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Kellogg. Cruisers and Sanity

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

The public opinion in America which concerns itself with the promotion of peace is extraordinarily short-sighted and short-memoried. At the moment it is utterly engrossed, completely sold, and passionately enthusiastic over the Kellogg Treaty. Now I have some quarrel with Mr. Kellogg but none with his treaty. As a Christian Science treatment for an inflammation of the bellicose vein it may at some future date come in usefully.

Mr. Kellogg displeased this very class of opinion by the Karolyi exclusion; his treatment of Mexico (before his primary attention was directed elsewhere) was certainly provocative rather than pacific and did not particularly rely upon the principle of arbitration of differences which is the inevitable corollary of any, such arrangement as the Pact of Paris; the fact that Mr. Kellogg seems to have redeemed himself completely by this one gesture simply proves the postulate with which this article began.

Now in delivering itself to the service of Mr. Kellogg, Professor Shotwell, President Nicholas Murray Butler and their new-born treaty, the bloc of public opinion to which I am referring has completely forgotten that child of Mr. Borah and Mr. Hughes (paternities in these matters are communal) which it so fondly adopted but a short eight years ago. That child’s name was the Naval Limitation Treaty. Perhaps as a sturdy youngster he ought now to ‘fend for himself. But the fact is that his clothes don’t fit, he doesn’t get on with the other boys, teacher is displeased; in fact the lad may. flunk out completely if he isn’t given some immediate and drastic attention.

However, let us not criticise either his parents or his foster-parents too harshly. Having sent the boy away to school they have naturally relied on teacher. In the absence of a report from teacher that anything was wrong, they have confidently gone about their own (and other people’s) business.

The metaphor has now led us far enough; let us drop it and seek to prove ourselves practical pacifists by facing the realities of the situation—realities about which, for reasons to be presently explained, we have been kept more or less deliberately in the dark by the School Administration.

In 1921 the Washington Treaty met with practically no opposition; in fact it aroused an enthusiasm similar to that which today supports the Kellogg Treaty. From this fact our easy optimism has taken it for granted that a willingness for mutual naval limitation can be taken as a settled American policy. To this type of thought Geneva was just a setback: the whole business probably badly handled; sometime later, perhaps when the time came around for the renewal of the Washington Agreement, this cruiser business would all be ironed out.

Educated opinion then is unconcerned. But the plain man is beginning to have his doubts. Suspicion and distrust cloud his serene acceptance of seven years ago. The Hearst papers and even certain more responsible organs of wide circulation are conducting a campaign, developing through editorial, headline, and selection of news a line of popular thought which may result in making any continuation even of battleship limitation in 1936, when the Treaty expires— let alone any extension of the principle to smaller craft— more difficult than was its actual inception in 1921.

Why? The situation existed before the British and French contrived to aggravate it through their foolish and abortive “accord.” But outside of this affair none of the orthodox reasons for international irritation seems to apply. There has been no official inspiration to this press campaign. Since the Irish settlement, twisting the lion’s tail has largely gone out of fashion. Debt payments and immigration restrictions do not trouble; the rubber controversy has been forgotten. Furthermore, it is apparent that everywhere but in this naval controversy, extreme con-ciliatoriness is the mot d’ordre in the British official, semiofficial, and press attitude towards us. To be sure, it is hard to teach an old lion new tricks, but the former lord of the international jungle has taken to jumping through the hoop with a very fair degree of spontaneity and in time may take satisfaction in the perfection of his technique if not in the act itself. No, the real conflict is not the apparent one between the Navy Department on the Mall at Washington and the Admiralty at Whitehall. The real irritant is not foreign but domestic.

