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The Second Great War:
Limits of Destruction

Note: In building the world of the Second Great War, I wanted all of the participants to have much larger fleets than they did in our own history. Players like to play with ships that were proposed or designed but never built, and the Second Great War story line is filled with such vessels.

They also like those never-were ships to interact with those that actually were, and therein lies a continuity problem. The Second Great War is, for the most part, told in a series of expansion sets for Second World War at Sea games with just one stand-alone game (Tropic of Capricorn). It makes use of maps and pieces from the historical games, which means the story incorporates ships that were actually built and saw wartime action.

Those ships’ sizes and capabilities were limited by the 1922 Washington Naval Limitations Agreements. And so I needed an explanation for why these ships were the way they were; the world of the Second Great War needed its own naval limitations treat to explain this. And so it has one.

Much like the 1930’s of our own history, not every nation in the world of the Second Great War places the same level of trust in international diplomacy. Wilson’s Peace ended the First Great War in late 1916; in the Central Powers, rapid economic growth has fostered a public view of the treaty as a great success. Public opinion in Britain, the United States and Japan follows similar lines.

That’s not the case in France, Italy and Russia, where Wilson’s Peace is seen as a defeat and a national insult. French and Italian fascists have pushed a false narrative in which the “American gangster” Wilson imposed an unwanted settlement on their brave armies to snatch away victory at the last moment. International agreements cannot redress those deep wrongs, only a new war pursued to its victorious end.

Those attitudes had not yet set in when the Austrian Emperor Karl I convened the Vienna Naval Limitations Talks in 1918. Drawing inspiration from Wilson’s successful mediation, the Austrian Kaiser hoped to play the same role in what appeared to be a brewing naval war between the United States and the United Kingdom. American support for the Irish Republican movement, both official and unofficial, rankled in London and the Royal Navy sought to intercept the volunteers and arms flowing from American ports to Ireland. British firing squads executed American citizens taken in arms fighting for the Irish rebels and the crisis threatened to explode into open war.

With Woodrow Wilson debilitated by a series of strokes and his wife and chief of staff hiding his condition from even members of his cabinet, the U.S. government did little to stop the looming madness. American and British ships clashed in the North Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Far East. The Americans received promises of support from Germany, and the British from Japan. The U.S. Congress and the British Parliament responded by voting huge spending bills for naval construction. A naval arms race broke out between the English-speaking peoples, one the German- and Japanese-speaking peoples felt compelled to match.

When Kaiser Karl summoned the world’s naval powers to the Imperial summer palace at Schönbrunn, they first had to address the Anglo-American crisis. The bloodletting in Europe had ended almost exactly three years earlier and few wished to return to it. Russian Grand Duchess Tatiana, serving as regent for the underage Tsar Alexei II, gave a public speech declaring that the empire would not participate in a renewed war, a position backed by France and Italy. Austria and Turkey kept their own counsel, but privately told the Germans that they were in no condition to fight another war.

And neither were Germany or Britain. The Germans had suffered close to two million young men killed and wounded in the just-concluded Great War, and the public had no stomach for more. Britain had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy when Wilson’s Peace saved the Exchequer. Each had seen rapid economic recovery in the years after the peace took hold, and both governments hesitated to throw that away. Karl’s offer of mediation proved as welcome as Wilson’s had been.

Karl and his diplomats oversaw a deliberately slow process, designed to quiet passions of the moment and thereby avoid an immediate war. The lengthy deliberations also allowed those powers who wished to build many new ships - chiefly Japan - to do so before the limits took hold, an unspoken prerequisite to bring them to the table. That surge of naval construction helped ease demands for new ships, and also reminded the governments concerned of their fantastic cost.

The Austrians proposed creating two sets of limits, one for great powers and one for lesser naval powers. A few nations clearly fell into the great naval power category: Germany, Britain, Japan and the United States. Others argued for their inclusion as well: Russia, France and Italy. Austria, Turkey and the Netherlands, the other participants, accepted second-tier status without argument.

