What Carl Vinson can teach us about American Seapower

Published 12:16 pm Saturday, March 23, 2013

by Randy Forbes

The United States has suffered from an extended period of economic distress, prompting large segments of the public to question the need for a robust American military. During this time, the U.S. Navy has been allowed to atrophy, falling below its minimum requirements in numerous classes of ships, underfunding maintenance, and allowing many ships to age past their service-life. The incumbent President has demonstrated little interest in the Navy’s role and seems content with a diminished fleet. Meanwhile, threats to American interests grow steadily, with a disarmed Europe uninterested in maintaining international security and a distracted United States easily ignored by powers intent on re-writing the international order.

While the above may sound like a description of the international environment in 2013, instead I am describing the conditions which prevailed in the early 1930s. As Germany and Japan expanded their military capabilities at rates that continually defied the predictions of Allied analysts, the Hoover Administration, absorbed by its futile efforts to restart the U.S. economy, resisted all attempts to resource a U.S. Navy capable of upholding American interests abroad. It was left to the House of Representatives’ Committee on Naval Affairs, under Chairman Carl Vinson of Georgia, to champion the cause of a modern, global fleet.

Carl Vinson, a lawyer from landlocked rural Georgia who left the Continental United States only once in his 97 years, was an unlikely advocate for American Seapower. Yet it was Vinson who, in the words of Admiral William Leahy, “contributed more to the national defense (from 1935-1945) than any other single person in the country except the president [Franklin D. Roosevelt] himself.” Vinson’s contribution was one of both advocacy and action – he was the strongest public voice in favor of naval preparedness throughout the 1930s, stressing the importance of a modern fleet to a maritime nation like the United States and calling attention to the threat of aggressive powers like Germany and Japan.

But Vinson’s most lasting contribution was legislative, in the form of successive bills authorizing the size and scope of the U.S. Navy and thereby laying the foundation for the fleet which prevailed in World War II and secured the peace during half a century of Cold War. Vinson’s principal legislative achievements were the Navy authorization bills of 1934, 1938 and 1940.

In each instance, Vinson’s legislation dramatically increased the Navy’s authorized size and made important statements about the fleet’s future composition, directing resources to aviation and submarines at a time when the service was still enamored with big-gun battleships. Vinson’s handling of the Navy’s authorization bills was marked by careful attention to the international security situation, Working with the Navy’s leadership, he celebrated his authorized increases to the real-world threats of his day. As Germany and Japan continued their aggressive policies and military modernization, Vinson also successfully used the megaphone of his committee chairmanship to raise public awareness of the threat while taking substantive measures to increase fleet preparedness.

Each of Vinson’s three signature Navy authorization bills increased the fleet’s size and capabilities in ways uniquely suited to their particular moment. Beginning in 1934, Vinson authorized successively larger increases in size of the fleet, with special attention paid to the cutting-edge technologies of his day – aircraft and submarines. Working with astute Navy officers and calling upon his own sense of the changing face of modern warfare, Vinson ensured that his authorization bills invested in formidable undersea and aviation forces rather than just the Navy’s traditional surface combatants.

As the 1930s advanced and the international security situation deteriorated further, Vinson’s authorization bills became steadily more ambitious. With the passage of the Two Ocean Navy Act in 1940, over a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, Vinson secured authorization for a fleet large enough to maintain American dominance in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

It was the vessels created by Vinson’s 1930s legislation that served as the nucleus of the fleet that secured victory during World War II. As today’s policymakers grapple with a shrinking defense budget and destabilizing security environment in the Western Pacific and Middle East, we would do well to remember the legacy of Chairman Vinson.

His farsighted vision in laying the groundwork for a modern, global Navy at a time of public disinterest and preoccupation with domestic concerns saved countless American lives and did much to bring about Allied victory when the Nation was forced into war.

Furthermore, by insisting on investment in the “game-changing” technologies of his day, Vinson ensured that the United States would not be left behind in emerging warfare domains. His success in using the power of his chairmanship to fundamentally alter the Navy’s posture and composition is a lesson in the power of Congress to positively shape American security policy and to think holistically about the challenges our military faces.

I am humbled to carry on the work of my able predecessor. As in Chairman Vinson’s time, we face tremendous challenges to our naval strength at home and abroad. Once again, we will rise to the occasion.

Randy Forbes serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and is founder and co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus