Military Policy Between the Two World Wars, 1919–1939

Like the lights of Europe that winked out in 1914, Woodrow Wilson’s hopes for peace dimmed during the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles. By the time his internationalist foreign policy died in the presidential election of 1920, the outlines of postwar American diplomacy and national security policy had emerged. In strategic terms the Fourteen Points and associated idealistic sentiments shrank to three goals: Defending the continental United States and its overseas possessions from foreign attack, deterring European intervention in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, and preserving China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The exhaustion of the European powers in World War I did much to ensure that the United States could achieve its strategic goals without increasing its military power. Germany had disappeared as an imperial power; revolutionary Russia could not muster the forces to do much more than wage civil war; Great Britain, France, and Italy did not have the resources to expand their influence and instead chose to further exhaust themselves by defending their weakened hold on their existing foreign possessions. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, in fact, set off a wave of wars of independence and decolonization and the creation of new nations that went on unabated into the 1990s.

Caught between its sympathy for national self-determination and its distaste for great power politics, as well as its desire for expanded international economic influence, the American foreign policy elite returned to traditional notions of unilateralism and noninvolvement in Europe’s affairs. After rejecting membership in the League of Nations, the United States focused on foreign trade policy, which became increasingly protectionist in the 1920s, and the collection of war debts assumed by the European nations. Rejecting any commitment to collective security through the League of Nations or any less binding defensive ties to its former partners in World War I, the United States made it less likely that Great Britain and France would find the will and resources to maintain the European balance of power. Even before the end of the 1920s some astute Americans observed that the First World War had simply planted the seeds of a second, even greater, global struggle. They also predicted that the United States would be no more successful in avoiding the second world war than it had the first.

Surveying the political wreckage of 1919, the planners of the Joint Army-Navy Board realized that the most immediate strategic problem was the enhanced international ambition and strategic power of Imperial Japan. More than a decade earlier, Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War and deteriorating U.S.-Japanese diplomatic relations prompted the joint board to formulate a contingency plan for conflict with the emerging Asian power. In 1911, the board formalized Plan ORANGE, which called for defending the Philippines and Guam while concentrating U.S. naval forces for an offensive through the central Pacific to isolate Japan. Joining the Allied cause in 1915, the Japanese had extended their military power on the Asian mainland and across the reaches of the central Pacific. Japanese domestic politics, economic weakness, and European-American resistance had snuffed out the Japanese enclaves in China and Siberia by 1921, but the world war left the Japanese the dominant power in the Pacific as far east as the international date line. Securing its conquest of Germany’s Pacific holdings, Japan placed itself in a favorable position to return to mainland Asia free of American and European interference. By developing bases in the Caroline Islands, the Marianas (with the exception of American Guam), and the Marshall Islands, Japan made it unlikely that the U.S. Navy could steam to the defense of the Philippines or stop either another incursion into China or attacks on the rich but weak colonial regimes of the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China, and British Malaya. With the U.S. Navy’s trans-Pacific reach blunted by the potential Japanese naval-air-defense system in the central Pacific, a continued Russian military presence in Siberia became even more important in deterring Japan. Should, however, the Soviets become involved in a European war, their ability to involve Japan in a two-front Asian war was likely to disappear. As the Navy’s General Board recognized when it reviewed War Plan ORANGE in 1919, Japan did not menace the continental United States and the Western Hemisphere, but it now stood in a favorable position to close the Open Door and deal a death-blow to the imperial system in Asia, which was still critical to the economic reconstruction of Great Britain and France.

American policymakers saw that the world war had not made the world safe for democracy, let alone for narrower American political and economic interests. The disappointments of peacemaking after World War I, however, reduced American will to match the strategic challenges of the postwar world with enlarged, improved military forces. With little popular appetite for “foreign wars” and increased peacetime military spending, the United States, especially the staffs of the Army and Navy, attempted to design a postwar military policy that reconciled the nation’s muted internationalism and its commitment to “normalcy.” For twenty years the United States relied again on its military potential rather than standing forces.

Postwar Defense Policy

Between 1919 and 1922 the United States government tried to digest all the real and imagined lessons of World War I and establish the legislative base of a military policy compatible with both foreign policy and domestic concerns. The period began with the Versailles Peace Conference and ended with the Washington Conference treaties on naval limitation and security in the Pacific. If the policies of the early 1920s did not survive the rise of international military crises in the 1930s and the disaster of the Great Depression, they did, nevertheless, represent a reasonable response to the risks of the 1920s.

The cornerstone—or the keel—of American defense policy remained the fleet. Although the German U-boat war upon Allied commerce suggested that Mahanian specifics on sea power needed some rethinking, neither the Navy nor civilian navalists saw any reason to abandon the Naval Act of 1916, which foresaw a “Navy second to none” capable of meeting simultaneous naval threats from Great Britain and Japan. Even as the Navy Department phased out its wartime building programs and demobilized emergency sailors, Congress agreed to duplicate the 1916 building program in the Naval Act of 1919. The salvaged 1916 program, however, immediately ran aground. Although naval advisers still viewed Great Britain as a potential adversary, the Wilson administration’s civilian negotiators at the Versailles conference suggested to their British counterparts that the United States would abandon another naval arms race if the existing naval powers could negotiate some ceilings on fleet size, type, and modernity. The British proved interested in the proposal. Another restraint upon the Navy came from Congress, which was faced with paying the nation’s war debts and cutting government spending in order to check inflation and end a postwar depression. By 1920 Congress had already failed to appropriate money to continue the 1916 program, justified in part by a Senate investigation of the Navy Department’s performance in the world war. Encouraged by charges from Admiral William S. Sims that the Navy was organizationally flawed and technologically backward, Congress found ample excuse to cut the battleship building program. The impulse to cut naval spending found diverse support among the reborn peace movement, domestic lobbies like organized labor and reform groups, and the advocates of international agreements to control military spending. Even within the Navy, reformist officers wondered if a renewed commitment to the battleship might be an obsolete response to the potential havoc submarines and airplanes might cause the surface fleet. In sum, the concept of sea power remained largely intact. The instrument of that concept—the battleline of the U.S. Navy—might, however, be altered by a combination of international agreement and organizational-technological change.

The Washington Conference, an international meeting held during the winter of 1921–1922, shaped naval policy until the eve of World War II. Led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, the American delegation hammered out an agreement on capital-ship numbers and characteristics for the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy, assisted by full knowledge of the Japanese position from compromised communications. The Five Power Treaty created a tonnage ratio for battleships and battle-cruisers (a faster, more lightly armored battleship mutant) at 500,000 tons for the United States and Great Britain, 300,000 tons for Japan, and 175,000 tons for France and Italy. The tonnage ceilings were accompanied by a common agreement to limit battleships to 35,000 tons each and main batteries to no larger than 16-inch guns. For ten years the signatories would take a building “holiday” and then replace ships only under treaty agreement.

In more specific terms, the United States fared very well when the tonnage ratios became real battleships. The U.S. Navy battleline would number eighteen vessels, ten of them completed after 1906 and eight of them completed since 1916. The larger Royal Navy battlefleet (twenty ships) was not nearly so modern; the Japanese force numbered only ten battleships. If the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 had remained intact, their combined fleets might have been overwhelming, but the Washington treaties effectively ended the Anglo-Japanese treaty. This strategic uncoupling had been a major American goal and allowed the Navy to preserve a policy it had already adopted. In 1919 the Navy had split the battleline and assigned the most modern battleships to the new Pacific Fleet. Although American commentators made much of the fact that the United States had scrapped fifteen capital ships and stopped work on eleven others, the former were pre-Dreadnoughts of dubious utility, and the latter were battleships and battlecruisers that Congress had proved reluctant to complete. Moreover, the treaty allowed two battlecruiser hulls to be converted to aircraft carriers, Lexington and Saratoga. When the two 33,000-ton carriers joined the fleet, they were the best of their type in the world.

