When the words “Roosevelt” and “U.S. Navy” are used together, a natural assumption is that the reference is to Theodore. “TR” was a naval historian who, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, pushed for battleship construction and, as President, greatly expanded the Navy and dispatched the Great White Fleet on its around-the-globe cruise.
Less well appreciated are the naval accomplishments of Theodore’s fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the most vigorous advocate of naval readiness ever to occupy the White House. A skilled sailor himself, FDR also had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, from 1913 to 1920.
After having read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s 1890 classic, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, at the age of 15, Franklin Roosevelt carried on a lifetime love affair with the Navy and, like his later wartime partner British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, followed maritime affairs closely. The Navy was FDR’s favorite service, and he was heard to refer to it as “my Navy.” He did his utmost to build its strength and efficiency in both peace and war.
A Yachtsman at the Navy Department
Much was accomplished during Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure as Assistant Navy Secretary in the Wilson administration. He ordered a dry dock for Pearl Harbor, authorized the construction of “temporary” Navy and Army office buildings along Washington’s Constitution Avenue that would survive until 1970, introduced a program for teaching sailors to swim, pushed for naval aviation and submarine chasers, dealt personally with labor leaders, and successfully proposed that the Allies lay a mine barrage across the North Sea during World War I.
Assistant Secretary Roosevelt inspected ships and installations at every opportunity. In 1914, he cruised on board a destroyer, the USS Patterson (DD-36), commanded by Lieutenant (later Admiral) Harold R. Stark, while visiting naval bases in Maine.
Earlier, he had offered to guide the 1,300-ton destroyer USS Flusser (DD-20) through the hazardous Lubec Strait between Campobello Island and the mainland. Her nervous skipper, Lieutenant (later Admiral) William F. “Bull” Halsey, said, “The fact that a white-flanneled [sic] yachtsman can sail a catboat out to a buoy and back is no guarantee that he can handle a high-speed destroyer in narrow waters.” But Halsey was forced to eat his words, admitting later: “As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over; he knew his business.”
In the summer of 1918, as the Allies gained the upper hand after four bitter years of war, FDR jumped at the chance to go to Europe and get close to the conflict. The Senate Naval Affairs Committee was heading there, and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels wanted Roosevelt to inspect Navy and Marine Corps units as he gathered information.
The Assistant Secretary chose to make the Atlantic voyage on board the new 1,220-ton destroyer USS Dyer (DD-84). She had just been commissioned and was rushed into service to help escort a convoy of five camouflaged troopships to Britain. The destroyer set sail on 9 July and had a hair-raising crossing.
At dawn on 12 July, there was some alarm when 28 freighters on their way to England unexpectedly headed across the path of the Dyer’s flotilla. Convoy routes, as Roosevelt was aware, were never supposed to cross and endanger each other.
Then, on 14 July, the flotilla ran into a storm and rolled in heavy seas. “The crockery disintegrated,” FDR reported, “and we thought a torpedo had hit us when a big drawer of knives, forks, spoons, and dishes hopped out of the sideboard and bounded across the wardroom, narrowly missing all of us at the table.” Some feared that a U-boat was close, but there were no sightings, much to Roosevelt’s disappointment.
When the Dyer’s engines broke down as she steamed to Fayal in the Azores Archipelago, FDR wrote in his personal diary, “This run across is her ‘shakedown,’ and we must expect things like this to happen.” At Ponta Delgada, the destroyer’s officers sat down to a ten-course dinner, and Roosevelt offered a toast in French to the Portuguese Republic.
With her engines again running smoothly, the Dyer headed north into squalls and through an “active submarine zone.” Her guns and a depth charge were test-fired for readiness, and she reached England on 21 July. At Portsmouth, FDR was greeted and briefed by Vice Admiral William S. Sims, the able commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters who was no great friend of junketing politicians.
