Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, October 19, 2018

Wilson's October 1918 Naval Surprise

Battleship Division Nine Arriving at Scapa Flow, 7 December 1917
Taken from HMS Queen Elizabeth

During mid-October 1918, as Germany sought an armistice based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Navy Department and Admiralty were already contemplating how the naval section of the armistice terms might affect their relative positions.

The British pressed for harsh naval terms, including the surrender and destruction of the German surface fleet, leaving Germany with only a coastal defense force. Wilson and the Navy Department, in contrast, wanted lenient naval terms, because the destruction of the German fleet would leave Britain without a significant European rival, in which case the Royal Navy could “do with our new merchant marine as she saw fit.”

The Admiralty, for its part, now began considering the implications of the second of Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “freedom of the seas.” That aspiration enshrined the traditional U.S. position on neutral rights in wartime—the very issue that had provoked American entry into the war. The Admiralty took alarm at the thought of placing restrictions on Britain’s ability to conduct effective blockades. Was not the purpose of sea power to deny overseas communication to an enemy? The blockade was clearly an important factor in the approaching German defeat. The British Empire could not in future wars afford to trust its security to an untested international organization (Wilson’s League) or surrender the bulwark of sea supremacy, which had never failed it.

In its battle against freedom of the seas, the Admiralty had the unshakable support of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Lloyd George insisted that Britain could not abandon its principal strategic weapon. In response, Wilson, resorting to brinkmanship, instructed diplomat Edward M. House to tell the Allies that they could either accept freedom of the seas or the United States would build “the strongest navy that our resources permit and as our people have so long desired.” House amplified the president’s message by pointing out the United States had more resources and money than they—that if it came to a contest, Britain would lose. Lloyd George held his ground, retorting that Great Britain would “spend her last guinea to keep a navy superior to that of the United States or any other power.”
However, anxious to avoid an open break over freedom of the seas yet determined not to surrender on the issue, Lloyd George offered to defer the matter to the peace conference; Wilson accepted that olive branch.

Disembarking USS  George Washington,Woodrow Wilson Arrives at
Brest, France, on 13 December  1918

In late October 1918 the Wilson administration raised the ante and asked Congress for a second three-year naval building program, a repeat of the 1916 program plus ten additional battleships and six battle cruisers. Wilson now had a bigger club, or bargaining chip, to use at the peace conference, as well as clear evidence for the American people that failure to endorse the League would mean expensive defense policies. In his annual message to Congress on 2 December 1918, Wilson declared that he took it for granted Congress would continue the naval building program begun in 1916. He implied that the new program was simply a continuation of the long-term development of the Navy and insisted that the building program should continue: “It would clearly be unwise for us to attempt to adjust our programs to a future world policy as yet undetermined.”

[Wilson's ploy resulted in an adversarial  posture with Great Britain at the Paris negotiations.] Ultimately Wilson’s threat to Britain’s naval supremacy, however artificial it may have been, proved counterproductive. Britain had manifested greater enthusiasm than any other European power for Wilson’s ideals. The only significant disagreement was over freedom of the seas, which Wilson abandoned early in the game. Wilson could have taken British support for most of his program for granted had it not been for the naval competition he sponsored.

Wilson’s conduct of the [subsequent Paris peace conference] negotiations was most unwise. While the threat of a naval race gave Wilson leverage at the conference, coercion came at the cost of damaged relations with a vital ally.

Source: "The Naval Battle of Paris," Jerry W. Jones.  Naval War College Review, Spring 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment