Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight, President, Board of Awards, to Senator Frederick Hale of Maine, Chairman of the Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs.

                                          BOARD OF AWARDS, NAVY DEPARTMENT,

                                                                    Washington, D.C., June 10, 1920.

Hon. Frederick Hale,

          United States Senate.

     MY DEAR SENATOR: Replying to your letter of May 7 requesting recommendations as to a reorganization of the Navy Department.

     After very careful consideration of the subject, I find myself unable to suggest any plan of reorganization which, in my opinion, gives promise of material improvement. The present organization of the department is not perfect, but it is far from being inefficient, and I confess that if I were given authority to reform it I should not know where to begin. It is easy to say that the Chief of Operations should have more power. But I do not see how he could be given any power which would remove him from the authority of the President, who is the Commander in Chief of the Navy, or from that of the Secretary of the Navy, who is the President’s representative and deputy.

     It has been suggested that the Chief of Operations be appointed by Congress and made answerable to Congress alone, but it appears to me that this would be a direct violation of the Constitution and of the whole theory of our Government. And even if this were not the case, the plan would have the vital faults of substituting many authorities for one, of dissipating instead of concentrating authority, and of making it wholly impossible to place responsibility for errors.

     The lack of preparedness for war in the spring of 1917 could not have been corrected by the Chief of Operations by virtue of any additional powers which might have been attributed to him on the statute books. The obstacles which prevented the effective preparation of such forces as were theoretically subject to his control were not such as could be reached by legislation. The only hope of preventing similar obstacles from arising in the future, with similar results, lies in the development of a public sentiment which shall recognize that the Navy exists for national defense, and for no other purpose whatsoever, and that if it is not to be maintained in a condition of efficiency for that purpose it might better be abolished.1

     In January, 1915, I received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy asking what the Naval War College considered should be the principal effort of the fleet. I replied:

     “The War College considers that every effort of the fleet and every effort of the department in connection with the fleet should have for its sole aim the war efficiency of the fleet. Every effort which does not directly contribute to this end is in itself a wasteful expenditure of energy, and so far as it is a diversion from this end, is distinctly harmful.”2

     When a public sentiment shall have been developed which recognizes the above as the mission of the Navy and when this sentiment shall have found concrete expression in all those branches of the Government which provide for and direct the activities of the Navy, then and not until then, will the Navy be brought to a state of adequate preparedness and maintained in such a state. And legislation does not create public sentiment, but follows it.

     Preparedness for war is one thing. The conduct of war is quite another. Here there will be no necessity for creating public sentiment in support of the Navy. Every facility that can be made available when war is actually on will be placed at the disposition of the controlling authority. But here again there can be no question as to where the controlling authority is lodged. In war, as in peace, the President is the Commander in Chief and the Secretary of the Navy is his representative. If they recognize their own inevitable limitations in matters purely technical, and if they have confidence in the Chief of Operations, they will leave to him the direction of the fleet, subject only to considerations of large policy such as sometimes necessarily transcend policies strictly military. If they fail to recognize their own limitations, or lack confidence in the Chief of Operations, they may and probably will, obstruct and thwart him. And no laws that can be passed will prevent this. And just here I desire to say that I am one of those who believe that after the United States declared war in April, 1917, the administration of the Navy was, upon the whole, surprisingly effective, and the record of the Navy one of which every American has reason to be proud—all the prouder perhaps because what was accomplished was accomplished with very inadequate facilities. I have no sympathy whatever with criticism which selects a few failures and errors here and there and holds them up to the country as if they were typical of the Navy’s record as a while. I believe the recent controversy has given the country an entirely false impression of the work accomplished by the Navy in the war and that it has done the Navy infinite harm.  Some day the world will recognize the facts and while judging correctly the lamentable lack of preparedness with which we entered the war, will judge correctly also the splendid successes attained.

     To sum up.  I think that the present organization of the Navy Department, while probably not the best that could be devised, is adequate for successful administration both in peace and in war; but that, like all other organizations, it depends for its efficient working upon the personalities and the temperament of those who direct it, and—a consideration of vastly greater importance—upon the sentiment which lies back of all executive authority in the hearts and minds of the people of the country and their representatives in Congress.

                                                                  Austin M. Knight,

                                                       Rear Admiral, United States Navy, Retired.

Source Note: TCy, Naval Investigation, 2:3409-10.

Footnote 1: Even before the war, RAdm. Knight (then serving as President of the Naval War College) had criticized the Navy, Congress, and the public as a whole for “asking, not what do we need for efficiency? but what can we afford to spend for efficiency?” Quoted in Hudson Maxim, Defenseless America (New York: Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915), 152.

Footnote 2: The telegram in question was actually sent on 15 December 1914 and replied to the very next day.  For both Daniels’ telegram and Knight’s full response, see: Hearings Before Committee on Naval Affairs of the House of Representatives on Estimates Submitted by the Secretary of the Navy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915), 676-7.

Related Content