The Navy: The Oceanic Period, 1890-1945


by Michael A. Palmer

In the 1880s, the United States entered an era of dynamic change. Their country reconstructed, Americans began once again to turn outward, imbued with a renewed sense of nationalism, mission, and purpose. Robert L. Beisner (1986) characterizes this period as a transition from an old paradigm of U.S. foreign affairs to a new paradigm of U.S. foreign policy. At home, Americans sought change through reform, broadened democracy, efficient bureaucracy, and professionalization, as evidenced by the steady ascent of progressive politicians in local and national government.

When Americans looked abroad, they saw a new global surge of imperialism. The products of the industrial revolution-- the repeating rifle, the machine gun, the telegraph, and the railroad--allowed Europeans to expand their political and economic control from the periphery into the hearts of Africa and Eurasia. The United States, its own frontier closed, now saw its overseas economic frontiers threatening to close as well. The Ottoman and Chinese empires, for example, long the target of U.S. commercial and missionary interest, were under severe and steady pressure from the European powers and appeared at times to be on the verge of collapse. In the Western Hemisphere, the European powers became increasingly involved in the internal affairs of the states of Central America and South America.

Under such circumstances, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 suddenly took on new meaning. In the Western Hemisphere, the industrial revolution had brought about a dramatic change in strategic geography. When distances had been measured in sailing days, because of prevailing winds and currents, much of the Caribbean basin and all of South America had been closer to Europe than to the United States. The advent of steam-powered fleets that measured distances in nautical miles meant that the Caribbean, Central America, and South America were, for the first time, truly in the backyard of the United States.

The U.S. Navy quickly found itself assigned new missions. During the Chilean crisis of 1891-1892, it supported a policy aimed not at preserving an existing market but at keeping open a potential market and preventing a possible penetration of the Western Hemisphere by Great Britain. The use of U.S. naval power as a tool of a national foreign policy during the Chilean crisis and battles over Samoa, Hawaii, Venezuela, and Cuba marked the beginning of a new era for the U.S. Navy. A renewed consensus supporting the development of naval power was an element within the new paradigm of U.S. policy. Among those who worked to shape the navy were civilian leaders, such as Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt; secretaries of the navy, such as William H. Hunt, Benjamin F. Tracy, and Hilary A. Herbert; and historians and propagandists, most notably former U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, who defined sea power for the world at the end of the century.

The U.S. Navy would no longer serve only the interests of the commercial community but would protect the nation as a whole. A strong navy would allow the United States to command the oceanic approaches to the continent and prevent European powers from threatening the United States or the Western Hemisphere and would also allow the United States to play a more forceful role in the Far East, keeping open the door of commercial opportunity. U.S. policymakers saw commerce as the lifeblood of a modern industrializing nation.

The Spanish-American War helped define the new roles of the navy. As soon as conflict began in April 1898, the navy found itself in the forefront of operations in the Pacific and the Atlantic. As planned, in an effort to destroy the Spanish fleet in the Pacific, Rear Admiral George Dewey's Asiatic Squadron entered Manila Bay and annihilated the enemy force. In the Atlantic, other navy squadrons blockaded Spanish naval forces based in Cuba, while transports moved U.S. troops to the island. Ultimately, the navy destroyed Spanish naval power in the western Atlantic, sealing the fate of Spain's empire in the New World and demonstrating, once again, the value of sea power to the United States.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States continued to expand its naval forces. In 1907 and 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet of sixteen new battleships on a global cruise to demonstrate U.S. naval power to the world, and especially to Japan. Under the administrations of Roosevelt and William H. Taft, the United States continued to build battleships. The U.S. Navy had become the nation's first line of defense, defending a line drawn far from American shores.

By 1913, when Woodrow Wilson became president, support for a strong navy had become a bipartisan issue. Behind a shield provided by U.S. naval power, Wilson held the European powers at bay while naval and ground forces sought to preserve order in the Western Hemisphere. In 1914 U.S. marines and sailors returned to Veracruz. That same year, as the Panama Canal finally opened, allowing the Atlantic and Pacific fleets to become mutually reinforceable, World War I began in Europe.

The European war threatened U.S. freedom of the seas, as German submarines struck at Allied and neutral shipping indiscriminately. Great Britain exploited its control of the seas to the detriment of U.S. commerce. Wilson worked to maintain U.S. neutrality (which tended to favor the Allied powers) and to bring the belligerents to the bargaining table. In 1916, increasingly frustrated, Wilson and the U.S. Congress responded to the actions of Great Britain and Germany by launching a massive naval building program designed to make the U.S. Navy second to none. The following year, Wilson ended his three-year effort to keep the nation out of the conflict when the Germans rejected his efforts to broker a peace, resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around the British Isles, and tried to inveigle the Mexicans into a conflict with the United States. On 2 April 1917 Wilson went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Germany. He then sent the U.S. Navy and the American Expeditionary Forces across the Atlantic in a move that ensured Allied victory.

