Sub Corner 26: Politics and the Interwar Period

“Hi Tautog! I was reading the sub corners and there’s something I don’t understand.

You said there’s a lot of politics about trying to ban submarines in the 20s and 30s. Can you tell us more about it?”

Oh boy. I love it when people actually read my dry and boring history stuff.

Okay. Let’s recap. After World War I, we had some ideas about who our biggest opponents might be. While there’s a bit of anti-Britain sentiment always lurking about, our primary consideration has actually been that of Japan.

Nominally speaking, the US was fairly friendly to Japan prior to World War I. For instance, public sentiment generally approved Japan over Russian actions and our public opinion definitely sided with the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war. However, Japan’s rising militarism and the attempts to conquer other countries was something we were very much against, and even before the Sino-Japanese War, this was already the case.

What’s more, remember that the Japanese received many of the islands formally owned by Germany. This includes the Marianas, the Marshalls, and the Carolines. Rightfully so we were concerned about these becoming naval bases (to be used to cut off US assets in the Far Eastern waters), and we had developed something you might know as War Plan Orange to fight the Japanese.

Because War Plan Orange dominated a lot of our naval thinking during that time, the submarine was in no real danger of going away, but it sure did come close a few times.

Now, where submarines came in was sort of a weird place. At first, we thought the submarine would just be used defensively. Something to keep our coasts clean and to keep the enemies off. World War I, however, showed us that submarines can be used to sink capital ships. So, a light bulb went off.

What if we made submarines to hunt down capital ships? This, by the way, is exactly what the Japanese did with their submarine force in World War II.

The navy built a bunch of S-boats and tried it out. This was 1921. Let’s see what happens if we could actually use submarines like so. That exercise ended SEVEN months later and the Navy basically said yeah, back to the drawing board. The S-boats were simply too slow for this purpose.

Reading the sub corners you’d have known that the fleet boat concept was coming into play. This is where we thought a bit more and went, well, what about commerce raiding? The U-boats did this to devastating effect during World War One. We could shape our submarine force out into a commerce raiding force. This would be deadly against an opponent like Japan.

Here is where we had our own internal conflicts. During 1920, Admiral Benson, the CNO, was vehemently against submarines, period. He likened the submarine to be that of poison gas, and argued passionately that the development of submarines was immoral. Many of the older admirals agreed with him. This, coupled with the depressing brought about during the Harding presidency, it seemed that the future of not only the submarine force, but the Navy as a whole was in question.

See, America during that time was very strongly pacifist. Many members of Congress and the citizenry asked, why are we building a large fleet when we’d never fight Britain, the French and Italians were pathetic, and the Japanese could never beat us (ha!) in anything?

Well, the submarine force had something to say about that. The good thing about American leadership at the time is that they were willing to hear alternative perspectives. At a time when General Mitchell was trying to prove that all you need were airplanes, the idea of a submarine becoming an important part of naval warfare was not wholly unthinkable.

What’s more, there IS the matter of Britain to think about. See, Special Relationship or not (that term wasn’t around in the 20s!), the British never really were comfortable with our own growing stature. Publicly, the British consider it near impossible that the US would go to war against Britain. Privately, however, they were more than concerned about the prospects of America beginning a military buildup. This was one that Britain, also suffering from her own economic depression, could not really match up.

You saw what happened at London. Here’s where the ironies lie. Ironically, Britain’s blinding hatred for the submarine may have contributed significantly to our own submarine force’s development. One of their most non-negotiable positions was that the submarine need to be outlawed. Even King George V ordered the Admiralty personally to try to see if submarines could be abolished in a note below.

We should press hard for the abolition of submarines

The US considered this for a bit, and instead argued for the following. Backed by France (who had every reason to mistrust the English at the time) the US and France proposed that each country be limited to 90,000 tons of submarine tonnage.

Britain buckled down and said no. Absolutely no submarines.

As America deliberated about how to respond to this, the French jumped in. The French delegation threatened to walk out.

The British then accused the French of supporting war crimes. In a move that many would find familiar if you follow politics, the British delegation found a quote from an anonymous but high ranking French naval officer who claims that the German’s U-boat campaign was “completely and absolutely justified” in the Great War.

This source was never proven to be true. Nonetheless, the British ran with it, and within the day the entire British delegation swore by the veracity of the statement.

The French, furious at the turn of the affairs, leaked the claim to the press.

We never did find out whether or not some high ranking French admiral really did support unrestricted submarine warfare. What we did find out was that at the time every political figure more or less jumped in and had something to say about the matter.

Nominally, it was the British accusing the French of desiring unrestricted submarine warfare, and the French claiming that it was either a straight lie (as it turns out, one of France’s national defense strategies does involve using submarines engaging in basically the same sort of thing the U-boats did against Britain) or that the French obviously had no such intentions.

The bigger question, however, was the underlying principle. Is the usage of a submarine legal and/or moral? Many voices in Congress argued that perhaps there should be some restrictions in the application of submarines. Some even proposed that the submarines followed old privateering laws in the age of sail, where submarines are only allowed to board and search an opponent’s ship in warfare.

The Navy, however, had a very strong response to it. In short, the USN considered the submarine to be a defensive craft, and that its value to the U.S. for shoreline protection and national interests was of “peculiar value.” The Navy made it in very clear terms that the submarine was both an effective and legitimate weapon, and any attempts to impose rules would not create the desired effect these Congressional critters want. Or, to put it in my words, the USN basically said to congress, instead of trying to limit submarines and create even more ambiguities about what’s allowed and what’s not (which, people will find ways around ANYWAYS), why don’t we work on preventing war, and in CASE a war happens don’t hamstrung our efforts?

Congress thought about this a bit and went, well, you know what. That’s a brilliant idea. You guys go figure out the submarines then.

So, the submarine force had a decade to test out ideas and policies and ship types. The initial plan for the submarine force to tag long the increasingly high-speed surface fleet got dropped, and instead we started to develop the submarine as an independent element of naval warfare. That’s to say, this is where (I’ve said it too in other sub corners) we first got the idea about using submarine for anything a high speed or high range scouting unit could do.

So, by the time the second naval treaty came along, we had a decade’s worth of experience to cement the position of the submarine in our naval forces. That’s basically how it turned out.