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National Affairs: Big Navy Battle

4 minute read

For the past month, ever since President Roosevelt demanded $800,000,000 above the regular Navy appropriation of $500,000,000, popular forums—from village stores to the U. S. Senate—have resounded with debate. Why does the U. S. need a bigger Navy? What kind of Navy should it be? Last week new verbal ammunition was discharged on the floor of Congress and in the White House.

Maverick Bombs. Most of the constituents of San Antonio’s flamboyantly talkative Representative Maury Maverick have never seen a battleship and never hope to see one. Said fiery Mr. Maverick to reporters last week:

“Airplanes can sink battleships and the bigger the battleship the bigger the mark. Japan, England and Italy know it. Why are the American people not allowed to know it . . . ?

“The existence of [Navy Department] reports on the vulnerability of an attacking fleet is not denied. I have been told that I could see the reports if I would keep them secret. . . . Obviously the secret is one that is being kept from the American people. . . . The same amount of money now being sought for big battleships, invested in pursuit planes and bombers, would make the United States invulnerable. If that is not true, let it be proved untrue.”

The explosive effect of these remarks was not due entirely to the fact that they revived the old argument whether capital ships are outmoded. The President proposes to build three of these $70,000,000 giants (besides two now building and two provided for in the 1939appropriations), and by opposing them Maury Maverick, leader of the pro-Roosevelt left-wing bloc, showed his independence. His distaste for both the Naval and recession policies of the Administration he summed up on the floor of the House, saying:

“We Democrats have got to admit that we are floundering. The reason for all this battleship and war frenzy is coming out: we have pulled all the rabbits out of the hat and there are no more rabbits.”

White House Dreadnoughts. The Naval experts’ reply to the Maverickattacks on the battleship as a weapon is simply that they are not true. Day after Mr. Maverick dropped his bomb, a retort was fired by Franklin Roosevelt, a lover, like his top admirals, of big ships. He told a press conference that he had been studying Naval reports, secret and otherwise since 1913, and that, if he had concluded therefrom that battleships were obsolete, he would not have recommended building new ones. When torpedo boats were invented and again with the development of undersea and aerial weapons, the President said, amateur strategists had declared that battleships were done for. As a professional ex-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was still convinced that they were the most effective seagoing armament extant.

Naval Big Guns. The argument about the relative value of plane and battleships boils down to a complex problem in strategy. In current naval theory planes are employed primarily not to sink rival battleships but: 1) to scout their position, 2) to disable them by bombing, 3) to direct the fire of their own ships which may be hull down over the horizon.

Last week, in testimony before the House Naval Affairs Committee Rear Admiral Arthur B. Cook, Chief of the Naval Bureau of Aeronautics, conceded, as had Chief of Naval Operations William Leahy two weeks before, that planes could conceivably destroy a battleship. But he insisted that this outcome of an air v. sea battle was by no means a foregone conclusion. The Navy’s air chief quoted the British Imperial Defense Committee’s retort to the theory that battleships areoutmoded—if the theory proves well founded, a government that builds no battleships will save money; if ill founded, the government will lose an empire. Meanwhile, other Navy and War Department officials pointed out that the only warship ever sunk by planes was the Pantry, whose limited artillery prevented it from being a satisfactory experimental guinea pig; that if England, Italy and Japan knew battleships were worthless, they would not be building them as fast as possible.

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