The U.S. Navy has been sailing the seas of East Asia since the 1830s, when the frigate Potomac was dispatched to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to rescue a pirated American merchant ship. The theme of that mission to Asia, which occurred even before the United States had a Pacific coast, was to maintain maritime security and defend the economic interests of American citizens.
That remained a primary reason for U.S. Navy deployments to East Asia, particularly during the period spanning the close of the 19th century, until the United States was drawn into World War II in 1941. The bulk of that duty fell to a small force that not only was to deal with day-to-day events in revolutionary China, but concurrently was charged with trying to prepare for traditional war at sea with Japan.
At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. role in East Asia was greatly enlarged because of two major events. The first was the Spanish-American War in 1898. On 1 May, within days of war being declared, a small U.S. naval contingent under the command of Commodore George Dewey defeated a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, which ultimately led to the American colonization of the Philippine Islands. Dewey’s triumph, coupled with U.S. success in Cuba, resulted in an American victory that marked the emergence of the United States as a global power. The next four decades were distinguished by Washington’s diplomatic and military efforts to secure the new American empire in the Pacific, but they ended in an Asia-wide war with Japan.
The Navy supplemented diplomatic efforts during that period with visits by the battle fleet, especially the 1908 voyage of the Great White Fleet, an important naval demonstration in Asia. A more constant presence was that of the Asiatic Fleet.
The second major event was the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The United States committed Army and Marine Corps troops as part of an international military force sent to rescue foreigners besieged in Peking (present-day Beijing); the protocols signed after the Boxers were suppressed gave the United States (as they did Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan) the right to station troops in and around the capital. A quarter-century later, the United States still maintained a legation guard of 450 to 500 Marines in Peking.
Imperial China’s decline and collapse ended with revolution in 1911. That epochal event was followed by nearly 40 years of civil war. Foreigners had participated in the end of the last dynasty, and those included Americans, whose role in Chinese events—while often clothed in kinder words—was no less disruptive and destructive of civil order than that of more blatant imperialists from Europe and Japan.
Thus, on top of commitments in China, both Navy and Army planners tried to deal with the new U.S. strategic position in East Asia—the result of possessing the Philippines. Japan’s modernizing navy posed a major concern.
The U.S. role in Chinese events was embodied in three institutions. First were the businessmen who flocked to China to make their fortune. They seldom found the riches they imagined, although enough did succeed—oil, cigarette, and match companies, for example—to maintain the allure.
Missionaries made up the second major element of the American presence in China, almost all of them representing Protestant denominations. Neither the businessmen nor the missionaries hesitated to call on their government—the third element—for assistance when faced with trouble, which ranged from the difficulties of daily life to armed attacks by bandits or troops of various warlords, both plentiful in the revolutionary countryside.
The U.S. officials charged with primary responsibility for protecting Americans were the diplomats who, in turn, often were forced to seek help from American military forces.
Despite Dewey’s triumph, the American naval presence in Asian waters remained relatively weak. The peacetime U.S. Fleet was large enough to maintain an effective presence just in one ocean, and given the primacy of the Atlantic in American strategy, it was not feasible to station the battle fleet in the western Pacific.
Military officers in Washington recognized the weak U.S. posture in the Far East, particularly with respect to the new Philippine colony. Two policy lines were pursued in an attempt to mitigate that weakness: first through diplomatic agreements, and second by maintaining at least a token naval force in Asian waters.
The diplomatic effort was preceded by the 1902 mutual-security treaty between Great Britain and Japan. London signed that treaty to free the Royal Navy from Asian concerns so it could concentrate in home waters against a looming German threat. Tokyo saw the treaty as a step toward international recognition of its status as a major power and as furthering its desired dominance in the region, especially with respect to the Asian mainland.
Washington also signed security agreements with Japan, seeking, at least in part, Tokyo’s agreement not to challenge U.S. rule in the Philippines in return for Washington’s consent to Japanese investment of the Asian mainland. Those diplomatic understandings were qualified by the 1922 Washington Naval Conference treaties but then disavowed by Washington in the 1932 Stimson Doctrine, which challenged Japanese aggression in Asia.
The U.S. diplomatic steps were not consistently accompanied by appropriate military action, however, and led most notably to the failure to complete adequate defense for the Philippines and other Pacific possessions.
