Vol. 14, Issue 2: About the Authors

Kenneth C. Wenzer
The U.S. Navy and the Conquest of the Pacific by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton

Kenneth C. Wenzer is an independent historian who lives in Takoma Park, MD.

Douglas Peifer
Presidential Crisis Decision Making following the Sinking of the Panay

Dr. Douglas C. Peifer is a professor in the US Air War College’s Department of Strategy. His primary field of concentration is modern diplomatic, military, and naval history, with a special interest in the nexus between strategy, history, and contemporary international politics.  This article draws on his 2016 book Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (Oxford U Press), with other publications on naval history appearing in The Naval War College ReviewOrbis, European Security, Contemporary European History, War and Society, The Journal of Military History, and a book examining the dissolution of the Kriegsmarine and the origins of the East and West German navies (The Three German Navies, U Florida Press).    

Vy Nguyen
Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People

Vy Nguyen is entering ninth grade at Derby High School in Derby, Kansas. Vy has participated in National History Day for the last two years. For both years, she qualified for Nationals with a junior individual documentary. In the 2018 competition, her documentary “Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People” placed second in the nation. She chose to research Vietnamese Boat People because she wanted to learn more about her Vietnamese heritage. In her free time she loves to run, spend time with family, and travel the world!

Roy T. Greim
Old Salts in the New Steel Navy

Roy Greim is the Assistant Director of Communications at his alma mater of Swarthmore College. In 2014, he graduated with High Honors after completing his studies in history and German. As an intern with the Naval History and Heritage Command in 2012, Greim conducted research on the U.S. Navy in the postbellum period, which later informed his thesis on the historical impact of the ABCD ships, the first steel vessels of the “New Navy.” Some of his other research interests include the rise of European nationalism and the intersection of sports and politics in America.

Zoe Friedman
The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict

Zoe Friedman has recently entered the ninth grade at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, DC. Zoe entered in National History Day for the theme “Conflict and Compromise” in the junior essay division. She won second place nationally with her paper, “The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict.” Zoe is now in a variety in clubs at Wilson such as the school newspaper and robotics. She is looking forward to participating in National History Day this year with another paper.

Lesley Parilla
U.S. Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution

Lesley Parilla is Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian with Smithsonian Libraries.  From 2011-2016, she began worked as a cataloger and later cataloging coordinator for the Smithsonian Field Book Project.  Lesley holds an Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a certificate in Special Collections and Archives and a B.A. from Oberlin College.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)

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The U.S. Navy and the Conquest of the Pacific by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton


The Historical Context
Stockton and Mahan

Kenneth C. Wenzer
Independent Historian


(NHHC Photo #NH 65840)

In 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa claimed the entire Pacific and all the shores washed by its waters for the Spanish Empire. Three hundred and seventy-four years later, in 1887, Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton of the United States Naval War College showed his students how to conquer this domain. The core of his plan envisioned Columbia, with drawn sword and shield, steaming up the Pacific Coast to attack Britannia in western Canada. The ultimate goal, of course, was to dominate trade in the entire Pacific Basin. There was one little detail that could have impeded this coup de grace since “until the end of the decade there was for all practical purposes no American navy.” 1  The Royal Navy was, after all, a bit more robust.

The image of Stockton is different than that of Alfred T. Mahan, although he too was engaged in equally serious studies. Stockton’s strategic contributions, moreover, are undeservedly regarded as simulacra of Mahan’s. The Lt. Commander’s plan is noteworthy of discussion, for it is American chutzpa at its finest.

The Historical Context

(Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

In nineteenth-century America travel by land was difficult and partially solved by the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Commercial and political interests, nevertheless, covetously looked towards the Central American Isthmus for the most cost and time-effective solution even before this event. The digging of a canal, tied in with manifest destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and the dollar, in due course, became a major issue in the United States after the War of Secession. It attracted politicians of opposing camps and nudged by the U.S. Navy’s growing pains, fostered a collective impatience. In short, financial and naval policies coalesced, so then commercial and war strategies flowed together. The promise of an interoceanic canal beckoned with endless opportunities. In his pioneering work The Naval Aristocracy Peter Karsten wrote that the U.S. Navy arrogated “unique” duties in Central America since American business and political interests desired a canal. To that end many survey expeditions under the auspices of naval officers trekked through this area. 2

Both Panama (New Granada) and Nicaragua were the foci of these surveys, yet the latter, deemed more favorable, since it was more cost-effective, easier to tackle, and held forth a projected quicker schedule. The first American explorations in these areas, most of them government sponsored, began in 1852 and carried on into the 1890s. 3  Besides surveying expeditions the Navy landed armed forces to pacify the isthmus. In 1856 Commodore William Mervine led the first sortie; it was followed by five other incursions up to 1884. 4  Lt. Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla’s takeover of a Panamanian town in 1885, however, was the most conspicuous for its flagrant audacity. 5

Ferdinand de Lesseps, the conqueror of the Suez, meanwhile, felt impelled to dig a canal without locks, this time in Panama. Agitated by this impending foreign intrusion, President Rutherford B. Hayes in a speech of 1880 firmly called for American predominance on the isthmus. 6  After the French started digging in Panama in 1884, the U.S. Navy maintained a vigilant eye on their progress. 7  They failed to overcome the terrain and involvement in multiple scandals resulted in bankruptcy by the end of the decade. Their impudence fostered an additional impetus for favoring the Nicaraguan route in Washington. Since commercial interests stormed Capitol Hill, Congress finally blessed the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua. 8

This upsurge of exuberance impelled men to realize that a viable navy was necessary to protect the anticipated commercial and even territorial conquests. 9  RAdm. Stephen B. Luce, the founder of the Naval War College, gave credence to all these efforts. He extolled the virtues, both martial and transcendent, of an American future in an article “The Benefits of War” that appeared in the North American Review in 1891. 10

The First American Global Geopolitical Strategic Plan

(NHHC Photo # NH 48053)

Capt. Alfred T. Mahan, the president of the Naval War College, wrote in his annual report to the secretary of the navy in 1887 that “much new matter has been introduced, all bearing upon the practical question of carrying on naval war to the best advantage.” 11  That, of course, is an understatement, since it referred not only to his contributions but also to those of Lt. Cmdr. Stockton.

Charles Herbert Stockton, born on October 13, 1845 in Philadelphia, died in the nation’s capital on May 31, 1924. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1865 he climbed through the ranks to retire as Rear Admiral. He served twice as president of the Naval War College and subsequently as president of George Washington University. Not only did he earn his sea legs on numerous occasions, but he also became the Navy’s leading expert in international law and contributed to an array of specialized fields with a voluminous output of writings. 12

Stockton’s series of lectures entitled “The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal Including a View of the Military and Political Conditions of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea: Military and Commercial Examination of the Port and Countries of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea” ranks as his magnum opus. 13  The first three lectures, including the introductory contains the first war plan against Spain composed at the Naval War College. 14

Stockton’s grand strategy focused on the completion of an interoceanic isthmian canal, whether in Panama or Nicaragua. His concerns centered on the undoubted commercial largess, with the shift and growth in trade that it would generate, and the myriad of benefits that would accrue to the American people. “Among the trade points upon the world’s surface,” he stressed, “the Isthmus and Gulf of Panama may be classed as among the very first in importance.” 15

Stockton anticipated that a canal, especially across Panama held superior military advantages over Nicaragua given its topographical and locational factors for more facile defensive and offensive operations. Such prospects should alert Americans to the poor state of naval and military preparedness that was necessary for the increase of global power with the entailed responsibilities. Lectures two and three pointed out that all of the canal’s eastern approaches and strategic points in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies should be not only readily defended, but also dominated by the United States. The Caribbean, in short, should be transformed into an American pond.

In lectures seven and eight Stockton also foresaw major alterations in trade routes west of the canal—in the Pacific. They were, of course, in his mind indistinguishable from military routes, so they came under his scrutiny.

Before proceeding with the gist of the lecture, Stockton exhorted his students about the globally inexperienced military, especially the Navy beset by its’ precarious and miniscule state. The U.S. faced an unexpected new problem while looking inward with its expansive industrialization and growing internal unity. Washington had neglected to prepare for challenges posed by foreign powers. A mental and physical laxness had been generated. “The great nations,” he wrote

in the art of war have announced as an axiom that of all things which contribute most directly and effectually to the success of a military undertaking, preparation holds first place . . . . It has been said that great states which have risen out of chaos require time to consolidate and organize themselves; their whole power and energy being chiefly directed toward that point. Driving this period of consolidation and organization their foreign wars are few, and the wars that do take place bear the stamp of a state unity not well connected. 16

Given the chronic clash of global interests one must regard the oceans as the future battlegrounds. The arsenals and dockyards will be the armed camps and bases of operations, and the coaling stations will be the “outposts in these areas of future campaigns and fields of coming strategy.” 17  It was therefore important to be vigilant, for

With the new period about beginning will come a conflict of interests—first with other powers in respect to the new interests upon the American Continent, and secondly with other great powers in regard to our growing and antagonistic interests in the great field of the world . . . . the work of preparation should now go on. 18

And Stockton emphasized, that the “duty of performing this [work], which included a knowledge of the art and practice of war, especially naval war, for which this College was instituted, belongs to us.” 19

The astute officer, according to Stockton, should not only concentrate on the immediate firepower of the Navy’s ships but the myriad of other important issues that make for effective nautical maneuvering. “So much is involved in this question of docking,” for instance, “that I cannot resist calling attention for a moment to its connection with Naval strategical [sic] questions.” 20  The “creation of speed” for a fighting fleet, Stockton continued, had been given ample attention, but he forewarned, that the maintenance of this speed will be quickly hampered by the fouling of bottoms with increased coal consumption. These issues, however, have been ignored. Basic concerns, such as naval bases, arsenals, and coaling stations have likewise met the same fate. Greater funding was therefore a prime requisite for a fit navy.

If the vanguard of America’s military and commercial future belonged to an energetic officer corps, so as a matter of course, the future canal would be the key to open this vision. Since the strategic and logistic focus would be Central America it was to be the prime target of any enemy.

The French could be overcome with exertions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, but the Spanish, Stockton thought, could be easily eliminated as evinced by his war plan against Cuba. 21  When Stockton first began writing his lectures as early as 1886 he also displayed a fear of German commercial growth in Central America and the Pacific. He believed this activity would attract settlers, foster territorial aggrandizement, and undoubtedly be followed by a military presence. Since this German incursion was repugnant to his growing country, they had to be addressed.

German trade and German merchants have increased greatly of late years. . . . we will meet the German in his merchant capacity, backed by the forces of his country, at various times and places . . .  His success has been remarkable of late years in almost every civilized and semi-civilized country of the world and he is becoming a great and successful rival in many places to the English merchant who has been for years, par excellence, the trader of the world. 22

The foreign bases eastward, especially at Port Royal in Jamaica, Havana in Cuba, and Fort de France in Martinique were major threats. The potential westward points, such as the Galapagos, could in all likelihood serve as a rallying point to marshal forces against the canal. On the other hand, the canal could be the prime U.S. base against Europeans. Their future military activity in Latin America, on both its Pacific and Caribbean shorelines would be forestalled. The subjugation of Mexico could also be orchestrated.

So the isthmus at either the Nicaraguan or Panamanian locations on both oceans, with their different logistic and strategic defensive and offensive locations, necessitated protection by both the Navy and the Army.

The Canal once in possession of the [American] Naval forces should be held by both a force afloat and ashore and all exposed points [and] locks [should] be securely watched. The canal could then if necessary be used as a base of operations against any hostile forces on the Isthmus on either side of the Canal. 23

Whereas Havana presented the most important strategic position in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies, San Francisco held the same significance for the entire Pacific Ocean. To that end, he expatiated on the strategic features, both defensive and offensive capabilities of various points on the U.S. Pacific Coast. He delineated the present and potential trade routes that would alter and bloom with the completion of the canal. He also discussed the abundance of natural products, the richness of minerals, and even the importance of a potential source of motive power in his coal-fired steam age.

If petroleum which seems to be the possible fuel of the future, should become a practical success in this respect in our day, Southern California would present in [the] future greater naval advantages and independence of resources, than now, there being a pipeline to the seaboard existing for the purpose of carrying the oil, which apparently abounds in this section. This would compensate for the absence of coal. 20

With the opening of the canal, San Francisco, with its capacious harbor, was to coalesce all these natural and man-made elements. Its fate was to become an awe-inspiring world metropolis. Stockton’s enthusiasm was exuberant: “with free and direct trade to and from the Atlantic will [also] come great distributing trade to this city not only for the Pacific slope, but for the island world of the Pacific Ocean. The closer proximity to European and to our own Eastern markets will give it a position of advantage beyond any attainable by other ports in the Southern Hemisphere.” 25  It’s harbor and dry-dock facilities, communications facilities, and transportation access to the interior with its rich natural resources were unequalled on the entire Pacific coasts of both hemispheres. Blessed by geography, San Francisco

is now the only naval station of the United States upon the Pacific . . . . The United States have the best position upon the Pacific as a whole in regard to the [the] future and material resources, and preeminently the best upon the Northern Pacific. 26

Since the paramount commercial and strategic importance of San Francisco was undisputed, it would be the natural target of foreign nations that are vying for power in the Pacific. 27

The English in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific, with their greater presence, were the most formidable commercial rival of the United States. Stockton’s fears, therefore, focused on Esquimalt, a British naval base located on Vancouver Island. It was poised like “a spearhead thrust at our Northwestern frontier” and all points southward, especially San Francisco. It was also within reasonable steaming distance of the projected canal. 28  Esquimalt presented the greatest threat, for this base could easily draw on Canada’s many natural bounties to attack San Francisco. America’s military presence on the western shores was dolefully inefficient, so

with a loss of . . .  [an] engagement would cease our trade along the coast would follow a general commercial paralysis on our Pacific Coast, the smaller towns and harbors would be subject to capture or tribute and the Enemy at leisure could blockade San Francisco or begin elaborate preparation for its attack by land or sea. 29

Stockton’s solution was to establish a naval base in the Northwest to initiate an aggressive offensive and establish defensive countermoves. A naval presence in Puget Sound would therefore be America’s first line of protection with the marshaling of every available resource, where “the fate of San Francisco” would be decided, especially with this city’s lack of coal. 30  The Northwest, however, was a region blessed not only with coal and timber, but also of outstanding rail transportation that crossed the continent. In all likelihood British incursions would primarily be naval without major troop support.  “Its resources making it to an enemy like Great Britain, a rich and tempting prize, subject in war to attack.” 31

Stockton described in painstaking topographical and hydrographical detail the respective British and American positions on Vancouver Island and Puget Sound. The lieutenant commander also pointed out the lines of defense, fortifications, and locations of naval bases that would have to be established under different circumstances of enemy action, given the tides, time of day, and weather.

With a naval base in Puget Sound to “counteract” the British presence, communications would also be maintained with Alaska and the entire Pacific coastline protected.

We are now separated from this portion of our domain by 500 miles of water navigation and by territory belonging to the strongest naval power of the world. If we should be at war with another country besides Great Britain, we could not expect in the light of our past experience much benevolent neutrality in the ports of our neighbors in British Columbia . . . . Esquimalt[‘s] . . . existence and resources are menaces to our interests in this part of the coast and Pacific Ocean. 32

Stockton showed his concerns, especially with the growing city of Vancouver as a supply center and its proximity to Esquimalt. Its political isolation was about to end with closer ties to Halifax and Great Britain thanks to the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Stockton deemed it “the great military highway of British America.” Most assuredly the area’s strategic importance would grow. And in passing he bemoaned that the absorption of British Columbia by the U.S. would be postponed. 33  He then prophesied momentous consequences: 34

It is my belief . . .that in case of war with Great Britain the theatre of naval war in the Pacific will be here . . . .

We should have our strongest naval forces concentrated at these points for purposes of the defensive and for the purposes of that offensive, which the genius and spirit of our people naturally desire.” 35

The base at Esquimalt intimidated Stockton. He described in detail its harbor soundings, port facilities, dry-dock capacity, number of vessels, fortifications, lines of defense, strategic points, rail connections and access to bituminous coal and other natural resources. In short, this base commanded, with its great resources and associated rail transportation, the Canadian and American waters in the region, so it was a menace to the Pacific Coast and trade. 36

Stockton believed that there was only one way to permanently eliminate the British—to launch an aggressive and incisive campaign against western Canada. An initial raid with troops conveyed by light-draft steamers against the rail lines would be advisable. A blockade would also be initiated at Esquimalt and other strategic points and harbors; and then the enemy’s ships could be forced by the fleet, or enticed into an open engagement depending on the land defenses. If certain places were too strong then there would be alternative operations. Vancouver and other towns should then be subdued. Major efforts at all costs should be made to keep the Royal Navy from attacking the American coastline. The vast human resources of the United States, at any rate, could be mustered against the British forces hampered by a sparser population in western Canada. 37

Stockton’s vision also reached across the expanses of the Pacific Ocean, most especially New Zealand and Australia. In his estimation, the Pacific belonged to “the domain of the American canal,” as did most of its islands, since they would be focal points for trade from it.  The Suez Canal with closer ties to European and U.S. eastern markets would also be enhanced. 38  They were, along with Hong Kong, however, controlled by Great Britain. They were deleterious to the United States, for they were home to numerous war vessels. 39

So Stockton stressed the importance of New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand presented a potential threat to U.S. interests for its logistical position as a coaling base and many fine harbors, some of which were strongly fortified. 40  Blessed with bountiful natural resources, the latter boasted the capacious harbor of Sydney. London had poured money into the populated areas for defense. In addition to the Royal Navy, the Australians maintained local squadrons, so as to contribute to a maritime and naval superiority in the southern Pacific area.

To counter these threats, as with Esquimalt, Stockton proposed two major aggressive operations.

Any naval operations against New Zealand would naturally be directed first against Auckland and on account of its fine harbor and strategical [sic] position. . . .

with a moderately strong force it could be taken and held until the combined Australian squadron should appear. Single vessels, unarmored, could be denied anchorage but could find in the Bay of Islands a temporary rendezvous for operations against the shipping [in the area]. . . . 41

While operations in New Zealand were carried out, American forces should also launch

An attack upon Sydney in Australia [and it] must be a formidable one as the harbor is strongly fortified and in addition . . . a strong naval force is sure to [be] met with here. Some point held in New Zealand like Auckland or the Bay of Islands would be the best base of operations against Sydney . . . . [There are also ample landing places for troops and harbors of refuge.] The naval forces of Great Britain, which would assemble in Australian waters must be met and defeated . . . . 42

Stockton was fearful lest the Royal Navy could dispatch its Pacific squadrons to the Hawaiian Islands. As a base of operations these vessels could meet with their sister ships from Esquimalt in the northern Pacific waters. They would form a formidable fleet against the coastline of the United States and commercial routes. These islands could also be used as a coal base since they were situated at the “crossroads” of the seas with close ties to San Francisco. Hawaii should be, therefore, owned by the U.S., otherwise control of the northern and mid-Pacific would be forfeited, for

it is not likely that this group will used as a primary base by the naval forces of a nation not holding sovereignty over this group. The group would prove an important port of call for vessels or squadrons from Australian and Chinese waters who could here unite and reach by economical steaming Esquimalt on Vancouver Island especially if they did not fear an enemy of equal or nearly equal force when they approached that vicinity. 43

France, however, could potentially be a secondary threat with its possessions in the mid-Pacific, so he proposed operations against Tahiti. 44  Stockton also thought that assaults against Chile and Peru should be launched. A number of points on the west coast of South America could be taken for their strategic value on the southern approaches to the proposed canal. 45  Stockton cursorily discussed the Russian presence at Vladivostok, but he dismissed this empire. 46

He pointed out, nevertheless, that there could be the possibility of campaigns against the Japanese, Chinese, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. 47  He, however, thought it more prudent to concentrate on the northern and mid-Pacific regions. The entire Pacific including Central and South America, should be dotted with coaling and naval bases, that could be used as launching points of operations against enemies. They would, of course, serve as protection for the U.S. controlled canal. Stockton also suggested that there should be no territorial aggrandizement. 48

We should construe these intended pan-Pacific operations and plans as the first Naval War College attempt at global strategic thought—Stockton, did after all, insist on the “domination of the whole of the Pacific Ocean.” 49  His broad-sweeping vision of an expansive America did seem to reflect the growing aspirations of the naval officer corps. 50

Stockton composed his “labor of love,” in part, as an entreaty to his fellow officers and ultimately countrymen, so they would become aware of their vulnerability in a world beset with change. He naturally referred on different occasions to the parlous state of the U.S. Navy while inculcating his students at the Naval War College that

To accomplish the destruction of . . . [the enemy’s] naval force we need not only a force large enough in numbers to meet any fleet Great Britain would be likely to assemble here, but also one including battleships, carrying ordnance of large size and modern construction and protected with heavy armor . . . .

No matter how brave and efficient our officers and men will be, a loss of moral force is inevitably connected with the consciousness of inferiority in force, in protection in the number of vessels. The spirit of courage is transferred to be simply an endurance of a cruel punishment. 51

Lt. Cmdr. Stockton looked at tackling the isthmian canal much as a boy with open eyes watched a space capsule sail to the moon. Both were the exertions of Americans sharing pride in the quickened activity of a proud country that offered promise, a nation straining, both brain and muscles, to achieve the dreams of decades. He concluded his first lecture in the following fashion:

the successful completion of the ship canal between the two great oceans of the world, it is not too difficult to see that, with its opening, a great epoch in the commercial history of the world will be begun. The importance of the work to the United States can hardly [be] estimated. 52

Stockton was the first naval officer, with pencil and paper, to chart the bounteous future that the canal promised, and he did so on a global basis. 53 Strategic Study of Lake Frontier of the United States” during the same session as Stockton’s lectures. See: Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1888 (WDC: GPO, 188), 101. Given the small staff at the Naval War College Stockton and Rogers undoubtedly knew each other. It is also possible that they envisioned orchestrated assaults on east and west Canada, but additional research is necessary. Mahan was also familiar with Rogers’ war plans.

C.C. Rogers tells me that the “Intelligence Report on War Resources of Canada” has not yet been forwarded by the Admiral [David D. Porter], and that if he can be allowed to retain it, he can, without further writing, read from it such parts as may be necessary for our lectures on the “Strategic features of the Canada frontier”. . . . [Mahan to Raymond P. Rogers, 13 August 1888, as presented in: Robert Seager, II and Doris D. Maguire, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Vol. I: 1847-1889 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 656.]]  That should make us aware of three more lost traits—an untrammelled innocence yet one that faces reality, a thirst for learning yet an awareness of a changing world, and a unique yet shared vision—hallmarks that suggest an original thinker.