Grand Duchess Tatiana broke the stalemate, taking a special train to the resort at Teschen in Austrian Silesia for a private, secret meeting with the German and Austrian emperors and their respective chancellors. She faced mounting opposition from Russian ultra-nationalists, she argued, and needed a sop to quiet their demands for renewed war. Russia’s economic situation would not allow her to build new battleships in any event; granting great power status to Russia therefore would have little actual effect.

Charmed by the forceful young duchess, Wilhelm agreed to support her claim with one caveat: he could not allow her allies, France and Italy, the same status. Tatiana in turn agreed to toss her allies under the proverbial streetcar, and the motion carried. Russia would be a great power; France and Italy would be considered lesser powers.

With that settled, discussion could move on to what a signatory’s status entailed. The delegates agreed on limits on new-construction battleships and cruisers. Each major power could lay down two battleships in each calendar year, four heavy cruisers and four light cruisers. Each minor power could lay down half as many. Ships sold to another country did not count against the limit, but such sales could total no more than half the number of new ships a power could build for its own fleet in one year (so a major power could sell one battleship abroad every year, and a minor power could sell one every other year). The concern that a “straw buyer” could turn around and sell a battleship back to its country of origin absorbed the delegates’ attention for weeks, but in practice no one attempted such subterfuge.

Older ships could be rebuilt within some very loose limits; displacement could not increase by more than 20 percent. Armament could be altered, engines replaced and the ship even lengthened, as long as the ship’s displacement did not increase beyond the limit.

The limits would not take effect until the treaty had been ratified by all ten signatories. Those ships already laid down could be completed, and a rush of new construction accompanied the acceptance of those clauses. Battleships were limited to 35,000 tons’ displacement and main armament of 406mm (16-inch) guns, heavy cruisers to 10,000 tons and 203mm (8-inch) guns, and light cruisers to 8,000 tons and 155mm (6.1-inch) guns. No limits were placed on the number of destroyers that could be built, as long as they displaced no more than 1,500 tons can carried no guns larger than 130mm (5.1-inch); one in six destroyers could be a “leader” displacing up to 3,000 tons and with no guns larger than 150mm (5.9-inch). Any number of coast-defense ships could be built, as long as they displaced no more than 10,000 tons, carried guns no larger than 305mm (12-inch) and made a top speed of no more than 21 knots.

As an alternative, a signatory could choose to lay down three battle cruisers instead of two battleships. These were limited to 25,000 tons and 356mm (14-inch) guns. British negotiators had hoped to make that the size limit for all capital ships and had even argued for 12-inch guns as the maximum argument. That would both keep future costs down and secure Britain’s advantage of a huge fleet of existing battleships already at a much larger size with much larger guns.

The Japanese delegation argued for what was called an “escalator clause” as their price for accepting a 20-year term for the treaty. After ten years, the maximum size for battleships would rise to 45,000 tons and that for battle cruisers to 35,000 tons, while main armament would go to 18-inch (460mm) caliber. After a great deal of discussion, the delegates reached a compromise. There would be an escalator clause, but would only govern the size of ships; maximum armament caliber would remain at 16 inches.

Proposals to limit aircraft carriers and submarines went nowhere. Only the British took the aircraft carrier seriously as a major weapons system; aircraft carriers were limited only by the 35,000-ton maximum displacement. American demands that Britain and Japan end their formal alliance also were rejected; none of the other participants wished their diplomatic arrangements to be dictated from Washington. If the Americans wished to balance the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, they had the option of joining the Central Powers, but demurred.

The agreements were finally signed in July 1922, to go into effect at the end of 1923. No ships would be scrapped due to the agreements. No limits had been placed on aircraft, including airships. But the soaring costs of naval construction had been contained, and a world-wide naval war averted. Kaiser Karl proudly accepted the 1923 Nobel Peace Prize, even as his own naval staff laid plans to build ships slightly larger than allowed, with slightly bigger guns.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.