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Classics Review: The Building of a Navy

By: Patrick J. Garrity
March 26, 2013

In March 1889, a hurricane destroyed or disabled three American warships in the Samoan harbor of Apia, where they had been deployed to support the United States in a political dispute with Britain and Germany over the status of the islands. The accident left the United States without any effective naval force in the Pacific and revealed the weaknesses of the existing fleet, as the old warships had been unable to get to sea and ride out the storm. Advocates of a more assertive American foreign policy, to be underwritten by an expanded modern navy, seized upon the incident. A perfect political storm did seem to favor their cause. The new president, Benjamin Harrison, was a big-navy advocate, and for the first time since 1875 the Republican Party enjoyed clear majorities in both Houses of Congress. U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was completing his landmark book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, and his arguments were already circulating among such influential and would-be influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Harrison's secretary of the navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy.

Tracy, a decorated brigadier general during the Civil War, was an able politician and administrator who laid out the blueprint for a new American Navy in his Annual Report of 1889. Tracy's official statement placed the Harrison Administration squarely behind Mahan and the naval expansionist school. Although defense, not conquest, was the object of American national security and naval policy, Tracy argued that defense required a fighting force capable of engaging the fleets of potentially hostile powers. He evaluated the U.S. Navy as being inferior not only to such major powers as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany, but also to the fleets of Holland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, Sweden-Norway, and Austria-Hungary. The secretary recommended abandoning the past strategy of building commerce-raiding cruisers and coastal monitors in favor of creating a force of capital ships. Isolated successes against the merchant fleet of an enemy would not protect the American coast from bombardment by the enemy's main battle fleet. According to Tracy, the United States must be able "to raise blockades" and to "beat off the enemy's fleet on its approach," and to operate in the enemy's own waters and threaten its coast because "a war, although defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations."

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This strategy would require the development of a balanced naval force centered on 20 sea-going battleships. These capital ships would be divided into two fleets, one of which would be assigned to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts (twelve) and the other to the Pacific (eight). These battleships should be world-class in terms of "armament, armor, structural strength and speed." Speed was especially important because it allowed ships to determine when and where to engage the enemy. In addition, in a nod to conservative elements in the Navy and Congress, Tracy called for the construction of 60 fast armored cruisers, a large number of torpedo boats, and "at least twenty vessels for coast and harbor defense." To support the fleets, Tracy proposed to acquire overseas bases.

In the fall of 1889, the secretary also appointed a six-member Naval Policy Board to advise him on strategic and technical matters. The Board's findings, submitted to Tracy in January 1890, were leaked and generated a storm of controversy. The Board recommended a fleet of ten first-class, extended-range battleships (15,000 miles), capable of operations against the enemy and for attacking "points on the other side of the Atlantic;" as well as twenty-five battleships with lesser range, and a total of over 200 warships of various types.

Tracy disavowed the findings of the Policy Board, as did Congressional supporters of a large navy. This was a bridge too far for public opinion.

The chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Representative Charles Boutelle, drafted a bill which authorized the construction of three battleships, rather than the eight that Tracy proposed as the first step in his plan. At the suggestion of Republican Representative Henry Cabot Lodge, these were characterized as "sea-going coast-linebattleships" to emphasize their limited range (5,000 nautical miles). Boutelle described his intentions: "By building such ships, we should avoid the popular apprehension of jingoism in naval matters, while we can develop the full offensive and defensive powers of construction as completely as in the foreign cruising battleships in all but speed and fuel capacity." The 1890 naval appropriations would be an installment toward a much more ambitious program down the road, when public opinion had been properly prepared.

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Opponents of Tracy's plan argued that land fortifications and light cruisers remained the most effective instruments of defense for the United States in the event of war. To the extent that offensive operations were indicated, the U.S. Navy should adopt a counter-commerce strategy rather than a counter-force approach. They pointed out that the logic of Tracy's position required the United States to build a battleship force at least as large as that of its most likely opponents, Great Britain and France, which called for something like the Policy Board's program rather than the half-way measures of the Navy secretary. The expense of such a program was unwise in its own right. And by building a power-projection navy the United States would soon find reason to use it. Contrary to Mahan, there was no such thing as a decisive naval action. Tracy's critics argued that battleships themselves would soon become obsolete, due to advances in gun and projectile technology, over that of armor.

Lodge and the naval expansionists defended Tracy's position. If the United States was to claim its place as a world power and to defend the Monroe Doctrine against future European encroachment, then it must begin to act appropriately and build up a first-class navy.

In the end, Congress approved three sea-going coast-line battleships—as they were described, per Lodge—in what became the Oregon class, which included the Indiana and the Massachusetts. The House vote was 131 to 105; the Senate, 33-18. These battleships displaced ten thousand tons and mounted four 13-inch and eight 8-inch rifled guns. Their secondary armament included four torpedo tubes and many rapid-fire guns. Their speeds varied from 15.5 to nearly 17 knots, and their cost averaged $6 million per ship. This did not represent the great naval revolution that Tracy, much less the Policy Board, had envisioned. But the 1889 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, and the 1890 Naval Appropriations Bill, represented important signs that the United States, as Mahan put it, was indeed looking outward.