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 18

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

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: a blank space]
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p297  Chapter XIX

America at the Crossroads

[image ALT: missingALT.]

It is most important today that we recognize that our former security due to isolation has become far less than formerly, for the airplane and its bombs markedly has shrunk the width of the two barrier oceans.

Another thing, let us be reminded that the Monroe Doctrine, which for over a century has prevented European and Asiatic warlords from obtaining military and naval bridgeheads on the American continents, has not been maintained inviolate by this nation's formerly weak military and naval strength alone. If it had not suited the foreign policy of Downing Street, that doctrine long since would have become a dead letter.

Many of us may recall that several years after the Spanish War, Germany sent a naval force to Venezuela to collect debts owed by that country to game merchants. The German admiral threatened to seize the custom house at the seaport La Guaira to enable the debts to be satisfied. This action was considered by the United States a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and there was no telling how much farther Germany might go after the first seizure.

We mobilized a fleet in the West Indies with Admiral George  p298 Dewey in command. He had discomforted the grasping German admiral in Manila and was now given an opportunity to repeat the achievement. Through diplomatic channels, Germany was warned that her contemplated action in Venezuela was not pleasing to this country, for we considered ourselves the guardians of these continents.

The German navy at that time was even stronger than ours and probably better prepared for war, but the Kaiser knew that a war between the United States and Germany would have to be fought on America's side of the ocean, over 3000 miles from German home bases. The Kaiser's fleet would have to be dispatched across the Atlantic, basing in the West Indies or in South America. But what about the neutrality of Great Britain in such a war? Could it be assured? If not, the British navy would be astride the vital lines of communication of the Kaiser's fleet. The British fleet then, and not our weaker fleet, had the final decision for peace or war.

Germany withdrew her warships from Venezuela, and the United States undertook to see that German merchants obtained just satisfaction from that country. Our press, patriotically, gave Dewey the credit for intimidating the Kaiser, but actually it was with the uncertainty of the stand that Downing Street might take that caused the Kaiser to back down.​a

That our great Fleet today could give a good account of itself in battle against an equal enemy is certain. All nations know it. But all nations also know that this country has gone into every war unprepared and doubtless counts upon our doing the same today, in spite of the lessons of the World War. Today such a handicap is far worse than formerly. Our organizations for war ever have been defective. One speaks of England "muddling" through a war. If that expression is true of her, I am at a loss to express how this nation would conduct a real war, single-handed, against a great naval power, prepared in every particular. "Bogging" through might be suitable. Nevertheless, we all feel sure that in the end we shall win.

Now let us turn to the Pacific. For the last decade or more, our diplomatic influence in oriental affairs has been considerable. Japan, the Germany and Great Britain of the Far East, rolled into one, ever has appeared willing to listen politely to our voice. One reason may be that Japan has considered it good policy to cultivate friendly relations and have available the rich American  p299 markets, but also, since the dissolving of the British-Japanese alliance in 1922, Japanese diplomats, no doubt, have reasoned that in the event of war with the United States, over some vital Far Eastern policy, the British navy would be found an unknown quantity to be considered, but most likely would be found in company with the American Fleet.

These thoughts put a different aspect upon the cause of our former fairly strong position in oriental affairs. But now with a new lineup of great powers, the potential alliance of Japan with Germany and Italy, and the withdrawal of the British Far Eastern naval forces frontier the Orient, even after the boasted impregnable Singapore Naval Base has been completed, a very much changed situation for us is evident; in consequence we find our diplomatic voice today almost too weak to be heard by Japan amid the turmoil of her war in Asia.

Why this new arrogance of Japan? Our Fleet is a splendid one: material the best in the world, the gunnery superb, discipline high. But Japanese naval leaders know only too accurately, and on that they base their present attitude toward us, that this excellent fleet of ours, based in the eastern Pacific most of the time, cannot alone be a menace to Japanese aggressive aims in the Far East. We know our Fleet lacks suitable naval bases in areas where it would be forced to operate when at war. It is evident that Japan counts upon fighting a naval war in her own seas, as near her inland sea as possible, and believes the hot temper of the American people when aroused will satisfy her wish.

We may be secure enough in the Pacific as far west as Hawaii and even in an area of a few thousand miles to the westward from our naval base at Pearl Harbor. In this sea area our fleet will have greater mobility, at least theoretically, than any enemy fleet. However, Pearl Harbor, as a great fleet base, is far from ready in divers ways to support the activities of an active war fleet with all that goes with it, engaged in a war with an equal enemy, even in that area where it should have the greater mobility. More must be accomplished at once in Hawaii.