At the insistence of the restive Japanese, the Washington treaty on limiting naval armaments also included a provision that the signatories would not add to their base facilities and fortifications in the western Pacific. Much to the Navy’s dismay, this provision prevented converting any base west of the Hawaiian Islands into a major facility for supporting fleet operations. Japan had already agreed not to develop bases in the mandated islands and now extended this pledge to Formosa, but its geographic proximity gave it an assumed advantage if war occurred.

The base provision of the Five Power Treaty took on lesser significance, however, when weighed against two other Washington agreements, the Four Power Treaty and the Nine Power Treaty. The former pledged Japan, the United States, France, and Great Britain not to interfere with each others’ Asia-Pacific possessions. The latter pledged all the nations with some claim to special privileges in China to respect its political and territorial integrity. Presumably these two treaties made the Five Power Treaty acceptable by eliminating the most likely causes of a Pacific war.

For a Navy already becalmed by budget cuts, the Washington treaties allowed ample room for modernization of the remaining battleships and the use of other funds to develop a “balanced” fleet complete with submarines, a naval air arm, and a scouting force of cruisers (limited to 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns by the Five Power Treaty) and destroyers. Since the Five Power Treaty required comprehensive review within ten years, the naval policy could be changed if the political arrangements for Pacific and Asian security collapsed. If the treaty regime later appeared to pave the road to naval inferiority, the source of difficulty was not the Five Power Treaty itself, but subsequent naval budgets.

Like the creation of the “treaty” Navy, the postwar reorganization of the nation’s land forces blended the lessons of the world war and more traditional elements of military policy. The fundamental postwar legislation, the National Defense Act of 1920, created an “Army of the United States,” a force of many parts designed to mobilize and expand in wartime around a cadre of regulars and part-time soldiers. Regardless of the manpower formulas it heard from advocates of peacetime military training, Congress rejected compulsory service. It also rejected any appreciable increase in the standing forces. The law, nevertheless, refined the legislation of 1916 in useful ways and eventually provided a sounder basis for wartime mobilization than existed in 1917.

The core issue of postwar military policy focused on manpower mobilization and the relationship of the elements of the Army of the United States to the federal government and each other. In 1919 the War Department General Staff submitted a plan to Congress that called for a regular Army of 500,000 men and a program of universal military training (administered by the regulars) that would provide a reservoir of 500,000 trained reserves. These reserves would fill the ranks of existing units in wartime. In theory this system—unabashedly Uptonian—would have been the quickest way to reach combat effectiveness in an emergency, assuming a parallel state of materiel preparation. The plan, however, appeared Germanic and militaristic—and expensive—to Congress, one of whose members called it “an outrage.” Another congressman announced that everyone had had “a bellyful of the damn Army.” Searching for an alternative system, Congress borrowed the services of Colonel John McAuley Palmer, historian, experienced staff planner, author, and Pershing protégé. No Uptonian, Palmer was instead Utopian. He urged universal military training on the Swiss model, arguing that a mass army of citizen-soldiers raised by compulsion would be true to American traditions and civilian control of the military. The latter point was dubious and the former point silliness, since the United States had not had compulsory peacetime training since the Militia Act of 1792 had gone unimplemented. Congress, in fact, accepted Palmer’s view that the nation did not need a large regular Army, but it rejected the recommended substitute, a citizen reserve force raised through universal military training. Instead the National Defense Act of 1920 built a multi-tiered system based on voluntary participation and diverse degrees of readiness.

The new legislation envisioned a regular U.S. Army of 280,000 officers and men, whose primary mission was to provide tactical units for overseas defense, expeditionary duty, and border protection. It also trained the army’s civilian components. Heavily influenced by the National Guard lobby and the Guard’s local popularity, Congress designated the Guard the first federal reserve force and strengthened Guard influence on War Department planning. Depending upon citizen interest and federal dollars, the Guard might reach a peacetime strength of 435,000. The next source of soldiers would be the organized reserves, a federal force of officers and enlisted men drawn initially from World War I veterans, who would maintain the headquarters of tactical units as large as divisions. These skeleton divisions would absorb and train wartime conscripts; other federal reservists from the Officers Reserve Corps and Enlisted Reserve Corps would fill the ranks of the active formations in wartime. General Staff planners estimated that the Army of the United States could number 2.3 million men after sixty days of intense mobilization. To manage peacetime training and wartime expansion, the army would be organized into nine corps areas, and each corps would have a regular Army division, two National Guard divisions, and three reserve divisions.

In one particular area the National Defense Act of 1920 proved especially valuable: The provision for commissioning reserve officers on a continuing basis. The War Department and Congress agreed that a critical weakness in America’s wartime armies had been the quality and quantity of junior officers in combat units. Since the World War veterans would quickly age—and those with reserve commissions reach field-grade rank—the legislation institutionalized the peacetime training and commissioning of new lieutenants, primarily through a campus-based Reserve Officers Training Corps and a system of summer training camps for non-ROTC participants. Whether ROTC was compulsory or not remained the decision of individual campuses, but the War Department favored compulsion despite the fact that fewer than 10 percent of ROTC cadets took the four-year program that qualified them for a commission. Presumably, two-year compulsory participants would accept wartime commissions rather than serve in the ranks. When the United States once again mobilized in 1940, the War Department could call 80,000 reserve officers to active duty, most of whom were ROTC products.

Manpower mobilization had always fascinated military policymakers, but the experience of World War I showed that industrial mobilization plans equaled manpower policies in importance. Influenced by civilian and military participants in the World War I economic mobilization, especially Bernard Baruch, Congress assigned the duty of industrial readiness to the assistant secretary of war. The assistant secretary’s office, staffed by both civilians and officers, became responsible for matching the wartime Army’s procurement needs with the nation’s production capacity. Although the law did not give the War Department the specific responsibility for designing a mobilization plan for national economic regulation, the National Defense Act of 1920 implied that military procurement could not be divorced from the more comprehensive problems of wartime economic policy.

Planning for Another War

Although the size and composition of the fleet, the structure of the Army of the United States, and the unanswered questions of wartime industrial mobilization brought a new complexity to strategic planning, no single issue so complicated policymaking as the future role of aviation. The airplane challenged traditional definitions of Army and Navy doctrine and functions and stimulated complex patterns of interservice cooperation and conflict. It also set off sharp internal power struggles within both the Army and Navy, consumed scarce personnel and funds that otherwise would have gone to the land army and the surface fleet, and provided an additional weapon for civilians who wanted to prod the military bureaucracies toward new ways of waging war and saving money. The airplane obsessed technological visionaries, who imagined that air war would deter or decide quickly all future conflicts among the industrialized nations. The airplane bonded together an important new political coalition for policy shaping: Military aviators, scientists and engineers, private airplane builders, and those civilians who saw the potential of the airplane for carrying commercial freight and passengers. In sum, the airplane had a far-reaching impact upon interwar military policy in virtually every way except one: It did not offer a cheap and decisive way to protect America.

