Out of the Trenches (1918–1941)


On a cool Monday morning, the sun rose brilliantly over the Atlantic Ocean. Lieutenant Commander Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier scanned the horizon through his goggles. He faced a northeast wind while navigating an Aeromarine 39-B plane over the Chesapeake Bay. Inside Cape Henry, he spotted the U.S.S. Langley off the Tail of the Shoe shoal.

The pilot, who was known simply as Chevvy, intended to make October 26, 1922, a date to remember. Circling the Langley, he recalled the “precision landings” practiced in previous days at the Norfolk Naval Air Station. He reminisced about the tests and drills with Commander Kenneth Whiting, who chose “Boots and Saddles” – an old cavalry call to mount horses – for announcing “flight quarters” at sea. Although the U.S. Navy favored the first-class battleships, he admired what sailors called the “Covered Wagon” of the fleet. He glanced at the 5-inch, 51-caliber guns situated on either side of the vessel’s stern, where a white flag caught his attention. Without a landing signal officer for guidance, he neared the flight deck on his own.

Chevvy's converted seaplane began losing altitude in the descent toward the flight deck. His main gear lacked brakes or tail wheels. The shock absorber for his tail skid consisted of nothing but rubber bungees. Lacking instruments on his panel, he stared at the starboard. His final checks included the strap on his leather helmet. He listened attentively to the roar of the engine while increasing the power. His approach flattened, as he struggled to keep his nose high.

Upon hearing the sound of contact, Chevvy waited to exhale. The right wing of his plane dropped slightly, but he corrected in time for the hooks to catch the second wire. The pies and fiddle bridges that propped up the wire came crashing down and scattered in every direction. The axle hooks held after a short run, as did the tail hook. A high tail rise pressed the nose downward, which caused the propeller to nick the flight deck. To the delight of the crew, Chevvy accomplished the first arrested landing on a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Figure 11.1 Aeromarine 39-B airplane, 19 October 1922. Photo NH 93178, U.S. Navy Historical Center, Department of the Navy


No one at the time knew that Chevvy would die weeks later from a plane crash, even though aviators in the carrier detail, as one put it, were “here one day and gone or killed the next.” Whereas some veterans of the Great War dismissed them as “a crazy bunch of people,” a new generation incorporated striking innovations into the armed forces of the U.S. Their ingenious solutions to the problems of warfare enhanced not only technology and tactics but also military doctrines, organization, and planning. Officers and enlisted personnel made impressive strides during a period of minimal funding and public antipathy.

Throughout the interwar period, the American military jockeyed to gain advantages in a world of constant change. In the absence of European menaces to the western hemisphere, national interest in supporting a mighty Navy or Army waned. The U.S. did not join the League of Nations established by the Versailles Treaty, thus rejecting a chance to participate in a collective security system. Nevertheless, the nation exerted influence overseas through trade and treaties. Congress supported several arms reduction agreements with foreign governments, while President Warren G. Harding pledged a “return to normalcy.” To many Americans in the coming years, the best bet for peace was nonalignment with other Great Powers.

Americans knew that their nation represented one of the world's strongest, but they became disillusioned with what armed conflict meant. Because few citizens felt threatened by enemies abroad, neither Democrats nor Republicans supported a large military in peacetime. Rapid demobilization and federal retrenchment left U.S. forces in a state of unpreparedness. Empires remained intact during the 1920s and 1930s, while intellectuals rallied to the noble cause of pacifism. However, visionary officers in the War and Navy Departments imagined the outbreak of future wars in Europe and Asia. Despite the nadir of the Great Depression, Americans in uniform found ways to refine their missions for a second, even greater, world war.

Soft Power

In the years following the Great War, the U.S. appeared aloof from international affairs. Dismayed with overseas adventures, Americans rejected the entanglements of European alliances while calling for disarmament by the Great Powers. Though indifferent to the League of Nations, officials in Washington D.C. touted the comity of “soft” power rather than the coercion of “hard” power. As the armed forces returned home, the Army and the Navy retained only the personnel and the equipment required for peacetime contingencies.

Passed by Congress on June 4, 1920, the National Defense Act redesigned the “Army of the United States” for peacetime. Colonel John McAuley Palmer, an advisor to the Senate's Military Affairs Committee and the author of An Army of the People (1916), shaped key provisions of the law. Most members of Congress, however, rejected his recommendation for universal military training. The final version replaced an expansible force with a pluralistic system of voluntary service that demanded varying degrees of readiness. Organized into three components, the Army contained a regular force, a civilian-based National Guard, and an Organized Reserve.

In addition to protecting overseas territories and providing border security, the regular force assumed primary responsibility for training the other components of the Army. The National Defense Act permitted some 17,000 officers and 280,000 enlisted men on active duty, although the absence of nascent threats in subsequent years kept manpower well below the authorized levels. Two years later, Congress made budget cuts that reduced the numbers to 12,000 officers and 125,000 enlisted men. Nevertheless, the plan for mobilization promised to raise more than 2 million soldiers if warranted. While most soldiers served in combat arms, policymakers regularized personnel in the Financial Department as well as for the Air and Chemical Warfare Services. Nine geographic corps of approximately equal strength assumed command and administrative responsibilities for military operations. Each included a regular division in addition to two National Guard and three Organized Reserve divisions. Henceforth, the division rather than the regiment provided the basic unit for organizing the Army.

With high regard for the National Guard, Palmer insisted that “great armies of citizen soldiers” mastered the skills for industrialized warfare. The National Defense Act envisioned a National Guard of 436,000 members, but its actual strength during the 1920s stabilized near 180,000. While responsible for curbing civil disturbances, the part-time units mirrored the Swiss model for an effective force on reserve status. The War Department supplied training officers, financial incentives, and surplus materials to the states. Complying with federal mandates, Guardsmen engaged in 48 drills at their armories along with 15 days of field training each year. By the numbers, the National Guard constituted the largest component for mobilizing and expanding the Army.

Though a smaller component, the Organized Reserves consisted of the Enlisted Reserve Corps and the Officers' Reserve Corps. The former promised to augment the Army with an enlarged pool of volunteers – mostly veterans with prior service in the military. In the latter, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, and the Citizen's Military Training Camp, or CMTC, permitted the commissioning of more officers as needed. Though formally established by law in 1916, ROTC programs at colleges and universities grew to 325 by 1928. Each year, they commissioned over 6,000 new officers as second lieutenants in the Army. Furthermore, the CMTC programs provided an alternative path to commissioning outside of higher education. With four weeks of annual summer training over a four-year period, more than 30,000 civilian volunteers participated in the camps. A forerunner of the Army Reserve, membership in the component reached 110,000 by the end of the 1920s.