Our people have become so wedded to the word, defense, that it has been difficult to convince them, that, when once we are at war, the value of our Navy in the defense of our country is in direct proportion to its mobility. Our Fleet in war must take the offensive to defend. That principle is what the great Admiral  p300 Lord Jack Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Admiralty during the war, wished to emphasize when he said:

"Audacity and imagination beget surprise. Surprise is the pith and marrow of war. Rashness in war is prudence. Prudence in war is imbecility."

If our naval strategists believe in the pleasant of war, why are we considering defending the United States in war by holding our great Fleet chained hand and foot to the Hawaiian Islands?

Our President, who is almost as much a naval man in his thinking as he is an astute politician and diplomat, has used his great influence to awaken the country to the menace in the Pacific. But even yet, fleet mobility for the defense of the Philippines, Guam, and Alaska lies in the discard. With our increased Navy in existence, without a Far Eastern naval base, a successful war for us in the Pacific would be as difficult as waging a war on the planet Mars.

Again, speaking of a submarine and air base at Guam. That little island is 3500 miles from Hawaii, 1350 miles from Japan, and 1500 miles from Manila. Therefore Guam, fortified and given offensive power, would be considered by Japan a sword at her throat. Therefore in the event of war, she would do her utmost at the very start to reduce it. Guam as a base may be needed for our security, but we must see that it is useless to consider it alone, unless we are willing to build there a first-class naval base to hold our entire Fleet. A naval base at Guam and in the Philippines both are needed for full fleet mobility, which alone can make us secure in our sovereignty in all of the Pacific. Anything less is a blow in the air. The Army have declared that both Guam and the Philippines are salients and according to land strategy are impossible to defend. I do not consider that principle holds with the same force on the sea. Conditions and weapons are not similar.

Japan's policy naturally has been to discourage and block all thought in our country of the construction of fleet bases in Guam and the Philippines. An American fleet capable of operating in the Orient would not be pleasing to Japanese warlords. Also the closer in our diplomacy we appear to be drawing toward Great Britain, the sourer become the faces of the Nipponese diplomats. For Singapore might be made available to an American fleet. Both Great Britain and the United States realize that their territorial  p301 obligations have far outgrown their naval and air strength to give them security. That is a matter to ponder over. Under some circumstances it might spell concerted action. That is what Japan fears.

Most of our people, much as they deplore it, feel that the war in China is none of our quarrel. We shall not go to war with Japan over China even though we mourn the certain loss of much of our China trade. However, the war talk in Japan and even in America is increasing from day to day. At another time, when war talk was increasing alarmingly over the school question in California,​b Theodore Roosevelt sent our Battleship Fleet around the world. It made stops at Manila and also in Japan. This act hushed the war talk, at least for the time.

Each year our Fleet carries out a war problem in sea areas where our sovereignty might be involved and where the Fleet may be called upon to operate in war. The purposes are to train the personnel in the sea "terrain" and in maneuvering under conditions simulating war. So far we have not carried out a problem in the Philippines although we have everywhere else. Have we then been served with a veiled hint and negotiated a secret gentleman's agreement with Japan not to send our fleet to the Philippines? Might it not be intriguing to find out, should we announce a problem there, whether Japan would decide it was a cause for war and attack our Fleet en route? A fleet merely going to its own island possession? Yet that possibility is in the minds of our diplomats and Navy men. Not a very healthy situation for this proud nation to be in.

Does it not seem that as long as we practice with Japan the tactics of Chamberlain with Hitler at Munich, which now the British Prime Minister acknowledges has led only to more ruthless acts by the dictators, the more slippery will become our foothold in the Pacific?

Would not the risk, if there really is one, of holding a war problem in the Philippine Islands be worth the price if it will lay the ghost of a perennial war with Japan? It was done in 1907. I feel sure if we did Japan would have far greater respect for our courage as a nation.

The expansion program of naval ships and airplanes, sponsored by the President as a background to his recent announcement of putting steel in our foreign policy, has brought up the question of the relative importance of surface warships, submarines,  p302 and airplanes. We are to lay down soon 45,000‑ton battle­ships with twelve 16‑inch guns each, costing probably 70 millions apiece, a staggering sum for one ship. Certainly we would not waste so much money if we thought that type of ship was becoming obsolete. With that sum of money we could build 20 submarines and 300 airplanes.