Stockton and Mahan

Since we are exploring nineteenth-century American naval history, it now seems appropriate to invoke Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan. At the age of forty-five and while wearing an officers’ uniform, he was apparently an avowed anti-imperialist who “looked upon Mr. Blaine (the secretary of state in the Harrison administration) as a dangerous man” for his acquisitiveness. 54  We should then excuse Mahan for his untutored lapse while “drifting on the lines of simple respectability as aimlessly as one very well could.” 55

Later on, in 1887, after apparently “seeing the light,” Mahan made his new revelations known in a series of three lectures at the Naval War College collectively entitled “Naval Strategy and the Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.” 56  The next year he again gave “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” series. 57  The exact original contents of these lectures are not known since they are not available. These titles do suggest that the Pacific was in all likelihood not mentioned, although he was aware of the potential of an isthmian canal and its relationship to the Caribbean. 58

Mahan’s initial lectures, meanwhile, were received quickly and enthusiastically by his fellow naval officers in the late 1880s, so his reputation began to soar, even before his public presentations on the Caribbean and isthmian issues. McCalla, who displayed exuberance on land and on deck, was also apparently given to a scholarly bent. In a letter to Luce, he wrote that

It is very pleasant to hear you speak in such enthusiastic terms as to the ultimate success of the War College. I am happy that Mahan’s lectures have been such a success. I know that he is a man that reads a great deal and would be very likely to give papers indicative of great research. 59

But it was not these lectures that made Mahan famous. It was the eternal principles set forth in his blockbuster The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890. Robert Seager points out, however, that they were “borrowed.” 60  Ens. William G. David published an article “Our Merchant Marine: The Causes of Its Decline, and the Means to be Taken for Its Revival” eight years earlier in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute. 61  In 1882 David detailed in embryonic form a “few general conclusions [that] may be drawn from. . . [a] review of the six great sea-powers of the past.” 62  They bear a striking resemblance to Mahan’s paradigmatic cornerstones that influence sea power in his famous work. 63

David was not the only man from whom the busy Mahan eventually “drew inspiration.” Stockton’s lectures on the Pacific were also cornucopian sources, for Mahan neglected to take into account the entire Pacific Ocean in his strategic thinking until the same year as The Influence of Sea Power upon History. If we look at Mahan’s articles before the Spanish-American War, there are four that draw our attention.

“The United States Looking Outward” first published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1890 depended on Stockton’s Pacific lectures. In this article Mahan regarded the Hawaiian Islands as necessary to American strategic interests and was fearful of aggressive German commercial growth. He pointed out the strength of Great Britain and the importance of western Canada and its vulnerability. The isthmian canal, moreover, will alter trade routes. The U.S. Pacific Coast will be exposed to attack, so San Francisco and the Puget Sound took on greater importance, and they will need protection. All these thoughts sound familiar and now Mahan lauds Blaine as a harbinger of imperialism. 64

Three years later the article “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power” was published in the March issue of the Forum. It too seems to be an echo of Stockton’s concern for these important islands, especially with their strategic position for control of the North Pacific. Mahan was concerned, however, about forestalling the spread of Oriental barbarism. The newly found American “maturity” regarding Pacific conquest was also a factor. Concern was shown for the presence of the British on both sides of this ocean with well-positioned strategic points at the opposite shores in British Columbia, and Australia and New Zealand; and of course their covetous desire for Hawaii, well within steaming distance of the U.S. The proposed isthmian canal would naturally open the Pacific to American commerce, and Hawaii would be a crucial key to its security. 65

Six months transpired, then “The Isthmus and Sea Power” appeared in the September 1893 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. 66  The only mention of the Pacific is a passing remark about how the isthmian canal would bring the two coasts of America closer together and enhance trade for the western states. 67

“The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” published in 1897 by Harper’s Monthly, is strikingly silent about the Pacific in its contents, but highlights the Caribbean as the center of American sea power. 68   Although the proposed canal would be an important link, “the maritime routes in the Pacific converging upon the Isthmus—do not concern us.” 69

(Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

Then after the Spanish-American War additional articles and books related to the Pacific most assuredly came to light. 70

One noteworthy work in this latter period, Naval Strategy, is worth examining. 71  If we read Mahan’s 1911 lecture series that appeared we find that his earlier Naval War College talks, as mentioned above, were reedited. His major thrust can be found in the following lines:

While the Monroe Doctrine was the sole positive external policy of the United States, as contrasted with the negative policy of keeping clear of entanglements with foreign states, national interest gradually but rapidly concentrated about the Caribbean sea; because through it lie the approaches to the Isthmus of Panama, the place where the Monroe Doctrine focuses. 72

Mahan’s wisdom of hindsight was marvelous. With some early nurturing by Stockton’s focus on the Pacific, the ongoing interest in the canal, the stark implications of growing American, Japanese, and German power, and the Open Door Policy Mahan’s thinking undoubtedly matured. Then of course there was always the enlightenment for his reading public.

The Pacific possesses an actual immediate importance . . . . the Caribbean remains important; perhaps it has not even quite lost the lead, but it is balanced by the Pacific. The approaching completion of the Panama Canal will bring the two into such close connection that the selected ports of both obviously can and should form a well-considered system, in which the facilities and endurance of each part shall be proportional to its relations to the whole. 73

The two chapters, eleven and twelve in his Naval Strategy devoted to the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies, respectively entitled “Application to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea” and “The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea,” ignore the Pacific, except in rare instances, and then only in passing. 74  They contained newer material with his twenty-four years of reflection. Mahan ends chapter twelve with the pronouncement that the Caribbean is “the strategic key to the two great oceans,” without mentioning the Pacific waters that embrace four continents with its countless islands. 75

Mahan, however, did justify his lack of focus since the possibility of American influence across the Pacific in the 1880s was not visible on his remote horizon. He pointed out that: “This was the condition when these lectures were first written. The question of the Pacific and its particular international bearings was then barely foreshadowed and drew little attention.” 76  This statement is quite striking given Stockton’s labors. One astute historian wrote, that

the Panamanian isthmus was vital because many American citizens and large quantities of American merchandise annually traversed the narrow passage. The southern regions of Central America . . . held the key to a flourishing intercoastal and international American trade. It was therefore considered essential that the United States have a dominant voice in isthmian affairs. 77

Mahan, nevertheless, stressed the importance of the canal in a concise synopsis in his report to the secretary of the navy for 1887. 78

The consideration of the results of an isthmian canal is designed to familiarize the minds of officers with the great issues that are maturing in the waters of Central America; the importance of those regions with the point of view of military control, if not of war; and also incidental to awaken attention to the close attention between the commerce and naval interests of a country. 79

So Mahan was keenly aware of the strategic and commercial implications of an isthmian canal, but apparently not for the consequences of a bounteous role for Pacific trade and the potential tasks for the U.S. Navy. He was too Euro-centered and parochial in his thinking, so he clung to the Mediterranean as a reflection of history. In short, he looked to the past instead of to the future.

What Mahan claimed to be of no importance in the 1880s over two decades before this updated lecture of 1911 and his earlier articles, Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton addressed with vigor, while berthing with his soon-to-be famous colleague at the Naval War College in 1887. 80  As the evidence suggests Mahan‘s strategic concerns for the Pacific did not become apparent until after Stockton’s presentation. Should we then accept Mahan’s boast that “the light dawned first on my inner consciousness; [and] I owed it to no other man.” 81


Research in public and private collections has thus far indicated that Stockton’s name

is conspicuously absent in documents for this period. He, for the present, remains an enigma. His voluminous works, however, bespeak of an industrious man. It is “The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal . . . ” that will remain his monument.

Some inconsistencies in the Stockton manuscript, nevertheless, should be addressed. The introduction is located in a separate folder from the truncated major work that is missing some lectures, so it was possible that there were also a number of redactions. Mahan’s “Report of President of Naval War College” in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1887 mentioned six lectures, but they were not itemized. 82  Stockton’s introduction, which served as lecture one and as an overview for the entire series, indicated only five. They were described in the following manner:

The first lecture besides being introductory in its nature will treat especially of trade and trade routes now existing between the Atlantic and Pacific, showing how both will be effected by the Canal.

The second and third lectures will embrace a naval and commercial examination of those ports and harbors of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, that are important in a military or commercial sense, with respect to the trade routes to the Canal and the Canal itself.

The fourth lecture embraces an inquiry into the political state of the Central American countries likely to be most affected by the canal, and a narration of the international questions bearing upon the Canal.

The fifth and final lecture will give the general conclusions derived from the preceding lectures accompanied with a general discussion of the Canal question as it affects the Pacific and how it bears in its different aspects towards the United States. 83

In an earlier article this author touched on lecture one and discussed lectures two and three, with an emphasis on his war plan with Spain found in the latter two. 21  Lectures four and five are missing from the Naval War College Archives and so was a surmised lecture six. Lectures seven and eight were undoubtedly a later product, most likely from the next year, and as cited in Stockton’s notations, were respectively: “A Strategic Study of the Pacific Coast from the Gulf of Panama to British Columbia with Special Reference to the Interests of Military Policy of the United States” and “[A] Strategic Study of the Waters of Puget Sound and those Adjacent to British Columbia with a General Examination of the Strategic Conditions and Possibilities of the Pacific Ocean.” The struck-out words in the above block quote indicated that these subjects treated in lectures seven and eight were originally slated for lecture five.

In the Report of the Secretary of the Navy for 1888 Mahan informed Washington that Stockton prepared a course on the “commercial sea-routes and the strategic features of the Pacific coast of the United States.” 85  The Report for 1892 noted that courses on “The Strategic Features of the Pacific” and the “Nicaragua Canal” were given, but without authorship. 86

Two years later Capt. Henry C. Taylor, the president of the Naval War College, thanked Stockton for assisting in the general preparations of the school. He noted that the “lectures of Commander Stockton were instructive in many ways, and especially impressive in a series on the Nicaragua Canal, indicating the effect of such a canal upon the naval policy of this country and upon various questions of strategy and tactics involved.” 87

If we leap to 1900 Stockton presented two lectures, one of which was the “Strategic Features of Our Northwest Coast, within the Range of the Problem.” 88  Also in this same Report Assistant Secretary of the Navy Frank W. Hackett extolled the labors of the outgoing president: “The college has been fortunate, indeed, under the administration of Captain Stockton. This officer has not only inspired others with zeal for the work, but has himself contributed several papers of high professional value to the records of the college.” 89

Stockton’s lectures, both on the Caribbean and the Pacific, were written at the same time as Mahan’s inquiry into the strategic features of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean Sea, and as adumbrated above, most assuredly antedated Mahan’s inquiries into the Pacific. 90  Notations on the Naval War College folder that contained Stockton’s introduction suggested that his strategic lectures, or at least some of them, were read in 1887, 1888, and 1892. A revision was also indicated on June 9,1894 and another reading on July 23, 1894. 91  The notations, however, did not suggest whether the Pacific or Caribbean lectures were read.

Apparently, Stockton kept the proposed canal close to his heart. A year after the Spanish-American War and just before his retirement as president of the Naval War College in 1900, the Proceedings published another article, “The American Interoceanic Canal: A Study of the Commercial, Naval and Political Conditions.” Although this re-casted and updated version conflated his original lectures and excised the war plans against Great Britain and Spain, his vision, nonetheless, remained unchanged.

The completion of a Ship Canal across the Central American isthmus, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, will undoubtedly mark an epoch in the history of the civilized world. . . . the trade of the American Canal should increase with great strides, accompanied as it will be with the increased population and development of the west coast of America, with the growth of United Australasia, and with the establishment of stability and trade relations in our new insular possessions in the Pacific and the East, as well as in China and Japan. . . . The command of the sea on our north Pacific coast and the waters of the western basin of the north Pacific should be in our hands in peace and war-time. 92

Stockton correctly surmised that the canal would engender new commercial and strategic rearrangements throughout the world.

The close relationship between Stockton and Stephen B. Luce endured for many years. In a letter dated February 6, 1888 the younger man wrote to his mentor.

It is pleasant to find the labor expended upon the lectures duly appreciated. So much of the matter existed in a widely scattered form that hard work was necessary to gather it, digest it and reason from it; so much chaff to go through with to get the grains of wheat.

The work, however, was a labor of love, and I feel indebted to the College for giving me a direct tangible reason undertaking the subject. . . .

I went to the College as its friend, but must admit returning from it as a partisan, and I hope never to miss an opportunity of saying a good word in its favor, in the proper season. 93

The U.S. Navy, with a little help on the Hill, carried out Stockton’s suggestion in his strategic plan to establish a presence in the Northwest. His letter continued, and with self-effacing modesty, reported that:

The Congressional Record of today shows an endeavor on my part to improve an opportunity in connection with Senator [John H.] Mitchell’s speech on a Puget Sound naval station. I wrote quite a letter in advocacy of the College; he has not incorporated it in his remarks, but it ought to have its effect upon the senator himself. He however though giving me the benefit of complimentary remarks, which I wanted for the War College shows the subject originated from the War College and its president and not from myself. Every little helps.94.]

During the same year as this Stockton missive, Mahan received orders from Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney—his presidency of the Naval War College was terminated so he could reconnoiter for a new naval base in the state of Washington, while Stockton was faithfully by his side. 95

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


Kenneth C. Wenzer is an independent historian. Gratitude is extended to Charles C. Chadbourn, III, editor, International Journal of Naval History, Scott Mobley, United States Naval Academy, Michael Crawford, Historian of the Navy, Paul S. Hoff (a great grandson of Stockton), Barbara Bull, Karin Anderson, and Norman G. Schneider. I am also indebted for the archival support and librarianship of Dara Baker and Scott Reilly, Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College (hereafter, NHC); Glenn Helm and his staff at the Navy Library; Jeffrey Flannery and his staff, Manuscript Reading Room of the Library of Congress (hereafter, LC); and Eric S. Van Slander, Christopher Killillay, and their colleagues, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. and College Park, MD. Spelling and grammatical discrepancies have, at times, been silently corrected and regularized in the primary, but not secondary source quotations. Washington, DC is abbreviated as “WDC,” New York City as “NYC,” Government Printing Office as “GPO,” Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute as “USNIP,” and International Journal of Naval History as “IJNH.”

  1. Robert Seager, II, “Ten Years Before Mahan: The Unofficial Case for the New Navy, 1880-1890,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 40, 3 (December 1953): 492.
  2. Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (NY: The Free Press, 1972), 150-51.
  3. The Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua, The Inter-Oceanic Canal of Nicaragua: Its History, Physical Condition, Plans and Projects (NY: The Nicaragua Canal Construction Co., 1891), 8. See pages 3 to 18 for a detailed history.
  4. Daniel H. Wicks, “New Navy and New Empire: The Life and Times of John Grimes Walker” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1979), 376.
  5. Ibid., 376-407.
  6. Rutherford B. Hayes, “Message to the House of Representatives, March 8, 1880,” Letters and Messages of Rutherford B. Hays, President of the United States (WDC: no pub., 1881), 291-92. That year Secretary of the Navy Richard W. Thompson, a bit overeager, generously consented to work for de Lesseps, but resigned with some prodding See: Walter R. Herrick, Jr., The American Naval Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 21.
  7. Literature extolling or condemning one or the other of the two isthmian canal locations evolved into a cottage industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See, for instance: Willis F. Johnson, Four Centuries of the Panama Canal (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1906) and Lindley M. Keasbey, The Nicaragua Canal and the Monroe Doctrine: A Political History of Isthmus Transit, with Special Reference to the Nicaragua Canal Project and the Attitude of the United States Government Thereto (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896). Also see: Kenneth J. Hagan, American Gunboat Diplomacy and the Old Navy, 1877-1889, Contributions in Military History, No. 4 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), 156-57. Herrick, Naval Revolution, 21.
  8. Hagan, Gunboat Diplomacy, 158-59.
  9. Herrick, Naval Revolution, 13-38.
  10. Stephen B. Luce, “The Benefits of War,” North American Review, 153 (December 1891): 674-75.
  11. Alfred T. Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1887 (WDC: GPO, 1887), 163.
  12. Stockton was a prolific strategic and logistical writer at the Naval War College. Some of his contributions include: “Sea Blockades and Naval Investments,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1; “Combined Maritime Operations,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1; and “Commerce Destroying,” 1894, NHC, RG 14, box 1. He also published articles on a variety of topics, such as: “The Naval Asylum and Service Pensions for Enlisted Men,” USNIP XII, 2 (1886): 53-67; “Submarine Telegraph Cables in Time of War, USNIP XXIV, 3 (September 1898): 451-56; and “An Account of Some Past Military and Naval Operations Directed Against Porto Rico and Cuba,” USNIP XXVI, 3 (September 1900): 456-75.
  13. Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton, The Present Condition of Commerce and Commercial Routes Between Europe and the Pacific, with an Estimate of the Effect Produced on Them by a Trans-Isthmian Canal Including a View of the Military and Political Conditions of the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea: Military and Commercial Examination of the Port and Countries of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea (first lecture/introduction) and RG 8, Series 1, box 27, NHC (second, third, seventh, and eighth lectures). Lecture seven is handwritten and is titled: “A Strategic Study of the Pacific Coast: Panama to British Columbia.” Lecture eight is also handwritten and is titled: “A Strategic Study of the Waters of Puget Sound and those Adjacent to British Columbia with a General Examination of the Strategic Conditions of the Pacific Ocean.” Lectures two and three are respectively titled: “The Interoceanic Canal, I. Introductory–Its Commercial Geography.” On the lecture coversheet: Lt. Commander C.H. Stockton, U.S.N./The Inter-Oceanic Canal 1.” In the top-left corner: “38;” bottom-left side: “Panama Canal;” top-right corner: “51;” and top center: “(1894).” On the bound-volume cover: “Locker U-2-d/Office of NAVAL INTELLIGENCE/Register No. 8310/Defenses/U.S./National/General Studies/Subject or Title. Strategic Studies in the Gulf of Mexico./Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean,/Lectures by Lt. Comdr. Stockton;/ U.S. Navy./1888.” On the left side: “8310 OLD SERIES.” Handwritten in the center: “I agree with Lt. Com. Stockton that these should not be made public in any manner without his consent. R.P.R.” (Lt. Raymond Perry Rodgers, chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence). On a center label below writing: “SECRET./To be kept out of view./Not to be removed from the Secret/Locker or Safe except by authority of the/Chief Intelligence Officer.” On the second page there are declassification stamps and the following: “MILITARY AND COMMERCIAL EXAMINATION/of the/PORTS AND COUNTRIES/of the/ GULF OF MEXICO AND CARRIBBEAN SEA/Part First: Florida Straits to Chiriqui Lagoon/Charts:/Key West, Havana, Pensacola,/Passes of the Mississippi, Chiriqui Lagoon;” NHC, RG 14, box 1.
  14. The Caribbean aspects of Stockton’s geopolitical study is discussed in Kenneth C. Wenzer, “The First Naval War College Plan Against Spain by Lt. Cmdr. Charles H. Stockton,” IJNH 13, 1 (April 2016).
  15. Stockton, Lecture, 7; 5.
  16. Ibid., 7; 1 and 2-3.
  17. Ibid., 7; 4. See also Lecture, 8; 28-30 for a discussion on naval stations and coaling bases and the challenges that they pose to maintain the readiness of vessels and contribute to the logistics for a fighting fleet.
  18. Ibid., 7; 3 and 4.
  19. Ibid., 7; 4.
  20. Ibid., 7; 18.
  21. See endnote no. 14.
  22. Ibid., 1, 14-15.
  23. Ibid., 7; 7.
  24. Ibid., 7; 18.
  25. Ibid., 1; 17.
  26. Ibid., 8; 27-28.
  27. Stockton was not impressed or did not think that the influence of Japan, Spain, and Russia would be of much consequence in the Pacific. See: Ibid., 8; 25-27.
  28. Ibid., 7; 32 and 33.
  29. Ibid., 7; 26 and 31. San Francisco should therefore be fortified with a strong naval presence. There should also be joint service cooperation with a mustered militia (Ibid., 7; 22-23 and 28).
  30. Ibid., 7; 27.
  31. Ibid., 7; 38.
  32. Ibid., 8; 2 and 3.
  33. Ibid., 8; 13.
  34. Ibid., 8; 9-14.
  35. Ibid., 8; 7.
  36. Ibid., 8; 13-19.
  37. Ibid., 8; 18-21. See footnote no. 53.
  38. Ibid., 1; 20-26.
  39. Ibid., 8; 23-25.
  40. Ibid., 8; 35-40. As with Esquimalt, Stockton described various geographical and strategic features of Australia and New Zealand.
  41. Ibid., 8; 38-39.
  42. Ibid., 8; 39-40.
  43. Ibid., 7; 22 and 8; 32-34.
  44. Ibid., 8; 34-35.
  45. Ibid., 8; 40-41.
  46. Ibid., 8; 26.
  47. Ibid., 8; 31.
  48. Ibid., 8; 41-43.
  49. Ibid., 7; 5.
  50. For a glimpse into the mindset of the officer corps, see: Karsten’s Naval Aristocracy.
  51. Stockton, Lecture, 8; 8-9.
  52. Ibid., 1; 11 and 26.
  53. Stockton’s plan was an academic exercise, so there were a number of obvious shortcomings. He did not take into account the U.S. Navy’s miniscule fleet with aged ships (but was evincing signs of modernization) and a scaled-down U.S. Army. For the Navy, see:  Herrick, Naval Revolution, 13-38. For the Army, see: William A. Ganoe, The History of the United States Army (NY: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1942), 298-396. During this time concerns over coastal and harbor defense gave rise to the Endicott Board (headed by Secretary of War William C. Endicott), which set in motion a period of fortification construction. See: Army and Coast Defence Edition of the Scientific Supplement; Guns, Armor and Fortifications XLVI, 1173, July 9, 1898. The reader is encouraged to consult a proposed attack against eastern Canada in Scott Mobley’s article “The Essence of Intelligence Work is Preparation for War: How ‘Strategy’ Infiltrated the Office of Naval Intelligence, 1882-1889,” IJNH 12, 3 (December 2015). The author discusses, in part, the close relationship between the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Naval War College. Lt. Charles C. Rogers, who was detailed to the ONI and worked at the NWC, planned an attack on eastern Canada. Rogers presented  “[A
  54. James G. Blaine, twice secretary of state, attempted to foster unity with Latin America and advocated U.S. commercial expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy.
  55. Alfred T. Mahan, From Sail to Steam: Recollections of Naval Life, The American Scene: Comments and Commentators (1906; NY: Da Capo Press, 1968), 274.
  56. Ibid.,, “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 164. One author suggests that Mahan’s pro-imperialism began while stationed off the Pacific coast of Central and South America (1884 to 1885). See: Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (WDC: The Woodrow Wilson Press, 1997), 23.
  57. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1888, 101.
  58. Robert Seager, II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 121-22. During the 1880s the proposed isthmian canal provoked interest in the U.S. Navy. See: Ens. Washington I. Chambers, “Notes on the Nicaragua Ship Canal, As Relocated and Revised by the U.S. Surveying Expedition of 1885,” USNIP XI, 4 (1885): 807-14 and Lt. William W. Kimball and Naval Cadet W. L. Capps, “Special Intelligence Report on the Progress of the Work on the Panama Canal During the Year 1885,” USNIP XIII 4 (1887), 679-84
  59. Lt. Cmdr. Bowman H. McCalla to Luce, 23 October 1886, Stephen B. Luce Papers, reel 6, LC.
  60. Seager, Mahan, 200-01 and 206-07.
  61. Ens. William G. David, “Our Merchant Marine: The Causes of Its Decline, and the Means to be Taken for Its Revival, USNIP VIII, 1 (1882): 151-186.
  62. Ibid., 151-52 and 155-57. The six powers are: Phoenicia (and Carthage), Rome, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and Great Britain.
  63.   Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1890), 23-89.
  64. Ibid., “The United States Looking Outward,” The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1898), 3-27.
  65. Ibid., “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power,” Interest of America, 31-55.
  66. Ibid., “The Isthmus and Sea Power,” Interest of America, 59-104.
  67. Ibid., 85-86 and 99-100.
  68. Ibid., “The Strategic Features of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” Interest of America, 271-314.
  69. Ibid., 282. This article appears to be the first edited version of his Naval War College lectures in the late 1880s and saw final form in Naval Strategy in 1911. See endnote nos. 71 and 74.
  70. “The Relations of the United States to Their Dependencies” came to light in 1899. In the first year of the new century Mahan published additional articles entitled “The Problems of Asia” and also the “Effect of Asiatic Conditions upon World Policies.” These pieces appeared in: Alfred T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and Its Effect upon International Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1900). “Off to Japan in ‘67” and “When U.S. Warships held Japan’s Harbors” appeared in 1907. One year later two articles with the same name “The Value of the Pacific Cruise of the United States Fleet, 1908” were printed. One online journal article offers a two-part periodization of American interest in Hawaii. The first period, from 1892 to 1895, the author avers, is devoted to the first Mahanian insights. See: Ambjörn L. Adomeit, “Alfred and Theodore Go to Hawai’i: The Value of Hawai’i in the Strategic Thought of Alfred Thayer Mahan,” IJNH, 13, 1 (April 2016).
  71. Alfred T. Mahan, Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land, Lectures Delivered at U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I., Between the Years 1887 and 1911 (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1911).
  72. Ibid., 198.
  73. Ibid.
  74. Chapter XI of Naval Strategy is the “Application to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea,” 302-39 and chapter XII is “The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea,” 340-82.
  75. Ibid., 382.
  76. Ibid., 198.
  77. Hagan, Gunboat Diplomacy, 188 and 189.
  78. Mahan, Naval Strategy, 375.
  79. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 63-64.
  80. Ibid., Sail to Steam, 229-65.
  81. Ibid., 276.
  82. Ibid., “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1887, 164.
  83. Stockton, Lecture 1; 1-2.
  84. See endnote no. 14.
  85. Alfred T. Mahan, “Report of President of Naval War College,” 1888, 101. See also page 84.
  86. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1892 (WDC: GPO, 1892), 56-57.
  87. Capt. Henry C. Taylor, “Report of President of Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1894 (WDC: GPO, 1894), 208-09 and 212.
  88. Capt. Charles H. Stockton, “Naval War College,” Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for the Year 1900 (WDC: GPO, 1900), 97.
  89. Frank W. Hackett, “Naval War College,” Ibid., 71-72.
  90. Mahan, “Report of President,” Annual Report, 1887, 164.
  91. These notations are on the back cover sheet of the first lecture.
  92. Charles H. Stockton, “The American Interoceanic Canal: A Study of the Commercial, Naval and Political Conditions,” USNIP XXV, 4 (December 1899), 751, 752, and 771. Twelve years later Stockton wrote the article “Panama Canal Tolls,“ USNIP 38, 2 (June 1912), 493-98.
  93. Ibid. to Luce, 6 February 1888, Luce Papers, reel 7, LC.
  94. Ibid. Mitchell was a Republican from Oregon. The congressional act that contained the provisions for the future naval base (Bremerton) in Puget Sound was passed on September 7, 1888. It stated that
    “the Secretary of the Navy. . . is hereby required to appoint a commission composed of three competent naval officers, whose duty it shall be to examine the coast north of the forty-second parallel of north latitude, in the State of Oregon and Territories of Washington and Alaska, and select a suitable site, having due regard to the commercial and naval necessities of that coast, for a navy-yard and docks . . . . “ [An Act Making Appropriations for the Naval Service for the Fiscal Year Ending June Thirtieth, Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-Nine, and for Other Purposes,” Statutes at Large, Vol. 25, Chap. 991, 463 (51st Congress, 2nd Session)
  95. Mahan, Sail to Steam, 299-300 and Mahan to Colby M. Chester, 4 June 1889 in Seager and Maguire, Letters and Papers of Mahan, 686-87.

