Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914

Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914

by Richard D. Challener


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After the Spanish-American War the United States, both by design and by accident, became involved in the Caribbean and the Far East on a scale that would have seemed highly improbable before 1898. As an "emerging" world power, the United States had to grapple with new issues, among them the role of military men and military power in protecting and advancing America's position in the world.

Richard D. Challener has examined civil-military relationships in the period 1898-1914 to answer the following questions: To what extent did army and navy officers develop opinions on foreign policy issues? Were the admirals and generals consulted by the civilian officials of government, and did they participate in decision-making? How did the President and State Department use the military services in execution of foreign policy? Were military and diplomatic policy co-ordinated? Does an examination of these relationships help to assess either the interpretations of Kennan and the "realists" or Williams and the "New Left"? And ultimately, how effectively did the United States manage to reconcile force and diplomacy?

This book sustains the case for interpreting 1898 and its aftermath as a deliberate search for an "informal" or "insular" empire and shows that American leaders, both civil and military, accepted an interventionist ethic.

Originally published in 1973.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691619309
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #4122
Pages: 444
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 3.40(d)

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Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914

By Richard D. Challener


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06916-6


Ideas, Institutions, and Practices, 1898-1914

1. The "World View" of the Military Services

The typical officer of the United States Navy was enthusiastic about the new American empire which had been acquired by the United States in 1898 in the Caribbean and the Far East. He was also convinced that his country was inevitably bound to play a role in world affairs commensurate to its size and wealth. To Captain Henry C. Taylor, the officer who formalized the General Board's request for the Chusan Islands, the United States was now fulfilling the dictates of destiny. "In 1898," Taylor wrote, "a duty which has haunted us for many years became plainly apparent." The Spanish-American War opened "tidal gates through which rushed upon us a flood of powers and duties which must be accepted and fulfilled — or we are not great. It is the test with which Fate tries our capacity for greatness." A similar exhilaration with America's new role in the world existed in the lower echelons of the naval service. When Lieutenant john Hood concluded a technical article on the somewhat mundane subject of submarine cables, he felt compelled to express himself in the same imperial fashion: "We as a nation are following the inevitable law of evolution. We have left behind our swaddling clothes, and have entered the field of competition with the other great nations of the world. We are in the struggle for political supremacy and commercial pre-eminence whether we wish it or not and must advance always; for stopping means stagnation or decay."

Such grandiose statements were but the naval expression of the current of Social Darwinism that had swept the United States in the 1890s and which is to be found throughout the writings of all those Americans — Theodore Roosevelt, Brooks Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Beveridge — who had fought for the "large policy" in 1898. More specifically, however, naval officers viewed the world scene through the lens of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. By and large most officers at the turn of the century accepted without question the interpretation of world politics that had been proclaimed in the previous decade by America's foremost exponent of seapower and its role in world history. There is indeed considerable justice in the half-facetious remark, attributed to a later Secretary of the Navy, that, to the average American naval officer, the United States Navy was the only True Church, Neptune was God, and Mahan was his Prophet.

To Mahan the only real world was the world of Social Darwinism in which the dominant, perpetual forces were rivalries and strife between nations. With the record of British history as his evidence, he had argued in countless books and articles that nations must expand if they are to achieve and retain greatness. There was a virtual moral obligation upon a great nation to extend both its foreign commerce and its territorial domain. Conflict, military as well as economic, was simply part of the inevitable pattern of events, a logical consequence of the laws of history. Trade itself created political rivalry. When a nation expanded its overseas commerce, it necessarily encountered rivals who wished to seize that trade for themselves, and the ensuing competition turned the rivals into enemies who, sooner or later, reached the stage of open conflict.

Long before the Maine had exploded in the harbor of Havana, Mahan had insisted that the United States must increase its trade with the Far East and had argued that construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama would provide the United States with clear-cut advantages in the growing struggle for access to the emerging markets of Asia. He had also warned that the opening of such a water route would pose new and severe problems for those who shaped national policy. The great states of Europe would attempt to block American commercial expansion either by establishing rival centers of power in the Caribbean or securing control over the trade routes to and from the Isthmus. The United States, as a counter move, must build its own naval stations in the Caribbean, acquire the Hawaiian Islands, and, above all, create a .strong and powerful naval establishment. His prescription, resting on the basic assumption that expansion was a categorical national imperative, was a call to turn the Caribbean into an American lake, to begin the construction of an American overseas empire, and to create a naval establishment equal to that of any nation except Great Britain.

It is therefore not difficult to explain why Mahan became the high priest of American navalists. He had provided a rationale for national expansion which, after all, turned upon the creation of a great American battle fleet. He had defined a purpose, a mission, for the New Navy. And he had interpreted the rise and fall of nations in terms of seapower — indeed, had exalted seapower as the key which unlocked world history.