At the same time, the National Defense Act charged the War Department with tight­ening oversight of all Army components. When General John J. Pershing became the Chief of Staff the next year, he reorganized the General Staff into five divisions: G-1 administered personnel, G-2 managed intelligence, G-3 handled training and operations, G-4 coordinated logistics and supply, and a new division dealt with war planning. Furthermore, National Guard officers began serving on the General Staff. While involving the Chief of Staff in the procurement process, Congress assigned the supervision of industrial mobilization to the Assistant Secretary of War. Consequently, the federal government spent only 2 cents out of each taxpayer dollar on the postwar Army.

While imposing uniformity across the postwar Army, training and education received greater attention than in the past. More than 30 branch schools provided advanced individual training for the regular force, the National Guard, and the Organized Reserves, even developing extension courses to supplement residential programs. West Point, ROTC, and CMTC furnished the basis for commissioning, but three general service schools formed the capstone of professional military education. The Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth provided exemplary officers with the requisite preparation for divisional command and staff positions. The Army War College as well as the Army Industrial College, which was established in 1924, prepared senior officers for leadership roles at the most advanced levels. Though unable to meet all the expectations of Washington D.C., the innovations in training and education improved the career ladder.

After redesigning the Army, officials in Washington D.C. created the “treaty Navy.” Alarmed by the growth of Japanese power, the Harding administration hosted an international conference to consider naval disarmament on a grand scale. From November 12, 1921, to February 6, 1922, delegations from nine nations participated in the Washington Naval Conference. Referring to the arms race on the high seas, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes pushed “to end it now.” The U.S., Great Britain, France, Japan, and Italy signed the Five-Power Treaty, which incorporated tonnage limits for battleships, heavy cruisers, and aircraft carriers. The signatory nations also agreed to a 10-year moratorium on capital ship-building and to add no more naval fortifications to the smaller Pacific islands. In addition, the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Japan signed the Four-Power Treaty as a pledge to respect one another's territorial claims. Finally, the Nine-Power Treaty gained pledges for the Open Door Policy in China. The treaties prompted the U.S. to scrap 15 capital ships and to halt construction on 11 more, even though the construction of other naval armaments continued.

As the decade closed, the U.S. participated in a new round of international conferences for limiting naval armaments. After meeting in Geneva and in London, the Great Powers eventually accepted constraints on cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The multilateral agreements confirmed a unilateral “holiday” on building capital ships, which congressional cuts to defense outlays had already forecast.

The U.S. took a symbolic step to reduce the risk of war with another multilateral agreement. On August 27, 1928, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Premier Aristide Briand agreed to “condemn recourse to war” and to renounce it “as an instrument of national policy” except in self-defense. Also known as the Pact of Paris, the Kellogg–Briand Pact obtained the signatures of more than 60 nations. The Senate ratified “the harmless peace treaty” by a vote of 85 to 1, albeit with reservations regarding the assumptions of the Monroe Doctrine. Despite lacking a mechanism for enforcement, the fanciful idea of outlawing war inspired enthusiasm among Americans.

Though endorsing diplomatic commissions and rescue plans, Americans found that “soft” power failed to compel European nations to pay their war debts. The U.S. advanced billions of dollars to friendly governments during World War I, but France and Great Britain refused to make payments until they collected reparations from Germany. Additional loans from American bankers to the German government accomplished almost nothing. By the end of the 1920s, the burdens of the war debts left the world in an uneasy state.

A Winged Defense

Nothing propelled the American imagination more than the advancements in aviation technology. By the 1920s, military leaders expected “flying machines” to conduct support operations such as the pursuance of belligerent aircraft, the bombardment of enemy dispositions, and the observation of opposing movements. A handful of pilots challenged Army and Navy doctrines, however, even asserting that airplanes made armed forces on the land and at sea obsolete. Inspired by the writings of British General Sir Hugh Trenchard and Italian Air Chief Giulio Douhet, the champions of air power stressed the decisive role of aviation in winning wars.

General William “Billy” Mitchell, who briefly commanded the Army Air Services during the Great War, foresaw what he called a “winged defense.” After returning from Europe, he became a spokesman in the U.S. for the strategic concept of air power. The nation needed a unified, independent “air force,” he suggested, for command of the skies in war and peace. “The airplane is the future arbiter of the world's destiny,” he boasted. Indeed, the conventional weaponry in the American military seemed more suited to the age of the dinosaur. He posited that aerial assets enabled armed forces to destroy an enemy's “vital centers,” that is, their bases, factories, and cities. The potential for the swift but assured destruction of civilian targets made governments less likely to risk war, or so he opined.

On July 21, 1921, Mitchell staged a spectacular “mock” raid on an ex-German battleship anchored off the Virginia Capes. His squadron of bombers sank the Ostfriesland, but the Navy Department dismissed the demonstration. By dropping over 60 bombs on the stationary target, he defied the predetermined restrictions imposed by naval observers. His aviators conducted similar bombing runs in other tests, which underscored the capabilities of Army aircraft to sink the “unsinkable” under certain conditions. Unwilling to concede coastal defense to the battle fleets and the rear admirals, he made his case for air power in the press.

Eventually, the War Department transferred Mitchell to Fort Sam Houston in Texas and demoted the maverick to colonel. Because the General Staff refused to separate aerial operations from conventional missions, he complained that the inattention of Washington D.C. to aviation seemed “treasonable.” After the Navy airship Shenandoah crashed in Ohio, he recklessly blamed the non-flying brass for incompetence and negligence. “Brave airmen are being sent to their deaths by armchair admirals who don't care about air safety,” he stated to reporters. The Army court-martialed him for insubordination and found him guilty of the charges on December 17, 1925. He resigned his commission the next year but remained an advocate for air power thereafter. Even though his assessments of aircraft carriers missed the mark, his prophecies about long-range bombers largely came to pass. As a prolific writer and renowned lecturer, he detailed the rapid strides made in aviation around the globe and warned of Japanese plans to seize Hawaii, Alaska, and the Philippines.

Given the public sensation generated by Mitchell's agitation, President Calvin Coolidge organized a board under banker Dwight W. Morrow to review aviation policy. Consistent with the conclusions of previous reviews, the Morrow Board did not recommend divorcing aviation from the War and Navy Departments. Likewise, congressmen balked at the high cost of an aircraft fleet, landing fields, training facilities, and duplicate staff for a “winged defense.” After debating the recommendations, Congress approved the Air Corps Act during 1926. Without altering the command arrangements, it renamed the Army's Air Service as the Air Corps. The branch expanded to 1,514 officers, 16,000 enlisted men, and 1,800 planes, while adding an Assistant Secretary of War for Air Affairs and elevating aviators to the General Staff. Whatever the prospects of air power, the limited budgets and internecine rivalries made the airplane little more than a tactical vehicle for years.

