American Classics

Benjamin F. Tracy, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (1889)

In March 1889, a hurricane destroyed or disabled three American warships in the Samoan harbor of Apia, where they had been deployed to support the United States in a political dispute with Britain and Germany over the status of the islands.   The accident left the United States without any effective naval force in the Pacific and revealed the weaknesses of the existing fleet, as the old warships had been unable to get to sea and ride out the storm.  Advocates of a more assertive American foreign policy, to be underwritten by an expanded modern navy, seized upon the incident.  A perfect political storm did seem to favor their cause.  The new President, Benjamin Harrison, was a big-navy advocate, and for the first time since 1875, the Republican Party enjoyed clear majorities in both Houses of Congress.  U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was completing his landmark book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, and his arguments were already circulating among such influential and would-be influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt and Harrison’s Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Franklin Tracy.

Tracy, a decorated Brigadier General during the Civil War, was an able politician and administrator who laid out the blueprint for a new American Navy in his Annual Report of 1889 (excerpted below). Tracy’s official statement placed the Harrison administration squarely behind Mahan and the naval expansionist school.  Although defense, not conquest, was the object of American national security and naval policy, Tracy argued that defense required a fighting force capable of engaging the fleets of potentially hostile powers.  He evaluated the U.S. Navy as being inferior not only to such major powers as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany, but also to the fleets of Holland, Spain, Italy, Turkey, China, Sweden-Norway, and Austria-Hungary.

According to Tracy, the principal maritime threat to American security and interests stemmed from the need to protect an exposed coast line of 13,000 miles upon which were situated more than twenty great centers of population, wealth, and commercial activity, wholly unprotected against modern weapons.  These were inviting objects to attack, with a wide range of choice as to the points to be selected. Any one of the powers named above could, without serious difficulty, secure in a single raid upon the coast, an amount of money sufficient to meet the expenses of a naval war. A hostile power could also blockade the coastal ports.  (Tracy mentioned only in passing the need to secure American commerce and citizens overseas, and to demonstrate American national power, which was becoming one of the principal arguments of the Mahanian school.)

To deal with this threat, the Secretary recommended abandoning the past strategy of building commerce-raiding cruisers and coastal monitors in favor of creating a force of capital ships.  Isolated successes against the merchant fleet of an enemy would not protect the American coast from bombardment by the enemy’s main battle fleet.   According to Tracy, the United States must be able “to raise blockades” and to “beat off the enemy’s fleet on its approach;” and to operate in the enemy’s own waters and threaten its coast because “a war, although defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations.”

This strategy would require the development of a balanced naval forced eventually centered on twenty sea-going battleships.  This must be a fleet-in-being: “Naval wars in the future will be short and sharp. It is morally certain that they will be fought out to the end with the force available at the beginning. The nation that is ready to strike the first blow will gain an advantage which its antagonist can never offset, and inflict an injury from which he can never recover.” Deterrence must be actively pursued:  “The country needs a navy that will exempt it from war, but the only navy that will accomplish this is a navy that can wage war.”

The Navy’s capital ships would be divided into two fleets, one of which would be assigned to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts (twelve) and the other to the Pacific (eight).  These battleships should be world-class in terms of “armament, armor, structural strength and speed.”  Speed was especially important because it allowed ships to determine when and where to engage the enemy.  In addition, in a nod to conservative elements in the Navy and Congress, Tracy called for the construction of sixty fast armored cruisers, a large number of torpedo boats, and “at least twenty vessels for coast and harbor defense.”  To support the fleets, Tracy proposed to acquire overseas bases.

In the fall of 1889, the Secretary also appointed a six-member Naval Policy Board to advise him on strategic and technical matters.  The Board’s findings, submitted to Tracy in January 1890, were leaked and generated a storm of controversy.  The Board recommended a fleet of ten first-class, extended-range battleships (15,000 miles), capable of operations against the enemy and for attacking “points on the other side of the Atlantic;” as well as twenty-five battleships with lesser range; and a total of over two hundred warships of various types.

USS Oregon, 1898

Tracy disavowed the findings of the Policy Board, as did Congressional supporters of a large navy.  This was a bridge too far for public opinion.

The Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Representative Charles Boutelle, drafted a bill which authorized the construction of three battleships, rather than the eight that Tracy proposed as the first step in his plan.  At the suggestion of Republican Representative Henry Cabot Lodge, these were characterized as “sea-going coast-line battleships” to emphasize their limited range (5,000 nautical miles).  Boutelle described his intentions:  “By building such ships, we should avoid the popular apprehension of jingoism in naval matters, while we can develop the full offensive and defensive powers of construction as completely as in the foreign cruising battleships in all but speed and fuel capacity.”  The 1890 naval appropriations would be an installment toward a much more ambitious program down the road, when public opinion had been properly prepared.

