Inside the Archives: The Yangtze River Patrol Collection

John Sanders
Special Collections & Archives
Dudley Knox Library
Naval Postgraduate School
Monterey, California

Wednesday, April 26, 1911: “Got into tail of typhoon about 5 a.m. Sea roughest experienced yet. Lucky we are heading into it. Eased up a bit about 8 p.m. Maintained 8 to 12 knots thro it. NY and Albany pulled off some struts.”

Friday, April 28, 1911: “Sighted land at 11:50 a.m. Anchor at Nagasaki at 12:38 to buoys right in front of town. This is or looks like nice place. Quite a puzzle to get into harbor. Received 5 bags of mail.”

Wednesday, October 18, 1911: “Just had time to grab breakfast and get ready to go ashore in landing force. Went in American party. Forces from all ships guarding concessions. We went to Japanese consulate. Chink gunboats fired on land forces on both sides of river just below us. Everybody up in arms. Rebels victorious all day.”

Guy Harter, 1913 portrait. From the Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School.

Guy Harter, 1913 portrait. From the Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School.

These entries were written in pencil in a 3-inch by 6-inch leather diary that has pre-printed tide tables for Boston and New York harbors and a list of American presidents. William Howard Taft, the nation’s 27th chief executive, was in office when Guy Harter enlisted in the Navy and subsequently boarded an Asiatic Fleet gunboat en route to the Yangtze River in 1911, his uniform bearing the insignia of a yeoman.

Many of Harter’s diary entries speak only of boredom and quiet along the river. A few, however, capture the action, mystery and uncertainty of naval forces sent to protect American interests in China during the revolutions in 1911 and 1912.

Harter’s pocket diary is just the beginning of a remarkable journey into the early 20th-Century Orient captured by the pencil, typewriter and camera lens of this sailor.

Harter’s photo scrapbook shows crews reconstructing the USS Monocacy (PG-20) and the USS Palos (PG-16) in 1913, the first gunboats designed and delivered by the Navy to ply the upper reaches of the treacherous Yangtze. Photos capture Harter and shipmates at work and on liberty as well as scenes of rebel forces during an attack and the burning of Nanking in 1912. Another scrapbook contains a brilliant assortment of menus, playbills, programs, receipts, stamps, news clippings – and a red scrap of fabric Harter has labeled, “What was left of the Wilmington’s Ensign after the typhoon had ceased blowing Sunday afternoon. August 17, 1913, 4:30 p.m.” Beneath this, Harter has written, “Hong Kong, China.”

His chronicles of life as a River Rat offer deep perspective for the scholar interested in American naval action and U.S.-China relations a century ago.

His records are among several personal diaries and photo scrapbooks created by Yangtze River Patrol sailors. This collection of River Rat memorabilia and documents give added perspective to the Navy History & Heritage Command’s ten linear feet of documents in its China Repository and to the ship models and artifacts held by the United States Navy Memorial.

The Yangtze River Patrol Collection includes the only known set of the Yangtze River Patroller newsletter. The newsletter focuses largely on reunion plans and social news of members of the Yangtze River Patrol Association however each issue typically includes a personal recollection of naval life in China.

Harter’s scrapbooks are among the records that have been digitized and are readily accessible on the Dudley Knox Library’s web at

For additional information about the collection and other holdings, contact John Sanders, Special Collections Manager, Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School. E-Mail:; Phone: 831-656-3346.

The Knox Library. Photo courtesy John Sanders.

The Dudley Knox Library. Photo courtesy John Sanders.

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Version 2John Sanders is a former Naval Postgraduate School public affairs officer who, with support and guidance from university librarian Eleanor Uhlinger, established the NPS archives. His other works have appeared in publications such as Aerospace America and the Dictionary of Professional Military Education.

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BOOK REVIEW – Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington

John F. Wukovits, Black Sheep: The Life of Pappy Boyington. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 250 pp.

Review by 2nd Lieutenant Jordan K.K. Bolster
Research Assistant USAF Academy

Pappy Boyington, the Marine Ace-of-Aces who earned his fame in World War II flying against the Japanese was a man of violent contrast. When flying he was the angel of death, while on the ground his demons found him and made up for lost time. Seemingly the perfect specimen for a combat pilot in the Pacific Theater, where the freedom of flight and terror of war saw him at his best, time on the ground often found him lost in a bottle and trapped by rules and regulations.

