Washington Naval Confrence (1921-22)

Table 1.--Washngton Naval Treaty. Permitted battle ship capacity
……………......Gross Tons......

  • United States….....…….... 525,000
  • Britain ……….....……..... 525,000
  • Japan……….....……....... 315,000
  • France……….....……..... 175,000
  • Italy………....…….......... 175,000

The major naval powers (America, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan) agreed to substantial limitations on their naval strength which at the time was measured in battleships. American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes organized a conference to address the problem of spiraling naval expenditures as a result of the naval arms race. Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, who had led the fight against American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation in the League of Nations, strongly advocated efforts to limit the arms race. His efforts were not at first favored by the new Harding administration, but was eventually adopted as the Republican alternative to the Democrat's (Wilson's) policy of collective security through the League of Nations. The Conference opened on Armistice Day 1921--a very meaningful date so close to World War I. The American delegation was led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes shocked the other delegates by proposing a major reduction in naval fleets and not just limitations on new construction. This was far beyond what the other countries had anticipated. Some have called this one of the most dramatic moments in American diplomatic history. The American proposals entailed scrapping almost 2 million tons of warships as well as a lengthy “holiday” on new building. The consequences of the Washington Treaties went far beyond this.

World War I

The initial assessment in the popular mind following World War I was that a primary cause of World War I was the pre-War arms race. Combined with this was the growing belied that the War had been engineered by greedy arms merchants. Republican Senator William E. Borah (Idaho) who as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had led the fight against American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation in the League of Nations, strongly advocated efforts to limit the arms race. It proved to be a popular position in the American press. A more sophisticated assessment of the War had not yet been made and such efforts had little resonance in the popular press. A decade later Senator Borah would lead the isolationists in the Senate who opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to arm America as the NAZIs and Japanese militarists built powerful military forces and to support the Allies when Hitler launched World War II.

World War I National Navies

The British Royal Navy was still the dominant naval force of the day. The Royal Navy outnumbered the Germans in all important classes of surface vessels. The Royal Navy's numerical superiority in capital ships made its control of the Sea virtually unassailable. Britain's long naval tradition was also an important advantage. The German High Seas fleet was the only force capable of mounting a serious challenge to the British. The German built the second most important high seas fleet with ships every bit as good if not marginally better than the British ships. The German Navy included mostly modern ships because their construction program was relatively recent. The German crews despite the lack of a naval tradition were well trained and highly motivated. The geography of Germany with coasts located on the Baltic and North Sea met that invariably the British and Germans would confront each other in the North Sea. The Russian Navy was bottled up in the Baltic. The French Navy was largely deployed in the Mediterranean. The Austrian's had only a small navy which saw little action outside the Adriatic. The Japanese Navy aided the Royal Navy in eliminating the German Pacific squadron and in seizing German colonies in the Far East and Pacific. The only important navy that was not engaged in the War from an early stage was the United States Navy.

Naval Power

The major naval powers (America, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan) after World War I faced a possible costly naval arms race. Germany was now out of the big power arms race because of the restrictions in the Versailles Treaty. Naval power at the time was measured primarily in battleships. They were enormously powerful weapons and very costly. There was no other weapon of war that approached the cost of a battleship. The United States had the greatest industrial capability and financial strength. Its battle ship building program authorized in the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916 had been delayed by the need to build destroyers and other small ships needed to fight U-boats. Britain did not have the industrial or financial capability to keep up with an expansive American building program. Thus the British were amenable to an arms limitation treaty. The Japanese did not have the industrial capacity of either America or Britain, but wanted the prestige of being treated as a major naval power.