Fascinated with the potential of the airplane, only partially exploited in World War I, the military missionaries brought the air power gospel to the government and public in 1919. By 1926 both the Army and Navy had made giant strides in establishing military aviation establishments and creating the basic concepts for the airplane’s wartime use. Within the Army, Brigadier General William Mitchell led the campaign. The Navy had no Mitchell, and it did not want one. It had instead a trio of aging Young Turks—Admirals William F. Fullam, Bradley Fiske, and William S. Sims—for public education, and in Rear Admiral William A. Moffett the Navy had one of the most talented organizers and lobbyists in its history. Both services also had a tightly knit, dedicated cadre of flying officers who firmly believed that national defense required the aggressive exploitation of the airplane, even to the exclusion of other ways of waging war.

The War and Navy Departments did not ignore military aviation. In 1919 the Joint Board of Aeronautics, an offshoot of the Army-Navy Joint Board, issued its first doctrinal statement on air warfare. The board stressed the importance of air operations to land and sea campaigns but rejected the radical notion (associated especially with Mitchell) that air power might itself win wars. In the future the Army would develop air forces appropriate for the support of all phases of land warfare. As Mitchell defined them, these missions were winning air superiority over the battlefield by destroying the enemy’s air force (pursuit), the destruction of ground targets away from the battlefield (bombardment), the destruction of enemy forces on the battlefield (attack), and fire direction and information gathering (observation). The Navy would develop the air forces, based either on carriers or land stations, essential to the conduct of a naval campaign. Naval aviation analysts already believed that future fleet operations would require air superiority. They also recognized that land-based naval aviation might be critical to several phases of a naval campaign, particularly convoying, reconnaissance, and the attack upon enemy naval bases. The knottiest problem, however, was the joint responsibility for coastal defense. The doctrinal statement of 1919 said that both Army and Navy planes might be involved in attacking an invading fleet. Although a seaborne invasion of the United States seemed a remote threat, naval attacks on the Philippines, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Canal Zone did not appear so unlikely. Whatever the threat, the Joint Board on Aeronautics did not define in any detail the division of labors in aerial coastal defense, thus recognizing (if not solving) an intricate interservice problem.

From his post as director of training and operations for the postwar Army Air Service, Mitchell challenged 1919 doctrine both publicly and privately. Supported by Army and civilian true believers, some of whom were congressmen, Mitchell argued that the airplane would replace the battlefleet as the ultimate weapon of coastal defense. In colorful and unrestrained language, he challenged the government to substitute “Air Power” for “Sea Power” as the nation’s basic security policy. Mitchell also urged the creation of a separate air force and department of aviation within a department of defense that would unify all military aviation. He wanted the Navy to have only those land air stations required to train for carrier duty. Although he had not yet developed a full-blown theory of strategic bombardment, Mitchell thought that only organizational autonomy would ensure the full exploitation of aviation.

Military aviation policy did not suffer from official neglect, but the consensus within Congress and the executive branch—argued most vehemently by the General Staff—was that the aviators had not discovered an independent mission for themselves. The only concession to aviators came in 1920 when an Army reorganization elevated the Air Service to coequal status with the other combat arms of the Army. The Navy Department created a Bureau of Aeronautics the following year, with Admiral Moffett as its first chief. The Navy also accelerated its tests of bomb damage to warships, begun in 1920. Exercising his contempt for organizational discipline and his flair for publicity, Mitchell challenged the Navy to let the Air Service participate in its tests. The chief of the Air Service, Major General Charles T. Menoher, a nonaviator, found himself trapped between Mitchell and his disciples and a public clamor to test Mitchell’s theories about battleship vulnerability. Confident that Mitchell’s claims were exaggerated, the Navy allowed a special Army bombardment force to join its 1921 test program. Mitchell grasped the opportunity, sure that at the least he could make his case that land-based bombers could destroy “unsinkable” battleships and thus enlarge the Army air role in coastal defense.

The bombing tests of 1921 off Chesapeake Bay gave Mitchell his public relations coup, but under circumstances that hardened official opinion against his own leadership and radical reforms. Disregarding Navy rules for the experiments, Mitchell’s pilots dropped eleven 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs on and around the former German battleship Ostfriesland and sent it to the bottom. Mitchell crowed over the act and then leaked his own analysis of the tests to the press. Unfortunately, several admirals had implied that bombs would not sink even an anchored, undefended battleship, and Mitchell seized upon their statements to discredit the Navy’s leadership and assert that bombers could also sink enemy warships in real combat. Naval aviators had mixed reactions to Mitchell’s air theatrics. Although they appreciated the boost to their own cause—that fleet aviation needed increased attention—they did not share Mitchell’s enthusiasm for either organizational autonomy or the future of bombing. The Navy position was amply stated in the Washington Conference negotiations: Naval aviation development should not be curbed in international agreement. Congress approved this position in 1922 by authorizing a five-year program to modernize and increase naval aviation to 1,000 modern airplanes and by funding the completion of Lexington and Saratoga.

Within the War Department Mitchell’s insurgency had wide impact. When the exhausted Menoher requested reassignment, General Pershing replaced him with Major General Mason M. Patrick, who had already curbed Mitchell once when they had served in the AEF. Patrick immediately learned to fly (at the age of sixty) and broke up Mitchell’s cabal in Washington. He also brought new order and discipline to Air Service affairs. Mitchell himself departed on a tour of Europe, where he renewed his friendship with General Sir Hugh Trenchard of the RAF and may have met General Giulio Douhet, the Italian air chief and author of Command of the Air (1921). Mitchell and his disciples understood Douhet’s theory that heavy bombers could defeat an enemy by bombing urban civilian populations into demoralization and political upheaval. They did not think that Douhet’s strategy suited America’s needs, since they still thought largely of the coast defense mission. They agreed with the Europeans, however, that air force autonomy would bring the optimal utilization of military aviation.

If the War Department thought that Mitchell’s crusade for an independent air force had slackened, it was mistaken, for even Patrick and other moderates in the Air Service urged the accelerated development of Army aviation. A General Staff study of air power in 1923 found no justification for severing air war from land campaigns or creating an independent air force, but it acknowledged aviation’s future importance. The following year a special congressional investigating committee reviewed air policy and reached similar conclusions. Although unhappy over official refusal to allow the creation of an air force freed from the control of field army commanders, Patrick accepted the current belief that air power still served the land campaign. Mitchell did not, and he said so publicly. Patrick transferred Mitchell to a field post, which meant that Mitchell also lost his brigadier generalship. Mitchell continued to charge that the government’s inattention to air power bordered on “treason.” In the face of Mitchell’s continued agitation and public interest in his charges, President Calvin Coolidge ordered another review in 1925, led by Dwight W. Morrow. The Morrow Board also rejected air force independence but urged increased attention to aviation development. The board’s findings overlapped Mitchell’s court-martial conviction for insubordination and stole some of the aviator’s public impact. Disgusted, Mitchell left the Army in 1926 rather than be suspended from duty.

The American love affair with military aviation flowered in 1925–1926 and set both Army and Navy aviation on a stable course. In 1926 Congress passed the Air Corps Act, which changed the Air Service to the Air Corps and gave it equal access to the Chief of Staff. It also provided for a force of 1,514 officers, 16,000 men, and 1,800 planes, which would be modernized by a five-year expansion and modernization program. The War Department would also add an assistant secretary of war (air), a post duplicated in the Department of the Navy. Faced with lessened resistance to aviation within its own ranks, the Navy in 1925 and 1926 adopted policies designed to integrate naval aviation into the mainstream of Navy affairs. By law only naval aviators could henceforth command carriers, seaplane tenders, naval air stations, air squadrons, and aviation training commands. Naval Academy graduates would receive compulsory aviation training after an initial tour of sea duty. In both the Army and Navy, aviation duty no longer carried a stigma, and ambitious officers more eagerly sought certification as pilots. The first phase in the development of postwar military aviation closed with the Army and Navy committed to giving their pilots a chance to prove their separate theories about air operations.