Wukovits portrays Boyington as a character capable of evoking both feelings of admiration and revulsion.  People either remembered him as a drunken brawler, or as an aggressive combat leader who helped raise morale. Black Sheep is a balanced history of Boyington’s life and is the perfect book to capture the essence of this dynamic man.  The author expertly weaves the life and military exploits of Boyington into a coherent story that is both meaningful and gripping. His account neither shies away from the moments that tarnished Boyington’s reputation, nor does it fail to offer praise for his accomplishments.  Black Sheep examines Boyington as a whole person, rather than focusing on only one or two aspects of his life.

Written with the feel of a novel, Black Sheep keeps the reader engaged through clever narrative and smooth transitions. The logical flow of the book adds to the ease of the read, preventing confusion and frustration. Wukovits ensures an in-depth and comprehensive look at Boyington’s life without going into the weeds of unnecessary detail. The reader follows Boyington from abused child to war hero.  From his first flight at the age of five over the rural Idaho town of St. Mary’s, to violent and sometimes comical alcohol infused brawls, to his exploits during combat over the Pacific, the reader gains an understanding of the Medal of Honor recipient that makes him as familiar as someone with whom they had grown up. This account moves readers to cheer Boyington’s accomplishments and feel disappointment in his defeats.  In essence the reader is made to care what happens to this man.

Wukovits has written extensively on World War II with a focus primarily on the Pacific Theater. That experience comes together in Black Sheep.  The book is well researched with abundant sources supporting the thesis that Boyington was not either a hero, or a brute, but rather a combination of the two. He answers the question “how can the same individual be vilified by people with whom he worked in 1942 and venerated by those he commanded a mere seventeen months later” (Wukovits, 2)? This biography will appeal to all those who are interested in Boyington’s life, the Pacific Theater of World War II, and Marine aviation.  Wukovits captures Boyington’s essence and leaves the reader with an understanding of the man behind the legend, demonstrating that Boyington’s life was a dichotomy and no matter where he was, he would forever be the black sheep of the flock.

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BOOK REVIEW – Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston

Howard J. Fuller, Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston. New York: Routledge, 2013. 297 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History

Reassessment of the past invariably means reassessment of the picture painted by earlier historians, but for military and naval writers, it also frequently means challenging the uses others have made of previous experience as a window to contemporary problems. These two qualities are much apparent in Empire, Technology and Seapower, a further title in the ‘Cass Series of Naval History and Policy’ presented by Routledge Publishing. Howard Fuller of the University of Wolverhampton offers a fresh examination of the mid-nineteenth century Royal Navy in a study that synthesizes the interplay of technology, naval strategy and party politics as played out in the era of Viscount Palmerston, British prime minister between 1855-58 and 1859-65.

These were momentous years with war against Russia already in hand when Palmerston first assumed the premiership to be followed by mutiny in India in 1857. Meanwhile, the American Civil War dominated the scene of a second Palmerston administration with a British intervention on the side of the Confederacy a distinct possibility. This was not the zenith of British Empire, nor even the high noon of Pax Britannica, but it was a moment when Britain counted for more in the counsels of Europe than anytime previous with this influence owing everything to trade, finance, industry and the wooden walls of her navy. The last, though, faced an enemy which bore no respect of tradition and past success—the advance of science. Here, the proximity and inclinations of France weighed heavy. Already possessing a sizeable army, England’s traditional foe now was building a fleet of the most modern kind of warships represented by La Gloire, but to what end?

Given the centrality of maritime strategy to Britain, a response followed, but the lines of that response depended on a host of factors—technical, financial, strategic and political—where the outcome remained far from certain. Fuller dissects these in turn and demonstrates the complexity of the problem facing Palmerston. A navy to defend a global empire required ships of range and habitability entirely different from those best able to defend the vulnerable ports and dockyards of Britain. Shipyard capacity was finite and naval estimates were not unlimited. Constructing a navy of the most modern ships demanded improvements in infrastructure while numbers had a quality all of their own.

