U.S. Navy: Inter-War Developments (1920s-30s)

American inter-war navy
Figure 1.--Here civilians are having a look at the Navy's third carrier, the 'USS Saratoga' (CV-3) on what looks like a day the ship was open to the public, perhaps something like Fleet Day some time around 1935. The Navy was at the time the ship was designed not convinced that aircraft could comoletely substitute as armament for a warship. Navy planners concluded that this would be a serious problem at night or in bad weather that would prevent aircraft launches. 'Saratoga's design thus included a substantial gun battery of eight 55-caliber Mk 9 eight-inch guns in four twin gun turrets. There were alo still debate about the appropriate design such as size and the island. 'Saratoga' was like the two other early carriers, converted from a ship that had not been initially designed as a carrier.

The U.S. Navy was affected by the end of World War I and the ovrall political and economic trends of the inter-War era. The American people turned away from the Democrats and Wilsonian Idealism. The vast majority of Americans not only wanred a return to peacetime pursuits, but were less interested in the progressive reform movement pf the early-20th century. There were a range of issues that America needed to address, almost all of which were domestic matters: adjusting to demobilization, farm problems, labor issues, immigration, prohibition, and arange of other issues. TYhe eurphoria of the World War I victory soon sissolved into disillusionment and rejection of war. Many Americans came to regret participation in World War I. Many were objected to the treaty-making process that followed the War. There was not only a rejection of the War, but a growing feeling that industrilists (arms makers which began to be referred to as the 'merchahts of death') had drawn America into the War. The result was a rapid growth in isolationism with substantial pacifist overtones, Americans attempted to withdraw from international commitments. Wilson attempted to make the League of Nations the center piece of post-War policy. The U.S. Senate rejected the League and as a result the Treary of Versailles (March 1920). Americans wanted no part of the responsibilities associated with world leadership. Republican Senator Warren G. Harding and Republican presidential candidate encapsulated what was on the minds of most voter called for 'a return to normalcy'. It was not even a word, but most Americans liked the sound of it. It would only later become all too paarent that try as it might to isolate itself, the United STates would not be able to isolate itself from the world. The U.S. Navy like the Royal Navy decommisioned many vessels in the inter-War years as part of the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaties. Thus the U.S. Navy had the task of meeting its responsibilities with a much smaller force. In contrast to the Army, the Congress approved substantial appropriations for naval contruction, especially after Japan failed to accept continued limits on naval construction. Most naval strategists before the War believed that the backbone of the fleet was the big-gun battleships, but an increasing number of vissionary thinkers began to see air power as the future.

Post-World War I Disilusionment

The military, both the U.S. Navy and Army, was affected by the end of World War I and the overall political and economic trends of the inter-War era. The American people turned away from the Democrats and Wilsonian Idealism. The vast majority of Americans not only wanred a return to peacetime pursuits, but were less interested in the progressive reform movement that had played such an important role in the early-20th century. There were a range of issues that America needed to address, almost all of which were domestic matters: adjusting to demobilization, farm problems, labor issues, immigration, prohibition, and arange of other issues. TYhe eurphoria of the World War I victory soon dissolved into disillusionment and rejection of war. Many Americans came to regret participation in World War I. The number of men wounded and killed werre substantial dispite the fact that American units were in combat less thn a year. They were a fraction of the losses experiened by the Europeans, but still hav\d a substantial impact on American thinking. Many were objected to the treaty-making process that followed the War. There was not only a rejection of the War, but a growing feeling that industrialists (arms makers which began to be referred to as the 'merchahts of death') had drawn America into the War. Thiswould be aecurring theme in inter-War politics and engenered Congressional hearings. And ecven thouh Congress turned up no evidence of these changes, it remaimned a popular theme, in part because it dove tiled with pipular Sovialist thought.

Isolationism

One result of the World War I disilutionment was a rapid growth in isolationism with substantial pacifist overtones, Americans attempted to withdraw from international commitments. Wilson attempted to make the League of Nations the center piece of post-War policy. The U.S. Senate rejected the League and as a result the Treary of Versailles (March 1920). Americans wanted no part of the responsibilities associated with world leadership. Republican Senator Warren G. Harding and Republican presidential candidate encapsulated what was on the minds of most voter called for 'a return to normalcy'. It was not even a word, but most Americans liked the sound of it. It would only later become all too paarent that try as it might to isolate itself, the United States would not be able to isolate itself from the world or escape from dangerous political development in both Europe and Asia.

