U.S. Navy Plan Emerald
The Story

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2023

Note: Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Emerald is our alternative-history expansion for Great War at Sea: Jutland, base don the U.S. Navy’s plans for a naval war in Irish waters. This is the background story.

In the world of the Second Great War, our alternative history positing an early end to the First World War, Woodrow Wilson mediates a peace settlement in December 1916. The guns fall silent, and the United States never joins the war on the side of the Allies, and thus never forms the political and financial ties with Britain that were reinforced by the 1917-1918 war effort.

Instead, there’s hostility across the Atlantic, and the Pacific as well. As seen in Great War at Sea: Rise of the Dragon, the United States intervened in the War of the Dragons, the 1915 naval war between the empires of Japan and China. That war ended with a peace settlement in July 1916. Anti-Japanese sentiment, already strong on the American West Coast, only grew stronger following an actual shooting war, however brief and limited in scope.

With the end of the Great War in Europe, the Royal Navy followed through on an earlier agreement and sold eight of its oldest dreadnoughts to the Japanese: the “foreign” acquisitions Agincourt, Erin and Canada, and the dreadnoughts Bellerophon, Superb, Temeraire, St. Vincent and Collingwood. Dreadnought herself, though offered to the Japanese, was rejected for her worn condition and shoddy construction. That more than made up for Japanese losses during the war with China and the United States, and the re-fitting of prizes taken from the Chinese added still more to Japanese naval strength.

Note: At the end of the actual First World War, U.S. naval intelligence fully believed that the Royal Navy had agreed to sell eight dreadnoughts currently in service to the Japanese. This does not seem to have had any actual substance, but the rumor contributed to American official hostility. In our story, the rumor becomes reality.

The American press raged at the sale, calling it a betrayal of the white race and a cause for war. And then a sixth dreadnought slated for sale, Vanguard, exploded in July 1917, before she could be transferred. Suddenly, the British press had its own excuse for outrage, claiming that American agents planted a bomb aboard the battleship. The Americans had nothing to do with the blast, which actually came from deteriorating cordite in her 4-inch magazine, but the Admiralty suppressed the Court of Inquiry’s report and allowed the public to blame the dastardly Americans rather than its own crew’s carelessness.

Note: Vanguard indeed exploded at her moorings in July 1917 thanks to decaying cordite causing a magazine fire. Thorough inspections of other dreadnoughts followed immediately and turned up numerous problems, including a half-smoked pipe found inside a magazine aboard Vanguard’s near-sister Bellerophon.

Despite continuing American protests, the dreadnoughts would be overhauled in British shipyards – at Japanese expense – and transferred in the spring of 1918, steaming through the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean without incident. Through the rest of the year, tensions continued to rise, mostly petty outrages involving protocol and tariffs.  

Those tensions fueled an increase in shipbuilding on both sides of the Atlantic. The British started the naval arms race, laying down four battleships of the Ocean class, each with ten 15-inch guns. The Americans in turn carried forward with their massive 1916 program of six even larger new battleships and six huge battle cruisers, plus supporting light cruisers and destroyers. The British answered with their Nemesis class battleships, increasing the main guns to 18-inch caliber. The U.S. Navy matched that with their own 1918 Battleship also carrying eight 18-inch guns. And then the Royal Navy escalated again with four huge new battleships, each with nine 18-inch guns, and four equally gigantic battle cruisers with nine 16-inch guns.

Note: The Ocean and Nemesis class ships appear in Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919.

That massive shipbuilding program put a much greater financial strain on Britain than on the United States, with the latter not having to bear debts from the Great War. The U.S. government used the increasing tensions to enact additional tariffs and financial sanctions against Britain, leaving the United Kingdom less able to afford its battleships. Those steps in turn disrupted trade between the United States and Canada, causing recession in both countries.

In the remainder of Europe, France and Germany both signaled their unwillingness to enter into a new round of warfare, though they also laid down new battleships to keep up with their rivals. German banks and business rushed to forge new ties in the United States, more than compensating for American businesses’ lost trade with Britain. Austria announced a modest naval building plan while offering to mediate the Anglo-American dispute. Italy and Russia had too many internal political difficulties for the simmering North Atlantic conflict to hold much interest.

All of the European powers needed North American grain to tide them over until their own agricultural sectors recovered from wartime disruption. Kaiser Wilhelm II, also ready to make a diplomatic gaffe at an inopportune moment, announced that the High Seas Fleet would defend freedom of the seas and assure neutral trade with both Britain and the United States. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, not to be outdone, proclaimed that the Marine Nationale would do the same.

The first high-level private meetings between French and German diplomats since before the Great War followed, as the rivals agreed on the need to preserve the hard-won peace. France needed, army commander Ferdinand Foch had advised, “a 20-year truce” before she would be able to meet the Germans in the inevitable next war. Germany, for her part, had the chance to build a truncated version of the Middle European economic bloc seen as one of her wartime goals.

The Europeans would not get their way. The president of the revolutionary Irish Republic, the thoroughly unpleasant Éamon de Valera, visited the United States in May 1919, seeking military assistance. Since he held dual citizenship, he could maneuver in American political circles where other Irish leaders might be deported.

Note: This really happened, and he had some success raising money (a fair amount of which disappeared from sight) but very little in gaining official U.S. government backing.

The Wilson administration, with its eye on securing a third term in the 1920 elections, at first allowed private support to flow to Ireland in the form of arms and money, and permitted volunteers to travel to Ireland, followed by humanitarian aid from official sources. By the autumn of 1919, clandestine shipments of weapons started to arrive in Ireland, military-grade arms out of American arsenals. A significant segment of the American press took up the Irish cause, some demanding American intervention to secure Irish independence, others looking to admitting the island as the 49th state.

In November, even as the British-sponsored police abandoned the countryside, Royal Navy patrols found American-crewed steamers unloading not just rifles for use by the Irish Republicans, but artillery and ammunition. The Wilson administration, with its president in seclusion, denied any official sponsorship. Britain responded with a ban on American shipping entering British ports, calculating that American isolationist impulses would force Washington to back down. Instead, Wilson emerged from seclusion just long enough to ask Congress for a declaration of war, which passed by a narrow margin after a furious debate lasting well into the early morning hours. A joint resolution then called on the president to deploy a naval blockade of Ireland, and to take any means necessary to assure Irish independence. On 7 December 1919 Americans awakened to the news that their country was at war.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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