The Naval War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The goal of establishing a two-ocean fleet was a powerful, if elusive, force in determining the nature of the United States Navy before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into war in 1941. In the late 1930’s, the two-ocean standard became the latest in a succession of rallying cries designed to gain popular support for naval expansion. Its appeal originated in a growing recognition that vital U.S. interests were being threatened simultaneously by Germany and Japan. This two-ocean focus was an extension of threat perceptions and arguments dating back to the 1890’s and made more pressing with the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 and Japan’s victory over Russia in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War. With the collapse of naval arms limitations in 1936, the rearmament of National Socialist Germany, and the naval buildup and military adventurism of Japan, the necessity of creating fleets capable of fighting independently in widely separated theaters seemed evident. Congress, responding to the change in popular attitude, passed legislation between 1938 and 1941 designed to translate the ideal of a two-ocean fleet into reality.

On the eve of World War II, the U.S. government began building warships that would dominate both the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters of naval warfare.

The goal of establishing a two-ocean fleet was a powerful, if elusive, force in determining the nature of the United States Navy before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into war in 1941. In the late 1930’s, the two-ocean standard became the latest in a succession of rallying cries designed to gain popular support for naval expansion. Its appeal originated in a growing recognition that vital U.S. interests were being threatened simultaneously by Germany and Japan. This two-ocean focus was an extension of threat perceptions and arguments dating back to the 1890’s and made more pressing with the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 and Japan’s victory over Russia in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War. With the collapse of naval arms limitations in 1936, the rearmament of National Socialist Germany, and the naval buildup and military adventurism of Japan, the necessity of creating fleets capable of fighting independently in widely separated theaters seemed evident. Congress, responding to the change in popular attitude, passed legislation between 1938 and 1941 designed to translate the ideal of a two-ocean fleet into reality.

U.S. Naval Policy

U.S. naval policy has been a mirror of national ambition. During the 1890’s, and especially after the Spanish-American War, the horizon of that ambition increased measurably. At a single stroke, the United States became both a Caribbean and a Pacific power. U.S. control of the Philippines was perplexing for many people in the United States but exciting for navalists and imperialists. Together with Hawaii, which was annexed in 1898, the Philippines provided U.S. commerce with a toehold in the fabled China trade. Distant possessions seemed to mandate an increased fleet, and an increased fleet required overseas bases, setting the foundation for a self-perpetuating expansion of the military and naval establishment.

For better or worse, expanded interests called for expanded responsibilities, and President Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiastic convert to U.S. imperialism, led the movement to secure those interests. Between 1905 and 1909, Congress authorized the construction of sixteen new battleships of the all-big-gun, dreadnought style by which international naval power was measured. Meanwhile, work on the Panama Canal, which was intended to provide much-needed flexibility for the fleet, continued toward its completion in 1914.

By the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, Japan and especially Germany were seen as the most important potential threats to U.S. commerce and possessions. Tension caused by the treatment of Japanese nationals living in the United States was the primary reason for congressional approval of the last six new battleships authorized during Roosevelt’s administration. The attention of most U.S. naval experts was fixed on Germany, where an ambitious twenty-year naval construction program had been announced in 1900. While the German fleet law was intended as a challenge to British naval supremacy, it was also perceived as a threat to U.S. interests by a host of U.S. congressmen and naval authorities. That traditional German concerns were continental and that the German navy had a nearer rival in Great Britain seemed to make no difference.

Those guiding U.S. naval policy believed that it would be a mistake for the United States to allow itself to be surpassed in naval power by any nation that also maintained a great standing army. This growing U.S. fear of Germany was also reflected in the concentration of the fleet. Long a dictum of the most distinguished U.S. naval strategic synthesizer, Captain A. T. Mahan, the concentration of naval forces was adopted by Roosevelt as a cardinal principle of fleet deployment. Throughout his presidency, and Taft’s as well, the main fleet remained posted in the Atlantic Ocean.

Japan planned its attack on Pearl Harbor with the idea of knocking the U.S. Pacific Fleet completely out of action. However, while the damage done to the fleet was temporarily crippling, its effects were not long lasting. This photo shows the USS West Virginia, one of the battleships most badly damaged at Pearl Harbor. (National Archives)

Interwar Developments

After 1914, the prewar desire to improve the United States Navy to second place behind the British fleet was replaced by a determination to build a navy second to none. This challenge to British naval superiority, the first ever by the United States, was engendered by British arrogance toward neutral U.S. shipping and a fear of the naval landscape in the postwar world. President Woodrow Wilson and Congress joined in the $588 million naval construction act of 1916, which mandated ten new superdreadnought battleships and six battle cruisers. Wilson called for a similar program in 1918 to strengthen the U.S. bargaining position at the Versailles Conference.

By 1924, the United States Navy would be the most powerful in the world, a dismaying prospect to the British government. U.S. naval ascension was delayed by the decision to shift battleship construction assets to the production of antisubmarine warships, such as destroyers, and to merchant ships to counter losses to German submarines. In the three years that followed the signing of the armistice ending World War I, the United States built more warships than all the rest of the world combined. In taking dead aim at British naval superiority, the United States also revealed apprehension concerning Japan’s being linked to Britain by the ten-year renewal of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1911. Between 1917 and 1921, Japanese naval appropriations tripled, undoubtedly affected by the upsurge in U.S. construction. It is not surprising that with the demise of German naval power in 1919, concern in the United States shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In the summer of that year, the battle fleet was divided, with the newer and heavier units being sent to the West Coast.