It is an odd situation, a political paradox of the first water. The neglect of the Administration has reduced our defenses, naval and military, to an unwarranted degree; Dr. S. Parkes Cadman of the Federal Council of Churches, Frederick J. Libby of the National Council for the Prevention of War and other extremists are and have been straining every nerve to keep them in that condition, and the result has been that to some of us practical pacifists an energetic campaign for a rectification of these conditions has appeared to be vital. It is this campaign, not of our seeking but forced upon us, which has necessarily unsettled the public mind throughout the land, and particularly has tended to alarm the British, who failed entirely to understand the situation in this country—small wonder, as most of us have failed to understand it ourselves.

Mr. Coolidge came to the Presidency from a long career spent exclusively in local, not national, political life. Entering the White House, economy became his cardinal policy. Two paths to this end lay before him. The one involved the reorganization of all the bureaux, departments and independent agencies of the Federal administration. This project had long been mooted in governmental circles and a Commission headed by the Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Brown, had actually worked out a plan. But its execution would inevitably stir jealousies, animosities; innumerable sleeping dogs, seen and unseen, would rise to bark and bite. Besides, results would not be immediate. Taft had made a well-intentioned effort in this direction—and the results were negligible.

Politics, even Presidential Politics, being what they are, it is small wonder that this orphan of the Harding administration—despite the legitimacy of its parentage — was quietly dropped into oblivion and the other path, the short cut, to economy followed instead.

This short cut was simplicity itself: reduce current expenses. But in many places these were hard to cut. Business men, farmers, exporters, and others whose interests were affected strongly protested against economy at the expense of various civil Federal activities. There remained, already in process of deflation but available for more, the Army and the Navy.

In both Great Britain and the United States a general apathy on military matters always follows a war. But in addition an unusual combination of circumstances permitted the Administration extraordinary latitude in its financial policy towards the services. Annually the Treasury issues an estimate of the Federal income for the coming year. The extreme conservatism of these estimates made it easy to hold down appropriations to balance; the generous surplus which invariably resulted from such legerdemain was then offered to the audience—like a rabbit out of a hat—in the form of income tax reduction. And like a good magician’s trick it was repeated for several seasons without any signs of weariness on the part of the public.

Again, so far as the Army and Navy have political support it normally comes from the Republicans of the East.

But the attitude and origin of the head of the Party paralyzed this source of support. Meanwhile such public interest as existed regarding national defense was distracted by the Mitchell Controversy. As a result of the oil scandals a new Secretary of the Navy came into office who has shown few if any signs of upholding the interests of his Department even within the proper bounds of loyalty to the President.

But the great and new instrument in the hands of the President in enforcing his policy was that provision of the Budget Act which prohibits any, official, once the Budget was announced, from advocating any increase in any appropriation. As the Budget hearings are always in camera, the practical application of this provision was to keep from both Congress and public any expression from the services of what their needs might be. Increasing the practical efficacy of this gag was the fact that for a long time Congress was not aware of it and the public is hardly aware of it yet.

The system worked smoothly. But it had unforeseen consequences. Reduced to silence, divorced from their normal support, the responsible officers of the Army and Navy found unexpected new allies. Prior to the war the civilian with military leanings found an outlet for his hobby in the National Guard. But the Guard had a feud of long standing with the Regulars, it was rather a thorn in the flesh than a source of support to the War Department. The war however produced a large fresh crop of enthusiasts who enrolled not in the Guard but in the Officers’ Reserve. To these the War Department, in accordance with the national defense act, offered among other things summer training periods on an active duty basis.

Now the Director of the Budget, pruning his limiting total, might have cut down on shot and shell for target practice, coal for manoeuvers, funds for experimentation, to his heart’s content and the Regulars would have been forced to grieve in silence, and alone. But he went further, cut down the Reservists’ training quota—and the cat was out of the bag. For the more actively interested Reserve Officer is the type of man who attends luncheon meetings, serves on committees, knows who his Congressman is, and lets his Congressman know it.

The protest was carried to Washington. Ex-service men in House and Senate became interested and the whole policy, of silently trimming service needs was brought out into the open.

