Labor History                                                                       The BNY in the Inter-War Era

A Worker's History of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1925-1945: Background
The U. S. Navy Under The Republican Presidencies, 1921-1933
The Naval Disarmament Treaties
Chart: Naval Treaty Strength per Country, 1932, in Tons
American Naval Policy and Activities
Building Recommences in the Brooklyn Navy Yard

These years cover one of the most productive eras in the history of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when it constructed some eighteen major warships, as well as auxiliary craft and ship engines, drew up blueprints for ships built in other navy yards, and served as a major maintenance, repair, and supply dock for the fleet.  The BNY also ran naval Materials and Chemical Laboratories, as well as the Brooklyn Naval Hospital.

The BNY was relatively quiet for most the 1920s, serving as a repair yard in the first half of the decade and then limited to building one cruiser in the second half.  Construction fell drastically in the Hoover Depression years, not to be relieved until a course of new naval construction began in the middle 1930s, and it then increased exponentially into the war years.  This period can be divided roughly into four sections: the Hoover years, when the Yard suffered a labor surplus and production was light to non-existent; the first administration of Franklin Roosevelt, when the Yard under a government-sponsored rebuilding program regained employment stability; the half-decade before the American entry into World War II, when the Yard began to experience a labor shortage due to the enlarged building program; and the war years themselves when the navy yard was running full-tilt, 24/365, with a huge labor force, that might even have been marked by labor hoarding.

In particular, when considering the contribution of the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the American effort in World War II, the fifteen years leading up to the U.S.'s entry into the war are especially important.  Of the fifteen major warships and cutters it produced (five cruisers, two destroyers, two Coast Guard Cutters, one gunboat, three battleships, and two aircraft carriers) in the period from 1926 through the end of the war, only two, the aircraft carriers, were constructed solely within the period from 7 December 1941 to 1 September 1945 (and even they had been authorized before the war began).  The Yard's two most famous contributions during the war, the Iowa and the Missouri had both been laid down before Pearl Harbor.  (Three other aircraft carriers laid down during the conflict would not be completed until after the war ended.)  In terms of numbers of ships, the United States was already well on its way to building its full wartime fleet before Pearl Harbor.

The U. S. Navy Under The Republican Presidencies, 1921-1933
Naval administration during the 1920s was hemmed in by two government policies, each tending to promote a navy of minimal size.  Perhaps more than other the major powers the United States embraced the naval disarmament treaties of 1922 and 1930, with their capping of the size and tonnage of the signatories' fleets.  Coupled to this, the Republicans' emphasis on economy and balanced budgets in this decade also furthered the cause of a small fleet.  Hence, in understanding the history of naval ship production it must be remembered that in principle anyway, the government built and purchased warships for political, and not economic reasons.

The Naval Disarmament Treaties
The Brooklyn Navy Yard commissioned its last [WWI] wartime battleships, New Mexico and Tennessee, in May 1918 and June 1920 respectively, and then proceeded in March and November 1920 to lay down two more on its ways, the South Dakota and Indiana, the heaviest such vessels yet at 43,200 tons each.  Elsewhere around the country keels were laid for four other battleships as the Wilson government sought to enlarge the U.S. fleet to one befitting a new major world power.  But an anti-war spirit prevailed among most of the victorious but battered combatants, and, especially given the expense of builidng and maintaining warships, the major powers began looking for a way to minimize the size of their navies.

Warren Harding supported this idea and in November 1921 the President called for an international naval disarmament conference to meet in Washington.  The following year, the convened countries, the United States, Great Britain, Japan, France, and Italy, reached an agreement setting a total tonnage of aircraft carriers and battleships and dividing the amount among the five countries at the ratio of 5:5:3:1¾:1¾.  Battleship production was halted for ten years, the size of future ships capped at 35,000 tons and their guns restricted to a maximum bore diameter of 16 inches.  The treaty did permit the modernization of the remaining battleships, allowing navies to incorporate improvements to counter torpedo and bomb penetrations, to increase the cannons' angle of firing, and to convert all coal-burning vessels to oil burners.  No total tonnage limits were set on other warships, but the treaty did limit the size of cruisers to 10,000 tons and their armament to 8-inch guns.  In the Brooklyn navy yard, the two battleships on the building ways were scrapped, as were many of the fleet's oldest battleships, to bring the American total down to treaty limits.

