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Prologue: From Fact to Fiction

When Herbert Hoover came into office in 1929, no one quite realized that he was a more profound pacifist in naval affairs than any United States president since Thomas Jefferson. The navy soon found out. Mr. Hoover believed in what he called "disarmament by example." One began by scrapping one's own battleships. Then, having set such an inspiring example, one called on others to follow suit.

There was a partial respite when the president appointed Charles Francis Adams as his Navy Secretary. Adams was a direct descendant of two presidents, the late treasurer of Harvard University, and an ardent yachtsman. An energetic bright little man, he had none of the president's heavy pomposity. He was also quicker to take in the world around him. He began by convincing Mr. Hoover that not even the British would prove susceptible to disarmament by example. It was then accepted that disarmament would have to be negotiated by treaty. Even that was anathema to the admirals of the United States Navy, who didn't want to disarm under any circumstances. They quickly blamed Mr. Adams for their troubles without realizing how much worse things might have been without him.

Then came the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Pay in the navy was frozen at the levels prevailing twenty years earlier. Even then, there was expected to be only enough money to keep part of the fleet in full commission at any one time. Mr. Adams, seeing that the navy was really threatened, fought for it with all of his considerable resources.

Since there was simply no additional money to be had, the Secretary turned to making the navy more efficient. Howver, he gradually came to realize that the required reforms could never be accomplished by the entrenched navy bureaucracy. It would be necessary to bring someone in from the outside. Mr. Adams initiated a search that led to Sheldon Stone, a young efficiency expert in the automobile industry. It was just an accident that he had known Stone's father at school, a fact that later led to a good deal of rather malicious gossip.

American admirals have always assented to the democratic principle that they should be subjected to the control of a civilian Secretary. However, their enthusiasm for that principle has never been unbounded. Secretaries, they say to one another, are useful for getting money from the president and from Congress. But they shouldn't be allowed to meddle in naval organization. Far from being professionals, they're mere political appointees who serve until the next election.

Neither were the admirals impressed by the fact that the Secretary was a yachtsman. Their tempers were frayed even further when one of the Washington newspapers suggested, perhaps in jest, that the Secretary was a better navigator than any captain in the navy.

The favorite tactic of the admirals was to take advantage of the fact that the Secretary had only a small staff. In consequence, he had to get his information from the admirals themselves. The officers heading the all-important bureaus, and those comprising the General Board of the Navy, decided what to do in their own quasi-hierarchical way. They then selected the information to be funelled to the Secretary in such a way that no other course of action than the one they recommended could appear reasonable.

If the Secretary still appeared restive, they swamped him with papers to be approved, ships to be christened, and speeches to be given. Time was on their side. As a last resort, they could simply wait for their oppressor to go away.

Only once in living memory had a Secretary of the Navy broken through these barriers to affect day-to-day operations. That had been when old Josephus Daniels, propelled by high moral principles, had made it illegal to consume alcohol aboard United States warships. This event, while occurring some twenty years previously, was still bitterly remembered. The moral was clear to the whole officer corps of the navy: This was the sort of thing that could be expected if civilian Secretaries were allowed to interfere.

Secretary Adams let the admirals have things mostly their own way for almost six months. By then, he realized that a good many were dangerously out of touch with world politics. It disturbed him, for example, that so many took seriously the possibility of a war against both England and Japan. Moreover, in preparing to fight England, they tended to overlook and underestimate Japan. There were even a couple who thought that Japan might be enlisted as an ally against England. Mr. Adams found it hard to imagine how anyone who went so far as to read newspapers could suppose either that England could be an enemy or Japan an ally in the next war.

The event that precipitated the SOS to Sheldon Stone seemed quite minor when compared to such activities as preparing to fight the wrong war. It began when Mr. Adams discovered that Admirals Charles and Maxwell were down on his appointment calendar for a full hour. On the face of it, it looked like a dull hour. Both were members of the General Board, and Charles was a former Chief of Naval Operations. Both considered the present CNO too willing to negotiate disarmament, and both had expressed themselves vehemently and repetitively. It seemed that the same things needed to be said yet again. Mr. Adams told his secretary, a young man he had brought with him from Harvard, to invent some urgent business if the meeting lasted thirty minutes or more.

Admiral Charles was a fine-looking man. Tall and silver-haired, he had an upright posture that would have done credit to a young midshipman. He looked the man to turn to in time of trouble. Admiral Maxwell, following in his wake, was much less impressive physically, and looked fat and rumpled by comparison. His characteristic expression, while not nearly as stern as that of his colleague, was one of irritability. He was, if appearances were any guide, capable of pettiness, rancor, and the production of malicious gossip.

Mr. Adams looked hardly a match for the big guns of the navy. Much smaller, with a bird-like aspect, he was also handicapped by an instinctively courteous manner.

The admirals had, indeed, come to complain. But, for once, they didn't seem to have battleships and cruisers on their minds. For men who prided themselves on directness they were curiously indirect. So indirect that, apart from their obvious unhappiness, it would have taken someone with unusual and special powers to divine their concerns.