American Diplomacy

Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, who had led the fight against American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation in the League of Nations, strongly advocated efforts to limit the arms race. His efforts were not at first favored by the new Harding administration, but was eventually adopted as the Republican alternative to the Democrat's (Wilson's) policy of collective security through the League of Nations. The Harding Administration wanted to pursue a general arms control effort. This did not prove possible. American rejection of the Versailles Peace Treaty meant that France no longer had American and British guarantees. France was thus unwilling to consider any limitations in its army. They were, however, willing to consider naval limitations. And given the costs of building ships, especially battleships, this was no small matter. American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes organized a conference to address the problem of spiraling naval expenditures as a result of the naval arms race. Secretary Hughes was especially concerned about Japan. He wanted to limit Japanese naval construction as well as expansion into the Pacific. Other goals were to end the Anglo-Japanese alliance and gain Japanese acceptance of the Open Door Policy in China. Japan during the War had issued 21 Demands which would have turned China into a Japanese colonial fiefdom. While Hughes achieved many of his diplomatic objectives, the actual outcome of the treaty was that Japan was able to build a fleet in the 1920s and 30s that could challenge the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Diplomatic Importance

The Washington Naval Conference was of considerable importance in diplomatic history. It was called by the Republican Harding Administration. As Republican Senators had led the fight against the League of Nation, the new Republican Administration organized the Conference outside the auspices of the League of Nations. It was America's first major initiative in international diplomacy, the first international conference held in the United States. It was also the first disarmament conference in history. It should be noted that popular thinking commonly paints disarmament talks in positive terms and arms races in negative terms. A common description of the Conference and resulting treaties is, "This conference was the first successful disarmament conference in American history." It was in fact the first disarmament treaty in history. Describing the Conference as "successful" is, however, a matter of considerable doubt. It probably cannot be said that the Washington Naval Talks caused World War II, but it can be said that the results of the talks contributed to the Japanese success at Pearl Harbor and the first 6 months of the Pacific War. The eventual American victory was in large measure due to America's decision after 1936 to begin competing with Japan in a naval arms race.

Country Participants

The German challenge to the Royal Navy had been a major reason that Britain moved toward France in the lead up to World War I. Germany was forced to give up any future effort to build a powerful nary in the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919). After the War, however, the victorious Allies were concerned about limiting naval spending in a costly arms race. The primary naval powers following the War were Britain and America, but France, Italy, and Japan also had naval aspirations. Several other countries also attended, including Belgium, China, the Netherlands, Portugal and China — who were not parties to the disarmament discussions. The Soviet Russia where the Civil War was winding down was not not invited to the Conference. Nor were the recently defeated Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary successor states).

China and the Pacific

The initial reason for the Washington Conference was the naval arms race. World War I had, however, created complications in the Pacific flowing from Allied seizure of Germany's Chinese treaty port and Pacific colonies. China became a major topic considered in the Conference. The participants agreed to address Pacific island issues at the Conference because the island territories involved were related to naval issues. Pacific issues thus became a major topic considered at the Conference.

Conference Opens (November 1921)

The Conference was held in Washington, D.C. from November 1921 to February 1922. The Conference opened on Armistice Day 1921--a very meaningful date so close to World War I. The formal name of the conference was the International Conference on Naval Limitation, The American delegation was led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. It included Senator Elihu Root, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and Senator Oscar Underwood (the Democratic minority leader).

Charles Evans Hughs

Figure 1.--Charles Evans Hughes has almost won the presidency for the Republicans in 1916. Hughes shocked the other delegates at the opening of the Washington Naval Conference by proposing a major reduction in naval fleets and not just limitations on new construction. It was an unprecedented proposal. Never before in history had major powers seriously considered such massive arms reduction. The Europeans and Japanese were shocked. Hughes saw the Conference as a serious opportunity to limit naval arms and not a public relations exercise. Here is Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes with Boy Scouts in April 7, 1923.