Opponents of Tracy’s plan argued that land fortifications and light cruisers remained the most effective instruments of defense for the United States in the event of war.  To the extent that offensive operations were indicated, the U.S. Navy should adopt a counter-commerce strategy rather than a counter-force approach.  They pointed out that the logic of Tracy’s position required the United States to build a battleship force at least as large as that of its most likely opponents, Great Britain and France, which called for something like the Policy Board’s program rather than the half-way measures of the Navy Secretary.  The expense of such a program was unwise in its own right.  And by building a power-projection navy the United States would soon find reason to use it.  Contrary to Mahan, there was no such thing as a decisive naval action.  Tracy’s critics argued that battleships themselves would soon become obsolete, due to advances in gun and projectile technology, over that of armor.

Lodge and the naval expansionists defended Tracy’s position.  If the United States was to claim its place as a world power and to defend the Monroe Doctrine against future European encroachment, then it must begin to act appropriately and build up a first-class navy.

In the end, Congress approved three sea-going coast-line battleships – as they were described, per Lodge – in what became the Oregon class, which included the Indiana and the Massachusetts.   The House vote was 131 to 105; the Senate, 33-18.   These battleships displaced ten thousand tons and mounted four 13-inch and eight 8-inch rifled guns.  Their secondary armament included four torpedo tubes and many rapid-fire guns.  Their speeds varied from 15.5 to nearly 17 knots, and their cost averaged $6 million per ship.  This did not represent the great naval revolution that Tracy, much less the Policy Board, had envisioned.  But the 1889 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, and the 1890 Naval Appropriations Bill, represented important signs that the United States, as Mahan put it, was indeed looking outward.



(B.F Tracy)

Navy Department, November 30, 1889.

To the President: The effective force of the United States Navy, when all the ships now authorized are completed, excluding those which by the process of decay and the operation of law will by that date have been condemned, will comprise 11 armored vessels, of which only three are battle-ships, and 31 unarmored vessels, making a total of 42. The following statement shows the number of war vessels on the effective list of the principal foreign powers, built, building, or projected, at the present time, and exclusive of sailing and practice ships:

[Table omitted – showed that England had 76 armored and 291 unarmored (367 total); France, 57 armored and 203 unarmored (260 total); down to eleventh place Austria, 12 armored and 44 unarmored (56) total]

The table shows that even when the present building program is completed, the United States cannot take rank as a naval power. The purpose for which the United States maintains a navy is not conquest, but defense. For reasons of economy and public policy, the force should be as small as is consistent with this object. But it appears from the above comparison, that with all the additions authorized by the legislation of the last seven years, the country, as far as its capacity for defense is concerned, will be absolutely at the mercy of states having less than one-tenth of its population, one-thirtieth of its wealth, and one-hundredth of its area.

While the element of defensive strength is thus clearly deficient, the vulnerable points open to an enemy’s attack, and the interests liable at all times to injury, are numerous and important. A coast line of 13,000 miles upon which are situated more than twenty great centers of population, wealth, and commercial activity, wholly unprotected against modern weapons, affords an inviting object of attack, with a wide range of choice as to the points to be selected. Any one of the powers named could, without serious difficulty, even after the completion of our fleet as now authorized, secure in a single raid upon our coast, an amount of money sufficient to meet the expenses of a naval war; an amount, one-half of which, if judiciously expended over a series of years, would be sufficient to afford this country a guaranty of perpetual peace. The defense of the United States absolutely requires the creation of a fighting force.

So far the increase has been mainly in the direction of unarmored cruisers. These vessels, while useful in deterring commercial states from aggression and as an auxiliary to secure celerity and efficiency in larger operations, do not constitute a fighting force, even when it is intended exclusively for defense. To meet the attack of ironclads, ironclads are indispensable. To carry on even a defensive war with any hope of success we must have armored battle-ships. The capture or destruction of two or three dozen or two or three score of merchant vessels is not going to prevent a fleet of ironclads from shelling chant vessels is not going to prevent a fleet of ironclads from shelling our cities or exacting as the price of exemption a contribution that would pay for their lost merchantmen ten times over. We must do more than this. We must have the force to raise blockades, which are almost as disastrous to commercial cities as bombardment. We must have a fleet of battle ships that will beat off the enemy’s fleet on its approach, for it is not to be tolerated that the United States, with its population, its revenue, and its trade, is to submit to attack upon the threshold of its harbors. Finally, we must be able to divert an enemy’s force from our coast by threatening his own, for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations.

