The Spanish-American War of 1898 was decided by the U.S. Navy’s overwhelming victory over a Spanish armada. Taken together, the naval battles at Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba amounted to a mere ten hours of combat, but the resulting American maritime dominance isolated the Spanish garrisons on the Philippines and Cuba, ensuring their defeat. The U.S. Navy’s decisive superiority in 1898 gained the United States a set of overseas territories as well as membership in the club of major powers. It was in stark contrast to the situation 16 years earlier, when the U.S. Fleet’s combat strength had ranked behind such minor powers as Brazil and Chile.
Parochialism and Rusting Hulls
During the Civil War the U.S. Navy had surged from 42 to almost 700 operational warships. While this figure includes many lightly armed blockade ships, the fact remains that by 1865 the Navy was considered the most modern and—after Britain’s Royal Navy—the second largest naval force in the world. But by 1870 the greatest part of the American fleet had been sold overseas, scrapped, or converted for civilian use. Congress saw no justification for maintaining an expensive fleet during peacetime. The arguments favoring isolationism and concentration on domestic reconstruction carried the day.
Presidents elected in the 1880s did advocate modernizing and expanding the Navy, but the shoals of Congress remained hostile through most of that decade. The underlying reasons can be grouped into four categories:
• Special interests. Shipyards in the districts of influential congressmen profited from overpriced maintenance contracts for wooden warships and lobbied against procurement of modern vessels. There was no corresponding industrial lobby in favor of modernization, because there were no American shipyards geared to building state-of-the-art naval vessels; entrepreneurs would not risk the necessary investments without a reasonable outlook for long-term government contracts.
• Isolationism. The majority in Congress still adhered to isolationist views. There were two reasons. Some isolationists feared that maintaining a blue-water fleet and acquiring overseas territories would draw the United States into foreign conflicts. Others were concerned that embarking on a colonialist policy would undermine America’s fundamental political values.
• Partisan and regional differences. The Republican Party incorporated naval reform into its platform in 1884. In contrast, the interest groups supporting the Democratic Party emphasized domestic issues. Also, many Southern and inland states opposed spending that primarily would benefit New England’s shipbuilding economy.
• Budget concerns. Although the U.S. government achieved a budget surplus beginning in 1883, many congressmen continued to oppose a defense-spending increase. Ironically, they cited the pace of technological progress as a reason not to modernize the fleet. They argued, why waste money on weapon systems that would soon be obsolete? Europeans could use their money for expensive experiments, while the United States could wait and construct the most modern ships when and if they became necessary.1
As a result, the U.S. Navy sailed into the 1880s with a small, poorly maintained and equipped fleet composed of both wooden and steel hulls, some steam- and some sail-powered, and many of them two generations old. Of the Navy’s 48 armed vessels in 1880, just 30 were considered fit for overseas duty. Only 17 ships were iron-hulled, including 14 Civil War–era ironclads. Such a fleet was entirely unsuitable for power projection, but also poorly equipped even for coastal defense. The Nation referred to America’s sea force as “a satirical semblance of a navy.”2
Personnel policies were in no better shape than the Fleet. Miserable shipboard conditions made recruiting American seamen difficult. In the early 1880s, half of the Navy’s sailors were foreigners or immigrants who spoke broken English, making communications difficult. Poor discipline and high desertion rates further undermined operational readiness.3
For its part, the officer corps was plagued by stagnation. Promotions and command were awarded on the basis of seniority. There was no mandatory retirement age, which hampered upward mobility. Many officers serving during the 1880s still wore the same rank they had earned during the Civil War. Many older officers retained the strategic and tactical mindset of the past, ignoring technological innovations and operational concepts being introduced in foreign fleets. Even younger officers were not immune. A prime example is then-Commander Robley Evans, age 36, who, during testimony before the House Naval Affairs Committee in 1882, recommended procurement of cruisers equipped with rams: “I would fire the whole ship at [the enemy] instead of the projectile.”4 This was at a time when European shipbuilders were installing long-range breach-loading artillery on their warships. No surprise, then, that between backward-looking naval leaders and the inward-looking majority in Congress, Washington’s official naval strategy remained anchored in the past, based on the combination of coastal defense and commerce raiding.
Enter the Navalists
A small group of politicians, officers, and scholars believed that the United States, its industrial growth notwithstanding, was on the brink of descending into obscurity. These “navalists” coalesced into an intellectual and political force in the early 1880s, advocating adoption of the expansionist policy being pursued by the European and Japanese powers—a policy founded on a strong fleet and the acquisition of overseas territories. Many navalists were members of the East Coast social and economic elite and were able to tap into a well-developed network of contacts in politics, commerce, academia, and the media. Their political and intellectual leaders included the young, dynamic Theodore Roosevelt and Harvard professor-cum-politician Henry Cabot Lodge.
