Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Lieutenant Commander Charles K. Belknap, Jr., Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, to Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters

NAVY DEPARTMENT

OFFICE OF NAVAL OPERATIONS

WASHINGTON

              July 26, 1917.

My dear Admiral:

     I am very much obliged to you for your letter which has just been received in the Embassy mail bag.1

     I have not given up the hope as yet of being able to get across into your force, and trust that I will be able to work it in some manner sooner or later.2 It is hard to sit here and arrange the going away of officers to the other side and have to sit behind yourself, but I think we should take it in the same manner that Captain Pratt does.3 He has absolutely made his own personal feelings secondary to the needs of the service, and goes wherever he is sent with a cheerful aye aye. Speaking of him I want to tell you that he is as usual delivering a full load of goods each day, and he has by his precise, exact, and efficient methods,won the full appreciation and confidence of the Admiral.4

     Captain Chase was one of the clearest thinkers that the Navy had, but he was naturally slow in reaching a decision, and consequently his desk was piled up with papers awaiting his action. This has been obliterated by Captain Pratt and at present there are no decisions lying on his desk which have not been acted upon <by> him. (Remember I do not mean to indicate that there are no<t> papers awaiting decisions on his desk, by others than Captain Pratt). He is at present very much worried about Mrs. Pratt,5 which is quite natural, and consequently does not seem to be his oldtime self. However, that condition of affairs I trust will be changed very shortly.

     You ask what I mean by upheaval. In talking with a few Senators of my acquaintance and newspaper men of high standing and others here in Washington there is evidently distinct, well founded, and far reaching dissatisfaction in Congress over the conduct of affairs in both the War and Navy Departments. It does not seem to be located in any particular political faction, but does seem to be well grounded and generally distributed throughout almost the entire body.6

     Winston Churchill,7 who has been down here for quite sometime working on an article for the Navy Department has interested himself very greatly in the administration of affairs, especially in the Navy Department, and he has prepared with the aid of Captains Pratt, Earl<e>, Mr. Roosevelt, <Palmer,> Chief Constructor Taylor,8 and others an inferential article on the present administration and the system employed in the Navy Department.9 This I am told by him is to be read to the President very shortly. There is no doubt that there are <is a> great deal of things <influence> being brought to bear upon the present Secretary of the Navy,10 just how far it is going to reach I do not know. I believe that the officials of the country are beginning to realize that the present organization as it stands is not fit to withstand the strain and expansion of war placed upon it. The attitude seems to be a willingness to give everything it possibly can, but to expect efficiency at the other end. This is not to be had at the present time, and therefore it seems that eventually when enough rope has been given the present officials will hang themselves. Churchill, whom you know is politically strong, has told me that a strong attempt is to be made during the present session of Congress for a thorough investigation of all affairs with the chopping off of the heads of the officials.11 He tells me that if it is not done in this session of Congress it will surely occur in the next. From one on the inside looking out this looks to me to be a reasonable supposition, for I cannot believe that conditions will remain as they are at present.

     I am enclosing you a Congressional Record relative to the Committee on Public Information. I think that you will be very much interested in this as it more or less affects you through the publicity end of what is going on under your direction. The history of this Committee is short. When diplomatic relations were broken12 the Secretary appointed me Censor for the Navy Department and directed me to prepare a bill to present to Congress. This I worked on with the aid of such men as Pratt and Schofield13 in the Navy, and the ablest of the newspaper and publishing officials of this country. The plan was to draw up a bill approved by the State, War, and Navy Departments, legally correct, publish it for discussion, call a meeting of the publishers of the United States, amend the bill in such a manner that the State, War, Navy, and Press would be behind it, present it to Congress for passage, upon passage the President to appoint the ablest, most efficient, and broadminded man of the publishing world, who had the confidence of the people of the United States, as Chief Censor, and appoint officials from the State, War, and Navy Departments as the committee on censorship, give them the job of forming the service and let them go to it. This paper was submitted to the Secretary, and the only thing which was approved was the latter part. For the broadminded civilian a Mr. George Creel was selected.14

