Bargaining for Supremacy

Naval relations comprise a particularly vexed chapter in the history of Anglo-American diplomacy between 1919 and 1941. Until recently the nature of this troubled relationship has not been subject to close examination. There are several reasons that explain this neglect. Among these is the fact that the issues that divided Great Britain and the United States on the development, maintenance, and deployment of their war fleets were overshadowed by the larger and more ominous conflict between the Fascist powers and the Western democracies. In addition, the achievement of a high level of Anglo-American cooperation during World War II has detracted from a proper appreciation of the discord that preceded that achievement. And, perhaps most important, until the early 1970’s crucial official British documents relating to the late interwar period were closed to scholars. These factors combined to stifle important inquiry into the subject as a whole.

Captain Stephen Roskill did much to set the record straight in his two-volume work, Naval Policy Between the Wars. However, for all of Captain Roskill’s contribution to a better understanding of Anglo-American naval relations, which is considerable, there are deficiencies in his interpretation. Perhaps chief among these is his contention that the 1930’s witnessed a steady improvement in Anglo-American naval relations. James R. Leutze convincingly argues otherwise. American and British civilian and naval authorities, he contends, continued to regard one another with suspicion and even hostility until at least 1941. War and the prospect of war finally created the necessary imperative for military cooperation between the two countries. Many of the old antagonisms, however, continued to rankle; they were, for the most part, only shoved into the background.

Leutze begins his account in 1937. The year is well chosen. The system of naval limitation by treaty, which was central to the peace-keeping efforts of the interwar period, had just broken down. As a result, all of the major naval powers were free to build warships to levels imposed by the limits of national will and resources. Japan, in a deliberate attempt to upset the delicate balance of naval power established by the Washington and London treaties, launched a new program of naval construction that included a novel class of superbattleships. More threatening still was the calculated Japanese escalation of the China Incident of July into a full-scale invasion of that country. These actions posed a real danger to traditional British and American interests in the western Pacific. Since the turn of the century the United States had emerged as the most consistent champion of Chinese sovereignty. Moreover, even though the Philippines were ticketed for eventual independence, the American military still assumed that the islands would be defended if attacked. The British had even more at stake: principally Australia, New Zealand, India, and Malaya. A common fear of Japanese aggression thus provided the first important stimulus to the closer coordination of Anglo-American naval policy.

The Ingersoll Mission was the initial fruit of this fear-induced cooperation. Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, director of plans for the United States Navy, had seen previous service as technical adviser at the London Naval Conference of 1935-1936. He was personally chosen by President Roosevelt to represent the United States in informal talks with British naval personnel concerning the possibility of imposing a blockade against Japan. The British had indicated interest in discussions of this nature, and Roosevelt desired to strike while the iron was hot. Ingersoll was informed of the nature of his mission on December 23, and three days later he boarded a ship for London.

In view of the haste with which Ingersoll was prepared and then sent to England, it is not surprising that the results of his mission were general and tentative. The main accomplishment of these conversations was the establishment of guidelines for a joint blockade. If and when such action were taken, the British agreed to interdict Japanese trade south of the Philippines, while Ingersoll agreed that the United States would do the same from the Philippines to North America. Unfortunately, this nascent rapprochement was neutralized by other developments. In the midst of Ingersoll’s discussions, Roosevelt sent word requesting British acquiescence in international negotiations devoted to arms reduction, international law, and unspecified economic issues. The British were not interested and the suggestion went for nought, much to Roosevelt’s displeasure. British suspicion that, despite the President’s willingness to send an impressive contingent of warships to Hawaii and Singapore, the United States might well leave Britain in the lurch should a crisis with Japan occur further clouded the atmosphere. Finally, on February 20, 1938, three weeks after Ingersoll returned home, Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary and a good friend of the United States, resigned. As a result of these factors, Ingersoll’s mission failed to invite immediate new initiatives from either side for closer naval cooperation.

In 1938 and 1939 a pattern began to emerge in the naval relations between Britain and the United States. On the one hand, each country was resistant to conceding advantages to the other without full compensation. Thus the United States was refused a request for detailed information about the Singapore naval base because it offered nothing in return. Similarly, Roosevelt continued to withhold specifications of the Norden bombsight from the British on the ground that London possessed no technical information of equal value. On the other hand, the deepening crises in Europe and the Far East created a...

(The entire section is 2369 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Library Journal. CII, November 1, 1977, p. 2260.