Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

On Instructions Given Rear Admiral William S. Sims Concerning His Being the United States Navy’s Liaison with the British Admiralty

[Extract]                                    [28 March 1917]

TESTIMONY OF ADMIRAL William S. Sims—Resumed.1

The Chairman2. . . .

Admiral Sims, in your letter to the Secretary of the Navy of January 7 [1920] you stated:

No formal instructions or statement of the Navy Department plans or policy were received at that time, though I received the following explicit admonition: “Don’t let the British pull the wool over your eyes. It is none of our business pulling their chestnuts out of the fire. We would as soon fight the British as the Germans.’”

The committee would like to know, Admiral Sims, who made that statement to you, who were present at the time, and what were the circumstances under which it was given.

Admiral Sims. . . . I think that in answering the question I had better relate the circumstances under which it was given to me. I was telegraphed to at Newport to come to Washington.3 Everything was very secret. Secrecy is one of the things that Government departments love. I was told not even to come to the Navy Department, but to telephone to the department, as I remember to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, for instructions, probably to arrange an interview. I tried to do so and could get no reply at all from the department, so I went there and reported to the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, who was then Rear Admiral, now, Captain, L. C. Palmer.4 He told me that I was to be sent abroad to confer with the allied admiralties. He said that I was to go secretly, under an assumed name, and not even to take uniforms with me.

     I was then taken in, or rather sent in, to see the Secretary of the Navy, as nobody went in with me and nobody was present at the interview. The interview was very brief. In substance the Secretary said that I was being sent abroad to confer with the admiralties on the other side, and to use the cable freely in advising them as to how best they could cooperate with the allied navies, in case we were unfortunately drawn into war. He also told me that the reason I was being sent over was because of a request from the then ambassador in London, Dr. Page; that an officer of high rank should be there;5 as officers of the rank of rear admiral were representing other countries. I believe the Navy Department had taken the initiative in suggesting that an officer be sent over to confer with the other admiralties.

     He gave me a copy of the telegram from Ambassador Page. . . . In his testimony on the awards, the Secretary of the Navy stated that he had reminded me of the indiscretion that I committed in 1910 in the speech at the Guildhall.6 The Secretary’s recollection on that point is thoroughly mistaken. No reference whatever was made to the Guildhall speech by anybody in the Navy Department on this occasion.

     When I came out from the Secretary’s room, or just before I went in—I can not remember now which—in somebody else’s office, I think it was the office of the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and while my recollection is not clear on that, I think he was present, at all events he told me that he was present; and it was there that the admonition in question was given to me by a certain official of the Navy Department. As I said before, I wanted to avoid all personalities, and I should much prefer now to relate the incident and explain why I put it in my letter, without referring to the name of the individual.

The Chairman. I think the name of the individual should be brought out, Admiral Sims, and the committee would like to have you give it.

Admiral Sims. The person who gave me the admonition was Admiral Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations. I had no interview with him. I received no instructions from him. The remark was preceded by nothing and was followed by nothing. It was told to me in all seriousness, and with bitterness, and I turned around and left the office immediately. . . .

     The next day I had to go to the Navy Department to get papers, etc., before leaving, and I met Admiral Benson again, not in his own office or in that office, and there, in the presence of a number of officers, whether within their hearing or whether they heard or not I do not know, he repeated to me exactly the same remark, preceded by nothing and followed by nothing. . . .


The Chairman. What instructions did you personally give to Admiral Sims before he went abroad?

Admiral Benson. The only particular instructions—I can not recall what instructions I gave him. I cautioned him to be very careful in his conduct in regard to how he conducted himself, and called to his attention the very delicate situation that existed. War had not been declared, and that we were directed to maintain a strictly neutral position; to keep it in mind. I gave him very earnest instructions along that line.

The Chairman. The admiral has stated that you said to him, “Do not let the British pull the wool over your eyes. It is none of our business, pulling their chestnuts out of the fire. We would as soon fight the British as the Germans.” Do you recall having made such a statement?