If the country is to have a navy at all, it should have one that is sufficient for the complete and ample protection of its coast in time of war. If we are to stop short of this, we might better stop where we are, and abandon all claim to influence and control upon the sea. It is idle to spend our money in building small, slow-going steamers, that are unnecessary in peace and useless for war. It is little better than a repetition of the mistaken policy that prevailed in our early history, of building gunboats that were laid up or sold as soon as war broke out. The country needs a navy that will exempt it from war, but the only navy that will accomplish this is a navy that can wage war.

The policy of military aggrandizement is totally repugnant to American institutions, and is not likely ever to be entered upon. The present question has nothing to do with such a policy. It is a practical business question of insuring our property and our trade, in which the commercial cities of the coast, the ports on our lake frontier, and the centers of production in the interior are alike interested. The naval force before the [Civil] war, when the population numbered thirty millions, included ninety vessels of all classes. Before the completion of the present program, which will give a total of less than half that number, the population will have more than doubled, and the wealth on our coast subject to injury or destruction will have increased tenfold. The annual increase of wealth in this country is estimated to equal that of England, France, and Germany, and before it can create an effective navy its population is certain to exceed that of any two of these powers combined. Such a nation cannot be indifferent to events taking place in close proximity to its own coasts, threatening the freedom of its commerce and the security of its seaport cities. The questions that have arisen and that will continue to arise in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific concern the prosperity and development of the United States too closely to be further ignored, and our interests in these localities are too important to be left longer unprotected.

The cost of building a navy casts no perceptible burden upon a country of our vast resources. It is the premium paid by the United States for the insurance of its acquired wealth and its growing industries. Compared with the interests that are secured, the rate is low. It is a cheap price to pay for safety. We collect in duties in six months at a single port a greater sum than we could spend in building a new navy in six years. For the past two years the Government has paid its creditors for the privilege of discounting its debt before it was due twice the sum we have spent in reconstruction. And the fact must be re membered that of the amount which we spend for the construction of a ship, only a small fraction, perhaps one-tenth, goes for absolutely raw material, while the remaining nine-tenths represents, in one form or another, the earnings of American labor. It is sometimes asserted that there need be no haste about building ships, upon the supposition that our reserve strength is sufficient to improvise a force in time of war. This is a fatal mistake. Naval wars in the future will be short and sharp. It is morally certain that they will be fought out to the end with the force available at the beginning. The nation that is ready to strike the first blow will gain an advantage which its antagonist can never offset, and inflict an injury from which he can never recover.

Under the most favorable circumstances, with the largest experience and the best mechanical appliances, the construction of war-ships takes a long time. In the United States much has been learned in the last eight years, and facilities have been greatly enlarged, but much still remains to be done, and a longer time is required here than in the ship yards of Europe. The design and construction of the innumerable and complex details of a modern war-ship cannot be hurried. There is no branch of mechanical art in which haste leads more certainly to wastefulness and imperfection. The limited capacity of our establishments, public and private, is a further cause of delay. If Congress were ready today to authorize the construction of all the ships that we need it would be a mechanical impossibility for the country, with its present appliances, to furnish them within fifteen years; while the first six months of hostilities would not only see our exposed cities forced to submit to heavy contributions, but every ship-yard in the country, public or private, destroyed, and thus the last hope extinguished of creating a navy to meet the emergency of war. 


The new cruisers are eight in number, the Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, and Dolphin, contracted for in 1883, and the Baltimore, Charleston, Yorktown, and Petrel, contracted for in 18S6 and 1887. . . .  The net results of the Department’s operations for the last seven years are more than satisfactory. The assaults made, with more audacity than judgment, upon the four experimental cruisers of 1882 have been met successfully by the performance of the vessels, and all doubts of their efficiency, if such doubts ever really existed, are laid at rest forever; while the four cruisers of 1886, assuming that the Petrel will eventually come up to the mark, in their advance over their predecessors, prove that both designers and constructors have kept themselves abreast of the extraordinary development in ship-building since the earlier cruisers were laid down, and have taken full advantage of the information and experience which they were enabled to acquire through the measures adopted at that time by the Navy Department.


