A century ago President Woodrow Wilson signed into law what at the time was the largest expansion of the U.S. Navy. In previous years, Congress had generally appropriated, say, two battleships and a destroyer flotilla, which left the Navy lobbying in vain for the cruisers that the battleships needed to scout for them. Now, at one stroke, Capitol Hill and President Wilson promised the service 10 battleships, 6 battleship-sized battle cruisers, 10 light cruisers, 50 destroyers, and 30 submarines, plus lesser ships. Six years later, the Washington Naval Treaty would kill off 11 of the planned 16 new capital ships; nevertheless, the Naval Expansion Act of 1916 had profound effects.
The Situation at Sea
The origins of the act are traced to pressures generated by World War I. As a major trading nation, the United States had tried before the war to shape the law of blockade—the instrument of a dominant sea power. The question was always whether a blockader could seize all goods destined for its enemy. The British pressed for rules that would enable them to seize goods on board neutral (for example, American) ships. The U.S. position was that neutral ships carried neutral goods.
As the war ground on, the British tightened their blockade rules in hopes of weakening Germany. They began to seize U.S. goods bound for German ports, and several times the Wilson administration seemed to be on the brink of breaking relations with Great Britain. The British found themselves in a difficult position. They saw the United States both as an essential supplier of funds and crucial goods, including munitions, as well as a potential ally. Yet U.S. supplies were certainly helping keep Germany afloat. The blockade was porous, but any sharp reduction in German imports had considerable impact, because the war imposed a considerable strain on Germany. That is the wider reality of interdiction: What may seem limited becomes effective when the enemy is under great stress from battle.
The question for the British was always how far they could press the United States without risking a diplomatic break. It turned out that the Germans always rescued their enemy. Each time the U.S. government approached the point at which it might find the British blockade intolerable, a German U-boat sank a ship with Americans on board, causing far more outrage. In one case, a senator representing a cotton-producing state (at the time, that commodity was the largest single U.S. export) found himself saying that he could not in good conscience talk about cotton seizures when faced with drowned U.S. citizens.
To President Wilson, the British were able to behave arrogantly, which to him meant intolerably, only because they held the balance of sea power. In 1916 the United States was a distant third in naval power, well behind Britain and Germany, and not too far ahead of America’s Pacific rival, Japan. The United States had surged to second place early in the century, thanks to a burst of shipbuilding immediately after the Spanish-American War and the fact that rival sea powers such as France and Russia were not expanding very rapidly. The Anglo-German naval arms race of the pre–World War I period had transformed the situation. For example, whereas the United States usually would order a pair of battleships, from 1908 on the British typically ordered at least four or five. However, once the Great War broke out, the British found it impossible to keep buying more battleships; their naval construction resources had to be spent on the vast number of smaller units needed to fight the conflict.
The Great Act and Its Shortcomings
Big-gun capital ships were the currency of sea power, so the naval expansion bill Wilson presented to Congress in December 1915 was heavily tilted in their direction. The original intent, as stated by the Navy’s General Board on 30 July 1915, was that “the Navy of the United States should ultimately be equal to the most powerful [navy] maintained by any other nation of the world.” But by 3 February 1916, Wilson was calling for “incomparably the greatest navy in the world.”
To some extent the expansion bill met the Navy’s own urgent call for a scouting force to work with the battleships. The last large cruisers the United States had built were ten armored cruisers at around the turn of the century. The Navy’s most modern light cruisers were three small Chesters, commissioned in 1908, which had become obsolete long before.
In early June, while Congress was considering the legislation, news reached Washington of the Battle of Jutland, in which three British battle cruisers exploded after taking very few hits. The naval bill included six large battle cruisers, and it might reasonably be asked why the Wilson administration continued to intend to build such ships immediately after such a dramatically poor showing. The reason was simple: Without powerful scouts, even the largest battleship fleet was helpless. Jutland demonstrated not only that battle cruisers could be blown up, but even more clearly that their armored-cruiser predecessors (at the time, the U.S. Navy’s only heavy scouts) had no place in a big-gun battle.