In spite of all the known dangers surrounding the battle­ships in a naval war, we not aware of any type of weapon that can replace it. A battle­ship is at the very top of the evolution of the "surface of the sea" warships. Offensively it can hurl the heaviest weight of metal from its 14‑and 16‑inch guns. Its vitals are protected by armor thicker than that carried by any other type of ship. Defensively the battle­ship yet lacks power within itself for its own security. Its torpedo defense and aircraft guns will not give full immunity from attacks from destroyers and aircraft. The underwater structure of the big ship is subdivided in such a way as to localize damage from torpedo explosions. In the newer ships all these defensive aids are to be increased, yet even then the battle­ship cannot be considered complete. There are required destroyers to advance the guns far out on the flanks and ahead to sink enemy torpedo vessels before they can arrive into a position where torpedos are accurate. Against the danger of air bombing there must be quantities of defensive airplanes to be carried in aircraft carriers that accompany the battle­ship fleet. These are not all the defensive aids. There are cruisers for information service or for scouting and fighting off enemy destroyers, and for supporting destroyer attacks on enemy fleet.

It is thus seen that the battle­ship, although the highest evolution of its species, is still a dependent instrument of war, for when accompanied by insufficient numbers of other types of warship it finds itself seriously compromised. These aids are essential for completeness. With all these aids, accompanying it, the battle­ship stands out the most potent weapon of naval war and the most reliable.

Having commanded all types of warships and flown frequently in all types of naval airplanes, I am convinced that, even though the submarine and the airplane are becoming increasingly important and dangerous, they will not, for some time to come, supplant  p303 the battle­ship. That huge and formidable vessel no navy can afford to neglect or be without in its fleet. Of course the battle­ship always must be well guarded, for it is the major piece on the chessboard of war on the seas.

No naval man of experience and first‑hand knowledge of the capabilities of warship types will attempt to minimize the importance of the submarine and the airplane in the next war on the seas. I recall only too vividly the moral effect the German U‑boats had upon those who commanded troopships in the World War. No doubt we gave them an uncanny prowess that they did not live up to. The submarine today has a serious antagonist in the swift destroyer armed with many large depth charges, the explosion of which if well placed will destroy the submarine. However, this partial antidote should not act to reduce budgets for newer and more submarines.

The airplanes' greatest handicaps are weather conditions and visibility. These will make flying less dependable. Even then they will prove a dangerous menace for the big ship in the next war. Their moral effect has been exemplified only recently by the reluctance of British admirals to use the Mediterranean, where Italy maintains great air forces well based on land in that closed sea and capable of striking with them to its extreme limits.

Airplanes carried with the fleet are relatively small. They cannot be large to be safely handled and flown from surface warships. The aircraft carrier, upon which a fleet depends for air defense, is a highly inflammable ship and can be completely destroyed in but a few minutes by gunfire or bombs.

There is no limit to the size of airplanes to be based on shore except constructional difficulties. Airplanes of from 250 to 300 feet wing spread, with a speed of over 300 miles an hour and a pay load in bombs ranging into tons, are not far ahead, if they are not already here. These great airplanes operating from well placed bases and landing fields will menace all surface ships. That they will render the big warships less valuable is quite possible. Huge air force bases on numerous and strategically located islands will be most useful to any fleet. The known vulnerability of aircraft carriers may even force fleets to choose their battle area where land-based aircraft will be available to be used in the fleet's air defense instead of or in conjunction with carrier planes.

 p304  Admiral Mahan has told us that sea power consists of warships, naval bases, and merchant ships. An efficient merchant marine, by which I mean modern and fast ships, well officered and manned and scientifically administered, is a most difficult problem for this nation to solve. We have neglected our merchant marine sadly. Our ships are mostly obsolete, slow, and poorly run. We have permitted labor strife to invade the ships and practically destroy, through internal dissensions, the integrity of our carrying trade on the seas. What is needed is greater interest and control by a Government setup to discourage the willful actions of radical labor leaders in using this great industry for their own selfish ends. Uncle Sam must show as much interest in one element of sea power as another, for sea power is not complete unless all three elements are effective. Uncle Sam must step in to guarantee fair play and a healthy, comfortable, and clean living to those of his people who elect to follow the sea for a livelihood.

The United States never has considered it needed a large army, but has learned that its security is dependent upon maintaining an adequate sea power. The importance of that to America cannot be too often emphasized.

A formidable sea power giving command of the seas is a weapon earnestly sought by the dictators, for in war that achievement is needed in their ambition toward world domination. Sea power alone has long been a pivotal factor in the war history of industrial nations. Today its importance overshadows all else.

