The Obvious Answer

By George Creel
(Chairman, Committee on Public Information)

[The Independent, April 27, 1918]

This is the eleventh message from the United States Government to the American People. Presented each week in The Independent by George Creel, Chairman of Committee on Public Information, appointed by President Wilson.

There are other ways of killing a dog besides choking it to death with melted butter—altho this antique fact seems to have been overlooked by many of the critics of America's shipbuilding program.

There are other ways of defeating the German submarine menace besides building more ships than the U-boat can sink. One obvious way is to build more ships that can sink the U-boats. And when America's measures of defense against the submarine menace are being considered, it is not enough to complain—as most of our domestic critics have complained—that we are not choking the dog to death with defenseless merchant marine.

When Congress declared war against Germany, there were only a certain number of shipyards in this country. There was only a certain amount of material for shipbuilding and skilled labor to use it. More important, there were only a limited number of plants for the production of marine engines and all the machinery and fittings necessary to transform an empty hull into a ship. If these yards, and this labor, and these plants had all been devoted to the building of a merchant marine, the Emergency Fleet Corporation would have had little to worry about, and the domestic critics of our shipbuilding program would have been bewailing the fact that we were trying to build more ships than the submarines could sink, instead of building ships to sink submarines.

Obviously, the Government did a wise thing in devoting much of the immediate shipping resources of the country to an offensive movement against the U-boat. But how wise that program is, and how large it is, and what a strain it has put upon the shipbuilding facilities of the nation, seems to have been overlooked by the writers who are calling upon America to "wake up to the submarine menace."

Consider the one fact that when the British navy went to war in July, 1914, it was the greatest sea force the world had ever seen; and that our regular navy now has 50,000 more men in than the British regular navy had then.

Or consider that since war was declared we have added to the navy 1275 ships of all classes, aggregating 1,055,115 tons.

Or consider that we are building more American destroyers than there were in any two navies of the world when war began; that these boats, worth $2,000,000 each, with as great a horsepower as the battleships of the "Maine" class, used to take two years to build; that we are building them in eight months; and that we have launched one, two-thirds complete, in four months.

To supplement the destroyers, we are building cruisers that are the largest and speediest in the world, with the sole exception of the four British battle cruisers of the "Hood" type. When war was declared we had 123 naval vessels building or authorized. We have since placed contracts for 950 more, of which 100 are submarine chasers for one of our co-belligerents. We have taken over 409 interned German ships that had been so damaged the Germans boasted it would be impossible to repair them before the war ended; and 39 of the largest of these vessels were repaired and in commission within six months. More than 700-privately owned vessels have been taken over to be fitted for naval use. On account of the demands upon steel construction, several hundred submarine chasers have been built of wood, and these are driven by three 200-horsepower gasoline engines, because it was found impossible to obtain steam-power plants for them rapidly enough. Many of these boats have crost the Atlantic in the stormiest weather and proved themselves superior to any other kind of wooden ship for work against the U-boat. The new Ford patrol boats, named the Eagles, are considerably larger than the submarine chasers; they correspond to the earlier destroyers. Included in the building program are more than 800 small boats, being built at navy yards and private yards. Altogether, there are already four times as many vessels in naval service as there were a year ago, and the number is growing constantly.

Of all these, of course, the most important in the U-boat war is the large and fast destroyer. At first, there was not a vacant way in the country upon which a destroyer could be built. In many yards, there was no ground for such a way. New keels have been laid where a few months ago there were swamps. New shops have been built for making forgings, for building boilers and engines, pumps, forced-draft blowers and every important part of machinery equipment. Recently a destroyer was built, tested, put in commission and sent to sea within fifty-one weeks from the time its keel was laid. It steamed from a Pacific port, nosed thru the Panama Canal, and docked at an Atlantic port in ten days and a half.

The reports from one detachment of destroyers show that in a six-month period the boats have been 3600 days at sea, that they have steamed more than a million miles in the war zone, that they have escorted 717 single vessels and 86 convoys, and that they have attacked 81 submarines.

And the success of these boats in the war on the submarine has been determinative. Sir Eric Geddes reports: "Destruction of Allied shipping decreases steadily. Destruction of German submarines steadily rises." The U-boat no longer dares to come to the surface, to attack merchant vessels with shellfire. The destroyer compels it to attack with torpedoes. As soon as a periscope is sighted the destroyer goes after it full speed, and drops a powerful depth bomb. The submarine has to loose its torpedo, submerge and get away quickly. It has not time to take accurate aim. Consequently there has been a great increase in the number of vessels that are attacked and succeed in escaping.

Formerly, the submarine sank fifty per cent of its victims fifty miles, from land. Now less than one per cent of the ships are torpedoed beyond the fifty-mile limit. The submarine no longer dares to go hunting; it lies in wait where the sea-lanes converge. Consequently, it has become possible to save many vessels that are struck. And there is this further advantage that airplanes and small patrol boats can be used in these shore waters and are being used successfully.

America's direct reply to the submarine menace has been an effective reply. When the critic of our shipbuilding progress points out that we are not building merchant ships fast enough to overcome our losses, he overlooks the fact that we are evidently building navy vessels fast enough to overcome the cause of our losses. Of the two ways of nullifying the submarine campaign, we have put the strength of our effort into the quicker, the less costly, the more practical way. It is necessary to build merchant vessels, and they are being built; but it is necessary also to build a fleet to protect merchant vessels, and it was wiser to devote our first efforts to that end, even if it limited our power to turn out a merchant marine fast enough to recoup our first losses. As time goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that we have done right in devoting a considerable part of our shipbuilding facilities to strengthening our "first line of defense."

In the same way, critics of our war progress are advocating the melted-butter program in our fight against food-shortages. It is argued that instead of adopting measures of food control and food conservation and price-fixing, we should have devoted all our efforts to encouraging an increase of food production, allowing the greater prices to stimulate greater crops.

As a matter of fact, it is not the case that the American farmer has been discouraged in the planting of winter wheat. He has seeded, this year, 42,000,000 acres of winter wheat. That is 2,000,000 acres more than the year before, 150,000 acres more than ever before, and 7,000,000 acres more than his average acreage before the war. The increase over the pre-war prices has been 131 per cent in the case of wheat and 109 per cent in the case of corn. Difficulties in transportation have altered the relation of these prices in some localities—especially in the East—but for the farmer the price of wheat has been higher than the price of corn.

There has been no attempt "to regulate the prices of farm products." There has been no attempt to regulate the price of any farm product but wheat. In some instances the Food Administration has intervened at the request of the producers, to obtain a settlement in a local dispute about the price of milk. In the case of pork products the Food Administration, on the recommendation of the producers, undertook to use the purchases of the Allied governments for the purpose of maintaining a minimum price for live hogs in Chicago.

If we had not controlled the distribution and the price of wheat, the shortage in Europe would have made our white bread a delicacy of food to be had only in Fifth Avenue mansions. We would have had bread riots, industrial disorders and a possible breakdown of our whole war program. The price fixed on wheat has been high enough to encourage the patriotic desire of the farmer to raise crops large enough to help feed the world. That price has been low enough to keep down the cost of bread for the poorer classes. By a system of licenses, the middleman has been prevented from profiteering in food, and hoarding has been discouraged. The American people have loyally cooperated in all necessary measures of food conservation. We have taken a middle course between autocratic price-control and the disastrous chaos of unlimited war-time competition in the necessaries of life. As in the case of the submarine, we have attacked the problem offensively as well as defensively and fought the dog with the proper club as well as with the unctuous butter.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury