Josephus Daniels was a progressive Democrat, and newspaper editor and publisher from North Carolina who was appointed by United States President Woodrow Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Navy during World War I. He was also a close friend and supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as his Ambassador to Mexico, 1933-41.
Josephus Daniels was bom in Washington, North Carolina, on May 18, 1862. Before he was 3, his father was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter, because of his well-known Union sympathies. The father was attempting to leave with Federal forces evacuating Washington, N.C. during the Civil War. Young Daniels then moved with his widowed mother and two siblings to Wilson, North Carolina.
He was educated at Wilson Collegiate Institute and at Trinity College (now Duke University).
Although he passed his state's bar examination in 1885, Daniels never practiced law and instead entered into a long career as journalist and editor. He became a co-owner of the fervently progressive Raleigh News and Observer, which earned the nickname Nuisance and Disturber in rural and conservative North Carolina. In 1912 Daniels helped persuade North Carolina Democrats to support Woodrow Wilson's bid for the presidency, and he, in return, although lacking any previous nautical experience, was rewarded with the office of secretary of the navy. Intensely loyal to his chief, Daniels was to hold this office longer than any previous secretary but Gideon Welles, who had served under both Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
Daniels quickly became perhaps the most controversial member of the cabinet. Officers generally distrusted his progressive beliefs and his special views on civilian-military relations; Fleet Admiral Leahy later bluntly stated that Daniels "did not like naval officers as such." His relations with the civilian supporters of the service were exacerbated by Daniels' order in 1914 to ban alcohol from officers' messes and especially by his decision to ban the Navy League from all ships. However, Daniels did undertake a number of vital reforms: he required sea duty for promotion, opened the Naval Academy to enlisted men, upgraded naval prisons, insisted on competitive bidding for contracts, and replaced the ineffective Council of Aids with a chief of Naval Operations. Plans to centralize the eight bureau heads into a general staff system, on the other hand, were brusquely denounced by Daniels in 1915 as "Prussianism." Daniels' decision to guard naval oil reserves from private exploitation led to a bitter fight with Secretary of the Interior F. K. Lane and ended in the notorious Teapot Dome scandal under President Harding.
The most damaging charge leveled against the secretary by, among others, Admiral Sims was that Daniels, a near pacifist, had failed adequately to prepare the U.S. Navy for war in 1914/1916. Nor did it help that the assistant secretary of the navy, the energetic yachtsman Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave quiet encouragement to Daniels' enemies. Although an investigation by a subcommittee of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee in 1920 failed to resolve the issue, it is clear that the charges were unjust. Daniels had to maintain a balance between naval officers anxious for expansion of their service and the president who was equally determined to observe strict neutrality as long as possible. Once war was declared on April 6, 1917, Daniels did his best to help the Allies: in July he approved the immediate construction of 200 destroyers to help in the antisubmarine war, and he eventually proved willing to concentrate authority in the hands of Sims, even though he disliked this Anglophile intensely.
Daniels moved cautiously throughout the war and generally relied on the advice rendered by Admiral Benson, especially that in behalf of maintaining a "symmetrical" fleet according to Mahan. The secretary "emphatically" opposed a British offer in November 1917 to appoint Benson and Sims "Honorary Lords of the Admiralty." An inveterate opponent of the North Sea mine barrage, Daniels nevertheless agreed in September 1918 to a mine barrage in the Adriatic Sea; the secretary's lack of nautical knowledge became apparent when he dismissed the concept of a barrage in the relatively narrow Straits of Otranto in favor of a mid-Adriatic barrage from Gargano Head to Curzola Island! Daniels was bitterly disappointed in November 1918, when the British refused to recognize the American principle of freedom of the seas and especially when President Wilson agreed to sacrifice this portion of the Fourteen Points in the face of British intransigence. Overall, it would be fair to state that Daniels never was able to delegate authority as freely as Secretary of War Baker owing to his basic civilian distrust of naval officers.
Secretary Daniels retired in 1921 to return to his newspaper in Raleigh, where he fought unsuccessfully in behalf of American participation on the World Court and for membership in the League of Nations. Neither was his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan popular in North Carolina. Roosevelt later appointed the man whom he continued to call "chief" as ambassador to Mexico, thereby only partially allaying Daniels' desire to return as secretary of the navy. Daniels died on January 15,1948, in Raleigh.