaries and by the present division of world markets, it is pushed inevitably towards war, and war first of all against aggressive Japanese imperialism. The Japanese ruling class had, like America, taken full advantage of its opportunities while its rivals were helpless to resist, and had fastened the chains of colonial dependency on China, besides invading Siberia for similar purposes. The future of American capitalism was at stake and in the crisis of 1919 to 1921 war seemed imminent and was openly predicted.

In the face of the immediate threat of war neither Japan nor England, despite their financial straits, could afford to permit America’s challenge to go unheeded. Hence began a naval race in comparison with which the Anglo-German building program of 1907-1914 appeared the veriest bagatelle. As against the six largest ships already partly laid down by America, Japan in its eight-eight program proposed to construct eight battleships partly equal to and partly greater in tonnage and superior in arms to the American ships. England planned to lay down twelve vessels, four of which were to incorporate all the lessons of the battle of Jutland and to be the largest dreadnoughts afloat—fifty thousand tons. Nor was the race confined to this one category of ships for it extended to cruisers, aircraft carriers, and to the scouting and screening boats so essential to modern fleets in order to give maximum mobility and effectiveness to the dreadnoughts. By the middle of July 1921 the naval race was in full swing on a far more stupendous scale than in pre-war days. The three major powers had building or projected, thirty-six of the largest fighting vessels ever conceived, to cost a total of one and a quarter billion gold dollars.

The naval race was not confined solely to the construction of bigger and better ships. Warfare, whether on land or on sea, is an affair of positions and such positions are all the more important in the case of a vast trackless waste like the Pacific Ocean. Navies are limited in action by the need for refueling and repair (particularly after a battle) to a specific cruising radius from a base of operations. In the first world war this radius was about five hundred miles but the change to oil fuel and the increase in size of ships has extended the radius of action so that it is put today at three times that distance. What counts in naval warfare is security of the base of operations and safety and freedom of communications. Thus to secure itself against the breaking of its lines of communication with its colonies in the East, England has a whole string of powerfully fortified bases—Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Aden, Ceylon, Rangoon and now Singapore and Colombo. American imperialism has reached out into the Pacific to build a string of bases towards China and Asia. In the period preceding the Washington Conference the US began to fortify its possessions closest to the Asian mainland, Guam and Manila, and to strengthen the bases of Hawaii and Samoa. But what aroused the greatest apprehension in Japan was the attempt to lease from China the coast of Fukien province to establish a base directly on the mainland itself. It is clear from statements in the Japanese press that had this lease been accomplished, Japan was prepared to declare war at once.

The direct naval expenditures of the United States had more than trebled after the war. American capitalism was prepared to spend more in a few years of arming than Germany had spent in a quarter of a century. And yet as a result, unless it were prepared to continue the race indefinitely at increasing cost, it would have been left with a second-rate fleet, outclassed by the English and Japanese navies. Furthermore, despite the reservation made by England in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance concerning the US, there was every reason for America to fear that its fleet would have to encounter the combined naval forces of these two rivals. Again the Panama Canal put a limit on the size of battleship useful for the time being to America. When Admiral Fisher first projected the modern dreadnought for the English navy, Germany had been forced to widen the Kiel Canal at enormous expense to allow passage to the new ships. Similarly the Panama Canal could not be used for the passage of battleships the size of the new Japanese and English ones. That is one strong reason for the revival of the old plan for a Nicaragua Canal. All in all, these factors, combined with the economic situation after the war, forced America to seek a truce and to bide its time. The Washington Conference was the result. It provided a breathing spell during which the powers could gather new strength for the inevitable struggle to come.

