Naval Act of 1916

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In United States federal legislation, the Naval Act of 1916 was also called the "Big Navy Act." An overlooked landmark piece of legislation, President Woodrow Wilson determined amidst the repeated incidents with Germany to build “incomparably, the greatest Navy in the world” over a ten-year period with the intent of making the U.S. Navy equal to any two others in the world. Ultimately, more than $500 million was to be spent on ten battleships, six battlecruisers, thirty submarines, fifty destroyers, and other support vessels, to be built over a three-year period.

Opposition to heavily armored and thus expensive "Dreadnought" ships was strong in the House, but was overcome by the results of the one great naval battle of World War I between the British Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet, the Battle of Jutland (31 May–1 June 1916), which proved to Preparedness supporters that a heavy, great tonnage Navy armed with large guns was necessary to defend American shores and merchant ships on the seas in the event of war. President Wilson told Col. Edward House that he was anxious to hasten the day when the American Navy was larger than Great Britain’s, proclaiming “Let us build a Navy bigger than hers and do what we please.”

The Senate passed the “Big Navy Act” on July 21 although it specified that five of ten battleships specified would be replaced with battlecruisers. Not until August 8 did Rep. Lemuel P. Padgett, Tennessee Democrat and Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, confer with President Wilson and agree to support the Senate bill. Democrat Rep. Claude Kitchin of North Carolina despaired: “The United States today becomes the most militaristic naval nation on earth.”

In Sept. 1918, the Navy Department’s General Board recommended in addition to the sixteen capital ships called for in the initial act, that an additional twelve battleships and sixteen battlecruisers be built. By 1922, the U.S. Navy, if all the ships had been built, could have surpassed the Royal Navy in size and strength. However the expectation of a ruinous arms race with the British and the Japanese led to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922 and the tonnage limit ratio agreements with the US having parity with the RN.

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