But the modern American navy had an Achilles’ heel. The innovative, progressive society that produced superior officers and enlisted recruits thwarted the growth of professionalism based on long-term service. American boys who had been enticed to “join the navy and see the world” did not take instinctively or even kindly to the essential demands of naval discipline. Most sailors chose to get out of the service at the end of their first “hitch,” leaving only a handful of increasingly well-trained enlisted men to run the lower decks and all the machinery. The U.S. Navy was thus chronically undermanned—and was erroneously believed to be undertrained and underdisciplined as well—throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century, and its combat capabilities were always in question.
With the growth of Japanese and European naval power during the first years of the century, the United States was confronted with a stark either-or situation. It could build a two-ocean navy that would require a fleet at least as large as that of Great Britain, or it could seize control of either the Isthmus of Panama or Nicaragua and build a canal that would allow the shuffling of fleet units between one ocean and the other during times of tensions or conflict. But as Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan both recognized, an Isthmian canal itself demanded a large navy; otherwise, as Roosevelt said, the “building of the canal would be merely giving hostage to any power of superior strength.” Mahan added that a canal would be a strategic asset only if the U.S. Navy had indisputable command over both its Caribbean and its eastern Pacific approaches.
Construction of the Panama Canal inevitably tied the American fleet to the Caribbean and adjacent Atlantic waters. But the 1907 crisis with Tokyo over the harsh treatment of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast caused many in Washington to share the feelings of those on the other side of the Pacific: a Japanese-American conflict might well be inevitable, even welcome.
Nonetheless, American naval officials did little or nothing about it. As transpacific tensions boiled up early in the year, Roosevelt asked the navy if it was developing plans to prosecute a war against Japan. George Dewey, head of the General Board, assured Roosevelt that such planning was under way, but this was not true. Ever since the 1897 incident with Japan over Hawaii, the Naval War College staff and then the General Board itself had intermittently pondered the possibility and nature of a Far Eastern war, but neither had developed realistic scenarios or studies. Given America’s preoccupation with the German navy and the Open Door in China, initial thinking involved fanciful conflicts between coalitions of imperial powers for control of Asia. For a time there was loose, rather melodramatic, talk, and apparently some planning, among board members, usually led by Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, “Dewey’s right-hand man,” of an Anglo-U.S.-Japanese alliance against Europe’s continental powers (Germany, France, and Russia). Field officers such as Rear Admiral Frederick Rogers, who commanded the Asia Station, responded unenthusiastically. The most that America’s small Asiatic Squadron of thirteen cruisers and destroyers could be expected to accomplish in any Asian war against the European powers was destruction of the French fleet at Cam Ranh Bay before steaming north to assist the Japanese and British in a blockade of Russian and German ports.
When the Joint Army-Navy Board was established in 1903, army planners immediately demolished Taylor’s fantasies. The navy “scripts” were “nonsensical.” Given its small military as opposed to naval resources, the United States should concentrate on defending the Western Hemisphere and the Panama Canal. But such maunderings did provide the Naval War College staff with several working hypotheses about a future Asia-Pacific war. It would be primarily naval in orientation; it would have to be fought off the Asian, not the American, coast; it would climax with a single decisive battle like Santiago or Tsushima; and the U.S. Navy would therefore require substantial support facilities in the Philippines to sustain operations, including one or more large dry docks with accompanying machine and repair shops, a major supply depot, oil or coaling stations, and barracks.
As Japanese-American tensions eased, planners at the Naval War College began drafting rough suggestions about a war between the forces of Blue (United States) and Orange (Japan), but the exercise soon flagged. Four years later war-college president Raymond Rogers reinvigorated the staff, and the planning process was finally concluded. His strategists “predicted that eventually Japan would shift its tactics from gradual economic encroachment to open aggression” in Asia, which “would require a ‘call for action’ in support of the Open Door. In the best of circumstances, one or more allies would rally to the cause and check Japan in a continental war in which threats to U.S. possessions would be mere diversions, the role of the Blue navy was minor and of the Blue army nil.” Rogers and his colleagues also explored another possibility. Japan could try to break out into the Pacific, destroying the “containment” that the European powers and the United States exerted on the island nation. In this scenario Japanese fleet units would move against the Philippines, Guam, perhaps even Hawaii. The Blue fleet would have to fight the Orange enemy alone and impose a rigorous blockade on the Home Islands to force Tokyo to disgorge its imperial holdings in Manchuria. Thus, even as Satō Tetsutarō and his colleagues were articulating powerful reasons for an inevitable war with the United States, American naval planners were creating their own “credible rationale” for such a conflict.
Rogers’s remarkably farsighted description struck sensitive chords in Washington. It was too close to reality, and the recommendation that the United States seek European allies to pin down substantial Japanese forces in a conventional war on the Asian mainland was “inflammatory” to those who cherished traditional American isolation from Europe. Dewey ordered the Naval War College staff to stop meddling in affairs that were essentially the prerogatives of diplomats and foreign-policy experts. Thereafter, planning for a Japanese war was always uncoupled from a defense of the Open Door in China and elsewhere on the Asian mainland. But the idea of a “Blue-Orange” conflict itself had been firmly planted and had developed momentum in the imaginations of those responsible for formulating American naval policy. In 1914 the General Board finally adopted the broad thesis of a war arising from Orange intent to expel Blue from the western Pacific. War was an increasing probability, the board argued, “because the Japanese national character was greedy, combative, overweening, and scornful of American power.”
The General Board thus embraced the illusion, however carefully phrased, of the Yellow Peril. That specter had become a staple of American popular thought after the Russo-Japanese War. In May and June 1907 the New York Times and Colliers published serials describing a conflict with Japan fought around the Philippines and Hawaii. The same year the translation of a German novel titled Banzai appeared in the United States. It depicted a war in which the Japanese navy, using secret weapons, destroyed the U.S. fleet in a mid-Pacific battle lasting little more than thirty minutes, after which Japan invaded and seized California.