As the Army flyers contemplated a grand strategic doctrine, their counterparts in the Navy made practical gains in aeronautics. The Naval Air Service adhered to the unglamorous notion that aviators merely complemented the battle fleet, which placed them in support roles during maritime operations. Nevertheless, prominent officers such as Admiral William S. Sims believed that the proliferation of airplanes foreshadowed a revolution in naval warfare. As flying moved into the mainstream, graduates of Annapolis began receiving compulsory training in aviation after an initial tour at sea. By law, naval airmen assumed command of air stations, training posts, seaplane tenders, and aircraft carriers. Concerned about the presence of Japanese warships, the Navy worked the problems of tactical aviation that derived from planning thrusts across the Pacific Ocean.

Impressed by German airships in the Great War, the Navy appreciated the benefits of lighter-than-air operations with blimps and dirigibles. They extended “the eyes of the fleet” by scouting over vast oceans, although the slow-moving models proved vulnerable to stormy weather. Once Americans found a means to replace the flammable hydrogen with the nonflammable helium, the future of rigid airships appeared to brighten. For example, the U.S.S. Los Angeles made 331 flights after its commissioning by the Navy in 1924.

Though not a Navy flyer, Rear Admiral William A. Moffett became the Navy's Chief of the new Bureau of Aeronautics after 1921. Under his effective leadership, the Bureau refined concepts for tactical aviation, improved designs for aircraft construction, managed relations with key industries, and obtained funding for aerial assets. He insisted that a bombing attack launched from aircraft carriers “cannot be warded off.” Colleagues dubbed him the “air admiral” before 1933, when he perished in a crash of the dirigible, the U.S.S. Akron.

Throughout the 1920s, admirals at sea recognized that air superiority combined with battleship firepower potentially spelled doom for an enemy's fleet. Naval disarmament notwithstanding, the “treaty Navy” did not curb the striking capabilities of airplanes in the battle line. The shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, converted a coal collier named the Jupiter into the first U.S. aircraft carrier, which was re-commissioned as the U.S.S. Langley on March 20, 1922. Congress soon funded the outfitting of two more carriers, the U.S.S.Lexington and the U.S.S. Saratoga. Consistent with the teachings of the Naval War College, the aviators took to the skies to defend the fleet and to harass their foes. With just the bare necessities, naval aircraft evolved into ship killers.

An effective air strike required not only technical improvements in naval aircraft but also significant increases in sortie rates. For takeoffs and landings, no more than one airplane was on deck at a time. Captain Joseph M. Reeves, who took command of the fleet's aviation in 1925, called upon pilots and crewmen to find faster ways to launch and to return. Nicknamed the “Bull,” he pushed their limits by demanding answers to “Reeves' Thousand and One Questions.” Initially, it took 35 minutes to land 10 aircraft. After eight months of trial and error, the same number landed in only 15 minutes. A fighter squadron on the Langley completed 127 landings in a single day. Most of the hands-on training occurred at the squadron level, which fostered cohesion without standardization. While testing aeronautics through war games and fleet exercises, Americans began to abandon British techniques and to develop their own.

Americans earned their wings in the “golden age” of aviation, in which improvisation seemed routine for pilots. With open cockpits, they were exposed to uncertain elements in every flight. They confronted adverse conditions and conducted night operations at high speeds. A few became celebrities by winning air races and setting competition records, while scores lost their lives in accidents. Whatever the risks, the Navy and the Army found a long line of daredevils thrilled about the chance to fly.

From Ships to Shores

Owing to the fluid nature of naval warfare, Americans endeavored to improve the quality of fleet operations with secure formations. No longer steaming in single file, the circular shape became the standard formation for a battle line. Concentric rings of cruisers and destroyers screened the advance and the approach, while the gunnery of the battleships and the airplanes of the carriers engaged from the center. The heavy warships concentrated their firepower on the enemy's dispositions, thereby giving command of the sea to the Navy.

The Navy expected the “gun club” of admirals to prevail against all enemies, although the disarmament treaties of the 1920s restricted the tonnage of the capital ships. The enlisted strength remained around 80,000 sailors, while budgetary constraints deferred plans for the maintenance and modernization of shipboard batteries. The 87 four-stacker destroyers began showing their age. The planned construction of additional heavy and light cruisers languished. A “fleet train” of auxiliaries offered mobile support beyond Pearl Harbor, but it amounted to a handful of outdated oilers, troop transports, supply vessels, and repair ships. In fact, the commissioning of new ships for the fleet exacerbated manpower shortages. Authorized by Congress in 1930, the U.S.S. Ranger represented the first vessel that the Americans built as a carrier from keel to deck. However, the baby flattop lacked armor and displaced a mere 13,800 tons. As the Japanese government made end runs around the agreed-upon limits, the U.S. struggled to find ways to balance the fleet.

Below the surface, the Navy deployed the first fleet boats, that is, the “S” Class submarines. Technological advances enabled underwater vessels to cruise away from shores while supporting the battle line. Their improving speed, range, and inhabitability allowed them to accompany the fleet on voyages, which incited debates about their utilization. Patrols lasted as long as 75 days and reached as far as 12,000 miles. Nevertheless, sub crews faced perils such as carbon monoxide from diesel engines and chlorine gas from the salt water and electric batteries. If they dived at too steep of an angle, then pressure crushed the hulls. Equipped with six to ten torpedoes, submarine captains tracked enemy ships with little more than a periscope and slide-rule devices. By 1930, the Navy Department counted only 26 fleet boats among its submarine assets.

Administered by the Navy Department, the Marine Corps conducted a variety of missions from ships to shores. After World War I, they performed constabulary duties in Nicaragua, Hispaniola, and China. Regiments went ashore with increasing frequency, even though they numbered no more than 20,000 men. The Advanced Base unit at Quantico, Virginia, reorganized into the Expeditionary Force, which participated in the first large-scale landing exercise in Panama. Their paramount tasks involved the seizing, holding, and maintaining of forward bases for the Navy. Furthermore, a Marine report titled the “Strategy and Tactics of Small Wars” offered guidance for special operations in Central America and the Caribbean. Captain Lewis “Chesty” Puller became known as “El Tigre” while fighting guerrillas in a tropical environment. The commandant, General John A. Lejeune, averred that “the major wartime mission of the Marine Corps is to support the fleet by supplying it with a highly trained, fully equipped expeditionary force.”

In respect to Lejeune's goals for the Marines, amphibious assaults represented a theoretical rather than a practical problem. His protégé, Major Earl “Pete” Ellis, authored Operation Plan 712D, which he titled “Advanced Base Force Operations in Micronesia.” His prescient study imagined the seizure of island bases, even though military experts dismissed ship-to-shore movements as all but impossible. Undaunted by the famous British disaster at Gallipoli, he held forth on the procedures for a successful attack from the sea. “In order to impose our will upon Japan,” he wrote in anticipation of the future, “it will be necessary for us to project our fleet and land forces across the Pacific and wage war in Japanese waters.” Accordingly, he estimated the troop levels and the fire superiority required for the landings on defended beaches. However, he mysteriously died in 1923 while visiting the Japanese-mandated island of Palau. In light of his pioneering work, the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico began to provide instruction on amphibious assaults.