The navalists recognized that simply addressing Congress would not be enough. They simultaneously mounted a systematic campaign to educate the general public about the importance of maritime dominance. Heroic adventure stories set at sea were published in popular periodicals for adults and teenagers. Rear Admiral Stephen Luce wrote motivational articles describing the benefits of naval training for later civilian careers. News magazines began emphasizing the economic and national-security advantages of a strong fleet. The Navy even began naming ships after cities and states so that citizens would take a personal interest in “their” ships.5
International developments during the 1880s played into the navalists’ hands. Talk of building a canal through Central America focused attention on the strategic importance of controlling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific waterways. The escalation of European colonial activities and the emergence of Japan and Germany as major powers intensified American concerns that foreign dominance in the Pacific could interfere with U.S. access to Asian markets. European and Latin American states regularly disregarded U.S. political interests and demands, secure in the knowledge that their fleets were superior to the U.S. Navy.
For example, tensions flared with Chile in 1882 when Washington tried to pressure Santiago to make peace with Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific. Washington was forced to back down because, as one congressman from Ohio put it, the Navy “had not one ship . . . that could stand fifteen minutes against any one of the great Chilean war vessels.” Panic spread through California on rumors that the Chilean navy was sailing to bombard San Francisco. Fortunately, the rumors were unfounded; Rear Admiral John Worden stated that “the Chilean navy could have stood three miles beyond the range of the best guns we have . . . at the Golden Gate, and dropped 500 pound shells into the heart of San Francisco.”6
Birth of the New Navy
This interlude had one positive side. That same year President Chester A. Arthur was finally able to negotiate a $1.3 million authorization for construction of three protected cruisers and a dispatch vessel. The protected cruisers were named the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, quickly becoming known as “the ABC cruisers.” Two more protected cruisers were authorized in 1885. These ships were a hybrid between sail and steam vessels, with correspondingly poor performance. With top speeds of 16.3 knots or less, only 1.5 inches of deck armor, and 8-inch guns as the heaviest weapons, the ABCs were no match for foreign armored cruisers. “Slow and unarmored ships . . . that can neither fight nor run away,” noted Scientific American in 1887.7 On the other hand, this first authorization of modern warships since the Civil War marked the turning point for the U.S. Navy. Among other aspects, the ABC cruisers were the first American warships to mount breech-loading artillery. Their sister ship, the USS Newark, was commissioned in 1891 as the last U.S. Navy ship with a sail rig.8
President Grover Cleveland initiated a massive naval construction program as well as institutional reforms during his first term in office (1885–89). He was able to gain authorization for 33 warships, including faster protected cruisers, a full-fledged armored cruiser, and the U.S. Navy’s first two battleships (second class). A Democrat, Cleveland was able to secure the appropriations in the Democratic-held House of Representatives by calling on his party to show the Republicans which party could truly guarantee a healthy Navy. To appease isolationist and anti-imperialist factions, the Cleveland administration continued President Arthur’s policy of not trying to match the fleets of the leading European powers. Admiral Luce remained dissatisfied, complaining that without first-class battleships, America’s Navy would remain a second-class force.
Luce got his wish. Cleveland’s successor Benjamin Harrison, a former chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, was committed to achieving maritime parity with the major powers. His work was made easier by the fact that both chambers of Congress were now controlled by the president’s Republican Party.
Harrison’s Navy secretary, Benjamin Tracy justified the new policy by warning of the growing rivalry for control of commerce in the Pacific. The identity of America’s rivals was clear to all. In 1889 the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron almost came to blows with German and British flotillas over Samoa, while Japan was systematically expanding its military to become the second strongest maritime power in the Pacific after Great Britain.
In light of these developments, Congress in 1890 authorized $9 million for construction of so-called “sea-going coastal battleships,” a term Henry Cabot Lodge had devised in order to appease the still-strong isolationist faction. In fact, the 10,000-ton Indiana, which entered service in 1895, was a first-class battleship protected by up to 18 inches of armor. With six turrets bearing four 13-inch and eight 8-inch guns, the Indiana and her sister ships were even more powerful (in terms of armor and ordnance) than the Royal Navy’s Majestic class. At an 1891 meeting of the Institute of British Naval Architects, the design of the Indiana class was described as “distinctly superior to any European vessel of the same displacement and . . . quite a match for any ships afloat.”9
Tracy’s 1889 Annual Report featured a table showing 11 nations—not including Japan—whose fleets exceeded the U.S. Navy’s combat power. By the time President Harrison left the White House in January 1893, the U.S. Navy had advanced to seventh place on the global scale, and continued to climb. Harrison’s successor, Cleveland again, held the same course during his second term. By 1898 the fully developed “New Navy” included 4 heavy ships-of-the-line, 2 second-class battleships, 2 armored cruisers, 16 cruisers, and 15 torpedo boats. Additional ships were under construction, and by 1900 the U.S. Navy would rank third on the global scale, advancing to second place behind the Royal Navy in 1908.