Moreover, the attractiveness of Mahan's theories for the average naval officer was enhanced because in a very real sense they served to fill a gap in his own political education. The increasing professionalization of the Army and the Navy in the post-Civil War decades had, to be sure, affected the curricula at the two service academies and brought at least a modest increase in their liberal arts content. But Annapolis had been slower to respond than West Point. The education of future naval officers continued to place great emphasis upon the technical and purely naval components and, as Admiral William S. Sims later complained, it was "cast in rigid form." An evaluation of the Academy's program of studies at the turn of the century clearly indicated that the non-technical aspects of its curriculum were woefully inadequate by the contemporary standards of American civilian education. Indeed, even a decade after World War I a critical report of the Board of Visitors would call especial attention to the fact that the course of instruction at Annapolis "was devoid of any economics, of any substantial course in government, of any biology, geography, ethics, or social science, or of any of the literature of foreign languages." The impact of Mahan's ideas upon men who were the products of this educational system is nowhere better revealed than in the memoirs of Bradley Fiske, an officer who entered the naval service in the 1870s and who, in the Taft era, assumed responsibility for the development of war plans. It was not until 1903, when he was briefly assigned to the Naval War College and happened to hear a lecture by its president, that he encountered the idea that war might be an instrument of national policy. As Fiske later confessed in his memoirs, until that time he had never had any clear idea "connected with war except that of fighting." Having first encountered the philosophy of Mahan at this relatively late stage in his career, he immediately accepted — indeed, welcomed — it as something which not only explained the dynamics of world history but also served as a guide for the future.

Parenthetically, it should be added that, although Fiske himself was smitten by Mahan at the Naval War College, that institution was still not highly regarded by naval officers at the turn of the century and as yet did relatively little to increase their political education. Until well on into the first decade of the twentieth century its courses were given only in the summer and regarded by most officers as simply a pleasant interruption of the normal naval routines. Newport was still the most fashionable resort on the East Coast, and, as Yates Stirling later recalled, there were wives to be entertained and social functions to be attended. Even Fiske was careful to specify that the experience at the Naval War College was considered by himself and his fellow officers to be "a vacation, and no one injured his health by too much hard work."

In any event, the political ideas of the leaders of the United States Navy at the beginning of the twentieth century were virtual mirror images of the Weltanschauung of Alf red Thayer Mahan. Thus, Captain Asa Walker, one of the original members of the General Board would ask rhetorically, "With every nation in Europe suffering from a grievous attack of land famine, are not the acts of their legislatures, in increasing so enormously their navies, handwritings on the wall, needing no Daniel to interpret, foretelling that in the near future these nations will brave the woes dimly defined by the Monroe Doctrine, and wrestle for a slice of the rich lands of our hemisphere?" Only two years after he had "discovered" Mahan at Newport, Bradley Fiske won the annual essay contest sponsored by the United States Naval Institute for an article which argued that Britain had achieved her present high estate only by waging a long series of successful wars on land and sea. "Every other great nation in history has done the same," he concluded. "Shall not we? ... There is not a single reason to give, or to imagine, why the American people should not go through the same series of wars that all other nations have gone through."

The official policy documents of the General Board clearly indicated that this group of officers, charged with the development of naval strategy, interpreted the world as did Mahan. The preamble to one of its early war plans revealed its conviction that the United States was caught up in a world of strife and inevitable competition between nations:

History shows that trade rivalries brought about the successive humiliation of Holland, France, and Spain by Great Britain. The three great competitors for the world's trade are now the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Following the teachings of all history, two of these three must in the sequel be practically subordinated to the third. It may be expected that either Great Britain or Germany would profit so largely by the weakening of the other in a war with the United States that the power which stood aloof, suffering from no war exhaustion and husbanding her resources, would at the end of the war undoubtedly occupy the best position to control the trade of the world.

When the General Board sought naval stations in the Caribbean, its argument was founded on the logic that once the United States began to build the Panama Canal, "aggression on the part of individual foreign powers could be assumed." Moreover, the danger to the United States would mount with the passage of time and become greatest when a completed canal increased commercial activity in the Caribbean. In support of this dire prediction the General Board pointed to the sequence of events which had taken place in the Middle East immediately following the completion of the Suez Canal. Each and every one of the European powers which profited from Suez and the consequent expansion of trade had either acquired new territory in the area or had materially strengthened existing strongholds. It followed, then, according to the General Board's logic, that the same cycle of aggression would be repeated in the Caribbean unless the United States took strong preventive measures. As historical determinists, the naval staff could rest its case on the "law" that trade created rivalry and find it unnecessary to examine the range of possible political and economic differences between the Middle East and the Caribbean.

