Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 30

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 32
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p411  Chapter XXXI

Limitation of Naval Armaments Conference

Troubles With Chairman Madden of Appropriations Committee on Naval Bill — Provision for 86,000 Enlisted Men Wins — Enemies Made — The Navy Is Saved — Henderson Takes Class of '81 to Japan.

Following the election of President Harding there was wide discussion of the proposal to hold an International Conference on the Limitation of Naval Armaments. The President called the Conference to meet in Washington on Armistice Day, 1921.

As early as July 27, however, the Navy Department began to formulate a program for its consideration. The Hon. George Sutherland, of Utah, now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, represented the President and Secretary Hughes at our meetings. The Navy was represented by Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, Captain William V. Pratt and me.

We held daily meetings in the office of the Ordnance Bureau of the Navy. At that time, the General Board, of whose executive committee Rear Admiral W. L. Rodgers was chairman, was in session. Several programs of reduction were worked out by our Committee, aided by the advice of the General Board, and we were compelled, gradually, to decrease the number of ships to be retained. It was a long, difficult, whittling down process, involving much thought and planning. The papers of the General Board, on all of the subjects discussed, were classics.​a

By the time the Conference met in November, practically all of our plans had been made, and there is on file in the Navy Department what might properly be called the "last stand of the Navy for the minimum of what we  p412 should keep." It was signed by the Secretary of the Navy, and sent to the President. Just before the Conference assembled, the Secretary of State brought forward the "Stop Now" proposal, as he termed it. On this basis the first tables were made. Personally, I am satisfied that the foreign delegates did not know what our tables were to be until they were read at the first meeting of the Conference.

The delegates began to arrive in Washington several days prior to the opening of the Conference, and it was my duty to meet many of them at the Union Station and accompany them to their respective headquarters. It was most interesting to be brought thus into contact with and to form estimates of these foreign statesmen.

I participated in the ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day, walking all the way from the east front of the Capitol to the amphitheater at Arlington with Secretary Denby, Secretary Weeks, and General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing.

When Mr. Hughes' offer was made to the delegates, it looked as if everything would run smoothly, as all of them accepted his recommendations in principle. Since that day I have become suspicious of people who accept anything "in principle."

Mr. Hughes, Colonel Roosevelt and I were made members of a committee of fifteen representing the United States on certain points. As the work of the Conference proceeded it became apparent that apart from the battle­ships, there was likely to be no definite agreement. What transpired in the committee rooms, and what the troubles were, will I trust be given to the public by 1951 — thirty years after the Conference — either by Colonel Roosevelt or Admiral Pratt, each of whom, I believe, made notes from day to day.

Early in February, 1922, the agreement as to battle­ships and airplane carriers, with minor modifications, was signed.

With the banquets and receptions to the visiting delegates,  p413 and my duties as Chief of Naval Operations, and as budget officer, I was kept busy.

In forming an estimate of the various delegates, I reached the conclusion that the ablest and the most adroit among them was Lord Balfour. He seemed to tower above all the others. Ranking next to him in mental powers I would place Baron Kato, of Japan. He said little but thought much, and when he talked it was directly to the point. We saw much of Admiral Beatty, Lord Lee, Rear Admiral Chatfield, of the British delegation; Admiral Acton of the Italian delegation, and Admiral Le Bon, of the French; I also had the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with some of the delegates from other countries.

While our delegates included no naval officer among its members, the other countries were represented either by Admirals, or others who had had sea‑going experience. In my judgment diplomats who have had no naval experience cannot match their wits in naval matters against men who have had such experience.

The deliberations of the Conference were brought to a close without any agreement having been reached on our proposal representing cruisers, destroyers, submarines and auxiliaries. I have my own opinion as to the cause of the partial failure of the Conference. Many people agree with Mr. Frank H. Simonds who, in an article in the Washington Sunday Star, of April 14, 1929, said, "The former Washington Conference was disastrous for us, because at a certain moment, Mr. Hughes had to choose between facing the political consequences of failure, or agreeing to what was clearly a bad bargain."

The people of the United States, at the conclusion of the Conference, were simply deceived as to what it all meant. On the last day that the delegates were in session, I sat and heard representatives of various nations speak of the great accomplishments of the Conference, and express their gratification. In the gallery I saw women weeping and men clasping hands and I thought,  p414 "Are these people distraught, or is there something the matter with me?"

It would have been idle at that time to have attempted to explain the situation and its meaning to them. Had there been a naval officer among our delegates I believe the issue would have been forced regarding other types of combatant vessels, and I do not think we would ever have agreed to Article 9 of the Treaty. There was no stopping what happened, however, and I am sure that we acquiesced in the hope that it would all turn out right in the end. The Conference, at least, showed that some agreements were possible, and the hope of Colonel Roosevelt and Admiral Pratt, as well as my own, was that subsequently it might lead to better things, and I believe it will.

We named the 5:5:3 ratio. Personally I hoped the United States would maintain its part of that ratio throughout all classes of vessels. We have not done so. Why? First, because in my judgment, rich and powerful as our country is, we are always too niggardly and too slow in acting upon matters pertaining to the Navy. We begrudge the last few dollars that are needed to "play safe."