To stop now in the work of reconstruction, is to abandon everything we have gained. We have proved that at a time when war-ship construction had seemed almost a lost art in this country, American mechanics could create it anew and place the United States where it was seventy years ago, when the vessels of its Navy were the best of their class afloat. We have fostered and developed a branch of industry in America which may, if kept up, attract to itself no inconsiderable share of the profits that now go to ship-builders abroad. We have secured for our Navy a certain number of excellent and useful vessels of the unprotected cruiser type, at a fair and reasonable cost. We have thus laid a solid foundation. But we must not for a moment deceive ourselves by supposing that we have an effective Navy. We have two distinct and widely separated ocean frontiers to protect, and there is only one way in which they can be protected, namely, by two separate fleets of armored battle ships, with coast-defense ships suitably distributed to cover the most exposed localities. Of the great cities on the Atlantic, and of the long stretch of unprotected coast on the Gulf, from Key West to the Rio Grande, which is faced by the territorial possessions of a multitude of foreign states, it is hardly necessary to speak at length. On the Pacific coast there are large and growing interests of vital importance, not only to that immediate neighborhood but to the whole country, throughout its length and breadth. Among the enterprising and rapidly growing cities which form the bulwarks of our commercial prosperity in that quarter, there are some, like Tacoma and Seattle, which it is physically impossible to protect by any land fortifications.

To abandon these cities, defensible only by the Navy, to the possible attacks of an enemy, and to subject to needless risk this coast and the vast region which it borders, a region second in importance to no other part of the United States, is to be guilty of an almost criminal negligence. The necessities of our vulnerable position therefore demand the immediate creation of two fleets of battleships, of which eight should be assigned to the Pacific and twelve to the Atlantic and Gulf. They must be the best of their class in four leading characteristics: armament, armor, structural strength, and speed. The last is nearly as essential to the battle-ship as it is to the cruiser. It may safely be assumed that, other things being equal, the battle-ship of the highest speed will as a rule be the victor in action, for she can choose her position and keep the enemy at a disadvantage. Not only must the speed of our battle-ships be high, but it must be uniformly high, for the speed of the fleet is regulated by that of the slowest vessel.

In addition to the battle-ships, the situation of the country requires at least twenty vessels for coast and harbor defense. These vessels, although restricted in their range of effectiveness, are necessary components of a naval force which has a sea-coast to defend. Their employment as floating fortresses requires that they should have a powerful battery and the heaviest of armor, combined with moderate draft. At the present time eight vessels of this type are under construction, five of which are reconstructed monitors. The one problem now before the Government, in the matter of a naval policy, is to get these forty vessels built at the earliest possible moment. The steps necessary to their completion, namely, legislation, design, and construction, cannot take less than five years in the case of each one. Unless the existing yards, public and private, are enlarged and re stocked with plant, not more than eight could be built at one time, and the construction of the others would have to wait for the launching of the first, tiding the utmost promptness, the ships most essential to efficient protection could not be supplied in less than twelve or fifteen years.

It is therefore recommended that the construction of eight armored vessels be authorized at the coming session, and that they be of the type of battle-ships rather than coast-defense ships; the former being more generally serviceable, and there being only three of them now in process of construction as against eight of the latter. In reference to fast cruisers, all modern experience goes to show that they are essential adjuncts of an armored fleet, and the proportion of three cruisers to one battle-strip is believed to be sound and reasonable. This would make the future navy consist of 20 battle-ships, 20 coast- defense ships, and 60 cruisers, or 100 vessels in all, which is believed to be a moderate estimate of the proper strength of the fleet. Of the 60 cruisers required, 31 are now built or authorized. For an increase in the number of cruisers, considered simply as auxiliaries to the fighting force of battle-ships, we may wisely wait until the latter are in process of construction. It must be remembered, however, that cruisers have another and equally important function in the attack and defense of commerce. Any stanch vessel with a good coal capacity and the highest rate of speed, armed with a few rapid-firing guns, though built and used principally for commercial purposes, may by certain adaptations in her construction be made readily available for this form of warfare. The fast transatlantic liners, nationalized in foreign countries, but supported and maintained by American trade and American passengers — many of them, even, owned by American citizens — are a powerful factor in the naval force of the Governments whose flag they bear and at whose disposal they must place themselves in time of war.

