World War I was sometimes called The War to End All Wars. The amount of material destruction and the numbers of lives lost and/or ruined appalled the citizens of modern nations many of whom believed that wars were a residue of our savage past. Indeed, the warring nations formed in 1919 the League of Nations, an international organization which provided a forum for discussing international disputes. (The United States did not join the League of Nations.)
Some people, especially in the United States and Great Britain, thought that the arms race, particularly in naval vessels, had contributed to the outbreak of war, and that the frantic effort to build more, and more powerful, battleships had been an enormous and possibly debilitating expense to their national economies.
The Republican platform in the 1920 presidential race contained a naval disarmament plank which committed President Warren G. Harding to pursue arms limitation in his presidency. Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho represented these interests in the Senate where he fostered the idea of an international naval arms limitation conference. Those who supported Borah’s plan believed, as did Senator Hiram Johnson (Republican) of California, that "War may be banished from the earth more nearly by disarmament than . . . in any other manner.”
The resulting Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922 was signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. These nations agreed to limit battleships according to total tonnage of ships (mostly battleships), allowing the US (and Great Britain) 525,000 tons displacement. More than 800,000 tons of older ships were to be destroyed in order to meet the limit on tonnage. The USS North Dakota was identified in the treaty as one of the ships to be “disposed of” in a prescribed manner. The Rules for Scrapping Vessels of War (Treaty Ch 2, Pt 2) required that the ship be permanently sunk, broken up, or converted to target use exclusively.
The North Dakota sailed until September 1923, when the Navy announced that the ship would become a radio controller’s target during maneuvers in the Caribbean Sea over the coming winter. When that exercise failed, the ship was placed in “mothballs” at Norfolk Navy Yard for the next eight years. In 1931, the ship was sold for $87,206 to be cut apart by torches and turned into scrap metal.
Disarmament was not a simple idea. Just a decade earlier many US citizens thought that peace could be assured by a powerful navy protecting our shores. However desirable permanent peace may have been in 1922, it was an uncertain ideal in a world that seemed populated by aggressive, acquisitive nations. The ideas of peace and preparedness remained entangled over the next two decades.
Sources: Washington Naval Arms Limitations Treaty: http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/pre-war/1922/nav_lim.html
Edith Wakeman Hughes Papers: SHSND 10114
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