With the treaty in place, the White House allowed the Navy to decline.  By the end of Harding's first year in office the enlisted strength of the navy had fallen from 113,103 to 86,000 and under Hoover it fell to less than 80,000, about par with Japan.  The Harding and Coolidge administrations made no attempt to build even what they could under the treaty and by 1932 the United States had just 148 ships of all classes in commission, as compared to 187 for Great Britain and 219 for Japan.  Between 1920 and 1932 the U.S. built 40 ships, for a total of 197,670 tons, while the U.K. produced 472,318 tons in 148 ships, and Japan 104, at 410,467 tons.  Even France and Italy built some half- and quarter-million tons each.  In addition, by the end of the 1920s the U.S.'s destroyers and submarines, all dating from the war, were nearing the end of their useful lives.  All in all, the navy was reproducing itself at a rate only one-quarter of its size in 1921, and expenditures for repairs and alterations, too, felt the cut of the budget axe.  This schedule was matched by a decline in commercial ship building, the U.S. slipping from first in production in 1918 to seventh in 1931.

With no obvious enemies in the Atlantic but with a potentially menacing one on the far shore of the other bordering ocean, the American navy moved the bulk of its ships to the west coast after the treaty was signed.  The Pacific was a huge sea to patrol and naval authorities thought that cruisers were precisely what was needed. Congress obliged and in the mid-1920s authorized a modest building program of eight cruisers and six river boats--the latter for use in China, their construction to be divided between public and private shipyards, but appropriated money for just two.  It assigned one of them, the Pensacola, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Each was to carry ten eight-inch guns, in four turrets.  Pressured by the still formidable big-navy lobby to start the others, Coolidge countered in 1927 by calling for another disarmament conference.  However, due to poor preparation the parties found no agreement and the meeting failed.  The government then released the money for the remaining six cruisers, and early in 1929 Congress authorized another set of ships: one airplane carrier and ten cruisers.  During this period in separate bills Congress also authorized and appropriated for six submarines and two additional carriers, assigning their construction to both private and government shipyards.

Hoover entered office in 1929 and immediately began informal talks with Great Britain toward setting up a third naval disarmament conference.  As a show of good faith, he suspended preparation on three cruisers from the second building program.  The new conference met in London in January 1930, but was attended only by delegates from the United States, Britain, and Japan.  The Americans obtained their goal of limiting tonnage on all classes of warships.  The parties agreed on a new limit on battleship tonnage, leading the U.S. to scrap three more of the ships, Britain five, and Japan one.  They set a new ratio of 15:15:9 for these ships and established a six-year holiday on their construction, the matter to be brought up once again at a conference in 1936. The parties divided up the cruiser tonnage using the same ratio as for their battleships, letting each country choose its own mix of six-inch (light) and eight-inch guns (heavy).  The three countries set size caps and extended the distribution ratio to destroyers and submarines, as well as issued a condemnation of the unrestrained use of submarines against commercial shipping.  Finally, they drew up a schedule of years at which each class of ship reached replacement age and therefore could be replaced.  To enforce the treaty the powers acceded to full disclosure, but they also set up certain conditions as to how a country could release itself from the treaty if it felt its national interests threatened.

The U.S. needed to scrap some destroyers and submarines, but in return could now  increase the size of its cruiser force, which is what it had wanted.  Given that for the three powers most of their war ships from the Great War were now “over-aged,” the treaty in effect codified the new round of shipbuilding that began in the mid-1930s.  The U.S. could build or replace half its carriers, 17% of its heavy cruisers and 51% of its light, near half its submarines, and all its destroyers.  Hoover called the Senate into special session in the summer of 1930 to ratify the treaty, which it did, and the treaty went into effect on 1 January 1931.  But Hoover made no attempt to build the navy up to its limits.  Instead, in response to the growing budgetary woes brought on by the Depression he suspended construction for two years, reduced expenses, and cut the naval payroll. [This preceding section is based upon: Mitchell, History of the Modern American Navy: From 1883 Through Pearl Harbor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946); Kaufman, Arms Control During the Pre-Nuclear Era: The United States and Naval Limitations between the Two World Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). Also see Roskill, Naval Policy between the Wars, vol. 1: The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism, 1919-1929 (London: Collins, 1968).]