By making amphibious assaults their specialty, the Marines moved into the vanguard of fleet operations that established beachheads. Waterborne offensives against land-based fortifications, which hurled men against machine guns, heavy artillery, and sea walls, appeared rife with perils. Nonetheless, officers worked the problems of the complicated logistics in combined exercises. Their tests of amphibious equipment disappointed all too often, but the effective concentration of naval gunfire and air strikes proved feasible. They grasped that a ship-to-shore movement was no simple ferrying operation but a vital part of the attack itself. Because achieving a tactical surprise seemed unlikely, they focused their energies on the advantages of thorough preparation and proficient communication. By 1927, the Army-Navy Joint Board assigned responsibility to the Marines for developing the techniques to conduct landings.

After attending the Naval War College, Lieutenant Colonel Holland M. Smith contributed significantly to reworking the plans for landings. By 1932, he served as the fleet Marine officer of the battle force on board the U.S.S. California. During the combined exercises off the coast of Oahu that year, he watched as men scrambled over the coral and waded through the surf. Afterward, he lamented that “the suppositional enemy would have wiped us out in a few minutes.” Like other Marine officers of the interwar generation, he engaged in a long yet successful battle to make innovations in naval tactics for assailing supposedly impregnable beaches. “Howlin' Mad” Smith continued to rise through the ranks, eventually earning accolades as the “father of amphibious warfare.”

The most visible advance in amphibious warfare occurred in 1933, when the Navy Department recognized the Fleet Marine Force, or FMF. General John H. Russell, who soon became the commandant of the Marine Corps, suggested a plan for a unit that operated under the control of the fleet commander. With approval from the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson issued General Order 241 to define the FMF. Henceforth, the few but proud Marines comprised an integral component of the fleet operations.

After more fine-tuning, the concerted effort of the Marines culminated in the promulgation of an amphibious doctrine. At Quantico, the faculty and students synthesized more than a decade's worth of reports into the 1934 publication of the “Tentative Landing Operations Manual.” Four years later, the Navy adopted it as Landing Operations Doctrine, or Fleet Training Publication 167. Whether serving afloat or ashore, members of the armed forces later recognized the text as the military equivalent to Holy Scripture.

While the doctrine won converts among military leaders, technical difficulties undermined the best-laid plans for landings. The high command touted the key principle of “combat loading,” which required the efficient delivery of all personnel and assets for the ship-to-shore movement on a strict schedule. However, the Marines needed special landing craft as well as new amphibious vehicles to “swim” ashore. Over time, technological changes resulted in the Higgins boat and the “Alligator” tractor. Issues remained in regard to fire support from the air and the sea, which presented quandaries for the Navy. Marine aviators pleaded to form more fighter squadrons to complement the boots on the ground, while Marine infantrymen pressed the battleship gunners to use more bombardment shells with heavier bursting charges. Compounded by a dramatic economic downturn in the U.S., federal parsimony made it difficult for the Navy Department to build a war machine for the Pacific theater.

During the interwar period, the Navy Department appeared resourceful with every imaginable aspect of fleet operations. In collaboration with crews manning the ships, the Marine Corps experimented with radio communications, day and night landings, smoke-screens and feints, concentrated salvos, dispersed infiltrations, and broad-front maneuvers. All agreed that the crucial elements for victory at sea were aggressive advances, individual initiative, and battle planning, which set the standards in the Navy for decades to come.

Our Economic Army

Once the Army demobilized, Americans made few efforts to prepare for another war. The surge of pacifism and the desire for disarmament stalled the strategic initiatives of the War Department for more than a decade. Congress largely ignored the recommendations of the General Staff for arming the forces, which left the rank and file in a poor state of readiness.

Chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion rallied veterans across the U.S. on behalf of military affairs. Becoming the most prominent veterans' organization in the nation, it emerged as a powerful lobby in state and federal politics. Members resolved to foster camaraderie as well as to promote patriotism. Some posts sponsored vigilante measures during the Red Scare, but most focused on school curricula and involved citizenship. Eventually, the American Legion became well known across the country for its baseball program.

The country also celebrated a civic-minded group of women known as the Gold Star Mothers. Their name derived from the display of a star on the houses of mothers who had lost sons in combat overseas. They served as the inspiration for countless speeches and public commemorations. Voluntary societies lobbied Congress to sponsor pilgrimages to Europe, which enabled grieving mothers to visit the graves of sons buried outside the continental U.S. In early 1929, Coolidge signed a bill that authorized the War Department to aid Gold Star Mothers traveling to American cemeteries in foreign lands.

American veterans and their families received desultory benefits from Washington D.C., which included programs for disability compensation, rehabilitation for civilian vocations, and insurance for the honorably discharged. Although Congress had maintained the Veterans Bureau since 1921, three different agencies managed the benefit programs and the 54 hospital facilities. Passed on July 3, 1930, the World War Veterans Act authorized President Herbert Hoover to form the Veterans Administration – the VA – in order to “consolidate and coordinate government activities affecting war veterans.” In accord with an executive order, the component agencies consolidated that year. General Frank T. Hines, the director of the Veterans Bureau, became the first administrator of the VA.

The federal government promised to pay veterans an adjusted compensation pension, but payment of the “bonus” was not scheduled for disbursement until 1945. Suffering from the Great Depression, over 20,000 veterans converged on Washington D.C. to demand early payment in 1932. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, which prompted the press to dub them the “Bonus Army.” Among the most popular military figures at the time, retired Marine General Smedley Butler visited the campsites in a show of solidarity. Nevertheless, the Senate refused to pass the “bonus bill” as approved by the House of Representatives. Likewise, Hoover vetoed legislation for unemployment relief. Many “Bonus Marchers” left the capital that summer, even though others remained near Anacostia Flats.

On July 28, 1932, policemen shot two “Bonus Marchers” while attempting to evict them from a federal building. Fearing an ugly riot, Hoover asked the Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, to restore order. With a force of 600 cavalrymen and infantrymen, he personally secured Pennsylvania Avenue that afternoon. Major George S. Patton drew his saber and helped to direct six tanks against campsites nearby. Furthermore, MacArthur exceeded his orders by proceeding to clear out Anacostia Flats with tear gas. The soldiers burned the shantytown and drove the “hobos and tramps” from the outskirts of Washington D.C. Approximately 100 people suffered injuries. Although the Army quelled the unrest in the capital, the “Battle of Anacostia Flats” tarnished the reputation of the commander-in-chief.

