A century later, the Washington Conference has left a far-reaching legacy. First and foremost, it stands as a seminal moment of liberal internationalism and as an inspiration for the nuclear arms limitation and reduction treaties that emerged during the Cold War. The treaties agreed on by the participating nations helped defuse a potential arms race and reduced geopolitical tensions. It also is well-appreciated that these same treaties had the perverse effect of indirectly encouraging the development of many naval capabilities that are essential to the operations of the U.S. Navy and other large navies today, such as underway replenishment and, most prominently, naval aviation and the aircraft carrier. Beyond these political and technological effects, the conference also had a profound effect on the naval officer corps and its relationship to the American public.
The immense public support for naval arms limitation that helped lead to the Washington Conference forced the U.S. Navy to officially engage with the public during peacetime for the first time in its history. Yet, to this day, the relationship between the conference and the birth of U.S. Navy public affairs is not well understood even by that community. The Navy’s Public Affairs Association defines its history as beginning on the eve of World War II with the establishment of the Office of Public Relations in May 1941 with only a brief mention of “central office” having managed navy public affairs in the decades prior.1 While almost certainly not an intentional slight given the heretofore relatively obscure history of this office, there exists a direct line of continuity between the modern public affairs community and the central office, known as the Information Section from 1922 until 1931 and the Public Relations Branch from 1931 until 1941. Critically, this small office established Navy public affairs amid a naval arms limitation, media transformation, the Great Depression, and, finally, the onset of war in both Europe and Asia. Despite the seemingly constant tumult and handicaps, the public affairs function gradually professionalized and became quite effective even while still a small cog in the Navy Department. Thus, as we continue to look back on the Washington Conference, on 21 February 2022, the Navy should celebrate a centennial of navy public affairs and the professional work performed to manage the service’s public image.
The Navy News Bureau
For much of the first century of its existence, the Navy saw little sustained need to communicate with the media and the public. The concept of public relations, or public affairs as it came to be known after World War II, only emerged in the early 20th century. The first public relations firms supported America’s largest companies, and, in 1906, the founders of one of these early public relations firms, Ivy Lee, penned a Declaration of Principles that prioritized the release of “prompt and accurate” information to both the press and public.2 Importantly, Lee and other early practitioners sought to differentiate their work from the more prevalent and less reputable advertising concerns that had grown in popularity in recent decades.
Despite this definition of public relations as an honest profession and the rapid expansion of its use in the private sector, it grew more slowly in government agencies in general and the Navy in particular. The Navy’s leaders had seen little need to adopt professional public relations practice because the service had grown significantly in recent decades and enjoyed bipartisan political support. Having a staunchly pro-Navy President in Theodore Roosevelt also aided the quest of those seeking to expand the size of the fleet. The Navy also had benefited from the unofficial publicity that officers such as Stephen Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan had generated on behalf of the service. Other agencies, however, had adopted public relations practices, which alarmed members of Congress who feared that public relations was synonymous with propaganda and led to the passage of the Gillett Amendment in 1913. Congress never attempted to enforce this ban on government public relations, and ultimately it did little in the years that followed to deter agencies, including the Navy, from adopting public relations practices or hiring practitioners.3
During the Woodrow Wilson administration, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who possessed a background as a newspaper editor, gradually began to incorporate publicity into the service. In early 1917, he assigned an officer attached to his office to handle publicity, but a more significant development occurred that spring when he established the Navy News Bureau. Officially created by Secretary Daniels to liaise with the government’s wartime propaganda agency, the Committee for Public Information, the Navy News Bureau oversaw Navy public relations for the duration of World War I. Headed by Wilbur Jenkins, another newspaper editor and friend of Daniels, the Bureau was staffed entirely by civilian newsmen and attached to the Secretary’s office.4 The backgrounds of the staff gave the Bureau incredible clout and even allowed it to win turf battles with the CPI, but it left virtually no imprint upon the broader service.5
As the end of the World War I brought forth an incredible series of challenges for the Navy, including the threats posed by advocates of an independent air service, postwar demobilization, and the increasing skepticism of the American public and their elected representatives toward continued naval construction. The Navy News Bureau also faced a series of budget cuts and staff departures, including Jenkins, that left it in a poor position to respond. Its continued existence after the war strongly suggests that Daniels had hoped it would continue to serve the Navy’s needs in perpetuity, but the Bureau eventually succumbed to budget cuts after the transition to the Harding administration in September 1921. No public relations office existed for the next several months, save for a single beleaguered reservist manning the Navy Press Room.6
Loss of Public and Political Support
Of all the problems the Navy faced after the end of World War I, arms limitation loomed largest. President Wilson, Secretary Daniels, and Congress had enthusiastically supported the Naval Act of 1916 that promised to build “a navy, second to none” and wrest naval supremacy away from the British Royal Navy. The administration’s continued support for naval construction after the war had prompted Britain and Japan, both of whom had allied with the United States in the recent conflict, to start their own naval construction programs in response. By the end of 1920, the public skepticism had transformed into an outcry of disapproval. In the months that followed, a broad-based movement appeared that supported arms limitation, and President Warren Harding eventually called all the naval powers to convene in Washington in November 1921.7 The treaties that resulted from the Washington Conference from November through its conclusion in February 1922 limited the size of the great powers’ navies and essentially created a vast non-aggression pact in the Pacific that sought to defuse tensions, particularly over China. For a time, the conference proved successful in reducing the number of potential flash points among the great powers.