Other developments gave impetus to the agitation. The Director of the Budget, after all, a parvenu in the official hierarchy, had waxed fat and kicked the shins of a Congress jealous of its prerogatives in civil as well as military matters. It was alleged that the dirigible “Shenandoah” had burned because an appropriation for non-inflammable helium gas had been refused as too expensive; and when the “S-4” sank the press carried the report that requisitions which her Commander had previously made for soda-lime to purify the air in just such a case, had been denied as not available “during the current fiscal year.”

In the meantime, General Hines, a good but silent soldier of the old school, retired as Chief of Staff and there succeeded him General Summerall, whose record as Commander of the First Division entitles him to a respect which his sincerity and eloquence have enhanced before both Congress and public. On an inspection tour General Summerall referred to the Army’s housing needs. He was peremptorily summoned back to Washington. The summons was itself a reprimand—and it was to be followed by another. But for once its customary caution had deserted the White House. Press and public showed an unexpected capacity to discriminate between Rear Admirals rushing into delicate subjects where angels feared to tread and a gallant soldier speaking from the heart on behalf of his fellows. Between the time General Summerall left Denver and arrived in Washington the Official Spokesman discovered that his remarks had been “incorrectly reported.” . . . It was not General Summerall who was rebuked.

Interspersed with these strictly domestic developments came episodes affecting the execution of the treaty. While naval parity is measured by the total strengths of the respective battle fleets, not by individual units, yet the launching of the “Rodney” and the “Nelson,” coming well after that of the last American units and of greater size and power, was unhappily pervertible into an illustration of American inactivity. The British protest on gun-elevation was quite mild but as reported in the American press it was the signal for retired Admirals to burst into impassioned defense of the American position. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy intervened too with a boutade, a Rooseveltian gesture but without any Rooseveltian effects, and Administration obstinacy kept the issue to the fore.

But given a state of public opinion normally satisfied regarding national defense such incidents would have automatically remained in true perspective.

Finally the dam broke and in flat defiance of the President, Congress voted cruisers. Then came the hastily summoned Geneva Conference.

Heading our delegation to Geneva was Hugh Gibson, a leading light in the new-risen school of American “career” diplomats but without the prestige of a Hughes to keep the professional navy men in check—selected moreover for the task because of his success at the League of Nations Preparatory Commission the year before in staunchly upholding the Administration’s views on the disarmament question. Hardly the man to effect an agreement.

But while the personalities involved—or the lack of any bigger personalities—may have been a factor, they could hardly have been the decisive factor in the failure of the Conference. The reasons for the failure have never been revealed. General Dawes has diagnosed them as a neglect to take ordinary diplomatic precautions and compare views in advance. This obiter dictum may have been based upon private knowledge or it may simply be the shrewd guess of our most successful international conferencier. Knowing British tenacity, conservation, and belief in sea-power, an alternative hypothesis might be formulated — that of a conservative British government sympathetic, particularly in the person of Lord Robert Cecil, when approached in preliminary private conversations yet at the end unwilling to take the icy plunge of baptism when led to the bank. . . . The inevitable passage of time and the equally inevitable appearance of the memoirs of British statesmen will ultimately elucidate this point. But for the purposes of the present it suffices to note that the Administration put two obstacles in its own path. The first was its generally hard-boiled attitude towards former efforts at international co-operation; it had lost the knack of give-and-take. The second obstacle, taken in conjunction with the first, indeed seems paradoxical—the President’s unsatisfactory previous record on naval construction had stimulated a public opinion suspicious not primarily of what the British might ask but of what the Administration might concede.

With the failure of the Conference an active American naval program became inevitable. But the Secretary of the Navy, who formerly had been satisfied with anything, now asked for everything. The in judiciousness of his professional advisers can be discounted, an accurate sensitiveness to public opinion has never been their forte. And besides, from long experience they probably expected whatever was presented to be trimmed down anyway. The President’s motives in the matter however are still obscure. Did he perhaps wish to wash his hands of the matter and see the big navy enthusiasts hoisted, as he had been so recently, with their own petard?

