BOOK REVIEW – From Hot War To Cold: The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1955

Jeffrey G. Barlow, From Hot War To Cold: The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1955, Stanford University Press, 2009, 710 pp., maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

Review by Jack Binkley
University of Maryland, University College

With the Cold War ending two decades ago, and with the perspective of time along with the declassification of information, historians can now turn their attention to the institutional history of the military services during this period.  In furthering our understanding of this subject, the United States Navy, in conjunction with Stanford University Press, has come forth with the publication of Jeffrey G. Barlow’s widely anticipated book, From Hot War To Cold: the U. S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1955.   Jeffrey Barlow is no stranger to military historians in general and to the readers of this journal in particular. A career historian at the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, he has covered some of the same material, albeit from a different perspective, in his earlier work, The Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945-1950. 1

Obviously, no single volume can address all of the varied issues that confronted a military service over the entire Cold War.  Barlow understands this and appears to be offering up the first of a multi-volume work on the subject.  Not only does From Hot War to Cold focus on the first decade of the Cold War, but within that time frame on the Navy’s role in national security policy development. Thus, his story revolves around the Navy’s role at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) level, as he explains how the Chief of Naval Operations (“CNO”) and the Navy staff viewed the new responsibilities confronting America as a global power.   From Hot War to Cold is an extraordinarily ambitious endeavor, and Barlow has produced a book which, on one hand, and at so many levels, is tremendously rewarding and useful; yet, on the other hand, because of what the author included or omitted, it can be maddening and for some readers even disappointing.

The greatest strength of this book is the scope of the author’s research.  The nearly three hundred pages of notes and bibliography supply a veritable road map for future researchers on a myriad of subjects.  He not only has opened the door to the invaluable collections that reside in the Navy’s archives, as well as the National Archives, but has directed scholars to numerous collateral collections.  In some cases he has reviewed documents that no other historian has previously worked.  Furthermore, he has enhanced his archival work through the use of a wide variety of oral history interviews, some of which are located at other institutions, such as the Truman Library or the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, but many were conducted by the author himself.

Another great strength of this book is how much it adds to our knowledge of the unification/reorganization debates during this period.  Three of the first four chapters of the book examine the wartime changes that occurred within the office of the CNO and the Navy’s position in the unification debate that resulted in the National Security Act of 1947.  There are also several excellent chapters on the early reorganization efforts of the Eisenhower administration.  While the Navy’s position during the unification controversy is generally well known, for those historians interested in delving into the back story, these chapters are gems.

Barlow has also enhanced our understanding of civil-military relations during this period and in particular the process by which the Navy’s representatives on the JCS were chosen.  For example, this reviewer had always assumed that it was a foregone conclusion that Admiral Nimitz would succeed Admiral King as the Navy’s member on the JCS, just as Generals Eisenhower and Spaatz succeeded Generals Marshal and Arnold.   However, Barlow paints a very different picture, which includes Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal’s ambivalence, if not outright hostility, to Nimitz’ appointment.  Barlow also casts light on how senior officers lost the support of their civilian leaders.  The fate of Admiral Robert B. Carney, who was not reappointed CNO in 1955, is illustrative, as the author makes a compelling argument that the real issue was a fundamental difference over the degree of civilian intrusion into military operations.  For specialists in civil-military relations, Barlow provides a fascinating parallel story to the issues raised by Army Chief of Staff, General Matthew Ridgway. 2  However, despite these wonderful sections on the rise and fall of senior officers, there is little in the book that explains the selection of Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman, in 1949, or Rear Admiral Arleigh Burke, in 1955, for the position of CNO.  Burke’s case is especially unique, inasmuch as he was promoted over 98 more senior line officers.  How did their promotions relate to the strategic and organizational goals of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations?  Unfortunately that is left unanswered.

Another important area of value in this book is its effort to explain the Navy’s role in strategic planning.  What is clear from Barlow’s book is the Navy’s continual difficulty relating its Cold War mission to its force structure. Historically, navies are built to fight other navies, and the fact that the Soviet Union was a land power simply exacerbated the Navy’s problem. Without a clearly articulated mission, the Navy could not rationalize increased budget allocations, nor defend its force structure.   This is very apparent in several excellent chapters on the Navy’s assessment of the Soviet threat as the Second World War ended, and how the Navy tried to find a role in the defense of Western Europe in the late 1940s and during the development of the New Look.    This mismatch of missions and force structure was quite obvious in Barlow’s discussion of the cancellation of the flush deck aircraft carrier U.S.S. United States in 1949, the agreements over service roles and missions, and the development of strategic war plans against the Soviet Union, all of which are covered quite effectively.  But, here again, one is surprised by what is omitted. There is no discussion of how the Navy tried to fill the gap between its mission and its force structure through the development of sea-based missiles or the construction of the Forrestal class aircraft carriers during the 1950s.  While Barlow does note the “successful defense of the Navy’s program to build additional Forrestal class” carriers (p. 321), how the Navy promoted this new class of ships only a couple years after the cancellation of the U.S.S. United States, and in the face of the continued opposition by Air Force and Army, is unanswered even from the Navy’s perspective.

A final point that one takes away from this book is how little the Navy was involved in many of the key national security crises of the period. This is only natural given the geopolitical nature of some of the problems.  However, there are a number of sections of this book detailing subjects in which the Navy had no obvious role.  For example there are splendid sections on the creation of the North Korean Army prior to June 1950, and Marshall’s mission to China, but one wonders what they have to do with the Navy.  It is almost as if the author felt that he had to insert a Navy role, even when it was at best relatively minimal.  At times, where the Navy does have an important role, such as the decision to support the French at Dien Bien Phu, his research and analysis is excellent.  At other times, the Navy’s important role was ignored.  A prominent example is that except for a discussion of the initial decision to enter the Korea conflict, the Navy’s views on the crucial political/military and civil/military decisions made during the war are entirely absent.

Notwithstanding these minor criticisms (and they are minor compared to the over-all quality of the book), Barlow has completed a work for which he and the Navy should be justly proud.  Any scholar planning to work in the area of early Cold War national security policy or civil-military relations must keep a copy of this book handy and address some of the issues that he raises.  It is also a book that belongs in any research library.

(Return to the October 2013 Issue Table of Contents)

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  1. Jeffery G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: the Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945-1950,  (Washington D.C.: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1994).
  2. See Matthew B. Ridgway, Soldier: The Memoirs of Matthew B. Ridgway,  (New York, New York: Harper Brothers, 1956) , 269-273.

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