United States Navy history: Debate at the turn of the 20th century

Captain A. T. Mahan makes a powerful plea in his masterly book on "The Influence of Sea-Power Upon History," for a strengthened American navy. He is no dreamer of a faerie era when swords and battle-ships will be disused and the art of war be forgotten. His conviction is that strength, and the discreet display of it, is the best insurance against troubles of the international kind.

"Our only rivals in potential military strength are the great powers of Europe. These, however, while they have interests in the Western Hemisphere, to which a certain solidarity is imparted by their instinctive and avowed opposition to a policy to which the United States, by an inward compulsion apparently irresistible, becomes more and more committed, have elsewhere yet wider and more onerous demands upon their attention. Since 1884 Great Britain, France, and Germany have each acquired colonial possessions, varying in extent from one million to two and a half million square miles,-chiefly in Africa. This means, as is generally understood, not merely the acquisition of so much new territory, but the perpetuation of national rivalries and suspicions, maintaining in full vigor, in this age, the traditions of past animosities. It means uncertainties about boundaries,-that more fruitful source of disputes when running through unexplored wilderness,-jealousy of influence over native occupants of the soil, fear of encroachment, unperceived till too late, and so a constant, if silent, strife to insure national preponderance in these newly opened regions. The colonial expansion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is being resumes under our eyes, bringing with it the same train of ambitions and feelings that were exhibited then, though these are qualified by the more orderly methods of modern days and by a well-defined mutual apprehension,-the result of a universal preparedness for war, the distinctive feature of our own time which most guarantees peace."

To the argument that a navy for defence is all we shall ever need, Captain Mahan replies:

"In a certain sense we all want a navy for defence only. It is to be hoped that the United States will never seek war except for the defence of her rights, her obligations, or her necessary interests. In that sense our policy may always be defensive only, although it may compel us at times to steps justified rather by expediency-the choice of the lesser evil -- than by incontrovertible right. But if we have interests beyond sea which a navy may have to protect, it plainly follows that the navy has more to do, even in war, than to defend the coast; and it must be added, as a received military axiom, that war, however defensive in moral character, must be waged aggressively if it is to hope for success.

Another former Secretary of the Navy, Senator Chandler, ventures an imaginative glance at the navy of the twentieth century:

"According to my notion, it will be thought fifty years hence that six million dollars is too large a sum to risk in a single war-ship, and that it is better to build two or three of less size for the same money. I am strongly inclined to think, that, under twentieth-century conditions, two or three comparatively small fighting vessels, powerfully armed and very speedy, may do much more execution and accomplish more effective results than one huge floating fortress. One trouble about modern battle-ships is that they are apt to be obsolete by the time they are finished, and a few years hence we may find our boasted sea-fighters relegated to rust in the navy-yards, alongside of the old-time wooden frigates. It is the experience of foreign nations that any type of iron-clad vessel becomes so out of date in about ten years as to be almost useless.

"The use of the torpedo in naval warfare will be greatly developed in the course of the next fifty years. Of the employment of torpedo-boats I have always been a strong advocate; but the lessons of recent history point to the conclusion that small craft of this kind are too vulnerable to be of much practical service, unless for scouting duty, or to steal upon an unsuspecting foe at night. This latter move, indeed, is rendered almost impracticable by the detective search-light. Probably the torpedo-boat of the future will be of considerable size, and will carry a fair battery of rapid-fire guns, so as to be able to put up some sort of fight, while seeking a chance to deliver its more deadly and destructive missile.

"The ship of the future will possess an astonishing activity, traversing immense distances at a high rate of speed, and with a small consumption of fuel. A very notable point about our war-ships of the present day is their low fuel consumption on long voyages; but this has always implied slow going, the coal consumption running up with a startling multiple when speed is increased.

"If my theory be correct, the armored ship of the twentieth century will be regarded, like the mail-clad fighting man, as a relic of the past, and the war-vessel will take its chances in conflict, just as the soldier does to-day. Perhaps the war-ship may retain a light protective coat, very strong for its thickness, but the enormously heavy plates now in use will be dispensed with, simply for the reason that they interfere too much with the activity and serviceableness of the dirigible floating platform which carries the guns. Our new battle-ship, the Kearsarge, carries no less than twenty-seven hundred tons of armor, -- a weight so gigantic as to render her clumsy and sluggish.

"Already our own navy department has come to realize that armor has been overdone, and the thickness of the steel plates is to be much reduced in the newly ordered war-ships. This, unquestionably, is a step in the right direction.

"The increase of our navy depends wholly upon a determination to develop our merchant marine. If the latter is revived, our fighting force on the seas must be increased proportionately, and before the end of the twentieth century we are likely to find ourselves only second in rank among the nations of the world in respect to sea power, Great Britain still holding the first place. But commerce must come before a larger navy; for, lacking the pugnacity of Germany France, and Russia, we are not likely to build up a great fighting force on the ocean merely with a view to making ourselves formidable in a martial sense. Our first duty is to revive our carrying trade in ships suitable for naval service in time of war."

Senator Chandler's last remark suggests a recurrence, not strictly out of keeping with the subject in hand, to the keenly discussed question of paying bounties, to secure the growth of a merchant marine. Mr. Alexander R. Smith, writing in the Forum, in reply to a former Commissioner of Navigation, Captain Bates, closes his argument thus:

"The present Commissioner of Navigation estimates that the bill (before the Fifty-sixth Congress) will never involve payments from the national treasury exceeding nine millions of dollars, and that the average will be from five to six millions of dollars for twelve or fifteen years. This measure conformed to the recommendations in the President's annual message, and to those in the reports of Mr. Gage, the Secretary of the Treasury, and of Mr. Chamberlain, the Commissioner of Navigation. The bill had the support of members of both the great political parties in Congress. It was reported without opposition from the Senate Committee on Commerce, and was favorably reported by the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. If it should become a law, and its provisions should be accepted by our ship-owners, present and prospective, these will be compelled to construct at least 600,000 tons of new shipping in American ship-yards within five years.

"The United States is now confronted with the fact that the ships of other nations are built more cheaply and operated for less money than are American ships. In addition, foreign nations pay to their merchant shipping subsidies, subventions, and bounties aggregating $25,000,000 a year. If American ships are to compete, their owners must be fortified to meet the unequal conditions against them; while the aid that will be given by future ships and seamen in the event of war makes compensation doubly justifiable. Such aid will give us, as Thomas Jefferson once said in a great state paper, the home-build ships and citizen seamen essential to the national defence. It will not lead us into any of those diplomatic tangles which are inevitable when the policy of discriminating duty is adopted; and the bounty system, being patterned after foreign policies, will necessarily estop foreign governments from offering objection to its adoption."

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