Procurement Reform and Regulation
The technological leap executed by the U.S. Navy between the mid-1880s and the mid-1890s was largely enabled by Cleveland’s new regulations governing naval acquisitions. In the early 1880s the United States was in the process of surpassing Britain in terms of industrial production, but America’s iron and steel industry was geared to the needs of the civilian economy. It lacked the rolling mills needed for production of armor-grade steel as well as facilities to produce artillery larger than six-inch guns, forcing the U.S. Navy and shipbuilding industry to procure these items from Britain, France, and Germany. Construction and overhaul of American ships was regularly delayed for years for lack of material, because the foreign suppliers satisfied the demands of their own armed forces first.10
Cleveland required that steel for ship’s armor and all artillery for new naval vessels be manufactured in the United States. He also set drastic limitations on the allowable fees for maintenance on wooden ships, thereby undercutting the power of the traditional shipyard lobby. Procurement and construction subcontracts were apportioned among all regions of the nation. These measures led to an immediate increase in congressional support for major new acquisition programs. The outlook for steady government orders motivated American industry to invest in expanded modern production facilities, and encouraged influential business leaders to support expensive rearmament programs. Procedures and equipment were largely acquired from the European suppliers who opted for licensing or partnership agreements rather than losing American business.11 Penalties for non-fulfillment of contract obligations were introduced in 1887, as were incentives for exceeding contract requirements. A few years earlier President Arthur had introduced measures to combat the massive corruption surrounding contract awards. Taken together, these measures enhanced shipbuilding efficiency and significantly reduced construction time.
Between 1882 and 1898 the U.S. government spent a total of $400 million on the Navy. That averages out to approximately $24 million annually, or 6 to 7 percent of the entire federal budget. This figure includes procurement and modernization spending as well as routine operations and administrative costs. In fact, there was a significant progression of naval spending during this time frame, with budgets gradually increasing from $15 million in 1882 to $34 million in 1897. The cost of prosecuting the war with Spain caused the naval budget to jump to $56 million in 1898.
Given the extent of procurement during this period, the budget increase actually appears quite moderate. There were several factors that held expenses in check: industrial progress and more efficient production methods; retirement of outdated, maintenance-intensive vessels; internal Navy reforms that increased efficiency and reduced administrative costs; and monetary deflation that increased real purchasing power of the dollar by 40 percent between 1883 and 1897.12 And the military was not the only beneficiary of the investment in a new Navy. The government spending, coupled with the requirement for domestic procurement, provided an important stimulus for the American economy.
While physical modernization of the Fleet was essential, the organizational and intellectual renewal implemented in the 1880s and 1890s proved equally vital to preparing the U.S. Navy for turn-of-the-century challenges. Administrative structures and procedures were streamlined and centralized, improving efficiency and reducing the opportunity for graft and nepotism.13 As of 1881 several advisory bodies were established to support the secretary of the Navy and to analyze strategic and technological issues. But the United States did not opt for a powerful admiralty staff along the European model, with the result that naval leadership remained a process of coordination between the secretary and the various senior officers. The post of assistant secretary of the Navy was reinstated in 1890, freeing the secretary to concentrate on policy matters. Operational direction would remain in the hands of the assistant secretary until the position of chief of Naval Operations was introduced in 1915.
Personnel policies were thoroughly modernized during the 1880s and ’90s. Pay, housing, and food were improved. Technical training and the outlook for advancement and a pension attracted and retained qualified American seamen. Arbitrary discipline at the discretion of ships’ captains was replaced by a standing military-justice system and abolition of corporal punishment. Officers’ careers were adapted to the modern world. The separation of line and engineering officers into separate career paths was abolished. Command over ships and fleets was no longer awarded on the basis of longevity but on the basis of competence. The growing number and size of ships as well as increasing overseas deployments required more officers, who were given more responsibility and promoted earlier. Mandatory retirement at age 64 was introduced for all but the most senior officers, encouraging upward mobility and openness for new ideas.14
Another essential factor was the gradual transition to the guerre d’escadre strategy already favored by the European powers. This was first openly espoused in 1889 by Navy Secretary Tracy, who stated that coastal defense should begin far in advance of American waters. He suggested this could go so far as deflecting the enemy’s threat to American shores “by threatening his own [coast], for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations.”15
Creation of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in 1882 and the Naval War College (NWC) in 1884 facilitated the Navy’s physical and conceptual modernization.16
Overt acquisition of European shipbuilding and naval-artillery technology was originally a prime mission of the ONI and of the U.S. naval attachés, who were also introduced in 1882. The ONI added covert espionage and strategic reconnaissance to its portfolio in 1896—and demonstrated its mastery of these tasks in 1898 in preparation for the war with Spain.
