The "old navy" of wooden ships distributed to distant stations gave way in the late nineteenth century to the "new navy" of steel that operated in a world of great powers competing for empire. Men of the new navy strove to build fleets sufficiently powerful to guarantee the United States control of the sea within an American sphere that eventually embraced most of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific. The period from about 1890 to 1945 also embraced the navy's battleship age, during which most American naval men and many civilians looked to a fleet of battleships (capital ships) as the key instrument for assuring the hegemony of the United States within its sphere and for promoting American diplomacy. From the appearance of his first major volume on sea power in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan was preeminently the American naval writer who conceptualized a theory of sea power for the battleship age. Mahan was an economic determinist who held that national power derives from the flow of commerce through key maritime arteries protected by naval power. In emulation of the British Empire, Mahan and his disciples conceived of an American naval line of empire protected by battle fleets and extending from the western Atlantic through the Caribbean and an isthmian canal to the Pacific and west.
Conspicuously absent during the battleship age was formal institutional provision for integrating American naval and diplomatic policies. President Theodore Roosevelt might himself serve as a one-man National Security Council, but the Navy Department and the State Department tended to plot their own courses with a minimum of exchange. Important for developing the naval officers' appreciation of their role in the world were such institutions as the Office of Naval Intelligence (1882), the Naval War College (1884), and the General Board (1900). Under the presidency of Admiral George Dewey, the General Board advised the secretary of the navy on a wide range of policies that touched foreign relations. The board's influence, however, gradually declined after the establishment in 1916 of the Office of Naval Operations, the navy's approach to a naval general staff. A step toward improved cooperation with the army was the creation in 1903 of the Joint Army and Navy Board, the often-ineffectual predecessor of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dewey's May Day victory at the outset of the Spanish-American War (1898) was perhaps inadvertently the navy's most significant act that contributed to American political commitment in the western Pacific. By the peace with Spain, the United States gained possession of the key positions of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as control over Cuba. These island territories, together with Hawaii, Samoa, and the Panama Canal Zone (acquired in 1898, 1899, and 1903, respectively), included the prime sites for overseas bases that naval men wanted to support their imperial strategy up to World War II.
After the Spanish-American War, the navy followed a modified distant-stations policy in the Americas and the Far East while assembling its battle forces in the Atlantic and on the Asiatic Station. Although American naval men feared German aggression in the Caribbean, "the American Mediterranean," they also wanted a fleet in the Far East to support the Open Door in China. In 1906, however, all U.S. battleships were concentrated in a single battle fleet in the Atlantic, the area of the nation's greatest interests and of its vulnerability to German attack. It became a naval axiom that until the opening of the Panama Canal, the battleship fleet should be concentrated in one ocean so that its divided squadrons could not be defeated separately.
Spanish-American War to the 1920s From 1898 to World War I, the navy's Atlantic and Caribbean policies were to build a fortified isthmian canal under exclusive American control, to acquire bases for the canal's protection, and to deny the Western Hemisphere to outside aggressors. By the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901, Britain released the United States to construct a wholly American canal without restriction as to fortifications. When Colombia failed to reach quick agreement on terms for a canal in its Panama territory, the navy in 1903 afforded cover for a revolt in the isthmus. Within fifteen days a new government of independent Panama accorded the United States a ten-mile-wide canal zone in perpetuity. For Caribbean bases, the General Board by 1903 had settled on two sites: Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, close to the Windward Passage, and a lesser base farther east, probably the island of Culebra, off Puerto Rico. While determined to prevent non-American nations from acquiring bases in the region, the board wanted the United States to take no more than the navy could defend. The navy and the marines also intervened in Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in the Caribbean in support of the roles of debt collector and policeman that the United States assumed under the Platt Amendment relating to Cuba (1901) and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904), in order to obviate interference by others. During the British and German blockade of Venezuela (1902), the United States concentrated in the Caribbean, under Admiral Dewey's command, the most powerful fleet ever assembled for maneuvers, another potent reminder that other nations must keep out.
In the Far East after 1898, American naval men initially conceived of the United States as one of a half-dozen naval powers competing in China. Their planning assumed that the maritime nations (Britain, the United States, and Japan) were committed to the Open Door in China, in opposition to the continental powers (Russia, France, and Germany). In addition to a main fleet base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, the General Board wanted an advanced base on the China coast, within easy steaming range of the European bases in northern Asiatic waters.
After Japan's triumph in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the American navy's outlook in the Pacific changed radically as Japan moved from the position of sure friend to that of possible enemy. When Theodore Roosevelt ordered sixteen battleships of the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific on the first lap of their spectacular world cruise in 1907, he was testing the navy's capacity to concentrate its power in the Pacific and reminding Japan and the world that the Pacific was an area of American naval responsibility. The navy also decided, in 1908–1909, to build its first major overseas Pacific base at Pearl Harbor rather than at Subic Bay, because the army insisted that it would be unable to hold the Philippine base against Japanese attack until the arrival of the battle fleet from the Atlantic. The navy's most important war plans on the eve of World War I were its Black Plan for defense of the Western Hemisphere against Germany and its Orange Plan for a war against Japan, precipitated by the immigration question or by Japanese aggression into China or the Philippines. Although the United States had no formal agreement with Britain, still the world's greatest naval power, there emerged before World War I a wholly informal system of naval power in which Britain built to contain the German navy while the United States strove for naval equality with Germany and decisive superiority over Britain's east Asian ally, Japan.