In ancient days merchant ships carried soldiers on board for protection against attacks by commercial rivals and pirates. Later on, special ships were built to sail in company with merchant ships to insure safety. These were called warships. When military tactics were found applicable to the seas, warships were then gathered together in fleets, in order to bring a concentration of power upon the enemy's ships.

Over one hundred years ago, Napoleon with his Grand Army sailed across the Mediterranean to conquer Egypt and the Holy Land. A French fleet accompanied Napoleon's troopships, and after the Army had landed in Egypt, it was anchored in Aboukir Bay. Admiral Lord Nelson with a British fleet attacked the French fleet at anchor and destroyed it. This victory of Nelson's  p305 caused the failure of Napoleon's expedition, because the French army no longer could be supplied from France. Napoleon's lines of communication then were in the hands of the superior British fleet. The British commanded then the seas in the Mediterranean.

The great importance of sea‑borne traffic becomes clear when we know that the sea areas are three times the extent of the land areas and everywhere surround them. Therefore all seaports of the world can be reached by ships. These carriers of trade are ever increasing in size and carrying capacity and likewise speed. Trade by sea has become unlimited in extent. The free use of the seas to all industrial nations is something most vital in both peace and war.

History outlines how Great Britain built an empire on the stable foundation of sea power. She constructed warships superior in both numbers and fighting ability to all her rivals, and in consequence her trade by sea soon spread to every corner of the globe. This conquest of the seas by Britain's war fleets thus brought colonies under her sovereignty, and these responsibilities in turn further demanded the establishment of naval bases in well separated positions to harbor her defending warships and merchant ships. These strategically located naval bases enabled her warships to safeguard the lines of communication of empire, by which her great trade traveled, reaching the furthermost parts of the world.

In the World War the superiority of the Allies' sea power gave them the free use of the sea during the entire war. American sea power at the end helped master the submarine menace. Germany's sea power was shut up in her ports. The final outcome of this silent, irresistible pressure of sea power was the economic collapse of Germany and the retreat of her armies, due to the failure to obtain vital supplies coming from lands across the seas.

It was demonstrated in that war that submarines, although they can use the sea when commanded by an enemy, cannot gain command of the seas without the support of other types of warships. Only a superiority of surface warships can protect merchant ships on the sea and thus maintain a steady flow of supplies by sea upon which all commercial nations today are dependent.

In these days of most destructive naval weapons, no nation is under the delusion that it can command all the seas. The aim is to command the sea in areas where their vital interests lie and where their war machines will operate and also in those areas where their trade must pass. That is the reason for Britain's concern  p306 about the Mediterranean, now almost entirely in the hands of Italian sea and air power.

If Hitler's heart could be opened, there would be found written thereon the word: "Sea Power." It is the one thing standing between that dictator and world conquest.

Hitler dreads the strength of Britain's sea power and will do his utmost to destroy it. As an initial step toward more ambitious objectives, Hitler today is concentrating upon a conquest of middle Europe in order to obtain for his use the vast material resources of smaller nations. Especially Germany desires Rumania's oil, a prime factor in peace and war. This land conquest may be achieved without coming in contact directly with Britain's sea power.

Hitler will build a formidable fleet. He already owns the largest air force in Europe. Hitler's aim is eventually to win the next battle of Jutland from England.

The Kaiser, who cannot have lost interest and possibly some control behind the scenes of his former kingdom, once declared that:

"Germany's destiny lies on the seas."

Hitler is not unmindful of the hidden meaning in that phrase. The query in the world's thought today is: Will Great Britain be careless enough to permit Hitler to construct a war fleet capable of defeating the Royal Navy?

Let America remember that in all wars between maritime nations, sea power, giving command of the seas in areas of war operations, and protecting the lines of communication from the battle areas to important bases of supply, has ever been the winning card.

Looking at the Pacific: Japan controls the seas in the Far East. While Britain's sea power remains chained to the rock of Europe, Japan will dominate British and Dutch possessions in the Orient. Unless the United States sea power is unchained from its Hawaiian rock by the provision of a naval base in oriental seas, Japan's navy will dominate the Philippines and western Alaska. What are Great Britain and America going to do about that?

Hitler and those who are advising him are not fools. They will not precipitate a war now, for they know Germany would, in the end, lose. Air power, of course, is most important because of its great destructive ability, but alone it cannot win. Military power,  p307 without superior sea power is most restricted. Sea power, if superior, is universal in scope. It enables its possessor to gain supreme power in any part of the world. "He who commands the seas commands the world."

