From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Seventy-four years ago today the Second Naval Expansion Act, one of the largest procurement bills in the history of the U.S. Navy, was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The bill was so large it also goes by at least three other names: The Two-Ocean Navy Act, the Seventy-Percent Act or the Vinson-Walsh Act. It increased by 70 percent – 1.325 million tons — the Navy’s size for combat tonnage at a cost of $4 billion.
It also set into motion a strategy that more than seven decades later is still relevant today – basing American fleets in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Need was clear, timing was everything
The United States sympathized with France and Great Britain as the war in Europe began, but popular sentiment did not support going to war. However, despite its attempts to remain neutral, military and many government leaders knew it would be just a matter of time before the U.S. would be dragged back into a World War.
By June of 1940, World War II was escalating in Europe. German troops seized Paris on June 14, and just days earlier Italy’s Prime Minister Benito Mussolini threw his nation’s support with Germany hoping to slice out territory from France after its surrender. In the Pacific, Japan had been gradually expanding its empire since 1931, first by invading Manchuria, and then Nanking in 1937. Now they were closing in on Hong Kong.
On June 17, 1940, Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee Rep. Carl Vinson (D-Ga.) introduced a bill crafted by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold R. Stark and his staff that called for a 70 percent increase in the size of the U.S. Navy’s authorized combatant tonnage at the cost of a staggering $4 billion.
The next day, June 18, Adm. Stark testified before the Committee to break down the tonnage as 200 combatant and 20 auxiliary ships. Although he did not provide the Committee with numbers, he was expecting this increase would furnish his service with an additional seven battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 27 cruisers, 115 destroyers and 43 submarines, and to maintain or purchase up to 15,000 “useful” naval aircraft.
Most importantly, the increase would allow the U.S. Navy to engage in offensive action against an enemy navy in one ocean while carrying out successful defensive operations against an opposing navy in another ocean.
It would be the first time the Navy’s warship numbers would rise above the limitations placed on it by the Washington Treaty of 1922 and end years of a declining naval fleet.
Why we needed Naval Expansion Acts
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the five victorious powers — United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy and France — gathered together to create the Washington Treaty of 1922 that would limit the tonnage of warships with a ratio of 5:5:3:1.75:1.75, respectively, in order to prevent an arms race. The London Treaty of 1930 enacted further restrictions.
But while most nations generally kept to the treaty’s limits, the United States tried to affect world disarmament by example and allowed the Navy’s fleet of warships to drop well below the treaty’s standards. It was a lofty idea that never caught on and resulted in “a rapid decline in the strength of our Navy between 1922 and 1930,” according to the 1944 legislative document Decline and Renaissance of the Navy 1922-1944 by Sen. David I. Walsh (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee.
But then former Under Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in March 1933. He believed the Navy needed to increase its strength at least to the Washington Treaty of 1922 limits. In order to help the nation recover from the Great Depression and give the Navy a boost, Roosevelt pushed through Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Of the $3.3 billion appropriated, Roosevelt set aside $237 million to construct Navy warships to help improve the economy with increased employment. The Navy responded by contracting to build 20 destroyers, four submarines, four light cruisers and two aircraft carriers, one of which would play a large part in the brewing World War II – USS Enterprise.
Another jump start on the Navy’s catching-up plan was the Naval Expansion Act of 1934 brought earlier by Rep. Vinson. That law authorized 65 destroyers, 30 submarines, one aircraft carrier and 1,184 naval aircraft.
The Naval Expansion Act of 1938 continued to beef up the Navy’s inventory with $1 billion for a dirigible, two light cruisers, one aircraft carrier, one large and two smaller seaplane tenders, mine layers, mine sweepers, two oil tankers, two fleet tugs, and an indefinite number of speedy, experimental torpedo boats.
That was followed up with the Naval Expansion Act of June 14, 1940, also known as the Eleven Percent Act. The June Act increased the Navy’s warship fleet by 11 percent, concentrating mostly on aircraft carriers, submarines and cruisers.
Three days later, Rep. Vinson introduced Stark’s Two-Ocean Navy Act asking for $4 billion.
“Dollars cannot buy yesterday.” (CNO Adm. Harold R. Stark)
The House Naval Affairs Committee didn’t need a lot of convincing. Already that month Italy declared war on France and the United Kingdom and Norway surrendered to the Soviets, Nazi troops marched through the L’Arc De Triomphe in Paris and a British troopship, RMS Lancastria, had been sunk by a German dive bomber, killing more than Titanic and Lusitania together. The committee approved the bill the day after the CNO testified and it appeared before the full House June 22. The House approved the bill 316-0.
Stark was pleased, but also a bit surprised at his success, as he wrote that day to Adm. Thomas C. Hart, the Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet: “I exploded a bomb on the Hill this last week in asking for one million three hundred thousand tons of new combatant ships. . . . The thought back of it is that we might just as well go the whole hog and prepare to have a good sized fleet available in both oceans. . . . I am delighted to say the President went along with it.”
As swiftly as the bill went through the Committee and House, events in Europe were becoming more dire by the day. By the time the bill passed in the House, France had asked Germany for an armistice and the Soviets occupied Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
The Senate passed the bill July 10, and President Roosevelt signed it into law on July 19.
The Two-Ocean Navy Act and the monies thereafter appropriated by Congress to carry out its terms, laid the groundwork for the wartime U.S. Navy that was essential to victory in World War II.
Looking back on this turning point in the Navy’s history, Admiral Stark remarked in a January 1941 letter to Admiral Hart, “Congress woke up with a bang last June but what I would give now had I been able to get them in the June mood six months previous[,] when I first attempted it.”