The nation turned to a new commander-in-chief that year. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who defeated Hoover in the 1932 presidential contest, stated boldly that “we are in the midst of an emergency at least equal to that of war.” He likened the Great Depression to the Great War, declaring his intention to lead “our economic army” in a different kind of campaign. Pledging “a new deal for the American people,” he issued “a call to arms” at the Democratic Party Convention. His first inaugural address expounded upon “the lines of attack” in the days ahead. Summoning a “unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife,” he vowed to command “this great army of our people” in a “disciplined attack upon our common problems.” In other words, the new president justified wielding power as “if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

Whatever the martial rhetoric of the New Deal, Roosevelt officially opposed reconsideration of the “bonus bill.” When the marchers returned to Washington D.C. to voice their protest, he provided them with sanitary campsites in addition to free meals. His wife, Eleanor, paid them a visit, even joining in a round of camp songs. As tensions abated, Congress overrode the president's veto and authorized the early payment to the veterans.

Congress in 1933 passed the Emergency Conservation Work Act, which established the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. The Roosevelt administration planned to take a “vast army of these unemployed” off the streets and to supervise them in building roads, constructing dams, reclaiming farmland, restocking waterways, managing wildlife, renovating parks, and planting trees. Though jointly administered by four cabinet departments, only the Army possessed the logistical capabilities to coordinate the peacetime program.

In the first year, the Army mobilized 310,000 civilians and organized 1,315 camps. Though limited by law to unmarried men aged 18 to 25, an executive order permitted 25,000 veterans to enroll. Despite opposition from MacArthur, the War Department assigned about 3,000 regular officers and many noncommissioned officers to oversee the civilians. By 1935, close to 9,300 reserve officers performed duties at the CCC camps as well.

While the Army neglected military exercises, the CCC activities eased the negative effectives of unemployment for some 3 million Americans. Participants in national service activities not only earned a living wage but also contributed to public works. The conditioning regimen involved immunization shots, good food, outdoor recreation, and daily calisthenics. Throughout the Great Depression, junior officers assigned to the CCC acquired valuable leadership experience while handling young men in uniform.

To the detriment of modernization schemes, the Great Depression foisted even more economy upon the War Department. The Industrial Mobilization Plan outlined steps to create a wartime system of mass production, but implementation depended upon robust appropriations. By 1934, the General Staff had established priorities for weapons upgrades pending congressional funding. For example, the M-1 Garand semiautomatic rifle gradually replaced the bolt-action rifles of the infantry. The Air Corps soon placed orders for the four-engine B-17 bomber with a 2,000-mile range. Even if the Army boasted about “rolling along,” the troops were not battle ready. The motorization program redefined horsepower on military installations, but soldiers grew frustrated with vehicle repair and maintenance. Although the Army fielded a wide variety of units, most trained without access to state-of-the-art technology.

Inspired by observing British armored forces, the Army began to experiment with new concepts for combining firepower with mobility. Shifting from larger “square” to smaller “triangular” divisions, the combat arms employed motorized transportation for greater agility and speed. Mechanization spawned faster tanks as well as self-propelled howitzers and combat cars. Senior officers continued making improvements to armored vehicles, suggesting innovations in radio communications and tank mounts. However, the doctrines for offensive maneuvers remained tethered to infantry assaults. Due to the high price of procurement, few exulted about mechanized warfare until the late 1930s. Consequently, General Adna R. Chaffee, Jr., took command of the Army's first armored force, the 7th Cavalry Brigade.

Another rising officer was General George C. Marshall, who earned his star in 1936. He oversaw CCC camps and trained National Guard units, but his talent seemed to shine most brightly inside the War Department. Staff officers referred to him as “a genius.” In Washington D.C., he developed a strong relationship with the New Dealer, Harry Hopkins. Before “Dr. New Deal” gave way to “Dr. Win-the-War,” Roosevelt anointed Marshall as the Army Chief of Staff.


War clouds appeared across the vast oceans, while the U.S. attempted to retain access to profitable offshore markets. The Roosevelt administration formally recognized the Soviet Union to encourage reciprocal trade. The State Department promoted the Good Neighbor Policy in the western hemisphere, which promised non-intervention by the American military. Because the dangers abroad seemed distant, Washington D.C. adhered to the notion of “Fortress America.”

Undeterred by the scolding of Washington D.C., Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931. Next, the Japanese Navy attacked Shanghai, China's great port city. Their indiscriminate bombing of civilians sparked international protests, but the Great Powers did nothing to stop the violence. After overrunning Nanking, Japanese soldiers massacred as many as 300,000 Chinese. As militarists gained prominence in the Japanese government, they withdrew from the League of Nations and renounced previous disarmament treaties.

While Japan remained unchecked in Asia, the economic collapse of Europe helped to vault totalitarians into positions of authority. In Italy, Benito Mussolini's Fascist government blended socialism with nationalism ostensibly to revive the Roman Empire. Adolf Hitler championed the Nazi Party and became the German chancellor by 1933. After receiving the title of Reichsführer, or “national leader,” he defied the Versailles Treaty by calling for German rearmament. Moreover, a civil war in Spain bolstered the regime of General Francisco Franco. While Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Nazi Germany occupied the demilitarized Rhineland the following year. Hitler consummated a strategic alliance with Mussolini under the Rome–Berlin Axis Agreement and reached out to Tokyo through the Anti-Comintern Pact. An international system based upon the rule of law appeared all but doomed.

Whereas the international system faltered, Americans urged policymakers to eschew Europe and Asia. A number of congressmen rallied behind a proposed constitutional amendment, which stipulated a public referendum on a war declaration unless the nation suffered a direct attack. According to the Senate hearings of the Nye Committee, international bankers and arms exporters dragged the U.S. into World War I for the sake of profits. Decrying the “merchants of death,” isolationists in Congress demanded peace at almost any price.

Beginning in 1935, Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts to avoid entanglements in foreign affairs. The first one banned the shipment of arms to all belligerents, thereby renouncing the uncertain principle of “neutral rights” to world trade. An extension prohibited making loans or giving credit to belligerents. The bloodshed in Spain compelled the enlargement of the U.S. “moral embargo” to cover civil wars. Another update made American travel on board belligerent vessels illegal. A “cash-and-carry” stricture also hampered exports of nonmilitary goods. With the president's endorsement, Congress fashioned a legal straitjacket to ensure American neutrality in armed conflicts.

