The sound of Claude Swanson, Secretary of the Navy, stamping his foot against the worn red carpet of the House of Representatives in his black leather oxfords threatens to drown out the voice of the Honorable Carl Vinson, Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, as it echoes through the massive room. Swanson cannot help it. He’s nervous.
Months after it had been submitted to the Members of the House, the Hepburn Report, an official assessment of the defenses currently available to the United States’ furthest outlying territories and requests for funds deemed necessary by a board of experts has been voted on and thus far, the results have not been welcomed. Several outposts on the report have already been denied funding and as they come to the end of the list, Swanson is approaching the limits of his patience with these politicians.
Weathered by the years behind him – his silver mustache and matching hair to prove it – he sits uneasily awaiting the final decisions from the man two decades his junior standing at the pulpit while seated next to his Assistant Secretary, Charles Edison, who, instead of watching the floor, is watching his superior. At seventy-six, Swanson is not a young man and has recently been plagued by bouts of illness, helped little by the stress of increasing tensions around the world. Swanson had insisted he was perfectly capable of attending this hearing alone but Edison would not hear of it.
Vinson clears his throat and turns the page of his bundle on the podium.
“After considering the findings and the recommendations of the Hepburn Report,” he starts, “in regards to the future fortifications of the island of Guam…”
Swanson ceases his absent-minded leg exercises and sits up in his chair at full attention. This is what he has been waiting for. Surely this will pass.
“Two million, two hundred thousand dollars to build a breakwater,” Vinson continues, “one million nine hundred thousand to dredge the harbor to provide for ship and seaplane operations, and nine hundred thousand to build seaplane ramps and a small power plant.”
Swanson cannot help but be annoyed with Vinson’s repetition of the details of the request. Surely if all those present have done their job they will have read the report. “Oh, get on with it!” Swanson says to himself quietly.
“The House has entered a decision…”
Swanson and Edison hold their breath.
“By a vote of 205 to 168, the request for an appropriation of funds has been denied.”
Edison buries his shaking head in his hands.
Swanson on the other hand stands and raises his voice to a thunderous volume crossing the canyon between himself and Vinson.
“Mr. Chairman…” he shouts.
Edison, surprised by this outburst and uneasy about its possible repercussions, tries to coerce Swanson back down gently. “Sir – “
Swanson will not concede. “Fortification of Guam has been recommended by naval experts for two decades now, with precious little to show for it.”
“Sit down, Mr. Secretary.” Annoyed, Vinson hardly acknowledges him.
But that does not stop all other heads from turning in Swanson’s direction as he continues to argue his case.
“As the Hepburn board suggests in their report, the island holds substantial potential as a base of operations for our other territories in the Pacific such as the Philippines.”
Those gathered in the House turn their attention back to Vinson to await his response.
“Secretary Swanson – “
Swanson cuts Vinson off. He is not finished. “With Guam’s close proximity to Japan –“
“Secretary Swanson!” Vinson barks back after having been interrupted himself. “I am aware of Guam’s location and its proximity to not only the Philippines but to Japan itself. As it is, a vote has already been entered on the matter.”
Edison looks up from his seat at Swanson as his superior turns red and his breathing becomes more ragged. A man of his age should not be taking on this fight.
Vinson meets Swanson’s fiery gaze unperturbed and continues to tear him down. “You are welcome to make your case to the Senate at a later time but as of this moment, the House of Representatives cannot see the value of allotting several million dollars your team of ‘experts’ has requested to build up a spit of land in the Pacific when the funds would be of better service elsewhere than as a knife to the throat of Japan.”
The two men glare at each other for a moment increasing the palpable tension in the room.
Vinson moves on, “We will now discuss funding for the fortification of Wake Island - ”
A pair of large, wooden doors swings open from the House of Representatives chamber into the hall with Swanson and Edison storming out, walking swiftly down the stairs and through the congressional crowd. All around them, senators, district representatives, lawyers, and aides bustle down the halls and in and out of doors.
“What was the purpose of conducting months of research if they were not going to honor the board’s findings?” Swanson vents. “Makes me wonder how many of them actually bothered to read the report.”
“Vinson did say that we would be able to argue further when we take it to the Senate,” Edison responds. “And he did put forth the legislation to replace the bulk of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets with new vessels which means he’s not a pacifist.”
“A ‘spit of land’ he called it.”
“What does Holmes say, sir?” Edison asks over the roar of conversation and hurried footsteps.
Swanson stops Edison in his tracks literally and figuratively. Information passed to the office of the Secretary of the Navy by the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral Ralston S. Holmes, is privileged and not entirely above board. Acting on suspicions against the Japanese, Holmes had instructed an attache to gather intel in-country; to essentially spy on his behalf without the express permission of their government.
Edison apologizes for speaking so loudly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary.”
Swanson gives him a nod and carries on. “Our friend says much the same.”
Edison follows his lead.
“The island’s location is what makes it valuable and dangerous,” Swanson continues quietly. “And it appears the League of Nations mandate is not being honored by Japan.”
The mandate, Edison knows, established a status quo regarding military might for the United States, Great Britain, and Japan to prevent any nation from becoming a dominant force in the region. If Japan is not adhering to those regulations, the interests of both Great Britain and the United States are at risk. “But we cannot bring that information forward on the floor.”
“No, we cannot. Not without risking our source. We need to get the men in this building to see sense: leaving those territories defenseless equates to thousands of potential victims.”
Nearing the entryway to the Capitol building, the two men don their coats.
“We should get to work then, sir,” Edison declares.
“Yes, we should.” Swanson pushes open the door to a cold winter’s day in Washington D.C. and the brisk wind blows in their faces. The threat of a storm brewing off in the distance.