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Ship Building 1921-23 - Harding, Warren

Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality...." A group of Senators, taking control of the 1920 Republican Convention when the principal candidates deadlocked, turned to Harding. He won the Presidential election by an unprecedented landslide of 60 percent of the popular vote.

Republicans in Congress easily got the President's signature on their bills. By 1923 the postwar depression seemed to be giving way to a new surge of prosperity, and newspapers hailed Harding as a wise statesman carrying out his campaign promise--"Less government in business and more business in government." He did not live to find out how the public would react to the scandals of his administration. In August of 1923, he died in San Francisco of a heart attack.

The reversion of Congress to Republican control during the First World War and the 1920 election of Republican Warren Harding to the presidency signaled an end to the experiment with lower tariffs. To provide protection for American farmers, whose wartime markets in Europe were disappearing with the recovery of European agricultural production, as well as U.S. industries that had been stimulated by the war, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Tariff Act in 1921, followed a year later by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act raised tariffs above the level set in 1913; it also authorized the president to raise or lower a given tariff rate by 50% in order to even out foreign and domestic production costs. One unintended consequence of the Fordney-McCumber tariff was that it made it more difficult for European nations to export to the United States and so earn dollars to service their war debts.

Disillusionment with the war, international commitments that could lead to war, and economic uncertainty discouraged ambitious U.S. involvement in global affairs during the interwar period. The United States, however, did not retreat into complete isolation as the necessities of commercial growth dictated continued government support for overseas private investment that drove both American engagement with Latin America and the rebuilding of Europe in the 1920s. The United States also played an important role in international negotiations to set arms limitations and create pacts that aimed at securing a lasting peace.

Under the major naval building program began by Wilson in 1919 the Naval Act of 1916 was continued and expanded, with an emphasis back on capital ships. There was seen to be a need for a large fleet to protect both coasts, so construction planned to rival and eclipse the Royal Navy. But the American people sought a "Return to Normalcy" and did not support a Navy "second to none". The Republican Congress supported disarmament, and after Republican President Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920 this was the path he sought, including a sharp reduction in armaments and military spending. With little prospect in any event of Congressional appropriations to complete even the 1916 program, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes elected to bargain it away as part of negotiations to contain Japan.

Edwin Denby was Harding's Secretary of the Navy. During the war with Spain Denby served as a gunner's mate, third class, United States Navy, on the Yosemite. He was a member of the State house of representatives in 1903; elected as a Republican to the Fifty-ninth, Sixtieth, and Sixty-first Congresses (March 4, 1905-March 3, 1911); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1910 to the Sixty-second Congress. He enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps in 1917; retired as major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve in 1919.

With the coming of the new administration to the power in March, 1921, the economy note became more pronounced. The new Secretary, Mr. Edwin Denby, in general order dated June 30, pointed out that the Naval Appropriation Bill for the forthcoming year involved a substantial reduction, since the country demanded economy. He therefore ordered the strictest care and conservation in all matters, pointing out that the aggregate of small things could mount up to considerable totals. There must be no loss or wastage, even in matters as minor as small tools or nails. The Secretary's order was to be published at general muster aboard ships and posted on bulletin boards at Navy Yards and Stations.

There had been a major buildup of defense industries during the Great War, but, after the Armistice in 1918, the country quickly dismantled this industrial base in its haste to return to what President Warren G. Harding described as "normalcy." Defense production was negligible in the succeeding years. For example, naval ship construction, severely limited by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, slowed dramatically. This downturn coincided with a severe depression in the commercial shipping industry that began after World War I. From 1921 to 1928, contracts for the construction of merchant ships dropped from 178 to 9, and 11 of the 25 private U.S. shipyards closed.

On November 12, 1921, the five principal naval powers of the post World War I world convened in Washington D.C. to discuss naval disarmament. The United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan controlled the largest naval forces in the world at that time. Each came to the conference seeking an advantageous settlement. This was especially true in the case of the United States government, which wanted a naval disarmament agreement that could curb the capital ship arms race, particularly the increasing trend towards expensive battle cruisers, while also limiting Japanese expansion in the Far East.

The United States saw a potential threat from across both oceans. Britain had long been a dominant naval power, and was still warily regarded by naval planners all the way through the mid-1930's. The British controlled a far reaching network of colonies across the globe, which gave Britain many bases for naval operations. In a conflict against Britain, the US would have to steam considerably longer distances, with stretched supply lines. US planners hoped to curb the number of ships Britain was building, and also to maintain the tradition of having superior ships.

Japan was just becoming a threat. Japan's dramatic defeat of the Russian fleet in 1905 suddenly revealed Japan as a first class naval power. Although an ally during WWI, Japan's influence was steadily growing in the Far East, making US planners nervous about American interests around the Philippines.

To counter the Japanese, American naval strategists began planning for the development of naval bases in the Philippines and on Guam, in addition to the naval construction program authorized by Congress in 1916.

Realizing that their position in the Western Pacific was weak, the American military was forced to adopt a holding strategy. US Navy planners intended to be able to fight in two separate scenarios. The first was a two ocean war, with the US Navy on the offensive in the Atlantic, while on the defensive in the Pacific. The second was a one ocean war with the US Navy on the offensive in the Pacific.

The cornerstone of this strategy was the possession of a superior fleet, meaning a large number of battle cruisers capable of engaging and destroying Japanese cruisers. This was a cost that many American politicians were unwilling to underwrite. In this context, the Washington Naval Treaty can be seen as the lesser of two evils, with diplomatic intrigue replacing military might as the weapon of choice.

A review board to evaluate Navy shore establishments was appointed in September 1922 by Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, and was led by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, Commandant of the Fifth Naval District. The board was authorized to recommend those bases, yards, and stations considered necessary to maintain the efficiency and effectiveness of the fleet in both peace and wartime. The report of the Rodman board encouraged the expansion of the Navy's Narragansett Bay facilities for fleet use. The board also advised that recruit training activities on the Atlantic coast be centered at Newport's Naval Training Station, and the Torpedo Station and Naval War College be continued.

Edwin Denby served as Secretary of the Navy from March 4, 1921, until March 10, 1924, when he resigned in the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal. Teapot Dome was the popular name for a scandal during the administration of U.S. President Warren G. Harding. The scandal, which involved the secret leasing of naval oil reserve lands to private companies, was first revealed to the general public in 1924, after sensational findings by a committee of the U.S. Senate. Federal conservation policy in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, led to the creation of naval petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California. These reserves were tracts of public land in which it was intended that oil should be kept in its natural reservoirs, or domes, for the future use of the Navy. "Teapot Dome" originally acquired its name from a rock nearby that resembled a teapot.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:52:30 ZULU