If Japan now appears as the imperialist force ready to start the naval race anew, it is because the Japanese militarists feel themselves in the most favorable position to carry out their policies of subjugating China and wresting the maritime provinces from the Soviet Union. Japan controls Manchuria, the “historic road of invasion into China”. The Chinese revolution is at its lowest ebb. Time can only aid Soviet Russia and China, not Japan. Furthermore the internal situation in Japan itself is so desperate that the militarists are driven to seek a “solution” in war. That this would be the attitude of the Japanese ruling class was clear to the powers in advance. Hence they have not waited for the actual denunciation of the Pact to commence preparations for the next war. England began some time ago the feverish construction of added facilities and fortifications at Singapore, first begun in 1923. Japan is ready with her submarine bases strung out along the string of mandated islands in the Pacific. America has strengthened her bases in Pearl Harbor and Cavite. All countries are laying in vast stores of technical supplies and working their munitions plants three shifts a day.

The immediate answer given by the United States to Japan was the sending of the entire fleet into the Northern Pacific for a “war game”. This game involves the most stupendous naval force ever known in history with its 177 warships and its 154 war planes. It is engaged in working out the strategy and tactics of the War of the Pacific. Evidently that strategy will avoid the dangerous passage directly west from the United States and will concentrate on an approach from the Aleutian Islands and along the coast of Siberia. The Aleutian Islands are 1,500 miles from the tip of Japan. American capitalism is determined to risk war for the sake of its future. For it is not only the Chinese market that is involved. Once America can secure a base of operations on the mainland of Asia—and this it can only acquire by defeating Japan in war—it can then proceed to oust its greatest competitor, England, from China and from Southern Asia. For though the immediate problem for American imperialism to solve is the replacement of Japanese domination in China by its own, its main problem remains of breaking up the British Empire in order to secure the redivision for its own benefit of the markets of the world now kept closed to it. The conquest of Asia by America would leave England in an almost completely exposed position in the East despite Singapore, so that the US could then proceed to attack India from a direction most open to attack.

When the Philippines were seized from Spain the revolt of the natives did not cease but redoubled in intensity against the new conqueror. We may expect a similar occurrence in China, if America defeats Japan. This conflict between American imperialism and the exploited Chinese may very well develop during the war itself. In either case it will be the task of the American Marxists to lead the American working class in opposing the imperialist war for plunder, in giving every assistance to the oppressed Chinese workers and peasants in their desperate fight to throw off the yoke not only of Japanese but of the American imperialists. A defeat of American capitalism by the proletarian revolution at home, by the conversion of the imperialist war into a civil war, would have the most far-reaching consequences on the entire situation in the East, now filled with the promise of untold misery for the masses, and throughout the entire world. War is a game of politics, of capitalist politics in wars for plunder. The workers must practise proletarian politics during war as during peace. Our tasks are not those of the ruling class for they involve first and foremost the forcible overthrow of that ruling class. We are opposed to the ruling class in all its policies at every stage because in solving its problems abroad it also solves the major problem of maintaining its exploitation of the working class at home. Our appeal must be to the sailors, to teach them the true meaning of the imperialist war, to enlighten them as to the role cut out for them. We must exemplify the meaning of naval war through such affairs as the Battles of Tsushima and Jutland with their appalling loss of life. In modern naval battles, despite the size of ship and the strength of armor and the use of all kinds of safety devices, the largest ships are snuffed out with startling suddenness. It was Winston Churchill who spoke of modern gunfire, of naval salvos, as the use of sledge-hammers to smash eggshells. We must prove to the sailors as to the workers that this is not their war, that it is in reality a war directed against them.

The naval truce has ended and the new armaments race is on. There will unquestionably be further negotiations, further veering and tacking in the attempt to foster illusions among the masses at home by a propaganda of justification for the murderous course pursued by the capitalist class. Under the guise of “disarmament” each of the powers presents schemes involving its own interests and defense. Japan would like to secure limits of size of ships so that she could feel safe from attack by the American fleet. America would like to limit the tonnage and the size of submarines permitted to Japan in order to feel greater safety for a fleet operating at great distances from naval bases. All this propaganda must be exposed for what it is and the reality of the approaching war made manifest to the workers. The naval race is the prelude to war. Down with imperialist war!

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