Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Teddy’s Navy I

No one understood the implications of Mahan and Turner better than Theodore Roosevelt, who in a brief but vigorous lifetime had direct experience both in the frontier West and in the Navy Department. To Roosevelt the prospect of America isolated and confined in a world of predator nations was anathema. Together with Lodge, Secretary of State John Hay, and a handful of others in government, Howard Beale has observed, he “plunge[d] the nation into an imperialist career” in 1898 “that it never explicitly decided to follow.” The pugnacious young “TR” believed that a man just wasn’t a man without a six-gun and a nation just wasn’t a nation without a fleet of battleships. Should the nation be forced to go to war with either European meddlers or hemispheric predators, a large steel-clad, big-gun navy, he argued, would allow it to emerge “immeasurably the gainer in honor and renown. . . . If we announce in the beginning that we don’t class ourselves among the really great peoples who are willing to fight for their greatness, that we intend to remain defenseless, . . . we doubtless can remain at peace,” but “it will not be the kind of peace which tends to exalt the national name, or make the individual citizen self-respecting.” In an amoral world of nations maneuvering incessantly for power, prestige, and position, peace could be preserved only by periodic threats of sword and gun. “If we build and maintain an adequate navy and let it be understood that . . . we are perfectly ready and willing to fight for our rights, then . . . the chances of war will become infinitesimal.”

But the navy could not be simply defensive and reactive; it had to be the spearhead of a vigorous, healthy national empire that stretched to the ends of the earth. “Every expansion of a great civilized power,” Roosevelt wrote at the end of 1899 in a typically Mahanian tone, 

means a victory for law, order, and righteousness. This has been the case in every instance of expansion during the present century, whether the expanding power were France or England, Russia or America. In every instance the expansion has been of benefit, not so much to the power nominally benefited, as to the whole world. In every instance the result proved that the expanding power was doing a duty to civilization far greater and more important than could have been done by any stationary power. 

Although Europeans that year generally viewed the upstart Yankees as bullies who exploited Spanish imperial weakness to grab a modest Asian and Caribbean empire, the citizens of the United States were convinced that they had rescued the hapless peoples of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and even Guam from the yoke of oppression and that the navy had been the chief instrument of righteousness. All the nightmarish scenarios of helpless men in thrall to whimsically exploding machines that had emerged from the Sino-Japanese conflict evaporated during the euphoria of victory in a “splendid little war” over a chivalrous if incompetent and often disheartened opponent.

Unlike the earlier clash off the China coast, the Spanish-American War was fully reported throughout the Western world and thus became the first naval conflict of the industrial age that both the public and the experts understood. The dominant perception was of industrial man’s mastery of his creations. Well-handled warships run by well-trained crews were no menace to anyone but their enemies. Such an impression helped stifle initial public concern in the United States and abroad that the loss of Maine might have been due to faulty industrial technology. The ensuing naval triumphs over Spain convinced the Americans and Europeans that the ship’s destruction had been an act of Spanish sabotage.

Although in 1898 shipborne radio was still some years in the future, “for the first time in naval history, a government directed the action of distant ships at sea, communicating by telegram” to Commodore George Dewey at Hong Kong and later Manila and to Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield S. Schley at Key West and Cuba. When Sampson finally found Admiral Pascual Cervera’s fleet huddling inside Santiago harbor, he ordered that his major warships take turns illuminating the channel at night with searchlights. “It was the first such use of light by naval forces.”

But contemporary observers were less impressed with the use of the new technology of electricity for communication and illumination than with the overall power of the modern warship and, above all, the technical competence displayed by the American seamen in running it efficiently. At Manila Bay, Dewey coolly brought his small squadron through the minefield off Corregidor in the dead of night and early the next morning quickly maneuvered his handful of steel and steam cruisers and lesser war craft into a coherent battle line against the few enemy warships lurking behind the guns of the narrow Cavite Peninsula. Already under steady but wildly inaccurate bombardment, Dewey calmly informed Olympia’s captain, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” and after seeing his gunners methodically pulverize the enemy, he withdrew and sent the men to breakfast. The supposedly hellish elements of the battle—stokers locked and crammed into dark, feverishly hot propulsion compartments with hissing steam pipes, clattering engines, and roaring furnaces—in fact did not bother the men involved at all. According to one participant, the engine-room crew aboard the cruiser Baltimore spent the time when not engaged in answering orders and moving dials smoking cigars, chewing tobacco, and “swapping yarns.” Only one man died (an engineer suffered a heart attack), a few wounded, and the casualties were understandably obscured by total victory.26 Thousands of miles from home and help, Dewey nonetheless proceeded to fend off by bluff and bluster the handful of European warships that soon arrived to scrounge for any potential imperial scraps they could lap up, thus preserving Manila Bay and the entire Philippine archipelago for Yankee occupation.

