The Gist: How the U.S. Navy deep state defied the Constitution
to pursue defeat of Japan.
A review of Execute Against Japan by Joel Ira Holwitt.
If you think about World War II submarines, chances are your mind concentrates on the intense German u-boat effort to sink Allied shipping. Perhaps you might even experience claustrophobic flashbacks to watching Das Boot. A primarily land power facing a primarily sea power, Germany embraced a submarine strategy to avoid major sea battles and attempt to choke off supplies from their last standing western European foe, the United Kingdom.
This strategy was their best naval option but it was also illegal under the international law conveniently created by those who would suffer the most from its use, naturally including the U.K. but also the United States, who had idealistically stood for open sea lanes since 1776, entered the War of 1812 and World War I on this primary justification, and even collected reparations from previous conflicts. In addition to our own strategic reasons, the once and future allies proclaimed humanitarian reasons: in a just war, civilian casualties were to be avoided as much as possible. Unrestricted submarine warfare meant the deliberate targeting of civilian ships manned by civilians. Over the course of World War II, “the unarmed British merchant marine lost almost 33,000 sailors out of 185,000 who went to sea, a 17 percent fatality rate that proportionally exceeded the fatality rates of any of the British armed services.” In other words, a civilian sailor in the British merchant marine was more likely to die from enemy attack than someone in the infantry on the front – and it would have been far worse had the British not broken the German codes.
After the war, the German leadership was put on trial, including Karl Donitz, the principal architect of their naval strategy, for waging unrestricted submarine warfare. Intervening on his behalf was a perhaps unexpected supporter: American admiral Chester Nimitz, who told the tribunal that from the very day of America’s entry into the war, we had also waged unrestricted submarine warfare.
Joel Holwitt’s Execute Against Japan is a revealing history I discovered perusing the Chief of Navy Operations’ reading program. Holwitt tells the story of how America evolved from champion of open waters to expert denier of them through a sound strategic shift accomplished practically by military coup in defiance of specific and unambiguous treaty obligations of the United States.
The story starts even before America and goes to the heart of what it means to maintain a Navy: “Transport over water has long proved to be the fastest, most reliable, and most efficient way to transport large numbers of people and quantities of supplies over extended distances. As a result, interdicting supplies at sea is one of the most vital missions of a belligerent navy.” Holwitt goes further: “without an ability to coerce enemy commerce, there was simply no point in having a fleet, besides coastal defense.” To win a tonnage war, you have one big goal: sink transports faster than the enemy can build them.
The British had the most powerful Navy in the world for a few centuries and they had a tendency to “confiscate any neutral ship carrying even the slightest amount of enemy cargo.” Of course, in order to ensure that ships did not have enemy cargo, they often had to stop and search them, sometimes being rather liberal in their interpretations of what constituted contraband. This was not especially popular among countries whose commerce was seized and so the Dutch led an effort in the early 1700s to limit the practice. After declaring independence, literally America’s first diplomatic statement, drafted by John Adams and Ben Franklin, was the Plan of 1776, which vigorously demanded freedom of the seas as a model condition of relations with the U.S.
After we won the Revolution, America remained steadfastly committed freedom of the seas and probably represented the most extreme view in the world. We fought Britain again in the War of 1812 when angered by their forced conscription of our sailors on the high seas. But perhaps the greatest American champion of open seas is not a president you often read about: Franklin Pierce. In his single term, Pierce “helped force Denmark to end the extortion of merchant ships coming through the Danish Sound,” opened up the River Plate in South America, and laid the foundation for the opening of the Amazon. At a time when nations of the world were negotiating a naval agreement to regulate commerce raiding and outlaw privateers, Pierce adamantly refused to give up state-sponsored piracy unless everyone agreed to “the immunity of private property.” Not wanting to totally give up a valuable tool of war, the other nations refused. 55 countries ended up signing up, but the U.S. was not among them. A decade later, the British provided the Confederacy with ships to raid Union commerce during the Civil War. The rebels were spectacularly successful and the American merchant marine didn’t really recover for another half-century. Still, when the war ended with union victory, the U.S. successfully sought financial reparations from Britain (though this was short of the original demand that the U.K. give over Canada).
