Peace Conference at the Hague 1899:
Report of Captain Mahan to the United States Commission to the International Conference at the Hague, on Disarmament, etc., with Reference to Navies
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THE HAGUE, July 31, 1899.


Gentlemen: I beg to make the following report concerning the deliberations and conclusions of the Peace Conference on the questions of disarmament, and the limitations to be placed upon the development of the weapons of war, so far as navies are concerned.

Three questions were embraced in the first four articles of the Russian Letter of December 30, 1898, and were by the Conference referred to a Committee, known as the First Committee. The latter was divided into two sub-committees, which dealt with Articles 2, 3 and 4, as they touched naval or military subjects, respectively. The general drift of these three Articles was to suggest limitations, present and prospective, upon the development of the material of war, either by increase of power, and of consequent destructive effect, in weapons now existing, or by new inventions. Article 1, which proposed to place limits upon the augmentation of numbers in the personnel of armed forces, and upon increase of expenditure in the budgets, was reserved for the subsequent consideration of the full Committee.

As regards the development of material, in the direction of power to inflict injury, there was unanimous assent to the proposition that injury should not be in excess of that clearly required to produce decisive results; but in the attempt to specify limitations in detail, insurmountable obstacles were encountered. This was due, partly to an apparent failure, beforehand, to give to the problem submitted that "etude prealable technique," a wish for which, expressed by the Conference to the Governments represented, was almost the only tangible result of the deliberations.

Three propositions were, however, adopted: one, unanimously forbidding, during a term of five years, the throwing of projectiles, or explosives, from balloons, or by other analogous methods. Of the two others, one, forbidding the use of projectiles the sole purpose of which was, on bursting, to spread asphyxiating or deleterious gases, was discussed mainly in the naval sub-committee. It received in that, and afterward in the full Committee, the negative vote of the United States naval delegate alone, although of the affirmative votes several were given subject to unanimity of acceptance. In the final reference to the Conference, in full session, of the question of recommending the adoption of such a prohibition, the Delegation of Great Britain voted " No, " as did that of the United States.

As a certain disposition has been observed to attach odium to the view adopted by this Commission in this matter, it seems proper to state, fully and explicitly, for the information of the Government, that on the first occasion of the subject arising in Sub-Committee, and subsequently at various times in full Committee, and before the Conference, the United States naval delegate did not cast his vote silently, but gave the reasons, which at his demand were inserted in the reports of the day's proceedings. These reasons were, briefly: 1. That no shell emitting such gases is as yet in practical use, or has undergone adequate experiment; consequently, a vote taken now would be taken in ignorance of the facts as to whether the results would be of a decisive character, or whether injury in excess of that necessary to attain the end of warfare, the immediate disabling of the enemy, would be inflicted. 2. That the reproach of cruelty and perfidy, addressed against these supposed shells, was equally uttered formerly against firearms and torpedoes, both of which are now employed without scruple. Until we knew the effects of such asphyxiating shells, there was no saying whether they would be more or less merciful than missiles now permitted. 3. That it was illogical, and not demonstrably humane, to be tender about asphyxiating men with gas, when all were prepared to admit that it was allowable to blow the bottom out of an ironclad at midnight, throwing four or five hundred into the sea, to be choked by water, with scarcely the remotest chance of escape. If, and when, a shell emitting asphyxiating gases alone has been successfully produced, then, and not before, men will be able to vote intelligently on the subject.

The question of limiting armaments and budgets, military and naval, likewise resulted in failure to reach an agreement, owing to the extensive and complicated considerations involved. A general wish was emitted that the subject in its various relations might in the future receive an attentive study on the part of the various Governments: and there was adopted without dissent a resolution proposed in the First Committee, in full session, by M. Bourgeois, the First Delegate of France, as follows:

The Committee consider limitation of the military expenditures which now weigh upon the world is greatly to be desired, for the increase of the moral and material welfare of humanity.

This sentiment received the assent of the Conference also.

The military and naval delegates of the United States Commission bore a part in all the proceedings in Sub- and Full Committee; but, while joining freely in the discussion of questions relating to the development of material, reserve was maintained in treating the subject of disarmament and of limitation of budgets, as being more properly of European concern alone. To avoid the possibility of misapprehension of the position of the United States on this matter, the following statement, drawn up by the Commission, was read at the final meeting of the First Committee, July 17, when the report to be presented to the Conference was under consideration:

The Delegation of the United States of America have concurred in the conclusions upon the first clause of the Russian Letter of December 30, 1898, presented to the Conference by the First Commission, namely: that the proposals of the Russian representatives, for fixing the amounts of effective forces and of budgets, military and naval, for periods of five and three years, cannot now be accepted, and that a more profound study on the part of each State concerned is to be desired. But, while thus supporting what seemed to be the only practicable solution of a question submitted to the Conference by the Russian letter, the Delegation wishes to place upon the Record that the United States, in so doing, does not express any opinion as to the course to be taken by the States of Europe.

This declaration is not meant to indicate mere indifference to a difficult problem, because it does not affect the United States immediately, but expresses a determination to refrain from enunciating opinions upon matters into which, as concerning Europe alone, the United States has no claim to enter. The words drawn up by M. Bourgeois, and adopted by the First Commission, received also the hearty concurrence of this Delegation because in so doing, it expresses the cordial interest and sympathy with which the United States, while carefully abstaining from anything that might resemble interference, regards all movements that are thought to tend to the welfare of Europe. The military and naval armaments of the United States are at present so small, relatively, to the extent of territory and to the lumber of population, as well as in comparison with those of other nations, that their size can entail no additional burden of expense upon the latter, nor can even form a subject for profitable mutual discussion.

I have the honor to be

Your obedient servant,

Captain U. S. Navy and Delegate.

The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907
A Series of Lectures Delivered before the Johns Hopkins University in the Year 1908
By James Brown Scott
Technical delegate of the United States to the Second Peace Conference at the Hague
In two Volumes
Volume II - Documents
Baltimore, MD : The Johns Hopkins Press, 1909.

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