ROOSEVELT’S NAVY: The Education of a Warrior President, 1882-1920
James Tertius de Kay
Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, a position tasked with overseeing the $143 million budget of the world’s third largest navy, representing 20% of annual federal spending.
Roosevelt faced a daunting task. The core of the fleet was still comprised mainly of obsolete battleships of limited use. Germany was busily increasing the size of its navy with modern ships, and Japan, the victor in the recent Russo-Japanese War, was casting covetous glances across the Pacific. Thirteen of the Navy’s battleships, Roosevelt would claim, were unfit for operations because Congress had not authorized sufficient manpower to crew them.
The outbreak of the First World War in Europe cast naval policy in an important light, and Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of Britain, was realistic about how the war would impact America. Roosevelt was a proponent of preparedness, and helped to shepherd through Congress the 1916 Navy Bill, a $600 million outlay representing the biggest single expenditure on naval armament in history.
FDR proved to be a savvy operator. When American shipowners requested guns to protect their vessels from German U-boats, they were prevented from purchasing the weapons from the Navy because of the determined opposition of anti-war senators. Roosevelt hit upon a clever solution – the Navy would simply “loan” the guns needed, thereby not requiring congressional approval since they were not actually being sold. This set the precedent for the famed Lend-Lease Act of the next war.
In Roosevelt’s Navy, author James Tertius de Kay provides a useful insight into the formation of FDR’s thinking about naval and political power, and how his tenure as Assistant Secretary of the Navy prepared him for the great conflict of his presidency.
Marc G. De Santis