Naval Arms Limitations and War Plan ORANGE

Much to the amusement of the audience—and the irritation of the naval officers present—the male chorus of the 1929 Washington Gridiron Club variety show lampooned the military and its travails with disarmament. Taking their melody from HMS Pinafore’s “Little Buttercup,” the chorus lamented:

I’m off to the Conference

That London Conference

Though I can scarcely tell why;

Sadder and wiser, of

Diplomats I’m very shy

Our ships they are slighting,

They say, “No more fighting.”

We scarcely dare think what it means;

The Navy they’re sinking

The Army they’re shrinking—

Thank God, we still have the Marines.

Caught between the shoals of budget cutting and the storms of international diplomacy, the “treaty” Navy steered a delicate course into the 1930s. Although still skeptical about the friendship of Great Britain, the Navy deployed the weight of its battleline along the Pacific coast in accordance with the assumptions of War Plan ORANGE. Annual fleet exercises, however, brought the battleships into the Caribbean and Atlantic through the Panama Canal, demonstrating the fleet’s flexibility. Small squadrons of light cruisers, destroyers, and gunboats protected American interests in the Far East and Caribbean. When Lexington and Saratoga joined the fleet in 1928, they went to home ports on the west coast.

Still seeking a margin of offensive superiority that would overcome Japan’s geographic advantages in case of war, the Navy Department, especially the General Board, advocated modernization of its battleships and the construction of a balanced fleet within the constraints of the Five Power Treaty. Congress in 1929 approved the construction of a small carrier (14,500 tons) to replace Langley, which still allowed three more 23,000-ton carriers within treaty limits. The major concern, however, was the state of the cruiser force. Navy planners argued that the ten light cruisers on duty did not meet the long-range requirements of a war with Japan. Congress approved a force of eight heavy or “treaty” cruisers (8-inch guns, 10,000 tons) in 1924. After another naval disarmament conference at Geneva failed to set any tonnage limits on other naval powers’ cruiser forces, Congress again responded to the Navy’s pleas for more ships and authorized fifteen more cruisers.

The Great Depression, the Hoover administration, Great Britain, and Japan came between the Navy and its cruiser-building program. As the nation’s economic crisis worsened in 1930, the Hoover administration asked the Bureau of the Budget to review the Navy’s plans. Exercising the budget-setting powers it had wielded since 1921, the bureau estimated that the Navy’s current building program to expand the cruiser force and modernize the rest of the fleet would cost $1.1 billion over a twelve-year period. In annual terms this meant a Navy Department budget around $450 million a year, or at least $100 million a year more than the Navy was already spending. When Britain and Japan reported they were ready for another round of negotiations, the Hoover administration promptly sent a pliant delegation to London to solve the cruiser problem on paper.

The London Conference of 1930 produced the last set of diplomatic constraints upon the U.S. Navy before World War II, but its limitations only ratified the Hoover administration’s reluctance to support the 1929 building program. Neither Great Britain nor Japan wanted to match the American heavy-cruiser program. Preferring investments in more numerous light cruisers, they agreed to tonnage limitations that they were already predisposed to follow unilaterally. The United States agreed to cut its heavy-cruiser program to eighteen ships within a 180,000-ton ceiling. Light-cruiser ceilings were set at around 140,000 tons for Great Britain and the United States and 100,000 tons for Japan, figures that could accommodate British and Japanese building plans. In addition, the conferees limited submarine tonnage to 52,700 tons and extended the “holiday” on capital-ship construction to 1937. Carrier limitations went unmodified—as the United States wished. The cruiser limitations did not satisfy Navy planners but still allowed some expansion should Congress choose to provide the funds for new heavies and lights. On an extended schedule, Congress authorized the heavy cruisers. It did not fund the light cruisers during the life of the Hoover administration. It also declined to modernize the aging destroyer force, approving only eight of the twenty-eight destroyers the Navy wanted to replace the eighty-seven four-stackers authorized during World War I. In summary, the surface Navy made limited progress toward a balanced fleet structured for the special problems of a Pacific war.

Budgetary constraints affected the fleet in other ways. Funding for manning the fleet, operations, maintenance, and modernization fell well below the recommended levels and dropped about 20 percent below the funds actually authorized in 1922. The Navy’s enlisted strength hovered around 80,000 sailors, or 20 percent less than 1922 projections. As new ships joined the fleet—despite some vessel retirements—the manning problem worsened. The Navy attacked both the manning and operations problems by proposing to eliminate a number of marginal bases, but Congress proved reluctant to close bases that provided constituents employment. It also refused to appropriate adequate funds for the development of a major fleet base at Pearl Harbor.

Nevertheless, the “treaty” Navy could point to some bright signs of progress. After Lexington and Saratoga participated for the first time in fleet maneuvers in 1929, some farsighted battleship admirals could see the potential of air strikes against enemy vessels and land targets. Whether carrier aircraft should strike the enemy’s fleet, especially his carriers, or simply protect the American battleline from air attack divided naval tacticians, but the evidence of consecutive fleet exercises pointed inexorably toward the carriers’ offensive potential. (The Navy also began to appreciate the importance of rapid-fire antiaircraft batteries and fire direction systems aboard ship.) In addition to the steady development of new types of carrier aircraft, the Navy won an increase of its air forces to 1,625 aircraft in 1933 and ensured a broader appreciation of air power by requiring all lieutenant commanders of the line to take ten hours of flying instruction and to then win wings if they could. Some of the latecomers, like Ernest J. King and William F. Halsey, proved marginal pilots but unlimited enthusiasts for naval aviation.

Below the ocean’s surface and the public’s general awareness, the “treaty” Navy also created a submarine force designed to participate in fleet operations against Japan. As part of the postwar reassessment of the details of War Plan ORANGE, the Navy started building and experimenting with submarines designed for other than coast defense. Ironically, the submarines the Navy built were admirably suited for commerce raiding, although Navy doctrine declared that long-range or “fleet” submarines fought in support of the battlefleet by scouting and attacking enemy warships. The first fleet boats or “S” Class submarines started a decade-long trend to larger boats whose surface speed, habitability, and fuel capacity would allow them to accompany the surface fleet across the central Pacific. The initial results were not promising. The first trans-Pacific cruise in 1921 took seven months; the subs’ surface speed did not reach the required levels; underwater speeds and handling problems discouraged submariners when they submerged and practiced torpedo attacks. Submarine service also proved dangerous. The crews risked substantial dangers even without enemy action. Faulty diesel engines offered carbon monoxide poisoning during surface cruising; saltwater and electric batteries produced deadly chlorine gas when a sub submerged; and propulsion and diving control difficulties sent several subs to the bottom. Rescue and escape procedures—real and simulated—took up a considerable portion of submarine operations.

By the 1930s the fleet submarine program had dropped from fifty-one boats to twenty-six, but design and technological advances had made a true fleet submarine possible. With policy largely set by a conference of aggressive submarine officers, the Navy Department adopted a fleet boat of 1,400 tons with six to ten torpedo tubes. The fleet boats should be capable of patrols lasting seventy-five days and a cruising range of 12,000 miles. Although submarine numbers dropped from a 1930 high of ninety-three to forty-two in 1935, the smaller force was far more capable. Moreover, naval planners and Congress viewed the submarine as an important naval weapon, at least in part because it was cheaper to build and man than surface vessels.