It would not be the last time Britain played fast and loose in pursuit of their national interest. International law around World War I only permitted a close blockade of an enemy coast but Britain did not want to risk sending their Navy so close to Germany. Instead, the British Navy was “intercepting any ships bound for Europe and forcing them to detour to British ports for search and potential seizure.” This practice was illegal according to international law but very effective in curtailing German imports.
Germany’s solution was submarines – but while international law didn’t ban their use, it had only really contemplated surface fleets. The “prize” or “cruiser” rules “stipulated that a belligerent warship could stop a merchant ship on the high seas and search it for contraband cargo. If some contraband was found, it could be legally seized. If enough cargo was found, the merchant ship itself could be seized. If, under extraordinary circumstances, the warship commander found it necessary to sink the merchant ship, he had to take the crew on board as prisoners. A submarine, because of its small size, could do none of these things.” And Germany, despite some of the Kaiser’s ambitions, was not going to effectively compete with Britain on traditional terms. After American complaints in 1916, the Germans attempted to follow the rules by surfacing their submarines before attacks but then the British responded by arming their merchant ships – sometimes secretly in order to invite submarine attacks. In one notorious instance, the British flew American colors, sank a U-boat, and then “mercilessly murdered the German survivors.” Both sides knew that they were inviting the ire of the United States but eventually in 1917 Germany decided to resume underwater attacks in a desperate attempt to starve Britain into submission before the U.S. would be angered enough to enter the war.
Woodrow Wilson had run for re-election for President in 1916 on the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” Continuing the American tradition of advocating freedom of the seas, “Wilson was as offended by the British practice of intercepting American ships on the high seas and detouring them to British ports as he was by the German practice of sinking ships and leaving survivors to their fate.” He unsuccessfully attempted to get an agreement where the “the British would abolish their armed merchant ships and the Germans would consequently end all submerged unrestricted warfare.” Ultimately, we joined the British side because “the German unrestricted submarine campaign abandoned [American] noncombatants to possible death, while the British starvation blockade did not.” With American industrial capacity added, the Germans lost the tonnage war – and later paid America reparations for raiding our commerce.
As soon as the war ended, Britain called for the abolishment of submarines. In addition to their disruptive impact on British shipping, German submarines sank at least “5 out of the 13 British battleships lost in the war.” There was considerable irony in Britain, long a historical predator of enemy commerce, attempting to push for international law to limit the latest related technology. But they were always consistent with their national interest! Still, the Royal Navy was skeptical of national policy: “to ensure that no nation was making submarines would require an international agency with the authority to inspect all factories, workshops, and shipyards around the world… any nation that went to war with Great Britain would immediately start constructing submarines, so prohibiting submarine construction would only be effective for a short time.”
American policymakers shared their British counterparts’ sympathies on submarines but went further. In 1921, the U.S. successfully negotiated a treaty that limited the big ships of ourselves, the UK, Japan, France, and Italy, with the anglophone nations getting the most. Nevertheless, “the treaty set restrictions upon capital ships that caused the wholesale scrapping of numerous warships,” making it “perhaps one of the earliest, most effective, and sweeping arms limitation treaties ever signed and honored.” The U.S. wouldn’t build a new type of battleship until 1936. Major treaty restrictions on submarines, including authorizing the hanging of captains as pirates, were ratified by the U.S. Senate over Navy objections but were ultimately rendered void by a French veto. But what we did agree to was a reaffirmation of the prize rules: “submarines were required to remove a merchant ship’s crew to a place of safety before that ship could be sunk. A place of safety, furthermore, was not considered to be a lifeboat on the open sea. It did not matter if the merchant ship belonged to a belligerent nation or a neutral nation. It did not matter if a merchant ship was arguably in the service of a belligerent nation’s war machine. Regardless of origin or ownership, merchant ships could not be attacked without warning.”