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Presidential Crisis Decision Making Following the Sinking of the Panay


The Setting
The Domestic Context
Presidential Crisis Decision Making

Douglas Peifer
US Air War College


Last December marked the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the US gunboat Panay by Japanese aircraft, an incident that predated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by four years. The sinking of the Panay was frontline news, but unlike the reaction to the sinking of the Maine in 1898, the crisis elicited more apprehension than outrage. Public opinion and Congress feared an overreaction on the part of the executive branch, with isolationist papers and politicians asking why US naval vessels had been stationed in China in the first place. A broad spectrum of the public feared that FDR’s response would somehow entangle the United States in the ongoing Sino-Japanese war, and Congress sent a clear signal that it had no intentions of authorizing any sort of military response.

The USS Panay underway on Yangtze, date unknown (Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives, Photograph # NH 11353)

Much of the literature on the Panay focuses on the incident itself, rather than on political response to the crisis. The tale of the attack on the Panay is a riveting drama, encompassing eyewitness accounts of dive bombing aircraft coming so close that American sailors could see the faces of Japanese pilots, of the “pantless gunner” of the Panay who had rushed up to the ship’s deck half-dressed in order to man one of the 30 caliber machine guns, and of a heroic executive officer who suffered a neck wound and was unable to speak but calmly wrote out orders on the back of a nautical chart as blood dripped onto the chart. 1  The drama of the incident too often pushes its real significance into the background.  Focusing on the dynamics of presidential decision making, this article explores several key areas where foreign policy, naval diplomacy, and crisis decision making overlap. 2  Was the incident entirely unanticipated, or had China experts feared that something of the sort might happen? Once news of the Panay’s destruction reached Washington, what courses of action were presented to the president and what avenues did FDR push his subordinates to examine? Why did FDR decide to select the option he did? And how does this inform our understanding of developments in 1941?

The Setting

On August the 22nd, 1937, Admiral Harry Yarnell, Commander in Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet, dispatched a stern protest to the Commander of the Japanese Third Battle Fleet whose ships were firing on Chinese positions near Shanghai’s International Settlement. Yarnell, joined by his British and French counterparts, complained that Japanese destroyers were shooting directly over his flagship and other non-belligerent naval ships. He objected that the Japanese were endangering neutral shipping caught in the crossfire between Chinese and Japanese forces, noting that two days earlier a shell had landed directly on the deck of his flagship, killing one American sailor and wounding eighteen. Admiral Yarnell urged the Japanese admiral to shift his warships to a different anchorage so that the USS Augusta and other neutral vessels moored off Shanghai’s bustling waterfront, the Bund, would not be further endangered. 3  Yarnell’s request was duly conveyed to Tokyo, and while the Japanese government responded reassuringly that it had directed its forces to exercise utmost caution so as to avoid incidentally damaging Western embassies or ships, the reality was that the escalating conflict between Imperial Japan and Nationalist China threatened long-established Western interests.

These interests took many forms, from large international settlements with extraterritorial jurisdiction at dozens of treaty ports along China’s coast to factories, railroads, and warehouses throughout the country to missionary schools and churches tucked deep in the country’s hinterland. By the mid-1930s, the US had around 2,400 ground troops in China, with 528 Marines on station in Beijing, 785 Army troopers posted to Tientsin, and 1,100 Marines stationed at Shanghai. 4  In addition, units of the US Asiatic Fleet regularly visited Chinese ports, with Admiral Yarnell’s flagship the Augusta (a heavy cruiser) anchored conspicuously at Shanghai’s Battleship Row throughout the summer and fall of 1937. Lastly, the riverine gunboats of the US Yangtze Patrol provided a reassuring presence deep into the interior of China for the scattered American missionary outposts, schools, trading enclaves and businesses strung out along South China’s major trade corridor, the Yangtze River.

As clashes between Kuomintang and Japanese soldiers escalated into full-fledged (though undeclared) war in July 1937, the environment in which US troop detachments and gunboats operated became increasingly dangerous. The isolated gunboats of the Yangtze Patrol were particularly vulnerable, usually operating as detached units and lacking the firepower to defend themselves from anything more serious than light arms fire. On August 10, Secretary of State Cordell Hull clarified the mission of the Yangtze Patrol, specifying that both offensive and coercive operations against foreign governments fell outside its mission set. He emphasized that the Yangtze Patrol’s primary function was to protect American nationals, with a secondary function to protect American property. American forces in China were “in no sense expeditionary forces. They are not in occupation of an enemy territory nor are they defending territory of the United States. They are expected to protect lives but they are not expected to hold positions regardless of hazards. They would be expected to repel threatened incursions of mobs or of disorganized or unauthorized soldiery, but they would not be expected to hold a position against … armed forces of another country acting on express high authority.” 5

By this time, Sino-Japanese fighting had spread from Northern China and the Beijing area to Shanghai and the Yangtze River valley. Americans, other Westerners, and Chinese civilians became caught in the crossfire, with both sides showing a general disregard for non-combatant lives and neutral property.

It soon became apparent that Japanese aircraft and artillery were becoming the main threat to American lives and property in China. Relaying a report from the US embassy in Nanking (Nanjing) to the American ambassador in Japan, Secretary of State Hull remarked that “Sooner or later some incident is going to happen resulting in the death or injury of American citizens going about their legitimate occupations within the interior of China where such dangers should not exist.” Hull directed Ambassador Grew to deliver an aide-mémoire to the Japanese Ministry for Foreign Affairs urging Japan to “refrain from attacks upon defenseless cities, hospitals, trains, and motor cars etc.” The American aide-mémoire noted that while Japan claimed it was not at war with China, Japanese aircraft were conducting raids deep into the interior of China with “consequent serious damage to the rights of other nations.” 6

Hull’s misgivings were justified. As Japan proceeded with military operations around Shanghai and then pushed up the Yangtze River toward the Republic of China’s capital at Nanking, a growing number of complaints reached the US Embassy about incidents in which Americans had been hurt, attacked, or witnessed brutal attacks on Chinese employees and civilian facilities. On the 17th of September, Ambassador Joseph Grew lodged an official complaint with the Japanese government, noting that Japanese military forces were showing a reckless disregard for US lives and property. Japanese aircraft, Grew admonished, had even subjected American humanitarian and philanthropic establishments in China to savage attacks. Three days later, Ambassador Grew again called upon the Japanese Foreign Minister Kōki Hirota, warning him of “the very serious effect which would be produced in the United States … if some accident should occur in connection” with the Japanese navy’s announced intention to bomb Nanking. Grew recalled that he employed the most emphatic language, reminding Hirota that “we must not forget history…neither the American Government nor the American people had wanted war with Spain in 1898, but when the Maine was blown up nothing could prevent war.” 7  Ambassador Grew feared that overeager Japanese aviators might attack a US ship or contingent of marines irrespective of restraining directives to exercise utmost caution. He blamed young, hotheaded Japanese aviators for causing trouble, commenting in his diary that “having once smelled blood they simply fly amok and ‘don’t give a damn whom or what they hit.’” 8

Less than three months after warning Hirota that overeager Japanese aviators might plunge relations between the US and Japan into a crisis, Grew found himself issuing orders to the American embassy staff in Tokyo to begin planning for a hurried departure. The ambassador had received word that Japanese aircraft had sunk the USS Panay on 12 December as it lay at anchor upstream of Nanking.

The Domestic Context

Secretary of State Cordell Hull arriving at White House to discuss Far East situation, Aug 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23201)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his advisors were keenly aware of the strengths of isolationism as they attempted to forge a coherent strategy for dealing with Japanese aggression in East Asia during the 1930s. Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State, claimed that in the spring and early summer of 1937, the United States had contemplated relinquishing its extraterritorial rights in China and had contacted the British to begin exchanging views on the topic of restoring full sovereignty to China. 9  The outbreak of fighting put the matter of the American military presence in China on the front burner, where it would remain until the Panay was sunk in December. Harold Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, recorded cabinet deliberations that reveal that both the President and Vice President were deeply ambivalent about the presence of American troops in China.  10  Vice President John Nance Garner, when told that one couldn’t remove American troops without inadvertently encouraging further Japanese aggression, exploded, angrily asking “Are we going to keep our troops in China for twenty or fifty or a hundred years?” For Garner, the issue was clear. The United States “oughtn’t to have soldiers and Marines in foreign countries,” with the Texan elaborating that “we wouldn’t take it in good part if Japan insisted on having marines in San Francisco.” FDR was more circumspect, asking Admiral Leahy how many Marines were in Shanghai, and then sighing that “he wished they were not there.” When Leahy pointed out that the Marines were protecting four thousand Americans in the city, the President countered that “there were about twenty-five thousand Americans in Paris and not a single Marine.” Ickes recorded that the President reluctantly agreed with Hull and Leahy that the marine contingent could not be removed given the present situation.  Ickes concluded that “It is the old case of not doing something when it can be done and then when a crisis arises, deciding that it can’t be done then.” 11

Roosevelt predicted that some Americans were going to get hurt, and instructed Leahy to work out plans to evacuate those American who wished to leave. The president, according to Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, told Garner that the administration would base its policies in the Far East “on the hope of Japanese disaster, which could be produced by a rise in the strength of Russia and China and a revolt on the part of the Japanese population against militarism.” 12  Yet hope is not a strategy, and FDR would find that creating policies that supported his aspirations was difficult given the domestic political climate which prevailed within the United States.

If the president, vice-president, and Secretary of the Interior were frustrated that outdated treaty rights dating back to the Boxer Rebellion had put American forces in a vulnerable position from which it was difficult to withdraw without appearing weak, isolationist Congressmen and Senators were appalled. Immediately after the outbreak of fighting in China in July, Representative Hamilton Fish of New York announced to the press that he would introduce legislation forcing the administration to relinquish extraterritorial rights in China.  Fish challenged his fellow House members to come up with a single good reason for maintaining American troops and gunboats in China. 13  Senator Lewis of Illinois raised the same point in the Senate the next day, with Representative George Holden Tinkham of Massachusetts submitting a resolution for the withdrawal of all American forces from Northern China on 9 August.  As the situation in China deteriorated, more isolationist Congressmen and Senators took to the floor, with Representative Voorhis of California exclaiming on the 17th of August that America had everything to lose and nothing to gain by keeping marines and gunboats in China. 14

Public opinion was divided on the matter. On August 5th, Gallup conducted a poll asking whether the United States should withdraw all troops in China in order to keep from getting involved in the fighting, or keep them there to protect American rights. Fifty-four percent of those polled answered “withdraw,” forty-six responded “Remain.” Yet when the president remarked to some journalists that same day that Americans in China had been urged to leave and those who decided to remain did so “at their own risk,” hundreds of messages poured into the White House from missionary leaders and businessmen stunned at the statement. 15  English language newspapers in China, such as the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury, the China Weekly Review, and the North China Daily News, reflecting the sensibilities of the American expatriate community in China, ascribed the president’s remark to an oversensitivity to Congressional isolationists and peace activists.

The president had to reconcile the wishes and recommendations of his foreign and security policy advisers with the realities of the political situation at home. When Admiral Yarnell requested additional marines to reinforce the marine detachment in Shanghai in mid-August, the president had endorsed the request in the face of considerable pressure. But when Yarnell and Hornbeck, the former the on-scene military commander in Shanghai and the latter the State Department’s East Asia expert, asked for an additional two cruisers (watered down from an initial request of four cruisers) at the end of the month, FDR turned down the request emphatically. 16  And when Yarnell issued a statement to the press explaining that American forces had the duty and obligation to protect American citizens in China even at the risk of being exposed to danger, the president curtly instructed Leahy that “hereafter any statement regarding ‘policy’ contemplated by the Commander –in-Chief Asiatic Fleet must be referred to the Secretary of the Navy for approval.” 17  Harold Ickes, more attuned to domestic considerations than his State Department and Navy colleagues, recorded his assessment candidly in mid-September. A political animal and one of the key implementers of the New Deal, Ickes confided to his private diary that

There isn’t any doubt that we are in a bad spot so far as the Sino-Japanese situation is concerned. When the President some time ago warned all Americans to leave China or to stay there at their own risk, a great protest went up, especially from the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. As usual, Americans who went abroad to engage in business because of the big profit that they thought they might make expect us to sacrifice thousands of lives if necessary and millions of treasure in an attempt to protect their investments when we can’t do it anyhow. It all seems so stupid to me…. After all, there is no compulsion to invest money in foreign enterprises and it ought to be at the risk of the investor. Certainly we oughtn’t to be expected to go to war, with all the dreadful consequences involved, to protect people who are doing something they want to do and are doing [so] voluntarily. 18

Roosevelt presided over a back and forth struggle between isolationists in Congress and internationalists in the State and Navy, calling upon administration allies in Congress to provide him with room for maneuver. He attempted to steer a course that would enjoy public support, opposing recommendations he feared would result in a backlash but resisting calls to invoke the full panoply of restrictions embedded in the Neutrality Act. The advice and counsel he received from members of the cabinet was divided, as were the inputs they received from their subordinates. 19

The administration had to tread very carefully when dealing with the Sino-Japanese conflict in the summer and fall of 1937. Isolationist sentiment expressed itself not only in calls for the rapid withdrawal of US military units in China and in demands that FDR implement the Neutrality Act, but in a deep-seated skepticism toward any joint, multinational, or international response to the crisis.

With the passage of time, it has becoming tempting to characterize the isolationists as know-nothing provincials, Republican holdouts embittered by the New Deal, or the offspring of the mid-western “hyphenated Americans” who had opposed Wilson’s tilt to the Entente in World War I. Yet isolationist sentiment was wide-spread even in the circles most enthused about the New Deal, with college professors, ministers, and many intellectuals warning against any administration schemes that envisioned the United States organizing collective responses to overseas aggression. Charles Beard serves as an example of a progressive, highly educated isolationist. Writing in the Political Quarterly that fall, Beard commented that “With much twisting and turning, the American people are renewing the Washington tradition and repudiating both the Kiplingesque imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt and the universal philanthropy of Woodrow Wilson.” They are showing a “firm resolve not to be duped by another deluge of propaganda – right, left, or centre.” 20  While Beard supported the administration’s New Deal and was sympathetic to its domestic activism, he opposed FDR’s internationalist tendencies. Responding to the internationalist argument, Beard wrote in the New Republic that

It is easy to get into a great moral passion over the distant Chinese. It costs nothing now, though it may cost the blood of countless American boys. It involves no conflict with greedy interests in our own midst. It sounds well on Sunday… [But] Anybody who feels hot with morals and is affected with delicate sensibilities can find enough to do at home, considering the misery of the 10,000,000 unemployed, the tramps, the beggars, the sharecroppers, tenants and field hands right here at our door. 21

A few voices pushed back against the strong current of isolationism in the fall of 1937. Senator M.M. Logan of Kentucky advised the administration to act more forcefully, elaborating to journalists that “I am opposed to war, but I am also opposed to running for a hole every time anyone says ‘boo.’ I think the fleets of a group of nations blockading Japan would stop the present hostilities. But it would have to be collective action by several nations.” 22  FDR’s Secretary of the Navy, Claude Swanson, made in similar point in Cabinet discussions, telling the president that the Navy staff was of the opinion that “if it was considered necessary to put Japan in its place, this was the right time to do it, with Japan so fully occupied in China.” The president ignored Logan’s public call, and smilingly chided Swanson that he [FDR] was a pacifist and had no intention of making any warlike moves. 23

Presidential Crisis Decision Making

Japanese naval aircraft attacked the USS Panay in the early afternoon of Sunday, 12 December 1937.  The ship sank beneath the muddy surface of the Yangtze shortly before four in the afternoon.  The initial attack destroyed the ship’s transmitter, with the Panay’s survivors hiding in the riverbank reeds until nightfall as they feared that the Japanese intended to kill them. As word reached the Commander of the United States Yangtze Patrol and the American ambassador to China that British gunboats had been subjected to Japanese artillery and air attacks that Sunday afternoon, a sense of alarm began to grip State and Navy Department personnel in Hankow. Ambassador Johnson sent an urgent telegram to Washington shortly before midnight China time letting the Secretary of State know that nothing had been heard from the Panay since 1335. At 930 on Monday morning (Sunday evening in Washington), the American ambassador received a telephone call from an American missionary doctor in Anking relaying the information that the Panay had been sunk, with fifty-four survivors gathered in the town of Hohsien. The Ambassador and the Commander of the United States Yangtze Patrol rushed to inform their respective superiors of the news.  By late Sunday evening Eastern Standard Time, State and Navy leadership in Washington had been informed that the Panay was destroyed.

As Washington began to grapple with the news, the Japanese government sought to defuse the situation by immediately apologizing for the incident at multiple levels and across time zones. 24 1937, vol.4, 497-98.]  In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Hirota broke with diplomatic protocol by personally visiting the American embassy to express his regret for the incident. 25  The Japanese Navy Minister meanwhile sent his senior aide to the US naval attaché in Tokyo to convey the Navy Minister’s “sincerest regret to this unhappy accident,” with the Chief of Staff of the Japanese China Sea Fleet paying a formal call to Admiral Yarnell on the flagship Augusta in Shanghai to apologize and offer medical assistance. 26  In Washington, the Japanese ambassador requested an urgent meeting with the US Secretary of State, intent on conveying his government’s full and sincere apologies for the “very grave blunder” which had occurred.

The barrage of apologies from Japanese officials gave the administration little time to digest what had happened to the Panay, let alone conduct protracted internal debates before responding. Secretary of State Hull put off meeting the Japanese ambassador until 1 pm on Monday so that he could first consult with the White House. Hull had conferred with the officers of the Far Eastern Division the previous evening, and met with them again early Monday morning to deliberate what sort of recommendations the State Department should make. The initial consensus of opinion was that Japan’s behavior had been outrageous, but given isolationist sentiment, the United States was in “no position to send sufficient naval forces… to require the Japanese to make the fullest amends and resume something of a law-abiding course.” 27  Admiral Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations, participated in the discussion Sunday evening, and had been dismayed by the weak response contemplated. He advised the president that it was “time to get the fleet ready for sea, to make an arrangement with the British Navy for joint action, and to inform the Japanese that we expect to protect our nationals.” 28

The president received conflicting counsel from his inner circle as the crisis broke. The president’s instinct was to express shock, demand an apology, but wait until all facts were assembled before offering more precise terms of settlement. The Naval Court of Inquiry convened to investigate what had happened took a week to file its official account; the journalists who had been onboard the Panay, in particular Colin MacDonald for The Times of London and Norman Soong for the New York Times, worked on faster deadlines. Before even arriving in Shanghai with the other dazed and wounded Panay survivors, MacDonald and Soong somehow managed to send the first eyewitness accounts of the bombing. Over the coming days, more eyewitness accounts would make their way into the papers, with the incident dominating the news cycle.

While the president and his advisers waited for the findings of the Naval Court of Inquiry, they discussed several different options that might underline the gravity and urgency of the situation. These ranged from imposing a naval blockade on Japan to organizing a joint demonstration of force with the British to using economic tools to punish the Japanese. Each option, after careful consideration, was shelved or watered down.

Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson, though old and in poor health, was enraged by the attack and “shouted for war in his feeble voice” during the cabinet meeting held on 17 December 1937. 29  Swanson made his case forcefully despite difficulty speaking, arguing that war with Japan was inevitable. Given this unfortunate reality, it was better to fight Japan now while its military was bogged down in China rather than wait until Japan had consolidated its hold over the mainland. Returning to a point he had made months earlier, Swanson pointed out that Japan was highly dependent on imports and therefore vulnerable to naval pressure. Admiral Leahy, the Chief of Naval Operations, advised the president to send the ships of the fleet to navy yards “without delay to obtain fuel, clean bottoms, and take on sea stores preparatory for a cruise at sea.” 30  He outlined the idea of imposing distant blockade on Japan in cooperation with the British, a concept that caught FDR’s fancy. After listening to Swanson vent his anger and call for war, FDR painted the broad contours of the concept to his cabinet. The president viewed a distant blockade as less drastic than fleet action, and remarked that the US Navy could blockade Japan from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii to Guam, with the British taking over the blockade from there to Singapore. FDR asserted that a blockade was “comparatively simple task which the Navy could take care of without having to send a great fleet.” He believed that a joint Anglo-American blockade would bring Japan to its knees within a year. 31  The concept, however, required collaboration with the British Navy, and would put thousands of American civilians still in China – as well as the US troop detachments at Beijing, Shanghai, and Tientsin – at risk. FDR realized that while many Americans were appalled by Japanese behavior in the Far East, few wanted to go to war with Japan over American gunboats on the Yangtze or Japanese atrocities in Shanghai, Nanking, or elsewhere.

If imposing a naval blockade went too far and constituted an act of war, sending a powerful naval force to the area to show the flag offered an alternative that would send a strong signal. The British had suggested a joint display of force back in November, only to be rebuffed by the Americans. As news of the Japanese attacks on the HMS Ladybird, HMS Bee, and the USS Panay reached London, the British government reached out to Washington once again. Noting that they were “fully aware” that the American government was unable to participate in “joint actions,” the British suggested that their two governments might synchronize their responses since the Japanese attacks on vessels of both nations “could not possibly have been the result of accident” according to their sources. 32  The British government attached great importance to creating a united Anglo-American front, urging the Americans to move their fleet and assuring them that “in such circumstances Great Britain would undoubtedly increase her own Far Eastern naval contingent.” 33  The message delivered by the British Ambassador to Cordell Hull the next day was somewhat more circumspect; while reiterating that the British believed the Japanese were following a policy of firing upon the nationals and warships of other nations in a most “reckless, criminal, and deliberate manner,” the British government conceded that it was doubtful whether either Britain or the United States could assemble a naval force sufficiently impressive to deter the Japanese from further outrageous behavior. 34

The British government, when push came to shove, encouraged the United States to take a strong stance toward Japan, desired joint action, but was unable to contribute to the strong display of force it advocated. On the evening of the 16th December, Roosevelt met with British ambassador Lindsay and Secretary of State Hull to explore the matter of naval cooperation more fully off the record. Returning to the concept of a naval blockade or “quarantine” of Japan, FDR grew increasingly enthusiastic as he outlined the concept to the British ambassador. If Japan committed another outrage, the British and American navies should implement a cruiser blockade of Japan, keeping their battleships to the rear. The French and Dutch would have to be brought onboard, with the blockade supplemented by a general embargo of Japanese goods. Roosevelt elaborated that there was no need for the British to send a fleet, and that the dispatch of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines would suffice, perhaps backed by one or two battleships. Reporting on the conversation to Foreign Minister Eden, Lindsay concluded

From the foregoing you may think that these are the utterances of a hair-brained statesman or of an amateur strategist, but I assure you that the chief impression left on my own mind was that I had been talking to a man who had done his best in the Great War to bring America speedily on the side of the Allies and who now was equally anxious to bring America in on the same side before it might be too late… 35

Roosevelt became intrigued with the concept of blockading Japan after the Panay’s sinking. In his mind, a blockade did not equate to a declaration of war, hence his use of the more innocuous term he had tested the previous October, that of a “quarantine.” British officials from the Prime Minister down, no doubt drawing upon their experience in the First World War, were skeptical of this distinction. The Foreign Office favored a joint demonstration of force, a concept it had advocated months before. Both options required a modicum of staff discussions between the US Navy and the Royal Navy, though the administration knew that even a whiff of such discussions would cause an uproar in Congress and the public. On December 23rd, FRD asked Admiral Leahy and Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, director of the US Navy’s War Plans Division, to attend a secret meeting at the White House along with the Secretaries of State and Treasury. Ignoring Hull’s misgivings, FDR instructed Ingersoll to go to London for the purpose of making “preliminary arrangements, if we could, with the British for joint action in case of war with Japan.” 36

Domestic realities made it difficult for the president to openly engage in coercive diplomacy. In groping for a way to respond to aggression without resorting to war, FDR toyed with the idea of using the United States’ economic power to exert pressure without force. This would be particularly useful if the Japanese either refused to pay indemnities for their attack on the Panay, or if they dragged their feet and quibbled about the damages demanded.  During the first cabinet session after the Panay’s destruction, FDR declared that there were lots of ways of fighting without declaring war, indicating that economic sanctions might constitute a smart and modern response to Italian and Japanese aggression. He instructed Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau to ascertain what authority the president had to seize Japanese assets and hold them against payment of damages. 37  Morgenthau consulted his senior legal advisor, General Counsel Herman Oliphant, and reported the next day that a 1933 amendment to the Trading with the Enemy Act empowered the president to issue regulations that prohibited or restricted exchange transactions if the president declared a national emergency. FDR was delighted and instructed Morgenthau to develop the concept further.

General Counsel Oliphant put the Treasury Department’s top lawyers through their paces, directing them to complete a draft legal justification of the concept as quickly as possible. 38 ]  Assistant Secretary of Treasury Wayne Taylor pushed for more deliberation during a departmental review, asking under what circumstances the United States could impose the rules and for how long. Morgenthau remarked that those decisions would be up to the president, with restrictions removed when the Japanese agreed to “be good boys.” When Taylor argued that the proposed regulations might lead to war, Morgenthau shot back that “they’ve sunk a United States battleship [sic] and killed three people….You going to sit here and wait until you wake up here in the morning and find them in the Philippines, then Hawaii, and then in Panama? Where would you call halt?” Taylor, reflecting the opinion of most Americans, said he would wait quite a while. 39  When Morgenthau snapped that he could see no reason to wait for the Japanese to strike again, Taylor blurted out “Well, of all the cockeyed things in the world that we can do that would be more cockeyed than the last World War we got into, this would be it.”  The exchange reveals how extensive isolationism was even within a department headed by one of Roosevelt’s most dynamic, interventionist confidantes. Morgenthau’s reply to Taylor’s outburst sheds insight into the president’s thinking and illustrates how pervasive was the tendency to equate the Panay with the Maine among policy elites, though the latter was far larger and its loss had cost the lives of hundreds. Morgenthau told Taylor:

Well, I’m very sorry but this is what the President wants. Personally, I think it’s a marvelous idea….For us to let them put their swords into our insides and sit there and take it and like it, and not do anything about it, I think is un-American and I think we’ve got to begin to inch in on those boys, and that’s what the President is doing….How long are you going to sit there and let these fellows kill Americans soldiers and sailors and sink our battleships [sic]? 40

One of the major stumbling blocks to the Treasury plan was that Japan might sell or convert its assets before they could be frozen. To render the plan workable, the British would have to be brought onboard. The President directed Morgenthau to contact Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, directly, bypassing the usual diplomatic channels and keeping the matter as secret as possible. 41  The British response was cautious, and by the time Treasury had completed drafting the regulations on 21 December, Roosevelt had cooled toward the proposal. Without British cooperation, the economic instrument of power was blunt and difficult to deploy.

Roosevelt was left to rely on diplomatic negotiations to resolve the crisis. Secretary of State Hull had always believed that dealing with the crisis diplomatically was the only option given the strength of isolationist sentiment in Congress, and FDR had resorted to backchannels to explore possible naval and economic responses to the Panay’s sinking. But resolving the crisis through non-coercive diplomacy required Japanese cooperation. There was considerable anxiety in the White House, at the State Department, and at the American embassy in Tokyo that the Japanese might fail to respond appropriately. This sense of anxiety mounted as the administration received information that undermined the initial Japanese narrative of an accidental attack under conditions of restricted visibility. On the 16th, Secretary of State Hull directed Ambassador Grew in Tokyo to call upon the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs as soon as possible. Grew was to tell the Hirota that the American government had received disturbing new details concerning the attack. Particularly troubling were reports that while survivors were escaping the sinking Panay, Japanese airplanes had dived and strafed its lifeboats at extremely low altitudes. Hull concluded that these new reports raised two questions. How did Tokyo intend to deal with those responsible for the incident? And what specific steps would the Japanese take to ensure that American nationals, interests, and property in China would not be subjected to further attacks or unlawful interference from Japanese forces and authorities? 42

Japanese Ambassador Hirosi Saito waiting to see Secretary of State Hull to express regrets, December 13th, 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23766)

The following day, matters threatened to boil over when the Japanese ambassador called upon the Secretary of State to deny that the Panay or any of its survivors had been fired upon by Japanese military boats with machine guns. Hull interrupted him, insisting that the American government had incontrovertible proof to that effect. Turning to the matter of punishment, Hull lectured the Japanese ambassador that “if Army or Navy officials in this country were to act as the Japanese had over there, our Government would quickly court martial and shoot them.” 43  In Tokyo, Ambassador Grew wrote in his diary on the 20th December that as evidence began to mount that the attack may have been deliberate, “My first thought was that this might result in a breach of diplomatic relations and that Saito [Japan’s ambassador to the United States] would be given his passports and that I would be recalled home, for I ‘remembered the Maine.’” 44

Had the Japanese government dug in its heels and argued that the American government had only itself to blame for putting the Panay into a dangerous situation – as a number of isolationists in the United States were doing – Grew’s fears of a diplomatic rupture might have materialized. Instead, on December 15, Vice Minister of the Navy Isoroku Yamamoto informed the American ambassador that he had relieved Rear Admiral Teizo Mitsunami, commanding officer of naval air forces in the Shanghai region, of command. The next day, Japan’s Navy Minister announced that the Imperial Navy would render a salute of honor to the victims of Panay at the site of the attack. In addition, he extended the apologies of every member of the Japanese Navy to the US Navy. The Japanese government moved quickly to share the information it had received from the investigations it had initiated. Indicative of the serious inter-service rivalries that plagued Japan during this period and throughout the Second World War, the Japanese government was never able to fully reconcile the conflicting reports it received from the Army and Navy. 45  Nonetheless, a high level Japanese delegation, led by Vice Minister of the Navy Yamamoto [who in 1941 as Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet would plan the Pearl Harbor attack] spent three hours on the evening of December 23rd briefing Ambassador Grew and his team on the Japanese investigations. Grew reported to Washington that the effort had been thorough, with maps strewn all over his office. All the American attendees, Grew noted, had been impressed “with the apparently genuine desire and effort of both [the Japanese] Army and Navy to get at the undistorted facts.” 46

Grew had not yet received a copy of US Naval Court of Inquiry findings when the Japanese presented their briefings, and he told them that based on the information he possessed, the Japanese account did not tally completely with the evidence. Grew reminded his high-level visitors that the American government was still waiting for a full reply to two American notes (December 14th and 17th) demanding that Japan express regret, offer full compensation, and provide assurances, and to Hull’s follow-on note reiterating these points and inquiring how Tokyo would deal with those responsible. 47

The next day, the Japanese Foreign Minister handed Grew his government’s official response. The Japanese note maintained that the incident had been “entirely due to a mistake,” and explained that thorough investigations had fully established that the attack had been “entirely unintentional.” The Japanese note reaffirmed Japan’s deep regret and willingness to pay indemnities, adding that the Japanese Navy had been issued strict orders to “exercise the greatest caution in every area where warships and other vessels of America or any other third power are present, in order to avoid a recurrence of a similar mistake, even at the sacrifice of a strategic advantage in attacking Chinese troops.” Furthermore, Hirota continued, the commander of the flying force concerned had been removed from his post for failing to take the fullest precautions. Staff officers, the commander of the flying squadron, and all others responsible for the attack would be duly dealt with according to law. 48

By the time Washington received the note at noon on Christmas evening, the administration was digesting the State Department’s preliminary report on the bombing of the Panay and US Naval Court of Inquiry findings.  49  Both were damning, leaving little doubt that the Panay’s survivors felt the attack had been deliberate. A senior US diplomat embarked on the Panay, commented that he and the other survivors had “every reason to believe that the Japanese were searching for us to destroy the witnesses to the bombing.” The Navy report did not speculate on Japanese intentions, confining itself to listing 36 findings of fact. These spoke for themselves, in particular the finding that a Japanese powerboat filled with armed Japanese soldiers had approached close to the Panay, opened fire with a machine gun, and boarded the vessel after the air attacks had subsided. Contradicting the Japanese investigations, the US navy court of inquiry concluded, “it was utterly inconceivable that the six light bombing planes coming within about six hundred feet of the ships and attacking for over a period of twenty minutes could not be aware of the identity of the ships they were attacking.”

The State Department report and the findings of the Naval Court of Inquiry made it difficult for the administration to accept the Japanese position that the entire incident had been accidental. They were uncertain, however, whether the Japanese government was itself directly responsible, or whether “wild, runaway, half-insane Army and Navy officials” in China had initiated the attack. 50  The American ambassador in Tokyo believed that the Japanese Army and Navy were “running amok, and perpetrating atrocities which the Emperor himself cannot possibly desire or sanction.” 51  As for the Japanese government, it had substantially met the four demands FDR and Hull had communicated. The Japanese government had expressed its regret. It had indicated that it stood ready to pay damages. It was providing assurances that it was putting restrictions on its forces so as to prevent any repetition of similar incidents in the future. Lastly, the Japanese took the unusual step of removing a commander and reprimanding his subordinates. Given that he had no proof that the Japanese government had instigated the attack, the president decided to settle the matter. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Hull sent a note to Tokyo indicating that the United States regarded the Japanese note as “responsive” to American requests.

When Grew, the American ambassador in Japan, communicated the American acceptance of the Japanese note to Foreign Minister Hirota, he recorded that Hirota’s eyes filled with tears. The Foreign Minister remarked to Grew that “I heartily thank your Government and you yourself for this decision. I am very, very happy. You have brought me a splendid Christmas present.” 52  The Panay crisis was over.

Norman Alley describing his experiences to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Charles Edison following the screening of footage of the Panay attack, 31 December 1937 (LOC Image #LC-DIG-hec-23823)

On Friday, December 31st, a small group assembled in a darkened room in Washington to view the film clip that cameraman Norman Alley had taken of the attack. Alley’s negatives had been rushed under strict security across the Pacific, and had been developed at Fort Lee the previous day. Alley was on hand as Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson, Secretary of War Harry Woodring, and Senator Key Pittman, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, watched the reel in silence. The film showed Japanese aircraft high above the Panay, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Mahlmann manning the guns in his skivvies, and the destruction onboard. 53.]  The mood was grim. FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, writing after the president decided to accept the Japanese Christmas note, captured the sentiments of several members of the cabinet who wished president had been more forceful. Ickes’ diary entry recorded that in his view,

We didn’t get the satisfactory apology from Japan that we asked for… In its note Japan distinctly negatived [sic] any charge of responsibility for other than an unpremeditated incident. This we have accepted, despite the fact that we know, and are apparently in a position to prove, that the attack was deliberate and wanton. It may be that the President thinks public opinion would not support him if he should go any further just now, but he proposes to be ready if another incident occurs….Much as I deprecate war, I still think that if we are ever going to fight Japan, and it looks to me as if we would have to do so sooner or later, the best time is now.  54

A number of accounts have suggested that the Panay crisis brought the United States to the brink of war with Japan four years before Pearl Harbor. 55  Despite the rumblings of Ickes, Swanson, Leahy, and others, this is an overstatement. 56  The president pushed his advisors to give him a range of options, asking Morgenthau to look into the legality of seizing Japanese assets and directing Leahy to initiate conversations with the British Admiralty. Yet Roosevelt was keenly aware of public and Congressional opinion, telling a friend after the hostile reaction to his “Quarantine Speech” the previous October that “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.” 57

Secretary of State Hull captured the administration’s assessment of the situation in the memoir he published ten years after the event. Drawing upon memoranda, conversations, and his recollections, Hull characterized Japanese claims that the incident was entirely accidental as “the lamest of lame excuses.” Elaborating, he explained

That some members of the Foreign Office had no hand in it may be true. Hirota himself professed to be genuinely disturbed and sincerely regretful. That the Japanese people did not like it also seemed to be true, to judge from the thousands who expressed their sympathy to the Embassy and offered contributions for the families of the victims and for the survivors. But that the Japanese military leaders, at least in China, were connected with it, there can be little or no doubt. In any case, it was their business to keep their subordinates under control. 58

Continuing, Hull explained, “On this side our people generally took the incident calmly. There were a few demands that the Fleet should be sent at once to the Orient. There were many more demands that we should withdraw completely from China… It was a serious incident; but, unless we could have proven the complicity of the Japanese Government itself, it was not an occasion for war.” 59

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  1. The original chart, with Arthur “Tex” Anders’ penciled orders and blood drops, is exhibited at the US Naval Academy Museum.
  2. For a full account, see Douglas Peifer, Choosing War. Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (New York; Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  3. The Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet (Yarnell), et al., to the Commander of the Japanese Third Battle Fleet at Shanghai, 22 August 1937, Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, Japan: 1931-1941, vol. 1, 487-88. Henceforth FRUS Japan 1931-41. A naval inquiry later concluded that the shell which landed in the well-deck where the crew had assembled to watch a movie was a Chinese anti-aircraft shell, but at the time Yarnell believed it was Japanese, with FDR informed that the AA shell was probably fired by the Japanese. Harold L. Ickes, The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes: The inside Struggle 1936-1939 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 199.
  4. In a response to a Senate request for information, Secretary of State Wells provided a detailed listing of US troops, naval vessels, and military supplies in the Far East at the close of 1937. The US sent an additional 1500 Marines to Shanghai in the summer of 1937.  See Secretary of State to Senator Ernest Lundeen, 27 December 1937, FRUS 1937, vol.4, 420-22.
  5. Secretary of State to the Ambassador in China, August 10, 1937, FRUS 1937, vol.4, 252-3.
  6. The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Japan (Grew), 30 August 1937; Aide-mémoire from the American Embassy in Japan to the Japanese ministry for Foreign Affairs, 1 September 1937. FRUS Japan 1931-41, 491, 494-5.
  7. The American Ambassador in Japan to the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, September 17, 1937 and Memorandum by the Ambassador in Japan (Grew), 20 September 1937 in FRUS Japan 1931-41, 498-501; Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan: A Contemporary Record Drawn from the Diaries and Private and Official Papers of Joseph G. Grew, United States Ambassador to Japan, 1932-1942 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), (entry 20 September 1937), 217.
  8. Ibid., 217-18.
  9. Cordell Hull and Andrew Henry Thomas Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull (New York: Macmillan Co., 1948), 566.
  10. Secretary of State Hull’s first reaction to the widening conflict touched off by a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge on 7 July was to issue a formal statement – the “Eight Pillars of Peace Program” – advocating national and international self-restraint; the abstinence by all nations from the use of force; the adjustment of problems through peaceful negotiations; the faithful observance of international agreements; respect by all nations for the rights of others; and the revitalizing and strengthening international law.  Hull claimed that these doctrines were “as vital in international relations as the Ten Commandments in personal relations,” but they were idealistic statements of aspiration rather than realistic policy responses to the challenges posed by the Japanese, Italians, and Germans.  “Statement of the Secretary of State,” 16 July 1937 in FRUS, 1937, vol.1, 699-700; ibid., 535-36.
  11. Description of cabinet sessions of 7 and 13 August, 1937, from Harold Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954), 186, 92-3.
  12. John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries. Years of Crisis, 1928-1938 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 481.
  13. Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 1st session, 24 July & 3 Aug 1937, p.8156, 10442.
  14. Dorothy Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; from the Manchurian Incident through the Initial Stage of the Undeclared Sino-Japanese War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), 320-21.
  15. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; 325.
  16. Henry Hitch Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 98.
  17. Policy statement of the Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet, 22 September, Memorandum by the Secretary of State to President Roosevelt, 4 October FRUS 1937, vol.4, 352-3, 363-64.
  18. Diary entry September 19th, 1937, Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 209.
  19. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 557. For examples of impeachment threats, see the cable that Representative George Holden Tinkham, R- Massachusetts, sent Cordell Hull on 13 Oct and the statement by Hamilton Fish, R- New York, New York Times, 14 October, 1937: 16 and 17 October, 1937: 40.
  20. Political Quarterly, October – December, 1937, from H. W. Brands, What America Owes the World : The Struggle for the Soul of Foreign Policy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 125.
  21. Ibid., 126.
  22. New York Times, Oct 14, 1937, p. 16.
  23. Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 211.
  24. Ambassador in Japan to Secretary of State, 945 pm 13 December 1937, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States [henceforth FRUS
  25. Ambassador in Japan to Secretary of State, 3 pm 13 December 1937, FRUS Japan 1931-41, 521-22.
  26. Yarnell to Leahy, and Bemis (Naval Attaché in Japan) to Leahy, 13 December, FRUS, 1937, vol. 4, 492-3.
  27. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 560.
  28. Leahy and his wife were dining with the Woodrings (Harry H. Woodring was Secretary of War) when he received word of the incident. Leahy excused himself in order to join the small group that Secretary of State Hull had convened for discussions late Sunday evening at his Carlton Hotel apartment.  Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, 101.
  29. Ibid., 274.
  30. Henry Hitch Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 101.
  31. The concept, as FDR explained to the cabinet, entailed the US Navy blockading Japan from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii, to Howland, to Wake, to Guam while the Royal Navy would take over from Guam to Singapore. Ickes, The Inside Struggle 1936-1939, 274-75; William D. Leahy, I Was There; the Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950), 64, 128-29; Adams, Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, 101-2.
  32. The Chargé in the United Kingdom (Johnson) to the Secretary of State, December 13, 1937. FRUS 1937, vol.4, 490-91.
  33. Ibid., 494-95.
  34. Memorandum by the Secretary of State on conversation with the Ambassador of Great Britain, 14 December 1937, in FRUS 1937, vol.4, 499-500.
  35. Lawrence Pratt, “Anglo-American Naval Conversations on the Far East of January 1938,” International Affairs 47, no. October (1972), 752.
  36. For details of the secretive talks between Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, USN, Chief of War Plans Division, and Captain Tom Phillips, his Royal Navy counterpart, see Royal E. Ingersoll, interview by John T Mason Jr.1964, Wasington D.C; Alan Harris Bath, Tracking the Axis Enemy: The Triumph of Anglo-American Naval Intelligence, Modern War Studies (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 14-16; Gregory J. Florence, Courting a Reluctant Ally: An Evaluation of U.S./Uk Naval Intelligence Cooperation, 1935-1941 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Stategic Intelligence Research, Joint Military Intelligence College, 2004), 30-34; Pratt, “Anglo-American Naval Conversations,” 745-63.
  37. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945: With a New Afterword (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 154; John Morton Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries.  Years of Crisis, 1928-1938 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), 486.
  38. For an account of the development of the concept which would lead to the establishment of the Foreign Funds Control office of the Treasury Department on April 10, 1940, see by Richard D. McKinzie’s interview of Bernard Bernstein on July 23, 1975, available online as Oral History project at the Truman Library, at http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/bernsten.htm [accessed 16 August 2017
  39. Blum, From the Morgenthau Diaries. Years of Crisis, 1928-1938, 487.
  40. Morgenthau recalled that the president had pulled out Oliphant’s memorandum and told the cabinet that “We want these powers to be used to prevent war… After all, if Italy and Japan have evolved a technique of fighting without declaring war, why can’t we develop a similar one.” Ibid., 488-89.
  41. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938; from the Manchurian Incident through the Initial Stage of the Undeclared Sino-Japanese War, 495.
  42. Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Japan, 16 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 527.
  43. Memorandum by the Secretary of State re discussion with Japanese Ambassador, 17 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 529.
  44. Diary entry 20 December 1937, Joseph C. Grew, Ten Years in Japan: A Contemporary Record Drawn from the Diaries and Private and Official Papers of Joseph G. Grew, United States Ambassador to Japan, 1932-1942 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 235.

    One might note that the Japanese Foreign Ministry was cognizant and alarmed by initial press references in the United States referencing the Maine. See cable from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington, 17 December, in National Archives, RG 457, Entry 9032 (HCC), Box 751, Folder 1916, Translations of Japanese Messages Re: Panay Incident.

  45. For specifics on the Japanese Kondo (Navy), Takada (Navy), Harada (Army), and Nishi (Army) investigations, see Manny T. Koginos, The Panay Incident; Prelude to War (Lafayette: Purdue University Studies, 1967), 66-71; Harlan Swanson, “The Panay Incident: Prelude to Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 93, no. 12 (1967).
  46. The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State, 23 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 547-48. Grew provides an account of the briefing in his diary as well, but places the meeting on the 22nd December. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, 237-39.
  47. One has to take note of the time difference between Tokyo and Washington. Instructions dispatched from Washington on the afternoon of the 13th and 16th December would be received and acted upon in Tokyo on the 14th and 17th December.
  48. Copy of Japanese note sent from Grew to the Secretary of State, 24 December 1937, FRUS 1931-41, vol.1, 549-550.
  49. The findings of fact of the US Naval Court of Inquiry, along with George Atcheson Jr.’s detailed report to the Secretary of State, are available at FRUS, 1931-1952, vol.1, 532-547.
  50. Memorandum of the Secretary of State, 17 December 1937, FRUS 1931-1941, vol.1, 529.
  51. Diary entry, 20 December 1937. Grew, Ten Years in Japan, 236.
  52. Ibid., 240.
  53. Hamilton Darby Perry claims that Alley was asked to cut out about 30 feet of film that showed low level attacks on the Panay, presumably because the footage might undercut the diplomatic settlement just reached.  Perry indicates that Alley showed him the missing footage, with the story picked up by Kenneth Davis among others. Alley’s 1941 memoir makes no mention of any missing footage, and Universal Studies claimed that the film it ran was “Uncensored!!! Unedited!!!” Hamilton Darby Perry, The Panay Incident; Prelude to Pearl Harbor (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 231-232; Kenneth Sydney Davis, FDR.  Into the Storm, 1937-1940 (New York: Random House, 1993), 158; Norman Alley, I Witness (New York: W. Funk, 1941), 284-86.The full clip which ran in theaters is available at the Universal Studies archive at the Internet Archive, Universal Newsreels, at https://archive.org/details/1937-12-12_Bombing_of_USS_Panay [accessed 16 August 2017
  54. Ickes, The inside Struggle 1936-1939, 279.
  55. William L. Langer and S. Everett Gleason, The Challenge to Isolation, the World Crisis, and American Foreign Policy 1937-1940 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970); Harlan Swanson, “The Panay Incident: Prelude to Pearl Harbor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 93, no. 12 (1967): 27-37.
  56. Borg, who has written the most detailed examination into FDR’s Far Eastern policy during this period concludes that the president never seriously considered going to war of the matter. Borg, The United States and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1933-1938, 501-3.
  57. Davis, FDR. Into the Storm, 1937-1940, 135.
  58. Hull and Berding, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, 563.
  59. Ibid.

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Sailing Away From the Turbulent Waters of Vietnam: The Overflowing Waves of Boat People

Vy Nguyen
National History Day

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Old Salts in the New Steel Navy

“The Old Navy” “Old Salts of the Square Rigger Navy” (NHHC Photo #NH 2889)

Roy T. Greim
Swarthmore College

The photograph “The Old Navy,” also known as “The Old Salts of the Square Rigger Navy,” taken on board the USS Mohican in 1888, is one of the most iconic images of America’s “Old Navy” and its enlisted men. Taken by Assistant Surgeon Hervey W. Whitaker, the picture features, from left to right, David Ireland, Gilbert H. Purdy, John T. Griffith, and John King. The careers of the four old salts in the photograph reveal certain noteworthy characteristics of the transition from the old to the new navy.

David Ireland, age 55, enlisted in 1850 and was in his 38th year of service when the picture was taken. As a member of the Mohican’s crew from May 25, 1885, to November 20, 1890, Ireland served as captain of the forecastle, captain of the hold, seaman, and quartermaster.

In correspondence with Captains John R. Y. Blakely and Joseph K. Taussig, who attempted in 1913 to identify the men pictured, Ireland’s commanding officers, Rear Admirals Reginald F. Nicholson and Edward W. Eberle, and Captain Robert L. Russell describe “Old Ireland” as a thrifty teetotaler, possessing two qualities rather uncommon for enlisted sailors of that era.

To that effect, Nicholson relates a story in which the conservative Ireland uncharacteristically broke his liberty in Auckland, New Zealand, and was fined three pounds after being brought aboard by the local police. The other men would get a rise out of Ireland by getting his attention and holding up three fingers to remind of him of the money he had lost. Their taunting was often successful and once prompted Ireland to throw the quartermaster’s spyglass at them. Both Nicholson and Eberle recall hearing that Ireland had nine to ten thousand dollars saved when he died, the date of which is unknown. 1

Captain of the hold Gilbert H. Purdy, age 60, was born in Union Vale, New York, on 29 January 1828. 2  Seeking adventure, Purdy left home at the age of seventeen and joined the crew of the Marengo, a whaler under the command of Captain Theodore Cole. He served in the Pacific and on the Bering Sea for at least two years, into 1847. During the Civil War, he served as a sergeant in Battery K, 4th U.S. Artillery, and fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville under Joseph Hooker. 3

Lieu Tisdale, a later shipmate of Purdy’s in USS Olympia, also reports that Purdy served with the USS Kearsarge during its triumph over the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederate Navy’s most successful commerce raiding ships, at the Battle of Cherbourg, which occurred on 19 June 1864. In his account, Tisdale reports that Purdy was a member of the “star gang”, twenty men from the Kearsarge who commemorated the victory and made an oath of fidelity to the Navy by tattooing blue stars on their foreheads, making them unfit for any other profession. 4  Purdy, however, does not appear on the roster of enlisted men for the Kearsarge when the battle took place 5  and it is possible that Purdy, a noted yarn-spinner, was simply trying to put one over on Tisdale. As for the tattoo itself, he describes it as “startling…in the middle of a high forehead, [a] visible and outward sign of the star gang,” 6  but it is not visible in the “Old Navy” photograph. Tisdale does not indicate when the men of the Kearsarge crew first received their tattoos, so it is possible that Purdy got his blue star after the 1888 photograph.

On board the Mohican, Purdy, “who was a great big six-foot-two man from New York State,” 7  would often entertain his shipmates, as in the picture, by spinning yarns or espousing the ideas of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, and orator Robert G. Ingersoll, who championed free thought and agnosticism. 8

John Griffith, the senior member of the group at 62 years old, served as carpenter’s mate aboard the Mohican. He was born in Albany, New York, on 25 December 1826, but the date of his first enlistment remains unknown. Before joining the Mohican on 3 June 1888, Griffith served with the wooden screw gunboat USS Adams, an Adams class gunboat that displaced 1400 tons and had a sailing speed of 9.8 knots. 9  Nicholson reports that Griffith, or “Griffin” as he incorrectly remembers him, was a quiet sailor.

John King, age 54 and seated with a pipe in his mouth in the photograph, was born in England in 1834 and served as chief gunner’s mate with the Mohican from May 1885 to January 1889. Before enlisting in the navy in 1872, King gained experience in sailing and seamanship through his service aboard merchant marine vessels.

King was the antithesis to the thrifty and alcohol-abstaining Ireland and his behavior was more in line with the stereotypes of the Old Navy’s sailors.  As his officers remember, every time King had liberty, he would squander his monthly pay on rum and run off only to be dragged back each time by the master-at-arms.

In his correspondence, Eberle recounts two of King’s adventures ashore that demonstrate his free-spirited attitude toward liberty. In the first incident, King broke liberty in Nicaragua and a bounty was placed for his return. During the subsequent police chase, King ran to the beach and swam to the gangway of the Mohican, eluding capture from a nearby patrol boat. In the second adventure, King went ashore in Peru with his shipmates’ money to buy stores for his mess, having been elected its caterer. After purchasing and sending back a bag of salt and some cheese, King stayed ashore for ten days until police returned him to the ship.

Despite these escapades and others, Eberle concludes, “[King] was a good and faithful old soul, and was busy from reveille to taps,” 10  and that he and his shipmates, King, Ireland, and Purdy, were the most able and reliable seamen with any ship in the U.S. Navy. Had he known Griffith—he left the Mohican before Griffith came aboard—he would have likely concluded the same about his abilities and work ethic.

The photograph in question is interesting because it captures four distinct personalities of the Old Navy in a candid moment: Ireland, the thrifty teetotaler; Purdy, the outgoing yarn-spinner; Griffith, the quiet veteran on his way home from the service; and King, the boisterous, free-spending rogue. More interesting, however, is the juxtaposition of these men, “grizzled old salts” in navy vernacular, with America’s newly evolving steel navy. While not quite “living relics,” men like these four “sea dogs,” sailors who gained their skills in wooden ships during the Age of Sail, seemed increasingly out of place and even anachronistic in their presence as the use of sail power decreased in the United States Navy.

America’s transition to a modern steel navy required sailors to possess a new and different type of knowledge and expertise from what they had in the past. As reliance on sail power decreased, the navy relied less on seamanship and the petty officers that had acquired such skills in the era of wooden ships. How did the Old Salts fare as a new age, one with new technology and the associated challenges, decreased their role in America’s evolving navy? It is difficult to answer categorically, but first-hand accounts, observations, and even yarns seem to indicate that these petty officers were still a welcome and reliable presence aboard because of their experience and contributions to the morale of these ships.

The transition to the new steel navy had a dramatic impact on the demographics and character of its enlisted men as recruiting became increasingly focused on the creation of an “All-American” navy.

The sailors of the Old Navy, men such as Purdy, Ireland, King, and Griffith, were recruited because their experience with seamanship and the seafaring life meant that they would require little training to perform their duties afloat. 11  For the years 1870, 1880, and 1890, about two-thirds of the enlisted men reported a seafaring profession as their previous occupation in the muster rolls. To attract career seamen, the navy recruited mainly in coastal cities and in areas known to have a large population of sailors, neglecting any serious attempts to attract boys and men from inland areas. To this effect, it only maintained recruiting stations in cities with naval yards, such as New York, Boston, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C. 12

The navy’s recruiting policies allowed it to fill its muster rolls, but they often led to officers’ dissatisfaction with the character of the enlisted men. Career sailors were often perceived as career alcoholics and the stereotypical image of them was not far from that of John King, the heavy-drinking, liberty-breaking seaman pictured in the “Old Salts” photograph. Public perception of the old navy was similarly negative and many regarded the navy as “the last refuge of the drunken or incompetent.” 13

As ships became increasingly reliant on new technology, one that gave precedence to steam over sail, the navy expected its bluejackets to be skilled mechanics as well as sailors. The extensive change and disestablishments of various ratings for petty officers during this transitional period demonstrate the shift in emphasis.

Changing technology onboard ships necessitated a change in the ratings system for enlisted men in the navy to reflect the new duties sailors performed. Although the navy had established steam-related ratings, such as coal heaver (1842), fireman, machinist (1866), and blacksmith (1879), to name a few, it was slow to create these ratings because of its overall resistance to embrace such technology. In 1885, the navy legitimized these ratings by developing a formal classification system, one that included seaman, special, and artificer branches, all divided into six tiers, from seaman, third class, to petty officer, first class. 14  By this time, petty officers in the artificer’s branch earned more than their counterparts in the other two branches.

At the same time this reorganization was occurring, the navy was also disestablishing pay ratings to reflect the change in its personnel; between 1883 and 1893, more than 30 ratings were disestablished. In 1893 alone, the navy got rid of the ratings captain of the forecastle, captain of the hold, captain of the maintop, captain of the mizzentop, and carpenter in recognition that the skills associated with these professions were increasingly obsolete in the New Steel Navy. As Frederick Harrod writes in Manning the New Navy, “Although some ships still carried canvas, sails were no longer important to the navy; thus it was no longer necessary to give special recognition to the men skilled in handling them.” 15  After 1893, old salts like David Ireland, who had served as captain of the forecastle aboard the Mohican, and captain of the hold Gilbert Purdy, had fewer opportunities to remain petty officers and earn the associated pay.

Primary accounts also indicate that demands of new technology required a different breed of enlisted man, one who was as much a mechanic as a sailor. Lieutenant R. C. Smith, USN, in a discussion of the U.S. Naval Institute’s 1891 prize essay, “The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for our New Ships,” by Ensign A.P. Niblack, USN, reflects on the navy’s transition:

the change from the wooden to the steel ship, from the smooth-bore to the high-power rifle, from the howitzer to the Hotchkiss, from the musket to the magazine rifle, from the spar-torpedo and the Harvey to the Whitehead and the Howell. Will the same intelligence suffice for the attendant duties, and are the necessary men to be picked up in every seaport, as easily as the stage-driver becomes the engine-driver? No; the requirements and intelligence of the seaman class aboard ship are higher now than ever before. 16

In Smith’s opinion, the seamanship skills of the Old Navy were not sufficient to handle this new technology and the navy required a new breed of enlisted man, one who was as modern as the weapons and machinery he was handling. Frederick Wilson, a water-tender who served with the New Orleans during the turn of the century, put it more bluntly in his personal log, writing, “there is required to man these steel walls 99% more brain than the old wooden ships required.” 17  Of course, Wilson is subject to bias due to his position as an engine room water-tender in the artificer’s branch, but his point remains that the ships of the new steel navy, which were becoming less and less reliant on sail-power toward the dawn of the twentieth century, required a different sort of intelligence from its enlisted men.

In some ways, the career paths of the sailors pictured in the “Old Salts” photograph reflect continuity rather than the changes in the navy at the end of the nineteenth century. With the exception of Gilbert Purdy, who served with the USS Olympia under the command of Admiral Dewey during the Battle of Manila, none of the men served with a ship that had been laid down after 1883, the beginning of the steel navy. The incorporation of steam-powered steel ships into the active fleet and the retirement of warships vessels propelled by a combination of sail and steam was a matter of time, meaning that the usefulness of men skilled in the handling of square-rigged ships only gradually disappeared.

After his service with the Mohican, Griffith joined the crew of the Vermont, a 74-gun warship that was laid down in 1818 and finished in 1825, but remained uncommissioned until 1862. Owing to severe damage to its hull caused by a storm in 1862, it returned to New York City in 1864 and served as a receiving ship for 37 years. 18  Griffith served with the Vermont until his discharge on 10 December, 1889, and his shipmate John King also served with it until he was discharged on 2 April 1896. It is unknown whether David Ireland served with another ship after leaving the Mohican in November 1890 during his fortieth year of service.

Because these three sailors did not serve with truly modern ships, their experiences do not mirror those of enlisted men like Frederick T. Wilson; their duties did not demand them to be familiar with the most up-to-date technology. By the time Griffith and King were with the Vermont, it was already around seventy years old and a living reminder of the bygone Age of Sail.

The fact that these three men did not serve with modern steel ships, however, can also be interpreted as representative of the changes of this period. The navy did not expect these old salts to be able to properly handle new technologies and preferred to man newer ships with younger, perhaps American, enlisted men who had received specialized training rather than to teach old dogs new tricks. Old salts did not, however, disappear completely from the ships of the new navy, a fact that the career of Gilbert Purdy illustrates.

After leaving the Mohican, Purdy served with the protected cruiser USS Olympia as its captain of the hold, 19  even though the navy had disestablished that rate in 1893. This rate, with its “light duties” 20  was likely a ceremonial role for Purdy, who was of little other use on such a ship due to his age and skill set. Despite Purdy’s lack of utility, other members of the crew held him in high regard, including Lieu Tisdale who described Purdy and another veteran as “living relics of a great battle [The Battle Of Cherbourg] …animated encyclopedia of the navy, looking with small favor on modern warfare….” Tisdale even tattooed himself with the Kearsarge and Alabama out of respect for the Old Navy. 21  Another shipmate who thought highly of Purdy was L. S. Young, the editor of Olympia’s paper The Bounding Billow, which ran a serialized account of Purdy’s life, beginning on 31 January, 1898. The sinking of USS Maine shortly after did not leave enough time for the paper to publish Purdy’s full autobiography since war with Spain was imminent. 22

In the Spanish-American War, Purdy took on a new role as gunner, which he served during the decisive battle at Manila Bay on 1 May 1898. Days before the engagement with the Spanish fleet, Purdy, described as a “privileged character, because he had served in the navy forty or fifty years,” was reportedly out of place on the upper deck, looking for work to occupy his mind. When asked by Commodore Dewey about the nature of the disturbance, Purdy replied, “I hope sir, that ye don’t intend to fight on the 3d of May.” Questioned again by Dewey, the superstitious Purdy then said, “Ye see sir, I got licked the last time I fought on the 3d of May,” referring to his defeat at Chancellorsville thirty-five years before. 23  Dewey, who was certain that that battle would take place on 1 May, assured Purdy that he would avoid the 3rd and promised to give Purdy “another kind of May anniversary to think about.” During the battle itself, Purdy manned the guns and supposedly uttered the famous line: “To hell with breakfast; let’s finish ’em now.” 24

Gilbert Purdy, who was 72 years old when he was discharged in 1900, had fought in both the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and was the oldest man on the navy register when he died in 1912, is an exceptional example of how petty officers who had gained their skills during the Age of Sail remained a visible part of the navy as it transitioned to steel ships which demanded a different sort of technical knowledge. First-hand accounts, observations, and even yarns indicate that these petty officers were still a welcome and reliable presence aboard owing to their experience and contributions to the morale of these ships.

In his memoir, Rope Yarns from the Old Navy, Rear Admiral Caspar F. Goodrich, who served in the Spanish-American war, gives the highest praise to these old salts and laments their gradual disappearance. He writes:

There is nothing, or very little now, to stimulate that alertness and readiness for any emergency, that all around handiness which characterized the old-fashioned seaman who could read the signs of the weather by the appearance of the heavens, who needed no orders when there was a sudden call for a real man, who was ever at your side when danger threatened, who respected his officers and would follow them wherever they led, indifferent to the risk of his own life or limb. God bless him! 25

In his opinion, the new navy, with its advanced machinery, lessened the need for the “human element” and “personal touch” of the old salts and their seamanship. Goodrich also held a romantic view of these career sailors and the ships with which they served. On a cruise to the Caribbean in 1892, he writes “It should be said that no better school in human nature has ever been known than the old time sailing vessel, so intimate was the contact of every officer with every man.” 26  The implication here is that the organization of the new steel ships did not promote the same camaraderie between officers and enlisted men, the sense of unity that made service in the Old Navy so personal.

The collection Yarnlets: The Human Side of the Navy by Rear Admiral Edward Simpson also provides accounts, likely fictional, of the ways in which the old salts of the navy affected morale afloat. The story “Sponge Cake” concerns an old quartermaster, “a crotchety sailor of the old school” who had served during the time of the Old Navy. This old salt had much disdain for the new navy with its “electrical gadgets and gewgaws that he couldn’t understand, and that were only fit for the youngsters to handle” and would spend his time pacing and growling about the way things used to be. One day, the officer of the deck ordered the quartermaster to look after ship’s goat, Bill, who was eating a pan of slush, which was salt pork grease used to break down hardtack and make “duff,” a type of raisin cake popular with the men. The quartermaster decided to have his fun at the expense of the newer sailors by calling the slush “rice pudden” and railing “we don’t have ‘duff’ any more…Now they puts milk in it, and sugar in it, and eggs in it–regular Sponge Cake!” 27  The yarn suggests that such old salts were often objects of amusement rather than scorn or derision, somewhat comical reminders of the past.

Modern ships’ crews also valued these older sailors because of the knowledge and pearls of wisdom they offered. One collection, entitled “An Old Salt’s Salty Saltings,” provides such advice as “Don’t tell ther fellers how yer did it; let others do it fer yer”; “If yer have dirty clothes, wash ‘em ter-day; ter-morrow may be cloudy”; and “Never think ther ship can’t get along widout yer. If yer does, don’t think loud.” 28  The compilation indicates that sailors thought highly enough of the old salts and their experience-based wisdom to collect their advice and if they did not find the offerings particularly useful, they were at least amusing enough to retell to others.

