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Ch. 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral William Veazie Pratt

by
Gerald E. Wheeler

U. S. Government Printing Office
Washington, D. C.
1974

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Ch. 6 Pt. 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p169  Chapter VI

The General Board

[Part 1 of 2]

During the summer and fall of 1921 Pratt was still a line captain but the General Board and the naval service treated him with the deference due an officer who would soon wear the broad stripe of flag rank. If he felt suspended between heaven and earth, he was very much like the Navy itself. Neither he nor the service knew exactly what the future would hold. The World War was now almost three years in the past and Republicans had recently replaced Democrats at the helm of the national government. While Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby and Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. spoke and acted like "big Navy men," many in the service wondered if they were truly representative of President Harding's thinking or even came close to the viewpoint of the Republican Congress. The Army and Navy Journal probably reflected accurately the Navy's thinking when it commented on the new Secretary:

From the tone of the speech made by Secretary of the Navy Denby at the Navy League dinner in Washington on March 5 the Navy can feel that it has a fighting "big navy" man as its civilian head. But just how far he can make that spirit carry with Congress remains to be seen.1

Storm warnings had been in evidence from the opening of the 67th Congress on 4 March 1921. Its members had been elected to end the postwar business recession then gripping the country for two years. In those days of pre‑Keynesian economics, the accepted solution was to reduce government spending, thereby making it possible to cut taxes and free money for private investment.a Armed Services budgets would receive special consideration and the Navy knew it. Civilian and government shipyards on both coasts had their building ways filled with battleships, battle cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers authorized by the 1916 construction act. Some vessels, like the West Virginia class battleships, were in the final stages of construction while  p170 others, the new battle cruisers for instance, just recently had their keels laid. Construction costs were rising annually and the final bill for the 1916 armada promised to be greatly in excess of the expected one‑half billion dollars projected in the original act. In more ways than one, these steel behemoths were "sitting duck" targets for the big guns of the Congressional economizers.2

The Navy was deeply concerned about the capital-ship building program because it represented entry into the new age of modern sea power. These new vessels incorporated the lessons of the Battle of Jutland and therefore made obsolete almost every ship on the Navy list commissioned before that dramatic day in May 1916. And if the war had forced early obsolescence on many of its ships, the Navy also recognized, though a bit more dimly, that aircraft and submarines were potent new weapons that had emerged from the war and would have to be mastered and integrated into the fleet. Some flag officers like Admirals Sims, William Fullam, David Taylor, and the retired Bradley Fiske strenuously argued that technological change was advancing so rapidly that even the battleships and battle cruisers under construction had been rendered useless. How seriously they took their own pronouncements is open to question, but they were earnest in calling for new thinking and new leadership in the service. In their view, not only were the capital ships obsolete, but so was the list of admirals. Few on active duty took these malcontents seriously, except when they attacked such prominent figures as Secretary Daniels or Admiral Benson, but they were to catch the ear of many in Congress who hoped that the expensive capital ship might be retired. Here the Navy's worries were compounded by the attacks against it from the redoubtable Colonel "Billy" Mitchell, the Assistant Chief of the Army's Air Service. He too argued loudly, and publicly, that "air power" had made sea power obsolete. To many he proved his point in 1919 and 1921 by demonstrating that aircraft bombs could sink battleships. To others he merely proved that undefended vessels at anchor could be sunk if enough high explosives were dropped near or on them. The same had been proved with gunfire many times. Again, as in the case of Sims and his followers, some in Congress would press the case of aviation as a cheap substitute for the 1916 construction program.

There were other changes in the Navy of 1921 to suggest that it  p171 was entering a new era. In April 1921 Denby wrote to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes and told him of a proposed reorganization of the fleets. The 1919 arrangement with two major divisions (Atlantic Fleet and Pacific Fleet) and several minor aggregations had been satisfactory for the immediate postwar period, but the Navy had to look to the future. He told Hughes that "It is time our keels became acquainted with the western ocean and our navy yards and bases on the west coast receive their crucial test." He reassured the Secretary of State: "We anticipate no enemy in either sea. None the less we must maintain the Navy fit to fight and see well to it that from both coasts the navy can operate successfully and be adequately maintained."3 Denby's proposal was studied by the State Department and finally answered on 31 May. Hughes could see no reason, on diplomatic grounds, to pose any objection to a fleet reorganization; but he did send along President Harding's views. The President agreed to the reorganization but asked that public notice of it be delayed until a propitious time.4

Rather than wait, Secretary Denby secretly ordered the Navy to operate as if it were reorganized. Admiral Hilary P. Jones quietly took command as Commander in Chief, United States Fleet (CINCUS) and relinquished control of the Atlantic Fleet to Vice Admiral J. D. McDonald. Admiral Edward W. Eberle had relieved Rodman and was commanding the Pacific Fleet. What created some public confusion was the fact that Jones had been the Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and he had never been publicly relieved. In a letter to Eberle, Admiral Jones admitted that he was staying close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard because it would be hard for him to explain his four-star flag and McDonald's command.5 Gradually the Navy learned of these new command arrangements and on 6 December 1922 it was all formalized with Denby's General Order No. 94. Fleet names were again changed. The Pacific Fleet became the Battle Fleet and, with the Fleet Base Force, would operate from the West Coast. The Atlantic Fleet was renamed the Scouting Fleet and, with the Control Force, would be in the Atlantic. Not assigned to the United States Fleet and operating as separate commands were  p172 the Asiatic Fleet, Naval Forces Europe, Special Service Squadron, Naval Transportation Service, and vessels on special duty. The Battle Fleet had the twelve most modern of the Navy's eighteen battleships and in time would be strengthened by the new aircraft carriers. It was no accident in terminology that the name "Battle Fleet" was given to those vessels in the Pacific.6

