This is a story published in the Port of Pittsburgh, Official Publication of the Navy League of the United States, Pittsburgh Council Jan-March 2014 Volume 18 No.1 edited by Katherine Kersten, written by Bob MacPherson (aka theleansubmariner)
“The most expensive thing in the world is a cheap Army and Navy,” Congressman Carl Vinson
On March 15 1980, Carl Vincent attended the Launching of the ship that bore his name. He was 96 years old at the time but his connection to Naval Aviation and warships is one that set the tone for our modern Navy. Most people have long since forgotten the role that the “Georgia Swamp Fox” played in the creation of a two ocean Navy by a piece of legislation he pushed through in the height of the Depression (March of 1934). His pivotal role was one of the most significant in modern naval preparedness and holds lessons for us even today.
Carl Vincent served as a member of the House of Representatives for a period that lasted from November 3, 1914, to January 3, 1965. At his retirement, that record was the longest since Congress first convened in 1789. For much of his time in Congress, that included a record breaking twenty-nine years as Chairman of the House Naval Affairs and later Armed Services Committee. What set him apart from others that have played the role however is his unique vision and passion for the welfare of the nation and its navy. He is remembered for many statements but one of the ones that exemplifies this is when he said: “No country has a moral right to demand that her Sailors go into battle with strength and equipment inferior to an opponent’s.”
That attitude resulted in one of the most important laws to come out of the House in the 1930s. Americas fleet and potential growth were still hobbled by the treaties meant to limit the size of the major powers fleets after World War 1. The nations involved in the Washington Naval Treaty had seen the wastefulness of spending on huge and growing fleets around the world. This “arms race” threatened to force the countries involved into potentially hostile situations that would lead to yet another World War. So the parties involved set down the limits that were meant to stem the flow of money and material into their fleets. These included:
- A ten-year pause or “holiday” in the construction of capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers), including the immediate suspension of all capital ship building.
- The scrapping of existing, or planned, capital ships so as to give a 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 ratio of tonnage between the US, Britain, Japan, France and Italy.
- Ongoing limits of both capital ship tonnage, and the tonnage of secondary vessels, with the 5:5:3 ratio.
In the beginning, the nations involved gave compliance to the treaty in the hopes that all would follow suit. As time wore on though, a number of factors intervened that would spell defeat for the treaty and the prospects for peace. Changes in leadership In Japan and Germany coupled with economic upheaval around the globe during the ensuing decades set the stage for a clash that the United States was ill prepared for. Naval shipbuilding during this time period had been strangled to a halt. By the time 1934 arrived, not a single ship had been laid down during the previous administration. The Japanese would formally repudiate the treaty in late 1934 and the Germans would shortly follow as they consolidated power under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi’s.
U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels, 1931-1937
|Total Active||308 (4rc)||313 (4rc)||311 (4rc)||320 (1rc)||320||322||335|
Events: Japan enters Manchuria 18 September 1931. Hitler to power 30 January 1933. Failure of the International Economic Conference to stabilize world currencies in July 1933 leads to growing instability. Vinson-Trammell Act, 27 March 1934, authorizes–though it does not fund–Navy construction to Treaty strength. Japan renounces Washington Treaty 29 December 1934, effective 31 December 1936. Germany renounces disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles 16 March 1935. Spanish Civil War begins 18 July 1936. Japan begins large-scale military operations in China 7 July 1937.
Notes: * Data for 1 July not available. @ = CV-1 to AV-1 (auxiliary). ^ = London Treaty exchange of new DD for older types allowed. ^^ = New DD begin to appear. # = Post-1921 low. rc = Reduced Commission: not included in “active” total.