The ascent of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency in 1913 brought to the White House a leader determined to preserve civilian control over the conduct of foreign affairs but willing to employ the navy in war and diplomacy with utmost vigor. After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Wilson administration was involved in acrimonious debates with Britain and Germany in defense of the cherished American principle of freedom of the seas. The tension of the war also moved the president to support the Naval Act of 1916, directed toward a navy second to none through the construction of ten battleships and six battle cruisers. This program would provide the United States with a powerful voice in diplomacy, whatever the outcome of the war.
Upon American entry into the war, the navy joined the Allies in a coalition wholly unpremeditated in its Black Plan and Orange Plan or its building programs. Conservatives in the navy, especially on the General Board, were reluctant to halt construction of capital ships so that American shipbuilding facilities could be devoted to building desperately needed antisubmarine and merchant craft. In addition to fearing that the United States might face greatly strengthened German and Japanese navies should the allies suffer defeat, these naval conservatives apparently were uncertain what policies Britain might adopt should the allies triumph too completely. It was to allay such anxieties, and thus to promote full U.S. naval participation in the war, that President Wilson's intimate adviser, Colonel Edward M. House, unsuccessfully sought from Britain an option on five British capital ships to meet postwar contingencies. The Navy Department finally halted its capital ship program in order to provide ways for submarine destroyers, and it reached an accord with the Japanese whereby the Imperial Japanese Navy watched the Pacific while the U.S. Navy concentrated on war in the Atlantic.
The allies' naval jealousies, subdued during the war, surfaced during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. British leaders saw President Wilson's call for freedom of the seas as a threat to the British Empire, and they strove unsuccessfully to prevent a resumption of building of American capital ships that might relegate the Royal Navy to second place. The naval advisers to the American delegation, on the other hand, opposed any division of the German navy likely to perpetuate British naval supremacy. For the American navy, however, the most significant act by the peace conference was its decision to award Germany's Pacific islands north of the equator to Japan as unfortified mandates of the League of Nations. Unfortified in Japanese hands, the islands would be open to a superior American fleet in a campaign against Japan. At the close of the war, U.S. naval representatives were prominent in the allied interventions in Russia and at Constantinople during the resurgence of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal.
The 1920s Britain, the United States, and Japan emerged from World War I as the three great naval powers. Whereas American naval authorities watched for any new evidence that Britain might attempt to retain its naval supremacy, they held as an article of faith that any new naval construction by Britain's ally Japan was directed against the United States. The General Board stated in 1921 that the United States should maintain a navy equal to the British and twice the Japanese. If the Anglo-Japanese alliance remained, however, the board wanted a navy equal to the combined British and Japanese navies. While the navy stationed the most powerful battle forces in the United States Fleet in the Pacific to guard against Orange (Japan), the estimates of naval war planners from 1919 to 1931 also dealt with possible wars against Red (Britain) or against a Red-Orange (Anglo-Japanese) coalition.
In 1921 civilian leaders in the United States, Britain, and Japan were united in their desire to avoid a ruinous naval race and to settle numerous Pacific questions unresolved by the Paris Peace Conference. At the nine-power Washington Conference called by the United States in 1921 to consider these issues, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes proposed a naval holiday and a limitation on the American, British, and Japanese navies at just half the levels recommended by the General Board. Hughes's plan was incorporated in the Five-Power Naval Treaty, which limited capital ships and aircraft carriers allowed the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy at a ratio of 5:5:3:1.67:1.67. At Japan's insistence, the three great naval powers also undertook, in article XIX of the treaty, to refrain from building new bases and fortifications from which their fleets could menace each other's vital territories in the Pacific. The United States thus abandoned new naval shore construction west of Hawaii, such as the proposed base on Guam that could serve the fleet in operations against Japan. The Washington naval agreements were part of a package settlement that included the Four-Power Treaty to maintain the status quo in the Pacific, the Nine-Power Treaty relating to China, and the abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance.
The statesmen at Washington sought a new naval order that would provide security for the United States in the Western Hemisphere, the British Empire from the United Kingdom to Singapore, and Japan in the western Pacific. The Five-Power Naval Treaty, however, failed to limit lesser naval categories: cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The three-power Geneva Naval Conference of 1927 broke down when British and American naval men were unable to agree on cruisers. Japan and Britain, meanwhile, built ships in the unrestricted classes more rapidly than did the United States; and Japanese naval men at the London Naval Conference of 1930 demanded a 10:10:7 ratio rather than a 10:10:6 (5:5:3) ratio in cruisers. As at Washington, the delegations at London overrode vigorous opposition from their services; and the resulting naval treaty in theory preserved the 10:10:6 ratio in heavy cruisers but in substance promised Japan higher ratios in the lesser classes through the life of the naval treaties (1936). The bitterness provoked in the Japanese navy contributed significantly to the collapse of naval limitation after 1931.