During the hearings on the bill, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss told Congress that he knew why the British ships had exploded, and that his new ships would not have the same problem. It is not clear how much Strauss knew, but he was right. We now know that the British ships were victims of suicidally dangerous magazine practices. Apparent lessons from the 24 January 1915 Battle of Dogger Bank—that German shell fire was ineffective, and faster fire by British ships might have been decisive—probably led to adoption of the practices, which were a by-product of quicker fire.
Congress eventually passed the shipbuilding measure, which President Wilson signed in August. The 1916 program, however, did not include quite what Wilson wanted. Unless he was willing to fight the British—and no one really was—it did not matter how many battleships he had. Protection of U.S. trade in the face of the British blockade would have required a very different force. The Navy would need to escort merchant ships through the British blockade, which would require large numbers of cruisers (escorting ships through a U-boat blockade would be a different proposition). It used to be said that battleships gained naval supremacy, but cruisers exercised it.
The Imperial German Navy has often been criticized as a hot-house plant, a battle fleet with little backup. Wilson’s big U.S. Navy would have been in a similar position. It certainly would have been able to beat off a British blockade of the U.S. coast, just as the German navy could have defeated a close British blockade of Germany’s coast. However, neither operation was ever very likely. The Germans did not even try to use their fleet to break the British blockade, a failure criticized by some German officers after 1918.
Another major gap in Wilson’s program was in personnel. In reference books, navies are represented by their ships. In fact, those on board the ships make them effective. Ships can be built rapidly, but it takes much longer to mature a naval officer corps and the long-service petty officers who back it up. Wilson’s naval program did not envisage any great expansion in the U.S. naval training base, and in any case, investment in training would have taken decades to yield results. Gaps in U.S. naval capability became evident when U.S. ships arrived in European waters after 1917. Individual ships proved very effective, but coordinated action by multiple ships was sometimes a different matter. The shock experienced by officers of U.S. Battleship Division Nine, which served with the British Grand Fleet, probably had very salutary effects on the Navy of the interwar period.
Another factor was at work. From 1906 on, battleships had developed at a dizzying pace, so that a ship considered extraordinarily powerful that year—HMS Dreadnought—was completely eclipsed by new “super-dreadnoughts” ordered in 1909, and those ships were largely upstaged by the 15-inch-gun ships ordered in 1912. Whatever the U.S. Navy ordered under the 1916 program was likely to be similarly far ahead of what the British had completed in 1915–16.
After Jutland the British were particularly aware of this reality. When they discussed the battle-cruiser disasters among themselves, they avoided the fact that the wounds had been self-inflicted. Instead, they concentrated on claims that the ships had fallen victim to a new kind of attack: shells plunging through relatively thin deck armor from unexpectedly long range. That explanation had the advantage of avoiding command responsibility for allowing (and probably encouraging) disastrous practices, but it created the illusion that “post-Jutland” capital ships were inherently so superior to existing ones as to outmode them. British records seem to show that this idea took root.
The 1916 program gave the U.S. Navy the world’s largest post-Jutland building program, but construction was suspended after the United States entered World War I in April 1917. As with the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy had to concentrate on smaller ships—mainly destroyers and a few submarines—needed to fight U-boats, as well as other antisubmarine efforts such as the Northern Mine Barrage.
Work resumed on the 1916 program’s capital ships once “the war to end all wars” ended. Now the United States was in a very different position. The dominant sea power, Great Britain, was exhausted. Many of its capital ships were both obsolescent and worn out. American naval officers speculated that the United States might one day fight the British over trade (the idea that war arose out of economic competition was widely accepted), but the more immediate problem was Japan. For some years American naval officers had argued that ultimately Japan would fight the United States for dominance of the Pacific. The U.S. “open door” policy in China was, it was said, blocking the Japanese push to dominate the Far East.