     He has, as you may know, published many articles on the snobbishness and drunkenness of the Army and Navy officer, tried to run a city out in the West with policemen unarmed, and was hooted out of town, and finally married Blanche Bates, the actress, which seems to be his greatest claim to notoriety. He is a Jew with a sharp intellect and a vitriolic pen, can take the truth and twist it so that no lawyer can pin the lie to him.15 He was a member of the Administration Campaign Publicity Committee and a staunch backer of the Secretary of the Navy, and as a political reward was given the job of Chairman of the Committee of Public Information. This committee consists of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Secretary of the Navy, with Mr. Creel as Chairman.16 He has collected in his department all the worst type of newspaper correspondents, and by it has lost the confidence of the press, and the officials of the three Departments housed in this building, and unless he changes his ways will rapidly hang himself. He has made several very serious mistakes and will not accept the aid or assistance of anybody who should know of the things that he writes. At the present time he is practically boycotted by the State and War Department and leans heavily on the Navy Department. You must remember that our Secretary is first a newspaper man, and second Secretary of the Navy. His main idea when a dispatch comes in is to get it to the press as soon as possible and just as much thereof as is possible, and in many cases he acts upon these dispatches without any advice of others.17 I tell you the above simply that you may be able to picture to yourself the press situation of the Department and be guided thereby.

     There is as you probably no <know> a certain amount of discontent in the Department itself. The Secretary and the Assistant Secretary do not agree, and the Assistant Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations do not agree. The relations of the Secretary with the Chief of Naval Operations are at the present time good, due to the intense loyalty of the latter. In one of your dispatches you complained that certain portions of your dispatches were being given out word for word.18 I have checked this up and can locate only one instance where a paraphrase of your letter was given to the press and that was relative to the reception committee the Germans had for the arrival of your destroyers on the other side. Carter, the Admirals Aide,19 has taken particular pains to send a copy of your dispatch relative to the giving out of textual portions of your dispatches to either <every> officials in the Navy Department or <and> the Committee on Public Information.

     The 110 foot submarine chasers are the particular pet<s> of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. They are not impeding the destroyer building in any way as they are built at the Navy yards and principally by wood workers, hence you will probably receive quite a number of them in the near future. Twenty-one new destroyers have been recently authorized, which makes a total of eighty-seven contracted for and in the process of building. The first of these will appear about January the first. The later destroyers are to have twenty-five knots smokeless speed and twenty-eight knots high speed. The reason for this I cannot see and have kicked vigorously against it with but little success.20

     I believe that the public opinion on this side at the present time seems to be succinctly as follows: Can the Army win the war on shore before the Navy looses [i.e., loses] it at sea, this remark you hear on all sides, it is in the minds of all people, and I hate to see such a state of affairs. The Navy has never lost a war before and it will not be the cause of the loss of this war I am sure. It does seem to me that the Navy ( and when I say Navy I mean the combined Navies) could and should take a more active part in this war. I believe that every class of vessel, built and building, inclusive of small sea sleds, patrol boats, 110 footers, destroyers, and so on up can be utilized in a concentrated movement against the submarine. If you live in a mosquito infested country you do not hire five thousand boy scouts to go out and swat mosquitoes for you, but you go where they are bred.21

     Everyone realizes that it is a tremendous undertaking, must be coordinated and under the direction of one man. It does seem that the petty jealousies between nations, departments, and officials, should at a time like this be laid aside. The war at present is causing the loss of many lives ashore, much money in ships and cargoes at sea, and does not seem to be getting anywhere. After this war is over the usefulness of all predreadnought classes of vessels will be at an end. They can at the present time render,it seems to me, invaluable service, and the assemblying of all predreadnoughts of the allied nations and <To deliver a> concentrated attacks, preceded by aerial attacks, countermining by aeroplanes, and possibly countermining by small craft<, all> backed up by the main fleet should accomplish the desired end. This I think is the feeling of a great many on this side. It is readily recognized that tremendous losses will ensue form such an undertaking, but it is not believed that the loss will <not> be as great as if the war is allowed to continue as at present. Of course such a plan is a risky undertaking. It would probably reduce the individual allied nations’ naval strength below that of Germany, but it cannot possibly reduce the combined allied strength to such an extent. There seems to be a certain feeling among the officials in the Navy Department that under no circumstances should our fleet take part in operations abroad at the present time. I do not think that this feeling is borne out by public opinion, on the other hand there seems to be a small tendency by the people to inquire into why the Navy is not being utilized more than it is at present, and why they are kept in safety behind nets. I have heard the Secretary say that he believed that such an action as above indicated should take place, and should the time come ( which I believe firmly is bound to come, and the sooner the better), and I think as far as he is concerned it would meet with his approval. That at least would be one stumbling block out of the way. Naturally one hates to hear the service in which he is criticized and to be <see it> steering a course which seems at the present time to be headed for an increased and far greater amount of criticism on the part of this country. However the above is of little use and interest to you except possibly in that it may express to you a bit of the feeling on this side.

