Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt to Senator Frederick Hale of Maine, Chairman of the Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs.
Washington, June 4, 1920.
MY DEAR SENATOR: You ask in your letter of May 7 that I give you any suggestions that occur to me about changes in the organization of the Navy Department which would, in my opinion, be desirable. Will you allow me, with great respect, to be entirely frank?
From newspaper accounts of the hearings before the subcommittee, I gather that the great bulk of the evidence given has related to operations during the late war and to the conduct of individual officers and officials, and that, therefore, the questions relating to the actual organization of the Navy Department have been either entirely passed by or have been brought out as mere incidentals to other matters. With entire respect, I do not see how any committee could make helpful recommendations in regard to the organization of the Navy Department without a full and complete investigation of the whole subject.
I have devoted more than seven years to the Navy of the United States,1 and during that time have necessarily come in contact with it in all of its various phases. Yet I myself would hesitate to approach the subject of changes in the administrative, executive, or operating functions of the Navy without a further very complete and exhaustive study.
It is perfectly true that because of my experience here and a personal study of many schemes for reorganization I am of the distinct belief that improvements can be made in the existing organization. I like to think that every department of the Government, legislative and executive, can be improved ; but to be influenced by snap judgments or broad statements of individuals, as brought out in some of the questions asked by your committee and the answers thereto, would be the height of folly, and if acted on would seriously injure the future of the Navy.
I have seen it suggested by several people that the authority of the Chief of Naval Operations should be increased. This statement is so broad as to be wholly valueless. It must be remembered that Congress, in its wisdom, has from the earliest days of the Republic established the principle of civilian control at the head of the Naval Establishment. During only one period our history has this been altered. That was in the period after the War of 1812, when a board of three Navy commissioners, all of them high ranking officers, was given great power, thereby taking away much of the authority of the civilian Secretary of the Navy.2 That particular system fell by its own weight, the naval service itself being thoroughly dissatisfied with what might be called the dual control. I feel perfectly confident that to-day, also, the service sees the folly of any suggestion placing an officer at the head of the Navy as Secretary. A little thought would convince anyone that it would be equally ridiculous to have a civilian Secretary of the Navy, but to give him no authority and to give all the authority to a Chief of Operations. In other words, the question is simply this: Shall civilian responsibility and authority continue at the head of the service, or shall it be superseded by purely naval control? Therefore, any broad statement about “giving more authority to the Chief of Naval Operations” means nothing unless its meaning is defined.
It is my opinion that very great strides have been taken during the past few years in improving the administration of the Navy as a whole. The establishment of the Office of Operations was the most important step taken in several generations.3 In many other particulars, also, such as the coordinating of the different material bureaus under the Assistant Secretary, modern business practices were firmly established.
But, as I have said before, I do not regard the system as perfect, and I am convinced that from time to time steps should be taken to improve the existing organization and to have it keep pace with the times. For example, I believe that the time has come when, in accordance with the best business practice, an Office of Inspections should be created which would be independent of any of the bureaus.4 The present system of having the same people who are doing the work do also their own inspecting of that work is incorrect in principle.
So, also, I believe that two additional Assistant Secretaries should be authorized, one to have immediate supervision over the personnel bureaus, the other to have immediate supervision over the material bureaus. These Assistant Secretaries should act as the connecting link between the Office of Operations and the bureaus. Almost every other important department of the Government has three or more Assistant Secretaries. It must be remembered, however, that the present scale of pay for Assistant Secretaries will mean in the future that it will be necessary for any administration to appoint either independently wealthy citizens to these posts or to accept the services of second or third rate men.
I have given the two examples above merely as illustrations of many personal suggestions which I might make, but they ought not, in my judgment, to be considered by your subcommittee in view of the many limitations of the investigation which has been conducted. In other words, they are merely the snap judgments of an individual, similar to those you have heard from several officers who have testified before you, and merely scratch the surface of the broad subject.
As a matter of fact, there are many other questions of organization and of administration which are constantly brought up in the management of a great department of this kind; for instance, the present status of the General Board;|5| the existing control of the navy yards; the present tendency to build up a “holier-than-thou” small organization or aggregation of officers at Newport and the imperative need of tying the War College into more close touch with the actual life of the Navy. It would be useless for me to discuss these matters at this time.
Frankly, what is the most serious trouble with the Navy now, as it has been in the past, is Congress. The system of making legislation and appropriations is not only archaic, but would put any private business firm into bankruptcy in a month. The method of dealing with any one of the naval appropriation bills will, I am sure, convince you of this. The Navy has in the past been treated altogether too much, as the tariff used to be, as a local issue. Allow me to cite as an example the amendments made by the Senate Naval Affairs Committee to the present appropriations bill. I am convinced after seven years’ association here that the legislative and appropriating methods of Congress have compelled far too many of our naval officers to resort to similar political methods, because it has been the only way to accomplish results. This is, of course, entirely wrong. The Navy has always had to lead a hand-to-mouth existence, interspersed with investigations, hastily gotten up plans, makeshift policies, and a general spirit of time-serving to meet the political conditions of the hour. Two great steps have been take in the past few years: First, the partial recognition of the continuing existence of the Navy by the passage of the three-year building program in 1915;5secondly, by the creation of the office Operation, with the responsibility for actual operations in the Chief of Naval Operations. If we are to build up broadly, we must build along these lines and do it slowly. We must build up a continuing policy, but above all there must be a recognition of that policy by Congress and not the present system of haphazard changes and shots in the dark.
That is why I am obsolutely opposed to any action by your subcommittee looking to changes in the existing organization. Such changes, hastily arrived at, would only muddy the waters and would accomplish no good in the long run.
I do not believe the time has yet come for a careful examination of the broad subject. We are altogether too close to the war to understand its lessons. We are in the middle of a partisan campaign. We have not yet wholly completed the work of demobilization. In other words, we are still greatly occupied with the work arising from the war itself. It seems to me that by next or next spring it would be possible and entirely right to have an examination and careful study made, but such an examination should be conducted only by experts.
Very sincerely, yours,
Hon. Frederick Hale, United States Senate.
Source Note: TCy, Naval Investigation: 2:3391-3.
Footnote 1: Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920.
Footnote 2: This is a reference to the Board of Navy Commissioners, which was established on 7 February 1815 and replaced by the Navy bureau system in 1842. Charles O. Paullin, “Naval Administration Under the Navy Commissioners, 1815-1842,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 33, no. 2 (1907): 597-641; Morison, Naval Administration, II-2-4.
Footnote 3: Roosevelt had previously testified before the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs on 28 May 1916 that the Operations office’s establishment was “the most material step that has been taken in the history of the Navy toward perfect organization.” For Roosevelt’s earlier thoughts on the Office of Operations, see: Ibid., II-40; Still, Crisis at Sea, 11.
Footnote 4: Despite his early support for the idea, the Office of the Naval Inspector General would not be established until 18 May 1942. Commander in Chief, United States Fleet, “Office of the Inspector General,” (Washington, DC: 1945) in Administrative History of the Navy Department in World War II, 12: 38-9.
Footnote 5: Although plans for the building program were first were first debated in Congress in October 1915, funds were not appropriated for it until the passage of the Naval Act of 1916 on 29 August 1916. An Act Making appropriations for the naval service for the fiscal year ending June thirtieth, nineteen hundred and seventeen, and for other purposes. Public Law 241, U.S. Statutes at Large 39 (1916): 556-619.