Aside from the vessels under construction and the reorganization of the fleets, there was other evidence that the Navy of 1921 was quite different from the prewar service. Most obviously it was now much larger in terms of personnel. On 1 July 1916 there had been 3,870 officers and 54,234 enlisted men; on 1 December 1918 the war had swollen the Navy to 32,208 officers and 494,358 enlisted men; by 1 July 1921 there were 8,792 officers (line and staff) and 119,205 men on active duty. The officer corps was steadily reduced during fiscal year 1922 as temporary officers reverted to enlisted status and reserve officers were released to inactive duty. To replace those officers leaving the service, the Naval Academy was finally graduating its wartime crop. The class of 1920, which had graduated after only three years of instruction on 6 June 1919, had been the largest in the Navy's history when 459 received commissions. The 1921 class was even larger, but the decision was made to return to the four-year course of study, so the class was divided. The top half, academically named 1921A, graduated 285 officers on 3 June 1920; the other half, 1921B, commissioned 259 on 2 June 1921. The class of 1922, the largest in the inter‑war years, had heard rumors for several years that a portion would not be commissioned because Congress wished to cut back the officer corps, but this was not so. On 2 June 1922 the Navy and Marine Corps received 538 new officers from this class. As noted previously, these new ensigns were needed desperately to fill junior-officer complements in the battleships and destroyers. Through the years, Pratt and the Navy Department would be fighting their most serious battles with the recently established Bureau of the Budget and with Congress to maintain the size of the officer corps at an adequate level to man the fleet.

At the highest levels of command in the Navy, some rather subtle changes could be observed. For one thing, the admirals were less parochial in their outlook. The current flag officers (and Pratt was typical of the group) wore service ribbons for the Spanish-American  p173 War, the Boxer Expedition, the Philippine Insurrection, the expedition to Vera Cruz, and the World War. At almost every rank in which they served, the flag officers of 1921 had served in foreign waters, often while in command of vessels or landing parties. In China and in Europe they had operated with other navies or at least had to deal with senior officers from other navies who were also present in Far Eastern or Caribbean water. In brief, Pratt and his contemporaries were more internationally-minded than the Navy's prewar flag officers, and they had a better appreciation of balance-of‑power politics in both hemispheres. Also tending to make the admirals of 1921 more modern in outlook was the Naval War College. Most of the admirals were graduates of either the Naval War College or the Army school. The courses of study at both institutions, but particularly in Newport, laid heavy stress on international relations as well as the maneuvering board and war‑gaming exercises. An end product of this approach was evident whenever the admirals spoke publicly. They normally began any argument, speech, or budgetary presentation with a disquisition on American goals around the globe, plus the foreign policies to achieve these goals, and concluded with a forceful statement that so many new ships were needed to support these policies. To this new generation of admirals, who had observed the rise of great European-based maritime empires, there was a very meaningful relationship between national power and sea power. Educated at the Naval War College, they were true sons of Mahan.

Pratt reported to the General Board in July 1921 with mixed emotions. His previous duty in Washington had been invaluable in terms of promoting his career, but he realized that it had almost been terminated when he suffered physical exhaustion in August 1918. On the other hand, his 1921 assignment to the General Board was convenient both in time and for career purposes. His ultimate goal was a four-star command, CINCUS or CNO, and a billet at the heart of the Navy was a splendid way to spend his first years as a rear admiral. He was long on experience in flag billets, due to his tours as Assistant CNO and Commander Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet; but he had held these positions as a captain and he was still a captain in July 1921, though he would rank from 3 June 1921 once he was formally advanced. Ironically both of his previous commands were now held by rear admirals. As a new rear admiral, he was too junior for a command in a fleet, such as battleship division commander, and a chief of staff billet in one of the fleets did not appeal to him since he had held  p174 similar posts under Sims and collaterally under Rodman. So Pratt, along with legions of others before and after him, put the best face on things and prepared to experience the insufferable conditions of life in our nation's capital. In 1921 very few lived outside the District proper, and most, like Bill and Louise, moved their families into houses or apartments along Massachusetts, Connecticut, or other equally desirable streets and literally "sweated out" their two years. However, it did mean a reasonably settled life for a change and it was time for Billy Pratt to begin his schooling.

By 1921 the General Board had become a rather stable and somewhat prestigious institution in the Navy. After twenty years of activity, its functions were fairly clearly delineated. By executive order, the Board concerned itself with war plans, naval policy, fleet organization and reorganization, naval construction planning, and ship (also aircraft) design characteristics. In the years after the World War, the General Board was normally staffed by three fairly distinct groups of officers. The most important group consisted of some of the Navy's oldest and most senior admirals. A few were finishing up their time till mandatory retirement at age sixty-four. Many, like Hugh Rodman and William L. Rodgers, had "fleeted up" to three and four-star commands and were now again wearing two stars as rear admirals.7 Also in this group were the ex officio members: the CNO, the President of the Naval War College, the Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. A second group was characterized by Pratt. These were "fresh caught" selectees or rear admirals who were getting accustomed to their new position in life. Duty on the Board meant a lot of hard work, for the more junior flag officers normally did the travelling and drafted the reports. On the other hand, as Pratt well knew, it meant they were close to the seat of power and could do a little on‑the‑job career planning. The third group was made up of a few commanders or captains who might be on the rise or sitting out their thirty years before retirement. This latter group handled the secretariat functions of the Board.

As with most institutions, the procedures and operations of the General Board had become highly routinized by 1921. The full Board normally met only once a month, most commonly the last Tuesday. At these meetings the most important policy papers were acted upon before being forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy for his signature.  p175 Before a policy paper came to the full Board for decision, it often had a year or more of staff study behind it. In the interim weeks before these decision-making sessions, the Executive Committee of the Board would meet daily for study and discussion, or to hold hearings. This body, consisting of the General Board membership, minus the ex officio members and often augmented by officers ordered to temporary duty with the Board, very obviously was its working part. Chaired by the senior officer (during 1921 and most of 1922 it was Rear Admiral W. L. Rodgers), the Executive Committee met daily at 1000 and adjourned by noon. Most of the time, each member of the Committee had a problem, project, new policy, or proposed ship design for which he was responsible for developing a policy paper. Thus it was common practice for the Executive Committee to meet, have a cup of coffee, and adjourn by 1030. There was always more than enough work to keep the membership fully occupied, but the Committee always met each day for the record.