Naval Arms Limitations

Naval vessels are extremely expensive to build and maintain. The victorious Allies had won the war, but except for America largely banrupted themselves. There was thus a desire to limit military spending after the War, even in the United States. Japan unike the other Allied poers did not want to reduce the size of itsnavy. The U.S. Navy like the Royal Navy thus decommisioned many vessels in the inter-War years as part of the effort ro reduce spending abd the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaties. This proved to be a great advntage to the Japnese, altough naval commnders considered it an insult. Japan received a smaller quota than America, but Japanese indutry did not have the capabilkity to build much more than its quota. Ar the same tome the United states began decommissioning older ships. The Japanese would eventually pull out of the naval limutations effort. The United States did not at first begin mtching Japnese naval construction. The U.S. Navy because many sips had been decommissoned had the task of meeting its responsibilities with a much smaller force. As Japanese and then German intentions became clear, the United State began a major ship building effort. This effort was supported by President Roosevelt who had a major interest in naval affairs and an accurate appreciation ofte character of both the Japanese and German leadership.

Unique Status of the Navy

Somehow the vebndetta some Congressmen nd the public pursued agaunst industrialists and the U.S. Army ws less intense regarding the Navy. This is not enirely clear why, but in contrast to the Army, there were some limited appropriations for naval construction. We believe that the Navy fit into the isolationist mindset more than the Army. For the isolationists, two great oceans provided much of the protection that America needed. And the case could easily be made that a navy was needed to patrol those oceans and protect the U.S. coasts. So even many isolations could understand the need for a strong navy. There were pacifist elements in the isolationist movement, but it was not the dominant component. Many isolationists believed in a strong national defense to protect a fortress America while the rest of the world bubbled. And in contrast to the Army, the Congress approved substantial appropriations for naval contruction, especially after Japan failed to accept continued limits on naval construction. Here not only did President Roosevelt understand the developing dangers, but as a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy has an interest in the Navy and naval matters.

Naval Construction

Many naval vessels were decommissioned during the 1920s. The Washington Naval Treaties had placed limits on fleet capacity and Congress severely restricted all military spending. Franklin Roosevelt like his cousin Theodore began his Washington career as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He served during World War I. As President he took a interest in naval affairs, but his initial policy was limiting military spending to focus on the Depression. Developments in Asia and Europe forced a change in priorities. The first military response to Japanese militarism and NAZI military expansion was renewed naval construction. The Washington Naval Treaties did not limit aircraft carriers like battleships. Naval commanders continued to see battleships s the Navy's principal strike force. Even so, the Navy did create a significant carrier arm in the inter-war period. President Roosevelt faced strong opposition to his naval buildup from a powerful pacifist-isolationist lobby. The politics of defense spending was complicated and President Roosevelt had a difficult juggling act. Liberal democrats who supported the New Deals social program were not as enthusiastic about defense spending. Conservative Southern Democrats who were supportive of defense spending were not as enthusiastic about New Deal social programs. In particular, efforts to pursue civil rights or immigration reform would alienate the Southern Democrats the President needed to gain Congressional approval for defense spending. The naval vessels built during this period, however, especially the carriers were the heart of the fleet that after Pearl Harbor managed to stop the Japanese expansion in the Pacific until a vast new fleet could be built to win the War.

Naval Threats

The United States saw Japn emerging as a naval threat in the Pacific after World War I. Japan did not have tghe industrial capcity to outbuild the United States, but it did hve the political will to devote more funding to the military than the Unoted Sttes had during peace time. And the Japan began to see the United States as its likely naval adversary when after the War the United States refused to grant naval parity to the United States and opposed Japanese efforts to dominte China and to dd it to the Japanese Empire. This was not a major problem during the 1920s, especially because the British decided to let their naval treaty with Japan lapse and to cooperate with the United States on security issues and naval arms limitations. Faced with fighting a naval war America and Britain on their own with the Red Army in the north. , the Japanese held back, but continued an important naval building program. This situation changed in the 1930s. The Military steadily gained in unfluence within Japan, assasinating civilian politicans that dared oppose it. The first major impact of the military's growing role was the seizure of Manchuria from China (1931). The defining moment in Japan's foreign policy came with the NAZI seizure of power (1933). This provided a powerful potential ally that could be used to neutralize both the Soviet Union and Britain, but to a more limited extent the United States. Japan decided to withdraw from the efforts to extend the Washington Naval Treaties limiting vessel contruction (1935).The Anglo-German Naval Treaty (1935) provided for renewed German naval contruction, including submarines. Suddenly the United States not only faced a naval threat in the Pacific, but now the Atlantic as well. And these threats only escalated as Japan invaded China (1937) and pursued and increasinly aggresive foreign policy. The same proved true of NAZI Germany, as the NAZI rearmament program progressed, including expanded naval construction, Hitler also began to pursue an increasingly aggresive foreign policy. In addition, the Italian fascists pursued an important naval construction program. And these countries with their expanding navies increasingly moved together, culminating in the Axis alliance (September 1940). Unbengonst to British and American naval planners, technical developments in Japan, meant that the Axis despite their smaller industrial base, was developing naval military superiority.

