Because the traditional American strategy had been one of commerce raiding, when the United States began rebuilding its navy in the early 1880s, the first warships ordered were the steel cruisers Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, beginning the tradition of naming them after cities. Over the next decade, the navy settled on a sustained program of cruiser construction, adding fifteen ships.
The successes of American cruisers (most famously George Dewey's flagship Olympia) in the Spanish‐American War brought additional orders, culminating in ten very large cruisers (14,500 tons each). As the navy reoriented its strategy increasingly to the battleship during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, however, cruiser construction fell into abeyance.
World War I demonstrated anew the merits of the type, and in 1916, Congress authorized ten fast scout cruisers of the Omaha class, plus six huge battle cruisers of 35,000 tons armed with ten 14‐inch guns. After U.S. entry into the war, cruisers performed important services by patrolling and escorting convoys (the San Diego was lost to a mine off Fire Island).
After the war, the U.S. Navy confronted a reorientation to the Pacific and the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty, which limited cruiser size and armament. The six battle cruisers were scrapped on the ways or their hulls converted to aircraft carriers; the new scout cruisers were too short‐legged (short‐ranged) for Pacific work.
During the interwar years, the navy built long‐range cruisers armed with nine or ten 8‐inch guns, designated “heavy cruisers” for their gun caliber under the treaty provisions. Eighteen were commissioned prior to Pearl Harbor; they were reinforced by nine new “light cruisers” of the Brooklyn class, armed with fifteen 6‐inch pieces. As aircraft increased in capability, the navy began construction of four ships designed for antiaircraft defense: the Atlanta class (of 6,718 tons), armed with a dual‐purpose battery of sixteen 5‐inch guns.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Congress funded the most ambitious cruiser‐building program in history. Authorized by 1943 were seven additional Atlantas. Two new designs were ordered in quantity: the Baltimore‐class heavy cruisers (14,472 tons, nine 8‐inch guns) of which fourteen entered service, and the Cleveland‐class light cruisers (11,744 tons, twelve 6‐inch guns) of which twenty‐seven were built, making them the largest class of cruisers ever. The navy also ordered six ships classified as “large cruisers”—the Alaska class, of 29,779 tons and nine 12‐inch guns. Intended as “cruiser killers,” only the first two ships were completed.
Cruisers proved valuable in a number of wartime missions: antiaircraft escort, shore bombardment, and especially night surface action against enemy vessels. Off Guadalcanal, American cruisers fought numerous engagements and even mortally damaged the Japanese battleship Hiei. During the war, the navy lost ten cruisers: two (Juneau and Indianapolis) to submarine torpedoes, one to air attack, and seven (Houston, Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes, Atlanta, Northampton, and Helena) to surface ship gunfire and torpedoes. Other cruisers (e.g., Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Savannah) proved their ruggedness by surviving damage from almost every type of weapon, including a German glide bomb. Indianapolis served as Fifth Fleet flagship for Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance in 1943. On several occasions in peacetime, that ship carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
To compensate for losses, the navy ordered slightly modified versions of the Cleveland and Baltimore types, although only two of the Fargo class and three of Oregon City class were finished postwar. More advanced cruisers were also begun: the Worcester class (two finished), with a 6‐inch antiaircraft battery, and the Des Moines‐class heavy cruisers (three commissioned) with rapid‐firing 8‐inch guns.
In the changed defense environment of the atomic age, the navy put most of its cruisers into mothballs, keeping only a few operational for flag duty or amphibious support. To counter aerial threat to the carriers, the navy began conversion during the 1950s of nine of the extant light and heavy cruisers to carry the new Talos or Terrier missile systems.
Two unique cruisers were also completed in this period. The Northampton, begun as a heavy cruiser, was converted into a command ship to provide accommodations and communications for the president and other national leaders in the event of nuclear war. Then, in 1961, the navy commissioned the futuristic Long Beach, armed only with guided missiles and propelled by nuclear power.
The Vietnam War once again proved the usefulness of cruisers, for both shore bombardment and antiaircraft duties. In 1968, Long Beach was the first vessel in history to destroy an enemy aircraft with guided missiles. Nonetheless, nuclear warships were extremely expensive, and construction of more advanced ships, called “strike cruisers,” was halted, mid‐1970s, for budgetary reasons.
The dividing line between cruisers and lesser vessels now had so blurred that the navy reclassified as “cruisers” (1975) twenty‐six larger surface warships earlier categorized as guided missile frigates or destroyers. Similarly, the twenty‐seven ships of the new Ticonderoga class, ordered originally as guided missile destroyers, were labeled “cruisers” in 1980 to reflect their costs and capabilities. The breakdown in identity was further reflected in the naming of cruisers for states, battles, or individuals. The navy has contended that the old distinctions between cruisers and lesser ships are today irrelevant, given enhanced capabilities and similarities of mission between the types.
[See also Battleships.]
Naval Historical Center , Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, 8 vols., 1959–91.
Samuel E. Morison , The Two Ocean War, 1963.
Norman Friedman , U.S. Cruisers, 1984.
Stefan Terzibaschitsch , Cruisers of the U.S. Navy, 1922–1962, 1984.
M. J. Whitley , Cruisers of World War Two, 1996.
Malcolm Muir, Jr.
"Cruisers." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cruisers
"Cruisers." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cruisers
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