A Navy Second to None

On September 6, 1901, a deranged anarchist shot President McKinley. The president lingered for eight days before dying on September 14. That made Theodore Roosevelt, at age forty-two, the youngest president in American history. “Teddy,” as he was often called, had been an enthusiastic navalist since childhood. His thesis at Harvard, a de- tailed study of the naval engagements of the War of 1812, was subsequently turned into a popular book that remains in print to this day. In 1890 he read and glowingly reviewed Mahan’s book, and he served as assistant secretary of the navy during McKinley’s first term, before being selected as his running mate in 1900. It is not surprising, therefore, that the U. S. Navy thrived during his administration. Two of the events most closely associated with his presidency are the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907-9) and the construction of the Panama Canal, which opened for business in 1914, just as Europe was tumbling into war.The Great White Fleet

Mahan had postulated that battleships, especially battleships operating in a concentrated fleet, were the sine qua non of naval power. In 1902, the first year of Roosevelt’s presidency, the United States commissioned one new battleship, which was christened the Maine in honor of the one lost in Havana Harbor four years before. A year later the USS Missouri was commissioned. Then, between 1906 and 1908, no fewer than thirteen new battleships joined the fleet. After that there was no longer any doubt that the United States had decided to pursue the Mahanian prescription. Even as those new battleships put to sea, however, dramatic changes in ship design were redefining the index of naval power.

The biggest change concerned battleship armament. The USS New Hampshire, laid down in May 1905, boasted a main battery of four 12-inch guns plus a secondary battery of smaller guns. For some time ship designers and naval officers had observed that during the early stages of a naval engagement, when the ships were farthest apart, only the largest of their guns would be within range, which made a secondary battery largely irrelevant. When the USS South Carolina and USS Michigan were laid down in 1906, they each car- ried a much larger primary battery of eight 12-inch guns, twice as many as the New Hampshire. The South Carolina and Michigan were not completed, however, until 1910, and in the meantime Britain stole a nautical march on the United States-and on everyone else-by hurriedly completing HMS Dreadnought in 1906. With ten 12-inch guns and only a small secondary battery, she could bring twice as many guns to bear in the early stages of a battle than any other ship then afloat. From 1906 onward all battleships, of every nation, were classified either as dreadnoughts or pre-dreadnoughts.

Another big change in battleship design during this era was the switch from coal to oil as fuel. Oil generated more power and made ships faster-a critical advantage in battle. For the oil-rich United States this required simply reengineering the power plant. For the British, however, it was a much more serious transition, for while Britain had lots of coal, it possessed almost no domestic oil, which made Britain newly dependent on overseas oil. Britain “solved” this problem by creating the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, though it was a decision that carried the seeds of future complications in the Middle East. The result of these developments was that the modified yardstick of naval power was now the number of oil-burning dreadnoughts a nation possessed.

Elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt was eager to test the capabilities of the new, though already superseded, U. S. battleships. To do that he decided to dispatch sixteen of them on a round-the- world cruise. Because all the ships were painted peacetime white, their ensuing circumnavigation has ever since been known as the cruise of the “Great White Fleet.” Officially, at least, the purpose of the cruise was to test the ships’ capability on long voyages, though Roosevelt also expected significant political and diplomatic benefits. The fifteen- month cruise was a complete success. Logistically the navy learned important lessons about refueling at sea, and the press coverage ashore generated more popular support for the navy. Overseas other naval powers, especially Japan, took due notice of the arrival of the United States on the world stage.

The Panama Canal

Another of Mahan’s assertions was that a nation’s battle fleet should be kept intact as a single “fleet in being.” This was difficult for the United States, which had two coasts separated by a fourteen- thousand- mile journey around Cape Horn. The obvious solution was to build a canal across the Central American isthmus, a dream of mariners since the days of the early explorers. A French company had begun constructing a canal across Panama (then part of Colombia) in the 1880s but had gone bankrupt. In 1903 the United States signed the Hay-Herran Treaty with Colombia to take over the project. When the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty and demanded more money, investors in the original project helped to engineer a separatist revolution in Panama and appealed to the United States for support. Colombian authorities sought to suppress the rebellion, but the USS Nashville interceded to prevent the landing of Colombian troops, and soon thereafter the United States recognized Panama’s independence. Almost immediately the Roosevelt administration signed a treaty with the breakaway government that gave the United States control of a ten-mile-wide strip across the isthmus.

Work on the canal began almost at once. It was an enormous undertaking, and Roosevelt himself took particular interest in it, be- coming the first president to leave the country while in office when he made a trip to the Canal Zone to inspect progress. The canal opened for business in August 1914, two weeks after the opening shots of the First World War.

The next year saw an important change in the navy bureaucracy. The Board of Navy Commissioners, established in 1815, had been replaced by a decentralized bureau system in 1842. It performed in- differently until the Spanish-American War, after which the navy created something called the General Board to improve centralized planning. The General Board, however, was purely advisory, and it did not provide the kind of command leadership desired by the more progressive naval officers. Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske in particular pressed for the creation of a system modeled on that of the Prussian General Staff. His proposal might have died aborning but for the out- break of war in Europe, which provided the spur necessary to prod Congress into passing a bill creating the Office of Chief of Naval Operations, and in May 1915 William S. Benson became the first to hold that post.