Off Santiago some weeks later, Schley ably handled his small squadron of battleships and cruisers. As Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s cruisers emerged from the harbor, Schley chased them down and mortally wounded them one by one after a spirited run that in this instance did demand the final ounces of energy from the poor devils who toiled away passing coal and tending boilers in the engine rooms of Iowa, Indiana, Oregon, Texas, New York, and Brooklyn. When the last Spanish cruiser captain despairingly crashed his vessel against the rocks of eastern Cuba, America had won itself a modest Caribbean empire to go with its new holdings in East Asia. Almost as an afterthought, Washington finally annexed the Hawaiian Islands, which had been under the control of a planter “republic” for the previous five years.

The same American writer who only weeks before had questioned the safety of battleships was now ecstatic. “Military prowess passed away from Spain many years ago, and her organization to manage the modern ship, composed principally of machinery, is wretchedly deficient,” Hollis told his readers. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, understood the value of “education and technical training to a specific end” and had triumphed. Sailors, officers, and marines had performed superbly in their highly technical tasks of machine tending. If the war with Spain had demonstrated anything it was that the United States needed more battleships of every type. The cost would be high, but “these ships are well-nigh impregnable, and they must continue to hold their own as our main reliance for offense and defense.”

Teddy’s Navy II

The establishment of the U.S. Naval Institute and Naval War College demonstrated that the U.S. Navy was undoubtedly the most progressive and least hidebound sea service in the world when the twentieth century began. But America’s naval destiny was not at all obvious on the eve of the war with Spain or, indeed, for many years thereafter.

For all its potential strengths, the officer corps was demoralized. It should occasion little surprise that, for all its progressive attitudes toward leadership, Annapolis was home to the sons of what critic Peter Karsten has labeled “the nation’s business and political elite of their age.” The generally high social position enjoyed by midshipmen entering Annapolis at the beginning of the twentieth century ensured that most if not all harbored serious professional ambitions. But promotion was based strictly on seniority and was extremely slow. When a new personnel law was finally enacted in 1899, “many ensigns up to 11 years in grade, and lieutenants of 22 and more years seniority were promoted.” In these mournful circumstances, few officers could be expected to maintain a consistently high professional interest, and it was to their lasting credit—and a reflection of the intrinsic fascination of their profession—that such a large proportion in fact did so. Still, the system was a scandal, and all knew it. Reform was imperative, and by 1916 the navy had developed a system based on commanding officer fitness reports; examining, promotion, and retirement boards; and in extreme cases military courts. It was probably the fairest method that could be devised, although one critic caustically characterized it as “election, rejection, and selection.”

The slow pace of reform ensured a certain snobbish and hidebound attitude among many Annapolis graduates who vigorously fought efforts to enlarge the size and background of the officer corps by permitting enlisted men to seek commissions. Not until 1901 were provisions made to appoint up to a half dozen warrant officers a year to the rank of ensign, and only then if there were vacancies to fill after the commissioning of all academy graduates. Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson’s aggressively democratic secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, shepherded legislation through Congress providing for the selection of as many as fifteen enlisted men per year for admission to Annapolis, and thereafter the number gradually grew. Some writers have also criticized the Annapolis men for an excessive adherence to traditional warships and warship designs in the face of new realities such as the torpedo and the limited width of the Panama Canal that would in the future clearly circumscribe the historically dominant role of the battleship.

Nonetheless, the gradual reform of the promotion system reflected a wider movement for progress that paralleled the changes instituted by Jacky Fisher in the Royal Navy. Between 1901 and 1909 William S. Sims, Bradley A. Fiske, Homer Clark Poundstone, and a handful of others successfully agitated for major improvements in gunnery and ship design (though within the traditional battleship framework). Sims, the leader of the faction, had met both Percy Scott and John Jellicoe while on duty in Hong Kong at the turn of the century. Enthusiastically supported by Teddy Roosevelt, Sims and Fiske became the Scotts and Jellicoes of the U.S. Navy, while Poundstone was the driving force behind the all-big-gun battleships Michigan and South Carolina, which slightly preceded Dreadnought. Sims in particular applied Scott’s continuous-aim firing techniques, exploited new developments in fire control, and devised technologies of his own. By the end of the Roosevelt administration American naval gunnery was probably equal if not superior to that of Great Britain because of the perfection of such instruments as range clocks and range-deflection transmitters.