Shaping the Future of East Asia
The era spanning the final decade of the 19th century and the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 was marked by several notable events in East Asia, but two stand out in shaping the region—one of short duration and one a gradual occurrence.
Most indicative of the dynasty’s hopeless position and most directly affecting foreigners in China was the previously cited Boxer Rebellion. Groups of peasants in northern China began to band together in 1899 into a secret society known as I-ho Ch’üan (Righteous and Harmonious Fists), called the “Boxers” by Westerners. Members practiced exercises they believed would make them impervious to bullets. Initially their aim was both to destroy the Qing dynasty and rid China of all foreign influence.
China’s de facto ruler, the Empress Dowager, co-opted the Boxers, who then turned their anger directly against foreigners. Both Christian missionaries and Chinese converts were attacked in late 1899; by May 1900 the Boxers were attacking the foreign settlement in Peking. In response, an international force of more than 20,000 American, British, Russian, French, German, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and Japanese soldiers was sent to defend the foreigners. Those troops soon captured the capital and by mid-August 1900 had defeated the Boxers.
The Boxer Rebellion had been a last gasp of imperial China; a republic was declared after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911. Although the United States recognized it in 1913, the new government had little power, and a decades-long civil war ensued, during which the countryside was racked by violence, ineffective governance, and widespread antiforeign sentiment.
The second development took place over the course of several decades and carried no little irony. As Chinese efforts to modernize failed miserably, a hitherto isolated Japan emerged in an astonishingly short time as a 20th-century power, first demonstrated in its stunning military defeat of Russia in 1905.
Those two seminal events—the fall of imperial China and the rise of imperial Japan—defined maritime East Asia. The Asiatic Fleet was the U.S. naval presence in the western Pacific and was responsible for two primary missions, the execution of one of which precluded satisfactory completion of the other.
Sand Pebbles and War Plan Orange
The first U.S. patrol of the Yangtze River was made by the frigate Susquehanna in 1854, and by 1900 patrol vessels routinely were serving on China’s inland coastal waters. The best-selling 1962 novel The Sand Pebbles—a hit movie in 1966—starkly depicted those riverine patrols, focusing on the crew of the fictional USS San Pablo. The Navy’s mission against Japan, meanwhile, was delineated by naval planners soon after the U.S. occupation of the Philippines and other Pacific territories in 1900.
Little could be done to prepare an adequate defense against possible Japanese incursions against those possessions, however, given the weak state of U.S. forces in the Pacific. In 1909 Navy war plans were deemed “inadequate and out of date,” and the Joint Army and Navy Board foresaw Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Guam, and even the Hawaiian Islands.1 That reflected the U.S. Navy’s defining problem: a lack of bases and other support required to maintain a force able to achieve naval dominance against Japan.2
The Asiatic Fleet’s missions were described by its commander in November 1922. Its primary wartime task would be to execute War Plan Orange against Japan. The fleet was to hold off Japanese efforts against the Philippines long enough to allow the U.S. battle fleet to cross the Pacific and engage the enemy. To that end, the fleet commander wrote, the Asiatic Fleet’s priorities were to:
1. Protect Luzon and Guam
2. Hamper Japanese expeditions to the Caroline and Marshall Islands
3. Exert pressure on Japan pending arrival of the U.S. battle fleet
4. Protect lines of communication in the Pacific
5. Enhance U.S. prestige and assist in the execution of measures to secure action favorable to us in China
6. Assist the advance of the U.S. battle fleet to the western Pacific.3
The outlines of War Plan Orange had been under discussion by the Joint Board since 1904, with a systematic plan dating to 1910. By 1913 a possible war with Japan had been “exhaustively studied.”4 The presumption that the Asiatic Fleet could “hold off” Japan’s navy was effectively denigrated in 1919 by a former Navy member of the Joint Board, Captain Harry Yarnell, who wrote that “it seems certain that in the course of [war with Japan] the Philippines and whatever forces we have there will be captured.” The Army War Plans Division and the Navy War College both agreed with Yarnell, given that the Navy “was woefully unprepared for war with Japan.”5
The Joint Board conducted a “Strategic Survey of the Pacific” in 1923, based on four assumptions:
• Any great war in the Pacific involving the United States would be with Japan.
• The United States could only win in the western Pacific.
