Rise of the Dragon:
America Joins the War
In Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon, we study a war that never happened, brought on by a naval arms race that never took off in our own reality. Imperial China proposed building a fleet of dreadnoughts (in foreign shipyards); there’s no doubt that that move would have trigged an answering naval buildup by the Japanese. And that, in turn, would bring a response from Japan’s looming rival, the United States, already engaged in large-scale naval construction.
That’s the brief background to Rise of the Dragon. As China and Japan build up their fleets, so does the United States. Additional ships, including battle cruisers and scout cruisers of new design, are added to the appropriations to match Japanese additions. These are the ships proposed in reality, but not actually built. Other vessels, like the New Mexico-class battleships, are laid down and completed earlier than planned.
The United States is still at peace when the War of the Dragon breaks out in April 1915 between Japan and China. Japan’s Twenty-One Demands would bring China effectively under control of Tokyo, a prospect the Chinese are ready to resist with armed force. The Americans for their part wish to uphold the Open Door principle in China, allowing all nations to trade there on an equal footing.
The Americans also resent the Japanese seizures of Hawaii in 1893 and the Philippines in 1898, both of these Pacific territories seen as potential avenues of American expansion. The initial Japanese victories over the Chinese lead to wide-ranging demands that would create an effective Japanese protectorate in China, thereby putting an end to the Open Door as Chinese trade policy would now be made in Tokyo. And Tokyo had no interest in allowing American business to continue operating in China at the expense of Japanese interests.
Defeated on land and sea, China asked for an armistice in April 1916, almost exactly one year after the outbreak of fighting. Japanese demands proved far-reaching; with the European powers engaged in a massive bloodletting of their own no outside force limited the Empire’s ambitions. The Americans, in contrast, took a great interest in the negotiations and encouraged the Chinese to reject Japan’s demands and continue the war if necessary.
Backing up their words with action, the Americans send a large re-supply convoy to China bearing weapons and ammunition to carry on the war. To assure that it will get through, or at least provide a pretext for armed intervention, President Woodrow Wilson attaches a strong naval escort. Wilson had just dispatched American troops across the Mexican border to capture or kill Pancho Villa; the political atmosphere favors aggressive action. Predictably, the Japanese oppose the convoy’s progress and battle ensues. The United States Navy has intervened, and the War of the Dragon resumes.
Initially, the Americans send cruisers with their convoy: two examples of the 1910 battle cruiser (a fast version of the Wyoming class battleship, with fewer main guns), an armored cruiser and several fast scouting cruisers. Those ships are not enough to really change the balance of power, thanks to earlier losses among China’s new fleet. But they inject new energy into the Chinese defenses at sea, and undertake daring raids against Japanese supply lines.
Following the cruiser squadron is a small force of American battleships, judged enough to prevent collapse of the Imperial Chinese Navy and force a more equitable peace, but not enough to expand the war into a cross-Pacific conflict or involve Japan’s ally, Britain. They reach Chinese waters in June 1916, operating separately from the Chinese battle fleet, with only a vague agreement regarding cooperation and liaison.
The American battle squadron numbers seven dreadnoughts. It includes two Wyoming-class ships armed with 12-inch guns and two formerly Argentine ships purchased into American service, similar ships though not as well designed. The three new battleships of the New Mexico class form the core of the force, powerful ships each bearing a dozen 14-inch guns and a match for the brand-new Japanese Fuso-class super-dreadnoughts. The squadron’s supported by a strong force of modern destroyers, and a pair of the unique American high-capacity colliers.
The Americans fight well, much better than the Chinese, but are out-numbered by Japan’s fleet and are operating on the doorstep of Japanese home waters. The manage to score a number of successes, but the United States can’t truly affect the outcome of a land war in Asia without full commitment of her forces – and this, Woodrow Wilson is unwilling to contemplate as it will mean asking Congress to authorize his unauthorized intervention.
When peace talks resume, this time under British and French auspices, the Japanese are thwarted in their desire to bring China completely under their control – that will happen more slowly over the coming decades. Japan annexed Manchuria and Shandong and extended a great deal of political and economic control over the remainder of China; Wilson declared the intervention a success as Japan did not achieve all of her goals but China retained only nominal independence.
Design Notes: Rise of the Dragon is a new, vastly expanded edition of a smaller expansion set we made exclusively for the Gold Club, with a comb-bound booklet. It drew on Pacific Crossroads, a small boxed game, for additional Japanese pieces. That game’s permanently out of print, but since we had plenty of leftover Pacific Crossroads pieces, we’ve included them in Rise of the Dragon.
But roughly half of the Pacific Crossroads pieces are American ships, and we couldn’t include them in the book and then not use them. So I had to craft a situation where the Americans would fight the Japanese, but only do so with limited forces, and without significantly altering the flow of the Long War storyline.
I’m pretty satisfied that Rise of the Dragon does that. The small American fleet gets to see use, and that increases the battleship action – always a good thing. The overall package is much better-rounded than the original, though relatively few people saw that one.
You can order Rise of the Dragon right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.