Meetings in Britain and France
In London, Roosevelt met Prime Minister David Lloyd George, lunched with Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, and consulted with Sir Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty, and other officers. He toured shipyards, naval stations in Wales and Ireland, and a large hospital for wounded Canadian troops on the River Thames estate of Virginia-born Lady Nancy Astor, who in 1919 would become the first woman elected to the House of Commons.
On the morning of 30 July, FDR went to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George V. They discussed nautical affairs, and the monarch, a former Royal Navy officer, confessed that he longed for “active naval service.” He also told Roosevelt he had received “a nice letter from Uncle Ted” (former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the uncle of FDR’s wife, Eleanor).
The next day, FDR boarded a Royal Navy destroyer and crossed the English Channel to Calais, France. In Paris, he dined with President and Mme. Raymond Poincaré, chatted with Marshal Joseph Joffre, and was introduced to wily Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Roosevelt took time out to visit his cousins—Army Major Theodore Roosevelt Jr. and his brother Lieutenant Archibald Roosevelt, both of whom were recovering from wounds.
‘I Have Seen War’
On 4 August, FDR set out for the front. After relieving a naval attaché who tried to prevent him from entering the trenches, the restless Assistant Secretary led his aides from one battlefield to the next. He studied abandoned German guns, crossed a pontoon bridge over the Marne, watched war matériel being unloaded on the docks in Bordeaux, visited the U.S. Navy station at Pauillac, and inspected a 14-inch rail-mounted naval gun near Saint-Nazaire.
FDR briefly was under enemy fire. He watched an artillery barrage and fighter dogfight overhead; ventured to within a mile of the German lines; climbed the slope of shell-scarred Fort Douaumont at Verdun; and visited Belleau Wood, the scene of recent heavy fighting by the 4th Marine Brigade. Roosevelt inspected three battalions of Leathernecks before they returned to the front line, and he tramped through shattered villages littered with unburied corpses of men and horses, rusty bayonets, and splintered trees.
The experience affected FDR deeply. “I have seen war,” he said later. “I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. . . . I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
Roosevelt briefly visited Italy and then returned to France. There, he met General Douglas Haig, the British Army commander; breakfasted with Clemenceau; and lunched with King Albert of the Belgians. After leaving for home on board the troopship USS Leviathan in September 1918, Roosevelt was one of 1,067 passengers and crewmen felled by pneumonia, while another 1,540 were stricken by the widespread influenza epidemic. FDR was carried ashore on a stretcher when the liner docked on 19 September. After an unsuccessful bid to become vice president on the 1920 Democratic ticket headed by James Cox, Roosevelt took a break from politics as he battled crippling polio.
Building Up the Navy
Like his cousin Theodore, FDR understood the close relationship between diplomatic and military strength and was alert to the ominous state of world affairs as dictatorships and fascism spread in the 1920s and 1930s. In time of war, he believed, a nation’s navy was its first line of defense. There should be no compromise.
Congress authorized the construction of eight cruisers for the U.S. Navy in 1924, but President Calvin Coolidge suspended funding for all but two. Then, Coolidge, who was no naval enthusiast, sponsored legislation to bring the Navy to parity with the British Royal Navy. But Congress knuckled under to pacifist protests and sharply cut the program. Under the following presidential administration of Herbert Hoover, no warships were laid down.
During Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in the White House, however, the 32nd President wasted no time in shoring up the depressed shipbuilding and steel industries and thus strengthening the Navy. On 16 June 1933, under the National Industrial Recovery Act, he allocated $238 million for 32 vessels to be laid down over a three-year period. Besides cruisers and other warships, these included the carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5) and Enterprise (CV-6).
Passed on 27 March 1934, the Vinson-Trammel Bill provided a replacement program for 102 ships, building up the Navy to the limits allowed by the Washington and London naval treaties over an eight-year period. The subsequent construction included the carrier Wasp (CV-7).
