United States Congress and National Defense, 1915-1939

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This study examines the United States’ rise to the status of world power during the first third of the twentieth century. Through necessity to defend against enemies in two world wars, the United States matured into the most powerful political entity of the era. In defining that course, commentators have frequently credited the military and presidents with this successful advance, while rarely mentioning the importance of Congress. It was Congress, however, which functioned as the initiating body for authorizing and appropriating defense legislation. To reveal Congress’s oft-hidden role, this study incorporates sources that have remained previously unexamined. Public and private documents, records of committee hearings, manuscript collections, and laws are analyzed and brought together to present a more complex portrayal of the time period.


“Professor Ferrell’s painstaking research has yielded a complex story that is both more detailed and more nuanced than the traditional overview of the [interwar] era ... Professor Ferrell’s greatest accomplishments are in reminding us of the difficulty of making decisions in a time of rising international tensions and in underscoring the importance of maintaining civilian control of the military in a democratic society – lessons worth remembering at all times.” – Dr. Roger Biles, Department Chair – Professor, Department of History, Illinois State University

“Professor Ferrell’s study will be an important contribution to historical literature. It is by far the most detailed examination of political/military relations during the period between the two world wars. Any scholar or for that matter anyone interested in political and/or military affairs during this period will have to turn to Dr. Ferrell’s work. In fact it should be required reading for an understanding of that important period in American history.” – Dr. William N. Still, Jr., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, East Carolina University

"Senator Daniel Moynihan, in his book On the Law of Nations (CH, Apr'91, 28-4767), chastised scholars for their "neglect of congressional history." Nearly two decades later, still with little scholarship on the first branch of government, comes Ferrell's encyclopedic, personality-enriched study of Congress and national defense policy during the interwar period. This 39-chapter analysis is an intimate look at the people, coalitions, committees, and subcommittees behind congressional decision making. Working through day-to-day travails as world events swirled about them, Congress exhibited decisive and assertive influence with regard to national defense. The localism of congressional concerns resulted in a rejection of colonial fears of an expensive military establishment and a "standing army." Making extensive use of congressional records, with the Army-Navy rivalry in its embryonic stages as a case study, Ferrell reveals "congressional members perform[ing] as paramount actors" in an arena more often perceived as belonging to the executive branch. The prevailing belief of Congress during the interwar period was that of isolationism. Ferrell provides a foil to that long-held analysis of Congress from 1915 to 1939. Without saying so, the author presents compelling evidence of a Congress initially driven by local concerns of yards, docks, and airfields, moving the US from regionalism to globalism and fulfilling "its constitutional obligations and prepar[ing] the nation well for the war that came in December 1941." With a historian's keen eye and a writer's flair for language, Ferrell provides a much needed and readable study that meets Senator Moynihan's intellectual demand. However, the author limits his focus to national defense, leaving a study of congressional activism in the foreign policy arena for others. Ferrell enhances his study with a much appreciated, annotated table of contents with separate name and subject indexes. Summing Up: Essential. Researchers, faculty. -- G. Donato, Bentley University for Choice

Table of Contents

Book One
Preface by Roger Biles
1 Representatives and Not Military Experts (Background to April 1917)
2 Battleships Seem to Be the Darling Prospect (Background to April 1917)
3 Congress Cannot Manage a War (1917)
4 Not the Sort of War We Used to Have (1917-1918)
5 Under the Guise of Immediate Necessity (Background to 1918)
6 Unrestrained Garrulity (1917-1919)
7 Beyond the Grasp of Hands (1919)
8 Then Tell Me It’s Raining (1919-1920)
9 Other Things than a Great Army (1919-1920)
10 Piling One on the Other (1920)
11 Many Forces are Working (1920-1922)
12 Hold the Door on the Inside (1922)
13 Involuntarily Thrown Together (1923-1924)

Book Two
14 A Fair Degree of Defense (1922-1925)
15 The Greatest Piece of Preparedness (1919-1925)
16 Instinctive Resistance (1924-1925)
17 A Feeling of Unrest and Dissatisfaction (1924-1926)
18 Some Poor Little Puny Secretary (1926)
19 The Same Old Stuff (1926-1928)
20 Round Out the Fleet (1927-1928)
21 Folly to Close Our Eyes (1926-1929)
22 A Splendid Thing for the Navy (1929-1930)
23 Still Larger Figures (1930)
24 Without Controversy and Without Argument (1931)
25 No Wars Are in Sight (1931)
26 None of Us Are Experts (1932)
27 All Kinds of Dangers (1931-1932)

Book Three
28 Promote Private Ambition (1932)
29 A Great Many Conversions (1933)
30 Our Sure Shield (1933-1934)
31 What H - - He Has Raised (1934)
32 The Most Pleasant of Companions (1934-1935)
33 Hair Trigger Times (1935)
34 Perfectly Evident to Everyone (1935-1936)
35 Soft Speaking (1935-1936)
36 It Is Yours (1936-1937)
37 War and Fear of War (1937-1938)
38 To Bridge the Gap (1938)

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