Second, many people of good intentions are unduly influenced by the sickly sentimentality of those who profess to believe that we should not be prepared at all.

After 1921, the other nations went on building certain types of vessels, while we practically ceased construction. Now, the cruiser bill has been passed, in response to the demand of patriotic people in 1929 that we must continue to carry on. Particularly we must be prepared for laying down the first battle­ships in 1931. If we do not we lose them. Once the advocates of preparedness are aroused they will win the fight. Let us take no chance! Let us always have the ships and the men, remembering that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty!"

In the fall of 1921 my troubles began with Representative Martin B. Madden, chairman of the House Committee  p415 on Appropriations. One afternoon Mr. Madden appeared at my outer office and asked to see me without telling my aide who he was. He was invited to sit down and had to wait about two minutes. My office was always open to everyone, and I made it a rule to see all callers as speedily as possible — particularly men in official positions. Mr. Madden was angry when he came into my private office. Almost his first statement was, "So you are thinking of closing the Great Lakes Station?"

I told him I had heard Secretary Denby and Admiral Washington discussing the matter briefly, but that I looked for no affirmative action. He said the station was not going to be closed. He was in a temper and, as I knew little about the matter, for it was then only a question which was being considered, I requested him to go with me to Admiral Washington who could tell him about it. Mr. Madden saw Admiral Washington, but ever after that he entertained a dislike for me. I was innocent of any intention to abolish the station; instead, I favored retaining it on account of its location in the Central West. My home was only two hundred and seventy miles from Chicago, and I was familiar with the need for a station there.

When Congress assembled the Secretary of the Navy was invited to appear before a sub‑committee of the Committee on Appropriations. Mr. Denby had other appointments which he regarded as more important, including possibly a cabinet meeting, and asked me to take his place before the committee. This I did, and was asked why I was spending ten million dollars that year for fuel for destroyers. I said I did not believe the Navy was making such an expenditure and officials of the Bureau of Supplies and Accounts were called upon to produce figures. They did so regarding only a certain number of destroyers, and from these made estimates as to what the fuel costs would be. I had no chance to make proper reply, except to state that I did not believe the figures. Mr. Madden told me if the Navy Department  p416 continued to spend money so recklessly he would see that I was put in jail. As I had nothing to do with spending the money appropriated the threat irritated but did not frighten me. The published official figures showed who was correct.

Shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Commander Richard E. Byrd, now famous aviator, endeavored to heal the differences between Mr. Madden and me, by inviting us as his guests to a dinner. Lieutenant Commander Byrd hoped we could settle our difficulties and get together on the same platform. The worst blizzard of the winter prevented us from meeting at Byrd's table. When I started out for his home my car was stuck in the snow at Twenty-first Street and remained there for two days; so Madden and I never met. Twice members of the Committee on Appropriations sought to have President Harding remove me because I disagreed with certain members of Congress as to the condition of the Navy. They were not successful.

Senator Hale also tried to have us get together at his home but without success. I then realized that we were in a fight to a finish.

As soon as the work of the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments was concluded it became evident that the Committee on Appropriations intended to make reductions in naval expenditures. Representative Kelley, of Michigan, came to the Navy Department by appointment one Sunday morning to talk with Admiral Washington and me. I declined to be a party to his views. Mr. Kelley flushed and said I would rue the day that I made such a decision. Admiral Washington also refused to agree to any reduction in the enlisted personnel. Mr. Kelley, thereupon, became my enemy for life.

As soon as the Committee began its hearings it was apparent that drastic reductions in our naval forces were contemplated. Naval officers who appeared before the Committee were questioned, and the attitude of the members was plainly disclosed. It seemed that the Navy was  p417 about to be given a death blow, but we entertained the hope that the enlisted personnel would not be cut below 86,000 men, as the President had expressed himself in favor of that number. The Navy had been holding out for 96,000 men.

During the last week of the contest over the bill in the Committee we had an intimation of serious trouble. A Massachusetts Representative gave Captain McNamee the substance of the Committee's report. Immediately, Secretary Denby wrote to Mr. Madden who was chairman of the Committee on Appropriations requesting an advance copy of the report and also a copy of the printed hearings on the bill. Mr. Madden declined to comply with the request on the ground that copies were furnished to no one before the bill was reported out of the Committee. Our Congressman, however, procured a copy and Colonel Roosevelt, Admiral Pratt, Admiral Latimer, Captain McNamee, Captain Rowcliff, Lieutenant Commander Hill and I met in the Bureau of Ordnance and proceeded to draft proposed minority views which were turned over to the Congressmen. We had to make the minority suggestions hurriedly for the Congressman advised us the vote would be taken within a few hours. We had copies circulated among our friends on the Committee and when the vote was taken had the support of twelve members, among them Mr. Vare, of Pennsylvania, Mr. Magee, of New York, and Mr. Tinkham and Mr. Gallivan, both of Massachusetts.

