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Documentary Histories

Post-War: The Role of the CNO

Introduction: The Role of the CNO Post-WWI

On 7 January 1920, RAdm. William S. Sims, then serving as President of the Naval War College, sent a letter to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels with the subject line, “Certain naval lessons of the Great War.”1  This rather innocuous description belied the fact that the letter itself was nothing short of a wholesale condemnation of the Department of the Navy’s war efforts, with Sims lambasting it (and by extension, Daniels) for the Navy’s overall lack of preparedness, its constant delays in decision-making, and frequent interference in overseas operations, all of which, in Sims’ view, greatly hindered his ability to prosecute the war effectively.  The ensuing uproar over this letter prompted the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs to open an investigation into these charges, with Sims, Daniels, and many other civilian and military officials being called upon to testify in front of the appointed subcommittee between 9 March and 27 May 1920. 

Much of these officials’ testimony focused on specific technical and logistical issues related to the war, but there were also a number of discussions concerning the organization of the Navy Department, as well as the role and responsibilities of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO).  Taking note of this, Senator Frederick Hale of Maine, the subcommittee’s chairman, sent a letter to many of these same officials soliciting their recommendations as to what sort of reforms should be undertaken to improve the department.2  These letters merit special attention, as they provide insight both into the state of the service following the World War I and reflect the competing philosophies concerning the balance between civilian and military authority over Navy operations that had shaped the service over preceding two decades. 

Since the Spanish-American War in 1898, a number of younger officers (Sims among them) had agitated for greater military authority over fleet operations, arguing that the needs of the modern Navy required technical and strategic expertise that extended well beyond the knowledge and capabilities of most secretaries of the Navy.  The secretaries themselves seemed to recognize this, as they undertook a series of steps to enlist expert counsel and assistance in shaping the general direction of the Navy.  In March 1900, for example, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long established the General Board, an advisory council comprised of senior and ex-officio naval officers.  Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer subsequently created four aides to provide advice pertaining to personnel, material, inspections, and operations.3

As purely advisory bodies, however, neither the General Board nor the aides had the authority to direct Navy operations.  Concerned that this would leave the Navy ill-prepared to fight a war against Germany or any other major naval power, a group of seven officers led by RAdm. Bradley Fiske successfully lobbied Congress to create the position of Chief of Naval Operations.  Although they hoped that the newly created position would be “responsible for the readiness of the Navy for war and be charged with its general direction,” the bill that ultimately passed on 3 March 1915 limited this to “operations of the fleet, and with the preparation and readiness of plans for its use in war.” All of this would take place “under the direction of the Secretary [of] the Navy.”4

This did not end the debate, as at least some officers remained dissatisfied with the limitations placed on the CNO’s authority, particularly where supervision of the bureaus was concerned.  U.S. involvement in World War I coupled with CNO Adm. William S. Benson’s amicable working relationship with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels forestalled further debate on the matter, but these issues would return to prominence during 1920 Naval Investigation.  Although a number of senior officers vigorously disputed Sims’ characterization of the Navy as being woefully unprepared to face the challenges of World War I (and were, indeed, rather furious with his public criticisms of the Navy, Daniels, and Benson), when it came to broader issue greater military control naval operations, many believed that the military did indeed need to exert greater control over not just the Navy’s wartime operations, but also in preparing the fleet to fight future wars.5                                               

Even recognizing this, we must be careful not to treat the opinions of senior military and civilian officials as being diametrically opposed to each other or even wholly uniform within their own ranks.  As the selected documents will reveal, both sides were deeply concerned with respecting the principle of civilian control of the military.  Moreover, not all Navy officers were keen to have the CNO assume total responsibility for fleet operations.  In fact, many of the solutions proposed were considerably more varied and moderate than one might assume, with some of the specific recommendations contained therein even presaging future developments within the Navy.  To be certain, some of these proposals were still decades away from being implemented (for example, the establishment of the Inspector General’s office), but even so, they anticipate at least some aspects of the modern Navy department’s organization, as well as the more clearly-defined role the CNO would occupy within it.

Footnote 1: See: Sims to Daniels, 7 January 1920, Naval Investigation, 1:1-7.

Footnote 2: This letter itself is not included in the published volumes of the investigation.  Instead, a brief summary is provided, which notes that Sen. Hale “wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and to various naval officers requesting that they submit for the consideration of the subcommittee any suggestions for changes which they thought desirable.”  Naval Investigation, 2:3391.

Footnote 3: Morison, Naval Administration, II-2-4.

Footnote 4: Quoted in Ibid., II-8, 10.

Footnote 5: Ibid., III-A-2-3.

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