The US Decision to Conduct
Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
by Joel Ira Halwitt
Texas A&M Press, 2009
Jerry Holland is a retired submarine officer and frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and the Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS. He is the Vice President of the Naval Historical Foundation.
Chronicles of submarine exploits in World War II are blessed with dozens of fine writers from Clay Blair to Ned Beach. The period between the two World Wars has not been as fortunate. Gary Weir has documented the tribulations with submarine design and construction and others have touched on the errors of training and doctrine that handicapped submarine actions in the early days. But until now how the Navy managed to instantaneously move from the overt legal restrictions of the naval arms treaties that bound submarines to the cruiser rules of eighteenth century to a declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor has never been explained. Lieutenant Holwitt has dissected this process and has created a compelling story of who did what, when and to whom.
The United States entered World War I chiefly because Germany’s unrestricted warfare violated the traditional American belief in freedom of the seas and the legal restraints that arose from this strongly held position. The thrust then of all international diplomatic and internal US political action after that war was to abolish submarine warfare. Though both the United States and Great Britain, the dominant sea powers, favored such a move,
France refused. When elimination of submarines proved impossible, treaty restraints obliged submarines to follow the rules of cruiser warfare requiring them to stop a commercial ship, identify the cargo as contraband and place the crew in a safe condition, all before firing on the ship. In the efforts to control naval armaments between the wars, the proponents and officials representing the United States were politicians and statesmen. Noticeable in most of these negotiations was the absence of any naval officers.
While those efforts played out in the arena of world politics, as early as 1919 a panel of US submarine officers wrote, “It is dangerous to evade the fact that Japan is our most probable enemy . . . . There is no quicker or more effective method of defeating Japan than the cutting of her sea communications.” Holwitt follows these dual tracks through a maze of conflicting directives and efforts over the next twenty-two years.
One of the most astute and widely recognized refutations of the prohibitions against submarine warfare was then Lieutenant H. G. Rickover’s essay in the May 1935 Naval Institute PROCEEDINGS, “International Law and Submarines”. Rickover argued that applying the rules of cruiser warfare was impractical and would have to be abandoned regardless of legal constraints or treaty provisions. His was one of the few open source discussions of the problem that was being dissected quietly by the Navy’s most senior officers. As the author explains, unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan was being planned even as legalistic arguments over “Tentative Instructions for the Conduct of War” were being debated between lawyers and the Naval War College.
Evidence of this planning was the order of the Commander in Chief of the Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, to execute unrestricted warfare issued just two hours after the first Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor; thus reversing U.S. official policy without consulting anyone. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, issued a similar directive just four and a half hours after the Japanese attack started following a short meeting with the
President in which such a directive may have been mentioned though no evidence exists that the policy was discussed.
This excellent book arose from the author’s PhD thesis in history from Ohio State University. Done with the exceptional thoroughness one would expect from an officer trained in pre-critical check-offs, the end notes and bibliography are a superb resource for any serious student interested in submarines and naval arms limitations policy during the period from 1919 through 1941, The author will surprise most readers by revealing in his final chapter that the London Protocol of 1936 banning unrestricted submarine warfare is still technically the law though characterized by a noted legal scholar as “only in the thinnest stratosphere of reality”.
CAPT Curtis R. Stevens, USN
Mr. Scott Still
CAPT Alan S. Cabot, USN (Rel)
CDR Scott A. Chester, USN (Ret)
CAPT Joseph M. Fallone, USN (Ret)
RADM Larry R. Marsh, USN (Rel)
Mr. Joseph A. Moscatelli
CAPT D. Louis Peoples, USN (Ret)
LT Howard M. Stiver, USN (Ret)
LCDR Robert B. Thompson, USN (Ret)
Mr. Bernard F. O’Neill
LCDR Warren G. Martens, USN (Ret)
LCDR William F. Ruoff, III, USN (Ret)