Aug 12

The Great Naval Act of 1916

Friday, August 12, 2016 3:27 PM



President Woodrow Wilson addresses a crowd in January 1916 during the period he was lobbying hard for his naval-expansion legislation. (Library of Congress)

President Woodrow Wilson addresses a crowd in January 1916 during the period he was lobbying hard for his naval-expansion legislation. (Library of Congress)

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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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 modem 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.

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.

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.

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 act’s capital ships once the war ended. But in 1922, the Washington Naval Treaty would kill off 11 of the planned 16 big ships; nevertheless, the Naval Expansion Act of 1916 had profound effects.

This post is adapted from Dr. Friedman’s August Naval History magazine article, “How Promise Turned to Disappointment,” which reveals how the 1916 Naval Act ended up on the chopping block and its profound long-term effects .