• Manila Bay was the best available site for the advanced base required by the fleet.
• Victory required U.S. possession of Manila Bay, “all harbors” in the mandated islands and the Philippines, blockade of Japan, and “such further action” as would force Japan’s surrender.
The survey concluded that Manila would have to be held for at least six months and then be relieved by a 50,000-man Army corps and a fleet at least 25 percent more powerful than Japan’s navy.6
Despite that realistic strategic survey, in 1928 a formal Plan Orange was approved by the secretaries of Navy and War. The action ignored the basic weakness of the plan: the disparity in strength between the Japanese navy and the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.
The Asiatic Fleet’s Missions
Admiral Dewey’s squadron had been designated the Asiatic Fleet in 1902 but was absorbed as a squadron into the Pacific Fleet in 1907. It reverted to the fleet nomenclature in 1910, and remained in existence until essentially destroyed in combat with the dominant Japanese navy in 1942. For most of its existence, the small fleet consisted of one cruiser, flotillas of destroyers and submarines, and perhaps most notably, half a dozen or so gunboats that patrolled China’s rivers.
The Asiatic Fleet commanders-in-chief during the 1920s and 1930s considered their primary mission to prepare for large-scale naval war with Japan. The mission of protecting and furthering American interests in China was secondary but all-intrusive. In 1928, for instance, Admiral Mark L. Bristol discussed his duties and mentioned that “beside [these] there is an extra mission of the Fleet in the protection of American interests in China.” Later that year, he noted that despite the demands of the China situation, he “was trying to lick the Fleet into shape so that it will be a real part of the Navy.”7
Many foreign troops, including those from the U.S. Army’s 15th Regiment and the Marine Corps’ 4th Regiment, remained stationed in northern China and the Philippines until defeated in the Japanese invasion of 1942. Nonetheless, the primary U.S. military force in China during the late 19th century and first four decades years of the 20th consisted of the ships and Marines of the U.S. Navy.
The United States emerged from World War I in 1918 as the strongest economic and military nation in the world. Although the war primarily had been a European event, nominally ended with the 1919 Versailles Treaty, there soon followed a series of treaties that also directly affected East Asia in general and the U.S. Navy’s role in that huge theater in particular.
The Versailles Treaty, among other things, allowed Japan to occupy former German settlements in China. Further, a package of treaties emerging from the 1921–1922 Washington Naval Conference resulted directly from concerns not just about naval arms, but also over China’s future.
The 1922 treaties imposed limits on Japanese and U.S. navies and base construction but lacked enforcement provisions. The result was an interwar period that saw the continued development of a powerful, modern Japanese navy against a limited U.S. counterpart lacking the base infrastructure necessary to execute War Plan Orange.
The primary contestants in the interwar years in East Asia thus were Japan and the United States. China was the material prize, but naval dominance in that maritime theater was the vital measure. The U.S. presence consisted almost entirely of the Asiatic Fleet. Its readiness goal was delineated by War Plan Orange, but the heavy daily tasking levied on the small fleet—for the most part antiquated warships—afforded little opportunity to meet that goal in any meaningful sense.
The fleet’s gunboats and destroyers, and occasionally the cruiser flagship, were primarily occupied with the daily events of revolutionary, civil war–torn China. But those daily operations did not significantly frame its strategic plan for war with Japan. That plan dictated that the U.S. battle fleet would marshal its strength in California and guard against attacks on the Panama Canal. After mobilization, it would relieve American forces in Guam and the Philippines. The fleet then would sail for a decisive battle against Japan’s battle fleet, defeat it, and blockade Japan. All that was in keeping with the doctrine of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, based on 18th-century British naval history—especially the Battle of Trafalgar. Mahan’s theory that wars would be decided by engagements between opposing battle fleets was widely subscribed to following its 1890 publication, but never practiced.8
War Plan Orange was much more than an ode to Mahan, and represented what one author has described as “a valid, relevant, and successful guide to victory.”9 The foresight imbued in the plan, developed by generations of naval officers in the Pacific, in Washington, and at the U.S. Naval War College since at least 1906, was summed up by Admiral Chester Nimitz. The commander of the greatest naval force ever assembled—who had himself participated in War Plan Orange planning in 1922—said after the U.S. victory over Japan in 1945 that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise . . . except the kamikaze.”10
Plan Orange: Framework for Success
Preparations for executing War Plan Orange included a remarkable series of fleet exercises by the U.S. Navy during the years between the two world wars. These 21 large-scale “fleet problems” conducted between 1923 and 1940 were usually once-a-year mock battles with significant fleet elements playing the part of an opposing navy.
