The Inspired Leak

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In the early i goo’s the American people were proud of their navy, which was quite new. It was being built up as fast as President Theodore Roosevelt could persuade Congress to act, it had recently destroyed two Spanish squadrons in spectacular one-sided battles, and it enjoyed a worldwide reputation for its fine marksmanship. But in 1902 President Roosevelt had on his desk a letter from an unhappy young officer enclosing two detailed reports indicating that the fine new ships were in fact dangerously inferior because of poor design, that the prized marksmanship was actually atrocious, and that the Navy Department was so badly organized that it could neither admit nor correct these flaws. He added that the promotion system was just about guaranteed to bring mediocrity to the top commands.

This was disturbing stuff, and there was not much the President could do about it just then; most of the reforms called for would take extensive acts of Congress, which was inclined to be quite happy with a navy that was so goodlooking and had recently been so victorious, and never at any time does Congress enjoy having a President tell it how to legislate about the Navy. One thing Roosevelt could do on his own hook, and this he immediately did; he took the officer who had complained so sharply, Lieutenant William S. Sims, and appointed him inspector of target practice.

Sims performed excellently. He had no place to go but up. At the famous Battle of Santiago the American fleet had fired 9,500 projectiles, of which exactly 123 hit Spanish ships—and in the course of a few years Sims had changed things so that the Navy really did rank with the best in the business as far as gunnery was concerned. But on the other points no reform had been made or even attempted, and Sims was getting restless. So, in 1904, he sat down with a friend, a marine artist named Henry Reuterdahl, and gave him the material in the two interdepartmental reports that he had forwarded to the President. This, he cautioned, was not to be published just yet; Reuterdahl was to keep it on the back burner and wait until Sims gave him the go-ahead.

This came, at last, in 1907, when the end of Roosevelt’s time in the White House was approaching and the Navy was much in the public eye on account of the battle fleet’s famous cruise around the world. Sims told Reuterdahl to print his story whenever he could arrange it, and in January, 1908, it came out in McClure’s Magazine , one of the most aggressive mass-circulation publications of that period.

It made a huge splash. American battleships, it asserted, were so badly designed that their armor belts were actually below the water line. They suffered from low freeboard to such an extent that in any kind of rough weather they could not fight their guns. Open shafts led from turrets to magazines, so that a fire or explosion in a turret could blow up the whole ship. (How serious this sort of defect could be was shown eight years later at Jutland, when a similar flaw led to the destruction of three British battle cruisers.) And the Navy’s famous system of Bureaus was incredibly inefficient—so much so that no seagoing officer ever had anything to say about the design or construction of warships, which were in the hands of shoreside technicians answerable only to the Secretary of the Navy, whose knowledge of how ships ought to be put together depended entirely on what these technicians told him.

All in all, this was quite a bill of goods, and top brass was indignant. The Navy had a regulation forbidding officers to publish, directly or indirectly, information about acts or measures of the department, and Reuterdahl obviously had had access to those reports Sims had written several years earlier. The Secretary of the Navy sent Sims a severe letter remarking on the “very unusual similarity” between the magazine article and the supposedly secret reports, and Sims took the letter to the White House and showed it to President Roosevelt.

It is possible to suspect that Roosevelt had either put Sims up to giving Reuterdahl the reports in the first place or had at least carefully looked the other way while it was being done. In any case, he now gave Sims a light pat on the wrist and then held a sheltering wing over him while the admirals blew up a storm. Sims went on to win promotion, and when the United States entered the First World War he became commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters. Meanwhile a Senate committee investigated the Reuterdahl article in the full glare of publicity (which was exactly what Sims had hoped for), and the complaints about the Navy’s defects were out where naval officers and taxpayers alike were bound to see them and take thought about them.

It would be nice to report that this set everything right, but things don’t often work out so neatly. Reform came slowly—the cumbersome Bureau system was not greatly changed for many years—and the next few battleships that were designed still had all of the shortcomings Sims had been complaining about. But in time the reforms did come, better design was attained, and seven or eight years later American battleships were recognized on both sides of the Atlantic as leading the pack in plan and performance. When the real showdown finally came, the Navy was precisely the instrument America needed.