Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain William V. Pratt, Commander, USS NEW YORK, to Senator Frederick Hale of Maine, Chairman of the Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs.

                                                                     U. S. S. “ NEW YORK,”1

                  Navy Yard, Puget Sound, Wash., May 17, 1920.

Senator Frederick Hale,

     Chairman Subcommittee Senate Committee on Naval Affairs

     MY DEAR SENATOR HALE: I beg to acknowledge your letter of May 7, 1920, just received by me at Puget Sound Navy Yard.

     The suggestions you ask for I inclose as a separate paper. That paper is merely a statement of the present laws governing the organization of the Navy Department, with the changes I should like to see made in order to give the Navy what, to my mind, would be a sound organization.2

     In this paragraph I will attempt to briefly outline the reasons why such a change is necessary:

(a)  In the first place, the mass of evidence submitted in the recent investigation shows in point of fact that at the declaration of war the Navy was not as fully prepared in material or personnel as it should be.

(b)  That while this lack of foresightedness in the matter of adequate preparation made no special difference in this particular war, owing to the peculiar character the war assumed, and, above all, owing to the fact that our Navy was given time to prepare—our enemy being contained and held by the throat by a superior navy—yet for a future war such a state of affairs would be a source of danger to our country.

(c)  That the present law does not definitely place the responsibility for military preparedness before war is declared, nor of military operations after war is declared, upon the proper military head, nor does it give the requisite power to the proper military head to efficiently administer the purely military functions of the Navy during the two periods aforesaid.

(d)  That the present system permits of a complete change in the approved plan for military preparedness and operation of our Navy, even on the brink of or during a war, due to a change in the civilian head.

(e)  That under the present system there can be no continuous approved plan for military preparedness or operation which is not subject to the personal views of the civilian head, who of necessity approaches this task untrained in naval matters and unschooled in the art of war.

(f)  That there is nothing in the law which prevents the civilian head from exercising direct military authority in war if he so chooses to do, regardless of his competency in this technical subject, or of the results which may follow.

(g)  That the law does not provide for one chief naval adviser, from whom the civilian head may receive his advice, the result being that there may be as many military advisers as there are persons to consult with, any one of whom may be competent or incompetent. The outcome of this system is that there can always be found a naval adviser who will advocate a plan, be it good or bad, and the responsibility can never be definitely fixed. The civilian head acts upon the advice of a naval adviser, but the adviser assumes no responsibility for his advice.

(h)  That there is no military head definitely appointed by law to coordinate the various technical operations of the Navy, according to approved continuous plans for preparation and operation.

(i)  That the responsibility for the proper choice of a competent chief naval adviser is not definitely fixed upon the civilian head. The result of the present system is not necessarily to choose the best men, but such men as will lend themselves most readily to the views of the civilian head, be they sound or unsound.

(j)  That the General Board is a creation of Naval Regulations and not of law, and that its functions, instead of being purely advisory, are a combination of the advisory and administrative, in that the board is made responsible for detailed war plans.3 The board shares this responsibility with the Chief of Naval Operations, thus dividing it and making it impossible to fix it. The functions of this board should be purely advisory. It should be the balance wheel of the Naval Establishment and its reports should go through the Secretary to Congress.

(k)  Finally there is not fixed by law any definite method of procedure whereby in case of a clash of opinions between the civilian and military heads of our Navy in regard to the adequateness of the existing plans in vogue for safeguarding the naval preparedness of our country, the matter can in a proper manner be laid openly and honestly before the public, whose interests are the interests at stake.4

I am forced to the above conclusions from the experience gained in the past war, while serving in the office of Operations as assistant for Operations and as Assistant Chief of Naval Operations,5and to some extent responsible for the operations conducted by that office, and for its expansion and reorganization during the war. The above statements are made without any personal feeling or animus in the matter, but so strongly am I impressed with the necessity for a change, that I voluntarily state that, with the experience of the war behind me, I would decline to be honored with an appointment as Chief of Naval Operations, though it would be the highest appointment in our Navy, unless I felt that I could by law, honestly and efficiently perform the duties which I believe that officer owes to his country and assume the attendant responsibilities.6

          Very sincerely and respectfully, yours,

                                                                       W.V PRATT,

                                                                         Captain, United States Navy.

Source Note: TCy, Naval Investigation, 2:3414-5.

Footnote 1: Battleship NEW YORK (BB-34).

Footnote 2: Pratt’s modified versions of the aforementioned naval regulations are similar to the legislation that passed the House in 1915 insofar as both require the CNO to be appointed from among the ranks of rear admirals and expand the office’s role to include fleet planning.  In addition, Pratt also pays special attention to the position of Assistant CNO (which he had previously held), arguing that it should possess the rank of rear admiral.  See: Naval Investigation, 2:3415-18.

Footnote 3: For more on the General Board, see: Fletcher to Hale, 16 May 1920; Coontz to Hale, 2 June 1920; Roosevelt to Hale, 4 June 1920; Mayo to Hale, 10 May 1920, Naval Investigation, 3402; Laning to Hale, 12 May 1920, Ibid., 3418, Pye to Hale, 3 June 1920, Ibid., 3429-32.

Footnote 4: Sims similarly argued that there needed to be greater transparency concerning disagreements between civilian and military authorities.  See: Sims to Hale, 13 May 1920.

Footnote 5: Pratt served in Operations from 1916 to 1919.

Footnote 6: Pratt later held the position of Chief of Naval Operations from 1930 to 1933.

Related Content