The 1930s The Washington naval system crumbled after Japan occupied Manchuria in 193l–1932. While the American and British governments were unprepared to halt Japan by force, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson looked to the navy to deter Japanese aggression. After Japanese naval forces landed at Shanghai in 1932, Stimson publicly warned that since the Washington agreements were interdependent, a violation of a political accord, such as the Nine-Power Treaty relating to China, would nullify other Washington agreements, such as the American promise to desist from building bases in the western Pacific. The U.S. Fleet was concentrated for maneuvers off Hawaii in 1932, and Stimson induced President Herbert Hoover thereafter to retain the entire fleet in the Pacific as a warning to Japan.
Stimson's gestures proved futile. The ratio of American and Japanese naval strength in the early 1930s probably approximated 10:8, rather than 10:6, and the "fleet faction" in the Japanese navy forced the Tokyo government in 1934 to seek a common upper limit (naval parity) with the United States and Britain. The intransigent Japanese stand drove the Americans and the British to unite in defense of the 10:10:6 ratio at the preliminary and main London Naval Conferences called in 1934 and 1935 to review the naval treaties. The Japanese left the second conference, and effective naval limitation ended with the expiration of the treaties in 1936.
During the London conferences, British and U.S. naval officers established cordial relations that paved the way for increasing intimacy between their services as they faced the rising threats from Germany and Italy in Europe and from Japan after the outbreak of the China incident in 1937. Only days after Japanese aircraft sank the USS Panay in December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the navy's war plans director to London for consultations with the Admiralty during which a plan was drawn for possible joint action against Japan by an American fleet operating from Hawaii and a British fleet based in Singapore. This scheme was modified in 1939, when Britain was prevented by the Axis menace in Europe from undertaking powerful action against Japan. Admiral William D. Leahy, American chief of naval operations, then volunteered that, should a war break out in Europe to which the United States was not a party, the U.S. Fleet would assemble at Pearl Harbor to deter Japan. Should the United States be associated with Britain in war against the Axis and Japan, Leahy expected the American navy to care for the Pacific while the British navy would be responsible for the Atlantic. When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, the Joint Army and Navy Board had already begun work on five Rainbow Plans for war situations involving the United States and the European democracies against the Axis powers and Japan.
World War II After the fall of France in June 1940, the U.S. Navy was party to a succession of measures short of war to prevent the collapse of Britain, to prepare for war in two oceans either alone or in association with the British Empire, to deter Japan in the Pacific, and to enlist Canada and the Latin American states in Western Hemisphere defense. In September 1940, Britain and the United States concluded an arrangement by which Britain granted the United States bases in British possessions in the western Atlantic in return for fifty American destroyers to be used against German submarines. This limited American naval assistance to Britain swelled in 1941, after Congress approved the lend-lease bill, American navy yards were open to British warships for repair, and the navy began patrolling the western Atlantic against German submarines.
In August 1940 representatives from the Navy Department and the Admiralty entered into urgent consultations on how the navy could best help in the war. After Japan, Germany, and Italy concluded the Berlin Pact in September 1940, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, prepared his famous Plan Dog memorandum for a two-ocean war in which British and U.S. forces would seek victory over the Axis in the Atlantic before turning to defeat Japan in the Pacific. This memorandum was the basis for the detailed ABC-1 Plan, drawn up during Anglo-American staff talks at Washington in February and March 1941. In line with this plan, the United States shifted about one-third of its battleships to the Atlantic in order to release British units for service in the Far East.
It was with gravely weakened naval forces in the Pacific that the Roosevelt administration in July 1941 finally turned to halt Japanese aggression by enlisting Britain and the Netherlands to freeze Japanese assets under their control, thereby terminating Japanese trade with the world outside East Asia. The United States and its associates thus sought to bring Japan to terms by cutting off the flow of oil and other materials vital to the Japanese economy through a distant blockade supported by naval forces divided and inferior to those of the Japanese. Facing the immobilization of their forces as their supplies ran out, Japanese leaders, including those of the Japanese navy, opted for war that closed the battleship age.
During the immediate prewar and war years, Franklin Roosevelt, as had his cousin Theodore, drew the integration of naval and diplomatic policies into his own hands. The State-War-Navy Liaison Committee established in 1938 was largely confined to Latin American affairs and lesser matters. After the president moved the Joint Army and Navy Board into the new executive offices in 1939, the military chiefs increasingly participated in foreign affairs without necessary reference to their service secretaries or even the State Department. Indeed, during World War II, the State Department repeatedly bowed to service interests; naval officers and other military men negotiated directly with foreign governments; and the military chiefs accompanied the president to summit meetings to which the secretary of state was not invited. It was only a year before the war's end that the State Department was restored somewhat to decision making in foreign affairs with the establishment of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee to prepare for peace. In 1942 the chief of naval operations joined with American army and air force chiefs in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which provided institutional partners for the British chiefs in the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who determined war strategy under the watchful eyes of President Roosevelt and of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Cooperation with the British in coalition war was important preparation for naval men when they turned to work for what amounted to a coalition peace.