Naval Weaponry

Ships are of course are at the heart of any navy, but there are many weapons and other equipment assiciated with navies. One very important weapon was the torpedo. Incredibly America did not develop aelable torpedo during the inter-War era. The reason for this was that torpedoes were expensive and the Navy did not want to fire very many of their expensive torpedoes in rigorous tests.

Naval Intelligence

The United States upon entering World War I made small expenditures for cryptology. This was done throuugh the U.S. Army and State Department. The effort was overseen by Y.O. Yardley and became known as the Black Chamber. The U.S. Navy did not get substantially involved and America was only in the War for about 1 1/2 years. One outcome of the War was a $100,000 slush fund controlled by the Director of Naval Intelligence and kept secret from Congress. Little of this money was spent during the War. After the War, a small amount was used to fund break-ins at the Japanese Consulte in New York City. This netted the Navy the Japanese Navy's 'Red' code book. [Budiansky, p.5.] The Navy hired linguists to translate it. Meanwhile Yardley and the Black Chamber were working on the Japanese diplomatic codes. After the War, the Navy had a code unit consiting of one man--Lieutenant Laurance F. Stafford. Stafford knew nothing about codes, let alone code breaking. He received irders to devise new naval codes (1924). Knowing nothing about codes, he decided on his own that a good beginning point would be to have a lose look at foreign codes. Thus the 'research desk' in the Old Navy Department Building was born. It would develop into obe of the most important parts of the U.S. Navy's World War II effort. Soon after, Joseph J. Rochefort, showed up for duty to assist in the effort. (He and other Navy cryptologists would later play a central role in the Battle of Midway.) Like Stafford, he knew nothing about codes and selected because he was known to like newspaper crossword puzzels (1925). Together they would work out the additive system, but the Japanese complicated their wotk by updating the Red Code and additives. And Yardley after Secretary Simson discovered decoded messages found himself without a job and broke. He then not only sold code breaking details to the Japanese, but then published a book on it (1931). [Yardley] The outraged Japanese, in part because Yardley published the account that he had secretly sold to them, proceeded to update their code systems by adopting cipher machines. This of course grealy increased the monumental challenge faced by the Navy codebreakers. Simmering tensions in the Pacific caused the Navy to devote increading resources on codebreaking. Stafford's one-man research desk operation gradually grew into OP-20-G. This was the Navy's centralized code breaking operation in Washington. Their focus was on AN, the cipher reicarnation of the Imperial Navy's Red code. It would later become known as JN-25. The Navy set up interception facilities in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines (Cavite). The British were also hard at work at Singaorte and Australia. Some progress was made, but not enough to read the messages. And as the Army had cracked the Japanese diplomatic Purle code (Magic), some Navy personnel were used to work on Purple messages, reducung the effort on JN-25. When the Japanese launched the Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbor. By chance Rochefort commanding the Navy code unit at Pearl which would become known as Station Hypo.

Naval Strategy

Well before Japan launched the Pacific War both naval staffs reached the same conclusion, a naval war would be won by one climatic naval engagement. The Japanese reached this conclusion largely on the basis of their defeat of the Russian Imperial Fleet in the Russo-Japanese War (1905). The Russian Second Pacific Squadron (the renamed Baltic Fleet) sailed 18,000 nautical miles (33,000 km) to relieve Port Arthur which fell before they reached the Pacific. Japanese commander Admiral Togo realized the fleet would have to head for Vladivostok and committed the entire Imperial Navy to intercept the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits. Here the Japanese desroyed the Russian Fleet. Thus Japanese naval planners even in the 1920s were planning for one massive fleet engagement with the U.S. Pacific Fleet. American naval planners reached the same conclusion and developed Plan Orange. The U.S. Pacific Fleet would first sail to the Western Pacific to relieve American outposts there--Guam and the Philippines. Then the Fleet would proceed North for a decisive fleet enggement with the Imperial Navy's Combined Fleet after which the United States would blockade the Japanese Home islands which were dependent on imported food and raw materials. Both the Japanese and American naval staffs were influenced by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan fortelling that naval wars would be decided by fleet engagements. Most naval strategists before the War believed that the backbone of the fleet was the big-gun battleships which would decided the forseen fleet engagement. An increasing number of vissionary thinkers began to see air power as the future. This required not only innovative thinking, but also impriovements in naval aviation. Early carriers like Saratoga show that the Navy's commitment to big guns was slow to shift (figure 1). As the Pacific War unfolded, that climactic naval engagement was slow to come. The Battle of Midway was Admiral Yamamoto's attempt to bring the U.S. Pacif Fleet to battle (1942). The climatic naval battle did finally come, came 2 years later in the Battle of the Phillipes Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944).

Atlantic Ocean


Pacific Ocean


Sources

Budiansky, Stephen. Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 436p.

Yardley, Y.O. The American Black Chamber (1931).






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Created: 5:11 AM 12/18/2011
Last updated: 11:45 PM 12/11/2012