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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Prelude to Pearl Harbor

Gerald E. Wheeler

published by
University of Missouri Press,
Columbia, Missouri

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p187 Conclusions

From 1921 to 1931 Japan exerted its principal influence upon American naval policies by filling the role of the hypothetical enemy. The General Board of the Navy in 1922 set down in writing the fundamental naval policy of the United States:

The Navy of the United States should be maintained in sufficient strength to support its policies and commerce, and to guard its continental and overseas possessions.

In the Far East this policy required the Navy to support the Open Door and guard the Philippine Islands. The nation most likely to challenge the American Navy was Japan, and over the years this premise became the most important factor in American naval planning.

To safeguard effectively the nation's Far Eastern interests, the Navy after the World War concentrated its power in the Pacific. A reorganization of the Navy in 1922 resulted in the creation of the United States Fleet with its most powerful subdivision, the Battle Fleet, based on the Pacific Coast. Naval planners took an increased interest in constructing an adequate shore establishment to service the Battle Fleet and anxiously sought to make Hawaii a focus of American naval power in the Pacific. Once the Washington Five-Power Naval Treaty became effective, Guam and Manila had to be kept in statu quo, and the Pearl Harbor naval base therefore grew in importance. Oahu, however, was 5,000 miles from Manila.

Operations in the Pacific west of Hawaii in the event of a Japanese-American war required a navy of great steaming endurance. Hence the United States Navy turned increasingly toward larger naval units. Once converted to oil burners, the American battleships were able to operate in Philippine waters, with Pearl Harbor as a base. Cruisers accompanying the Battle Fleet needed range, and the natural result was insistence by the General Board upon building cruisers of the maximum size allowed by the Washington treaty — 10,000 tons. To patrol effectively and to convoy shipping in the p188western Pacific, the Navy armed its cruisers with 8‑inch guns and insisted upon at least 32 knots speed. To meet the demands of endurance, speed, and 8‑inch armament, the General Board could see no possibilities in a cruiser displacing less than 10,000 tons.

Japan's influence on the Navy's war planning was obvious. All efforts were bent to create a workable "Orange War" plan, and it was given the highest priority. In its progression from premise to war plans the Navy encountered the problem of legislative-executive relationships in government. As a component of the executive branch the Navy was responsible to the President and at times worked closely with the State Department. In common with all government agencies the Navy Department depended on Congress for its funds, and an abundance or scarcity of money was an important determinant in the Navy's planning. Congress also affected the Navy indirectly when it legislated on matters relating to foreign affairs.

The administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover functioned within the framework of a Far Eastern policy inherited from the McKinley-Roosevelt period. They wanted to preserve the Open Door in China, and Filipino independence requests were rejected until the end of Hoover's administration. The secretaries of state through these years attempted to maintain good relations with Japan; at the same time the Navy was indoctrinated with the idea of supporting Far Eastern policy. As a result the proper executive relationships existed. There was unity of action from the time of policy creation to its implementation. From the Navy's viewpoint there was weakness in the fact that the President and his budget director did not believe there was any urgency in creating a stronger fleet in the minimum amount of time. However, every business-minded Chief Executive undoubtedly regarded America as Japan's best customer and assumed the Japanese to believe, along with Al Smith, that "you don't shoot Santa Claus."

The three Republican administrations inherited a capricious Congress as well as a traditional Far Eastern policy. The years of heavy-handed direction by President Wilson had resulted in the resurgence of a demand for Congressional leadership in all areas of government. The Presidents, particularly Harding and Coolidge, were p189satisfied with the new relationship, but the situation was pregnant with danger in foreign affairs.

The Washington Naval Conference was called as a result of unremitting pressure from Congress, particularly in the Senate, and the results showed the mark of the legislator as well as the diplomat. The reductions in capital ships and the agreement to keep the Pacific island fortifications in statu quo were made with the thought in mind that Congress would never appropriate for the completion of either. That the treaty provisions vitally impaired the Navy's support of American Far Eastern policy made no impression on the legislators. The General Board knew who was responsible for the emasculation of the Navy and in private blamed Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Oscar W. Underwood and particularly the elder statesman Elihu Root.

After the Washington Conference, when Japanese-American relations were excellent, Congress created a new atmosphere of hostility through passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 with its Japanese exclusion provision. This was clearly a show of Congressional strength in a sensitive area of foreign affairs. Regardless of the motivation involved, the results were destructive of Japanese amity. For a group of legislators who considered Japan's protest a veiled threat, their later miserly naval authorizations showed unmistakable inconsistency.

Naval appropriations and construction bills in the 1920's reveal Congressional unwillingness to legislate with support of an active foreign policy in mind. The money appropriated for the construction of six gunboats to be used in Chinese waters is the only evident exception. That naval appropriations declined steadily until 1926, though 1924 and 1925 were critical years in Japanese-American relations, suggests again that Congress did not consider the times to be as unpropitious as the Navy believed. Later rises in naval appropriations after 1926 were not the result of a renewed concern for foreign affairs but merely represented the cost of equipping the fleet with aircraft. In fairness to the legislators it should be observed that Congress was continually under pressure from the taxpayers to reduce service appropriations — Navy and Army.

Throughout the 1920's the Navy was tortured by its own consistency of viewpoint. The contradictions inherent in representative governments constantly thwarted naval attempts to prepare for war p190in the Pacific. The instability in the nation's dealings with Japan was a natural result of sharing the work of foreign policy formulation with Congress. A firmer hand by Harding and Coolidge would possibly have prevented some of the difficulties that arose, but neither man was selected as a presidential candidate because he promised executive firmness. With the passage of years the General Board never changed its interpretation of American Far Eastern policy and could see no reason to change its premise that Japan was a serious menace to American interests in the Far East. The State Department, until Secretary of State Stimson took the helm, hewed fairly close to traditional policy lines. In Congress, however, the one outstanding commitment of the United States in eastern Asia was in the process of liquidation. By 1930 it was obvious to many that the Philippines would be set adrift in the not very distant future, and hence there was reluctance to create a strong Navy to defend them. This same view also promoted acceptance of the London Naval Treaty by the Senate.

