- Historic Sites
After every war in the nation’s history, the military has faced not only calls for demobilization but new challenges and new opportunities. It is happening again.
December 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 8
At home and around the world, Mahan’s message fell on receptive minds. It was a time when the power of steel and steam was at flood tide, when the British sun was at its zenith. Imperialism flourished alongside its cousin militarism. In 1894 Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote that “I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan’s book and am trying to learn it by heart. It is a first class book and classical in all points. It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my Captains and officers.” Theodore Roosevelt, too, became a Mahan disciple.
In the United States vaulting ambition brought the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, as well as the war with Spain. The contrast with 1812 is instructive. That early war had left us in imminent peril, with our nation under the guns of the Royal Navy. We then had every reason to pursue a naval build-up for our own defense, and with our growing population and economic strength we could easily have done so during subsequent decades. It was British diplomacy, not a lack of means, that forestalled this. But during the 189Os we built a capable fleet, not because we had to but because we wanted to. Then, with the ships in hand, we set out to use them.
The following decade saw the height of our navalism. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House and proceeded to spend those years acting as if he were Navy Secretary. We now had major interests in the Philippines, the central Pacific, Panama, and the Caribbean. To protect them, we would need ships, and when Japan annihilated a Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905, it was clear that here was a navy that would bear the closest watching. Roosevelt responded apace. When he took office in 1901, our Navy was receiving its ninth battleship. When he left the White House in 1909, we had twenty-five in commission and six more on the way. Nor was this the end of the matter. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson won passage of an act that had the deliberate aim of building “a navy second to none.” It was to match the strength of Britain’s powerful fleet.
Why did we do it? Why, in a time when Army strength still was stagnant, did we force ourselves into the ranks of the world’s great sea powers? The reasons ran deeper than the influence of Mahan or even of Roosevelt, for our naval build-up was not the work of a single administration or even of one decade. It spanned thirty years, from the naval legislation of 1890 to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. During those decades the world’s principal powers were caught up in a naval arms race, and this race had a life of its own. At times it could even go against a nation’s own interest.
This was particularly true for Germany. For years Germans had been powerful on land while Britain ruled the waves, and the two nations had found it easy to stay out of each other’s way. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, in which Prussia seized Paris and tore away Alsace-Lorraine, the British stood aside; this was none of their concern. But in 1897 Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, with the kaiser’s full support, launched a program of naval construction that deliberately aimed to rival Britain’s.
Bismarck had opposed such a policy, knowing that it would dissipate his country’s resources while adding an enemy. Wilhelm did not listen. He saw little value in British neutrality, as he later would see little to seek in America’s. The results were predictable: Britain intensified its own naval build-up, entered into alliance with France, and prepared to blockade Germany in the event of war. This meant that Germany would have been a stronger power without a navy than with one, for as long as Britain remained neutral, the kaiser’s armies could have fought any Continental enemy without having their country’s seaborne commerce disrupted. Now, with both German and Japanese naval power on the increase, Roosevelt and his successors had to keep pace.
Following World War I the Washington Naval Conference took form as the first serious effort at arms control. It ratified the pre-war build-up, setting a ratio of strength in capital ships at 5:5:3 for Britain, the United States, and Japan. These limitations forced the scrapping of much American tonnage: eleven major warships under construction, including the battleship USS Washington , 76 percent complete; four modern battleships; and fifteen older ones that dated as far back as 1898. Even so, the postwar cutbacks brought a curious imbalance. With Britain weakened in victory and Japan as rampant as before, our Navy was to maintain a high level of strength. But facing no such threat on land, our Army swiftly declined to the rank of seventeenth in the world. Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Romania, Spain, and Yugoslavia all were stronger. Indeed, we would have been weaker still had we not had overseas possessions to garrison.