At any, rate still another opportunity was let slip to deal with the matter along moderate and non-irritating lines.

Since Hughes at the Washington conference we have fumbled without leadership in this business. Some of us, kindling among difficulties a fire out in the open to cook a simple domestic goose (when our household staff refused to attend to the matter for us) now see a shift in the wind threatening to bring on a forest fire.

For British opinion—particularly educated opinion—is beginning to show a definite reaction. It is conscious of the weight of empire, it knows first-hand what naval supremacy means; bread and butter, no less. And it is intimately in touch with the official point of view. “Cousin Bertie at the Colonies thinks—,” or “Sir Francis of the F. O. whom I had lunch with today at the Club says . . .”

Now Cousin Bertie or Sir Francis simply cannot conceive the entirely casual attitude of even educated American opinion, not on national defense in general but on the reaction which any American action on armaments is bound to have somewhere else. In discussing these matters he meets horn-spectacled American diplomats who speak the same language, wear the same clothes, and are even more in earnest about the business than himself. The Admirals convoying them are equally true to type. But what he cannot see is, behind them, a public of business men, college professors, suburbanites, which, despite the education on foreign affairs it has received since the war, is still vastly more exercised in its serious moments with municipal graft, prohibition, farm relief, public improvements, the school trustees, and in general the perpetual three-ringed circus of American local, state, and federal government.

Small wonder then that he finds in American actions, press and official utterances, evidences of a far more consistent and more disturbing policy than exists, except in the minds of a few bright young men in the Naval Intelligence Office. Small wonder that such specialists in look-ing-to-the-future as Mr. H. G. Wells have already rushed into print to achieve a scoop on the perfectly alarming idea of a “race for naval supremacy” with dark hints of the deadly parallel of Anglo-German rivalry before 1914. And in this they draw material from the excitement of our own pacifist and anti-militarist and anti-imperialist view-ers-with-alarm, a group of vociferants long since fairly appraised in England but with us a new phenomenon — the muck-rake habit gushing lavishly into new channels. But while warm words from The Nation upon the sinister and far-reaching designs of our “rulers” towards Mexico or Central America may fall flat North and West of Greenwich Village, yet, reprinted in Manchester, they suggest that the cousin across the Atlantic has a bad case of the imperialistic itch.

If the foregoing analysis is correct the moral should be plain. For the British it is simply to adopt a successful American military adage: “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.” Let them not deduce from the intransigence of our Rear Admirals nor from any paper programs that we are “rarin” to enter into a naval race. When, and not until, we actually appropriate in such increased proportions need they take serious notice.

For ourselves more positive action is needed. We know that at bottom we feel today about naval armament as we did when we promoted and accepted the Washington Conference. But the events since 1921 have unsettled public opinion, have led many to believe, sincerely, that any agreement to limit armaments will afford an excuse for further neglect of our already reduced establishments. The National Defense Act—involving a small standing army and a well organized reserve—and a Treaty Navy afford a “respectable posture of national defense,” a non-provocative and economical policy on land and sea. A consistent construction program with this end in view will prevent such flurries and vexations as attended the passage of the fifteen-cruiser bill, will positively prevent our sporadic efforts to catch up on past deficiencies being misinterpreted as hostile gestures.

If rationally lived up to, such a policy, will take this whole question out of national and, better yet, out of international politics. But if establishments on a moderate scale continue to be assaulted by the pacifists and neglected by the Administration as they have been during the past five years the issue will remain in politics. The patriotic societies and the reserve officers will have just grounds for further agitation. This agitation however will inevitably involve references to the superior degree of preparedness in other countries. It will thus arouse suspicion at home and suspicion abroad. . . . The agitators will be blamed but the real “big navy men” will be not those who conduct the agitation but those who make it necessary.

Let us fervently hope that wiser counsels may enter the minds both of the Federal Council of Churches and of the next Administration.


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