U.S. Navy Battleship USS NEW JERSEY, 1918.

The U. S. Navy and World War I

The launching of the Dreadnought in 1906 helped trigger a naval arms race between Britain and Imperial Germany, one of several factors that contributed to rising tensions in Europe. When war broke out in 1914, the United States declared its neutrality. After Germany’s ruthless march through neutral Belgium, however, American sympathies were almost entirely with the Anglo-French allies, though most still wanted to stay out of the war. That changed when Germany decided to initiate unrestricted submarine warfare.

At root submarine warfare in the twentieth century was simply a more technologically advanced form of commerce raiding. In its objective it resembled both privateering during the American Revolution and the voyages of the CSS Alabama and other raiders during the Civil War. yet somehow striking unarmed merchant ships from the depths, often without warning, seemed particularly heinous. Just as the use of underwater mines in the Civil War had horrified contemporaries before their use became routine, the employment of submarines against merchant shipping shocked public sentiment in the early months of World War I. When a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans, Americans were outraged. Germany insisted that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because it was carrying munitions, but the German government nevertheless offered assurances that such a thing would not happen again. yet only eight months later, in February 1917, Germany announced a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare aimed at starving Britain into submission. Nine weeks after that, on April 6, the United States declared war against Germany.

The months between the sinking of the Lusitania and the American declaration of war witnessed the only full-scale battleship fleet engagement in history. For most of the war the huge and expensive British and German battle fleets remained quietly in port on opposite sides of the North Sea, but in May 1916 the German fleet sortied. The ensuing confrontation, the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916), involved fifty battleships plus several hundred other warships. The Germans got the best of it, which was a shock to Britons, who were used to hearing of Royal Navy triumphs. In the end, however, it made little strategic difference, for afterward the German fleet returned to its base at Kiel, and the two fleets never fought again.

Two months after the Battle of Jutland, the U. S. Congress voted for a historic expansion of the U. S. Navy by enacting what is sometimes called the Big Navy Act of 1916. President Woodrow Wilson sup- ported the act not necessarily to prepare the country for war but to ensure that it could defend its Atlantic frontier regardless of who emerged triumphant in Europe. The new bill authorized ten dreadnought battleships, six battlecruisers (armed like battleships but with less armor), ten “scout cruisers,” fifty destroyers, and, interestingly, sixty-seven submarines. The new battleships were to be enormous. Whereas the original Maine had displaced 6,300 tons and the Indiana class battleships displaced 10,000 tons, four of the new American dreadnoughts would displace 42,000 tons, and they would carry 16-inch guns, the largest guns yet placed on a warship.

None of these vessels had been completed when the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, and almost immediately it became obvious that the greatest peril to the Allied cause at sea was not Germany’s battleships but her U-boats. By then the German U-boats were sinking Allied ships faster than they could be replaced. The United States therefore halted construction of the big battle- ships and battlecruisers and devoted the men and material thus saved to building an armada of destroyers for escort duty.

Thanks in part to Rear Admiral William S. Sims, sent to London just before the war began, the Anglo-American allies established a system of convoys in which destroyers and other small armed war- ships escorted merchant vessels through the danger zone off England and Ireland. Navy men had initially resisted the idea of convoys. Herding slow and balky merchant ships was passive and reactive, and convoy duty itself was tedious and unglamorous. In the end, however, convoys proved essential to Allied victory at sea.

Meanwhile, as the ground war staggered on to its bloody conclusion on the western front, the American dreadnoughts authorized in 1916 remained unfinished-steel skeletons awaiting completion. The United States did send a division of older coal-burning pre-dreadnoughts to join the British fleet at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, more as a gesture of solidarity than a genuine contribution to Allied naval power.

The U. S. Navy also helped to erect a minefield across the northern exit from the North Sea to keep German U-boats from getting into the Atlantic sea lanes. By the end of the war the Americans had sown more than fifty-six thousand mines and the British another sixteen thousand. Although this may have deterred some U-boats, there is little evidence that it had a significant impact on the war effort.

Like all wars, World War I also triggered social change. A famous U. S. Navy recruiting poster of 1917 portrayed a comely young woman in a sailor suit exclaiming, “Gee I Wish I Were a Man, I’d Join the Navy.” Soon enough she could. Women had served as nurses in the navy since 1908; the first twenty of them came to be known as “the sacred twenty” since they were the first women to serve in uniform. During World War I their number grew to more than 1,500, though all of them served in hospitals ashore rather than on shipboard. In addition Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the navy would also begin to accept females as yeomen, a naval rating that designated secretarial duties, and before the war was over some 11,000 women served in this role. A year later the U. S. Marine Corps accepted the first women marines; they worked as accountants, typists, and stenographers. Despite these modest reforms, sea service and combat duty remained the exclusive province of males.


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