The training of enlisted personnel was as advanced as that of the officer corps. As the navy reached its nadir in the mid-1870s, Commodore Luce initiated a layered system of professional education for seamen that is still being used. Recruits, who generally enlisted at eighteen or nineteen for four to six years, first went to station ships for basic indoctrination before transferring to training vessels to learn gunnery and seamanship. In the 1890s the navy acquired property at Newport, Rhode Island, and on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay for land-based training stations (although these facilities were not formally established for some years); later the service added stations at San Diego and Great Lakes, north of Chicago. As it slowly evolved in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, training for American sailors consisted of three stages: initial instruction on a station ship, a cruise on one of the vessels of the training squadron, and then assignment to one of the ships of the fleet until the apprentice reached his twenty-first birthday, at which time he could reenlist or be mustered out.

The spread-eagle patriotism that swept across the United States in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War stimulated a demand to man the navy with American citizens. During the Civil War the service had been filled with foreigners and newly arrived immigrants. Twenty years later the naval hierarchy began to search diligently not only in eastern cities but also in the towns and hamlets of the Midwest for intelligent boys of “native stock” to serve on the handful of steam and steel vessels that constituted the new fleet. Like their colleagues in the Japanese naval hierarchy, America’s admirals and navy secretaries wanted to spread the message and attractiveness of sea power to the most obscure corners of the nation. They also undoubtedly wanted to develop and maintain a navy composed largely of “native stock” at a time when immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were flooding the country. To induce enlistment by teenagers from respectable homes, the service promised to instruct apprentices in “the elements of English education, alternating with practical seamanship and other professional occupations designed to prepare them for sailors in the Navy.” In practice “English education” was subordinated to the demands of marlinespike seamanship, but the young men did find themselves in a clearly defined professional atmosphere. The navy also established advanced training programs for especially promising petty officers during their second enlistments. Classes for gunners and artisans began at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., and somewhat later training courses in diving, electricity, and torpedoes were instituted at the Torpedo Station in Newport. When the electrician’s rating was established in 1898, new schools started in Boston and New York and on Mare Island north of San Francisco, and in 1902 a new artificer’s school opened in Norfolk. So important had engineering rates become by this time that the navy instituted special pay grades to attract and retain high-quality personnel.

Out in the fleet imaginative commanding officers set up their own regimens. The war with Spain revealed again that modern naval gunnery was extremely tricky and difficult to master. While British commanders were ordering their officers to throw practice shells overboard to avoid shooting them at targets, thus dirtying the white decks of His Majesty’s ships with shell smoke, their American counterparts began a practical course for gunners aboard the monitor Amphritrite. It was so successful that a school for firemen was soon organized aboard the cruiser Cincinnati. In 1909 Roosevelt could boast that his sailors were no longer the bluff, jolly, illiterate, profane marlinespike seamen of old but instead a new breed of “sea mechanics,” masters of the most advanced military technology in the world. Their officers generally treated them that way, realizing that there was an art to disciplining intelligent, well-trained young products of a society not far removed from its raw frontier beginnings and prizing personal independence over almost every other virtue.

Teddy’s Navy III

But the modern American navy had an Achilles’ heel. The innovative, progressive society that produced superior officers and enlisted recruits thwarted the growth of professionalism based on long-term service. American boys who had been enticed to “join the navy and see the world” did not take instinctively or even kindly to the essential demands of naval discipline. Most sailors chose to get out of the service at the end of their first “hitch,” leaving only a handful of increasingly well-trained enlisted men to run the lower decks and all the machinery. The U.S. Navy was thus chronically undermanned—and was erroneously believed to be undertrained and underdisciplined as well—throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, and its combat capabilities were always in question.

With the growth of Japanese and European naval power during the first years of the century, the United States was confronted with a stark either-or situation. It could build a two-ocean navy that would require a fleet at least as large as that of Great Britain, or it could seize control of either the Isthmus of Panama or Nicaragua and build a canal that would allow the shuffling of fleet units between one ocean and the other during times of tensions or conflict. But as Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan both recognized, an Isthmian canal itself demanded a large navy; otherwise, as Roosevelt said, the “building of the canal would be merely giving hostage to any power of superior strength.” Mahan added that a canal would be a strategic asset only if the U.S. Navy had indisputable command over both its Caribbean and its eastern Pacific approaches.

Construction of the Panama Canal inevitably tied the American fleet to the Caribbean and adjacent Atlantic waters. But the 1907 crisis with Tokyo over the harsh treatment of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast caused many in Washington to share the feelings of those on the other side of the Pacific: a Japanese-American conflict might well be inevitable, even welcome.

