“The armistice of November 11, 1918, which marked the end of the fighting, was the signal for the Navy to undertake a stupendous task,” recalled Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in his report on demobilization, adding that “only those who have gone through this process appreciate the fact that the difficulties of this going to peace are more complex and troublesome than going to war.” The United States had never before fought a war with such extensive overseas facilities, most of which were entangled in disputed claims over cost and ownership. Naval personnel were just as eager to get home as their Army counterparts, but many were held in service specifically to transport soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force home. Meanwhile, ships had to be removed from service, while others that were barely seaworthy were pushed to the limits to serve the demobilization process. The Navy accomplished the task of shifting to peacetime activity with impressive speed, but there were numerous headaches along the way for the naval personnel overseeing the process.
Technically, the war was not over until all parties signed a final peace treaty. In practice, it was widely recognized that Germany could not possibly renew fighting after the signing of the Armistice, and in October 1918, with the war still raging on the Western Front, plans were already being prepared for rapid demobilization. Vice Admiral (later Admiral) William S. Sims, the commander of American naval forces in Europe, took the lead in preparing plans for demobilizing, but by the start of 1919 he was receiving irritated cables from the Office of Naval Operations for not moving fast enough.Naval leaders in Washington, no less than naval personnel themselves, were eager to see the postwar force reduced to its normal size as soon as possible.
At first glance, the Navy’s task of demobilizing appeared significantly easier than the Army’s. With over 2 million men in Europe, the American Expeditionary Force dwarfed the number of naval personnel overseas. Numbers of men fail to tell the entire story, however. The task of getting those men home fell to the Navy, making the Army’s demobilization a sizable part of the Navy’s responsibilities. In fact, dealing with the transport of troops meant that the navy had to hold on to its reservists for months after the war, further slowing its own demobilization process.
Purging excess ships started by returning those private vessels pulled into service at the start of the war back to their original owners. Wilson signed an Executive Order in January beginning this process. At the height of the war effort, the Navy had nearly 500 vessels in European waters; by October 1919, these had been culled down to 108. The Navy managed to sell a few sub-chasers and other smaller craft in Europe, but most ships made their way back across the Atlantic, where they were either returned to original owners, passed on to the Coast Guard for enforcing Prohibition against alcohol smugglers, or in some cases promptly decommissioned.
Disposing of the Navy’s extensive shore facilities in Europe also proved complicated. To oversee this process, Daniels dispatched the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sims was less than thrilled to have Roosevelt over, believing he would actually slow efficient operations. Besides, Sims took the Assistant Secretary’s presence personally, believing it was an insult to his hard work at demobilizing. Roosevelt did indeed find that Sims had done a great deal to get the process moving, but he also made significant contributions of his own to the effort. The future president proved effective in bargaining with France for sale of American naval facilities. When the French government offered what he considered an insulting amount for one wireless radio station, Roosevelt started to work dismantling the facility to ship piece-by-piece back to the United States. His French counterparts quickly came back with a much better offer.Roosevelt did not, of course, handle all the business personally, instead creating three boards of claim to handle all financial matters with America’s recent allies. Most claims were complicated by the fact that, amid the existential threat of war, nations had frequently done whatever was needed without worrying about the details. Many facilities, some of them quite extensive (and expensive) had been constructed with only vague, brief, or non-existent contracts. Once the war was over, of course, all parties paid much stricter attention to details of cost and responsibility, particularly when there was a chance work out such details in their favor. Negotiations, particularly with the French, could be contentious.
The scale of demobilization also became a point of controversy. While the Navy Department (and American public) were eager to dismantle the United States’ overseas presence as much as possible, Sims realized that some naval activity would have to continue. Specifically, the Navy was needed to supply food to the starving populations of war-torn Germany and Eastern Europe. Maintaining peace in unstable portions of the globe also called for naval forces.Although operations in Russia lasted only a short time, ongoing peacekeeping in the Adriatic and humanitarian operations in the Baltic proved so extensive that by 1921 the Navy had increase recruiting efforts in the face of a personnel crisis. This despite the fact that the Navy was more than twice its pre-war size.The situation stabilized considerably after 1924, when most of the Navy’s humanitarian and peacekeeping operations ceased and the focus returned exclusively to “showing the flag.”
In his report on the Navy’s activities in 1919, Secretary Daniels was bullish on his service’s performance in the aftermath of the war, boasting that it “was practically the first to be ready for demobilization on an extensive scale and for that reason it was able to proceed with the disposal of property with little difficulty.” The naval officers who carried out the task no doubt read that comment with surprise. Demobilization was a complicated and at times frustrating process that presented the Navy with unprecedented challenges. Daniels’ assessment of the ease of the task might have been naïve, but his pride was justified. By the end of April 1919 – less than six months after the Armistice – the great majority of naval facilities in Europe had been dismantled or sold.The Navy did an impressive job dismantling its vast wartime operations and did so with laudable efficiency despite tensions with former allies and ever-changing assessments of its postwar needs.