Fear of a costly, all-out naval race in the immediate postwar period served to induce a certain amount of moderation. In Washington, D.C., in 1921–1922, the five leading naval powers adopted a system of restrictions on individual capital ships (battleships and battle cruisers) and aircraft carriers as well as on the aggregate tonnages of capital war fleets. By the terms of the Five-Power Treaty, Great Britain and the United States were to share the first rank of naval power, Japan was assigned the second rank (approximately 60 percent of capital ship parity with the first-rank powers), while France and Italy were relegated to the third rank. In 1930, this agreement was augmented by the London Treaty, which established similar kinds of restrictions on the noncapital construction (cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) of Great Britain, the United States, and Japan. Thus, from 1922 through 1936, the size and nature of the United States war fleet was restricted by international agreement.

The Japanese Challenge

Domination of the Imperial Japanese Navy by the hardliners of the so-called Fleet Faction, who chafed at Japan’s second-rank status under the treaties, resulted in significant pressure on the Japanese government to demand equal status with the United States and Great Britain at the London Naval Conference of 1935. When Great Britain and the United States demurred, the Japanese government provided the requisite notice that it would no longer abide by the naval treaties after December, 1936. Japan’s subsequent penetration of China in 1937 and Hitler’s annexation of Austria and absorption of the Sudetenland in 1938 seemed to provide ample proof for the proposition that unilateral restraint by the United States was a dangerous policy. The issue of naval preparedness became correspondingly less controversial.

In 1932, U.S. naval officers applauded the election of navalist Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency after the lean years of Republican naval and military expenditures. They were not disappointed. On the same day that he signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law in June, 1933, Roosevelt signed an executive order using $238 million of NIRA public works funds for construction of new warships. This first step in building the U.S. Navy up to “treaty limits” was followed by congressional moves to improve the status of the war fleet. Spearheaded by the navalist chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Carl Vinson, and the aging chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, Park Trammel, this movement’s objective was the replacement of all the fleet’s obsolete warships, or “floating coffins,” to use Vinson’s words. The resulting Vinson-Trammel bill which became law in March of 1934, also known as the Vinson Naval Parity Act, envisioned the replacement of almost a third of the existing tonnage of the Navy, including practically all the destroyers and submarines. The act did not appropriate funds for construction but served as a blueprint for U.S. naval policy. The clear intention of this action was the establishment of a fighting force that would be the equal of any in the world. Both the NIRA-funded ships and the Vinson-Trammel Act exacerbated strategic concerns in Japan, which was approaching its warship treaty limits and now faced new, qualitatively superior, U.S. warships.

The Pacific theater of the war was dominated by naval combat, and most land operations were dependent on naval assistance. Of particular importance in coordinating land and sea operations were amphibious landing craft such as these, which were used to carry large numbers of troops ashore as quickly as possible . (National Archives)

Preparations for War

By 1938, many isolationists, hemispherists, and internationalists were in agreement that a powerful navy was an indispensable adjunct to a free United States. Thus, another authorization bill swiftly passed through Congress. The second Vinson-Trammel bill, the Naval Expansion Act, or Vinson Naval Parity Act, sought the creation of a navy 20 percent larger than that permitted by the former limitation treaties. As Europe plunged into war, the last restraints on full-scale naval construction disappeared. On June 14, 1940, the day that Paris fell to the German Blitzkrieg, President Roosevelt signed into law a naval expansion bill that authorized an 11 percent increase in appropriations. Three days later, Admiral Harold R. Stark, chief of naval operations, asked Congress for an additional four billion dollars in order to bring the fleet up to the two-ocean standard. This bill, which was passed the following month, was the largest single naval construction program ever undertaken by any country. It provided for a 70 percent increase in combat tonnage to be constructed over a period of six years.

An F6F fighter plane preparing to take off from the USS Yorktown in late 1943. Because of the immense distances between combat zones in the Pacific, air operations played a crucial role in Pacific theater naval operations, and aircraft carriers assumed an importance not matched in any other war. (National Archives)

Franklin D. Roosevelt acted largely as his own navy secretary and shared most admirals’ perception that the battleship defined naval power. While additional aircraft carriers were authorized in the late 1930’s, the main focus of the Roosevelt naval buildup was the production of the seventeen new battleships authorized prior to U.S. entry into World War II.

Despite the flurry of construction authorizations, U.S. naval power was insufficient to protect the Atlantic and Pacific interests of the United States in the wake of Pearl Harbor. A full year prior to that catastrophe, the Navy, pressured by the president, had been forced to shift its strategic focus from an offensive action against Japan to a position that in any future war would include both Germany and Japan; the fleet would take the offensive in the Atlantic while assuming a defensive posture in the Pacific. Even this severe modification of the strategy implicit in the two-ocean standard did not achieve satisfactory results for a disconcertingly long period of time. While the success of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor might well be considered the result of a failure of specific rather than general preparedness, the inability of U.S. naval resources to provide adequate protection against the onslaught of Germany’s U-boat attacks during all of 1942 provides convincing evidence that the Atlantic fleet had not achieved even a one-ocean capability at that time. This was an outgrowth of the myopic battleship strategic paradigm that restricted movement toward true capabilities in air, surface, and subsurface warfare. It was not until early 1943 that U.S. naval forces began to gain the upper hand in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of the war.

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