When a major question was under study, such as determining the gun armament for the new 33,000‑ton aircraft carriers, a standard approach to the decision was followed. Once the Executive Committee framed the question ("What caliber guns, and how many should be placed on the new carriers?"), and assigned the study a serial number, each bureau or office involved would develop an answer and forward it to the General Board. These were the "brown papers," so designated because of the color of the paper on which the reports were mimeographed. In this case, replies would come in from the new Bureau of Aeronautics, the Bureau of Ordnance, the Bureau of Engineering, and the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Even the Office of Naval Intelligence might furnish an input concerning foreign aircraft carrier armament. With these papers in hand, the Executive Committee would invite representatives from each bureau to testify at hearings. Normally the bureau chief would appear, plus lesser lights who had helped to develop the "brown paper." All testimony was transcribed for reference later. Usually one member of the Committee would guide the interrogation and almost all members present posed at least one question. Because of his junior status, Pratt often was designated to handle the questioning. From these hearings, plus the "brown papers," the Executive Committee would develop a formal answer to the question and then present it to the full Board.

This was serious business and most members of the General Board handled their duties with the proper aplomb. Occasionally the hearings  p176 would reveal a bit of humor as Pratt was needled about his yacht club memberships or Admiral Moffett would be twitted about his "fly boys." Pratt seemed to enjoy parading his knowledge of naval history to make a point; and Admiral Rodgers, a fine naval historian, equally enjoyed pointing out the errors in Pratt's conclusions about Nelson at the Nile or Howe on "The Glorious First of June." Occasionally the hearings revealed antagonisms. Pratt came under heavy fire several times as he attempted to explain sections of the Five-Power Naval Treaty (6 February 1922) or to interpret clauses relevant to fortifying naval bases. Admiral Rodgers was particularly obtuse in his questions, and in answering replies, when Bureau of Aeronautics representatives urged that aircraft be placed on most naval vessels. But generally the hearings were professional in purpose and were handled in a very professional and gentlemanly manner. On days when tension was high, everyone present undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief as the chairman closed the hearing with the Board's traditional phrase: "Gentlemen, we are much obliged for your presence today."8

By the time Captain Pratt settled into the routine of the General Board in July 1921, it was already deep in study preparing for what was to be the most important international conference ever held for the limitation of armaments. Such a conference had become necessary, because in the 2½ years since the Armistice, the former allies had begun quarreling among themselves over such topics as the Open Door in China, Shantung, Yap, Siberia, and the Japanese mandate over the former German islands in the Pacific. American-Japanese relations were particularly burdened by the anti-Japanese activities of the California legislature and discriminatory actions in other western states.9 In the Mediterranean France and Italy vied for naval supremacy; and around the world Britain looked worriedly at new challenges to her commercial domination of the seas. As political tensions mounted, the concerned nations responded by increasing naval appropriations and laying down new naval vessels. For the Allies, the efficacy of force had been proven by the settlements at the Versailles Conference; the naval construction response was almost a conditioned reflex. President Harding and the leaders of Great Britain, Japan,  p177 France, and Italy recognized that burgeoning armies and navalism were only the symptoms of an international malaise. Therefore, the invitations to the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armament also called for discussions "to remove causes of misunderstanding and to seek ground for agreement as to principles and their application . . . to find a solution of Pacific and Far Eastern problems."10

While the General Board did seek fresh information to guide the delegates to the conference, it already had crystallized its own thinking concerning limitation of armaments, the type of naval power the nation needed, and probable enemies against whom the nation must guard. What one finds in reading the Board's reports between 1919 and 1921 is a spirit of intense nationalism, almost chauvinism, that placed no faith in international organizations or idealistic agreements and stressed that America must take care of its own interests in a completely unilateral way. Steeped in the thought of Mahan and the Darwinian ideas of Herbert Spencer, Brooks Adams, and William Graham Sumner, the admirals accepted the premise that struggle for power was a natural condition in the international arena and only the fittest survived. America's insurance against liquidation in the struggle was its Navy.11 To the Board, danger could come in either ocean, from Great Britain or Japan, but it did believe that the latter posed a more immediate threat.

In his precept ordering the General Board to prepare information for the conference, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt spelled out the goals that American diplomacy and its naval backing must support:
1. No limitation of America's sovereign power.
2. Maintenance of the Monroe Doctrine.
3. A Navy sufficient to defend the nation, its dependencies, and its citizens.
4. Full and unimpeded use of the seas for the nation's commerce.
5. Ability to maintain its national policies and the rights of its citizens wherever they may be challenged.12

 p178  Implicit in the Assistant Secretary's precept was the premise that there would be some form of arms limitation emerging from the conference due to convene on 12 November. Earlier in the year, the Board had produced a report which warned that arms limitation would have no value to America. It cautioned that "A nation which enters into an alliance or agreement with others mutually to limit arms thereby limits her independence to take care of herself and relies on the national good faith of others." For a nation that was developing so rapidly as America, it seemed that accepting arms limitation "would bind her beyond propriety and deliver her to her rivals." The Board concluded:

. . . international limitation of armaments is practicable only as personal standards of conduct improve, and that the general level of the latter is not yet high enough. No power enjoying a present condition of superiority is yet willing to prejudice it by placing unlimited confidence in others.

