A general statement of the various uses of a navy has been put into the phrase “command of the sea.”
Of course, the probability of getting “command of the sea,” or of desiring to get it is dependent on the existence of a state of war, and there are some who believe that the probability of our becoming involved in a war with a great naval nation is too slight to warrant the expense of money and labor needed to prepare the necessary naval power. So it may be well to consider what is the degree of probability.
This degree of probability cannot be determined as accurately as the probabilities of fire, death, or other things against which insurance companies insure us; for the reason that wars have been much less frequent than fires, deaths, etc., while the causes that make and prevent them are much more numerous and obscure. It seems clear, however, that, as between two countries of equal wealth, the probability of war varies with the disparity between their navies, and unless other nations are involved, is practically zero, when their navies are equal in power; and that, other factors being equal, the greatest probability of war is between two countries, of which one is the more wealthy and the other the more powerful.
In reckoning the probability of war, we must realize that the most pregnant cause of war is the combination of conflicting interests with disparity in power. And we must also realize that it is not enough to consider the situation as it is now: that it is necessary to look at least ten years ahead, because it would take the United States that length of time to prepare a navy powerful enough to fight our possible foes with reasonable assurance of success.
Ten years, however, is not really far enough ahead to look, for the simple reason that, while we could get a great many ships ready in ten years, we could not get the entire navy ready as will be explained later. If, for instance, some change in policies or in interests should make war with Great Britain probable within ten years, we could not possibly build a navy that could prevent our being beaten, and blockaded, and forced to pay an enormous indemnity.
Is there no probability of this? Perhaps there is no great probability; but there certainly is a possibility. In fact, it might be a very wise act for Great Britain, seeing us gradually surpassing her, to go to war with us before it is too late, and crush us. It has often been said that Great Britain could not afford to go to war with us, because so many of her commercial interests would suffer. Of course, they would suffer for a while; but so do the commercial interests of competing railroads when they begin to cut rates. Cutting rates is war—commercial war: but it is often carried on, nevertheless, and at tremendous cost.
Just now, Great Britain does not wish to crush us; but it is certain that she can. It is certain that the richest country in the world lies defenseless against the most powerful; and that we could not alter this condition in ten years, even if we started to build an adequate navy now.