Despite this victory, by the end of the war the foundations that supported Mahanian concepts of sea power had been shaken. European battle fleets had fought few actions, and none of them, most notably at Jutland (1916), had been decisive. The advent of new instruments of warfare, such as the submarine and the airplane, had raised serious questions about the utility of the battleship and the worth of existing naval programs. Americans, along with their British allies, had discovered that large, expensive battleships were useless against the German guerre de course. To counter German U-boats, the Allies needed destroyers and other smaller warships.

These new realities, combined with a widespread desire to reduce military expenditures and to ensure that the Great War proved to be the war to end all wars, led inexorably to postwar naval disarmament. Throughout the 1920s, the United States and the other major naval powers of the world reduced the size of their navies. The series of naval treaties signed in Washington in 1923 ensured parity between Great Britain and the United States but also gave Japan, despite an inferior ratio of naval forces, veritable dominance in the western Pacific.

For a nation determined to avoid military entanglements overseas, a powerful navy was an unnecessary luxury. As a result, for more than a decade after World War I, the U.S. Navy struggled to maintain force levels at treaty limits, to keep pace with rapidly changing technology, and to remain the nation's first line of defense. During the 1920s the service also successfully warded off the first of many assaults by air power advocates who believed that airplanes had made navies obsolete. The U.S. Navy embraced the airplane, coopting air power in the form of the aircraft carrier. The service, with the benefit of knowledge gained from captured U-boats, also sought improved designs for submarines capable of coastal operations and fleet support in the vast Pacific.

The navy faced yet another challenge with the beginning of the Great Depression, when construction of warships all but stopped. The global depression also undermined the stability of the existing order, and ultimately led to the growth of the navy, as Americans grew concerned about Japanese expansion in the Far East and the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed military spending both as a means to meet these potential international threats and as a method to stimulate the U.S. economy.

Throughout the mid- and late 1930s, the United States began to build a two-ocean navy capable of meeting threats in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The navy remained wedded to the battleship, the centerpiece of the U.S. Plan Orange strategy for a war with Japan that was to be won by a climactic and decisive engagement in the central Pacific. By 1939, however, the navy had also begun building long-range submarineswhich, after 7 December 1941, would prove capable of conducting a guerre de course against Japanese commerce--and carriers armed with sea-based aircraft whose capabilities approximated those of land- based aircraft.

Between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Roosevelt tried to use U.S. naval power to deter war. In the Pacific the fleet moved from the California coast to the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to discourage further Japanese expansion. In the North Atlantic, Roosevelt waged an undeclared naval war against German U-boats.

Despite these efforts, on 7 December 1941 Japanese carrier-based aircraft raided Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line was all but destroyed. On 11 December, Germany declared war on the United States. The country now faced a two- ocean war.

The initial phases of World War II went poorly for the United States, and especially the navy. In the Atlantic, U-boats torpedoed Allied tankers and freighters within sight of the eastern coast of the United States. Throughout 1942 the navy found itself relearning many of the lessons of the anti-U-boat campaign of 1917-1918.

Victory in what British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill termed the Battle of the Atlantic was essential if the products of the U.S. arsenal of democracy were to be shipped from the new world to the old and brought to bear against the Axis. Although U-boats remained a menace throughout the war, by the middle of 1943 the Allies had largely controlled them through technological advances, code breaking, and the productive capacity of U.S. shipyards and factories, which turned out new tankers, freighters, escorts, and patrol aircraft in great numbers.

Once the Atlantic shipping lanes were secured, the Allies brought to bear their land and air forces, supported by sea power, around the periphery of Adolf Hitler's empire. The Allies staged massive amphibious assaults that cracked Hitler's western wall and assured the defeat of Nazi Germany, including assaults in North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July and Italy in September 1943, Normandy, France, in June 1944, and the southern coast of France in August of that same year.

In the Pacific Ocean, the United States fought what was primarily a naval conflict. For the U.S. Navy the war against Japan marked the service's final coming of age. Having operated for nearly a century and a half in the shadow of the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy now secured for itself the mantle of naval leadership. In the central Pacific it sought a modern-day Trafalgar--a decisive, annihilative battle against the Imperial Japanese Navy. No single battle or campaign proved decisive, but a series of carrier battles fought in 1942 in the Coral Sea, at Midway, and in support of operations in the Solomon Islands turned the seemingly inexorable tide of the Japanese advance. Large-scale amphibious operations, part of an island-hopping strategy, supported by carrier-borne aviation, carried the Americans back across the Pacific. In 1944 the Battles of the Philippine Sea--the Marianas Turkey Shoot--and Leyte Gulf virtually ended the threat posed by Japan.

By 1945 the United States and its allies were closing in on Japan. U.S. Navy submarines had devastated the Japanese merchant marine and isolated the home islands from the Asian mainland. Amphibious forces seized Iwo Jima and Okinawa, strategically placed islands guarding the approaches to Japan itself. From bases in the Marianas, U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 heavy bombers pounded fragile cities with massive incendiary raids. Strikes from U.S. Navy carriers, ranging along the eastern coast of Honshu, added to the destruction. Rather than acknowledge their defeat, the Japanese continued the struggle until the entry of the Soviet Union into the war and the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked Japan into surrender.


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