Meanwhile, Nazi Germany demanded Lebensraum, or “living space,” in Europe. In early 1938, Hitler successfully pressed for the annexation of Austria. After threatening to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, he met with British and French leaders for the Munich Conference on September 29, 1938. In a policy later denounced as appeasement, they agreed to give him what he wanted in order to achieve “peace in our time.” Irrespective of the Munich agreement, German forces seized all of Czechoslovakia early the next year. On the heels of renewed Japanese aggression in China, Italian troops conquered Albania. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet premier, soon signed a mutual non-aggression pact with Hitler. Accordingly, they planned to carve up the Polish Corridor and the Baltic states between them. “Because of its neutrality,” Hitler snarled, “America is not dangerous to us.” On September 1, 1939, he marched into Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.

Roosevelt proclaimed official U.S. neutrality in World War II, although he summoned the Senate and the House of Representatives to amend the latest Neutrality Act. “I regret the Congress passed the Act,” he told them, adding that he also regretted “that I signed the Act.” A new law in 1939 did not incorporate all of his requested changes but nonetheless offered “cash-and-carry” terms for Great Britain and France to acquire war materials. The revision lifted the arms embargo, although it forbade American ships from transiting into a “danger zone.” While public support for neutrality remained solid, the Roosevelt administration intended to utilize every measure “short of war” against the Axis Powers.

The Roosevelt administration championed rearmament while pushing stimulus measures through Congress. Owing to the efforts of Congressman Carl Vinson, the Naval Act of 1938 expanded the battle fleet beyond the earlier treaty limits. Furthermore, naval aviation received a boost with the near-doubling of aircraft acquisitions. The next year, Congress authorized $300 million to help grow the Army Air Corps to 5,500 airplanes and 3,000 airmen. The fixation on trans-Atlantic flight and the fascination with strategic bombing underwrote most of the military calculations. In addition, anti-aircraft artillery moved to the top of the annual appropriations list. Federal expenditures supported the purchase of military assets under the guise of hemispheric security while underscoring American resolve in the face of gathering threats. Nevertheless, the commander-in-chief insisted to the War Department that “we won't send troops abroad,” telling staff officers to “only think of defending this hemisphere.” As weaponry flowed from factories, the American military attempted to assemble a balanced force with ground, sea, and air armaments disbursed in a proportional way.

At the beginning of World War II, the American military posed almost no immediate threat to the armed might of the Axis Powers in Europe and Asia. Japan, Italy, and Germany even pledged to defend one another if an uncommitted nation went to war against any of them. The U.S. lacked the will and the strength to ever fight a global, two-front war, or so the totalitarians presumed.

Under the Rainbow

With the U.S. and the Axis Powers on a collision course, Army and Navy planners touted no grand strategy for military action other than enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. The Joint Board of the War and Navy Departments recognized potential manpower and industrial advantages for America, yet the logistical challenges appeared daunting. During the 1920s and 1930s, a cadre of officers composed a series of color-coded plans for almost every military contingency.

While the war plans examined prospective adversaries in the interwar period, the power surge of Japan shaped War Plan Orange. Hence, the Army and the Navy predicted a Japanese–American conflict with initial holding actions by U.S. garrisons on Pacific islands. Thereafter, the battle fleet would fight its way across the blue waters to relieve the beleaguered bases in what amounted to the greatest maritime effort in military history. The eventual blockade of the Japanese home islands culminated with a climactic battle between capital ships. Even with joint operations in the offing, no one foresaw a landing to capture Tokyo. Whatever the flaws of the plan, an “Orange war” anticipated the mobilization of the military to retake American possessions and to defeat Japanese forces.

For years, the strategic concepts of an “Orange war” provided the subtext for most discussions about Japanese aggression. Every conceivable situation was analyzed in the “Orange” variations – including possible surprise attacks. Disagreements arose regarding the Philippines, which the Army wanted to hold. The Navy, however, doubted the prudence of dispatching reinforcements to Manila. Anxious about the great distances between safe harbors, the admirals bargained for ramping up battleship and carrier construction. In accordance with War Plan Orange, the bulk of the battle fleet deployed to the Pacific during the late 1930s.

War Plan Red contemplated the unlikely prospect of an armed conflict between Great Britain and the U.S. Given the prowess of the Royal Navy, planners suggested quick responses to an invasion of the continental U.S. while defending the Panama Canal and bases in the Caribbean and Latin America. One variant outlined scenarios for military action in Canada. In a “Red war,” the major thrusts of U.S. forces occurred in the Atlantic. The plan projected the dispatch of the battle fleet and expeditionary forces to protect the western hemisphere. However remote British antagonism seemed, a strategic defensive promised to frustrate their initial actions and to compel a negotiated settlement.

Though highly theoretical and quite problematic, the specter of a British–Japanese alliance inspired War Plan Red-Orange. Such a coalition threatened the wartime seizure of U.S. bases in the Pacific, a major test of the Monroe Doctrine, and a sustained attack on the Atlantic seaboard. In other words, a “Red-Orange war” forced Americans to face simultaneous offensives across the Atlantic and the Pacific against two powerful enemies.

With the multiple color-coded plans, the War and Navy Departments acknowledged that other enemies threatened national security. In fighting a single foe, Blue offered a generic defense of the continental U.S. Brown planned for the suppression of a Philippine insurrection, while Yellow involved an expedition to China. In general, Violet dealt with armed conflict in Latin America. Whereas Purple covered South America, Gray considered the occupation of Central America and the Caribbean. Tan and Green punctuated military action in Cuba and in Mexico, respectively. White detailed a military response to a domestic uprising in the U.S, especially if communist subversion transpired. With the rise of the Third Reich, War Plan Black revealed the implications of German aggression.

By 1938, the Army and Navy Joint Planning Committee compiled what it dubbed the Rainbow Plan to supersede the existing ones. According to Rainbow 1, the American military accepted responsibility for defending both the continental U.S. and the entire western hemisphere. Rainbow 2 and Rainbow 3 presupposed joint movements across the Pacific to defeat Japan, while France and Great Britain battled Germany. In the absence of allies, Rainbow 4 involved a battle for the Atlantic until improving circumstances permitted redeployments to the Pacific. Finally, Rainbow 5 moved some U.S. forces across the Atlantic to assist allies in Europe or in Africa while sending others to conduct a strategic defensive in the Pacific. Thanks to input from the Army War College and the Navy War College, the unrealistic visions of the joint planners gave way to a sharper focus on fighting the Axis Powers.

Meanwhile, German visions for blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” kept their opponents off-balance in Europe. After Hitler quickly swept into Poland and invaded Finland, nothing else happened during the “Phony War” of late 1939. The calm ended the next spring, when the Nazi juggernaut assaulted Denmark and Norway. Furthermore, German troops advanced into neutral Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg without pausing. Once the French army collapsed along the Meuse River, the British ally surrendered to Hitler on June 22, 1940. “We shall never surrender,” vowed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “until in God's good time the new world with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Stirred by the incantations of Churchill, Roosevelt moved the U.S. toward participation in the war against Germany. Specifically, he asked for a supplemental defense appropriation of $1.3 billion to build a “two-ocean navy.” While urging additional increases in the production of military airplanes, he secretly gave “first call” for new orders to London. That summer, merchantmen with arms and ammunition left American shores just before the Battle of Britain began. Military leaders posited that U.S. soldiers, sailors, and flyers needed the materials, but the Roosevelt administration rejected their advice.