Of all the problems presented by War Plan ORANGE, none proved more troublesome than the absence of a defensible American base system in the Pacific. Even though the fleet retained technical and numerical superiority over the Imperial Japanese Fleet, it could not operate for long beyond its west coast bases, let alone beyond Pearl Harbor. The fleet’s appetite was large for spare parts, fresh water, oil, ammunition, food, and repair facilities. In theory the Navy found a solution: To create a “fleet train” of auxiliary vessels capable of mobile support, even underway. In reality, the fleet depended upon an auxiliary force inadequate in numbers (fifty-one ships in 1939) and most notable for its advanced age. For example, it had only two ammunition ships, seventeen oilers, three repair ships, and four stores ships. Only one of these vessels had been commissioned after 1922. Naval planners, who chose to build warships with their limited funds, assumed that the American shipbuilding industry could produce the necessary auxiliaries once war began.

One part of the naval establishment, however, committed itself with enthusiasm to solving the basing problem: The U.S. Marine Corps. During the postwar review of War Plan ORANGE, Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune ordered his erratic protégé, Major Earl H. Ellis, to study the implications of a war with Japan. Casting aside the conventional wisdom that amphibious assaults upon defended positions were impossible, Ellis wrote a study—Operation Plan 712D, or “Advanced Base Force Operations in Micronesia”—which Lejeune endorsed in 1921. With a brilliant fusion of faith and realism, Ellis thought he had identified and solved the fundamental problems of seizing a defended island. Naval gunfire and air strikes would provide the fire superiority that conventional artillery could not, while waves of landing craft brought infantry, machine guns, light artillery, and tanks to the beaches. The concentrated violence of the beach assault should carry the Marines through the beach defenses, provided the Navy could keep the reinforcements and supplies coming in the ship-to-shore movement. Henceforth the Marine Corps would make the impossible amphibious assault possible, since the Navy could not advance across the central Pacific without the bases the Marine Corps would seize for it.

As part of the fleet exercises in 1924 and 1925, small Marine air and ground units tested some of Ellis’s theories and found them woefully theoretical, since the Navy did not have the transports and landing craft and the Marine Corps the specialized equipment to make an amphibious landing a bearable risk. The Navy’s General Board wanted an amphibious capability, but the available funds did not allow the development of ready forces. Nevertheless, the Army-Navy Joint Board in 1927 declared that the Marine Corps had the basic responsibility for developing amphibious techniques and providing the forces for the base-seizure portion of a naval campaign. With most of its field forces deployed to Nicaragua and China to support American diplomacy in the midst of two civil wars, the Marine Corps reduced its work to more theoretical studies, centered at the Marine Corps Schools, Quantico. By 1934 the Corps had produced a doctrinal publication, Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, which in 1938 became the basic Navy guidance for landings. The appearance of the Tentative Manual coincided with two other important developments: The return of most of the Marine field forces from abroad and the official announcement that these forces would become the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). Although a new commandant, John H. Russell, was firmly committed to developing the FMF, he reported that a total Marine Corps of 16,405 officers and men could provide only about 3,000 Marines for a projected wartime FMF of 25,000. Materiel development, largely dependent upon Navy and Army commitments, lagged as well. Nevertheless, the concepts that proved so important in all theaters in World War II had been created.

Finally, the Navy Department recovered some of the leadership it had lost during World War I in the field of radio communications and electronics. By the 1930s it had forged a collaborative relationship with the new Radio Corporation of America and initiated an aggressive program to modernize ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore radio communications, both essential to successful operations. Operational communications programs profited by their relationship to general maritime navigation and rescue problems. In addition, Navy intelligence experts joined with communications officers to develop radio intercept techniques and equipment that would allow them to record Japanese messages. Although codebreaking was still an arcane, imprecise, and officially ambivalent activity, the Navy communications-intelligence experts added an invaluable dimension to naval operations. In the related field of radio detection and ranging (radar), however, the Navy did not make parallel progress, largely because of low funding and technical equipment problems.

In 1934 the Houghton Mifflin Company published a second edition of Hector C. Bywater’s 1924 bestseller, The Great Pacific War. As in the first version of his fictional account of an American-Japanese war, Bywater described a bleak campaign characterized by early American naval defeats. An informed student of naval affairs, Bywater saw no reason to temper his earlier pessimism despite both negotiated naval limitations and fleet modernization and diversification. Like many of his navalist contemporaries, Bywater believed that the United States and Japan had charted collision courses over Asia’s future, yet American naval policy had not yet adjusted to the provocative nature of American diplomacy. Bywater had few doubts that the United States could eventually overwhelm Japan with its industrial might, a conclusion shared by Japanese planners as well, but he wondered if the United States could muster the will to reverse the defeat of the “treaty” Navy. Bywater’s skepticism reflected the private views of a series of chiefs of naval operations. From the Navy Department’s perspective, the future of the Navy depended less upon the flaws in War Plan ORANGE and fleet readiness than upon the political determination to increase naval appropriations. That determination appeared to depend primarily on two incongruous friends of the Navy: A crippled yachtsman from Hyde Park, New York, and a rural Georgia lawyer. The former, however, was now president of the United States and the latter the new chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. On the shoulders of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Carl Vinson rested the responsibility of ensuring that Hector Bywater’s fiction did not become reality.

Mobilizing and Modernizing the Army

In September 1924 the War Department staged a “Defense Test Day,” its first rehearsal of the plans based on the National Defense Act of 1920. The exercise was a farce. Since the War Department wanted to show “that every unit is a part of its own community,” the series of patriotic rallies and base open houses must have represented success of a sort, but veteran officers knew that the affair was less a mobilization test than a social gala to honor General Pershing on his retirement. Although regulars, Guardsmen, and reserves manned their mobilization posts, the great muster day produced no new soldiers, since the law had not created a mass citizen army trained in peacetime. Spending only 2 percent of each tax dollar on the Army, the United States had disarmed itself more effectively than the Versailles Treaty disarmed Germany.

For a decade after the passage of the National Defense Act of 1920, the War Department attempted to nurture the Army of the United States. Budgetary pressures kept the half-strength regular Army at around 130,000 officers and men, backed by a National Guard of 180,000. General Staff studies in the 1920s grappled with organizing an army of the future, but the mobilization plans had little success in reconciling a series of critical problems. The General Staff perfected its organizational schemes only by divorcing them from actual contingency plans and ignoring logistical problems. The War Department’s basic goal was to weight its plans toward total mobilization and to maintain as many cadre units and individual fillers as the Army of the United States could afford. In reality all elements of the land forces entered the 1930s in a pitiable state of readiness.

In 1931 a new chief of staff, the charismatic Douglas MacArthur, began to shift War Department priorities toward modernizing and training only the most active portions of the Army of the United States. A controversial officer noted for his imperious treatment of existing Army plans and values, MacArthur directed the General Staff to focus on specific war plans or “probable conflicts” and to increase the president’s ability to order a partial mobilization on a discretionary basis, meaning free of congressional interference. By 1934 the General Staff had consolidated the paper army active and reserve into a twenty-two-division force, organized into four field armies, of regulars and National Guardsmen. Instead of emphasizing the organization of a mass army to protect the United States from invasion, MacArthur wanted the War Department’s funds to go to an “Initial Protective Force” of 400,000 soldiers that could respond to a real crisis, especially a war with Japan. Continued by his successor, Malin Craig, MacArthur’s approach—the Protective Mobilization Plan—included a series of six-year programs designed to modernize the regular Army and Guard. The latter force made steady progress in the interwar period, for in 1924 the federal government began to pay the Guardsmen for weekly drills. In 1933 additional legislation ensured that mobilized Guard units would not be broken up and required that Guard officers hold federal reserve commissions and meet regular Army standards in order to draw drill pay.