The “Old Salts” photograph has endured because it captures four career sailors in a moment of relaxation. The historical context of the photo, which was taken in 1888, makes the photo even more poignant because it depicts a class of enlisted men that was slowly but surely on its way out of the navy as new technology required a different breed of sailor, one whom the navy expected to be skilled in engineering as well as seamanship. Many of these old salts, including three in the photograph, never even served with truly modern vessels and those that did likely had light duties and were “quietly filling the niches that Time has carved for them.” 29  These men, however, did not disappear without leaving an impact; members of the crew admired them and saw such old salts as a reliable source of yarns, wisdom, and morale.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


  1. Captain J. K. Taussig, “The Old Navy,” USNI Proceedings XLVII (1921), 4.
  2. Louis Stanley Young. “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy” The Bounding Billow. 1. no. 3 (1898): 57-58. http://archive.org/stream/theboundingbillo00whitrich
  3. Joseph Stickney, Admiral Dewey at Manila and the Complete Story of the Philippines: Life and Glorious Deeds of Admiral George Dewey, Including a Thrilling Account of Our Conflicts With The Spaniards and Filipinos in the Orient (Philadelphia: J. H. Moore Co., 1899.), 48.
  4. Lieu Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns (New York: The Century Co., 1908.), 155-156
  5. William Marvel, The Alabama & the Kearsarge: The Sailor’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1996), chap. Appendix 2. Ships’ Rosters.
  6. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 155.
  7. Taussig, quoting Nicholson, “Old Navy,” 3.
  8. Ibid.
  9. James L. Mooney, ed., Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Washington: Naval History Division, 1959. s.v. “Adams.” http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/a2/adams-ii.htm.
  10. Taussig, “Old Navy,” 5.
  11. Frederick Harrod, Manning The New Navy: The Development of a Modern Naval Enlisted Force, 1899-1940 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 9.
  12. Ibid., 8-10.
  13. Ibid., 11.
  14. Ibid., 98.
  15. Ibid., 98-99.
  16. Niblack, A. P. Naval Historical Foundation, “The Enlistment, Training, and Organization of Crews for Our New Ships,” http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/crewsfornewships.htm. Accessed May 24, 2012. 
  17. Frederick T. Wilson, A Sailor’s Log: Water-Tender Frederick T. Wilson, USN, on Asiatic Station, 1899-1901 (London: The Kent State University Press, 2004), 46.
  18. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, s.v. “Vermont,” http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/v2/vermont-i.htm.
  19. Young, “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy,” 4.
  20. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 152.
  21. Ibid., 156.
  22. Young, “The Life of Gilbert H. Purdy,” 67.
  23. Stickney, Admiral Dewey at Manila and the Complete Story of the Philippines, 48.
  24. “Poughkeepsie to Invite Gunner Purdy.” The New York Times, October 4, 1899. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F1071EFD385913738DDDAD0894D8415B8985F0D3 (accessed June 21, 2012).
  25. Caspar F. Goodrich, Rope Yarns From The Old Navy (New York: The Naval History Society, 1931), 156.
  26. Ibid., 143.
  27. Edward R. Simpson, Yarnlets; The Human Side of the Navy (New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1934), 43-46.
  28. Thomas Beyer, The American Battleship in Commission As Seen By An Enlisted Man, Also Many Man-o’-War Yarns (Washington, D.C.: Army and Navy Register, 1906), 208-10.
  29. Tisdale, Three Years Behind the Guns, 156.

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The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay: How Regulatory Compromise Created Conflict


The Booming Oyster Industry
Problems in the Emerging Oyster Industry
Regulation  of the Oyster Industry and the Violence that Ensued
The Unsuccessful Oyster Police
The End of the Oyster Wars
The Tragedy  of the Commons

Zoe Friedman
National History Day

“And where there is boom, there is greed.” –John R. Wennersten 1


The 1840s were a time of industrialization in the United States that transformed the scale and structure of American business, not just in manufacturing, but also in retail, transportation, service, banking, and financial industries. 2   Following economic panics in 1837 and 1839 that led to a national depression, there was an economic revival that started in the mid-1840s and continued well into the 1850s. 3   It was during this period, in the 1840s, that oysters became a well-known, popularized product in the emerging canned foods industry. Baltimore, Maryland was the center of this industry, having hundreds of canning houses operating by the mid-nineteenth century. Baltimore was the best place to have canning houses, the Chesapeake Bay was nearby and easy to access by water.  Railroads were close and allowed for distribution to the rest of the country. 4  Two other east coast oyster beds in Long Island and Massachusetts could have been other centers for the oyster industry if they had not been previously dredged to depletion. 5

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay was ideal for growing oysters because of its vast expanses,temperature and salinity. The Bay’s waters also had few predators for oysters, and were free of parasites that caused common oyster diseases. 6  Since there was no official regulation of the oyster industry , oystermen could harvest as many oysters as they wanted, making it a goldmine for industrious watermen. As with many successful businesses, competition arose. Maryland tried to bring an end to excessive competition in the Bay, as well as over-depletion of oysters,  by passing laws that required a license to harvest oysters and prohibited certain harvesting practices. These actions unintentionally led to what is now known as the Oyster Wars. 7

The Oyster Wars were battles over oyster harvesting territory in the Chesapeake Bay that often became violent. 8  The peak of the Oyster War’s violence started in the mid nineteenth century and lasted until the late 1950s. 9 The start of the Oyster Wars was caused by illegal oyster poachers and legal oystermen that gathered in the Chesapeake. A lethal combination of greed and guns led to the Eastern Shore becoming a dangerous place to make a living. 10   Some oyster harvesters ended up dying in their endeavor to make money in the oyster trade. As a result, Maryland passed new laws to protect both oysters and harvesters. Despite many attempts at enforcement, these laws never fully worked. 11

The Oyster Wars provide a demonstration of why regulations sometimes fail to carry out the purpose for which they are intended, why they must be implemented carefully, and how regulatory compromises may cause conflict, even when they involve something as seemingly non-controversial as oysters.

The Booming Oyster Industry

Oysters were plentiful in the Chesapeake Bay in the early days of American colonization and there was no concern of shortages. As a Swiss visitor, Francis Louis Michel, wrote about the Chesapeake Bay in 1701, “The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them.” 12  Since oysters could not be stored for long periods of time, oystermen tended to harvest them in small batches in a shortened season, holding themselves accountable by following the “R” rule, which allowed for the harvest of oysters only in months that contained the letter “R.” 13

With the introduction of canning in the early 1800s, Maryland’s oyster businesses went through a rapid period of industrialization. 14    Canning, invented by the French in 1800, revolutionized the oyster industry. 15   Canning allowed oysters to last up to six months and be shipped worldwide, and when combined with clever marketing the oyster industry boomed. 16  Large, over-exaggerated advertisements pushing canned oysters were posted all over the country, increasing oyster demand. 16 Even the government hyped the oyster trade, with the Department of Commerce bragging in an advertisement in the 1800s that, “The Oyster Production of the United States is the Greatest in the World.” 18   The advertising worked. As one modern oysterman noted: “You could leave a coin on the street, and no one would pick it up. Leave an oyster, and it would be gone in a second!” 19

With oyster beds nearby in the Chesapeake, rapid population growth, and a well-developed rail system, Baltimore became the center of oyster canning in the country.  By the mid-1800s, oysters were Baltimore’s second largest industry. 20   By 1894, Chesapeake Bay landings comprised around thirty-nine percent of the total U.S. oyster catch.

Problems in the Emerging Oyster Industry

Since there were initially no regulations limiting oyster harvesting, oystermen could take as many oysters as they wanted, and many made fortunes. In fact, in the 1800s oysters were known as “white gold.” 20 However, as more people flocked to the Chesapeake oyster industry, oyster stocks became depleted, creating competition over a limited resource.

Improved harvesting technologies made the oyster depletion problems worse. In the 1700s oysters were harvested using shaft tongs, a pair of iron rakes with handles joined together like forceps.  During the 1800s a similar tool, called nippers, were commonly used. Oystermen who used tongs or nippers were referred to as “tongers,” and as more harvesters began utilizing these tools oyster harvests increased. These tools could only reach down to 32 feet at most in the water, and many harvested oysters would fall out of them. This made the tools environmentally sustainable, unlike what was later to come. 5  Dredges, 23  which oystermen also began using in the 1800s 24 had a metal frame, strong teeth, and a bag of heavy cord that allowed harvesters to scoop oysters in large quantities from the ocean floor.  Oystermen used dredges to scoop up oysters by the bushel-full, often wiping out and destroying entire oyster beds.

The depletion of oysters caused bitter feuds over harvesting techniques and territory, and the Chesapeake Bay became a dangerous place as oystermen competed to harvest as many oysters as they could. Oyster hunters were willing to kill each other over limited territory, and tongers became angry as dredging for oysters increased, particularly in shallow waters where tongers worked. Dredges were first only used in deep waters that were previously inaccessible, but without regulations oystermen began using them in shallow waters, causing significant damage to oyster beds and ruining the livelihood of tongers. 25

Regulation  of the Oyster Industry and the Violence that Ensued

In response to the damage caused by dredgers, in 1811 Virginia created a law to ban oyster dredging. Maryland followed suit, and in 1820 the first law was passed in Maryland pertaining to oyster harvesting, which outlawed all dredges in Maryland waters. 26   Maryland lawmakers said that they passed this law because dredges were digging too deeply into the ocean bed and scraping oyster beds down to the mud, permanently damaging oyster beds. 5 However, the more likely reason for the law was that the oyster tongers did not like the competition from the dredgers. 28

There had always been violent disputes among oystermen, but Maryland’s attempt to regulate the oyster industry added fuel to the fire.  Historically, oyster battles were caused by disputes over the boundary line between Maryland and Virginia, and the new regulations did nothing to stop these tensions. 8   For example, in the winter of 1879-1880, around forty Maryland dredging boats entered the Rappahannock river in Virginia and began illegally dredging for oysters. The tongers in the area grew upset and tried to drive the dredgers away.  In response, dredgers began shooting at tongers. The tongers complained to state officials, who agreed to provide the tongers with artillery, rifles, and ammunition to defend themselves.  However, by the time these arrived, the dredgers had fled the area, already completing their work. 30

Maryland’s attempt to regulate oyster dredging exacerbated these territorial disputes and provided new reasons for conflict. Soon after anti-dredging laws were passed dredgers began to ignore them, making tongers angry and inciting additional violence. 31   In response, in 1854 Maryland began allowing dredging again for a fee, but only in Somerset County, Maryland, so that dredging would be focused in a single area. This unintentionally led to anger among harvesters outside of Somerset County, who were jealous of the legal use of more efficient dredgers by residents of Somerset.

In an attempt to level the playing field and stop ongoing disputes among harvesters, in 1865 Maryland passed the General License Act, which required all oystermen in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay area to have a paid license.  These licenses were statewide, and applied to all oystermen no matter what tools they used to collect oysters.  The General License Act also permitted dredging in certain waters of the Chesapeake, mainly those that were unreachable by tongs.  The law was good for Maryland because it provided the government with much needed money. However, the General License Act was unpopular and ineffective, 32  as oystermen began ignoring it as soon as it was implemented. 33

Over the next several years, oystermen depleted deeper waters of oysters, and even worse began to dredge again in shallow waters. Maryland’s oyster laws had too many exceptions, and were not properly enforced.  Violence continued, leading Maryland to take drastic action and create the Maryland State Fishery Force.

The Unsuccessful Oyster Police

The General License Law of 1865 was ignored because it lacked a method of enforcement.  In 1868, Maryland established a State Fishery Force, known as the Oyster Police or Oyster Navy, to enforce the oyster laws.  By 1894, the Oyster Navy comprised two steamboats, eleven sailing vessels, eight smaller “County” boats, and 120 men. This force was entrusted with enforcing the General License Law against illegal dredgers and those without licenses, and stopping general violence. 32   The Oyster Navy’s armed boats patrolled the Bay, enforcing the oyster laws with varying degrees of success. 35   The Navy fought a number of pitched battles with defiant dredgers, 36 and the sinking of dredger boats by cannon fire and the deaths of some scofflaws led to fewer violations of the law. 37

However, the Oyster Police forces were greatly outnumbered and had little power compared to the well-armed illegal oyster pirates. Their effort was dismal. They only managed to stop a small number of outlaws, and more violence came of it. 38   The Captain of the Oyster Navy, Hunter Davidson, described oyster harvesters as “so stimulated by the trade in the Chesapeake that Oystermen will risk any weather and are willing to kill to enable them to reach the handsome profits that are now being handed to them in the market.” 1   Even the tongers, who they were mandated to protect thought they were corrupt and ineffective. 5 In the end, the Oyster Navy could not compete with motivated oystermen, and was unsuccessful in preventing violence and the overharvesting of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay.

The End of the Oyster Wars

The end of the oyster wars is mainly attributed to a single act of violence, an incident involving an officer from the Oyster Police killing an illegal dredger from Virginia in 1959. 41   In response to the public outcry from this killing, in 1959 the Commissioner of the Potomac River Fisheries, H.C. Byrd, disbanded the Oyster Navy, as it was too controversial and clearly ineffective.

After that, Maryland used other methods to control the oyster industry, including various means of taxation, encouraging the private cultivation of oysters, and improving research into ways to protect oysters and oyster habitat.  In 1975, Virginia and Maryland formed the Chesapeake Bay Legislative Advisory Commission to better manage the Bay. Presently, this Commission still takes actions to control the oyster industry in Maryland. Unfortunately, the overharvesting of oysters in the 1800s caused permanent damage to the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery, which has never fully recovered. In 1880, the Maryland oyster industry was producing 71.9 million pounds of oysters per year; in comparison, by 1962, that number had dropped to 8.1 million pounds.

The Tragedy  of the Commons

The over-industrialization of Maryland’s oyster industry provides an example of the “tragedy of the commons,” where individual users act in their own self-interest and hurt the common good by depleting a natural resource. 6   The failure of the Oyster Navy and regulatory efforts to address this problem serve as a cautionary tale for on-going conflicts over limited natural resources that exist today.

One example of this conflict is in the modern fishing industry in the United States and around the world.  Much of the world relies on fishing for food and livelihoods, but without appropriate regulation, overfishing occurs, fisheries collapse and violence often ensues. 43 Currently, the United States is the “gold standard” around the world for effectively using fishing regulations to preserve natural resources.  The agency that regulates fishing is NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 44

NOAA uses a creative fishing regulator scheme that allows regional councils made up of local fisherman and government regulators to determine how best to allocate resources. 45   Through these councils, fishermen feel like they  have a voice in the process, preventing violent competition and ensuring that the industry (and fish) will exist for future generations. NOAA’s work shows how government agencies can work with industry to help resolve fights over natural resources.

Another present day example involves strip mining. In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, which is the primary law regulating coal mining.  This law minimizes adverse impacts on fish, wildlife and related environmental resources, and has stopped strip mining practices, preserving natural resources while still allowing mining activities. 46  Again, government has stepped in to regulate the mining industry’s impact on the environment, compromising with industry to allowed continued mining without a negative effect on the environment.


The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay were caused by competition for a limited resource, unsuccessful laws, and a lack of meaningful enforcement. During the wars, regulatory efforts were made to address the competition among oyster harvesters, along with their unpredictable actions and violence. These efforts had only limited success, and often caused the very violence they were meant to prevent. 47   The Oyster Wars show that just passing laws sometimes provokes conflict, and more creative solutions are often needed.

There are still large political debates over oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and the oyster industry remains important to the Maryland economy. The Trump administration has proposed cuts in federal funding for Bay cleanup, which could negatively affect the oyster industry — however, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation hopes to add ten billion oysters to the Bay over the next seven years. 48   Fights over oysters in Chesapeake Bay and other natural resources are sure to continue as populations increase and resources dwindle.

We can learn the lessons for how to resolve these problems through the Oyster Wars, along with  modern efforts to regulate natural resources that were created in response to them. Weak laws and poor enforcement will only increase violenc­­e and hurt the resource. Instead, government and industry must come together and make compromises or risk the destruction of a natural resource we hold dear.


Appendix A

This newspaper image illustrates the violence between the oyster police and illegal oyster dredgers. It also shows the sinking of ships, and how exactly illegal dredgers were captured.

Image taken from: Maryland–The oyster war–A state police steamer overhauling a pirate boat on Chesapeake Bay, off Swan’s Point / from a sketch by Frank Adams. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library  of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2001695520/.

Appendix B

This photograph shows oyster shuckers, as well as an inspector watching over them as they work. It shows how the oyster industry provided jobs, and was a part of Maryland history.

Photograph taken from: United States Department of Agriculture, ca. 1914-1915, Arthur J. Olmstead Collection, PP133, MdHS. < http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2014/05/08/maryland-on-a-half-shell/ >.

Appendix C

The dark areas of this map represent shallow waters in the Chesapeake, whereas the lighter areas represent deeper waters of the Chesapeake. It helps to illustrate where these waters were located, and where dredgers and tongers worked.

Map taken from: “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, www.cbmm.org/pdf/  Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.

Appendix D

This image shows one of the many advertisements for Baltimore oysters.

Image taken from: Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to  Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.

Appendix E

This graph displays the turning points in oyster harvesting as the years go on. When relating this graph to regulations on oystering at specific times, it can show its effect on the number of oysters harvested.

Graph taken from: — . Oyster Harvest by Year . Phototgraphy by Rob Cannon , www.robcannonphoto.com/photos/Cannon/Dorchester/images/page143.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2018.

Appendix F

This image shows one of the cannons used by officers a part of the Oyster Navy.

Photograph taken from: —. Oyster Navy Cannon . Photography by Rob Cannon , www.robcannonphoto.com/photos/Cannon/Dorchester/images/page151.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2018.

Appendix G

This photograph shows a display of oysters from an oystering company. It shows the amount of oysters harvested, and how they were advertised.

Photograph taken from: —. Oyster House 01. Photography by Rob Cannon Photo , www.robcannonphoto.com/ photos/Cannon/Dorchester/images/page143.html. Accessed 18 Aug. 2018.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)


  1. Wennersten, John R. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. 2nd ed., Washington, DC, Eastern Branch Press, 2007.
  2. Keleher, Tom. “The Debit Economy of 1830s New England.” Teach U.S. History.org, Old Sturbridge Inc., www.teachushistory.org.detocqueville-visit-united-states/articles/debit-economy-1830s-new-england. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  3. Hausman, William J. “Introduction, The Emergence of an Industrial Nation, 1840-1893. Immigrant Entrepreneurship German- American Business Biographies 1720 to the Present, German Historical Institute, www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/volume.php?rec=2. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  4. Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.
  5. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  6. Power, Garrett. “More About Oysters Than You Wanted to Know.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1970.
  7. Schulte, David M. “History of the Virginia Oyster Fishery, Chesapeake Bay, USA.”  Marine Fisheries, Aquaculture and Living Resources, 9 May 2017, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/ fmars.2017.00127/full.
  8. The Maryland and Virginia Boundary. (1874, Feb 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  9. “Commercial Fishers: Chesapeake Oysters.” On the Water, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_5.html. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
  10. Artillery against oystermen. (1883, Nov 26). The Sun (1837-1992)
  11. Reported for the Baltimore, SunGeo Yellott. (1881, Dec 13). The Law of Habeas Corpus. The Sun (1837-1992).
  12. Kennedy, Victor S., and Linda L. Breisch. “Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 164, 1938.
  13. Chowning, Larry S. Harvesting the Chesapeake Tools & Traditions. Rev. and Expanded 2nd ed., Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing, 2014.
  14. Walsh, Richard, and William Lloyd Fox, editors. Maryland: A History, 1632 -1974. Baltimore, MD, Press of Scheidereith & Sons.
  15. “Commercial Fishers: Chesapeake Oysters.” On the Water, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/ 3_5.html. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
  16. “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, www.cbmm.org/pdf/ Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  17. “Oyster Wars!!” Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, www.cbmm.org/pdf/ Oystering%20Curriculum6-10.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2018.
  18. Seaver, Barton. American Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery From Sea to Shining Sea. Rev. and expanded 2nd ed., NY, Sterling Epicure, 2017.
  19. Oyster harvester from Farmer’s Market. Interview by Zoe Friedman. 9 Dec. 2017.
  20. Livie, Kate. Chesapeake Oysters The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Charleston, SC, American Palate, 2015.
  21. Livie, Kate. Chesapeake Oysters The Bay’s Foundation and Future. Charleston, SC, American Palate, 2015.
  22. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  23. History on the Chesapeake.” Waterblog, National Aquarium, 27 July 2016, aqua.org/blog/2016/July/History-on-the-Chesapeake.
  24. “Oyster Wars Oystering Methods.” The Mariner’s Museum, The Mariner’s Museum, 2002, www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/cbhf/oyster/mod007.html.
  25. Correspondence of the, B. S. (1880, Jan 26). Maryland State Affairs. The Sun (1837-1992).
  26. Miller, Henry M., Dr. “The Oyster in Chesapeake History.” St. Mary’s Museum of History and Archaeology, www.hsmcdigshistory.org/pdf/Oyster.pdf.
  27. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  28. Kennedy, Victor S., and Linda L. Breisch. “Sixteen Decades of Political Management of the Oyster Fishery in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.” Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 164, 1983; Correspondence of the, B. S. (1880, Jan 26).  Maryland State Affairs. The Sun (1837-1992).
  29. The Maryland and Virginia Boundary. (1874, Feb 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  30. “Oyster Wars Oystering Methods.” The Mariner’s Museum, The Mariner’s  Museum, 2002, www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/cbhf/oyster/mod007.html.
  31. The Oyster War. (1851, May 20), The Sun (1837-1992).
  32. The Oyster Trade—The Outlook—The Supply, &c., &c.” The Evening Capital, 24 July 1884.
  33. “The Maryland Oyster Law.” The Evening Capital, 16 August 1884.
  34. The Oyster Trade—The Outlook—The Supply, &c., &c.” The Evening Capital, 24 July 1884.
  35. Capture of Oyster Boats. (1852, Mar 23). The Sun (1837-1992); Special Dispatch to the, Baltimore Sun. (1882, Feb 20). The Virginia Oyster War. The Sun (1837-1992); Correspondence of the, B. S. (1850, Sep 14). By Last Night’s Philadelphia Boat. The Sun (1837-1992).
  36. Artillery against oystermen. (1883, Nov 26). The Sun (1837-1992).
  37. More Oystermen Captured. (1850, Mar 15). The Sun (1837-1992).
  38. Meyer, Eugene L. Chesapeake Country. 2nd, rev. ed., NY, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2015.
  39. Wennersten, John R. The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay. 2nd ed., Washington, DC, Eastern Branch Press, 2007.
  40. Cannon, Rob. E-mail interview with notes. 5 Aug. 2018.
  41. “Oyster Wars 1632- 1962.” Dymer Creek Environmental Preservation Association, 31 July 2014.
  42. Power, Garrett. “More About Oysters Than You Wanted to Know.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1970.
  43. Glaser, Sara. “Fish Wars: How Fishing Can Start and Stop Conflict.” Secure Fisheries, 14 Mar. 2017, securefisheries.org/blog/fish-wars-how-fishing-can-start-and-stop-conflict.
  44. “Laws.” NOAA Fisheries, 19 June 2017, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/laws.
  45. Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, 16 U.S.C. Chapter 38, Section 1801.
  46. “Digest of Federal Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” FWS CLA, https://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/surfmin.html. Accessed 9 May 2018.
  47. Special Dispatch to the Baltimore Sun. (1882, Feb 20). The Virginia Oyster War. The Sun (1837-1992).
  48. The Associated Press. “Saving the Chesapeake.” The Washington Post, Express ed., 28 Feb. 2018, Local sec.

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Inside the Archives: U.S. Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution


Sailing and Science
A Cruise with a President
The Atomic Era
U.S. Navy Navigation
To learn more

Lesley Parilla
Cataloging and Bibliographic Access Librarian, Smithsonian Libraries

A researcher might not think to look for materials relating to the U.S. Navy at the Smithsonian Institution, however, the Institution holds numerous collections documenting the U.S. Navy and U.S. naval history, due to its long history of collaboration. Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, it has served as a repository for natural history specimens resulting from the maritime surveys and expeditions frequently run by the U.S. Navy. Into the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy’s ability to travel to far flung locations meant that naturalists often ended up aboard, sometimes by government request, sometimes through personal connections. In many cases, the papers related to those expeditions ended up in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and document not only the research of the Smithsonian Institution but also the history and operations of the U.S. Navy.

These collection materials are now easier to locate through the Field Book Project, a grant-funded project organized by Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Libraries, and National Museum of Natural History, which ran from 2010 to 2018. The project focused on locating, identifying, and describing, and increasing access to the field notes of naturalists. As a result archival collections from across the Smithsonian describing major nineteenth century Navy expeditions and twentieth century Navy cruises are easier to discover and explore.

