Surviving the Peace: The Advent of American Naval Oceanography, 1914-1924

Article excerpt

THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF the United States Navy, surviving the peace has proved as difficult as winning the war. At the conclusion of the worldwide carnage of 1914-1918, most Americans turned their backs on the prospect of armed conflict and foreign entanglements. In this political environment the Navy Department searched for ways to demonstrate its peacetime utility and its continuing financial need to a war-weary public and skeptical Congress. So it was that after displaying considerable promise during the Great War, oceanography figured prominently in one of the political survival strategies adopted by the Navy during the early 1920s and became a regular part of the fleet's mission through the financially difficult interwar years. The commitment first made by both the Navy and civilian science between 1914 and 1924, as well as their desire to cooperate (for both idealistic and practical reasons), permitted a quick response to the maritime challenges posed by the Axis twenty-one years after the guns went silent on the Western Front in 1918.

World War I and the U-boat provided a catalyst that accelerated American naval oceanographic studies, dramatically altered scientific practice, and profoundly affected the selection of new subjects for ocean science. Wartime projects under the aegis of the Naval Consulting Board and the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (or NRC) drew scientists from a great many specialties out of their normal academic or industrial environments to address the critical needs of the operational forces.1 Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and pro-submarine investigations provided considerable incentive and added new avenues to the study of the ocean depths, avenues that some scientists continued to pursue after the war ended. In the course of this work, oceanography came of age in America and demonstrated its value to the United States Navy.

Between 1914 and 1918 oceanographic ASW research, as opposed to prosubmarine investigations, dominated the attention of the allied scientists who were asked to devise an effective way to neutralize the German submarine threat. In the United States this effort was organized along two parallel lines, one directed by the Navy and the other by the civilian scientific community at the request of the Navy Department.

In the Navy, the primary effort to draft scientists into the war effort was represented by the Naval Consulting Board (NCB), created in July 1915.3 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who established the Board, placed it under the direction of the famous inventor Thomas A. Edison to evaluate suggestions and inventions offered to improve the Navy's performance should America become involved in the war. Throughout its existence, the Naval Consulting Board remained an advisory body to the Secretary of the Navy. It could encourage research into and development of systems like the magnetic submarine detector invented by physicist Vannevar Bush.4 But, having no research and development money of its own, the Board and its committees remained merely advocates, urging Secretary Daniels to support promising developments in the private sector.

When the United States actually became a belligerent in 1917, Daniels expanded the Board's powers, and it instituted special committees to explore difficult wartime problems. As early as 26 October 1915 the Secretary had ordered the Navy's Bureau of Construction and Repair to investigate a means of detecting submerged submarines from a surface ship. One week after President Woodrow Wilson severed relations with Germany on 3 February 1917, the Naval Consulting Board created a Committee on Special Problems to coordinate naval and civilian efforts on U-boat detection and destruction, including those initiated by the naval bureaus and those sponsored by the National Research Council.6 This committee, chaired by Board member Lawrence Addicks, divided the problem of ASW into its component parts for consideration by subcommittees. …