20 Apr 19
Posted by: Philip Towle

When the First World War ended in 1918 Europe was in turmoil. Starvation was pervasive from Berlin to Belgrade and the flu pandemic and other diseases were killing more people than had died in the fighting. National and ideological ambitions clashed; Italy hoped to control much of what became Yugoslavia, communists were trying to overthrow traditional governments across Eastern Europe, and the Turks determined to ‘cleanse’ their country of its indigenous Greeks as they had the Armenians in 1915. In this bleak picture the US Navy was deeply involved in bringing some order and relief because of its ubiquity, the State Department’s shortage of officials and the trust in which the US was held. William Still’s excellent history shows the problems the navy encountered.
His first chapter covers Anglo-American naval disagreements in the months after the war. Europeans in general were irritated when Americans claimed to have ‘won the war’ because they felt the Yanks were ancillary to their own efforts. More particularly Royal Navy officers had become used to having the most powerful navy in the world despite the challenges from France, Russia and finally Germany. Now they were confronted with the United States which wanted to impose the ‘freedom of the seas’, in other words to ban blockades of the type Britain had used against the Central Powers. It also was determined to have a navy second to none and had the resources to do so. In Wilson they were led by a President whom Still regards as suspicious of British intentions. I found his second chapter on the navy’s efforts to demobilise the many European bases it had set up during the war the least interesting. His general message is that for economic reasons the French were the most determined to squeeze as much as possible out of the departing Americans.
Still’s third chapter on US demining efforts in the North Sea is much more dramatic with its descriptions of the considerable losses amongst the small boats involved and their problems with the weather. The next chapter examines US peacekeeping efforts in the Baltic after the war. The Germans were trying to hold on to as much territory as possible, the Soviets were threatening from the East and the US public wanted to have as little as they could to do with European affairs and to bring their forces home as quickly as possible. Meantime, fearing that the Germans might refuse to sign the peace treaty, the British and French wanted to maintain the blockade of Germany until it was signed. In contrast, the American statesman, Herbert Hoover, who had managed the relief efforts during the war, wanted to end the blockade and with it the starvation of German civilians. In many cases naval officers had political responsibility thrust upon them because communications were poor and orders often arrived long after the situation had been transformed. Usually they took difficult decisions responsibly. But whatever they decided might not be appreciated. One unfortunate captain was ordered to a German port and then threatened by local German forces. When he refused to obey the Germans, he was replaced by his superiors, presumably for being too assertive.
Still’s next chapter looks at the Adriatic where the US Navy with exiguous forces often stood between the Italians and the equally determined Yugoslavs and where the French and Italians were for a while on the brink of conflict. The diplomatic qualities of the US naval officers were further stretched when the nationalist Italian poet, D’Annunzio seized Fiume and threatened to take over the whole of the Yugoslav coast. Relations with Russia were equally complicated because US forces were present in Murmansk and Archangel but Wilson was reluctant to involve the US in the civil war between the Bolsheviks and White Russian forces.
Famously, the US Navy played a major role in helping many Greeks to escape the wrath of the Turks which the territorial ambitions of the Athens government had provoked. Still is sympathetic to the Turks but nothing could justify the massacres perpetrated by the Turkish forces in Smyrna and elsewhere. In Constantinople itself Admiral Bristol, the US High Commissioner, used his ships not only to carry refugees from Turkey but also US prospectors looking for oil across the Middle East. This brought him into conflict with British authorities who suspected him of trying to undermine their position in the region.
So Still begins and ends with Anglo-American friction but there is much in the rest of his account about cooperation, friendship and mutual appreciation between the two navies. Given the way in which rising and declining powers usually relate to each other, this was clearly vital. The immediate post-war years were a pivotal period with massive and complex political changes. Generally, William Still explains these clearly though he probably overdoes the detail in places. But for anybody interested in the relationship between politics and the armed forces and between the two navies this is highly recommended.