Carl joined the House Naval Affairs Committee shortly after World War I ended and became the ranking Democratic member in the early 1920s. Records indicate that he was the only Democrat appointed to the Morrow Board, which reviewed the status of aviation in America in the mid-1920s. In 1931, Vinson became chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. In 1934, he recognized the state of the nation’s fleet in relation to the threats involved and helped create the Vinson-Trammell Act, along with Senator Park Trammell of Florida. This bill authorized the replacement of obsolete vessels by new construction and a gradual increase of ships within the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty, 1922 and London Naval Treaty, 1930.
The funding for the Vinson-Trammell Navy Act was provided by the Emergency Appropriations Act of 1934. This was critical since during the previous administration, not a single major warship was laid down and the US Navy was both aging and being outpaced by the Japanese Navy. Vinson’s leadership was responsible for Naval Act of 1938 (“Second Vinson Act”) and the Third Vinson Act of 1940, as well as the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. These ambitious program made sure that the U.S. Navy was far better prepared as the country entered World War II The new ships made sure that the country was on its way to meeting Japan head on when the time came. While he recognized the importance of capital ships, his largest contribution was in forcing the growth of the modern aircraft carrier.
Slight progress in the naval expansion programs had been implemented by the Naval Act of 1936 and the Naval Act of 1938. But in early June 1940, Congress passed legislation that provided for an 11% increase in naval tonnage as well as an expansion of naval air capacity. On June 17, a few days after German troops conquered France, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark requested an unheard of four billion dollars from Congress to increase the size of the American combat fleet by 70. On June 18, after less than an hour of debate, the House of Representatives by a 316–0 vote authorized $8.55 billion for a naval expansion program, giving emphasis to aircraft. Rep. Vinson, who headed the House Naval Affairs Committee, said its emphasis on carriers did not represent any less commitment to battleships, but “The modern development of aircraft has demonstrated conclusively that the backbone of the Navy today is the aircraft carrier. The carrier, with destroyers, cruisers and submarines grouped around it is the spearhead of all modern naval task forces.”
The Act authorized the procurement of:
- 18 aircraft carriers
- 2 Iowa-class battleships
- 5 Montana-class battleships
- 6 Alaska-class cruisers
- 27 cruisers
- 115 destroyers
- 43 submarines
- 15,000 aircraft
- The conversion of 100,000 tons of auxiliary ships
- $50 million for patrol, escort and other vessels
- $150 million for essential equipment and facilities
- $65 million for the manufacture of ordnance material or munitions
- $35 million for the expansion of facilities
The expansion program was scheduled to take five to six years, but a New York Times study of shipbuilding capabilities called it “problematical” unless planned “radical changes in design” are dropped. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 7th, most of the fleet was still in the shipyards being built. Many were not completed by the time the war was over. But the new emphasis on aircraft carriers and submarines made all the difference in the war’s outcome.
Congressmen Vincent’s knowledge of the Navy and the nation’s needs into the future played important roles in creating a fleet that would carry the nation into the years known as the Cold War. Modernization of existing ships and submarines were required to match the new threats that emerged from the end of the war. Rapid growth in nuclear proliferation added threats that would challenge the Navy and the nation as a whole. Vincent was a key supporter of the nuclear programs the Navy answer the threats.
One of the hallmarks of Carl’s career was his notable ability to make deals in congress. The nickname Georgia Swamp Fox was given to him by his colleagues for his skillful methods of achieving the goals he had set out to meet. Compromises and horse trading made sure that on the days where critical votes arrived, legislation that he deemed important to his causes typically gained approval. Imagine how difficult a vote in 1934 at the height of the depression must have been when people back home were still struggling with unemployment and losing their homes. But Vincent could see the trouble on the horizon and his vision prepared the country for the challenges that were to come.
Vinson did not seek re-election in 1964 and retired from Congress in January 1965. He returned to Baldwin County, Georgia, where he lived in retirement until his death. He is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville, Georgia.
“I devoutly hope that the casting of every gun and the building of every ship will be done with a prayer for the peace of America. I have at heart no sectional nor political interest but only the Republic’s safety.” Those words best capture the life of a great man.