Most of the exercises involved defense of the Panama Canal as part of a Pacific scenario. A majority posed Japan as the enemy, while 1925’s Fleet Problem V actually included a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. That scenario was repeated during Fleet Problem XXI, in 1940, the last in the series.11 The exercises also highlighted the arrival of aircraft carriers as the new capital ships of the Navy, although that fact—demonstrated during several of the fleet problems—was not embraced by some senior officers.
War Plan Orange also has been described, however, as “fallacious in every detail of large naval encounters, [but] correct in strategic principle [since it] stipulated destruction of the Imperial [Japanese] Navy as a prerequisite of victory.”12 Hence, although later subsumed in the “Rainbow” war plans, Orange effectively provided a framework for the naval operations that formed such a major part of the successful U.S. war against Japan.
The Japanese certainly were aware of the U.S. Navy contingency planning during the interwar years, if not familiar with the details of War Plan Orange. For one thing, the most notable Japanese admiral of the period, Isoroku Yamamoto, had attended Harvard University, served as naval attaché in Washington, and had visited the U.S. Naval War College at least once, in 1924. Yamamoto was under no illusions about the seriousness of preparations for war by the U.S. Navy.
Indeed, several Imperial Japanese Navy officers apparently came to the conclusion as early as 1906, when they surveyed possible U.S. naval planning, that war was inevitable with the United States. Further, they reportedly concluded that in the event of war, U.S. naval forces would withdraw from the western Pacific, assemble in company with the main U.S. fleet, and then advance across the Pacific to blockade Japan. Such a blockade, they theorized, might well result in Japan’s unconditional surrender, because “for the U.S. Navy to retreat its feeble Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines and combine it with the reinforcing fleet sent from the Atlantic, and to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy by a decisive naval engagement—was a logical conclusion for officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy immediately after the Russo-Japanese War.”13
During World War II itself, despite early setbacks and some questionable command decisions—invading Peleliu and Luzon, for example—the Pacific Fleet proved to be the most effective naval force in history.
Victory in 1945 began a hurried process of mass demobilization of naval personnel and the decommissioning of the vast majority of the Pacific Fleet. As expressed in various studies, the reduced Navy was seeking a mission, with only the nascent Soviet threat on the horizon. The answer may have been contained in the seminal article “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” written by Samuel P. Huntington and published in the May 1954 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. What was striking about Huntington’s recommendations for a new, peacetime maritime strategy was the poll he cited, showing that just 4 percent of the American people believed that a future war would be decided by the Navy. This was less than a decade after the greatest maritime victory in history, by that very Navy.14
That startling perception was coupled with a confidence that the nuclear-armed Air Force would form the United States’ first line of defense—and by implication the only necessary one. The Cold War soon proved the vacuity of such reasoning, and the Navy continued its historic role as a vital element in national security against an aggressive Soviet Union.
2. Ibid., p. 35.
3. Commander in Chief, U.S. Battle Fleet to Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), 29 November 1922, Navy and Old Army Branch, National Archives, Washington, DC, Record Group 80P Formerly Secret and Confidential Correspondence of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy (Including the CNO), 1919–1926, Box 80, S.C. 198–37.
4. Louis Morton, “War Plan Orange,” World Politics 11 (January 1959), p. 222, and Braisted both discuss the evolution of this war plan. The definitive work on War Plan Orange is Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
5. Yarnell to COL John McA. Palmer, 25 April 1919, cited in Morton, pp. 224–227; Braisted, p. 33.
6. Braisted, pp. 385–7; General Board to the Secretary of the Navy, GB no. 420–12/Serial 1136, 26 April 1923, Records of the General Board, Navy Operational Archives, Washington, DC.
7. Bristol to Mr. W.T. Ellis, 14 January 1928, 1, Mark L. Bristol Papers (MLB), 33–27 and Bristol to RADM H.O. Dunn (Ret.), 6 May 1928, MLB, 214–28(A), Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
8. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1890).