*****

 p179  Each nation must decide for itself what proportion of its military establishment shall be assigned to the land and what to the sea.13

Despite this earlier reluctance to consider naval limitation seriously, the General Board on 12 September 1921 did come up with certain propositions that it considered fundamental in discussing naval limitation. It finally recognized that naval armaments would probably have to be limited; therefore, ratios among the powers would most likely be set. As early as 8 August Pratt, in a memorandum for circulation in the Board, had concluded that a ratio system of 20‑20‑10‑10‑5‑2 would be reasonable if applied to the navies of the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, and China in that order.14 After a few weeks of study within the Board, a "confidential" circular letter was sent to senior officers requesting their views on what would be an equitable ratio among the major naval powers. The Board also raised the question of what should be the minimum strength of the Navy were the Anglo-Japanese alliance to continue in existence. From the Office of Naval Intelligence, Pratt's old friend Captain Dudley Knox sent in an answer that was typical of most received. He believed that naval ratios reflected actual national interests; those nations who had extensive foreign interests normally made sure they had navies to support them. Since America's interests were second to none, its naval power should be as great as any other state. Concerning the Anglo-Japanese alliance, he was quite specific. As long as it was in force, America's navy should be at least at a ratio of 10 to 5 compared with Japan.15

Throughout the Navy there was general agreement that trouble in the future would most likely come from Japan. A few die‑hard Anglophobes warned that Britain could not be trusted and emphasized the potential menace of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance; but the clear concern was with Japan. In its report of 12 September, the Board paid close attention to the Japanese. It judged them militaristic, expansionistic, and engaged in a naval construction program that was unnecessary unless they meant to challenge the Americans and the British.16

 p180  To meet this potential challenge, the General Board in several of its reports before the opening of the conference stressed the absolute necessity for the United States to complete its 1916 battleship-construction program and set ratios based on this very modern fleet. Were the Anglo-Japanese alliance continued in its present form, the Board warned that the United States must have a fleet equal to the combined navies of Great Britain and Japan. In order that the Navy could operate effectively in Far Eastern waters, the Board urged that there be no limitations placed on making Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines into strongly defended naval operating bases. In this view it was following the 19 October recommendations of the War Plans Division:
1.

The Canal Zone, Hawaii, Guam, and our base in the Philippines must be properly defended and fortified. No agreement to leave them undefended should be made.

*****

3.

Our Navy should be stronger than that of Japan in a ratio of at least two to one.17

During the last few weeks before the opening of the conference, Secretary of State Hughes began to take control of the planning. For naval matters he worked through Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, who in turn relied on Admirals Coontz and Pratt. All evidence suggests that these two officers spent most of their time relaying requests for data and information to the Board, working on the answers, and forwarding the results to Roosevelt. Some matters were brought to the Secretary's Council (Denby, Roosevelt, Coontz, and the bureau chiefs) for discussion, but the General Board was the principal voice for the Navy. Possibly reflecting the importance which each placed on his contribution to the delegation's work, neither Coontz nor Pratt wrote more than a few pages of vague generalities in their memoirs when describing this period in their lives.18 Quite probably the criticism that each absorbed after the conference made them wish to forget the whole business.

On 8 October the General Board recommended several plans for limitation. The "Basic Plan" called for the completion of all ships whose keels had been laid and envisioned an estimated ratio of 10 to  p181 6 for the United States and Japan, with approximately 1,000,000 tons of capital ships for the American Navy. The Board modified this plan a week later, reducing American tonnage to 820,000 tons of mostly post-Jutland capital ships and cutting Japan to a 50 percent ratio. When pushed by Secretary Hughes, on 25 October, to compute ratios on a "stop now" basis, the Board returned the figures the next day with the warning that such a course was "fraught with probably dangerous results." The admirals believed that the fifteen capital ships under construction had forced Japan to attend the conference. It concluded:

The General Board believes that the peace of the Far East and the safety of China is absolutely dependent upon the ability of America to place a force of unquestioned preponderance in the Western Pacific. If these fifteen ships be stricken from the Navy list, our task may not be hopeless; but the temptation to Japan to take a chance becomes very great.19

The General Board had spoken; the Navy's interests were then left in the hands of the American delegation and its naval advisors.

At the conference, which opened on 12 November, Pratt attended a variety of working committees as a technical advisor, but it was always a civilian who spoke for the nation. He chafed a bit when he learned that civilian delegates (Hughes, Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, Oscar Underwood) would be dealing with the Far Eastern questions without provision for a naval advisor being present. He was concerned that neutralization of the Japanese mandates might be proposed, and accepted, with the consequences for the American Navy being understood.20 Fortunately the subject was not acted upon. In late December it appeared that the conference might fail because of the unwillingness of the French and Italians to accept the extension of the capital-ship ratios to combatant auxiliaries (cruisers, destroyers, submarines). In order to salvage something from the six weeks of discussions, Pratt feared the delegates might exempt certain vessels from the ratios (for instance aircraft carriers), or possibly eliminate ratios completely. In a memorandum to the Assistant Secretary, he argued strongly for ratios. His reasons were certainly unique within the Navy:

 p182  Finally, the ratio is the Big Thing of this Conference. It is the power back of us which assures the Anglo-Saxon peoples that the rule of constitutional government and its ideals during years of peace or of war shall be the law of land and of the sea. The actual limitation of naval armaments is to my mind entirely secondary to the all‑important fact that by the decisions of this Conference, we hope to reach an agreement whereby control of the seas, as Mahan so ably told us in his clear analysis of the relation of sea power to history, shall be obtained and maintained by agreement and not through unlimited competition.21

Here was an old and recurrent theme in Pratt's philosophical makeup. He liked to see policies spelled out and he had faith that if the Anglo-Saxon powers (Great Britain and America) could agree on such matters as ratios, the rest of the world would benefit from following their lead. Implicit in his thinking was another vital point which he described years later when he wrote his memoirs. Pratt apparently accepted the pacifist principle that "preparation after preparation does almost inevitably and in time lead to war, while limitation, even with all its very apparent weakens, does tend to waken a peaceful spirit, and to keep it alive for longer periods, than does preparation."22 He recognized that his views were not popular and that he stood outside the mainstream of Navy opinion, whereas he had ridden with the tide in his many previous years of naval service.

The Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments closed on 6 February 1922 with the signing of a handful of treaties, the most important for the Navy being the Five-Power Naval Treaty, the treaty restricting the use of submarines and noxious gases in warfare, the Nine-Power Treaty which affirmed the principle of the Open Door in China, and several supplementary treaties which clarified points in the previously signed Four-Power Treaty and in the Five-Power Treaty. All of the treaties negotiated at the conference were part of an interrelated package. The Four-Power Treaty (United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France) wrote into an international agreement a facet of America's Far Eastern policy — defense of the Philippine Islands — and terminated a major menace to the United States, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The principal statement was simple: "The High Contracting Parties agree as between themselves to respect their rights in relation to their insular possessions and insular dominions in the region of the Pacific Ocean." The treaty was intended to assure  p183 the United States that none of the signatories would jeopardize the Philippines or Guam, that the British would be secure in Hong Kong and other minor possessions, and that the Japanese Mandated Islands, Formosa, the Pescadores, and the Bonins would be free of menace. French interests to be protected were minimal, but they had been invited to join the pact for diplomatic reasons.23

The Nine-Power Treaty of 6 February 1922 finally led those powers with major interests in China to state that they believed in the principle of the Open Door. The shade of John Hay must have been pleased to find that America's unilateral declarations of September 1899 and July 1900 had been embodied in Article One of the treaty. Specifically, the contracting powers agreed "(1) to respect the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China." The nations also promised "(3) to use their influence for the purpose of effectually establishing and maintaining the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations throughout the territory of China." And, finally, these Far Eastern powers would "refrain from taking advantage of conditions in China in order to seek special rights or privileges which would abridge the rights of subjects or citizens of friendly States, and from countenancing actions inimical to the security of such States." This treaty was designed to end the rivalry for exclusive rights in China. With the competition contained, it was assumed that political tensions among the major powers would relax and the armaments race could be controlled.24

The Five-Power Naval Treaty, of course, embodied the most important work of the conference, for herein the naval race was slowed down, enormous sums of money were saved, and the possibilities for a new era of peace were theoretically enhanced. It would not be appropriate to describe the twenty-four articles in the treaty, but a few need to be summarized because of the interest they aroused in the Navy and the problems they caused for Pratt who became an important defender of the pact:25
1. Capital-ship (battleships and battle cruisers) tonnage was limited to 525,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain; 315,000 tons for Japan; 175,000 tons for Italy and France. Capital ships would be limited to 35,000 tons maximum  p184 displacement; guns to no more than 16‑inch caliber. No new capital ships, except as allowed in the treaty, would be laid down until 12 November 1931.
2. Aircraft-carrier tonnage would be limited to 135,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain; 81,000 tons for Japan; 60,000 tons for Italy and France. Aircraft carriers were limited to 27,000 tons maximum displacement; each nation, within its total aircraft carrier-tonnage allowance, could build two carriers not to exceed 33,000 tons displacement each; a maximum of eight guns of 8‑inch caliber could be placed on aircraft carriers.
3. No fighting vessel, except capital ships, and aircraft carriers would exceed 10,000 tons. Nor would such a vessel carry guns in excess of 8‑inches caliber.
4. Insular possessions of the contracting powers in the Pacific Ocean, with certain exceptions (viz., Hawaiian Islands), would not be further fortified and their remaining defenses would remain in the status quo.

The Navy and the General Board, as might be expected, were not at all pleased with this treaty; but the job was done, and naval leadership would be called upon to defend what it could of Secretary Hughes' handiwork. A Japanese Navy 60 percent the size of America's did not deeply disturb the General Board; yet the non‑fortification provision (Article XIX) was a shocker. In all of its long-range thinking the Board had planned to develop Guam into a major naval base to support fleet operations in defense of the Philippines or for an offensive against Japan. For a variety of reasons, no first-class naval bases had been constructed in the Philippines or Guam before the conference; now they were denied for the life of the treaty. Naval war plans would have to be radically altered. Guam and the Philippines could not be defended against determined naval attack in the future; within the state of the military art in 1922, the United States Fleet simply could not operate successfully in Far Eastern waters from the Hawaiian Islands, especially since that area then had inadequate naval facilities. On the other hand, continental America was safe from the Japanese fleet. America's Far Eastern interests were now to have parchment defenses — the Four-Power and Nine-Power Treaties.26

 p185  With the work of the conference concluded, Rear Admiral Pratt (he had been formally advanced to rear admiral in early November, to date from 3 June 1921) again became absorbed in his regular duties as a member of the General Board. Added to his routine was to be a series of articles and public speeches. In his "spare time," he was called upon by Assistant Secretary Roosevelt to help him with speech writing and counsel on a variety of problems as they arose. To be buried in work was normal for Pratt; and when the work was both interesting and important, he couldn't ask for better duty.

In the year and a half following the conference, Pratt published four articles which partly or wholly were designed to convince the public and his naval brethren that the Five-Power Treaty was a satisfactory arrangement for the United States.27 His points can be summarized in a few statements:
1. Naval officers might quarrel with fine points in the Five-Power Treaty, but it was the whole package of treaties that was important. Together, the Nine-Power, Four-Power, and Five-Power Treaties brought peace and stability to the Far East and reduced enormous naval-construction burdens on countries that could not afford them. Mutual trust and confidence replaced tension among those powers with interests in the Far East.
2. While the United States sacrificed a great deal in not completing the capital-ship building program of 1916, it was the nation best able to make sacrifices to help settle world conditions. In agreeing not to fortify Guam and the Philippines beyond their existing condition, nothing was given up. The Congress had already decided for many years not to develop these defenses beyond their current capabilities. Most importantly, to Pratt, "a thorn in the side of Japan, continually aggravating the tension already existing due to competitive building and to misunderstandings as to national aims and aspirations," had been removed.
3. Though not all naval officers saw it as a gain, Pratt believed  p186 that Anglo-American relations had been improved most positively by replacing the Anglo-Japanese Alliance with a pledge to respect the Four-Power Treaty.
4. In his most fateful misjudgment, Pratt exulted that the Five-Power Treaty had finally given the Navy a policy and a standard for Congressional appropriations. As a policy, defined in the ratios 5‑5‑3, the United States Navy was to be equal to Great Britain's and 40 percent more powerful than the Imperial Japanese Navy. Congress would now be able to plan its appropriations in the future with clear goals in mind. Throughout the years after 1922, the admiral would return regularly to this theme, but he and the Navy were to experience frustration and great uneasiness as President, the Bureau of the Budget, and the Congress all ignored the ratios and allowed the Navy to fall behind in building program designed to achieve a "Navy second to none."