     The appointment of Admiral Grant22 to Vice Admiral was under discussion for quite sometime. I think that there were three candidates for the job, Gleaves, Grant, and Knapp.23 I feared for a long time that the successful convoy of the troops to France would win the position for Gleaves, but it was evidently decided to give it to Grant and not to Knapp because the latter has a chance to obtain that position later on. Knapp has done excellent work in Santo Domingo and Haiti and he is looked upon by the President as a diplomat and his actions in his present job have been highly commended upon by all sides, both by the State Department and the President.

     There does not seem to be any particular revolutionary changes to be made at the present. The country is not alive to the war as yet and is willing to slumber on peacefully. It is to be hoped that the Germans will so far forget themselves as to send some raiding vessels to this coast, this would be the best thing that could happen to the country at the present time.

     Relative to your correspondent man, Pegler,24 I tried to get the Secretary to send you a cable approving your action in removing him. There was evidently some great pressure brought to bear on the Secretary relative to this incident, and he was adamant in his reply. There was absolutely nothing doing in that direction. I have tried quietly to get the United Press to remove Pegler himself <themselves> without any further open discussion regarding the matter. This may and it may not prove successful, however, there is nothing like taking a chance.

     With best wishes to you and the lucky members of your staff, believe me always ready to help in any way that I can,25

Yours most sincerely,        

Belknap            

Source Note: LTS, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 48. Addressed below close: “Vice Admiral W. S. Sims, U.S.N.,/American Embassy,/London, England.”

Footnote 1: This letter has not been found.

Footnote 2: Despite Sims’ repeated requests, Belknap remained at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations throughout the war.

Footnote 3: Capt. William V. Pratt became Assistant Chief of Naval Operations after Capt. Volney O. Chase died suddenly on 25 June 1917. See: Emmet to Sims, 22 June 1917 and Diary of Josephus Daniels, 25 June 1917.

Footnote 4: Adm. William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 5: Louise Johnson Pratt was pregnant with the couple’s first child after fifteen years of marriage. Given her advanced age (she was 42 at the time), Pratt was naturally concerned about the delivery. At this stage in her pregnancy, she lived in New York with relatives to insure she had the best medical care possible. A healthy baby boy, also named William, was born in 1918. Wheeler, Pratt, 95, 123.

Footnote 6: The problems to which Belknap is referring related to the massive mobilization of American forces required by the entry of the United States into the war. These difficulties mainly involved the War Department, with most of the discontent falling at the feet of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, although others also blamed President Woodrow Wilson for them. Consequently, the Senate Military Affairs Committee held hearings investigating the War Department's actions in December 1917. The chief complaints involved outbreaks of disease in Army camps and inadequate supplies and equipment for fighting forces. Although attacks on Baker’s leadership came mainly from Republicans, there were also Democrats who voiced misgivings with the Secretary’s management of the War Department. In the aftermath of the hearings, a bill was introduced in the Senate to appoint a panel of three officials that superseded the authority of both Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. Wilson opposed the bill, and strongly backed his Secretary of War. In early 1918, Baker implemented reforms in the War Department that made it run more smoothly. Although Baker offered to resign at the height of the controversy, Wilson refused to accept his resignation. For a detailed discussion of this controversy, see: Beaver, Newton D. Baker: 79-109.

Footnote 7: A prominent British journalist who wrote on naval matters, not to be confused with the former First Lord of the Admiralty, current Minister of Munitions, and future Prime Minister of the same name.