It is a matter for serious consideration whether steps may not be taken towards the creation of such a fleet of specially adapted steamers of American construction, owned by American merchants, carrying the American flag, and capable, under well-defined conditions, of temporary incorporation in the American Navy. The advantages of such an arrangement, which enlarges the merchant marine and makes it at the arrangement, which enlarges the merchant marine and makes it at the same time self-protecting, are overwhelmingly great. The difficulty is that American capital will not be drawn into the enterprise unless it can be sure of specific compensation for the concessions which it makes to the Government, first, in the adaptation of its vessels to the latter needs, and secondly, in the surrender of a privilege to use them when the exigency arises. In the absence of such an arrangement the naval policy of the United States cannot neglect to take account of the fleets of fast cruisers which foreign states maintain under the guise of passenger and merchant steamers. They constitute an auxiliary navy, and must be reckoned as a part of the naval force of the governments maintaining them.

It is difficult to imagine a more effective commerce destroyer than the steam-ship City of Paris, armed with a battery of rapid-firing guns. She can steam over 21 knots an hour, and can average 19.9 knots from land to land across the Atlantic. No man-of-war could overtake her; no merchantman could escape her. A fleet of such cruisers would sweep an enemy’s commerce from the ocean. This fact is well understood in Europe, and states that are unprovided with a convertible merchant fleet are preparing to meet the possible emergency by partly-protected cruisers that are substantially as fast as the City of Paris. Of this type the Piemonte is the latest development, and others equally fast are now building. Our deficiency should be supplied either by a line of fast merchant men, constructed with special reference to use in time of war, which will enable the Government to avail itself of their services at critical moments, or we should build a fleet of at least five first-class cruisers of the very highest rate of speed, certainly not less than 22 knots.

The displacement of these vessels should not be less than 4,000 tons. Even such a fleet will not supply the want of swift merchant-steamers for coaling and transport service. Colliers and transports must alike be fast, for they cannot fight; and the collier can take no chances of capture, for she carries the life of the fleet. In determining the size of the smaller type of cruisers, one point is settled: All steel cruisers must be large enough to admit of a double bottom. A vessel like the Yorktown, which has but three-eighths of an inch of steel on her bottom, could hardly escape sinking if she touched a rock, no matter how lightly. Such a ship must not strike. She cannot run any of the risks which the old-fashioned ships used to run every day with comparative safety, for a steel bottom will be penetrated where a wooden one would be merely scarred. Besides the Yorktown, we have the Concord, the Bennington, and the three 2,000-tou cruisers (Nos. 9, 10, and 11), which are marked by this defect. It is not well to add to the number. In reference to the gun-boat class, any large increase in it must be condemned. This class is now represented by the Petrel and the two 1,000- ton vessels (gun-boats Nos. 5 and 6). To make any considerable addition to it is consuming the revenues of the Government without any proportionate benefit. It is chasing the shadow and losing the substance. Such vessels add nothing to the real strength of a naval force. A cruiser to be useful must be fast enough to overtake any merchantman and to escape from any more powerful ship of war. These vessels have neither the strength to fight nor the speed to run away. A limited number of 1,000-ton vessels can be utilized in certain special kinds of service on foreign stations, and for this particular purpose it is recommended that three such vessels be constructed. Any larger increase at the present time would be injudicious and wasteful. Apart from the want of battle-ships the most marked defect of the present fleet is in torpedo-boats. The number of these boats owned by fifteen foreign States is as follows:

[Table omitted]

The United States has one such boat under construction. This branch, of defense cannot safely be neglected any longer. It is high time that steps should be taken to supply these essential constituents of a naval force. I therefore recommend that the construction of at least five torpedo-boats of the first and second classes, in suitable proportions, be authorized, as a beginning, at the coming session of Congress.


Notwithstanding the progress of the last eight years, it must not be forgotten that the fleet has still only a nominal existence. During the past year four ships have been added to the list, and seven have been or will shortly be removed. At no previous time in the present century has the country been relatively so powerless at sea. The wooden ships are a makeshift, and will soon cease to be even that. The old monitors are worse than useless. The force actually available at the present time comprises eight modern vessels, of no great fighting power because of their weakness for defense. The main force has yet to be authorized. Until the United States has a fleet of twenty battle-ships with coast-defenders, cruisers, and torpedo-boats in suitable proportions for efficient defense, and an establishment in such working order, as to administrative machinery, officers, men, reserves, and vessels, that it can be brought without delay into effective action, the country can not consider that it possesses a Navy; and a Navy it can never afford to be without.

The true principle for us to follow is that laid down by President John Adams in his message of 1800, when he said: ” Seasonable and systematic arrangements, so far as our resources will justify, for a Navy adapted to defensive war, which may in case of necessity be quickly brought into use, seem to be as much recommended by a wise and true economy as by a just regard for our future tranquility, for the safety of our shores, and for the protection of our property committed to the ocean.”

To read the full report, click here.