Major Proposals

Charles Evans Hughes has almost won the presidency in 1916. Hughes shocked the other delegates at the opening of the Washington Naval Conference by proposing a major reduction in naval fleets and not just limitations on new construction. It was an unprecedented proposal. It was not President Harding's idea. They came from Secretary of State Hughes personally. The major powers found President Wilson difficult to deal with. Hughes was another idealistic American they were unsure how to work with. Never before in history had major powers seriously considered such massive arms reduction. The Europeans and Japanese were shocked. Hughes was an idealist and saw the Conference as a serious opportunity to limit naval arms and not a public relations exercise. Public opinion had come to see the arms race as a major if not principle cause of World War I. Thus Hughes sought to end the naval arms race. The Hughes proposal was far beyond what the other countries had anticipated. Some have called this one of the most dramatic moments in American diplomatic history. The British who had dominated the seas since Trafalgar (1805). But they could not afford to out build the Americans. They thus surrender naval dominance for a cooperative relationship with America. It was major turning point in British and world naval history. The American proposals entailed scrapping almost 2 million tons of warships as well as a lengthy “holiday” on new naval building. Yamamoto suggested that battleships be scrapped. I am not sure what the Japanese objective was with this proposal, but it would have meant America and Britain scrapping a lot more battleships. This would have improved Japan's relative naval equation. It was not, however, taken seriously by the other naval powers.

Agreements

Despite the skepticism of other delegations. Several major agreements were signed at the Conference. While these were actually several separate agreements, they became known collectively at the Washington Naval Agreements.

Four-Power Pact: Pacific Issues (December 13, 1921)

The three major powers (Britain, France, Japan, and the United State) participating in the Conference agreed to discuss their differences over Pacific issues in a conference. The same countries pledged to respect their respective Pacific possessions and mandates as well as those of other signatories t.

Shantung Treaty (February 4, 1922)

Japan agreed to return the Kiaochow in Shantung (Shandong) China. Germany had leased Kiaochow Germany (1898). Japan seized it from Germany early in the War (1914).

Nine-Power Treaty: Open Door in China (February 6, 1922)

The Nine-Power Treaty addressed China. The signatories accepted the Open Door Policy that the United States had long advocated. The signatories also agreed to respect Chinese territorial integrity and independence.

Nine-Power Treaty: Chinese Domestic Trade (February 6, 1922)

The signatories agreed to accept Chinese control over domestic Chinese trade matters.

Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty (February 6, 1922)

The Naval Limitations Treaty was the primary agreement to come out of the Conference. This was with some alterations the proposal that Hughes had made at the beginning of the Conference. Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States pledged to limit the tonnage of capital ships (battleships) and pledged a moratorium on new ship construction. A ratio was established in article IV for the major powers, "The total capital ship replacement tonnage of each of the Contracting Powers shall not exceed in standard displacement, for the United States 525,000 tons (533,400 metric tons); for the British Empire 525,000 tons (533,400 metric tons); for France 175,000 tons (177,800 metric tons); for Italy 175,000 tons (177,800 metric tons); for Japan 315,000 tons (320,040 metric tons)." The Royal Navy and U.S. Navy was granted parity. France and Italy could have fleets about 30 percent the size of the Royal Navy and the American Navy and Japan nearly 60 percent. This meant that the battleship fleets would be far smaller than those of the naval powers during World War I. The signatories agreed to limit the size of battleships by agreeing for a 10-year period to build no new battleships displacing more than 35,000 tons. The aircraft carrier was at the time a very new ship type and none of the contracting powers understood the future importance of carriers and naval aviation. Even so, they were covered by the agreement. The size of carriers was limited to 27,000 tons. and the overall carrier fleets were limited to the same basic proportions as the battleship fleets. There were no limits placed on the numbers of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines, largely stemming from French objections. These smaller vessels did have size (10,000 tons) and gun caliber limits (eight inches). Considerable attention was given to naval bases. The British were permitted to continue plans to expand the Singapore base, but not to expand facilities at Hong Kong or Pacific islands. The Japanese were not restricted on the Home Islands. They agreed not to build or expand existing bases on Bonin, Formosa, Kurile, and Ryukyu Islands. The conditions of the League of Nations Trusteeship already covered the Pacific islands awarded after World War I. America had no restrictions on the U.S. mainland, Alaska, Hawaiian Islands, or the Panama Canal, but agreed not to fortify other Pacific insular possessions. No limitations were placed on Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, but the League Trusteeship accords as with Japan limited Australia as well on the Pacific islands awarded by the League.

Five-Power Supplemental Treaty: Submarines and Poison Gas

Submarines had been a new weapon introduced in naval warfare, most notably by the Germans. It had proved highly controversial. The major naval powers agreed on rules for submarines in warfare. The signatories also agreed to outlaw poisonous gas in warfare.

Six-Power Pact: German Cable Routes

The Big Five Allies (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United Sates) and China allocated German Pacific cable routes among themselves.

Yap Island agreement

The United States and Japan reached agreed on U.S. use of the Pacific island as a distribution point for the Transpacific able.

U.S. Ratification

The U.S. Senate under Senator Borah's leadership quickly ratified the separate treaties treaties flowing from the Washington Naval Conference. The Senate attached a reservation to the Four-Power Pact affirming that no agreement had been approved concerning the commitment of "armed force” by the United States.

Assessment

The Washington Naval Treaties in America and Britain were at the time considered a major success in avoiding a new naval arms race. Modern historians see it as a largely ineffectual effort largely because it focused on the battleship. This was a vessel that proved early in the War to be largely obsolete. In addition, the Washington Treaties may not even have significantly reduced naval spending. It seems to have primarily diverted spending into smaller vessels like cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Also the Treaties may have propelled naval air arms because carriers were also not covered. Here Japan in particular built a huge carrier force. Historians often credit the Washington Naval Conference with building anti-Western feeling in the Japanese establishment. It is certainly true that the Washington Treaties were unpopular in Japan, but I see no convincing evidence that the Treaties significantly affected the direction of Japanese policies. The most serious weakness in the Naval Limitation Treaty was the lack of any enforcement or verification procedure. This was a potentially serious compromise with national security. The simple fact is that in 1921-22 when the talks took place, America was the dominant world naval power. But during the 1920s and early 30s this balance changed in the Pacific with the Japanese Imperial Navy emerging as the dominant force, especially their powerful carrier force. Of course the Washington Naval Conference can not be blamed entirely for this. But the Conference did provide a veneer of security that put the public at ease and allowed Government to limit defense spending to dangerously low levels.

National Ramifications

The Washington Naval Conference, especially the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty had very significant repercussions on naval building in the inter-War era.

Britain

Britain had since Trafalgar been the world's principal naval power. The Royal Navy blockade of Germany had been a principal cause of the country's defeat in World War I. Britain because of the War, however, could no longer afford to maintain the world's most powerful fleet. While Britain had emerged victorious in World War I, it had dome so at enormous cost. This Britain was particularly interested in naval spending limits. British diplomats understood that the country could just not afford another arms race. Britain was much less concerned with the Pacific than America. With Germany no longer an naval threat after the War, Britain's focus was on America. Britain thus accepted navy parity with the U.S. Navy as the best available outcome. This was, however, a largely face saving gesture. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Britain had insisted on naval supremacy. The acceptance of parity with the United States was a major deviation from long standing British naval doctrine. In essence Britain because of its ability to afford massive naval spending was conceding power to the United States Navy. [Alexander] Britain made a major concession to America by agreeing to end its alliance with Japan.

America

The Royal Navy had sustained substantial losses in naval vessels in clashes with the Germany Navy during World War I. The American Navy, however, did not suffer significant losses in the War. As a result, at the end of the war the United States had the world's most powerful navy. More importantly the strength of American industry meant that American had the ability to construct as well as afford additional naval vessels. The American delegation justified parity with Britain on the basis that it needed a two ocean navy. Britain because of its economic weakness was prepared to accept this. The United States agreed to scuttle 30 naval vessels to help gain agreement of the other participants, especially Britain and Japan. The Harding Administration, especially Secretary Hughes, was generally praised in the press. There was some criticism, however, that it was unwise not to maintain naval superiority and agreed not to fortify Pacific island bases. Scuttling ships was also questioned. In the generally pacifist mood of the day, however, these criticisms aroused little popular support. Japan was not yet seen as a threat. Limiting the size of battleships was an important achievement for the United States. American naval doctrine limited the sizes of American battleships to what could move though the Panama Canal. While the Naval Limitations Treaty only limited battleship construction, the idea of a successful treaty had the impact of limiting other naval construction in America. The Treaties lowered the threat level and this affected Congressional appropriations for naval construction. The end result of course was Pearl Harbor.