The rules would soon be relevant again. During the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, the nationalist leader Franco requested that Italy do something about Soviet supplies for his Communist opponents. Mussolini ordered unrestricted air and naval warfare against Soviet convoys across the Mediterranean. The British, French, and Soviets gathered in Switzerland and authorized harsh measures against unspecified “pirates” that stopped the Italians. For then. When World War II commenced, Germany was back at their central naval strategy of WWI, though with new carefulness about American shipping. Until American entry into the war, “only four American merchant ships were sunk,” half actually legally and the other half by mistake. Though not nearly as extensive as the German effort, Britain also began engaging in unrestricted submarine warfare within a year of entering the conflict – in retaliation, they said.
American civilian leadership was nevertheless as committed as ever to freedom of the sea, though it was more preached than enforced. Congress wanted nothing to do with the war and specifically banned trade with belligerents or using armed merchant ships. As late as mid-1941, FDR gave a national address boldly proclaiming: “All freedom—meaning freedom to live, and not freedom to conquer and subjugate other peoples—depends on freedom of the seas. All of American history—North, Central and South American history—has been inevitably tied up with those words, ‘freedom of the seas.’” Holwitt expands: “More than any other address Roosevelt had given, this fireside chat thoroughly elucidated his views on freedom of the seas and unrestricted warfare. He defined freedom of the seas as the right of merchant shipping to travel without the threat of attack. He stated that freedom of the seas applied to all oceans at all times. He clearly identified unrestricted warfare as the principal menace to freedom of the seas.”
His Navy, on the other hand, was developing alternative ideas – on its own and without consultation of civilian supposed superiors. Directly after WWI, amidst talk of international bans, the Navy cast submarines as scouts and skirmishers for bigger fleets – a role that had never been practiced by anyone else. Initially agreeing with civilian authorities, they proffered that unrestricted warfare was immoral but likely to be resumed by foreign powers. After all, Naval officers swore an oath to the Constitution, which included not only civilian deference but also a specific obligation to “treaties made…under the authority of the United States… [which] shall be the supreme law of the land.”
Simultaneously, the Navy was planning color-coded battle plans against potential enemies ranging from New Zealand to Germany. Among the most likely adversaries, and where a fight would involve the Navy most, was Japan: Plan Orange. From 1906 on, they went about
“exploring and rejecting numerous scenarios, such as a forward-deployed naval base like Gibraltar or Singapore, and the idea of a quick trans-Atlantic dash to reach the Pacific in the event of war. Eventually the Navy settled on a war plan that stressed a methodical trans-Pacific offensive, taking islands in the Japanese Mandate as stepping-stones to Japan. By the late 1930s naval planners expected the war to last for approximately three years before the U.S. Navy finally reached Japan and enforced a crippling blockade that would presumably force the Japanese to sue for peace… War Plan ORANGE’s projected blockade against Japan preyed upon Japan’s greatest strategic vulnerability: its reliance upon the importation of war matériel by sea. Except for a few natural resources, Japan required its merchant marine to import oil, steel, aluminum, and even foodstuffs… Unfortunately, by late 1940 the United States simply did not have the overwhelming naval forces necessary to conduct the blockade envisioned by War Plan ORANGE. The U.S. Navy was therefore in a tough position. It had to cut off Japan’s maritime trade, but lacked the surface fleet necessary to control the Western Pacific.”
The obvious solution was submarines waging unrestricted warfare. But this was illegal and contrary to American policy since 1776. Some bright folks at the the Naval War College thought we needed to officially change our approach but senior Navy leaders were not inclined to get into a bureaucratic fight with the State Department. Instead, uniformed Naval officers started to plan how they might wage war, even at one point consulting potential British allies, but NOT American civilian leadership. “Based on the documentation within the files of the Navy Department [along with the files of relevant civilian leaders], the Navy made little or no effort to consult the civilian leadership of the United States regarding the propriety of unrestricted warfare.”
10 days before Pearl Harbor, our commander in East Asia got secret permission to wage unrestricted warfare in case of conflict. And then the Chief of Naval Operations sent out a “war warning” to everyone that negotiations with Japan had broken down and that “an aggressive move by Japan is expected in the next few days.” Holwitt suggests: “For the United States, the Second World War started with a surprise attack, one that most naval officers expected. The Japanese, however, surprised virtually everyone with their choice of target.” Interestingly, though this would not be known for sometime and therefore could not be a basis for our actions contemporaneously, “the Japanese initiated unrestricted submarine warfare within minutes of the attack on Pearl Harbor” by attacking an American merchant ship.
