Neglect of America's defence forces between the two World Wars

In the early 1930s, the United States entered a lengthy period of isolationism that ranged from outright pacifism to unwillingness to be involved in foreign issues that did not directly affect American national interests. The isolationist lobby was represented in Congress by a powerful group of politicians. The isolationists were backed by another influential lobby that believed in peace at any cost. Their counterparts could be found in the British and French governments of the 1930s that allowed Adolf Hitler to rearm in breach of the Treaty of Versailles and tried to appease Hitler at Munich by handing him the western portion of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland.


USS Pennsylvania symbolised perfectly the neglect of its navy by the United States between the World Wars. At the time of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, USS Pennsylvania was flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Pennsylvania was commissioned in 1916. The maximum speed of this elderly battleship was only 21 knots. It would have been an easy target for Japanese submarine and air attack.

The isolationist and peace lobbies forced drastic cuts to the funding of America's defence forces between the two World Wars, and obstructed attempts to modernize and re-equip the American Army and Navy even when it became clear from 1931 that Imperial Japan intended to expand its territory by military aggression in East Asia. These two lobbies would be responsible for causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of inadequately trained and equipped Americans who went into battle against the powerful war machines of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.

Neglect of the US Navy

The naval limitation treaty enabled Congress to cut funding for the US Navy severely. During the 1920s, Congress did not even maintain naval shipbuilding at levels permitted by the treaty, and many American shipyards were forced to close their gates. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 also made it easier for Congress to justify starving the armed forces of funding when millions of Americans were walking the streets in search of work.

Aircraft carriers of the caliber of the famous World War II Yorktown Class could not be bought "off the shelf" at a time of defence emergency of the kind produced for the United States by Pearl Harbor. The lead time between approval by the US Navy General Board for building a new class of major warship and its commissioning to the fleet can easily stretch to four years in time of peace. But for the efforts of two far-sighted men, the United States would have been denied the potential to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway. Those men were Congressman Carl Vinson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Carl Vinson, as Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, was a dedicated advocate of a strong and balanced two-ocean Navy. Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War I, believed that protection of American interests required a strong navy, especially in the Pacific where Japan had illegally invaded and annexed China's Manchurian region in 1931.

President Roosevelt pushed through the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in 1933. This famous New Deal legislation, among other important provisions, produced funding in 1934 for 70 new US Navy ships, including two new Yorktown Class aircraft carriers. NIRA permitted the building of two of the most famous carriers of World War II - the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) and her sister carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). These two carriers played vital roles in defeating the Japanese invasion force at Midway. Yorktown also played a key role in defeating the Japanese invasion forces at the earlier Battle of the Coral Sea.

During the remainder of the 1930s, President Roosevelt and Carl Vinson worked together to modernise and re-equip the US Navy. In 1940, alarmed by the extent of Nazi German conquests in Europe, Roosevelt and Vinson pushed through the Vinson-Walsh "Two Ocean Navy Act" that provided for a vastly expanded US Navy and for the building of the powerful Essex Class carriers that overwhelmed the Japanese Navy from late 1943. Carl Vinson's enormous contribution to Allied victory in the Pacific and Europe was commemorated in the Nimitz Class carrier USS Carl Vinson.

Despite the dedicated work of Carl Vinson, and the support of President Roosevelt, the isolationist and peace lobbies in Congress were equally untiring in their obstruction of adequate funding for the modernisation and re-equipping of the US Navy. As a result of this obstruction, all US Navy battleships except USS North Carolina (launched 1941), and many of its cruisers and destroyers, were still relics of the World War I era when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The eight elderly battleships destroyed or damaged at Pearl Harbor had all been built between 1914 and 1921.

Naval aviation was also suffering from neglect. American naval aviators were still flying obsolete torpedo planes armed with very unreliable torpedoes at the great naval battles of Coral Sea and Midway. American submarines were using similar torpedoes during the first year of war, and many of those torpedoes simply bounced off Japanese warships without exploding.

In sharp contrast with the United States, the Japanese government spent heavily on the Imperial Navy and Army throughout the 1930s. This was easier for a Japanese government because of Japan's strong militaristic tradition and the intense nationalism drilled into that country's citizens. Most Japanese felt intense pride in the growing power of their Imperial Navy. Recognising that aircraft carriers would be an effective means of projecting Japan's military power, the Japanese began to build the most powerful carrier fleet in the world with Britain's help. Japan was able to do this because battleships were the major focus of the naval limitation treaty. By the beginning of 1940, Japan had the largest and most powerful navy in the Pacific Ocean. Japan's fifty army divisions were well equipped and well trained for war.

Fortunately for the United States, the four aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet that escaped the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack were the equal of the best carriers in the Japanese navy.

Neglect of the US Army

The US Army had also been starved of funding and allowed to run down during the two decades following World War I. When Nazi Germany initiated the Second World War by invading Poland on 1 September 1939, the US Army was a relatively small professional force of only 175,000 men - equivalent in size to the army of Belgium. Much of its equipment was either dated or obsolescent by European standards. Although the isolationist and peace lobbies opposed any substantial increase in America's army, or re-equipment with modern weapons, President Roosevelt responded to the invasion of Poland by declaring a limited national emergency and was able to extract funding from Congress to increase the size of the army to a more realistic number of one and a half million troops.

The Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, now faced the major challenge of overcoming two decades of neglect and preparing the army for the increasing likelihood of war against powerful enemies with modern equipment and weapons, and combat-toughened troops.

Much of the weaponry and other equipment for the rapidly growing American army dated from World War I, and the American battle tank provides a good example of how neglect of the armed services and their equipment during peacetime can impose a heavy and unnecessary cost in lives in time of war.

At the beginning of 1940, with Europe aflame, the only battle tank available to the US Army was the elderly Grant M2 light infantry tank. Most versions of this tank were armed only with machine guns. Although the final version was equipped with a 37mm gun, the Germans would almost certainly have split their sides laughing if Americans had been able to come ashore on the beaches of France in 1942 driving these antiquated tanks. Any shell fired by a Grant M2 would have bounced off the thick armour of German tanks.

After studying the nature of tank warfare that had been taking place in Europe, the American generals declared in 1940 that their Grant M2 battle tank was obsolete and called for new designs.

The rapid success of the Nazi war machine in overrunning Europe now persuaded Congress to fund the design and development of new battle tanks for the army, but it was not until March 1941 that the US Army was granted the funding that enabled it to order the Sherman M4 medium tank. Although its thinner armour and underpowered gun made the Sherman no match for the German Panther and Tiger tanks in one-to-one combat, this American tank would become the primary battle tank of Allied armies until the end of World War II.

American tank crews were well aware of the deficiencies of the Sherman. They worked out a rough rule of thumb that it needed at least four Shermans to knock out a huge German Tiger tank with its thicker armour and much larger calibre armour-piercing gun. To do so, it would usually be necessary for the Shermans to lie hidden until a Tiger had passed and then hope to penetrate the thinner armour on its sides and rear. Many American tank crews died in their thinly armoured and under-gunned Shermans, but they overcame the Germans eventually because American industry could produce Shermans in huge numbers.

It was not until January 1945 that the US Army finally took delivery of M-26 Pershing heavy tanks that would have been almost equal in firepower to German tanks on the battlefield. Development of the Pershing heavy battle tank began in 1942, but other wartime priorities caused delays in development. The Pershing did not go into production until the closing stages of the war in Europe in October 1944.