Bypassing Congress, the Roosevelt administration consummated a “destroyers-for-bases” deal on September 2, 1940. The commander-in-chief sent 50 mothballed destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for its bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda. Privately, he worried that he “might get impeached” for making the transfer, which he ordered on his own executive authority. Without officially taking sides, Washington D.C. edged closer to belligerency.

As the prospect of belligerency loomed, Marshall began to forge the Army into a force capable of winning a protracted struggle. The National Guard along with the Organized Reserves activated for federal service. The War Department under Secretary Henry L. Stimson endeavored to outfit the troops. A new organization, the General Headquarters, took charge of training them. Gradual increases in military personnel gave the General Staff time to evaluate weapons, equipment, and tactics. Though falling short of Marshall's call for “complete mobilization,” Congress even approved a peacetime draft on September 16, 1940. Weeks after Roosevelt won re-election to a third term, the Army more than doubled in strength.

On November 12, 1940, Admiral Harold Rainsford Stark, the Chief of Naval Oper­ations, wrote a historic memorandum that reached the desk of Roosevelt. Forwarded by the Joint Planning Committee, it contemplated a global, two-front war against Germany and Italy on the one hand and against Japan on the other. For the benefit of the commander-in-chief and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, it described four optional scenarios, lettered A through D. It recommended option D, which took the name “Dog” from the military phonetic alphabet. Derived from Rainbow 5, the recommendation called for defensive measures in the Pacific while giving priority to offensive operations across the Atlantic. Simply stated, Plan “Dog” laid the foundation for U.S. forces fighting in Europe first.

With planning in motion for U.S. forces to enter the fray, high-level talks between American and British leaders occurred in early 1941. Their agreement to fight in Europe first became code-named ABC-1, that is, American–British Conversation Number 1. To buy time for the mobilization plan, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act on March 11. Accordingly, it authorized the president to provide materials to “any country” deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Nearing bankruptcy, Great Britain began purchasing munitions, ships, planes, vehicles, and supplies on credit. Roosevelt predicted with a buoyant slogan that the U.S. would become “the great arsenal of democracy.”

The totalitarians soon controlled most of Europe, where democracy all but vanished. On June 22, 1941, Germany assaulted the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. To divert Nazi strength away from the Atlantic, the U.S. extended Lend-Lease to Stalin's regime. Two months later, Roosevelt and Churchill met near Newfoundland to formulate a set of principles that constituted the Atlantic Charter. Endorsed by 11 nations battling the Axis Powers, the statement of belligerent aims insinuated U.S. involvement without commitment.

That summer, the U.S. began waging an undeclared war against Germany on the Atlantic Ocean. As far east as Iceland, naval patrols escorted convoys threatened by German submarine “wolf packs.” In addition, Americans accepted responsibility for the military air routes across the North Atlantic via Greenland and across the South Atlantic via Brazil. Troops landed in Greenland to protect the island and to build bases for aerial ferrying. Likewise, other units arrived in Iceland. After a German submarine fired upon the U.S.S. Greer, the president gave the Navy a “shoot-on-sight” order. Nazi crews torpedoed the U.S.S. Kearny and the U.S.S. Reuben James. At least 115 sailors died aboard the latter, which was the first Navy ship sunk during the war. Eventually, Congress repealed the prohibitions against arming the merchantmen and cleared them to enter contested waters.

Unbeknownst to Congress, the War Department crafted the top-secret “Victory Program.” Principally written by Major Albert Wedemeyer in the War Plans Division, it provided estimates about the manpower and material requirements for defeating Germany. The projections called for as many as 215 divisions with some 8.7 million men. More than three-fourths of the Army appeared destined for service overseas.

The Army swelled in late 1941, especially after Congress approved an $8 billion supplemental spending bill for national defense. One line item authorized $35 million for the construction of a single building to house the War Department. After selecting a location near the Potomac River, Lieutenant Colonel Brehon B. Somervell, who commanded the Construction Division of the Army Quartermaster Corps, oversaw the project. His design for the structure called for a five-sided ring that evoked an old fortress – a pentagon.

Long before workers erected the Pentagon, staff officers in Washington D.C. grappled with a series of critical strategic decisions. They confronted inter-service rivalries in addition to opportunity costs while planning for war. Working the problems year after year, they shared an awareness of military power, a preference for direct solutions, and a concern about prolonged conflict. In spite of false starts and dead ends, the joint efforts enabled the armed forces to imagine the trouble ahead.

Pearl Harbor

As Americans braced for war against Germany, U.S. policy toward Japan stiffened. The Roosevelt administration announced embargoes on aviation gas, scrap iron, and other supplies to Tokyo. Envisioning a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japanese leaders countered by preparing to seize oil, rubber, and resources beyond the home islands. They assessed the Dutch and British colonies in the Pacific and planned to take them. In the summer of 1941, Japanese forces moved into French Indochina.

While continuing to aid China, the Roosevelt administration hoped to deter any further aggression by Japan. The president froze Japanese financial assets in the U.S. and expanded the embargo to include oil. Since almost 90 percent of Japan's oil supply came from American producers, the sanctions backed their leaders into a corner. To frustrate their imperial strategy to “go south,” the War Department placed MacArthur in command of U.S. forces defending the Philippines. Secretary of State Cordell Hull offered to renew American trade in exchange for a Japanese withdrawal from China and Southeast Asia. However, Japan decided to wait two months before acting. General Hideki Tojo, the War Minister, lobbied the cabinet for a preemptive strike, but Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe wanted to negotiate a settlement. When the latter resigned in mid-October, the former replaced him. As envoys conferred, Washington D.C. expected Tokyo to make concessions.

That fall, Tokyo desired to immobilize U.S. forces on the flank in order to open a lifeline through the South China Sea. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded Japan's largest force of warships and aircraft, agreed to knock out the American battle fleet. He entrusted Commander Minoru Genda with the details for military action. The war plan involved an initial air and sea strike against Hawaii, even as Tojo made another offer to Hull on November 20. If the U.S. abandoned China and restored all trade relations, then Japanese imperialists would occupy no additional territory in Asia.