9. Miller, p. xxi.
10. Quoted in Thomas B. Allen, War Games (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1987), p. 187; cited in Miller, p. 356.
11. The fleet problems are examined in detail by Albert A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923–1940 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010).
12. Miller, p. 355.
13. Fumio Takahashi, “The First War Plan Orange and the First Imperial Japanese Defense Policy,” NIDS Security Reports, no. 5 (March 2004), pp. 68–103,www.nids.go.jp/english/publication/kiyo/pdf/bulletin_e2003_4.pdf.
14. Cited in James Kraska, Maritime Power and the Law of the Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 381.
The China Marines
Prior to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the Marine Corps was present in Asian waters solely as ship detachments. Approximately 1,200 Marines formed part of the landing force that fought alongside allied troops in the campaign to rescue foreigners besieged in Peking by Chinese “Boxers.” Thereafter, up to 500 Marines were stationed in that city to guard the U.S. legation.
Also in 1900, the General Board of the Navy decided to give the Marine Corps primary responsibility for the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases. The Marine Corps formed an expeditionary battalion to be permanently based in the Caribbean, which subsequently practiced landings in 1902. The Corps only began fully developing modern amphibious warfare doctrine in the 1920s, under the inspired leadership of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune. He is recognized as the first Marine to command Army troops, when he led the U.S. 2nd Division into combat in France in 1918, but arguably his most important accomplishment was preparing the Marine Corps for the amphibious warfare at which it continues to excel.
The Marine Corps in 1900 numbered just 6,707 officers and enlisted men. It grew to 75,101 by the end of World War I, but by 1925 mustered just 19,153 officers and men—with 1,666 of them scattered among garrisons at Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, and China. Marines in the latter country, organized as the 4th Regiment, numbered 1,500 by 1927, when civil war there so tore the country that Washington decided to deploy additional Marines.
The United States had to be scoured to mass the fewer than 2,000 personnel who formed the 6th Regiment that shipped to the Far East.1 By June 1927, the 6th Marines formed most of the 3,373 Marines in north China, while the 1,226 Marines of the 4th Regiment remained in Shanghai. The commander of Marines in China, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler described the problem confronting U.S. forces there during the civil war, calling their mission
an extremely difficult one, especially when it is realized that hand in hand with the necessity of furnishing security to our nationals is the equally important duty of encouraging friendly relations. . . . Unless every man of such a protecting “good will force” plays the game exactly right, his nationals resident in the middle of a bitter civil war can be protected only by the use of the bayonet and [good relations] are very infrequently, if ever, permanently increased by force.2
The area of most unrest shifted away from the Shanghai area to northern China in the early summer 1927. Butler and the 6th Marines moved to the Peking area, while the 4th Marines remained in Shanghai. The Asiatic Fleet commander, Admiral Clarence Williams, noted that as of June 1927, virtually all the surface forces of his command—eighteen destroyers, all the gunboats, the cruiser and fleet flagship USS Pittsburgh (CA-4), the cruisers of Light Cruiser Division Three and the various transports and tenders—had been occupied with “the unsettled political situation in China” during the previous year.3 In fact, at that writing only one combatant vessel of the fleet was not in Chinese waters: the obsolete gunboat Asheville (PG-21) was at Cavite, in the Philippines, for engine repairs.
The year ended with China experiencing relatively quiet conditions, as Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces moved to complete their conquest of the country. The new Asiatic Fleet commander, Admiral Mark Bristol, recommended a reduction in Marine numbers in China and strove to return his ships to their first priority of preparing for the eventuality of conventional war, as described in War Plan Orange.
The 6th Marines left China in 1928; the 4th Marines remained until ordered to the Philippines in November 1941—only to endure Japanese capture a few months later. The Marine Corps role in the Pacific before 1941 revolved around two broad themes. Most dominant was the protection of U.S. citizens and property. Second, significantly more important in the long run, was the development of modern amphibious doctrine in that time under Major General Lejeune.
2. BGEN Smedley D. Butler to Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, 31 December 1928, “Activities of the 3rd Marine Brigade, at Tientsin, from June 1927 to December 1928,” p. 1. RG 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, subject File: 1911-1927, “ZK” File, Box 799: Marine Corps/3rd Brigade Under General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, Old Army and Navy Branch, National Archives, Washington, DC.
3. Cole, p. 137.