The War Department foray into peacetime planning for industrial mobilization posed new challenges and produced minimal progress. The constraints on economic planning were political, not technical. Taking its charge from the National Defense Act, the office of the assistant secretary of war created a planning staff for assessing the relationship of the nation’s industrial capacity and the Army’s projected wartime needs. In 1924 this staff received assistance from a new institution, the Army Industrial College, whose faculty and students collected and analyzed industrial data. Formed in 1922, the Joint Army-Navy Munitions Board reviewed and coordinated industrial planning from the interservice perspective. Although Army and Navy officers did not regard industrial mobilization planning as a pressing matter, industry and trade associations took the War Department’s primitive studies seriously, and some 14,000 industry consultants, many of them reserve officers and World War I mobilization veterans, provided information and advice. Among the most influential was Bernard Baruch. After several false starts, the War Department produced its first official, comprehensive Industrial Mobilization Plan (IMP) in 1930.

When the War Department finally published an IMP, it found that the plan stirred interest and substantial criticism. The first plan largely duplicated the World War I system, emphasizing the decentralization of power and minimal interference with the existing economic system. When Congress created a War Policies Commission in 1930 to review economic mobilization planning, industrial spokesmen and veterans’ lobbies criticized the IMP’s pro-business treatment of corporate profits, industrial wages, consumer prices, and the allocation of the labor force between nonmilitary civilian jobs and military service. Responding to these critics, the planners revised the IMP to provide more centralized direction of the wartime economy, rigorous wage and price fixing, and even the hint of a wartime labor draft. Although the IMP did not place the military in control of the economy, another set of critics thought they saw a conspiracy to give large corporations huge “war profits” for military orders and a concerted effort to “militarize” the economy and destroy organized labor. Although it focused on the export of weapons and the effect of foreign loans on causing wars—especially ones the United States entered—the Senate munitions inquiry by the Nye Committee further eroded the legitimacy of the IMP by pursuing the “military-industrial” conspiracy theme. The result was that the initial appropriations to test portions of the IMP, to encourage raw-materials stockpiling, and to finance a small enlargement of industry’s war production capacity all became politically impossible until 1938.

The War Department’s planners responded to the IMP’s critics by reducing direct Army-Navy participation in making broad wartime economic policy, but their organizational solution of more comprehensive civilian control found little favor. In 1936 the planners designed a War Resources Administration, to be headed by a single director, with powers substantially greater than those of the War Industries Board in World War I. Although Army and Navy planners and corporation executives supported the War Resources Administration concept, virtually no one else did. Satisfied that the WRA would curb high wages and profits, the American Legion accepted the proposal, but peace groups, consumer lobbies, farm groups, organized labor, and the rest of the federal bureaucracy resented their lack of a voice within the WRA’s inner circle. Speedy, cost-effective, rational military procurement did not impress the IMP’s critics, whom Assistant Secretary of War Louis A. Johnson unfairly characterized as “semi-Communistic wolves.” More important, President Roosevelt had no intention of alienating the critics or sharing presidential power with some future economic czar. The 1936 and 1939 revisions of the Industrial Mobilization Plan brought the United States no closer to a wartime system. Instead, the administration turned to the existing agencies, principally the Army-Navy Munitions Board, whose powers and functions were both limited and conservatively administered.

As the Army’s mobilization planners realized, all of the General Staff’s complicated studies brought no measurable improvement in the Army’s readiness to fight. Even when General MacArthur chose to emphasize modernization instead of maintaining all the elements of the Army of the United States, the six-year programs brought little improvement. Army dollars did not stretch far enough. From 1925 until 1940 the War Department spent about $6.2 billion. Of this sum $854 million (roughly two years’ appropriations) went to weapons procurement and research and development; the ground forces received only $344 million of these appropriations, or an annual average of $21 million for new procurement.

The Army knew what it needed. In 1934 the General Staff established its modernization priorities: Tank and artillery mechanization, field force motorization, aircraft, communications equipment, and a new semiautomatic rifle. Three years later it placed antiaircraft artillery and target location equipment at the top of its list. Nevertheless, the available funds limited the Army to developing weapons prototypes; it did not have enough money to reequip its field forces to contemporary European standards. Some of the model weapons were first rate: The 60-mm and 81-mm mortars, the 105-mm howitzer, the M1 Garand rifle.

Saddled with World War I weapons and ammunition surpluses, the Army had difficulty winning modernization funds from Congress until it had exhausted its obsolescent stocks. It also chose to maintain its personnel strength when pushed to the fiscal wall; even MacArthur fought to hold trained soldiers rather than buy new weapons. In addition, the Army damaged its own case for modernization by intense, if honest, disputes over modernization priorities and the future use of new weapons. Some congressional critics—for example, Representative Ross A. Collins—hectored the General Staff for its supposed conservatism, but the Army’s vague missions made modernization decisions difficult. If the most likely opponent was Mexico, the two divisions of horse cavalry and horse artillery would be more useful than all the tanks in Europe. If the Japanese attacked the Canal Zone or the Philippines, coast artillery would have more importance than either tanks or horse cavalry. In sum, the regular Army and the National Guard hedged against the future by maintaining a wide variety of units, all minimally equipped.

The Army’s halting development of armored forces typified all the problems of interwar modernization. By 1920 the wartime Tank Corps of some 5,000 vehicles and nearly 20,000 officers and men had shrunk to 700 French- and British-model tanks and 2,600 soldiers. Despite some interesting exercises by two small tank battalions stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, the Tank Corps disappeared after the National Defense Act of 1920. (The two battalion commanders, George S. Patton Jr., and Dwight D. Eisenhower, returned to the cavalry and infantry, respectively.) Congress and the General Staff agreed that tanks should support infantry, the decisive arm in combat, so tank units joined the regular infantry for training. The doctrine for tank use remained wedded to the concepts (and speed) of infantry combat. Building on World War I experiments, European forces in the meantime explored new ways of using tanks to wed firepower and mobility and thus restore the decisiveness of offensive ground operations. The fundamental theories were simple to understand but difficult to execute. British theorists argued that future armies could penetrate or flank enemy positions with true armored forces. These forces would combine tanks, mechanized and motorized artillery and infantry, reconnaissance elements, and supporting aircraft. Once through enemy positions, the armored forces would wreak havoc on command and logistical units and so demoralize the enemy that his combat units would retreat or disintegrate.

When the Army began a major motorization program in 1926, it allowed too much innovation, which produced 360 different types of vehicles and maintenance problems. In 1939 it settled on six basic vehicles, all superior performers in World War II. Meanwhile, between 1927 and 1931 the Army flirted with armored warfare but eventually abandoned the experiment, largely because of cost, doctrinal disputes, organizational politics, and technological limitations. After observing the maneuvers of a primitive British armored force in 1927, Secretary of War Dwight Davis ordered the General Staff to create a similar unit. After exhaustive study, the Army assembled two different armored forces, which conducted exercises in 1928 and 1930–1931. Only the most enthusiastic officers, especially Adna R. Chaffee and Sereno Brett, recognized the potential of an armored force, for the tanks themselves were so technologically limited. In addition, the Army’s senior officers disagreed about the value of mechanization, and few of them thought armored warfare doctrine justified organizing a separate force for its application. When MacArthur ordered all arms of the ground forces to begin mechanization in 1931, the experimental mechanized force disappeared from the troop list.

