BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era

David Kohnen, ed., 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016. 161 pp.

Review by, Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History

Historians are not usually feted by a biography, and rarer yet is the honor bestowed on a naval historian. 21st Century Knox does not claim that mantle, but the collection of essays offered and the commentary provided by David Kohnen suggests something of the continuing debt the U.S. Navy and maritime history, in general, owe to Commodore Dudley Knox. Mentor to several destined to reach the highest echelons of the Naval Service, Knox’s own professional prospects were decidedly rather more circumspect. Retiring as a captain in October 1921, he now assumed responsibility for the Office of Naval Records. In truth, his real vocation had only begun serving as he did for another 25 years, though in uniform and nominally on the retired list. From this vantage point, Knox’s passion for acquiring and preserving the diffuse documents of the early Republic’s Navy and writing its operational record followed.

Beyond any latent historical interest, Dudley Knox understood that only by preserving that record could the Navy draw appropriate lessons to aid in the development of the doctrine necessary to meet its present and future warfighting requirements. That was one purpose, but another remained such evidence would allow the service to make its case to the public and broader government alike in a climate where the appetite to spend on all things military had undeniable limitations. This made Knox as much a proselytizer as a mere painter of the past, though, make no mistake, in the years preceding the Second World War his historical brush, when applied to the Navy, stood on a par with the best of contemporary historians.

Knox began writing on professional topics in the period before the First World War. Widely read, he was drawn to the works of Mahan, von Moltke, Spencer Wilkinson, and the late George Henderson, a veteran of the South African War and before that, Professor of Military Art and History at the British Army’s Staff College at Camberley. Each of these sources featured in 21st Century Knox’s first essay, “Trained Initiative and Unity of Action: The True Bases of Military Efficiency.” First appearing in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, the article’s title masked the real insight Knox was asserting: Underpinning all, a common doctrine needed to be present. That claim, standing as a given today, was not a view then widely shared. Especially was this so in the Royal Navy, the day’s premier maritime power, where the risk of becoming doctrinaire in thought worried traditionalists.

Knox’s insight on doctrine would be furthered developed in the ensuing years and influence a younger officer with no mean future ahead of him: Ernest J. King. Thus, the second essay considered by Kohnen, “The Role of Doctrine in Naval Warfare” written in 1915 argued that only a common doctrine allowed for the exercise of bold initiative by subordinates while conforming to the overall plan of the commanding officer. Unfortunately, it was easier to find lessons of this truth in land warfare than in naval battles and, save for those of Admiral Lord Nelson, Knox was reduced to citing recent German military experience as offering the best exemplar of the practice. Still, Knox might have paused to consider how far practices suiting a military power operating as the aggressor in a local theatre of operations were appropriate and transferable to a democratic state fighting a naval war in distant waters. In truth, the same could be said of Wilkinson and Henderson who had distilled the apparent lessons of German success first and which Knox now employed as he sought to promote change in his own service.

During his years on active duty, Knox had been closely associated with Admiral William Sims and that association was never more fruitful than when both were stationed in wartime London following America’s entry into the century’s first global conflict. This brought Knox into close contact with the British Admiralty and its Naval Staff along with their approach to naval command and staff organization. It also provided a practical example of employing history as an adjunct to current war planning and doctrinal development as the Naval Staff maintained a small Historical Section as an integral part of its organization. This was history with a purpose and anticipated Knox’s postwar employment.

That employment centered very much on preserving the Navy’s previous record, leading Knox to pen in 1926, “Our Vanishing History and Traditions.” If the service was careless before in capturing its previous wealth of material documenting its glorious past, then what of today when the problem becomes one of sheer volume and changing digital formats? While it is impossible to know how Knox would have responded to our ongoing information revolution, it is assuredly the case a plea would have been made that at least the challenge be faced fore-square.

Increasingly, though, Knox’s efforts were directed at advocacy as he championed the cause of the Navy during the interwar years of troubled neutrality and then into a postwar environment of shrinking budgets, the creation of a third military service and the guiding hand of an overarching Department of Defense. Again, he turned to past experience in arguing his case. In the essays presented, the modern reader may question some of Knox’s assertions and lessons, but as a window on the service’s thinking during a critical period they retain a value all of their own. Increasingly, however, a contrarian view was being sounded: Against the peace-at-any-price view holding sway in 1930’s America; against the forces of modernity in the post-1945 world and, critically, now absent the receptive tutelage of President Franklin Roosevelt.

21st Century Knox represents another volume in the 21st Century Foundation Series published by the Naval Institute Press. If succeeding as a primer on a noteworthy military personage, this edition, as with those others in the series, can offer only a useful introduction to its subject. With that in mind, the work is warmly recommended. Still, would that more had been attempted. Here, the publication of an edited volume based on Knox’s writings and personal papers comes to mind. Failing that, an index to that published is suggested in any second edition. Doubtless, the cost of modern publishing precludes attempting the greater effort. Knox and his times were blessed, indeed, that the Navy and its history had such an influential sponsor in one erstwhile Assistant Secretary.

(Return to August 2016 Table of Contents)

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