Thoughts on Naval Strategy, World War II

By Morison, Samuel Eliot | Naval War College Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Thoughts on Naval Strategy, World War II


Morison, Samuel Eliot, Naval War College Review


THE INITIAL STRATEGIC DECISION WHICH dictated our course in this war was adopted by the secret conference at Washington in March 1941 between the British and American Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rear Admirals [R.L.] Ghormley and [Richmond] Kelly Turner, and Captains Alan Kirk and DeWitt Ramsey represented the U.S. Navy. The decision there made, incorporated in the ABC-1 Staff Agreement of 27 March 1941, was this: If and when America enters the war, she will exert "the principal United States military effort" in the European theater. America will try by diplomacy to prevent war with Japan, but even if that proves impossible, operations in the Pacific will be conducted in such a manner as "to facilitate" the effort against the European Axis.

The reasons behind this decision, which the Americans initiated, were: Germany had a far greater military potential than Japan; Germany already controlled almost the entire Atlantic coast of Europe and threatened the Americas; England was already fighting Germany and could be assisted immediately, whilst Japan at that time was fighting only China, which foreign aid could not reach; Germany had a dangerously superior capability for the manufacture of munitions, and, if given time, might well invent a new and unbeatable weapon-as she did, with the guided missile.

This decision governed our combined action with the British during the war, although, as Air Marshal Sir John Slessor remarked, it became "at times a bit frayed at the edges." The terms were so general as to admit a wide difference in interpretation. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, for instance, took them to mean that American manpower, ships, planes, and overall production should be devoted almost exclusively to the European theater until Hitler was defeated, and a purely defensive strategy adopted toward Japan from Pearl Harbor on. Admiral [Ernest J.] King [the Chief of Naval Operations], who well expressed the American point of view, insisted that, despite giving priority to the European theater,it would be fatal merely to let Japan consolidate the enormous conquests she had made in the first six months after Pearl Harbor. Japan must be kept off balance, and keeping your enemy off balance is always good strategy and sound tactics.

Owing to Admiral King's stout insistence on this concept of the ABC-1 Staff Agreement, battleships and carriers were transferred from the Atlantic to the Pacific Fleet in 1942;Japan was thrown off balance at Midway and stayed off balance; and the Pacific Fleet got its proper share of new construction. In October 1942 when the Army and Atlantic Fleet were concentrating on the massive Operation ToRcH, the invasion of North Africa, and it looked as if we would have to retire from Guadalcanal, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who insisted that we must reinforce "the Canal" with ships, planes, and men, at any cost. That decision helped us eject the enemy from Guadalcanal in February 1943 and to begin the long slog across the Pacific which ended on board the Missouri in September 1945. Japan was forced into a defensive strategy for which she was ill prepared and never really pulled herself together. Her only strategy, if it can be called such, after Guadalcanal was to play for time, sell every atoll and island dear, hoping the American public would get sick of the struggle.

Before the war, air power entered into strategic plans in the Pacific comparatively little. It is true that we had already adopted the modern tactical doctrine of employing carriers. Formerly, the role of carrier-based air had been conceived of as providing an "air umbrella" for battleships. But two or three years before Pearl Harbor both we and the Japanese had discarded this concept in favor of using carrier-borne air to project striking power deep into enemy-held waters and territory. The battleships, instead of being the protected, became the antiaircraft protectors to the carriers. During the first half of 1942 we used carrier groups for hit and run raids on Wake, Marcus, Tarawa, the Bismarcks, and even Tokyo.

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