In a rather eloquent statement, written just a few months after the signing of the Five-Power Treaty, Pratt summarized his own views and those of naval officers who saw things as he did:

Thinking naval men, as a matter of pride, regret the sacrifice made in yielding world naval supremacy, yet from a broader point of view they welcome the results accomplished, if they be carried into the future. No class of men realize more clearly the relations existing between sea power and national world power, or are more willing to subordinate naval aims to the country's wishes; but until that time arrives when the ideals for which our country stands are world ideals, until international frictions cease, until moral suasion is its own sanction and law is self-enforcing, this country can no more afford to allow its gray guardians of the peace to disintegrate as it did its stately clipper ships, than can a great city afford to give up its guardians of the law.28

Pratt's public defense of the naval treaty was done in a spirit of professionalism, but it was not always accepted in that light. Certainly he made it easier for President Harding, Secretary Hughes, and Senators Lodge and Underwood to defend the treaty. They could always reply to critics that Admirals Coontz and Pratt were satisfied that the Navy's interests were protected by the document. The CNO, of course, carried more weight in Congress than his subordinate, but this meant that the three naval advisors (Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, Coontz, and Pratt) backed the treaty. Roosevelt and Coontz also  p187 testified and spoke publicly concerning the treaties, but Pratt was able to be quoted regularly because of his writings.

If we view Pratt's actions at this point in the light of his career since 1911, when he was at the War College, a point of consistency is recognizable. A terribly important lesson he learned from working with Sims was the necessity for absolute loyalty to a plan of action, or doctrine, once the leader had established it. Whether it was destroyer doctrine, or battleship attack formations, or a new treaty system, those in command of minor units owed absolute loyalty to the plan. Neither Pratt nor Sims believed in blind, unthinking submission, but they did believe in full acceptance of doctrine even when working to change it. In later years he was to be accused, covertly of course, of selling out the Navy to advance his own career. As we shall see, his work at the London Naval Conference in 1930 cost him the  p188 friendship of the incumbent CNO. The evidence suggests that Pratt's reputation in 1922 was too well established for his generation of officers to consider his work at the Washington Conference to be anything but his most conscientious effort. The next generation of officers, looking back from the years of the 1930s, probably tended to read their contemporary problems into his activities of 1921‑1922 and thereby concluded he had "sold out."

A measure of the General Board's confidence in Admiral Pratt are the fitness reports filed by its senior member, Rear Admiral William L. Rodgers. Just after the close of the Washington Conference he wrote:

Admiral Pratt is a man of high personal character, and professional ability, fearless of responsibility and efficient.

During the last six months he has been engaged like other members of the General Board in preparing for and working with the Conference on Limitation of Armaments. As Technical Expert General to the American Delegation he was of great assistance to the delegation and had an important share in drafting the American viewpoint.

I highly recommend him for all important commands ashore or afloat in peace or war

(31 March 1922)

A year later, Admiral Rodgers still could write about his colleague on the Board:

Admiral Pratt is a man of high character. Excellent character, force and initiative; whose experience and natural capacity as well as his line of study and self-improvement have fitted him unusually well for high command afloat and ashore and I take great pleasure in recommending him for the highest commands in Navy in peace and in war.

(31 March 1923)29

Admiral Pratt's writings in 1922 and 1923 were used to present other ideas he had concerning the Navy and international relations. Again, because he regularly stated views that were in opposition to those of his seniors, we are able to detect a spirit of professionalism and independence traceable to his friend and mentor, Admiral Sims. It should be realized that very few naval officers wrote for publication; many achieved four-star rank without doing much more in the way of writing than signing their names to official reports prepared by juniors. It was almost an unspoken tradition that the admirals would save their views for retirement and then they could "unload the lockers" as they saw fit. The memoirs written by retired flag officers in the 1920s and 1930s, it might be noted, tended to be vague, dateless, lacking direct reference to individuals (for fear of hurting them), and useful only  p189 for their overview of the service life. Pratt's "Autobiography" is a dreadful example of this genre of naval literature and his inability to publish it is quickly understood by a casual reading of the manuscript.

In the articles noted before, and particularly in one prepared for the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Pratt expressed his views on America's foreign relations.30 Concerning the League of Nations, he stood with the administration's point of view. He wished it well, but he did not believe America should enter the League. He felt that the League required coercive sanctions to maintain the peace against aggressor nations and that the United States had had enough of warfare and the use of force. He argued that an idealistic America needed to be free of international commitments in order to be able to set an example of cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes:

Though we be accused of greed and selfishness, of vain boasting, nevertheless the fact remains that today no people on earth are so trusted by less powerful nations. With them her word is as good as her bond. Occupying as we do a position between the two great island empires of the world, Japan and Great Britain, we stand in the unique position, if we maintain our national character and our national integrity, of being able to exercise that balance of power for the good of the world which has been exercised by England for over the last one hundred years.31

As an officer, whose duty was to provide the naval power behind America's foreign policies, Pratt believed that there was no escaping the balance-of‑power system. In 1923 he saw the establishment of a balance of sea power between England and America as one of the major accomplishments of the century; he predicted that it was "upon the ideals of the countries holding this power in their hands, that much of the safety and future progress of the world depends."32 As we have noted before, the admiral saw Anglo-American acceptance of the rule of law as providing the cement that bound the Anglo-Saxon peoples together in their concern for keeping the peace.

