During the 1930’s, while the winds of war were stirring in Europe and the Japanese Empire’s sun was rising in the west, the United States was mired in the Great Depression. Almost everyone in our neighborhood knew a breadwinner who was out of work and families that were struggling to put food on the table. The national sentiment was reflected in the popular lyric, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor finally forced us to declare war against the Axis powers, we were, as usual, grossly unprepared. Our battle fleet and shore facilities in Hawaii suffered devastating losses. Fortunately, our handful of aircraft carriers were at sea and survived to turn the direction of the war at the Battle of Midway. But the early years of the war saw heavy Allied losses as Germany expanded its territorial conquests in Europe and Northern Africa, France fell and Japan quickly seized territory in Asia and the Western Pacific including Guam and the Philippines. It would be a long, tough road to final victory and the ending could have been different if we had not developed the atomic bomb before Germany did.
But the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor had, in the words of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, “awake(ned) a sleeping giant and fill(ed) him with a terrible resolve.” At the start of the war, the U.S. was indeed in a state of lethargy, its economy in shambles. Much of our industrial capacity lay idle and the military was totally unprepared for a world war on multiple fronts. Yet, that sleeping giant emerged from the war as the world’s only superpower and largest economy by far. It also possessed the largest navy ever built, even displacing Britannia as ruler of the waves.
Yale History Professor Paul Kennedy, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000” (1987, New York: Random House), in his new book, “Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II” (2022, New Haven: Yale University Press) describes the attack on Pearl Harbor as the catalyst that drove America to transform itself from a sleeping giant to the world’s only superpower in just a few years. The rapid mobilization of our country’s industrial base soon made it clear to the Axis powers that they could never match our ability to mass produce all the warships, warplanes, tanks, logistical systems, technology and anything else we needed to defeat them and compel their eventual unconditional surrender.
Professor Kennedy described the seemingly endless flow of ships, aircraft and weapons that emerged daily from our numerous shipyards and factories. The navy topped out at an amazing 6,768 ships. But when the war ended and peace settled in, the greatest military buildup in history, naturally, ended as well. Ships and aircraft, including even those under construction were mothballed or scrapped and when the Korean War followed shortly after the second war to end all wars, we were once again unprepared and suffered a high rate of early casualties because of it. Unpreparedness seems to be our default condition.
Since the Ronald Reagan buildup of the armed forces, our military capacity has been in a state of more or less steady decline and much of our industrial capacity has been off-shored. Today, the size of the battle fleet is the smallest since before World War I, the first war to end all wars. Numbers are not the only consideration of course, but they do matter because a ship can only be in one place at a time and we have wide-ranging global commitments and vast spans of ocean to deal with. With the Russian-Ukrainian War dragging on with no end in sight and an expansionist China threatening Taiwan, it is beyond question that we need a much larger navy to deter Chinese aggression and to protect our vital interests. But it is equally clear that we lack the industrial capacity and defense infrastructure to produce it rapidly as we did during the decisive days of WW II when we built 30 Essex-class aircraft carriers and dozens of light and escort carriers, plus all the destroyers, cruisers, submarines, logistic ships, amphibious vessels, landing craft and battleships that constituted the most powerful navy the world has ever seen or likely will ever see again.
Not only did we shrink our navy but we shrunk our industrial capacity to rebuild it which is the greater tragedy. Building it back will be difficult, time consuming and expensive but the alternative will be accepting the fact that we became another great power in slow decline, just like those that rose and fell before us. This time, should conflict become inevitable, that industrial capacity that enabled us to win WW II will simply not be there. The high cost of investing in rebuilding it will require a binding commitment from Washington and it is questionable whether such a commitment is even possible anymore.
Vol. 38, No. 37 - Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022
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