The Committee had its final meeting on the bill on Saturday morning just in time to present it to the House before that body adjourned over the week‑end. The Congressional Record, of April, 1922, confirms my statements. When we learned of the Committee's action I sent my aide to inquire of various newspaper friends if they had any advance information from the Committee. The aide found a copy of the report and also a copy of the printed hearings in the office of the correspondent of a Philadelphia paper. He was writing his story of  p418 the Naval Bill for publication Sunday morning. He had no copy of the minority views, and had not heard that there was one. Further inquiry showed a similar condition with respect to the information in the hands of other correspondents. The aide hastened back to the Navy Department with a copy of the Committee's report and there, after a conference with Mr. Denby and Colonel Roosevelt, we prepared a statement setting forth our side of the controversy, to be published contemporaneously with the Committee's report. We carefully examined every phase of the report and made our own comments upon it, calling attention to what we considered were its errors respecting the maintenance of the 5:5:3 ratio, the distribution of the enlisted personnel, and of the fleet. We cited the testimony of naval officers before the Committee and, in many instances, it flatly contradicted the statements made in the Committee's report.

We learned also that Chairman Madden and Mr. Kelley had each prepared statements in regard to the bill in addition to the Committee's report. We took each of these statements and gave our own side of the issue, supplying it, as well as our major statement, to the correspondents of all the leading newspapers. It was well after midnight before we got our stories into the newspaper offices, but with one exception the newspaper men supported us loyally. One Washington paper refused to change its original story but agreed to publish our story equally conspicuously. Secretary Denby also cited a strong statement on the bill which was given to the newspapers. The result was that the headlines in the Sunday newspapers, generally, conveyed the same thought that was expressed in one of them which read, "Naval Bill Scraps 5:5:3 Ratio."

When the bill came to a vote in the House we found that we needed the support of a majority of the members from Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois. I feel sure that caucuses were held by the delegations from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.  p419 We fell down on Illinois. We had the valued aid of such outsiders as John J. Underwood, of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, J. E. Barnes, J. Fred Essary, of the Baltimore Sun, and many others. Personally I felt deeply indebted to Lieutenant Commander Hill, Lieutenant Commander R. E. Byrd, Captain Gilbert S. Rowcliff, Captain Charles S. Freeman, and the host of other officers who helped us save the Navy.

At the end of an acrimonious debate the vote on the so‑called Vare Amendment was 222 to 147. The bill carrying provision for 86,000 men passed the Senate.

Worn out by this fight on which, after Mr. Kelley's attack, I had staked everything, I was compelled to seek rest at Stoney Man's Camp in Virginia. I was also threatened with blindness in one eye. Lieutenant Commander Hill took me there.

Stoney Man's Camp is a well-known resort near Luray. From our porch at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet we could view seven ranges of mountains. We were told there were no snakes at the camp, but on our way to breakfast one morning Hill and I killed a black snake six feet in length, as he lay outside the dining-room door. I know other snake tales of the section, but will not tell them lest I might be accused of having indulged in the moonshine whiskey of that region when I saw them. I liked the place and sent for my wife and daughter. Later, my son who had come east on the Nevada joined us there.

With the fight over the naval bill won, Secretary Denby and the surviving members of the class of '81 of the Naval Academy were able to start on their long contemplated trip to Japan. By authority of the President the Henderson was assigned to take them on the voyage, and they sailed from Hampton Roads. A part of the company joined the ship at San Diego, after she passed through the Panama Canal. It was a memorable trip especially as Admiral Urie, of the Japanese navy, who  p420 was a member of the class, was still there and entertained his former classmates.

Following the election of President Harding there was much discussion in the public prints regarding the attitude of the government toward the matter of reorganization of the various government departments, and the co‑ordination of governmental activities. The background of endeavor at that time was to put pressure on all departments to co‑ordinate effort by deferring in each case to that department which had already set up administrative machinery for the handling of that particular business, as opposed to the plan of having individual projects handled by that department having primary interest and responsibility in carrying out such projects, as an integral part of the purpose for which such government department was created.

It was a time of great stress and uncertainty in government departments, because of the tendency to pull apart the established order of procedure which had been in effect for many years as the activities of the government developed.

In addition to the attitude of the President, as indicated to members of the cabinet, there were three authorities tending to cause uncertainty as to jurisdiction, existing and prospective. These authorities were the Bureau of the Budget, with its co‑ordinators, the Reorganization Commission, and the Bureau of Efficiency. Not only was the subject of the limitation of armaments being discussed, but steps were also being taken to deprive the Navy of its air service, its transport and auxiliary service, its radio, its hydrographic service, its observatory, and several minor functions coming within the cognizance of individual bureaus and offices of the Department. The tendency of all these influences, accompanied as they were by a certain amount of propaganda on the part of those most interested in depriving the Navy of these activities, was to disturb the settled order of doing business to such  p421 an extent that almost anything might happen within the sphere of executive authority.

In the meantime, the Navy Department had been definitely forbidden to combat actively any of these influences, particularly in view of the Conference for the Limitation of Naval Armaments.

Thayer's Note:

a The premises and conclusions of the General Board's report, and the "Stop Now" plan, are outlined in Gerald Wheeler, Prelude to Pearl Harbor, pp53‑56; that book covers the Washington Conference in great detail.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 31 Dec 16