One facet of administration policy, the insistence that the Allies repay loans, Admiral Pratt managed to straddle. His public position was that "the payment of a national debt is a point of honor." He therefore defended the policy of President Harding (and Coolidge and Hoover as well) that money lent to our wartime friends had to be repaid —  p190 with interest. On the other hand, the admiral admitted that the Allies had actually defended America during the years 1914‑1917; therefore the United States should be willing to accept a portion of the war's costs during our prosperous years of neutrality.33 Privately Pratt had another view. Writing to his old friend, and former executive officer in New York, Commander Charles Belknap (retired), he suggested that America could well afford to cancel a part of the loans. "I prefer much to look at the matter from the point of view of a kindly gentleman who, seeing his brother in need, is willing to give of his affluence even if later the man he has helped turns around and robs his house. This may be a strange point of view for a naval man, nevertheless, I feel that in keeping alive these ideals must depend the future and the strength of our great American republic."34

What we see here is that by 1923 Admiral Pratt was not too far outside the mainstream of naval thought. He still believed in the efficacy of the sovereign nation state. The balance-of‑power system had not changed from the days of Mahan. Pratt accepted a major role for America within the system, but not in the League of Nations. His Anglophilism was shared by many naval officers as were his views on the debts. To him, and others, it was more important to build bridges toward international relations than to badger former allies about wartime loans.

In November 1922 Pratt used an article in the U. S. Naval Institute's Proceedings to state some of his personal ideas on several professional topics of service interest.35 One of his purposes in writing was to answer Navy critics who were upset about the naval treaty. More importantly, in terms of the article's contents, he seemed to be trying to change the thinking of his colleagues on certain fundamentals that would affect future administration and operation of the Navy. With the hindsight available to the biographer, it would also seem that the admiral was displaying his intellectual wares in case anyone wondered whether he had the wisdom necessary for higher assignment within the naval establishment.

On the subjects of unification of the Armed Services under a Department of Defense, or the creation of a single air service, Pratt had very pronounced views. He believed that a single defense department would result in too much centralization of authority and power  p191 to be acceptable in peacetime. He argued that America's cooperative approach to defense, through its Army and Navy, was more in keeping with the spirit of American democracy. In wartime, concentration was necessary, in peace such centralization could infringe the command prerogative of the President. His arguments against a united air service, a very live topic in 1922‑1923, were more service oriented, but they were grounded in a good understanding of geopolitics. Pratt posited that European nations required administrative arrangements for their military services that would allow rapid reaction on the continent. Thus, highly centralized command structures, unified services, or single aviation branches were created for European needs. Due to America's wide ocean barriers, and the likely requirement to undertake offensive actions outside the hemisphere, U. S. needs were different from those of England or France. Because of technical limitations, Pratt could not see airpower being projected overseas unless it was carried to the theaters of action by the Navy. Thus the Army would still need its aviation for future land warfare; and the Navy would definitely require its aviation for operations with the fleet. The admiral had no faith that land-based bombers alone could defend the nation, despite the display off the Chesapeake Capes by Colonel Mitchell's air brigade in 1921. He firmly believed that enemy carriers approaching America could best be stopped at sea by our own Battle Fleet with its air units launched for long-range attack.

Pratt observed another danger in current concepts of organization for the fleets. With a "Battle Fleet" in the Pacific, a "Scouting Fleet" in the Atlantic, and a "Control Force" made up of submarines and other minor units, the Navy had clearly moved to the "task" concept of organization. He disliked this approach because he preferred to keep the Navy's vessels operating under "type" commanders — Commander Battleships, Commander Cruiser Divisions, Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Commander Destroyer Forces. Task organizations meant centralization and full loyalty being given to the plans and commands of the fleet commanders in chief. Where organized by type, the focus would be on experimentation and the development of a battleship doctrine, a cruiser doctrine, etc. Task doctrines would come later with minor and major maneuvers of the fleets. The admiral could see greater opportunities for the development of command experience, and initiative in subordinates, when the emphasis was placed on type organizations.

 p192  What Pratt feared most was that task organization would stultify the development of new operating tactics and doctrines for the various ship types. He was afraid that the great Battle Fleet would never be able to see beyond the lessons of Jutland and that its commanders in chief, year after year, would drill their units for that future day when beam-to‑beam the Japanese and American fleets would battle for the supremacy of the Pacific. With broader vision than most flag officers, excelled perhaps only by that of Sims, Pratt remembered that in the World War the destroyers had been used entirely differently from the way he and Sims had planned during their most innovative days in the Torpedo Flotilla. He also recognized that submarines had not served their most useful purpose as long-range scouts for the German High Seas Fleet. He fully expected that independent activity, involving the task of commerce destruction, would be the more important role for the submarine in the future. And while his crystal ball was less clear in naval aviation matters, he did foresee that the principal tasks for fleet air were not simply scouting, spotting, and defense of the Battle Fleet. The possibilities of carrier-task‑force attack were already being considered by Admiral Moffett and his naval aviators. In his challenging article to the service, Pratt summed up his fears and hopes:

If, for all classes of fleet forces we adopt as basic, organization on the task group principle, and predicate for the future those tasks found essential in the past, we assume that, regardless of changed conditions, regardless of the number of years we may be at peace, regardless of external conditions which may be imposed upon us, the next war will run the course of the last. This assumption renders us liable to commit grave errors. . . . But in the sphere where operations must be timely, where engines and inventions of war change rapidly, where the imagination should work freely, where ideas and methods take on a new and increasing importance, it is an unsafe practice to tie up organization too closely with the past in the endeavor to make it take the place of adequate mobilization and timely distribution. But this is exactly what any organization of a fighting fleet on the task assignment principle does. . . .36

Pratt's loyalty to the concept that a democratic society operates best with decentralization of authority led him to a contradiction of earlier views and almost high heresy for a line officer. He publicly endorsed the viability of the Navy's bureau system. He reasoned that "The system of departmental organization, much as it has been attacked, especially since the late war, is sound in principle and conforms  p193 to the same basic laws that tie our federation of states into such an harmonious whole." He concluded that the bureau system forced cooperation and reduced that centralization that deadened innovation and change. He was not in sympathy with the concept that the Navy needed a general staff to make it a more effective organization. In these views, of course, Pratt was breaking completely with the ideas of Sims. He also was confronting Admiral Hilary P. Jones, the Commander in Chief of the United States Fleet, who believed deeply both in task organization and the necessity for a Navy "general staff."37

Because of the variety of senior officers he either pleased or offended by his writing, it is hard not to conclude that Admiral Pratt was acting as a thoroughgoing professional when he began his publication efforts in 1922. He was to continue writing regularly during the balance of his years on active duty, thereby exposing himself to evaluation and attack during a period of time when more timid souls might have preferred to be judged solely on their administrative skills and command abilities. Pratt, as we have indicated regularly, was a different breed of naval officer.