Footnote 8: Adm. Ralph Earle, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, RAdm. Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and RAdm. David W. Taylor, Chief Constructor and Chief of Bureau of Construction and Repair.

Footnote 9: See: Churchill to Daniels, 2 August 1917 and Churchill to Wilson, 22 October 1917. A handwritten note in the margin next to this section reads: “He believes all such attack would be futile,” apparently in reference to Churchill’s desire to reform the administration of the Navy Department.

Footnote 10: A handwritten note in the margin here reads, “(Removal of!) [Daniels]” There was never any attempt to remove Daniels during the war, and Belknap seems to have assumed Daniels would be caught up in the furor over the War Department.

Footnote 11: As noted above, a Senate hearing took place in December, but attempts to remove Baker and diminish his authority within Wilson’s cabinet were unsuccessful.

Footnote 12: The United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany on 3 February 1917.

Footnote 13: Capt. Frank H. Schofield was a member of the staff at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 14: Creel served as head of the Committee for Public Information throughout the war.

Footnote 15: A note in the margin reads: “Mayo Tampico Interview.” A transcript of this interview has not been found. In 1914, Adm. Henry T. Mayo (now Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet) was the commander of a naval squadron off Tampico, Mexico, demanded a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag along with a formal apology following an incident involving American sailors ashore. The Mexican government’s refusal to grant this request strained already poor relations with the United States and eventually prompted the American occupation of Veracruz. Berg, Wilson: 320-323.

Footnote 16: Secretary of State Robert Lansing. A handwritten note in the margin reads: “Physical appearance disgusting.”

Footnote 17: Creel remained the head of the Committee on Public Information for the rest of the war without ever facing a serious threat to his position. Daniels was a former newspaperman and, as such, sought an open relationship with the press as much as possible. Writing after the war, he stated that he strongly opposed the “stupidity” of European nations’ censorship practices while expressing great pride in his own frankness with newspapermen. This did not strain his relationship with Creel at all, as he praised Creel’s “genius and enthusiasm.” Daniels eventually gave in on the necessity for censorship, prompted mainly by the publication of inaccurate information. Daniels, The Wilson Era, II: 221-222; Still, Crisis at Sea: 39.

Footnote 18: This cable has not been found.

Footnote 19: Cmdr. Andrew F. Carter, who was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Footnote 20: A handwritten note in the margin reads, “They also seem to relieve the safety valves of the going ideas along the coast and help to keep down the appeals for vessels.” That is, Belknap beleives that the subchasers’ presence relieved the fears of citizens who did not want the coasts unprotected. For a detailed discussion of the 110-foot subchasers and their use in the war, see: Still, Crisis at Sea: 316-318, 448-457.

Footnote 21: President Wilson expressed almost exactly the same sentiment in a speech to officers of the Atlantic Fleet when he said that the Allies were “hunting hornets all over the farm and letting the nest alone.” He complained that “[none] of us knows how to go to the nest and crush it, and yet I despair of hunting for hornets all over the sea when I know where the nest is and know that the nest is breeding hornets as fast as I can find them.” See: Wilson Speech, 11 August 1917.

Footnote 22: VAdm. Albert W. Grant, Commander, Battleship Force 1, Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 23: RAdm. Albert Gleaves, Commander, Convoy Operations in the Atlantic and RAdm. Harry S. Knapp, Military Governor of Santo Domingo.

Footnote 24: Westbrook Pegler. He was the youngest American war correspondent during the war, writing for United Press. Generally a strong critic of the federal government and a champion of conservative values, he often came into conflict with those he sharply criticized, most notably, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s.

Footnote 25: A final handwritten note under the signature reads: “‘They’ say the selection board will pass over again the same ones they did last time. It will kill Evans’ chances if they do.” This is a reference to Lt. Cmdr. Frank T. Evans, who had served under Sims when the latter commanded the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla. The two developed a good working relationship. Evans was promoted to commander and received a temporary rank of captain during the war. He retired in 1930 as a captain. Morison, Admiral Sims: 300-301; http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/ftevans.htm, accessed 10 January 2019.