Japan

Japanese diplomats began the Conference with a focus on geo-political issues. Japan and Britain had a Naval Alliance and Japan wanted a naval treaty with both Britain and America. The Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty was not mentioned in the Washington Naval Treaties. At American insistence, however, the British made it clear to the Japanese that the Treaty would be allowed to lapse. They also wanted international acceptance of their special interests in Manchuria and Mongolia. The Japanese were also concerned about Yap, Siberia, and Tsingtao. Future Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was a member of the Japanese delegation. Japan had a relatively small, but effective fleet. Yamamoto did not personally think that Japan should insist on parity with Britain and America at the time, but pursued these instructions strenuously from his Government. The Japanese Government eventually ratified the treaty, but the reaction among the country's military establishment was profound. Elements in the military saw accepting the 3/5s ratio under the terms of the Five Power Pact to be a grave national insult. The Japanese delegation had objected to this. Britain and the United States managed to get Japanese acceptable by agreeing not to further fortify their Pacific bases. This is one reason why the Japanese were able to quickly take Guam and Wake Island at the onset of World War II. There were exceptions to the agreement not to fortify Pacific possessions, most notably the Hawaiian Islands. The lack of limits on aircraft carriers proved to be a major factor in leading Japan to build a major fleet air arm. Yamamoto became a major proponent of naval aviation. Once advantage that the Japanese had is that there was no enforcement mechanism. In the end the Japanese built beyond the treaty limits. The most notable results were the massive battleships Mushashi and Yamato. Japan eventually withdrew from the treaty (1936). While the Naval Limitations Treaty as well as other of the Washington Treaties such as the Shantung Treaty were very unpopular in Japan, ironically Japan was the greatest beneficiary of the treaties. While Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, its heavy industry was only a fraction of the American industrial capacity. Japan could never had prevailed in a naval arms race. What occurred in the 1920s and 30s, however, was that the United States lulled into a false sense of security, severely limited naval construction. Japan on the other hand spent lavishly, significantly expanding the Imperial Navy to the point that it could successfully challenge the United States Navy.

France

France proved to be the most difficult country to deal with at the Conference. France had been a major naval power at the onset of World War I. Losses during the War had significantly reduced the French fleet. The French like Britain had won the War only at huge cost. This and the need to concentrate available finds on the Army limited France's ability to launch a major naval building program. As a matter of national pride, however, France objected to the idea of a lesser ratio. French opposition threatened to wreck the entire naval armaments scheme. Primarily because of French opposition, it was agreed that the ratios would only apply to capital ships and not other naval vessels (cruisers, destroyers and submarines). France did build several powerful battleships in the inter-War era. The French fleet after the French surrender to the Germans in World War II would become a major concern of the British least it fall into German hands.

Italy


Subsequent Efforts

The major powers made subsequent efforts to correct problems with the Washington Treaties. There were talks in Geneva that attempted to reach agreement on total tonnage of cruisers, destroyers and submarines (1927). The participants were unable to reach agreement. The naval powers did agree in London to extend the construction moratorium to 1936 (1930). Neither France nor Italy, however, are signatories and both resume construction of capital ships. The Geneva Disarmament Conference begins in another effort to limit naval construction. The talks prove unsuccessful and finally break down (1934). Japan announces its intention to withdraw from the 1922 and 1930 Naval Treaties when they expire in 1936. The rise of the NAZIs in Germany affected previous calculations. Britain in an effort to avoid a new naval arms race negotiated a poorly conceived naval treaty with Germany (1935). Germany under the terms of the agreement is allowed to build a fleet up to 35 percent of British total tonnage and 45 percent of submarines. Britain consented to parity in numbers of submarines if Germany provides notice of such construction. All attempts to limit naval construction ended when Japan as previously announced ended the 1922/1930 Moratorium on the construction of capital ships (1936). Major warships were completed in 1937 following the collapse of the efforts to limit naval construction. The French launch the battle cruiser Dunkerque and the Italians launched the battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto. Never covered by the limitations, the United States launched the carrier Yorktown and Japan launched Soryu. Both would meet and be sunk at Midway. Germany abrogated the naval treaty with Britain (April 1939).