The naval officer corps, however, looked on the conference with alarm. Heretofore, the Navy’s culture had usually disdained public engagement. While some officers, such as Mahan and Luce, had used the media to make the case for naval expansion, much of the officer corps remained part of the so-called “silent service” that, for cultural reasons, had remained largely aloof and isolated from the public. The loss of public and political support after the war had shocked Navy leaders in unprecedented ways, and by early 1922, even as the conference was still ongoing, momentum finally appeared for a new approach. Some officers, such as retired Captain Dudley Knox, who headed the Office of Naval Records and Library, believed that the Navy’s reluctance to engage the public had prevented the service and its leaders from effectively explaining its value to the nation.
Rear Admiral Clarence Williams, the head of the Navy’s War Plans Division, likewise perceived that the public had somehow lost sight of the Navy’s purpose, and alleged the service was a victim of misinformation. Williams proposed creating a press office in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) that would allow the Navy to rectify these issues and finally create a formal mechanism to deliver information to the public.8 The head of the ONI, Captain Luke McNamee, had looked upon the ongoing negotiations in Washington with dread and heartily endorsed the proposal, too.9 Overwhelming concern among this small group of senior officers had finally created the impetus for the Navy to communicate directly with the public in peacetime.
The Information Section
On 21 February 1922, Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby acted on Williams’ proposal and ordered the creation of the Information Section of the ONI to “supply general Navy information constantly requested by various societies and newspapers.”10 Only a year later did Secretary Denby more clearly articulate the purpose of the Information Section: “It is the right of the Congress and the people of the United States to be fully informed concerning the ships, men, and operation of the Navy.”11 Its placement within the ONI reflected the Navy’s belief that the ONI served as a conduit for all kinds of sensitive and non-sensitive information. Despite this seemingly curious bureaucratic choice, the Information Section represented a significant shift in how the Navy would manage its relationship with the media and the public. Yet, as the Navy soon discovered, creating a public relations office was merely the first step in solving the problem of keeping the public informed about the navy and its activities.
Established as the Navy underwent postwar demobilization, the Information Section remained a small and perennially undermanned office during its formative years. From its establishment until the late 1930s, the Information Section numbered five personnel: a commander as the head, two lieutenants, an enlisted Marine serving as an orderly, and a civilian secretary. For the entirety of the interwar period, Helene Philbert served as the civilian secretary and ultimately became the custodian of its institutional memory.12
In endorsing plans for a public relations office, Captain McNamee had requested that the office be commanded by “an officer of special talent.” The Navy chose Commander Ralph Koch to serve as the first head of the Information Section. An officer with experience serving aboard battleships and submarines, he lacked any obvious experience or “special talents” for the assignment. To his credit however, Koch learned several critical lessons during his time in the position and left behind a letter for his successor that described the principles by which the Information Section could function:
“Straight naval information is our function.”
“Make every effort to obtain news items. If you help the press, they will help you.”
“It is important to give out unfavorable news. If you give out the news, you put a bad case in its most favorable form. If you don’t give out the news, it will be put in its worst form.”
“Meet people but keep yourself in the background publicly. Don’t do anything that would give sound reason for you being classed as a propagandist. You supply information, that is a duty. You answer requests of constituents of Congressmen, or them or anyone else.”
“Give data to your enemies, if they ask for it, as well as your friends. Your enemies will get the data anyway. A good case is not hurt by discussion. Frequently your enemies help you. They give something to hang a story on.”13
Still, the early efforts of Commander Koch and his successors were hampered by several factors. First, during these early decades of public affairs work, there did not exist a clearly identified and trained pool of officers from which the Navy could draw. Annapolis graduates dominated the interwar officer corps, and these career officers had little space to learn skills that would be relevant for public affairs work.14 Thus, most of the officer corps had little or no training on how to interact with the media or the public. Reservists sometimes possessed these skills but save for a brief period in the mid-1920s when reservists assigned to the various naval district headquarters performed public relations duties, this pool of manpower remained untapped.15 For Commander Koch, his subordinates, and their successors in Washington, this meant that nearly everyone had to learn the job as they went.