With a stubbornness born of conviction the Navy resisted the Philippine independence movement with a rationalization that the islands were necessary for defense of trade in the Far East. But United States trade in the Far East was a mere 10 per cent of its world trade, and the heaviest percentage of that commerce was with the theoretical enemy, Japan. Yet, as the General Board recognized, a Navy capable of defending the Philippines or of thoroughly protecting the trade routes to the Far East would be in a position to defend the nation against Japanese aggression on either side of the Pacific.

From the Navy's point of view it was acting in a rational and logical manner. Officered by men trained in engineering and science, it tended to view foreign relations and naval diplomacy quantitatively. It counted ships and men, measured tonnages and weights of broadsides, and evolved mathematical ratios. The General Board kept abreast of technical developments abroad and constantly sought improvements for its vessels. Changes in capital ship gun‑elevation limits, the addition of catapults, or the installation of antiaircraft batteries on foreign naval vessels were weighed carefully, and these new developments often resulted in a re‑evaluation of existing ratios.

p191 At the Naval War College more was done than refighting the Battle of Jutland on the war game board. Foreign policy seminars were a part of the curriculum, and most officers were required to write at least one analytical paper in this area. Generally those who studied foreign relations accepted as axiomatic that there should be a balance between commitments abroad and naval support for them. As eminently practical men and managers of a bureaucratic institution, these naval officers believed growth was necessary for health. They were reluctant to see a cutback in commitments; naval reductions might logically follow the withdrawals. While some people in the State Department and Congress could see merit in finally acceding to Filipino independence demands, the average naval officer felt that this was foolish. Years of support for a foreign policy based on unequal treaties and on immigration laws that forbade entrance to those from the barred zone could not help but reinforce an existing attitude that Filipinos were as backward as the Chinese, Japanese, or Malays.

In contrast to the Navy's "scientific" approach to foreign relations in the 1920's was the nation's emotionalism. Beginning with the eviction of the Democratic majority in the election of 1918, the country began its prolonged reaction to Wilsonism. The war was fought under the banner of the Fourteen Points, but in 1920 the electorate chose Warren G. Harding, the standard-bearer of the party that had rejected the fourteenth point — the League of Nations. In almost whimsical manner Americans sided with the Chinese when Japan put them under pressure, contributed handsomely to Japanese rehabilitation after the 1923 earthquake, then excluded Orientals from immigration to America, pressed European debtors to repay loans contracted in wartime, and raised tariff barriers to close the American markets to credit-hungry European traders. Though capricious, American actions during the 1920's are not beyond fathoming.

Spurred by a bullish market, blessed with an annually mounting gross national product, and having wrought miracles of industrial production during the eighteen months of war, the nation could afford to be optimistic. Though abstaining from League membership, America had fostered naval disarmament and had taken the lead in abolishing war "as an instrument of national policy." Seen against this background, the average American of the 1920's can probably be excused p192if he refused to worry about war with Japan or to concern himself with the tax-eating naval establishment. Since he often favored the underdog in competitive sports, the man in the street could be sympathetic with the troubled Chinese or the reparations-harassed German.

It is hard to imagine the average naval officer of the 1920's becoming overly troubled about the Japanese threat to America. The Navy never doubted that Japan could be defeated, even in the Far East, given time and a full mobilization of the national economy, but the professional officer considered it wasteful to wait for the approach of war before moving to a state of readiness. The General Board believed that Japan was a calculating nation which would probe to the limits of American sufferance. It knew that the Japanese understood force, appreciated a superior adversary, and would treat with contempt any move to block them with declarations rather than deeds. In the eyes of the board members a properly constituted fleet was the best deterrent to Japanese ambitions in the Far East.

For the Navy of the 1920's its most critical problem was convincing Congress of the need for a balanced fleet, and here it chose to dissemble. With Japan outraged by the 1924 immigration act, the Navy could not publicly use the island empire as its theoretical enemy. The British, however, fitted the role nicely. There was no possibility of war between Great Britain and the United States, and Americans had twisted the lion's tail for ages eternal. Hence American planners now used the British as a standard for comparisons, encouraged naval equality in all categories of vessels, and quickly called attention to any strengthening of the Royal Navy. To a degree this approach worked admirably, but from the big‑Navy viewpoint it miscarried miserably. Prime Minister MacDonald and President Hoover recognized the existing community of interests between Britain and America and together agreed to work for naval limitation and reduction. Of vastly greater significance for the next decade was the resultant alignment of Anglo-American interests and the diplomatic isolation of Japan.

In terms of the present, one other lesson can be drawn from this study. The inconsistencies between foreign policy formulation and p193support during the 1920's were caused by the heavy hand of Congress in foreign affairs. Stronger Presidential leadership and greater loyalty from the party in Congress could have resulted in a more consistent policy from conception to implementation. As it was, the Navy was a coordinate member of the executive branch of the Government, at the command of the President, and defending policies created by Congress and the Chief Executive. Lacking were the close reasoning and evaluation that exist when policy creation and fulfillment are vested in one person. If the Navy's premise concerning Japan's future conduct was correct, Congress needed information in the most candid terms, but candor did not exist; nor was it sought. An acceptance of the Navy's views would have blasted a balanced budget far beyond the reach of a Congress striving to achieve "normalcy."

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Page updated: 1 Jun 13