Sailing and Science

As the U.S. expanded its territorial and commercial interests during the nineteenth century, military personnel worked with Smithsonian staff during expeditions like the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856). Led by Captains Cadwalader Ringgold (1853-1854) and John Rogers (1854-1856), the expedition surveyed the Bering Straits, coasts of China, Japan, and California, Madeira Island and Tahiti. Collection materials in SIA RU7222 also document fieldwork completed by U.S. Navy personnel. For example an officer, Lieutenant H.R. Stevens, struggled to find language to describe what appears to be an example of bioluminescence:

[August 28th, 1853] Caught in net. A great many globular substances. Somewhat resembling spawn. These on being put into a glass jar and stirred up at night showed like sparks of fire.

Similar expeditions continued until near the end of the century, when the U.S. government established agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife that assumed responsibility for documenting the nation’s natural resources.

Page from H.R. Stevens Notes, United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, (1853-1856) Records, 1852-1861 and undated, Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project, Smithsonian Institution, SIA RU007253.

A Cruise with a President

The Smithsonian’s relationship with the U.S. Navy continued and evolved into the twentieth century; more work with the U.S. Navy originated through personal contacts and relationships. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, invited Invertebrate Zoologist Waldo Schmitt to join the Presidential Cruise of 1938 aboard the USS HOUSTON. The ship traveled from California, in route to the Galapagos Islands, via the Panama Canal. Waldo’s invitation may have been related to his reputation as a friendly and outgoing individual, as well as his academic background. Schmitt’s personal papers (SIA RU7231) demonstrate someone who loved observing his surroundings and telling a good story.  The collection includes a variety of field documentation and materials Schmitt saved from this experience, including correspondence, memorabilia like Plans of the Day from the U.S.S. HOUSTON, with a call to “Take heed all Spliney Shellbacks!” and images from ship events including the Shellback ceremony, as well as a detailed diary noting daily personal and professional activities.

Plan of the Day and photograph of Crossing the Line Ceremony, USS HOUSTON, 1938. SIA RU007231, Presidential Cruise of 1938: miscellaneous memorabilia collected by Waldo LaSalle Schmitt, Waldo L. Schmitt Papers, 1907-1978, Smithsonian Field Book Project.

The Atomic Era

The Smithsonian’s connection to the U.S. Navy also played out during less convivial times, when scientists accompanied U.S. Naval vessels as part of Operations Crossroads in 1946, and the resurvey in 1947.  This U.S. Navy project sent scientists to the Marshall Islands to record observations before and after the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests of 1946. Naturalists included Leonard Peter Schultz an ichthyologist who collected fish and became one of the first scientists to observe the effects of the blast on the local fauna. Schultz’s personal papers (SIA RU700222), include personal observations on of his time at sea including during the first atomic blast.  Materials include a logbook, field notes, annotated maps, photographs, negatives, and 16mm films.  Below is an image of his entry, written on “Able Day” (the day of the first atomic blast test at Bikini Atoll) describing his experience of watching the mushroom cloud.

Log of Crossroads Project by Dr. Leonard P. Schultz, Curator of Fishes, U.S. National Museum, 1946. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7222, Box 23, Folder: 1

National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program Field Research Records, 1963-1967. Record Unit 245, National Museum of Natural History, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program Records, ca. 1961-1973.

During the 1960’s, the Smithsonian Institution took part in a decade long research program call the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (SIA RU00245) that relied heavily on U.S. Navy resources and Department of Defense funding.  Numerous staff were sent out on Navy vessels to do research at sea to document pelagic bird migration, and the result was more than a 1,000 items documenting time at sea and interactions with Navy personnel.

Some of this documentation even touches upon the modern history of navigation and specifically on the Long Range Navigation system known as LORAN. LORAN, originally developed by the US during World War II, and the later LORAN-C (now known as Loran-A or Standard Loran), served as the ground-based navigation system operated by the U.S. Coast Guard for the use of maritime and aviation traffic, and was indispensable to the U.S. Navy for decades until modern GPS navigation systems rendered the LORAN system obsolete.

As part of the program, staff spent time on Pacific Islands often only inhabited by U.S. Navy troops, including Sand Island. The island had a pretty uneventful history until the mid-twentieth century. Previously unoccupied, the location proved useful to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard for several decades. During this time there were as many of 300 personnel on Sand Island, and its size was increased from 10 to 22 acres. As part of the project, staff used the LORAN tower to gain a different vantage point while photographing bird breeding areas, as seen in the photograph above, taken from the top of the tower.  The result is a collection of photographs and other material formats documenting this little known island, heavily used by the U.S. Navy for decades.

To learn more

These examples represent just a portion of the holdings from archival collections documenting the Smithsonian-US Navy relationship. The collections, acquired from both formal and informal connections describe the professional and personal nature of the interactions between naturalists and U.S. Navy personnel through logbooks, diaries, photographs, charts and many other types of materials. These can be found across the Smithsonian Institution, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Libraries, and the National Museum of Natural History. To learn more about these and other collections, we encourage you to visit the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center that enables researcher to search over 9.6 million records of the Smithsonian’s objects, archives, and library materials. A preliminary search for “U.S. Navy” returned over 1,000 results: http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=u.s.+navy and a search for “naval” over 34,000 results across the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives and collections.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Field Book Project: https://siarchives.si.edu/about/field-book-project

To read more about Lesley’s work and the project: http://nmnh.typepad.com/fieldbooks/page/2/

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BOOK REVIEW – Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-1940

Joseph Moretz, Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-1940. West Midlands, UK: Helion & Company, 2017. 593 pp.

Review by Capt Jason Naaktgeboren,
Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy

In Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-40, Joseph Moretz conducts a thorough investigation of how the United Kingdom attempted to counter the growing military threat posed by Germany following the invasion of Poland. Moretz breaks his book into two parts; the first primarily focused on England’s abortive plans to aid Finland in the Winter War and how those morphed into the British expedition into Norway in the spring of 1940. The second half of the book shifts its focus away from the battlefield to analyze the successes and failures experienced at each level of war: strategic, operational and tactical.

Moretz argues the early British war effort is in alignment with their traditional efforts; limited offensives backed by economic pressure. This approach was constrained, as Britain was virtually alone in declaring war on Germany and could not afford to offend neutral states. Despite this, the importance of the resource-rich Scandinavian states, particularly Swedish iron ore, could not be ignored, and preparations began to ensure these resources would aid the allied cause, or at least remain out of German hands. British plans included defending Finland in the Winter War by declaring war on the Soviet Union, mining of neutral waterways, and ultimately invading the then neutral nations of Norway and Sweden. Few of these initiatives were ever enacted for various reasons, such as Finland’s sudden capitulation to Stalin, or the risk of sinking neutral shipping and pushing additional nations to align with Germany.

The first four chapters offer solid historiography of events and the thought process behind them, while the second half of the book provides further analysis as to how the Germans outmaneuvered the British at each level of war. Strategically, the bureaucracy in London could not handle the multiple, simultaneous crises it faced due to an overreliance on too few individuals and a lack of support. Most damning is the assertion that British leadership lacked an appreciation for the importance of speed in the decision-making process. This led to Germany seizing the initiative, dooming British efforts in the region. Moretz argues that despite its flaws and the results in Norway, British strategic decision-making was not a total failure as the War Cabinet identified German weaknesses as well its own. Perhaps the greatest decision from this episode was the indeed the decision to cede the region to Germany and withdraw British forces, rather than reinforcing failure.

Moretz finds some positives at the strategic level but finds British performance at the operational level to be “critically deficient” (366). He highlights a variety of operational failures, including an overall lack of intelligence, specialized equipment, and dedicated means of command and control.  British efforts were also hindered by ‘amateurishness’ throughout its military branches, an inability to work in a combined environment, and inexplicably the failure to conduct a full-scale dress rehearsal of their proposed operations. All of these failures may have been overcome, were it not for the War Cabinet’s shortsightedness in regard to airpower. The failure to understand and respond to advances in aircraft capabilities led to planners ignoring the importance of airfields and yielding control of the skies to the Luftwaffe, making any surface actions in Norway too costly.

While British efforts in Scandinavia were all met with defeat, Moretz does not see British failure as a complete catastrophe. He argues that at the tactical level, all branches of the British military were fairly effective given the circumstances and fought well in a joint operating environment. The naval losses inflicted on the Kriegsmarine may have played a factor in Hitler’s decision to postpone Sea Lion and help shape the Battle of Britain. Finally, and most importantly, he argues that even though British forces faced an early defeat, their actions in Scandinavia were able to delay the Germans, buying time for the War Cabinet to learn from their losses and improve their decision-making for future campaigns.

Moretz uses a wide variety of primary sources, relying heavily on reports from the Air Ministry, Admiralty, and War Cabinet minutes. Personal papers, memoirs, and oral histories are also used.  Secondary sources consist of newspapers, journals, and numerous books and articles, however nearly all sources are British in origin. There is little that shows how the French, Norwegians, or even Germans interpreted or responded to British efforts and plans in this campaign. Maps and appendices help orient the reader to the area of operations and provide a cursory introduction of the key decision-makers of the War Council, Chiefs of Staff, and other military representatives.

The history provided in the first half of the book goes into great detail, it can be a bit dense, assuming the reader has an in-depth knowledge of the personalities and inner workings of the British war machine at the onset of World War II. In attempting to explain how and why the British came to the conclusions they did, Moretz occasionally gets bogged down in the same bureaucracy he attempts to explain. Additionally, his analysis is almost purely through a British lens, with little regard to allied, neutral, or belligerent state’s interpretations and responses to Britain’s maneuvering. Moretz’ attention to detail in the first half of the book pay dividends in later chapters, preparing the reader for an excellent breakdown of where and why British theories broke down when put into practice. His analysis of England’s failures at the operational level is truly compelling.

Towards a Wider War is not intended for the casual reader of World War Two literature or for those who have a passing interest in naval warfare. With its in-depth investigation into the factors and processes that drove London’s decision-making, it is better suited for those pursuing advanced degrees in Public Policy or Strategic Studies, or careers with government agencies, or the military. Additionally, it is a wonderful resource for anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of this often-overlooked period of the Second World War.

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BOOK REVIEW – Victory at Midway: The Battle that Changed the Course of World War II

James M. D’Angelo, Victory at Midway: The Battle that Changed the Course of World War II. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co., 2018. Pp. v-vii & 198.

Review by Galen Roger Perras, PhD
Associate Professor of History, University of Ottawa

Do we need another history of the June 1942 Battle of Midway? After all, consulting the Library of Congress catalog reveals a list of more than 200 books. No doubt, the number of journal articles addressing aspects of that key confrontation far exceeds even that lengthy roster. In this new study, James D. D’Angelo, a retired physician and founder of the International Midway Memorial Foundation, makes clear in the monograph’s title his main argument; that the American victory at Midway changed not just the Pacific campaign, but the entire course of World War II globally. I am unconvinced.

Let me begin with what I liked about this Midway account. The book’s chronology when it comes to the battle’s events is clear, detailed, and easy to follow. D’Angelo also includes some vital aspects that add real human interest to the monumental Midway story, notably an interesting and useful explanation of Admiral Bill Halsey’s odd skin ailment, plus Lt. Richard Best’s struggle with active Tuberculosis. In both cases, D’Angelo’s medical expertise brings real value to these discussions and reminds us that great events should not blind us to the fact that individual human lives, above all things, matter most in the study of History. And certainly, D’Angelo’s main argument cannot be accused of lacking in ambition. Other historical studies on various topics could emulate such ambition, even if here it fails to satisfy. Tis better to have thought than never to have thought at all.

But the book’s problems are many and injurious to its cause. First, D’Angelo uses few primary sources, mostly files about aircraft and Admiral Bill Halsey’s official military file. This choice, and it appears it was a deliberative choice as D’Angelo often critiques other studies at great length to make his argument, injuries this study. If one wishes to make a revisionist case that previous authors have failed to make the case properly, I believe that one must mine primary sources to make such a case. Sadly, D’Angelo does not do that.

Second, D’Angelo’s writing style is sadly bland, and also repetitive. The Battle of Midway naturally exemplifies drama with an outnumbered but gutsy United States Navy springing an audacious trap on a dangerously skilled foe. However, that drama, unfortunately, does not come through in this dryly written monograph

Third, given my extensive study of the Aleutian campaign, I found D’Angelo’s explanation for the origin of that quixotic campaign unsatisfying. I agree that the Imperial Japanese Navy decision to assign two small aircraft carriers to Aleutian operations was a mistake, that those carriers should have been attached to the main thrust at Midway. But I have argued, as have others, that Japan’s Aleutian attacks, using minimal resources, brought clear strategic dividends to Japan given the mistakenly outsized American counter-response to Japan’s occupation of the western Aleutians. (Canada too devoted resources to that region that could have been better used elsewhere). I might also add that the book’s index, which states mistakenly that the Aleutian Islands are mentioned on just two pages, does a poor job of directing the reader to material about the Aleutians.

Fourth, and most importantly, I do not accept D’Angelo’s argument that the clear and deserved American victory at Midway changed the course of the titanic global struggle that was World War II. Others have argued far better than I could ever do that Japan’s fortunes truly changed for the worse thanks to the grueling struggle for Guadalcanal in 1942-1943 that savaged Japan’s naval and aviation assets. Moreover, in a global struggle that saw the savage losses endured at Stalingrad or Kursk on the Eastern Front, the bloody fight in Normandy’s restrictive bocage country, or the devastating US Navy submarine campaign that annihilated Japan’s merchant fleet. To say that a naval battle so early in the Pacific campaign, even one so one-sided as Midway turned out to be, won the war for the Allied cause is simply wrong.

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BOOK REVIEW – In All Respects Ready: Australia’s Navy in World War One

David Stevens, In All Respects Ready: Australia’s Navy in World War One. Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2014. 378 pp.

Review by Chuck Steele, PhD

International Journal of Naval History

If one is looking for a comprehensive history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the Great War, they need to go no further than David Stevens extraordinary book, In All Respects Ready. This single volume covers the full range of RAN contributions to Allied victory in depth, breadth, and context. It is a solid work of narrative history that accomplishes more than what one might rightfully expect of a book dedicated to telling the story of a service that was manned by fewer than 10,000 sailors (officers and ratings—to include seven women, p.2). Regardless of how slight the numbers, Stevens demonstrates that in a war fought by millions, the mere thousands of sailors in Australian service managed to play an outsized role in a multitude of theatres.

When World War I began, the RAN was but a few years old (it gained recognition as an independent naval service in 1911). Understandably, when compared with its progenitor, Britain’s Royal Navy, the RAN was a modestly sized force. There were no Australian battleships, and by far the largest ship in the RAN was the battlecruiser HMAS Australia. The remainder of the fleet consisted of a collection of smaller vessels to include the light cruisers, HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne, with Sydney being the most famous of the two for her role in the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Emden—a story described in detail in the book’s fifth chapter. The stories of these ships and their crews, as well as well as other Australian vessels is ably reported by Stevens and would make In All Respects Ready compelling reading, even if the book contained nothing else.

Fortunately, Stevens addresses more than the RAN’s service as an organization in the war, he also delves into the multi-faceted contributions of individual Australians, and Britons working in association with the RAN. His thoroughness extends from sea to shore and from the obvious to the obscure. If the RAN, or sailors from the RAN, had a presence in a theatre or action, Steven’s covers it. For example, he does not only document the services of the RAN’s ships, such as the battlecruiser Australia and her service with the Grand Fleet, but he also provides a record of Australians’ services in that fleet. While Australia was not present at the Battle of Jutland, Australians were—and Stevens does not neglect their efforts in his book. Indeed, there is considerable focus on the individuals who brought the RAN out of its infancy and into its own as a war fighting entity. Each of his 24 chapters concludes with a profile of a sailor whose work was integral to the story told in the preceding pages.

The book is sensibly broken down chronologically and geographically. Starting with the creation of the RAN and moving to the outbreak of war, the book progresses year by year, and theatre by theatre, until the RAN returns to “Business As Usual” in the last chapter. The format of the book allows for the RAN’s story to unfold in a coherent and easy to follow manner.

If the book has a fault, it would be that it is possible for a reader to develop a distorted view of the war at sea inadvertently. Despite Stevens describing the Battle of Jutland blow by blow, it is done from a decidedly sympathetic point of view. The focus is always on the RAN and those most intimately associated with it. An example of this is the case of Rear Admiral Sir William Packenham, the commander of 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron at the battle of Jutland (who flew his flag from Australia until it was damaged in a collision with its sister ship New Zealand). Even though Stevens explicitly details Pakenham’s adoration of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty in the months before the battle (p.148), the author turns to Pakenham for the last comment as to why the British victory was not complete (p. 215). Pakenham’s statement expectedly absolves Beatty of any fault, and despite the severe losses within the battlecruiser force, Pakenham proclaims that had Beatty exercised greater authority the battle’s outcome would have been far more salutary. While the contents of the section detailing the war’s most significant battle are understandable, one must remember that this is first and foremost a history of the RAN in the Great War and not a history of the war at sea in general.

Regardless of the potential for misinterpretation, if anyone is looking to gain an understanding of the roles played by the RAN in the Great War, or interested in the formative years of Australia’s Navy, then this book is a must-read. It is well written and thoroughly researched. It is a remarkably good piece of naval history.

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BOOK REVIEW – Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World

Adrian G. Marshall, Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016. 325 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings, PhD
Norwich University

Although the Nemesis was not really the “first iron warship” as the hyperbolic subtitle of Adrian G. Marshall’s book claims, it was nevertheless a historically consequential warship.  Laid down at the Laird Shipyard in Liverpool in 1839, the Nemesis featured a number of innovations such as watertight compartments (though it was not the “first vessel with truly watertight compartments” as the publisher’s blurb at the back of the book claims—the Chinese had actually developed this technology well over five hundred years before), iron plating, and two 32-pound swivel cannons capable of firing in all directions. Like other ships in the age of transition from sail to steam, the Nemesis was outfitted with sails and a steam-propelled paddle wheel capable of generating 120 horsepower and approximately 10 knots, and could operate under both sail and steam, or under either independently.

The Nemesis was one of several steam warships commissioned at the same time not by the Royal Navy, but by the British East India Company. Founded in 1600 and awarded a royal monopoly on trade in South and East Asia, the East India Company had evolved from a private trading company to an unofficial arm of the British government as the agent of Britain’s imperial expansion. By the time that the Nemesis was commissioned, the East India Company had been functioning as the de facto colonial government over most of India for over a half-century. As part of its governing structure, the Company commanded a large army of Indian soldiers (sepoys) under British officers and a growing navy of craft such as the Nemesis. At 175 feet in length but with a width of only 29 feet and depth of 11 feet, the Nemesis was specifically designed to operate in rivers in support of the Company’s military campaigns to hold or expand the empire in India.

Unlike its predecessors, which were transported in sections for final assembly in India, the Nemesis made the lengthy voyage to India under its own power. As Marshall describes in vivid and interesting detail, this shakedown cruise was by no means uneventful. The narrow hull and shallow draft of the Nemesis made for frequent instability at sea, with one of the major problems being that the constant tossing and turning in the heavy swells lifted the paddle wheel out of the sea, rendering its useless. Both the paddle wheel and boiler suffered damage in the arduous passage, as did a number of iron plates on the hull, which necessitated their eventual replacement. Marshall also points out that, in the days before the Royal Navy established coaling stations across the world, the crew of the Nemesis faced a constant challenge of finding fuel for the engine. Fortunately for the Nemesis, African ports provided sufficient wood.

Upon its arrival in India, the Nemesis was immediately dispatched to China. In 1839, in response to the Chinese seizure and destruction of opium stocks in Guangzhou (Canton), the British government had declared war on the Chinese Empire, thus initiating the conflict known as the Opium War. Military operations against China were conducted by a combination of regular British and Company army and naval forces. When it arrived in China, the Nemesis, with other steam warships of the Company played a major role in Britain’s decisive victory. While its narrow hull and shallow draft had made for an uncomfortable sea voyage, the Nemesis was entirely in its element operating in the rivers along China’s south coast. The combination of steam propulsion and highly accurate swivel cannons manned by well-trained crews allowed the Nemesis to function with devastating efficiency. Chinese resistance, however brave, was indeed futile.

In illustrating the impact of technological supremacy in Britain’s Opium War victory, Marshall is reiterating an argument made by numerous other historians, but his narrative of the conflict also makes another important point that the decisive British victory was also a function of superior operational planning. In marked contrast to the disorganized Chinese military effort, the British forces conducted a campaign that was characterized by a remarkable degree of coordination among the diverse Royal Navy, regular army, and Company armed forces. One cannot help but be impressed with the machine-like precision of the British operations, however much those operations were conducted to further a highly morally dubious cause.

Nemesis is a well-researched and engagingly-written narrative of a warship that also sheds much light on the context of the early age of steam. The volume is handsomely-produced and features numerous interesting and illuminating illustrations and maps. Adrian Marshall may not be a professional historian, but he has produced a highly professional book.

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Vol. 14, Issue 1: About the Authors

Michael Crawford
Retirement Remarks

Following a yearlong fellowship editing historical documents at the Adams Papers Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Mike joined the Naval Heritage and History Command staff in 1982, retiring as Senior Historian of the Navy in 2017 after 35 years of serving as a naval historian.   During his time at NHHC be became head of the Early History Branch.  He wrote/edited fourteen books during his career.  He is especially proud of having edited several volumes in the Naval Documents of the American Revolution series.  In 2011, the Department of the Navy awarded him the Meritorious Civilian Service Award.

CDR Kevin J. Delamer, USN (Ret.)
The Decisive Blow: the Anglo-French Naval Campaign of 1759

Commander Delamer spent over 26 years as a commissioned officer, serving as a helicopter pilot, staff officer, and professor during his career.  A native of New York, Commander Delamer settled in Maryland after retirement having completed numerous tours at NAS Patuxent River including matriculating at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, serving as the lead test pilot for the Presidential Helicopter Program, and as the lead propulsion and power engineer for all Navy and Marine Corps H-60 helicopters.  Operationally, he served in the Wyverns of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron TWELVE where he was recognized as the 1990 Pilot of the Year.  He served as a department head with the Black Knights of Helicopter Antisubmarine Squadron FOUR, and with the Carrier Air Wing FOURTEEN staff.

Commander Delamer has also completed numerous staff tours including service with NASA’s National Rotorcraft Technology Center, and Commander, Naval Forces, Central Command in Bahrain.  While stationed in the Middle East, he was the Director of Political-Military Affairs, advising the Vice Admiral commanding on developments in the region. He was subsequently chosen as the Executive Assistant to the Admiral.  He completed his career serving as a Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island where he also served as the Executive Assistant to the President of the Naval War College.

Scott D. Wagner
Why There Was No Privateering in the Spanish-American War

Scott D. Wagner is pursuing his undergraduate degree in history at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He spent the summer of 2016 interning in the History and Archives Division at Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC. Scott is currently working on his senior thesis, which investigates the social and ideological aspects of privateering during the American Revolutionary War.