From that year to 1940, naval appropriations implementing the program grew and approached $1 billion annually. The Second Vinson Act of 1938 authorized a 20-percent increase in ship tonnage above the treaty limits. Under Roosevelt’s guidance, older vessels were modernized, more fleet carriers laid down and naval aviation programs developed, and naval bases and air stations built. He also had the U.S. Battle Fleet moved from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor.
As Japanese aggression increased in the Far East, Congress passed legislation in August 1935 outlawing the sale of weapons and ammunition to any belligerent nation. The Navy Expansion Act of May 1938 authorized a significant increase in the strength of the U.S. fleet and the procurement of 3,000 aircraft. Among the ships built was the carrier Essex (CV-9).
By the time of Japan’s 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy would have in commission 7 carriers, 17 battleships, 37 cruisers, 171 destroyers, and 111 submarines. Under construction would be 11 carriers, 15 battleships, 54 cruisers, 191 destroyers, and 73 submarines. When the United States was thrust into World War II, the Navy was ready, thanks to FDR’s vision and support.
Early Wartime Moves
On 5 September 1939, two days after the outbreak of war in Europe, Roosevelt had proclaimed U.S. neutrality and directed Admiral Stark, the new Chief of Naval Operations, to establish an air-sea patrol to prevent belligerent acts in U.S. waters. Three days later, the President declared the existence of a “limited national emergency.” A month later, U.S. and other Western Hemisphere “good-neighbor” republics proclaimed a wide safety belt around the Americas and warned the belligerent countries to stay away.
On 21 September 1939, FDR asked Congress to repeal the neutrality laws barring the export of arms to warring nations on a cash-and-carry basis and also requested authority to prohibit U.S. vessels from entering “danger zones” where they were likely to be attacked. Congress acceded to Roosevelt’s request on 4 November, and he promptly classified the waters surrounding the British Isles as a danger zone.
FDR signed the Naval Expansion Act of 1940 on 14 June, authorizing an 11-percent increase in the strength of the fleet. Three days later, Admiral Stark went to Capitol Hill to request $4 billion for the building of a two-ocean navy. It was the largest procurement in U.S. naval history, more than doubling the 1,250,000 tons of the existing warship fleet and 15,000 naval aircraft. On 1 June that year, the keel of the USS Washington (BB-56) had been laid down, the first U.S. battleship to be commenced since 1921.
Congress approved the Two-Ocean Navy Act, and Roosevelt signed it into law on 19 July. The first peacetime draft in U.S. history also was legislated.
The Bureau of Construction and Repair and the Bureau of Engineering were combined to form the Bureau of Ships on 20 June 1940, and on 2 July, Congress granted the President authority to control the export of war matériel and related commodities. Three days later, he prohibited the sale of strategic minerals, chemicals, aircraft parts, and engines to Japan. He extended the embargo on 31 July to include aviation fuel.
On 11 July, Frank Knox, a former Republican newspaperman and veteran of Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders, was sworn in as the 47th Secretary of the Navy.
Naval Support for Britain
Despite pacifist outcries fueled by the isolationist lobby, the neutral United States drifted into an undeclared war with the Axis powers. Standing alone after the fall of France, Great Britain had suffered a number of defeats while her navy was strained by heavy losses. The Royal Navy was critically short of escort vessels after the ill-fated Norwegian and French campaigns. Roosevelt realized that his only course was to support Britain.
“The British people need ships,” he declared. “From America they will get ships. They need planes. From America they will get planes. They need food, and from America they will get food.”
So, on 2 September 1940, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and British Ambassador Lord Lothian exchanged notes and concluded an agreement to exchange destroyers for bases. By executive agreement, 50 aging U.S. Navy destroyers were traded in return for 99-year leases on British bases in the Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana. Britain handed over more bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland as outright gifts. The United States then presented to Britain ten Coast Guard cutters equipped for antisubmarine duty.