Second, the Information Section’s placement deep within the bowels of the Navy Department clearly reinforced that they were executing policy and not making it. Oftentimes, the officers in the Information Section found themselves responding to public outcries created by the fumbling responses of their superiors and peers who gave little thought to the service’s standing among the public. The slow and inconsistent release of information in the wake of the Honda Point disaster in September 1923, whereby an entire destroyer squadron ran aground off the central California coast, generated much public criticism that only subsided when the Navy elected to open the court of inquiry to the press.16 The sinking of the submarine S-4 in 1927 likewise led to much criticism towards Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur’s seeming indifference to highly fatal submarine accidents, especially since a similar disaster befell the S-51 barely two years prior.17 Yet, this lack of regard for the press could be found at all levels; one anecdote suggests that the crew aboard one of the vessels assigned to salvage the hulk of the S-4 trained firehoses on a boat carrying reporters attempting to cover the proceedings in an effort to drive them away.18
The inability to make policy also carried over into other realms of publicity the Information Section either did not formally interact with or have any control over, thus preventing the formation of a single, coordinated public relations policy or strategy. Rear Admiral William Adger Moffett, the head of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics from 1921 until his death in 1933, proved himself a savvy publicist and bureaucrat, but his position over one of the service’s powerful bureaus granted him control over shaping the image of naval aviation that the Information Section could merely support.19 The Information Section also had little regular, direct contact with the Recruiting Bureau, a body which had decades of experience of communicating with the general public—albeit through marketing and advertising rather than public affairs--that the Information Section lacked.
As a result of these shortcomings, the first several years of the Information Section’s existence were rough ones marked by few tangible signs of growth for both the section and the service. Koch may have learned some valuable lessons, but it is unclear how quickly and completely his successors embraced them. The servicewide work promoting Navy Day certainly signaled some growth, but the responses to the various accidents and disasters that led to highly critical media coverage clearly demonstrated that the Information Section had yet to learn how to function as a proper, professional public relations outfit.
The situation began to change, however, in the late 1920s. In January 1929, Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur approved the creation of the Navy Department Motion Picture Board and tasked it with managing the relationship between the service and the major film studios in Hollywood. The Board initially numbered four officers, including the heads of the Information Section and the Recruiting Bureau, thus putting these bodies into regular contact.20 Critically, however, the establishment of the Board streamlined the Navy’s relationship with the film studios and helped to make the service a more attractive and amenable partner to make films. These included hits such as the 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release Hell Divers that brought the Navy’s carrier fleets to screens around the country as well as the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical from RKO, Follow the Fleet.21
The Public Relations Branch
Several policy choices likewise reflected the growing stature of public relations within the service. In 1931, the Navy Department quietly changed the name of the Information Section to the Public Relations Branch and, finally, if fitfully began to realize the purpose of the office.
Most important, the Navy had finally begun to identify officers with either aptitude for or experience with public affairs work. Initially, few officers had some relevant experience, such as Commander Charles C. Gill, who headed the Information Section from 1929 into 1931 and had experience publishing books and editing the Naval Institute’s Proceedings, but he was an exceptional case. Not until the latter 1930s did this become commonplace. Commander Leland Lovette, who headed the Information Section from 1937 until 1940, had publishing experience, was a well-regarded speechwriter, and one of his subordinates, Commander Bernard Austin, described Lovette as a “raconteur” and an “extrovert” capable of building new relationships that could help better inform the public.22 Another officer in the Branch at the time was Lieutenant Daniel A. Frost, who had spent his spare time as an aspiring screenwriter.23 It is not clear exactly how the service tracked these skills in advance, but the pattern is unmistakable.
After the outbreak of war in Europe, the Public Relations Branch grew both qualitatively and quantitatively. The Branch had finally grown to eight members in the latter 1930s, and in 1940 it expanded yet again to 13. Many of the officers who had joined the section had prior public relations experience. These included reservists who had ties to the Navy League and the National Geographic Society. Famed film director John Ford, who had held a reserve commission since 1934, went to work training cameramen and photographers for the Navy. Perhaps most important, Lovette’s replacement, Commander Harry Thurber, had previously served in the Information Section in the mid-1920s.24 The reintroduction of reservists into the service combined with second public relations tours such as Thurber’s finally allowed the Navy to place personnel with the requisite experience into these billets.
The Office of Information: CHINFO
The Navy Department, as shown through its solutions to the problems of both insufficient and inexperienced manpower, had finally begun to take navy public relations seriously, but the stature of the office remained modest. Finally, in May 1941, Secretary of the Navy Henry Knox, who also was a former newspaper editor, created the new Office of Public Relations that assumed the functions of the Public Relations Branch. Headed by Rear Admiral Arthur J. Hepburn and attached directly to the Secretary’s office, the Office of Public Relations managed the public relations function for the service for the duration of World War II. In 1945, it was renamed the Office of Public Information, and in 1950 it adopted the current moniker of Office of Information with its head known as CHINFO.
From its modest beginnings during one of the most politically fraught periods in the service’s existence, Navy public affairs emerged and laid the foundation for a century of performing a vital part of the Navy’s mission and finally established a means for the service to engage and inform the public about the service and its mission. As the Navy’s public affairs community seeks to emphasize organizational and professional continuity in remembering its history and celebrates century of executing its mission, understanding the links between the Information Section and the current Office of Information is important in telling its story and recognizing its contribution to the Navy.
1. “History of Navy Public Affairs,” U.S. Navy Public Affairs Association, https://www.usnpaa.org/history-of-navy-public-affairs.html.
2. Ivy Lee, “Declaration of Principles,” quoted from Sherman Morse, “An Awakening in Wall Street,” The American Magazine 62 (September 1906), 457–63.
3. Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, Glen M. Broom, Effective Public Relations, 8th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 15-7.
4. F. Donald Scovel, “Helm’s a Lee: A History of the Development of the Public Affairs Function in the United States Navy, 1861-1941” (master’s thesis, University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1968), 53-4, 57, 61-3.
5. Albert W. Fox, “Navy Officers and Creel in Feud; Censor’s Methods are Resented; Navy’s Publicity Success Envied,” Washington Post, 14 October 1917, 10.
6. Scovel, “Helm’s a Lee,” 79.
7. Lawrence C. Hoag, Preface to Preparedness: The Washington Disarmament Conference and Public Opinion (Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941), 74-7, 89-92, 113-20.
8. Director, War Plans Division to the Chief of Naval Operations, “Press Relations,” 12 January 1922, Box 12 [hereafter B], General Correspondence, 1913-1926, Entry 19 [hereafter E19], Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Records of the Navy Department, 1798-1947, RG 80, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C. [hereafter NAB].
9. Memorandum for the CNO, “Press Relations,” 14 January 1922, B12, E19, RG 80, NAB; Rear Admiral Luke McNamee to Hasbrouck, 3 December 1921, B10, Entry 79 – Formerly Security Classified Correspondence (General Subject CAP Files) 1901-1927, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38, NAB; Rear Admiral Luke McNamee to Captain E.H. Watson, 11 February 1922, B10, E79, RG 38, NAB.
10. SecNav to All Bureaus and Offices, “Navy Department Information Section under the Office of Naval Intelligence,” 21 February 1922, B2617, E19, RG 80, NAB.
11. SecNav to the Naval Service, “Press Relations,” 3 February 1923, B44, EP 3, RG 428, NACP.
12. Helene Philbert, “History of Navy Public Relations” (talk given at the Navy Public Relations Course in Washington, D.C., on 23 July 1945), Box 121 [hereafter B]; Office of Information Subject Files, 1940-1958; Entry P 3[hereafter EP 3]; Records of the Office of Information; General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1947-, Record Group [hereafter RG] 428, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD [hereafter NACP].
13. Philbert, “Navy Public Relations,” 2.
14. Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (New York: Free Press, 1972),
15. Captain Halsey Powell, Office Bio File, NHHC; Paul R. Kemberger to Catheryn Seckler-Hudson, “Case study of the Office of Public Relations, Executive Office of the Secretary, Department of the Navy,” 27 January 1948, B121, EP 3, RG 428, NACP; H.R. Thurber to Hersey, 20 July 1931, B141, Entry 81 – Classified General Correspondence 1929-1942 [hereafter E81], RG 38, NAB.
16. Charles Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Tragedy at Honda (New York: Chilton Company, 1960), 168-70.
17. “Who is to Blame for our Submarine Disasters?,” Literary Digest, 7 January 1928, 5-7; , “The S-4 Disaster,” Los Angeles Times, 26 December 1927, sec. A, 4.
18. The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, U.S. Navy, Retired (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1971), 60-61
19. William F. Trimble, Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 7-10.
20. SecNav to the CNO and the BuNav, “Motion Picture Plays of Naval Subjects,” 15 January 1929, B412, Entry 22 – General Correspondence 1926-1940, RG 80, NAB.
21. Ryan Wadle, “Sea Power goes Celluloid: Lessons from Interwar-Era Navy Publicity,” Naval History 32, no 1 (February 2018): 28-34.
22. The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, 70-71.
23. LT D.A. Frost to Louis F. Edelman, 26 November 1937, B184, E81, RG 38, NAB.
24. R. Dale Klinkerman, “From Blackout at Pearl Harbor to Spotlight on Tokyo Bay: A Study of the Evolution in U.S. Naval Public Relations Policies and Practices During World War II” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1972), 25-8.