The General Board always was particularly suspicious of German intentions in the Caribbean. But German expansionism was interpreted as the consequence of impersonal forces which neither William II nor the German government could properly restrain. Various reports of the General Board insisted that the Germans themselves could not resist the pressures created by the growth of their population beyond the saturation point, by the need to expand domestic industries into foreign fields, and by the absolute economic requirements of guaranteed overseas markets. Thus, American naval strategists did not have to unearth specific examples of German activity in Latin America; it was sufficient to argue that German imperialism was propelled by great historical currents which made it inevitable that, when her domestic situation became intolerable, Germany would seek to resolve her internal crisis by a transatlantic adventure. The same reasoning, indeed, even made it possible in 1919 for certain American officers to look beyond Germany after that country had been defeated in World War I. Using the familiar arguments about trade and conflict, the naval advisory group which accompanied Woodrow Wilson to Paris now built a new case that Great Britain was the rival to he feared. England, according to Wilson's naval staff, had always defeated her commercial rivals one by one. With Germany prostrate, Great Britain would most assuredly cast the United States in the role of the antagonist to be defeated.

Within this broad framework of historical determinism there were naturally certain objectives of American foreign policy that the Navy believed it had a special obligation to uphold. Both the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door in China occupied a special niche in naval thinking about foreign affairs. As Mahan himself once wrote, the United States had but two principal and permanent policies — the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door — and all naval planning should originate with them. Needless to say, the Doctrine, like the maiden in the oldtime motion picture serials, was always in danger of being violated by some rapacious foreigner. In the opinion of the General Board it was the barrier which prevented German expansion into Latin America. Similarly, to Charles Sperry, the admiral who commanded the fleet during its famous cruise around the world, it seemed clear that it was only the protection afforded by the Doctrine which stopped the overcrowded and overdeveloped nations of Europe from embarking upon aggressive moves in the Western Hemisphere.

Devotion to the principles of Monroe was a long-established tradition at the beginning of the century, but naval officers were not slow to believe that the Open Door policy of John Hay also represented a binding commitment. The Navy, indeed, developed a Far Eastern consciousness more rapidly than the Army. As early as 1904 there were at least some high ranking naval officers who felt that the Open Door policy might be in future years more important to the United States than the Monroe Doctrine. In that year, when the Army and Navy began their first formal efforts to draft joint war plans, Admiral Taylor produced a long memorandum which argued that the growing American commitments in the Far East were "so important to our national life that we may expect in the future to find the sacredness of the Monroe Doctrine drop to second in the national mind, and our trade relations with Eastern Asia assume first place, and the primal cause of war." A few years later, when the General Board developed its first plan for a possible conflict with Japan, its operating hypothesis was that "the first condition of possible war" was a conflict arising out of a Japanese challenge to the Open Door, specifically a Japanese attempt to extend their control over Manchuria.

The Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door were not simply convenient fictions or myths to which naval officers paid lip service. They were genuine national commitments and possessed a living reality in their own right. Above all, they furnished a specific rationale for naval building programs. Since the Monroe Doctrine and the Open Door were the basic, established American policies, their defense was essential to the national interest and required the existence of a strong American battle fleet. In 1913, when the General Board was trying to persuade Secretary Josephus Daniels to endorse a firm, fixed naval building policy, the admirals put their case succinctly: "The General Board believes that an understanding of the navy's role as ... an upholder of those doctrines and policies which have become a part and parcel of our national existence will fix a naval policy that will meet those demands." Moreover, naval spokesmen argued, since the Doctrine had no official standing in international law and had never been formally recognized by any European country except Great Britain, there was all the more reason to construct a navy to protect it. "The Doctrine is just as strong," the General Board asserted, "as the armed and organized forces maintained to enforce it." Or, as the admirals argued in another context, the basic purpose of the battleship program was "to uphold the traditional policy of the Monroe Doctrine." Mahan summarized the underlying assumptions of naval thought when he wrote in 1909 that, if the Germans should defy the Monroe Doctrine, "How do we propose to keep that national idol on its feet without a superior navy?"


Excerpted from Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 by Richard D. Challener. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Abbreviations For Sources Frequently Cited, pg. x
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER ONE: Ideas, Institutions, and Practices, pg. 12
  • CHAPTER TWO: The Navy in the Caribbean in the Age of McKinIey and Roosevelt, pg. 81
  • CHAPTER THREE: Asia and the American Military, 1898-1909, pg. 179
  • CHAPTER FOUR: Taft and Knox: The Military Dimensions of Dollar Diplomacy, pg. 265
  • CHAPTER FIVE: Wilson and Bryan: Moralism and Military Power, pg. 364
  • CHAPTER SIX: Conclusions, pg. 401
  • Bibliography, pg. 413
  • Index, pg. 423

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