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Special - 'The Challenge of Adversity': The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 1930–39

By Craig L. Symonds

As a result of this cultural shift, the U.S. Navy in the 1930s was largely alienated from the day-to-day interests of the American public. Of course, U.S. Navy officers continued to perform their jobs and think about their profession, expressing their views on a variety of issues in the pages of Proceedings . As a result, the articles published during the decade testify to both the difficulties of operating in an environment of public mistrust and limited budgets, and also to the impact of developing technology. Some articles looked to the past for instruction and inspiration, others focused on the present-day problems of naval operations, such as range finding, damage control protocols, and ballasting tankers. Still others looked to the future—a noteworthy number of them dealing with the relatively new specialty of naval aviation. The title of a November 1933 article by Lieutenant Commander Frank M. Harris captured the spirit of the decade: “ The Challenge of Adversity .”

Most issues of Proceedings during the 1930s contained at least one article on naval history. They ranged from accounts of Admiral Comte d’Estaing’s fleet in the Chesapeake Bay during the American Revolution, through frigate victories in the War of 1812, to the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the Battle of Tsushima . A few articles discussed what was still called “the Great War,” including a series by a German battalion commander (Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Otto) about the Battle of Mont Blanc in which U.S. Marines, including John Lejeune, had played a conspicuous role.

Other articles concerned contemporary issues, and it is in this regard that Proceedings offers a window into the temper of the times. Through the first half of the decade, the practical reality of the Washington and London arms limitation treaties affected almost every aspect of naval planning, construction, and even operations. Most officers simply adjusted to these realities, though few believed that they constituted a permanent condition. In an August 1931 article , Dudley Knox, the dean of American naval historians, predicted (correctly as it proved) that the limits would not last beyond 1935, and he urged the Navy to plan accordingly.

Knox was almost exactly right. In March of 1935, Adolf Hitler renounced the Versailles Treaty, and in January of 1936, Japan withdrew from the naval arms limitation treaties. U.S. naval officers had looked at Japan as a possible opponent in the Pacific for at least a decade, and after 1935 a dominant theme in Proceedings articles was preparedness. In an Honorable Mention Prize essay in May of 1936, Lieutenant Commander Ronald Strong summarized the twin threats of Germany and Japan and sounded a call for rearmament. Two months later, Robert Barry praised the recent passage of the Vinson-Trammel Act but worried that while it expanded the number of combatants, it did not do enough to increase the auxiliary fleet. He feared that the emerging Navy was all teeth and no tail. In October, Navy Secretary Claude Swanson chimed in with an article pledging the administration to the support of naval expansion.

By 1937, the drumbeat for war in both Asia and Europe was unmistakable. In an article that May, Dudley Knox speculated about how the United States could maintain its neutrality in the midst of the gathering storm. His answer, to no one’s surprise, was to prepare for it. The article, titled “ Naval Power as a Preserver of Neutrality and Peace ” was helpful to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was trying to convince the public that preparation for war, far from being a cause of conflict, was the best means of avoiding it. In addition to ships, the Navy also needed more bases, especially in the Pacific. In an Honorable Mention Prize essay in May of 1934, Rear Admiral Yates Stirling Jr., who commanded the Pacific Fleet at the time, wrote that the United States either had to have more bases in the Western Pacific or should withdraw from the area entirely, falling back to the Alaska-Hawaii-Samoa line. His warnings would be validated by the events of January to June 1942.

One emergent theme in the articles published during the 1930s was the future role of aviation. Though a few authors continued to praise the value of lighter-than-air craft, and others insisted on the continued primacy of the big-gun battleship, an increasing number of articles focused on the importance of naval aviation. As early as August of 1930, Lieutenant Logan Ramsey , who was a frequent contributor, insisted that “no fleet can enter a hostile zone unless it has, beyond a doubt, superiority in the air.” Ramsey undermined his own argument, however, in a subsequent article that insisted the naval gun, and not bombs carried by aircraft, remained the most effective naval weapon. Like the rest of the Navy, Ramsey was still figuring it out. By January of 1936, however, Lieutenant J. C. Hubbard was stating what had become a widely accepted view when he wrote that control of the sea requires control of the air. By 1937, articles on naval aviation had moved from a discussion of its viability to details about its most effective application, with authors debating the relative merits of bombs vs. torpedoes, and level bombing vs. dive-bombing.

Given that the war to come would demonstrate the importance of amphibious operations, there were relatively few articles on this warfare specialty in the pages of Proceedings . In April 1931, Marine Corps Major Harold Utley published an article in which he discussed “ Special Boats for Landing Operations ,” and two years later, Navy Commander E. W. Broadbent penned a piece that stressed the need for more and better interservice cooperation in developing amphibious doctrine. These, however, were exceptions to the rule. Most Navy officers seemed willing to leave the development of amphibious doctrine to the Marine Corps.

One noteworthy article by then- Lieutenant Hyman G. Rickover in September 1935 concerned submarines. Rickover argued that existing international law and the tactical role assigned to American submarines were incompatible. Either the law had to be changed, he wrote, or the United States would have to abandon the whole notion of commerce raiding by submarine.

It is mostly in hindsight that two articles in particular seem prescient. One was by Walter Dillingham , published in the May 1930 issue; it summarized the special value of Pearl Harbor as a naval base. The other, by the ubiquitous Lieutenant Commander Logan Ramsey in November 1937, discussed “ Aerial Attacks on Fleets at Anchor .”

Dr. Symonds is Professor of History Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author or editor of 28 books, including Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History; Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War ; and NEPTUNE: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings .


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