Admiral Benson. I do not. It would be impossible for me to repeat the language that I used to Admiral Sims. As I recall it, the conversation that I had with Admiral Sims took place in Admiral Palmer’s office. Admiral Palmer was the chief of the Bureau of Navigation and our personnel division, and the question of definite instructions to Admiral Sims—they were given by the Secretary, or someone else, not by me. As I recall it, he did not even come to my office. When I was asked as to his being selected, I strongly approved of it, and the conversation that he refers to must have been that one, because I can not recall any other. Just what language I used it would be impossible for me to say. I will say, however, that I felt very strongly on the situation, and I probably used very forcible language, and impressed upon him the seriousness of the situation and the importance of being very careful that his feelings toward the British did not lead him into any indiscretion. The language I used I can not recall. If Admiral Sims states positively that I used that language, why, it will have to go at that.

     The Chairman. You do not deny that you used that language?

     Admiral Benson. I can not deny it, Mr. Chairman. I can deny most strongly, and do, that I ever intended that it should be interpreted as it has been, by the interpretation which has been attempted to give to it. I deny that most strongly. I think my record will indicate that I am not stupid, and that I understand the international situation; I understand that Congress alone can declare war; and it was language that was used under the circumstances, used only in the presence of the Bureau of Personnel, where the question of sending Admiral Sims abroad was discussed, and I considered that it was done in the most confidential and earnest and officerlike manner. I do not think anything could have been more confidential or more earnestly gone into than my conversation with Admiral Sims.

     The Chairman. How could you say at that time that we would as soon fight the British as the Germans?

     Admiral Benson. Merely as a figure of speech, Mr. Chairman, to impress upon him the delicacy of the situation and the importance of conducting himself with great care. . . . 7

Source Note: Naval Investigation, 1: 267-70; 2: 1881-82. The date is taken from the date when Sims was issued the instructions discussed in this testimony. The testimony took place on 22 March 1920 for Sims and 6 May 1920 for Adm. William S. Benson. For more on the dispatch of Sims to London, see: Page to Lansing, 23 March 1917; and notes.

Footnote 1: This testimony was given in hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs of the U. S. Senate to investigate charges made by RAdm. William S. Sims about the state of preparedness of the U. S. Navy when it entered World War I. A letter from Sims to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels of 7 January 1920--referred to in Sims’ testimony here--sparked this congressional investigation. Daniels saw it as an attack on his running of the Navy Department and Sims hoped it would force a reorganization of the Navy. As Sims’ biographer (and son-in-law) Elting E. Morison wrote:

The ultimate purpose behind the letter of January 7, 1920, was the reorganization of the Navy Department. . . . this had been for Sims a cherished dream. . . . To prove that this was necessary, he had to prove first, that the Navy had been unprepared for the war, and second, that it had been slow to act in the first five or six months after our entry into the war. . . He set himself the task of showing that the material of the Navy was in general unfit for immediate military service. Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), 441-42.

Footnote 2: Senator Frederick Hale, Republican from Maine.

Footnote 3: On the appointment of Sims, see: Woodrow Wilson to Daniels, 24 March 1917.

Footnote 4: RAdm. Leigh C Palmer, Former Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

Footnote 5: Ambassador to Great Britain Walter Hines Page.

Footnote 7: This congressional investigation began as an inquiry into Daniels’ issuing of medals to Navy personnel. In a speech at the Guildhall in London in 1910, Sims said: “If the time ever comes when the British Empire is seriously menaced by an external enemy, it is my opinion that you may count upon every man, every dollar, every drop of blood of your kindred across the sea.” Sims was officially reprimanded by President William Taft for his remarks. Still, Crisis at Sea: 281. In his memoirs, Daniels repeated his assertion that he had mentioned the Guildhall speech to Sims when briefing him on this mission. Daniels, Years of War: 67.

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