Modernizing the Armed Forces

The intensification of international rivalries led most of the Great Powers to seek additional protection and advantage in diplomatic alliances and alignments. By the early years of the twentieth century the increasingly complex network of agreements had resulted in a new and precarious balance of power in world affairs. This balance was constantly in danger of being upset, particularly because of an unprecedented arms race characterized by rapid enlargement of armies and navies and development of far more deadly weapons and tactics. While the United States remained aloof from such “entangling alliances,” it nevertheless continued to modernize and strengthen its own armed forces, giving primary attention to the Navy—the first line of defense.
The Navy’s highly successful performance in the Spanish-American War increased the willingness of Congress and the American public to support its program of expansion and modernization. For at least a decade after the war Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and other leaders who favored a “Big Navy” policy with the goal of an American fleet second only to that of Great Britain had little difficulty securing the necessary legislation and funds for the Navy’s expansion program.
For the Navy another most important result of the War with Spain was the decision to retain possessions in the Caribbean and the western Pacific. In the Caribbean, the Navy acquired more bases for its operations such as that at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The value of these bases soon became apparent as the United States found itself intervening more frequently in the countries of that region to protect its expanding investments and trade. In the long run, however, acquisition of the Philippines and Guam was even more significant, for it committed the United States to defense of territory thousands of miles from the home base. American naval strength in the Pacific had to be increased im- mediately to ensure maintenance of a secure line of communications for the land forces that had to be kept in the Philippines. One way to accomplish this increase, with an eye to economy of force, was to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama to allow Navy ships to move more rapidly from the Atlantic to the Pacific as circumstances demanded. Another was to acquire more bases in the Pacific west of Hawaii, which was annexed in 1898. Japan’s spectacular naval victories in the war with Russia and Roosevelt’s dispatch of an American fleet on a round-the- world cruise from December 1907 to February 1909 drew public attention to the problem. But most Americans failed to perceive Japan’s growing threat to U.S. possessions in the western Pacific, and the line of communications to the Philippines remained incomplete and highly vulnerable.
The Navy worked hard to expand the fleet and incorporate the latest technological developments in ship design and weapons. The modernization program that had begun in the 1880s and had much to do with the Navy’s effectiveness in the Spanish-American War continued tors, including Hiram Maxim, John Browning, and Isaac N. Lewis, the last an officer in the Army’s coast artillery, took a leading part in devel- oping automatic machine guns in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Weapons based on their designs were adopted by many of the armies of the world. But not until fighting began in World War I would it be generally realized what an important role the machine gun was to have in modern tactics. Thus, in the years between 1898 and 1916, Congress appropriated only an average of $150,000 annually for procurement of machine guns, barely enough to provide four weapons for each regular regiment and a few for the National Guard. Finally in 1916 Congress voted $12 million for machine-gun procurement, but the War Department held up its expenditure until 1917 while a board tried to decide which type of weapon was best suited to the needs of the Army.
Development of American artillery and artillery ammunition also lagged behind that of west European armies. The Army did adopt in 1902 a new basic field weapon, the three-inch gun with an advanced recoil mechanism. Also, to replace the black powder that had been the subject of such widespread criticism during the War with Spain, both the Army and the Navy took steps to increase the domestic output of smokeless powder. By 1903 production was sufficient to supply most American artillery for the small Regular Army.
Experience gained in the Spanish-American War also brought some significant changes in the Army’s coastal defense program. The hurriedly improvised measures taken during the war to protect Atlantic ports from possible attack by the Spanish Fleet emphasized the need for modern seacoast defenses. Under the strategic concepts in vogue, construction and manning of these defenses were primarily Army responsibilities since in wartime the naval fleet had to be kept intact, ready to seek out and destroy the enemy’s fleet. On the basis of recommendations by the Endicott Board, the Army already had begun an ambitious coastal defense construction program in the early 1890s. In 1905 a new board headed by Secretary of War William Howard Taft made important revisions in this program with the goal of incorporating the latest techniques and devices. Added to the coastal defense arsenal were fixed, floating, and mobile torpedoes and submarine mines. At the same time the Army’s Ordnance Department tested new and more powerful rifled artillery for installation in the coastal defense fortifications in keeping with the trend toward larger and larger guns to meet the challenge of naval weapons of ever-increasing size.
Of the many new inventions that came into widespread use in the early twentieth century in response to the productive capacity of the new industrial age, none was to have greater influence on military strategy, tactics, and organization than the internal combustion engine. It made possible the motor vehicle, which, like the railroad in the previous century, brought a revolution in military transportation, and the airplane and tank, both of which would figure importantly in World War I. The humble internal combustion engine was not as exciting or as dramatic a development as the machine gun or a new type of howitzer, but its long-term impact changed the face of warfare and made possible the huge mechanized formations that were to dominate war in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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