The Author's Notes:

1 Army and Navy Journal, 12 March 1921.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Wheeler, op. cit., pp105‑11.

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3 Secretary of the Navy to the Secretary of State, Washington, 15 April 1921, Department of State File 811.30/133, RG59/NA (hereafter cited as D/S 811.30/133, RG59/NA).

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4 Secretary of State to Secretary of the Navy, Washington, 31 May 1921, D/S 811.30/132, RG59/NA.

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5 ADM H. P. Jones to ADM E. W. Eberle, New York, 4 August 1921, Hilary P. Jones MSS/LCMD.

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6 Wheeler, op. cit., pp73‑75.

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7 The law which required that admirals and vice admirals revert to permanent rear admiral rank, upon being relieved, was not changed until World War II.

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8 Information in this section concerning the General Board is based on reading the minutes, hearings, and manuscript records of the Board. These materials are in the Operational Archives, Naval History Division, Washington Navy Yard.

[decorative delimiter]

9 Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice (New York: Athenaeum, 1968), pp65‑105; Wheeler, op. cit., pp31‑33.

[decorative delimiter]

10 U. S., Department of State, Conference on the Limitation of Armament: Washington, November 12, 1921–February 6, 1922 (Washington: GPO, 1922) (hereafter cited as Conference 1921‑1922), p4.

[decorative delimiter]

11 Robert Endicott Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America's Foreign Relations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), p36; Alfred Thayer Mahan, "Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion," in The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1898), pp107‑34.

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12 "The Secretary of the Navy to the General Board, Washington, 27 July 1921," in U. S., Department of the Navy, Report of the General Board on Limitation of Armaments (Washington: GPO, 1921), pp4‑5.

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13 General Board No. 446, Serial 1052, Washington, 19 January 1921, G. B. Records, NHD.

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14 WVP to General Board, Washington, 8 August 1921, Advisory Book I, Pratt MSS/NHD.

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15 General Board No. 438, Serial 1088, Washington, 25 August 1921, G. B. Records, NHD; CAPT Dudley W. Knox to General Board, Washington, 8 September 1921, box 280, Dudley W. Knox MSS/LCMD.

[decorative delimiter]

16 RADM W. S. Benson, "Notes Relating to the International Conference on the Limitation of Armaments," Subject File 1911‑1927, box 579, RG45/NA; U. S., Department of the Navy, Report of the General Board on Limitation of Armaments, pp8‑9.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Director of War Plans to General Board, Washington, 19 October 1921, PD 226‑103, box 129, RG80/NA.

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18 Coontz, op. cit., pp411‑12; Pratt, "Autobiography," pp259‑64.

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19 Wheeler, op. cit., pp55‑56; Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), Vol. II, 461‑62.

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20 WVP, "Memorandum — Reasons why it might be advisable for technical naval advisors to be present at discussions of Far Eastern problems," (undated), PD 226‑103:4, box 130, RG80/NA.

[decorative delimiter]

21 Col. Roosevelt, memorandum for, Washington, 27 December 1921, Advisory Book I, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

22 Pratt, "Autobiography," p261.

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23 Conference 1921‑1922, pp1612‑18.

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24 Ibid., pp1621‑29.

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25 Ibid., pp1573‑1604.

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26 Dudley W. Knox, The Eclipse of American Sea Power (New York: The Army and Navy Journal, 1922), pp135‑36; Pomeroy, op. cit., pp81‑88; Wheeler, op. cit., pp25‑28, 68‑69, 81‑82.

[decorative delimiter]

27 W. V. Pratt: "Naval Policy and the Naval Treaty," North American Review (May 1922), pp590‑99; "Some Considerations Affecting Naval Policy," United States Naval Institute Proceedings (November 1922), pp1845‑62; "The Case for the Naval Treaty," Current History (April 1923), pp1‑5; "Naval Policy and Its Relation to World Politics," United States Naval Institute Proceedings (June 1923), pp1073‑84.

[decorative delimiter]

28 Pratt, "Naval Policy and the Naval Treaty," pp598‑99.

[decorative delimiter]

29 "Report on the Fitness of Officers," 31 March 1922, 31 March 1923, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

30 William V. Pratt, "America as a Factor in World Peace," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (July 1923), pp1‑7.

[decorative delimiter]

31 Ibid., p5.

[decorative delimiter]

32 Pratt, "Naval Policy and Its Relation to World Politics," p1084.

[decorative delimiter]

33 Pratt, "America as a Factor in World Peace," pp6‑7.

[decorative delimiter]

34 WVP to Charles Belknap, Washington, 24 November 1922, Pratt MSS/NHD.

[decorative delimiter]

35 Pratt, "Some Considerations Affecting Naval Policy," pp1845‑62.

[decorative delimiter]

36 Ibid., p1860.

[decorative delimiter]

37 ADM H. P. Jones to RADM B. A. Fiske (Ret.), at sea, 5 January 1921, Jones MSS/LCMD; ADM Jones to ADM E. W. Eberle, 27 September 1921, Jones MSS/LCMD; ADM Jones to ADM E. W. Eberle, New York, 14 March 1922, Jones MSS/LCMD.


Thayer's Note:

a A passage that dates the book, written as it was at the height of the Keynesian binge ("guns and butter too", with a hefty dose of social engineering). Now that we've recovered from the blind acceptance of that economic fashion, if not from its consequences, the "accepted solution" has come back into favor — with only European-style socialists dissenting, for whom Big Government is the panacea.


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