Paul Renard
The First Class at RAF No. 31 Radio School: August to September, 1941

Paul Renard, PhD, is a faculty member at the George Washington University
School of Medicine and former faculty at Virginia Tech.  After a thirty-five
year career in telecommunications and defense consulting, he succumbed to
his passion for 19th century history and began writing about the American
Civil War, Army officer education, and African-American soldiers.  Along with teaching, Paul is CEO of a Defense-related strategy formulation business and is starting to think what life would be like if he retires.  He and his spouse live in Northern Virginia, but they spend as much time in French speaking places as they can manage.

J. Tomney
Inside the Archives: Sons of the Commander in Chief: The Roosevelt Boys in World War II

J. Tomney is a volunteer at the FDR Presidential Library.

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Inside the Archives: Sons of the Commander in Chief: The Roosevelt Boys in World War II


James Roosevelt: Gung-Ho Marine Raider
Elliott Roosevelt: Doing All He Can to Get Into the Fighting
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.: Big Pancho of the Mighty May
John A. Roosevelt: “I Don’t Care What the Ship Looks Like Or Is”
Suggested Reading

J. Tomney
FDR Presidential Library

Inside the Archives Editor: Dara Baker, U.S. Naval War College

All photographs, unless otherwise identified, are from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library Photograph Collection. The photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. in uniform is from the Anna Halsted Collection.

Photographs of FDR’s four sons, Franklin Jr., James, John, and Elliott, in a frame
that President Roosevelt kept on his desk in the Oval Office. The frame is part of
the FDR Library’s Museum Collection. (MO 1948 22-3917)

The sons and daughters of thousands of American families heeded the call to serve their country during World War II. The four sons of America’s First Family were counted among those that served with distinction and honor for the duration of the war. The Roosevelt boys – Jimmy, Elliott, Franklin, Jr., and John — all joined the U.S. armed forces and served overseas, each one having very different service experiences. Jimmy, FDR, Jr. and John followed the family tradition of naval service. Elliott soared with the Army Air Forces. Just like other wartime GI’s, they were away from family and in harm’s way. Just like other wartime GI’s, their parents worried about their safety. These are their stories.

I imagine every mother felt as I did when I said good-bye to the children during the war. I had a feeling that I might be saying good-bye for the last time.” Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember, Page 292

“Neither the President nor Mrs. Roosevelt had any more information of the whereabouts or the activities of their son than do the fathers and mothers of other officers or soldiers in the United States armed forces.”

                                                                                                            Stephen T. Early
Presidential Secretary
                                                                                                August 22, 1942

James Roosevelt: Gung-Ho Marine Raider

James Roosevelt in U.S. Marines uniform, ca. 1942. [NPx 48-22:4006(4)]

The oldest of FDR’s sons, Jimmy Roosevelt, entered military service first, receiving a commission as a Marine Lieutenant Colonel in 1936 at age 29. With war brewing in Europe a few years later, his high rank seemed to come without merit, and complaints of nepotism began to be voiced by other Marines. Jimmy chose to take action to counter the rumors. In September 1939 he resigned his commission and reenlisted as a Captain in the Marine Corps Reserves.

Before the United States entered the war, Jimmy Roosevelt experienced two phases of Marine life: he trained hard on the West Coast to master amphibious maneuvers and then served as a military advisor assigned to diplomatic missions in the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa. In January 1942, Jimmy found himself stationed at Camp Elliott near San Diego. He spent his time preparing a written proposal for the creation of a Marine Corps commando organization, to be used for swift and surprise actions against the enemy. Soon after, he shipped out to Pacific theater of operation putting into practice many of his proposals. Major James Roosevelt experienced his baptism of fire in August 1942 when he helped lead the operation against the enemy at Makin Island. Second in command to the famous commando leader Lt. Col. Evans Carlson of the Marine Raiders, Jimmy came under sniper fire and rescued three of his men from drowning, earning him the distinguished Navy Cross and the Silver Star. In a letter to FDR, Carlson wrote that Jimmy “was as cool as the proverbial cucumber and kept the loose ends tied together without a hitch.”

Jimmy’s actions also served another purpose.—they proved to be a morale booster back in the States. Jimmy Roosevelt’s heroic exploits at Makin Island made headlines in the Washington, D.C. and New York newspapers.  His naysayers now honored him in the national press as a “fighting” guy. After Makin Island, Jimmy returned to Pearl Harbor for a short stay and shipped out on the USS WHARTON arriving at New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in September 1942. He saw further action at Midway and the Aleutian Islands before being assigned to Camp Pendleton, California as Second Marine Raider Battalion Executive Officer. He received appointment as Commanding Officer of the newly formed Fourth Marine Raider Battalion on October 23, 1942.

Jimmy was plagued with stomach ailments which kept him out of combat late in the war. In 1945, after training Marines at Camp Pendleton, Jimmy Roosevelt received orders to Philippines. While there, working as an intelligence officer tasked with helping to prepare for the invasion of Okinawa, he learned of his father’s death.

On August 13, 1945, Colonel James Roosevelt was discharged from active military service with the United States Marine Corps, completing 26 months of wartime combat duty. After the war, Jimmy joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and retired at the rank of Brigadier General in 1959.

Elliott Roosevelt: Doing All He Can to Get Into the Fighting

Elliott Roosevelt with “My Faye” airplane. Inscribed to FDR. [NPx 48-22 3980(1)]

Second eldest son Elliott Roosevelt could have avoided serving in World War II, having been classified as 4-F because of poor eyesight. But his love of flying prompted him to petition his case to volunteer for service to General Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Force. Before the war, Elliott flew as a private pilot, worked in the aviation industry for a small outfit in California, and edited the aviation section for the Hearst newspapers.

After his first service physical deemed him unfit for combat, Elliott petitioned and signed a waiver for his disability, which allowed him to receive a commission in September 1940. His first assignment, however, had him tied to a desk in the procurement division, which drew criticism from the public that he was dodging combat. Elliott wanted to see action and Captain Roosevelt, after completing a training course in intelligence, received assignment to the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron in Newfoundland doing North Atlantic patrol work.

Elliott volunteered for a survey job to locate air force sites in the North Arctic which could be used as staging points for the delivery of aircraft from US to Great Britain. Elliott and his brother FDR, Jr., joined their father, President Roosevelt, for the August 1941 Atlantic Charter meeting in Newfoundland waters. Elliott recollected that, “I knew that Pop liked to have a member of the family along, somebody with whom he could chat, to whom he could let down his hair, in whom he could confide.” Later in the war, Elliott accompanied his father, as a military attaché, to the Big Three conferences in Casablanca, Cairo, and Tehran.

Eleanor Roosevelt reviews Army Air Corps troops with son Elliott Roosevelt during her visit to England. [NPx 75-4(31)]

Elliott’s love of, and skill at, flying exceeded his visual disability and he soon found himself piloting unarmed reconnaissance missions. Mother Eleanor Roosevelt showed concern over Elliott’s flying skills but he wrote her, “Don’t worry about me. I lead a charmed life…I had a crack up the other day and escaped with a sore tail although my ship was demolished.”  He flew a P-38 Lightning (F-5) on photographic reconnaissance missions over North Africa and received promotion to the rank of Colonel in January 1944 when he joined the 12th Air Force.

The Army Air Force assigned Elliott to command of the 325th Photographic Reconnaissance Wing and charged him with reorganizing all the American Reconnaissance Air Force units of both the Eighth (bombardment, strategic) and Ninth (light bombardment, tactical) Air Forces. He supervised their operations so as to obtain all information necessary to the invasion of Europe and his efforts played an important role in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944 and later for the Battle of the Bulge in 1945.

During World War II, Elliott Roosevelt flew over 300 combat missions, was wounded twice and received the Distinguished Flying Cross He is credited with pioneering new techniques in night photography and weather data gathering, but his career included controversy including accusations of corruption related to the acquisition of an experimental Hughes aircraft. By the war’s end, he had achieved the rank of Brigadier General. As James Roosevelt wrote of Elliott’s exploits in Affectionately, FDR, “Objective war correspondents have praised my brother as among the bravest of the brave.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.: Big Pancho of the Mighty May

FDR with Franklin, Jr. and Elliott Roosevelt on the terrace of his villa at the Casablanca Conference, January 16, 1943. (NPx 48-22 297)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. pleased his father greatly by participating in the Naval Reserve Officer Training (ROTC) program at Harvard for four years. He received a law degree from the University of Virginia but left his law practice in March 1941 for active duty as an Ensign with the Navy. His father arranged one of his earliest assignments: FDR summoned his sons Elliott and FDR, Jr. to attend the August 1941 Atlantic Charter meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland.

Ensign Roosevelt’s first at-sea assignment sent him to  the destroyer USS MAYRANT, later known as the Mighty May for its combat successes. The MAYRANT escorted convoys across the North Atlantic to Europe. A bout of appendicitis and an appendectomy interrupted Franklin Jr.’s military service in February 1942.

After his recovery, FDR Jr, returned to sea duty, and received promotion to Lieutenant (jg), and assignment as the MAYRANT Executive Officer. He participated in the North Africa campaign and was decorated for bravery with a Commendation from the Secretary of the Navy after the November 1942 Battle of Casablanca. The USS MAYRANT then participated in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. At Palermo, the ship just missed being hit by a bomb dropped by the German Luftwaffe, however, five crew men were killed and six others wounded. FDR Jr., known affectionately as Big Pancho by the MAYRANT’s crew, put his life at risk by exposing himself to enemy fire, carrying a critically wounded sailor to safety. He also took quick action to limit the damage to his ship. For his bravery, FDR Jr., the Navy awarded him a Silver Star and he received a Purple Heart for sustaining a shrapnel wound in his shoulder.

FDR Jr. in uniform, from Anna Halsted Collection. [NPx 77-55(239)]

In March 1944, FDR Jr. received promotion to Lieutenant Commander and assumed command of the destroyer escort USS ULVERT M. MOORE, moving to the Pacific theater of operation. Under Franklin Jr.’s command The USS MOORE participated in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima campaigns. He received the Legion of Merit Combat ‘V’ for the MOORE’s successful sinking of a Japanese submarine during the Philippines campaign. The MOORE also was credited with shooting down two Japanese planes in combat. Standing six feet four inches tall, Lieutenant Commander Roosevelt earned the nickname, the “Big Moose” from his the crew on the MOORE.

After victory over Europe, on May 8, 1945, FDR Jr. left the combat zone to attend the U.S. Naval War College’s Preparatory Staff course as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve in July 1945, graduating in December 1945. Fellow NWC graduates included some his commanders, Admirals Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and Howard Stark. Upon his discharge from the US Navy in January 1946, Franklin Jr. resumed his law career and eventually entered politics. He served as a US Congressman and, like his father, ran for the Governorship of New York.

John A. Roosevelt: “I Don’t Care What the Ship Looks Like Or Is”

(Left to right): FDR, Jr., Winston Churchill, FDR, and Elliott Roosevelt at the Atlantic Conference, August 9, 1941. [NPx 48-22 3616(14)]

The President’s youngest child, John Aspinwall Roosevelt was 25 years old when he joined the US Navy in early 1941. After graduating from Harvard, John began a career in retail, a set of skills that led to his assignment to the Navy Supply Corps after his enlistment. At the US Naval Air Station in San Diego, young Roosevelt applied for sea duty in early 1942. Hearing of his son’s application, FDR ordered that the request be denied. John wrote to his father, “I don’t care what the ship looks like or is, as long as she at least floats for a while,” John’s perseverance eventually led to sea duty in the Pacific combat zone.

In June 1942, John was promoted to Lieutenant (jg). He served on the aircraft carrier USS WASP for 15 months. For his actions on the WASP, under heavy fire from the Japanese, John earned a Bronze star and received a promotion to Lieutenant Commander.

Although he never commanded a military unit as did his brothers, John’s service was no less diminished. In early 1945, he transferred to the staff of Admiral Joseph “Jocko” Clark as the Task Group Supply Officer. Both John and his brother FDR Jr., upon learning of their father’s death in April 1945, declined to return home for the funeral, remaining at their posts in the Pacific war zone.

Right after the war, John settled in California and resumed his career in retail. He continued his military service as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. While he never pursued a career in politics, he supported many political candidates, including Dwight Eisenhower, and worked as an investment banker.

James Roosevelt telegram to Eleanor Roosevelt, 13 April 1945.
Telegram sent by James Roosevelt to his mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, upon learning of his father’s death. James Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt Correspondence, 1945-1947, Box 1629. Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Suggested Reading

Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949).

Elliott Roosevelt, As He Saw It (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946).

James Roosevelt and Sidney Shalett, Affectionately, FDR: A Son’s Story of a Lonely Man (New York:

Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1959).

James Roosevelt with Bill Libby, My Parents, A Differing View (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976).


Collections on the Roosevelt sons’ military service at the FDR Presidential Library
Papers of James A. Roosevelt
Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.
Papers of Elliott Roosevelt
Papers of Anna Roosevelt Halstead
Papers of John Boettiger
Roosevelt Family Papers Donated by the Children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1686-1959

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Papers as President

The President’s Secretary’s File (PSF):
Box 162: Franklin D. Jr. and James Roosevelt

President’s Official File
OF 2490 – James Roosevelt, 1933-1941

President’s Personal File
PPF 3 – Roosevelt, James
PPF 4 – Roosevelt, Elliot
PPF 5 – Roosevelt, Franklin, Jr., 1933-1945
PPF 6 – Roosevelt, John A., 1933-1945

Eleanor Roosevelt papers, correspondence with Franklin Jr., Elliott, James, John and their spouses, 1939-1945. Boxes 3, 582, 700, 726, 791, 1302  

Material related to Atlantic Charter Conference and Casablanca, Tehran, and Cairo conference can be found in FDR’s Papers as President, Map Room Papers, President’s Secretary’s File, and Official Files on Trips. For additional information, contact the Archivists at the FDR Presidential Library at archives.fdr@nara.gov

The service records for all four Roosevelt sons have been digitized and are available through the National Archives and Records Administration: https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/public/persons-of-prominence.html#R

This article originally appeared in The National Archives Forward with Roosevelt, Blog of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. https://fdr.blogs.archives.gov/2018/01/31/sons-of-the-commander-in-chief-the-roosevelt-boys-in-world-war-ii/

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What Are They Reading: Vol 3

what are they reading

Charles C. Chadbourn, III
Editor, International Journal of Naval History

This is the third issue of our continuing series allowing readers of this journal who are interested in international naval history and related topics to share with colleagues ideas on good books to read which may be of general interest. We are not looking for full book reviews in this section, but rather simply suggestions for worthwhile reading. Most selections, of course, will probably come from historical monographs and will be naval in nature, but other genres are welcome as well. Look at the books suggested below by Jocko Willink and Tom Linn as good examples..

Nor do these suggestions necessarily have to be recently published items, although of course those are especially helpful. As the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, Carl von Clausewitz, and even Thucydides demonstrate, older works often retain their usefulness for contemporary readers for generations. If you would like to share a book suggestion, please send your submission directly to the Editor of IJNH. Some of the more interesting books I read every year come from the recommendations of my colleagues.

Click the down arrow next to each name to read their response.

What Are They Reading? Vol. 3

A Reading Specialist in Children's Literature


Written for middle school aged kids by a #1 New York Times bestselling author and highly decorated former U.S. Navy SEAL, with hilarious, comic-style illustrations by Jon Bozak, this compelling book describes how Marc turned his life around after a miserable 5th grade year when his super-cool uncle, a retired Navy SEAL, came to spend the summer.  Publishers Weekly and Children’s Literature both highly recommend this book.  And if you like it there are others in the series.

Charles C. Chadbourn, III; Editor, International Journal of Naval History


This delightful little book will make you chuckle, and most likely turn you into a better writer, even if you did complete your dissertation.  You will want to keep a copy handy at all times, right beside your dog-eared Turabian.  The author, a Fleet Professor for the U.S. Naval War College, is a professional writer with decades of experience in military writing circles.  He points out how critical thinking and good writing distinguish someone in the age of artificial intelligence, and make them employable.  Linn knows whereof he speaks.

John W. Kramer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, University of Mary Washington

Anne Applebaum, IRON CURTAIN: THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1944-1956 (2012)

Highly recommended, this extremely well researched and annotated book received the 2013 Cundill Prize for Historical Literature.  Applebaum covers the Communist takeover and consolidation of power throughout Eastern Europe following World War II under Stalin and his successors. The story is sad for those who suffered so much, but the book makes for good reading on how the Soviets exercised control over Eastern Europe.

Nathan Packard, Assistant Professor of Military History, Marine Corps Command and Staff College


In The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the foremost military analysts of the 20th Century offered a thought-provoking reassessment of Grant’s abilities as a strategist and operational artist. In contrast to accounts of the war that presented Grant as unimaginative and profligate with the lives of his men, Fuller argued that Grant time and again displayed perational, strategic, and political abilities that were far superior to those of his contemporaries, to include Robert E. Lee. As evidence, Fuller provided detailed accounts of Grant’s campaigns to show that creativity and maneuver on a grand scale, rather than attrition, were the defining features of Grant’s generalship.

John A. Rodgaard, CAPT, USN, Ret., Naval Order of the United States and co-author of A Hard Fought Ship: The Story of HMS VENOMOUS.

C.S. Forester, THE GOOD SHEPHERD (1955)

I was so aware of Forester’s Hornblower series, but not the single fictional account of a U.S. Navy Convoy Commander that this book tells. It is an excellent read. Forester’s account rings true to someone like myself who “hunted” Soviet Submarines during the Cold War.  Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks supposedly will be releasing a movie based on the book called Greyhound and the main character in the book is made for Tom Hanks. Read the book before the movie premiers in March 2019.

Corbin Williamson, Assistant Professor, Department of Strategy, Air War College


Boyd’s revisionist account of British strategy and policy in the Far East successfully links the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific.  His account fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the Second World War at sea in this region. Boyd places the controversial Singapore strategy in a wider context, showing that British officials viewed the Persia-India-Australia axis as the eastern core of the Empire.  The British presence guarded this vital core from the eastern Mediterranean on one side to Singapore on the other.

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View from the Quarterdeck: July 2018

chadbournMost of us recall a particular teacher or professor who first piqued our interest in history.  Later, as we advanced in our professional studies, if we were fortunate we acquired a mentor we admired who took particular interest in guiding and developing students as a critical element of being a member of the historical profession.  These truly great historians not only advance our knowledge and understanding of history through their own work, but also inspire and guide others to follow their example.  Dr. Michael J. Crawford, recently retired as Senior Historian of the U.S. Navy, was such a giant in the field of naval history.

As our lead article in this issue, we publish Mike’s remarks upon the occasion of his recent retirement at the Museum of the United States Navy in the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC.  His comments reflect not only a lifetime of commitment to being a naval historian in the fullest sense as scholar, mentor and colleague, but also serve to remind us of the complexity and craftsmanship of the historical profession itself.  How does a landsmen become a naval historian?  Mike tells us in his own words.  I hope that readers will find these retirement remarks as beautiful and inspirational as I did, both personally and in a professional sense.  These comments may also serve as a useful primer for all on what it means to be an historian.  I trust our readers will find Dr. Crawford’s remarks as touching as I did.

The remaining articles in this issue of IJNH have as a common theme: the impact of conducting war in the face of technological change, which not everyone understands clearly.  While change is certainly moving at warp speed in the 21st Century, we are not the first generation to engage in combat under such conditions.

Earlier I spoke of mentorship as an important part of the historical profession.  The second article in this issue is a study of the absence of privateering in the Spanish American War by Scott Wagner.  This study was prepared during an internship at the Naval Heritage and History Command under Dr. Michael Crawford’s guidance.  Wagner’s article, “Why There was No Privateering in the Spanish-American War,” demonstrates that by the end of the 19th Century privateering, while technologically feasible even as steam and steel ships were replacing sail power and wooden hulls, was rejected by both Spain and the United States.  In fact, however, the U.S. Navy frequently used private citizens to crew private vessels under naval command; a practice that many pointed out was remarkably similar in many ways to privateering.  Wagner shows that diplomatic and strategic considerations of the time, especially so those of the European powers, rather than technology, made the practice unthinkable.

In “The Decisive Blow: The Anglo-French Naval Campaign of 1759, Naval War College Fleet Professor Kevin J. Delamar addresses the question of the role of British maritime dominance in the Seven Year’s War of 1756-1763, a world war more commonly known in North America as the French and Indian War.  While most of the fighting took place in Europe between continental powers, Britain as a maritime nation proved to be the economic engine of the victorious side.  Professor Delamar concludes that ultimately the impact of naval victories on the finances of the belligerents, especially because of key naval battles of 1759, would be the decisive factor in the outcome of the conflict.  Delamar examines the war from the perspective 19th Century maritime theorists Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett.  He concludes that the 21st century is not the first age in which defense spending is critical to successful national security policy.

Historian Paul Renard wanted to capture his father’s (William Fuchs) Navy experiences in World War II before they were lost.  His article stemmed from his dad saying one day at breakfast, “I remember when I was in Canada in 1941 . . . .”  Paul knew nothing of this story – until his dad pulled out his 70+ year old album from the war years and began to talk.  Chance not only plays an important role in war but can also lead to significant historical discoveries as well.  The resulting article, “The First Class at RAF No. 31 Radio School, August to September, 1941,” is just such a case.  The author offers a personal account of the Anglo-American-Canadian friendship and determination of The Grand Alliance to defeat the Axis Powers, even if Great Britain surrendered.  Sir Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” Speech before the House of Commons in the dark days of June 1940, illustrates the point.  Churchill thundered “. . . we shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”  Churchill was a master at marshalling the English language in the fight against Hitler, but as Renard demonstrates, in this case important operations in the wilds of Ontario supported his rhetoric.  The details Renard offers are fascinating!

Finally, our Editor for “Inside the Archives,” Dara Baker, an Archivist at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, contributes an instructive overview of records, including photographs, of the military service in World War II of the four sons of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt: Jimmy, Elliott, FDR Jr., and John.   Mr. J. Tomney, a FDR Presidential Library volunteer, compiled the information.  In retrospect, the war records of the Roosevelt boys are riveting.  Jimmy, the oldest, joined the USMC in 1936.  Wounded twice in combat, he would go on to earn both a Navy Cross and Silver Star for his exploits in the air.  Elliott served as a reconnaissance pilot in the North Atlantic and flew 300 combat missions over North Africa.  He was wounded twice and received a Distinguished Flying Cross.  FDR Jr. delighted his dad by spending four years in Navy ROTC at Harvard before the war.   After earning his law degree at the University of Virginia Law School, he entered active duty as a surface warfare officer.  Assigned to USS MAYRANT (DD-402), FDR Jr. saw duty in both North Africa in 1942 and Sicily in 1943 where he received a Silver Star and Purple Heart, and eventually rose to become Executive Officer.  Later reassigned to the Pacific Theater, he commanded USS ULVERT M MOORE (DE-443) in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa campaigns.  He was awarded a Legion of Merit with Combat V for the sinking a Japanese Submarine.  Son John also joined the Navy as a Supply Corps Officer and spent fifteen months on USS WASP (CV-18) in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Dara’s account makes fascinating reading and is useful for anyone wishing to research the Roosevelts in World War II.

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