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On This Date: Congress Established the Modern Navy 77 Years Ago

by Countable | 7.19.17

On July 19, 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Two Ocean Navy Act into law, allowing the U.S. Navy to grow in size by 70 percent thanks to the largest naval spending program to that point in American history. It provided $8.55 billion (over $144 billion in 2016 dollars) in funding to grow both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets as World War II escalated in Europe and Asia, threatening to draw the U.S. into the conflict.

Why was it needed and what did it do?

Following World War I, public opinion in the U.S. had shifted toward isolationism in global conflicts and other international political disputes. Given that domestic political environment, Congress wasn’t willing to expend many resources to modernize the military, an attitude which was exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression. By the time of Japan’s invasion of China and Germany’s blitzkrieg through Poland and Western Europe in the late 1930’s, America’s military modernization was still in its early stages and lawmakers were concerned things were moving too slowly as the clouds of war grew darker.

On June 17, 1940 — just before France fell to Germany — the Chief of Naval Operations asked Congress for $4 billion to grow the Navy’s combat fleet by 70 percent to protect U.S. interests in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The next day after less than a hour of debate, under the guidance of Rep. Carl Vinson (D-GA), the House unanimously passed a $8.55 billion funding package that not only granted the request to grow the combat fleet, but also made a new type of warship the focal point of the modern Navy: the aircraft carrier. As Rep. Vinson was quoted in the New York Times following the House’s passage of the bill:

"The modern development of aircraft has demonstrated conclusively that the backbone of the Navy today is the aircraft carrier. The carrier, with destroyers, cruisers and submarines grouped around it[,] is the spearhead of all modern naval task forces.”

The Two-Ocean Navy Act authorized the purchase of 18 aircraft carriers, seven battleships, 33 cruisers, 115 destroyers, 43 submarines and 15,000 aircraft over a five- to six-year period. It also provided for the construction and modification of support ships, in addition to $250 million to improve naval facilities and acquire other needed equipment.

Rep. Vinson’s counterpart in the Senate, Sen. David Walsh (D-MA), shepherded the bill through his chamber without controversy, which cleared the way for President Roosevelt to sign the Two-Ocean Navy Act (also known as the Vinson-Walsh Act) into law on July 19.

Did it work and why does it matter?

In terms of spurring the expansion and modernization of the U.S. Navy, the Two-Ocean Navy Act proved to be incredibly consequential. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII nearly 17 months later led to a reassessment of shipbuilding priorities, but most of the construction authorized by this legislation went ahead as planned.

The newly-expanded Navy played an important role in securing victory for the Allies in WWII. In the Atlantic, it supported the campaigns to liberate North Africa, Italy, and eventually France following D-Day when it wasn’t ferrying equipment and supplies to Britain and the Soviet Union or fighting the German Navy. On the other side of the world in the vast expanses of the Pacific, the Navy was even more indispensable and was used to support numerous amphibious landings to rollback the Japanese empire — winning several famous battles at places like Midway, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa.

Aircraft carriers proved to be as useful as Rep. Vinson believed they would be and quickly became a vital part of America’s fleet. At the time the legislation passed, the Navy had just seven fleet-size aircraft carriers in service, but another 18 were built by the end of the war in addition to dozens of smaller carriers.

Today, the U.S. Navy is the world’s largest and most capable thanks in large part to its fleet of 10 aircraft carriers. At any point in time, several of those carriers are deployed around the world in the Atlantic, Pacific, or Indian Oceans (three are deployed today) while the others undergo maintenance before rejoining the rotation. Among the carriers currently in service is the USS Carl Vinson, named in honor of the congressman who became known as “The Father of the Two-Ocean Navy.”

― Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy via LCDR Charles Kerlee, USNR / Public Domain)


Written by Countable

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