Within five hours of the attack, per his secret orders, our commander in East Asia issued an order to wage unrestricted warfare. “The order to conduct unrestricted warfare was issued without any formal authorization by the civilian government of the United States.” 20 years later, the director of naval operations recalled that he got permission from President Roosevelt after the order had been issued – but even that has no contemporary documentary evidence. What’s clear is that civilian authorities never reversed the order and ultimately supported the policy – but they were also never consulted on the change. The Navy had been thinking about justifying the policy by blaming “Japanese atrocities in China and Japan’s shared guilt, as a member of the Axis, for the German unrestricted warfare.” But the outrage over Pearl Harbor proved sufficient.
Ultimately, it was the right strategic choice but our meandering way of going about it was both unconstitutional and left us not fully prepared to execute. In particular, producing submarines cannot be done instantaneously and the submarines we had on the eve of World War II were designed with the original purpose of scouting and skirmishing, not commerce raiding. Luckily:
The U.S. submarine force eventually proved capable of carrying out unrestricted warfare not because the fleet submarine had been designed for that purpose, but because the submarines had been designed for the difficult mission of naval combat in the Pacific Ocean… the U.S. fleet submarine’s high speed allowed it to proceed far ahead of American surface forces and maintain contact with enemy battle fleets, but it also allowed submarines to outflank slower merchant convoys. Submarines had the range to shadow Japanese fleet movements all the way from the Sea of Japan, but they could also stay on station for almost two months, allowing them to sink virtually anything crossing their patrol area. The large number of torpedoes and torpedo tubes on U.S. submarines allowed a submarine to shoot a mortal salvo of torpedoes into heavily protected battleships and aircraft carriers, but it also allowed American submarine commanders to persistently and tenaciously continue convoy battles when other, less-well-armed submarine commanders might have broken contact.
Among the most significant Pacific specific actions? Adding air conditioning to submarines after a test run had seen internal temperatures rise above 100 degrees with over 100% humidity – rendering the sub not only unpleasant but dangerous.
Still, not everything went well. “For the first year of the war, the U.S. submarine force was continually hampered by malfunctioning torpedoes, timid commanders, and improper doctrine.” Inexplicably, the Navy had never live-tested submarine torpedoes and perhaps 1 in 6 were actually working. Worse, the supplier of torpedoes “steadfastly insisted that the problem was not the Mark VI exploder but the aim of American submariners.” Training before the war had focused on unlikely methods of attack and it took a while to determine which commanders were aggressive. The only advantage to this slow start was that the Japanese were “lulled….into a false sense of security.”
“At the beginning of the war, Japan only had about 6 million tons of merchant shipping, and of that, only 525,000 tons of tankers.” Japan declared war on the United States because we were the world’s primary supplier of oil and we had ceased trading with them over their invasion of China. Their false hope was that they could defeat our Navy in a major battle and compel us to sue for peace, all the better if we resumed the flow of oil, though they simultaneously attacked French, Dutch, and British holdings in southeast Asia for their resources. Because the war was over resources, Japan should have been especially sensitive to protecting its convoys. Instead they “displayed an attitude regarding their merchant marine that can be only described as staggeringly nonchalant, inept, and incompetent.” They only permitted a third of their merchant marine to be used for civilian resource provision, inefficiently arranged routes, and failed to protect their transports using best practices.
So, despite our problems, we actually succeeded in the first principle of a tonnage war as early as 1942: we sank more than they constructed. Within two years, we sank their entire tanker fleet, depriving them of the oil they went to war over. By the end of the war, we sank nearly 90% of their merchant fleet – and the remainder was in very bad shape. Germany never succeeded with their campaign because England eventually fell back on American industrial capacity to provide more convoys and resources than Germany could sink along with a cohesive strategy to take out the German homeland. America succeeded because Japan was isolated and alone, incapable of major attacks on the American homeland, and our submarine campaign was part of a broader strategy, not the whole gambit.
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