National Navies

The Washington Naval accords had a very substantial impact in shaping national navies. The major naval powers remained the the same as this was based on national wealth and industrial capacity. The only exception was Germany whose naby was limitd by the Versailles Treaty. The Wshington Naval accords, however, very significantly affected the size and composition of the navies that fought World War II, especially at the onset of the War. Thus the navies of the wotld did not proprtionally refldct the industrial cpacities of their respcgive countries. This had begun to change after the Japanese refused to renew the limitations. And in rsponse the Allies began building new ships, especially the United States.

Washington Naval Accord impacts

The Wshington Naval Accords suceeded in their primary aim of limiting naval construction and military spending. They had, however, two very significant impacts in shaping the national navies that would fifgt World War II. First it meant that the size of the major navies would not be comensorate with the wealth and indistrial capacity of the countries involved. The United States and Britain would have riught comparable navies despite the fact that America was aicher contry with a much larger industrial capacity. And it meant that Japan with a very small industrial base could build a fleet that could and did take on the U.S. Navy in the Pacific War. Japan built right up to it treaty limits. Although Japanese nationalosrs brideled at the limits, in favt the country did not have the industrial capacity to build much beyond its treary limits, epecially during the 1920s. The United States, in contrast, sharply cuttailed naval condtruction and even destroyed or moyhballed large numbers of ships. If the United States hd not limited its naval construction, Japan never could had fought the Pacific War. Second, the Washington Naval Accords affected thecsize and types of ships which were built. There were limits on ship sizes and only construction of th larger ships were limited. Thus there was increased interes in smaller ships like destroyers and submarines.

World War II National Navies

Several countries had important navies at the outset of Wotld War II. The two largest navies were the British Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. Since Trafalgar (1805), the Royal Navy had dominated the seas with anaval force more than powerful than any other two coutries. Britain, after World War I, unable to win a naval armns race with America, decided to accept parity. Efforts at naval arms limitations gave American and Britain the right to build the largest navies because of their need for a two-ocean navy. Both countries retired ships, but built a naval air arm. Japan objected to these limitations, although it actually benefitted from them. Eventually Japan withdrew from the limitation efforts. Japan was the only other country to build a carrier force. Neither Anerica or Britain fully appreciatee the quality of the Japanese air arm, especially the training and the effectiveness of new Mitsubishi Zero and Long Lance torpedo. The Japanese did not, however, have radar even though their German allies had developed it. One of many examples of the failure of the Axis alliance. Both France and Italy had powerful, but smaller navies. The French had a powerful fleet. Both the French and Italian were renowned for the speed of their cruisers. The Italian vessels, however, were lightly armored and there were no carriers. And despite the Axis alliance had no radar. This was in sharp contrast to the Americabsitish who cooperated closely in tchnology like radar and sonar. The French fleet was a counter to the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean, but when France fell to the Germans, the Royal Navy Mediterranean Squandron was sorely tested by the Italians. The Anglo-German Naval Treaty (1935) relieved Germany from many of the naval restrctions of the Versailles Treaty. The German naval high command wanted an impressive surface fleet, but Germany's limited industrial capacity made that impossible. As a result, only minor resources were allocated to U-boat construction before the War. This changed after the War began and the U-boat proved toi be Germany's most potent naval weapon. It was not the Germans, however, that conducted the only successful commerce war. It was the American submarine force which virtually destroyed the Japanese merchant marine and cut Japan off from the resources it won in its Southern Resource Zone. Southeast Asia. Canada had almost no navy at the beginning of the War, but built a massive navy to escort Atlantic convoys.

Sources

Alexander, Bevin. How America Got It Right.






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Created: 5:56 AM 3/13/2006
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