The U.S. refused Tojo's offer, while the Japanese fleet steamed ahead. Reports of its movements in the Pacific prompted several warnings to U.S. commanders. In fact, Secretary of the Navy Knox noted earlier in the year that “it is believed easily possible” for Japan to initiate hostilities with “a surprise attack” at Pearl Harbor. “The question,” Secretary of War Stimson wrote, “was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Pacific fleet commander, decided to forgo long-range air patrols near Hawaii. Instead, he sent the carrier U.S.S. Lexington to Midway Island and the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise to Wake Island. The carrier U.S.S. Saratoga remained in San Diego, California. Even though U.S. intelligence officers intercepted Japanese messages about an imminent war, the commander-in-chief did not know what was about to happen at Pearl Harbor.

Figure 11.2 Pearl Harbor Naval Base and U.S.S. Shaw aflame, 1941. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


At dawn on December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Six Japanese carriers operated without detection only 200 miles away from Hawaii. Hundreds of planes roared down the western coast and the central valley of Oahu. For two hours, they bombed eight U.S. battleships at anchor. Three sank, one grounded, one capsized, and one received heavy damage. In sum, 19 vessels sank or were disabled.

In a daring tactical feat, Japanese aircraft pummeled and strafed other military targets that morning. At Hickam and Wheeler Fields, they found U.S. airplanes parked wing to wing. Altogether, the raid destroyed almost 180 aircraft and damaged around 100 more.

The raid left Americans reeling. At least 2,402 died while another 1,178 suffered wounds. The fatalities included 1,103 entombed in the sunken U.S.S. Arizona. In contrast, the Japanese military lost a few dozen aircraft during the aerial operation and only a handful of tiny submarines maneuvering in the harbor.

Irrespective of a surprise attack, Japan failed to achieve a decisive victory. The bombers ignored the oil tanks, extensive pipelines, and onshore facilities of Hawaii that supported U.S. fleet operations. Moreover, they missed the opportunity to harm U.S. aircraft carriers and their escorts, which left port a few days earlier. Tactically successful but strategically flawed, Japan conducted simultaneous strikes against the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Wake, Hong Kong, and Malaya that day.

The following day, Roosevelt addressed both houses of Congress about “a date which will live in infamy.” For many years, he had spoken directly to the American people during “fireside chats” in a calm, steady voice. Broadcast by radio across the nation, the brief speech that he delivered represented one of his most memorable. Because of the onslaught by “the Empire of Japan,” he called for a declaration of war to ensure that “this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.” His words encapsulated the public outrage and general resolve in the wake of a surprise attack. Members of Congress voted for war in unanimity, save one pacifist.

Within days, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Their declarations prompted another message on December 11 from Roosevelt. “The forces endeavoring to enslave the entire world now are moving towards this hemisphere,” he announced. Thus, Congress declared war on all of the Axis Powers and cast aside the nation's reluctance to fight.


Americans after World War I looked forward to everlasting peace, yet men and women in the military never said farewell to arms. Congress attempted to provide uniformity and structure to the Regular Army, National Guard, and Organized Reserves. The “treaty Navy” limited armaments and tonnage while incorporating aerial assets into fleet operations. Experimenting with ship-to-shore movements, Marine officers determined the steps necessary for undertaking amphibious assaults. Other than performing constabulary duties and special assignments, though, the armed forces saw little action during the interwar period. The onset of the Great Depression made military interventions infeasible. Furthermore, the U.S. refused to assert the right or the responsibility to preserve the rule of law beyond its borders. With the world engulfed in another wave of belligerence, advocates for national defense assumed that a war across the Atlantic or the Pacific would require primarily the application of sea power.

The declarations of war on the Axis Powers dramatically ended the policy debates that divided Americans before 1941. Although isolationists recoiled from the prospect of foreign entanglements, a growing number of citizens recognized that totalitarianism endangered a free-trading, open-door world. Abandoning any pretense of arms control, aggressive nations in Europe and Asia became less civil and more ruthless. In fact, the Munich agreement came to symbolize the failure of appeasement to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. While acknowledging the military potential of the U.S., the regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan scorned the principles of liberal democracy espoused by the Atlantic Charter. A global economic disaster heightened international tensions, to be sure, but the Third Reich, the New Roman Empire, and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere turned geopolitical contests into another world war.

World War II erupted with the catastrophic chain of events that unfolded throughout the late 1930s, even though a few Americans began preparing for it earlier. Military personnel prepared for action while focusing largely on the defense of “Fortress America” and the western hemisphere. Innovators learned key lessons about cutting-edge technologies, which they applied to the development of weapons programs and operational concepts. In particular, strategic and tactical considerations underscored the importance of aviation. Unfortunately, almost two decades of federal thrift placed the armed forces at a disadvantage. Washington D.C. restrained military spending, while Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo did not. Although military cultures tended to reinforce rigidity and to retard creativity, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps anticipated many of the imperatives for fighting the next war. Even if service members stood more or less ready to fight, the U.S. did not predict the conflagration to come the way it did.

After 1941, a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor served as an enduring reminder of Japanese aggression as well as American vulnerability. Despite delivering a masterful blow, Yamamoto worried that the air and sea strike on December 7 had merely awakened “a sleeping giant.” In the U.S., a sense of humiliation and disbelief drove an unremitting search for scapegoats thereafter. Conspiracy theorists repeated unfounded allegations about the breakdown of military intelligence, especially in regard to the failure of the Roosevelt administration to protect the battle fleet. “Remember Pearl Harbor” became a national call to arms, while Americans marked Pearl Harbor Day on their calendars. Almost everyone recalled the moment that he or she heard the shocking news. As an object of commemoration, the sunken Arizona remained submerged and undisturbed near Oahu. In the years that followed, U.S. warships “saluted” the underwater graveyard when entering and leaving the unforgettable site of infamy.

Essential Questions

1 How did demobilization and disarmament impact the American military?

2 Which innovations were associated with the Air Corps and the Marine Corps?

3 Why was the U.S. surprised by the Japanese attack in 1941?

Suggested Readings

Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914–1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Biddle, Wayne. Barons of the Sky: From Early Flight to Strategic Warfare. 1991; repr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Felker, Craig C. Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.

Heinrichs, Waldo H. Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hone, Thomas C., and Trent Hone. Battle Line: United States Navy, 1919–1939. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

Johnson, David E. Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917–1945. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Edward S. War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Murray, Williamson, and Allan R. Millett, eds. Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Odom, William O. After the Trenches: The Transformation of U.S. Army Doctrine, 1918–1939. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.

Pencak, William. For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919–1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Pogue, Forrest C. George C. Marshall: The Education of a General, 1880–1939. New York: Viking Press, 1963.

Ross, Steven T., ed. U.S. War Plans: 1938–1945. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.

Venzon, Anne Cipriano. From Whaleboats to Amphibious Warfare: Lt. Gen. “Howling Mad” Smith and the U.S. Marine Corps. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Vogel, Steve. The Pentagon: A History. New York: Random House, 2008.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Wooldridge, E. T., ed. The Golden Age Remembered: U.S. Naval Aviation, 1919–1941. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

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