While the infantry continued to see the tank as a supporting weapon, some senior cavalry officers welcomed mechanization, since modern weapons had already demonstrated the limitations of horse cavalry. Still prohibited by law from having tanks, the cavalry reformers created a highly experimental mechanized brigade in 1933–1937. The cavalry forces, built around light tanks or “combat cars,” emphasized the traditional cavalry virtue of mobility and shock action rather than mobile firepower. They also undervalued the importance of integral infantry and artillery units, also mechanized. Compared with contemporary European armored forces, the mechanized cavalry was long on blitz and short on krieg. In the meantime the War Department decreed that a medium tank could not weigh more than fifteen tons, the load limit of the army’s temporary bridges. Armor experts put the likely weight of a medium tank at twenty-five tons. The first U.S.-designed tank, the M1921, weighed twenty-three, but subsequent 1930s models dropped to under fifteen tons. The Army dropped a project with J. Walter Christie, who built a tank that could exceed 25 mph, because the tank weight exceeded fifteen tons. Christie sold his chassis design to the Russians, who turned it into the T-34, an exceptional tank of World War II. On the eve of World War II, the Army had made some progress on integrating tanks into its field forces; both infantry and cavalry doctrine dictated that tanks be used in mass to provide shock action. Nevertheless, the Army’s four mechanized regiments did not yet represent a new form of ground warfare.

For aviators of the new Army Air Corps, the modernization of the ground forces had no more relevance than buying more horses, since they believed air power would make land forces obsolete. As one ardent lieutenant testified to a presidential commission in 1934, “the defeat of the enemy results from breaking his will to resist and . . . this is most quickly accomplished, in the scheme of modern war, by disruption, by direct action, of his means of prosecuting war. . . . An Air Force is an arm which without the necessity of defeating the armed forces of the enemy, can strike directly and destroy those industrial and communications facilities, without which no nation can wage modern war.” Although its post-1926 progress did not satisfy Army aviators, the Air Corps in the decade after the Air Corps Act of 1926 took giant strides in winning an important, nearly independent position in Army strategic planning and force structure. With about one-tenth of the Army’s manpower, the Air Corps spent about one-fifth of the War Department’s appropriations and built a strong base of public support. By the eve of World War II the air fleet had virtually supplanted the battlefleet as the uniquely American first line of defense—at least in the popular imagination.

The development of the Air Corps depended upon the complex, fragile interrelationship of strategic thought, military planning, aviation technology, tactical doctrine, and organizational politics. As aviators learned in the Mitchell era, the future of military aviation was not exactly self-evident to Congress, the General Staff, and the U.S. Navy. Mitchell’s vision was particularly cloudy when he and his disciples argued that airplanes alone would win future wars by strategic bombardment. Nevertheless, Air Corps strategic theorists argued that independent air action would be critical to the next victory—or defeat. The center of Air Corps doctrinal development was the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), which drafted field manuals for the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps. Although the General Staff did not approve of severing air operations from land operations, the conventional wisdom of Air Corps planners by the early 1930s centered on the primacy of bombing enemy industrial targets. The ACTS faculty predicted that a future war would require, first, bombing strikes upon the enemy’s air forces (built or building), then a concentrated attack upon his war production base in order to destroy his military materiel. Aware of Douhet’s concepts of attacking the morale of urban populations by bombing with high explosives, gas, and incendiaries, American air war theorists rejected such notions as wasteful and too unpredictable.

The difficulty with air war theory was its inapplicability to America’s specific strategic situation—unless one planned to bomb Ottawa and Mexico City. The immediate fate of the Air Corps rested with the coastal defense mission. Tacitly sharing the aerial responsibility of coastal defense, the Army and Navy had difficulty defining just how they would divide all the possible coastal defense functions. Under presidential pressure, General MacArthur and Admiral William V. Pratt (the chief of naval operations) agreed in 1931 that the Air Corps bore the principal responsibility for conducting land-based attacks upon an enemy invasion fleet. Two years later MacArthur directed the Air Corps to create long-range patrol and bombing squadrons to be stationed in the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Canal Zone. Like other phases of military planning, the Air Corps mission found rationalization in the worst-case possibility of a war against Great Britain and Japan. The new emphasis on coastal defense emerged in the Army’s planned structure of the Air Corps, which gave increased emphasis to the bombardment mission. In 1926 the War Department wanted an air component of twelve bombardment squadrons, twenty-one pursuit squadrons, four attack squadrons, and twenty-three observation squadrons. In 1934 this force structure changed to twenty-seven bombardment squadrons, seventeen pursuit squadrons, eleven attack squadrons, and twenty observation squadrons. The coastal defense mission also stimulated the Air Corps to search for long-range navigational equipment and a precision bombsight, the latter developed by the Sperry Corporation and adopted by the Air Corps as the Norden bombsight in 1933.

The Air Corps took the coastal defense mission seriously and conducted many bombing exercises that influenced its tactical doctrine. One of its principal conclusions was that bomber formations could fly farther, higher, and faster than the pursuit aircraft sent to shoot them down. Flying in formations that provided mutual protection, armed and armored bombers would penetrate enemy defenses with acceptable losses and reach their targets. The Air Corps thought it could hit stationary targets and moving ships with decent accuracy with high-altitude, level-approach bombing attacks.

The coastal defense mission gave the Air Corps a reason to stress the creation of large, long-range aircraft. As early as 1927 Major General James Fechet, an aviation pioneer and Patrick’s successor as chief of the Air Corps, ordered that bomber development receive the highest priority in research and development. This decision grew in part from the Douglas, Martin, and Boeing corporations’ interest in building long-range aircraft for commercial purposes. Aeronautical engineers tackled the critical problem with enthusiasm: To increase the power of aircraft engines while proportionately reducing aircraft weight. Attacking the payload, lift-to-weight problem, the engineers produced spectacular successes. Shifting to all-metal monoplanes utilizing lightweight composition metals like aluminum, the engineers predicted in 1936 that they could build a bomber that could fly 8,000 miles at 230 miles an hour. They demonstrated the art of the possible for the Air Corps by producing two airplanes that gladdened the hearts of bombing enthusiasts: The twin-engined Boeing B-9 and Martin B-10. The engineering successes in the bomber program so encouraged the Air Corps that in 1934 it offered contracts for the development of a bomber with a 2,000-mile range. From the prototypes, the Air Corps selected the four-engined Boeing XB-17 in 1935 for further development and eventual procurement. By 1937 the Air Corps had wedded its future to the XB-17, despite some early testing frustrations and the lack of funds for a full bomber force.

Bomber development fueled the Air Corps’ campaign for additional autonomy from the ground forces and the General Staff. In turn, the General Staff worried about the cost of aviation and the future of air support for the field armies. Banking on congressional and public support, a series of Air Corps chiefs argued for the creation of an “air force” as distinct from an “air corps.” The former would conduct offensive operations against a wide range of targets; the latter would support ground units with observation aircraft. Between 1933 and 1935 a series of General Staff, War Department, presidential, and congressional reviews of the Army’s aviation policies gave air officers the opportunity to argue forcefully for additional freedom. A series of crashes, some related to the emergency use of the Air Corps to carry the air mail in 1934, galvanized public interest and dramatized the shortcomings of the five-year expansion program authorized in 1926. More important, the General Staff recognized that the Air Corps had a persuasive political case for more independence and feared that Congress would give it the status of a separate service, which would further erode the aviators’ commitment to missions related to ground campaigns.