While the NWC’s official raison d’etre was the education of experienced officers in advanced strategy, tactics, and logistics, it quickly developed into a de facto planning staff (in cooperation with the ONI). The annual NWC war games resulted in operational plans available for potential conflicts. Modern strategic thinking dominated the war games, which deliberately sought opportunities to carry the war to the enemy’s waters. Notably, the war-game scenario for the NWC class of 1896 was a conflict with Spain over Cuba. The main elements of the optimal solutions determined during this war game were adopted and refined to form the core of the actual war plan executed in 1898.
Major Power—and Beyond
The victory of 1898 was the culmination of some 16 years of concerted effort—an effort that had become necessary to correct a decade and a half of neglect. In 1865 Washington had pursued the traditional American policy of massive postwar military reductions. The Civil War had been the nation’s costliest war to date, both in terms of blood and treasure. America wanted a peace dividend. Congress believed that the United States could simply choose to abstain from armed conflict. This naivéty coupled with America’s maritime weakness merely invited challenges by other nations.
In 1898 the United States stood on the threshold of a new identity that was inseparably tied to the New Navy. Washington’s sea power enabled the acquisition of territories including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, a protectorate over Cuba, and hegemony in Latin America. From this point on the United States was factored into the equation when calculating the global political and military balance of power, and became a regular participant at international political conferences. The United States became an Asian power with a considerable presence in the Far East and Pacific region; simultaneously, America became involved in European power politics.
When Theodore Roosevelt became vice president in 1900 he declared in his inaugural address: “East and West we look across the two great oceans toward the larger world life in which, whether we will or not, we must take an ever-increasing share.”17 As president, he dispatched the Great White Fleet of 16 battleships on its 1907–8 circumnavigation. The 14-month cruise of these steel envoys proudly proclaimed that the United States was not only a major power, but well on its way to great-power status.
1. For discussion of the antimodernization arguments see Kenneth J. Hagan, This People’s Navy: The Making of American Seapower (New York: Free Press, 1991), 176–78, 183–85; and Mark. R. Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power, 1882–1893 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 109 ff.
2. Nathan Miller, The U.S. Navy: A History, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 144 ff. L. A. Swann, John Roach, Maritime Entrepreneur: The Years as Naval Contractor, 1862–1886 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1965), 152–54. Nation, 5 February 1880, cited in Shulman, Navalism, 96.
3. Shulman, Navalism, 40–41.
4. Ibid., 103.
5. An excellent summary of the navalists’ systematic “marketing campaign” for naval modernization is found in Shulman, Navalism, Chapter 3 passim.
6. Shulman, Navalism, 90. W. F. Sater, Chile and the United States: Empires in Conflict (Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 46. Lawrence Sondhaus, Navies in Modern World History (London: Reaktion Press, 2004), 146 ff.
7. Cited in Shulman, Navalism, 112.
8. Technical data and construction/commissioning information for ships is taken from The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, www.history.navy.mil/danfs, supplemented by www.hazegray.org and www.navsource.org. For a concise illustrated overview of early cruiser and battleship procurement, also visit the official U.S. Navy Ships webpage, www.navy.mil/navydata/our_ships.asp.
9. B. F. Cooling, Gray Steel and Blue Water Navy: The Formative Years of America’s Military-Industrial Complex 1881–1917 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979), 90–91. Hagan, This People’s Navy, 197.
10. Cooling, Gray Steel, 51-52.
11. Ibid., 35 ff.
12. Shulman, Navalism, 140–42, 157.
13. Ibid., Chapter 2 passim.
14. See Shulman, Navalism, 41 ff. for enlisted and officer career reforms.
15. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1889), 4.
16. For the early years of the ONI and NWC see Shulman, Navalism, 31–33.
17. Theodore Roosevelt, Inaugural Address as Vice-President, 4 March 1901, www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/speeches/trinauguralvicepresident.pdf.