Naval Treaty Strength per Country, 1932, in Tons
United States Great Britain Japan
Capital ships  525,000 525,000 315,000
Carriers 135,000 135,000   81,000
8" Cruisers  180,000* 146,800 108,400
6" Cruisers 143,500 192,200 100,450
Destroyers 150,000 150,000 105,500
Submarines   52,700   52,700   52,700
* 15,166 tons of 6" cruisers could be substituted for three 8" 10,000 ton ships.
Source: Secretary of the Navy, Annual Report, 1932.


American Naval Policy and Activities
Despite the wishes of those Americans in the 1920s who supported a “big-navy” and found their country's lack of naval parity with Great Britain troublesome, Congress and the Republican presidents, who did not feel threatened by their trans-Atlantic neighbor,  asserted only modest naval goals.  Accordingly, the U.S. Navy followed a “well-developed policy of supporting [the] national policies and commerce of the United States throughout the seven seas,” with its forces “dispersed to do this with minimum expenditures.”  To accomplish this, the navy needed to “build and maintain an efficient well-balanced fleet in all classes of fighting ships as allowed by Treaty provisions, and to preserve this status by building replacement ships and by disposing of old ships in accordance with continuing programs."  Essential for this, the Navy had to “retain for future use all stations now owned by the Navy that would be of use in the event of war,” and to “maintain in operation the number of shore stations required to support the Navy in time of peace." [Secretary of the Navy, Annual Report, 1933; "U.S. Naval Policy," Poster, signed by C.F. Adams, Secretary of the Navy; June 1931; RG181; NA-NY.]

In practice these principles were manifested in three action points: to “exercise and train the units of the fleet to the highest state of efficiency and provide a nucleus for expansion in case of national emergency”; to “protect American interests in disturbed areas”; and to “cultivate friendly relations with foreign peoples.”  In 1930 naval policy was addended to “assist countries to which United States aid has been extended.” [Secretary of the Navy, Annual Report, 1929, 1930.]

While ostensibly at peace, the American navy nevertheless made its presence known abroad in the 1920s helping to defend perceived American interests, intervening directly in China, Nicaragua, and Haiti, on a long-term basis, and showing the flag in Mexico and El Salvador.  However, while those nations might have thought differently, the U.S. government thought these actions too insubstantial to justify a larger navy. [Secretary of Navy, Annual Report, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932.]

Building Recommences in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
The BNY had two half-completed two battleships on the ways when work was halted on them in 1922 after the signing of the naval disarmament treaty.  While scrapping the ships provided some jobs, the drop in the BNY workforce was precipitous in the wake of the treaty.  The yard's force which had jumped from 4656 workers in April 1915 to a high of 16,704 in December 1918 fell to 3641 by August 1922.  Faced with similar reductions in other navy yards, the Navy Department decreased the length of the work week from six to five days between July 1921 until December 1922 in an attempt to spread the remaining work.  The employment situation was bleak and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, jr., could only hope that the private sector, then pulling out of the post-war slump could pick up the now expendable workers. [“Station Logbooks,” April 3, 1915-August 24, 1916; January 17, 1918-May 21, 1919; February 14, 1922-June 28, 1923; RG181; NA-NY.  Memo, ASN, July 1921; "Navy Yards and Stations";  NA-DC; Black, Charlestown Navy Yard; Announcement, ALNAVSTA 3, Theodore Roosevelt, ASN, July 1921; “Civil Employees”; RG80; NA-DC.]

Not surprisingly, BNY workers complained about the situation, even sending a delegation to the Navy Department in spring 1925 to discuss their workload.  But there was not much the Navy could do.  But lobbying did pay off.  In 1926, after four years of subsisting on repair and maintenance work, in a public ceremony the Yard laid the keel for one of the first cruisers authorized by Congress in the mid-1920s, the Pensacola.  Yard workers eagerly took on the new work.  However, Coolidge and Hoover's frugality in warship construction continued and as the Great Depression first broke and then deepened, the navy yard saw no future construction work coming its way to replace the Pensacola, due to leave the Yard in early 1930.  By then the Brooklyn Navy Yard was in serious trouble. [File Memorandum, Tompkins, Navy Department, May 1925; “Work Load - Assignment of Work, vol.1"; RG80; NA-DC.]


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John R Stobo            ©            August 2004; October 2004