As a compromise the War Department approved in 1934 the creation of a peacetime command labeled General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, which would control all bombing, pursuit, and attack squadrons based in the United States. Commanded by an Air Corps general, this force would train in peacetime and fight in war directly under the operational control of the Army chief of staff or an expeditionary force commander, but not field army commanders. Ably commanded by Brigadier General Frank M. Andrews, GHQ Air Force continued to experiment with bombing missions and to influence aviation research and development. The General Staff curbed bomber development by deemphasizing the coastal defense mission (with Navy approval) and stressing ground attack missions. Nevertheless, the Air Corps had by 1938 reached a position to make strategic bombardment an important part of American military doctrine.

Rearmament for Hemispheric Defense

After more than a decade of limiting its armed forces through international agreement and unilateral fiscal action, the United States in 1933 began to rearm. The course change was slight and the increase in speed modest, for the nation still regarded the fleet as the first line of defense and viewed its maritime security system as a bulwark against foreign troubles, not a tool for interventionism. The strategic focus of rearmament remained a minimal effort to deter Japanese adventurism in Asia and the western Pacific and the defense of the Western Hemisphere against foreign military incursions. As always, nonstrategic factors influenced military policy. Coping ineffectively with the Great Depression, the federal government wanted to reduce spending. Yet it also had an inclination to assist some embattled businesses with government orders. One of these industries was shipbuilding, another was aircraft production. Another influence was that the coalition of disarmament advocates and noninterventionists continued to argue that international agreements and congressional action could keep the United States out of another war. Until 1936 the nation participated in international conferences on arms limitation, and between 1935 and 1939 Congress passed five different neutrality acts inhibiting official and unofficial participation in “foreign wars.” Only toward the end of the decade did military policy bear any direct relationship to the threat of war.

Naval rearmament required a change of attitude in Congress and a new face in the White House. Unlike Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not boast that he had never approved a new vessel and had purposely kept the Navy well below treaty strength. Like his cousin Theodore, FDR had grown up close to the sea, ships, and Navy social circles, and he had few illusions about the force of good intentions in world affairs. Roosevelt, however, promised in his first two presidential campaigns that he would cut government spending, including the military budget. The initiative for naval rearmament rested in Congress, especially Carl Vinson’s House Naval Affairs Committee. But at least congressional navalists could depend upon a more sympathetic president. The first test came with the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, a modest attempt to stimulate economic recovery by giving businesses increased freedom for self-regulation. A provision of the act allowed the president to use public works funds to build naval vessels, and Roosevelt soon issued an executive order that allocated $238 million for warships. The thirty-two-ship, three-year program provided for two carriers, four cruisers, and twenty destroyers as well as smaller vessels. Congress, however, changed its mind about military public works when the Army and Navy requested more “welfare” spending and forbade similar presidential initiatives.

Undeterred by the protests of critics that the United States had started another naval arms race, Vinson, a legislator of consummate skill, designed another shipbuilding program in 1934. Although it did not meet specific Navy recommendations, the Vinson-Trammell Act authorized the Navy to build up to treaty strength by 1942. Under the act the Navy could build 102 warships, which brought the new authorizations up to 134 vessels. Yet Congress did not rush to modernize the fleet. In 1937, a year after Japan renounced its adherence to all treaty limitations, the Navy had three carriers, ten cruisers, forty-one destroyers, and fifteen submarines under construction. Given the long lead times for warship construction, most of the new ships would not join the fleet until the end of the decade.

After the clear demise of naval arms limitation and the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Congress reconsidered the fleet’s projected strength and returned to a “Navy second to none” policy. The Naval Act of 1938, again piloted through the legislative process by Vinson, expanded the fleet past treaty limits for the first time. The ten-year $1.1 billion program represented a tonnage increase of 20 percent over treaty limits and authorized construction across every category of warship: Three battleships, two carriers, nine cruisers, twenty-three destroyers, and nine submarines. In addition, Congress approved a naval aviation force of 3,000 aircraft, almost doubling authorized airplane strength. The ambitious legislation, however, did not give the Navy any real superiority over Japan, which had also embarked upon a fleet expansion program.

Comparative Fleet Strengths 1939



















As the Navy Department consistently reminded Roosevelt and Congress, the shipbuilding programs did not exhaust the Navy’s pressing needs. A 1938 study of the Navy’s base system produced predictable results: The Navy could not operate at any distance from its continental bases, which were themselves inadequate to support the growing fleet. It recommended a $238 million program to expand or build twenty-six bases and assigned “immediate strategic importance” to nine bases, six of which were in the Pacific. Roosevelt and Congress did not respond to the plea for overseas bases. Critical to the execution of War Plan ORANGE, the naval station on Guam, for example, received only sufficient funds to develop its seaplane facilities. In 1939 the Navy reported that the base system could not support fleet operations beyond the hemisphere.

The Navy and Marine Corps also lacked adequate manpower. Although both naval services received increased funding for personnel after 1933, their 1939 numbers were still 20 percent short of estimated peacetime needs. The Navy had 125,202 officers and men, the Marine Corps 19,432. When the Navy’s General Board prepared a special report, “Are We Ready Now,” in the summer of 1939, the answer was a resounding “No.” Manpower shortages inhibited war readiness as much as warship and base shortcomings.

Naval rearmament did not end the Roosevelt administration’s interest in military preparedness, for the president recognized that Hitler’s Germany posed an additional threat to American security, if only because the Third Reich would limit Britain’s and France’s ability to deter Japan. Shortly after the Munich crisis in the autumn of 1938, FDR called a special conference of his military advisers to consider aviation policy. Like many of his fellow Americans, FDR tended to think that naval and air forces represented the ultimate answer to the nation’s military problems. He also had become expert in political symbolism and believed that words were as useful as weapons in demonstrating international resolve. Much to the consternation of his military advisers, the president ended the aviation conference with the announcement that the United States would expand its military force by 10,000 aircraft at a cost of $500 million. This program would create an aviation industry capable of producing 24,000 aircraft a year sometime in the indefinite future. The difficulty was that FDR did not indicate that he would also call for the money necessary to train pilots, build bases, and procure the equipment and supplies for this force. Skeptics recalled Woodrow Wilson’s romantic notion in 1917 about darkening the skies with American planes. Even the numbers had an uncomfortable similarity.

The War Department General Staff and the planners of the Army Air Corps took the president’s vague guidance and produced a “balanced” program in time for FDR’s annual message to Congress in January 1939. The president, however, would not approve the plans, especially the suggestion that he also support ground force modernization. Three months later Congress passed FDR’s reduced request for $300 million and authorized the Air Corps to create a total force of 5,500 aircraft, of which 3,251 would be new planes. It also approved an increase of the Air Corps’ pilot strength by 3,000 men. This emergency air-defense expansion act was justified in strategic terms by the fear that the Germans might create air bases in South America. It was also supposed to complement FDR’s 1938 decision to create a permanent Atlantic Squadron, dramatizing American concern in the Caribbean.

As the omens of global war mounted, the United States held to its traditional interest in unilateralism, neutrality, and hemispheric security. Even the modest rearmament of the 1930s did not reflect any serious consideration of a two-front war—except among the Army’s and Navy’s contingency planners. In the words of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, the United States remained “a sleeping giant” whose massive military potential still required mobilization. Its active forces had marginal influence upon the designs of German and Japanese expansionists and the weak resolve of the British and French governments to meet the aggressors on the battlefield. Yet the interwar period had been especially rich in ideas within the armed forces—ideas about the use of naval aviation, amphibious forces, mechanized ground armies, and strategic air power. United States military policy now faced its greatest challenge.

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