Nonetheless, American naval officials did little or nothing about it. As transpacific tensions boiled up early in the year, Roosevelt asked the navy if it was developing plans to prosecute a war against Japan. George Dewey, head of the General Board, assured Roosevelt that such planning was under way, but this was not true. Ever since the 1897 incident with Japan over Hawaii, the Naval War College staff and then the General Board itself had intermittently pondered the possibility and nature of a Far Eastern war, but neither had developed realistic scenarios or studies. Given America’s preoccupation with the German navy and the Open Door in China, initial thinking involved fanciful conflicts between coalitions of imperial powers for control of Asia. For a time there was loose, rather melodramatic, talk, and apparently some planning, among board members, usually led by Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, “Dewey’s right-hand man,” of an Anglo-U.S.-Japanese alliance against Europe’s continental powers (Germany, France, and Russia). Field officers such as Rear Admiral Frederick Rogers, who commanded the Asia Station, responded unenthusiastically. The most that America’s small Asiatic Squadron of thirteen cruisers and destroyers could be expected to accomplish in any Asian war against the European powers was destruction of the French fleet at Cam Ranh Bay before steaming north to assist the Japanese and British in a blockade of Russian and German ports.

When the Joint Army-Navy Board was established in 1903, army planners immediately demolished Taylor’s fantasies. The navy “scripts” were “nonsensical.” Given its small military as opposed to naval resources, the United States should concentrate on defending the Western Hemisphere and the Panama Canal. But such maunderings did provide the Naval War College staff with several working hypotheses about a future Asia-Pacific war. It would be primarily naval in orientation; it would have to be fought off the Asian, not the American, coast; it would climax with a single decisive battle like Santiago or Tsushima; and the U.S. Navy would therefore require substantial support facilities in the Philippines to sustain operations, including one or more large dry docks with accompanying machine and repair shops, a major supply depot, oil or coaling stations, and barracks.

As Japanese-American tensions eased, planners at the Naval War College began drafting rough suggestions about a war between the forces of Blue (United States) and Orange (Japan), but the exercise soon flagged. Four years later war-college president Raymond Rogers reinvigorated the staff, and the planning process was finally concluded. His strategists “predicted that eventually Japan would shift its tactics from gradual economic encroachment to open aggression” in Asia, which “would require a ‘call for action’ in support of the Open Door. In the best of circumstances, one or more allies would rally to the cause and check Japan in a continental war in which threats to U.S. possessions would be mere diversions, the role of the Blue navy was minor and of the Blue army nil.” Rogers and his colleagues also explored another possibility. Japan could try to break out into the Pacific, destroying the “containment” that the European powers and the United States exerted on the island nation. In this scenario Japanese fleet units would move against the Philippines, Guam, perhaps even Hawaii. The Blue fleet would have to fight the Orange enemy alone and impose a rigorous blockade on the Home Islands to force Tokyo to disgorge its imperial holdings in Manchuria. Thus, even as Satō Tetsutarō and his colleagues were articulating powerful reasons for an inevitable war with the United States, American naval planners were creating their own “credible rationale” for such a conflict.

Rogers’s remarkably farsighted description struck sensitive chords in Washington. It was too close to reality, and the recommendation that the United States seek European allies to pin down substantial Japanese forces in a conventional war on the Asian mainland was “inflammatory” to those who cherished traditional American isolation from Europe. Dewey ordered the Naval War College staff to stop meddling in affairs that were essentially the prerogatives of diplomats and foreign-policy experts. Thereafter, planning for a Japanese war was always uncoupled from a defense of the Open Door in China and elsewhere on the Asian mainland. But the idea of a “Blue-Orange” conflict itself had been firmly planted and had developed momentum in the imaginations of those responsible for formulating American naval policy. In 1914 the General Board finally adopted the broad thesis of a war arising from Orange intent to expel Blue from the western Pacific. War was an increasing probability, the board argued, “because the Japanese national character was greedy, combative, overweening, and scornful of American power.”

The General Board thus embraced the illusion, however carefully phrased, of the Yellow Peril. That specter had become a staple of American popular thought after the Russo-Japanese War. In May and June 1907 the New York Times and Colliers published serials describing a conflict with Japan fought around the Philippines and Hawaii. The same year the translation of a German novel titled Banzai appeared in the United States. It depicted a war in which the Japanese navy, using secret weapons, destroyed the U.S. fleet in a mid-Pacific battle lasting little more than thirty minutes, after which Japan invaded and seized California.