America is coming to believe that should Britain be defeated on the seas, the long vision of the dictators will embrace the American continents, and they will become the next objective for both military and economic conquest. Cannot we see, then, with our President, that we are as much concerned in this highhanded diplomatic intrigue of Hitler and the rest as are Great Britain and France?

The United States must not, if it can help it, permit a situation to develop in which we shall find ourselves forced to fight single-handed against three victorious dictators. America must declare now to Hitler and his partner, Mussolini, that if war should come to Europe, it is certain that the American people will demand that all our great resources and even our sea power be used to defeat the nations that have brought another world war to suffering mankind. Not as an ally, but as a people outraged by the methods of the jungle, a firm stand by America will give the dictators pause and bring home to their people that their leaders are not opening up to them a promised land, but are urging them on to national destruction.

Will there be war in Europe? Being a prophet is a dangerous calling. Here is my diagnosis of the war situations in Europe and Asia.

Germany fought the Allies for nearly four years to accomplish world domination and failed. The Allies forced upon Germany complete disarmament at Versailles because they were fully armed on sea and land and Germany was not. Then, stupidly, the principal nations of the Allies, for the sake of economy, permitted their physical power to grow weaker, and, what was even worse, their moral power to degenerate. They did not have the intestinal fortitude to call a halt on Germany when she openly showed her contempt for the treaty and began to rearm. Germany today is even stronger relatively than she was in 1914, and her aims have not changed. World domination for Germany is possible only by defeating Britain on the seas and in the air. To conquer middle Europe and give her the resources of the Balkans to prepare her for a future war, she does not require a navy, but  p308 to conquer the Americas, which is her ultimate aim, she must have a navy powerful enough to conquer the British navy.

Germany has no desire to force a war until her fleet is ready. She began the World War too soon. She was not ready on the sea in 1914. She will not repeat that error. She can hope to win the next war only by defeating Britain on the seas. Unless Great Britain and France, by a strong and definite stand, force Hitler to war to save his prestige and his position with the German people, there will be no war in Europe until Germany's fleet is ready. America should desire that Hitler be forced to a showdown before her new fleet is built and prepared to win a new Jutland from Great Britain, for if that happens, America's turn will be next. There is no doubt about that in my mind. War and peace in Europe then are in the hands of Great Britain and France. War must come eventually, so why not now? It is the only way that Germany can be stopped.

In the Pacific, war might come because of some arrogant and aggressive action by Japan upon our cherished rights or upon our sovereignty. Japan will first wish to complete the subjugation and pacification of China, then throw Russia back in the eastern provinces as far as Lake Baikal. After that, Japan will turn her attention to the great material resources of the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Borneo, and the Philippines. Like Germany she has planned her domination of the Far East step by step. She can be stopped only by a complete defeat on the sea.

If she makes a misstep and drives the United States into a war, Japan will find herself in the same position that Germany did in 1914. She will have against her Great Britain, Russia, and an unconquered China. Could she hope to win?

War or peace in the Pacific thus are the hands of the United States, but war in the Pacific, as in Europe, will come eventually.

All my life I have been called a stormy petrel. I have never hesitated to use the pen to reveal what I considered should be brought to public attention, usually within the Navy, but often to a wider public. I seem to see some benefits that have come to the Navy through those efforts. I have always believed that a naval man actually is disloyal to his country if he does not reveal acts that are doing harm to his service and show, if he can, how to remedy the fault. An efficient Navy cannot be run with "yes men" only.

 p309  Now, after retiring, I feel that I am even freer to record a dissenting opinion if it will help the Navy, in whose service I have given the best years of my life. I served forty-eight years with both my sword and my pen; now there is only the pen left to me, and I expect to wield it in the Navy's interests as long as I can lift it.

Thayer's Notes:

a The point is never very loudly made, but it has long been acknowledged by strategists, including President Wilson's Secretary of State: Davis, Atlantic System, p299 f.

[decorative delimiter]

b The author conflates two closely related, but separate, anti-Japanese laws: the Japanese exclusion acts passed first at a state level by the State of California followed by others, then at a national level introduced by Washington State Representative Albert Johnson and passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Coolidge on May 26, 1924. The national law banned Japanese-language schools, mostly affecting Hawaii: it was struck down by the United States Supreme Court. The damage to Japanese-American relations, however, was done. For details, see Gerald E. Wheeler, Prelude to Pearl Harbor, pp32‑36.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 29 Oct 14