Thursday, May 8, 2014

Between Wars in America

Life was good in the Twenties

For many in the armed forces of the United States the roughly 20 years of peace between Versailles and Pearl Harbor was mostly a period of boredom and stagnation.  The nation had withdrawn behind its oceanic borders believing involvement with the outside world, especially Europe, was generally a losing proposition.  The decade of the twenties was, for many in the USA, a celebratory time of riding the ever-expanding bubble that was the American Dream.  That’s the conventional viewpoint anyway, one depicted with young flappers dancing and successful men pouring the bubbly at music-soused speakeasies in urban settings across this purple nation.  It’s an image that fits well on celluloid, a Hollywood metaphor of people with high-hopes and boundless energy getting on with their lives.  During the height of the Roaring Twenties our famously ironic stick-in-the-mud President, Calvin Coolidge, said, “The business of America is business.”  His actual quote in 1925 was a bit more nuanced but the essential truth remains the same.  Main Street was America and the business of politics in Washington was insuring the wheels of commerce rolled smoothly.  Industry was making money delivering automobiles, radios and sewing machines to prosperous consumers.  There wasn’t any profit in war.  Marxist beliefs to the contrary, armed conflict just wasn’t good for business.  It destroyed markets and killed off consumers.  There just isn’t much to buy in a foxhole. 

The business of America is business

The world’s five greatest maritime military powers gathered in Washington in 1921 in an attempt to reign in the size of their navies.  These countries held no illusions of disarming the seas but they had a realistic hope of preventing an expensive arms race between them.  The Washington Conference succeeded in capping the size of each navy, holding each to a firm tonnage ceiling.  Japan wasn’t happy that the U.S. and Britain got higher tonnage allowances but the winning argument was that these nations had two-ocean navies.  Japan’s concern was limited to the western and central Pacific.  The point to be made about the United States is that it didn't build to its allowable treaty limits.  America didn't want to spend a dime more than it felt it needed to defend its shores… and maybe hold onto the Philippines.  Herbert Hoover, during his presidency, was proud to say that his administration never laid down the keel of a single Navy ship.  Of course, by now, the American Dream bubble had burst and Main Street was largely boarded up.  The nation was in the Great Depression and Uncle Sam wasn’t in a spending mood. 

Selling apples on street corners

Promotion in the military was glacially slow and the pay, never good, was actually reduced during the Depression.  Even so, many civilians thought it better to enlist than be unemployed, but even here the ‘Help Wanted’ sign wasn’t on the door.  The Navy, for instance, could accept only a small fraction of those wanting to go to sea.  Sailors had it better than those in the Army.  Without funds for equipment and training, soldiers could do little more than endlessly drill on parade grounds and get drunk when not on duty.  The glamour men in the public’s eye were those flying planes but that didn't mean Washington was willing to fund their passion.  As for the Marine Corps, Herbert Hoover was prepared to disband them as an organization without a mission.  Both the Army and Navy, strapped for funds, were happy to go along.  Congress didn't oblige.  At the time the Marines were working out the bugs in tactics involved with amphibious assault.  Their opposed landing technique would become a central part of the war in the Pacific, a conflict that was but a few short years away. 

Disposing of undesirables in Nanking

The international order among nations was ripe for readjustment.  Germany and Japan were powerful societies demanding recognition and a greater piece of the economic pie.  They were arming at an alarming rate.  Britain and France were reluctant to respond but they eventually would.  The United States would cling to the belief that it wasn’t their fight but events would begin to prove them wrong.  War in China, threats in the Pacific, the fall of France – each had its role in opening Congressional purse strings.  American shipyards came back to life.  Blueprints for weapons made it to the assembly line.  For the first time the United States instituted a universal draft.  All that was needed now was the spark.  That arrived one Sunday morning over Pearl Harbor – December 7, 1941.

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