The Wilson administration was in a difficult position. It had justified the burdens of U.S. entry into World War I on moral grounds: The conflict would end European militarism, and afterward there would never again be a big war. Yet it also was asking for the funds to complete the ambitious 1916 naval program. Why were the ships still needed? For the moment, when it dealt with other countries, particularly Britain, the administration used the program, as well as a second big naval building program proposed in October 1918, as leverage. The programs demonstrated the impact of something no one had really perceived before World War I: The United States was by far the leading industrial country in the world. If pushed, it could outbuild anyone else (this argument was later used to gain leverage in interwar arms-control negotiations). Some British observers criticized features of the new U.S. ship designs, but they could not deny the raw industrial power behind the vessels.
In early 1919, with the victorious powers gathering in France’s capital to hammer out peace treaties, the stage was set for what Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels called the “Naval Battle of Paris.” During tense diplomatic clashes between high-level British and U.S. representatives, the former demanded to know why the Americans wanted such a large navy and maintained that Britannia would never forfeit naval superiority. For Wilson, the big 1916 program and 1918 proposal were leverage to force war-weary Europeans to accept his idea of the League of Nations. According to the truce eventually brokered, the British agreed to support the league, and the Americans abandoned the 1918 shipbuilding proposal. As it turned out, damage to U.S.-British relations from the Paris “battle” would take a decade to heal, and Wilson collapsed and suffered a debilitating stroke while trying to sell his League of Nations vision to the American public. The Senate ultimately rejected it.
The Republicans won the 1920 presidential election, and unlike President Wilson, they were not particularly interested in internationalism. Warren G. Harding’s new administration did not cancel the naval program, but the funds needed to complete all of the ships still needed to be appropriated from a less-than-enthusiastic Congress. Now that there did not seem to be an urgent need for the ships, pressure began to build to scale down or even abandon the program. The fact that the Japanese were pursuing a massive program of their own does not seem to have been a factor in this thinking. War with Japan was at best a very distant possibility.
Naval Arms Control and Reappraisal
The 1916 shipbuilding program thus placed President Harding in a difficult position. It could be used as international leverage, but only until someone in Congress, probably as part of a bid for the 1924 presidential nomination, led an effort that killed it. To use the leverage he still had, in July 1921 Harding called for an international naval arms-limitation conference, to meet in Washington that November. Secretary of State Charles F. Hughes secretly drew up a program to stop all naval construction, which mainly meant abandoning the 1916 program’s capital ships (the lesser ships were all either completed or well advanced).
The Royal Navy, anxious to add post-Jutland capital ships to its fleet, extracted authorization to build four of them from Parliament, but it had to justify their construction (at least publicly) as leverage in future arms-control negotiations. Asked for its advice, the Navy’s General Board assumed that all current programs would be completed and that any ban on construction would apply only to future programs. It did not understand that no matter what happened, Congress was likely to scupper the big 1916 program. By July 1921, of the 16 capital ships envisaged in 1916, only one—the USS Maryland (BB-46)—had been completed.
At the Washington conference, U.S. negotiators offered to cancel everything else. Two more battleships, the Colorado (BB-45) and West Virginia (BB-48), survived as part of a compromise allowing Japan to retain the recently commissioned battleship Mutsu and the British to build the post-Jutland battleships Nelson and Rodney. Two of the U.S. battle cruisers were permitted to be converted into aircraft carriers, the future Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3), as part of a compromise to cushion the blow the resulting treaty would inflict on world shipbuilders. To U.S. naval officers who had looked forward to the dominant fleet the 1916 program promised, the arms-control conference and the subsequent treaty meant betrayal—bitterly remembered during the hard-fought sea battles around Guadalcanal two decades later.
Was the Naval Act of 1916 nothing more than a mirage? In hindsight, a different picture emerges. The U.S. goal in 1916 was not so much to create the world’s largest fleet as to gain parity with the dominant sea power, Great Britain. Any such pretension would have seemed ludicrous in 1914. As far as numbers of ships, the British were still far ahead in 1918. But on the basis that anything built before Jutland was now obsolescent, the British saw things differently. The new U.S. program would not just even the numbers, it would give Americans an unbridgeable lead in advanced post-Jutland ships. To avoid that situation, the British would accept parity with the United States, as enshrined in the Washington Naval Treaty. Therefore the planned and unfinished ships of the Naval Act of 1916 won a kind of silent naval war.
U.S. industrial and financial strength, in combination with the 1916 program, also helped convince the Japanese to accept a position of inferiority—the short end of the 1922 treaty’s famous 5:5:3 ratio among the three main sea powers. (The United States and Britain argued that this was not inferiority because crossing the Pacific would weaken either of their fleets.)
The sheer size of Wilson’s ships also had useful consequences. When authorized in 1916, the six battle cruisers would have displaced 35,000 tons and mounted 14-inch guns, but the delay due to changed wartime priorities halted their construction. After Jutland, the U.S. Navy learned about HMS Hood, a new British battle cruiser then under construction that was really a very fast battleship. Inspired by detailed knowledge of the new ship, the U.S. battle cruisers were redesigned to displace 43,200 tons and be armed with 16-inch guns. While the Washington treaty allowed two of the vessels to be converted into aircraft carriers, the redesigned battle cruisers were far larger than the current state of naval aviation justified. As carriers, their size made for large air groups, and that in turn offered the U.S. Navy the beginning of useful leverage in the nascent American aircraft industry. The impact of having large carriers is evident when interwar U.S. naval aviation is compared with its British counterpart.
Because the U.S. carriers had so many more aircraft on board, they could carry out far more spectacular operations, which in turn impressed the rest of the fleet with what naval aviation could do. A lot of what went wrong with the Royal Navy in aviation can surely be traced to the entirely political decision in 1917–18 to create a single air arm—the Royal Air Force.
What would have happened had the General Board’s naval conference wishes been followed and the 1916 ships completed as planned? In the late 1920s, the United States certainly would have had the most powerful fleet of modern battleships armed with big 16-inch guns. The Japanese might have completed their own “Eight-Eight Fleet Program” (eight first-class battleships and eight battle cruisers), which included impressive ships, some with 18-inch guns. But neither navy would have felt pressured to develop naval aviation, and neither would have had the resources to do so.
Completion of the 1916 shipbuilding program would probably have exhausted congressional willingness to buy new warships, at least until after 1930. There is no reason to imagine that a more powerful U.S. battle line would have deterred World War II, although the absence of a strong naval air arm would surely have changed the way the Pacific conflict began and was fought. For example, the Japanese could still have seized the Philippines but would not have attacked Pearl Harbor. Most important for the U.S. Navy was the fact that it still would have been starved of cruisers—and in a major naval war the lack of cruisers would have been especially crippling because of the absence of naval aircraft to carry out their scouting mission.
For us, the lesson of the Naval Act of 1916, if there is one, is that a U.S. president’s determination to buy dominant sea power is not enough. Sea power costs money. Ultimately that money has to come from the American public, which can register its distaste for the expense through Congress. By complying with President Wilson’s request, Congress made the 1916 shipbuilding program possible—and six years later, when the Senate ratified the Washington Naval Treaty, it made the program disappear.
Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Makers of Naval Policy: 1798–1947 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980).
George T. Davis, A Navy Second to None: The Development of Modern American Naval Policy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).
Norman Friedman, The British Battleship: 1906–1946 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).
Norman Friedman, Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014).
Norman Friedman: U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986).
Norman Friedman, U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Jerry W. Jones, “The Naval Battle of Paris,” Naval War College Review, vol. 62, no. 2 (Spring 2009).