Mr. Adams had long had the practice, during boring meetings, of jotting things on a note pad. He made it look as if he were taking notes, thus flattering the speaker, but the content of the notes was seldom very flattering. Adams was also an amateur calligrapher, and his first entry was in an elabourate tortuous script which was hardly legible. It said,

"Intrigue should be left to those with a talent for it."
The conversation proceeded apace. Admiral Charles muttered the phrase, "adventurers in high places." Admiral Maxwell talked of unnecessary publicity, and then of "glamour boys." Finally, it came out. They were concerned about the Assistent Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, David Ingalls. Mr. Ingalls was the youngest man ever to occupy that position. He was also one of the most energetic, and had done more than his share in bringing the navy into the air age. That, of course, was his real crime.

Mr. Adams sprang quickly to Ingalls' defense. Did the admirals need to be reminded that Ingalls was the only naval aviator who had seen combat in the war? Evidently they did. Did they also remember that it was primarily Ingalls who had negotiated so effectively in procuring new aircraft for their big carriers, the Lexington and Saratoga? Admiral Charles doubted that the combat effectiveness of the fleet had thereby been improved. As the Secretary continued to speak in a pleasant tone of voice, he pencilled something bordering on the obscnee in his notebook. This time, the admirals were entirely over-reaching themselves. They weren't supposed to have any say whatever in the civilian appointments that the Secretary made in his own office. That they were now trying to tell him to fire his own appointee because they didn't like his looks was pure effrontery. It might also have been responsible for their uncharacteristic indirection.

Even after Mr. Adams' rather complete defense of Ingalls, the admirals didn't have the grace to retire quietly. Admiral Maxwell pulled a newspaper clipping from his brief case and handed it over.

The article was a little feature story on David Ingalls and his wife. Both were good looking, and there was a large photograph of them, in flying costume, standing beside an airplane. The article was highly favorable, and it remarked, in passing, that Mrs. Ingalls was an heiress. It also turned out that Mr. Ingalls owned a half dozen airplanes, and had brought his little fleet with him to take up his appointment.

Upon further discussion, it seemed that a number of items in the naval officers' code of etiquette had been violated. First, young men shouldn't occupy important and conspicuous positions. Second, they shouldn't have their pictures in the paper. Third, if they should chance to have rich and glamourous wives, those wives should be kept discreetly out of sight. Last, and most important, anyone who attracted attention to naval aviation without simultaneously making clear the primacy of the battleship was worse then dangerous.

Whatever Mr. Adams may have felt, he replied without altering his tone.

"Gentlemen, I'm afraid we can't all be poor. I don't see why Mr. Ingalls shouldn't have a few airplanes."

Admiral Maxwell made as if to say something, but Mr. Adams continued, seemingly without noticing him.

"I've had my picture in the paper, and I don't seem to be noticeably more corrupt as a result of it."

This time, the pencil notation was in block capitals.


Mr. Adams knew that it is one thing to introduce a charge of dynamite into an organization, and quite another to place it and fuze it in such a way that the anticipated explosion will do more good than harm. He decided not to make Stone an Assistant Secretary, in which position he would be burdened with administrative responsibility. Instead, an ambiguous and suitably mysterious title was found. His real mission was to do exactly what he had done in the automobile industry. He was to roam freely, investigate anything he pleased, and report where money could be saved and operations improved. He had no executive power whatever. But he would report directly to the Secretary, and to no one else.

Adams began by taking Stone to see President Hoover. The president had been something of an efficiency expert himself in his earlier years. He was also determined to make civilian control of the Navy Department a reality. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about Stone's mission that he gave him a letter to carry. This letter was addressed to all members of the Navy Department and stated that Mr. Stone was to have access to all classified and secret information. It also asked them, as a personal favor to himself, to aid Mr. Stone in his researches in any way that they could. Stone later had to show this letter only once. It made a smaller bulge in his jacket pocket than a pistol would have, but it was much more intimidating.

Despite this hopeful start, Mr. Stone's progress wasn't an entirely smooth one. He was, of course, the object of the most intense resentment. He was also held in contempt because he had no experience of the navy, or of ships. According to the myth that soon arose, Sheldon Stone had spent the last ten years, stopwatch in hand, peeping through holes in the walls of factory rest rooms. He had there computed, on the average, exactly how long workers absented themselves from the shop floor to do their business.

It would have taken much more than this to stop Stone. He had overcome the resistance of cleverer men in the automobile industry, and wasn't in the least deterred by his reception in the Navy Department. He seemed convinced that he could learn more in a month about even the most technical aspects of naval operation than the admirals had learned in a lifetime. If the information given him was fragmentary, he found ways of augmenting it. In particular, Stone developed the habit of taking junior officers in key positions out to lunch. After filling them quite unabashedly with food and drink, he then pumped them for all they were worth.

By December, 1930, Sheldon Stone had become a notorious figure in the department. Since no one knew exactly what he reported to the Secretary, no specific reforms could be reliably attributed to him. But, just the same, those which caused the most pain were invariably put down to his influence.


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