IN THE 1920's the defense establishment -- the war establishment, as it was then called -- was comprised of the Army and the Navy. The air force was a part of the Army. Little popular interest was taken in the Army, which was a fairly small organization (less than 119,000 men after 1927) with relatively inexpensive equipment. Indeed, even in terms of the primitive military hardware of the twenties, the Army was badly off. The new advocates of military airpower, led by General Billy Mitchell, pushed for an independent air force that would match that of any other power. But the President found the rambunctious Mitchell irritating and completely thwarted him.
In contrast to the Army, the Navy was a strain on the national resources, and for this reason much discussion centered on naval affairs. Considering the small size of the total federal budget, a few billion dollars, expenses of the Navy loomed large. Moreover, public sentiment following the Great War was antimilitaristic. Americans dreamed of peace through arms limitation or disarmament. In such an atmosphere the Navy did not thrive. It had aspired to become perhaps "second to none" by achieving the building program announced in 1916, but the State Department dashed these hopes at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22.
When Coolidge was attempting to achieve his primary objective as Chief Executive -- a budget surplus -- the Navy appropriation was a natural subject of his scrutiny. But Coolidge knew that if he trimmed the military, particularly the Navy, unduly, he would