The New York Times’ London correspondent reported, “It would be impossible to overstate the jubilation in official and unofficial circles caused today by President Roosevelt’s announcement that 50 United States destroyers were coming to help Great Britain in her hour of peril.” Lloyd George groused: “For this old iron we have had to pay with several very important bases on our territory, but what could we do? There was no other way out.”
Turned over to Royal Navy crews at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and nicknamed “gift horses,” many of the flimsy Great War–era four-stackers served with distinction under the white ensign during the 1939–45 conflict.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, proclaimed the United States the “arsenal of democracy” in his 29 December 1940 fireside chat and was unstinting in his support for the British. “If Britain goes down,” he warned his radio listeners, “the Axis Powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the high seas—and they will be in a position to bring enormous military and naval resources against this hemisphere. The United States must prepare for the danger ahead.”
He devised the unprecedented lend-lease program to enable Britain and other Allied powers to obtain war matériel on credit or loan, coining an analogy to justify it. “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of hose four or five hundred feet away,” said FDR. “If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15. . . . I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.’”
Early in January 1941, a Gallup poll showed 68 percent of Americans in favor of the program, and the President signed the act on 11 March. Prime Minister Churchill, who was stunned by FDR’s action, cited “our sense of gratitude and admiration” and told Parliament that lend-lease was “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”
An Undeclared Naval War
Roosevelt and Churchill cemented their special relationship when they and their senior staffs met for the first time on board the cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, on 9–12 August 1941. They worked out details for the U.S. Navy to assist in escorting convoys, the implementation of FDR’s policy of “all aid short of war,” and drafted the historic Atlantic Charter, a declaration of principles for restoring world peace.
U.S. Navy vessels promptly began assisting the destroyers and corvettes of the British and Canadian navies in escorting Atlantic convoys and soon became the prey of U-boats. The destroyer Greer (DD-145) was attacked on 4 September while patrolling south of Iceland; the destroyer Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed but not sunk south of Greenland on 17 October, with the loss of 11 crewmen; and the destroyer Reuben James (DD-245) was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 115 lives on 31 October while escorting a convoy from Halifax. She was the first U.S. Navy vessel to be destroyed by the Axis powers. Her loss caused Admiral Ernest J. King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet and later Chief of Naval Operations, to swear off hard liquor for the war’s duration.
A Navy Second to None
After recovering from the disastrous Pearl Harbor attack and heavy losses in the East Indies and the Solomon Islands, Roosevelt’s Navy came of age in World War II. It became history’s largest sea service, fought gallantly around the globe, and was a key player in the Allies’ relentless crusade against fascist tyranny. The Navy’s big guns blasted enemy warships and installations, its torpedoes sank enemy shipping, and its aviation arm gave sterling service in several war zones.
U.S. Navy units hunted U-boats, escorted convoys, and supported numerous invasions in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. After the dramatic victory at Midway on 4–7 June 1942 and the costly six-month struggle to secure Guadalcanal in 1942–43, carrier task forces pursued Japanese sea and land forces all the way from the Gilbert and Marshall islands to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, hammering them decisively and driving them back to their Home Islands and defeat.
Guided by President Roosevelt and ably led by stalwarts such as Secretaries Knox and James V. Forrestal and Admirals King, Chester W. Nimitz, Raymond A. Spruance, and Bull Halsey, the service ended World War II with many honors and a unique record.
It had come a long way in a century and a half. Born during an era when no one dared challenge the global might of the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy had become second to none.
Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The War President, 1940–43 (New York: Random House, 2000).
Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775–1991 (New York: Random House, 1991).
Eric Larrabee, Commander-in-Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (New York: HarperCollins, 1987).
E. B. Potter, ed., Sea Power: A Naval History, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981).
Elliott Roosevelt, ed., F.D.R.: His Personal Letters, vol. 2, 1905–1928 (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948).
Jean Edward Smith, FDR (New York: Random House, 2007).
Jack Sweetman, American Naval History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Stanley Weintraub, Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR’s Introduction to War, Politics, and Life (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013).