Responding rapidly to the French naval challenge by commissioning the ironclad HMS Warrior, an even more menacing threat now appeared: the USS Monitor. Chagrined by American highhandedness over the Trent affair when Confederate emissaries were forcibly removed from a British flagged vessel, Royal Navy superiority could no longer be assumed in American waters in the face of Ericsson’s prodigy. Thus, the threat of British intervention receded though how Britain could intervene with a French menace still looming is not addressed by the author.            

This is a work of sound, serious scholarship anchored in archival research; therein, lies one weakness. The author assumes a general familiarity of the times and its events few readers—even academics—will possess. Thus, greater scope for providing the context of the period is not only demanded, it is required. Another is that Fuller squarely has his sights set on the historiography of the last thirty years and finds it wanting. His case is reasoned, of merit and convincing; yet, those shortcomings that are decried in the works of others, such as recourse to the counter-factual and suffusing modern strategic theory on the past, invariably appear in due course in Empire, Technology and Seapower.

Given the author’s task of correcting recent historiography, it is surprising more use was not made of the analysis offered by those writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those writing of naval affairs in the period immediately following Palmerston including George Aston, Charles Callwell and the brothers Colomb, John and Philip, are ignored by the author. Not tainted by Britain’s post-imperial decline, Cold War theories of mutual deterrence or an Army-centric view of current strategy, such lessons they absorbed and espoused are probably closer to the mark of historical truth than the modern renditions that Fuller finds wanting; certainly, they deserve a hearing.

A problem more telling is the price of Empire, Technology and Seapower which will preclude its consideration by a wider audience. This is unfortunate for, though clearly aimed at academics, even they will find the price of entry daunting. This reviewer, though, has no reservations in recommending the work. Historians will appreciate a succinct recounting of the transition from sail to steam and its place in broader British affairs. Meanwhile, for those who wrestle with matters of contemporary strategy, competing technologies and the burdens of budgets, the enduring sameness of it all will appear manifest. The accounting offered enlightens these verities and is worth reading, accordingly.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Challenges of Command: The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919

Robert L. Davison. The Challenges of Command: The Royal Navy’s Executive Branch Officers, 1880-1919. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. 288 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History 

The Challenges of Command surveys the executive branch officer corps of the Royal Navy from the last part of the Nineteenth Century through the close of the First World War. In the process, Robert Davison focuses his analysis on the broader societal and technological setting of the period that acted upon the Royal Navy and argues that the service’s response was, in many respects, a rearguard action to protect the prerogatives of ‘X’ branch officers—those officers wearing the distinctive executive curl on their uniform stripes—from these influences. The study is solidly based on both archival research and use of the period’s secondary literature and is a welcome study filling a void in our understanding of the Royal Navy.

Davison posits that the forces of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” a term he never adequately defines, when adopted to maritime use required the navy to recruit officers and men with the requisite skills to manage the appliances of science and industry. One consequence of this was that traditional naval command based on competence in seamanship no longer served as an adequate justification for promotion, as mastery of the new technologies increasingly became essential. Concurrently, changes in the structural basis of British democracy and an expanding fleet also forced the Royal Navy to broaden the pool of those eligible to hold a commission in the service.

One response adopted by the navy was the creation of a separate engineer branch to manage the new motive power of a warship absent such offices having command responsibilities. In time, a natural tension arose as more and more of a ship’s complement became dedicated to engineering purposes moving away from the deck force that previously handled the sails. Seamanship, thus, declined as a relative naval skill. Meanwhile, another trend of the Victorian era was the rise of newer professions—a consequence of the Industrial Revolution—having a vested interest in protecting their status and that of its practitioners, of which, marine engineers were one. As the two groups of officers—executive and engineer—had different terms of engagement and differing prospects for advancement tensions naturally arose. Both came to believe that their worth was not appreciated: the former financially, the latter professionally.

The Challenges of Command relates the service’s response to the above which, ultimately, gave rise to the Selborne Scheme of common officer entry, the rise of a War College, and, shortly before the onset of the World War, a War Staff Course to produce officers for a nascent Naval Staff. The experience of war found the Royal Navy seriously lacking in strategic, operational, and tactical nous further undermining the authority of the executive branch with confidence in the senior leadership of the service so suffering that a group of younger officers organized a palace coup to replace Jellicoe as First Sea Lord and to realize a properly constituted Naval Staff. This is the work’s culminating point and it is the portion that this reviewer finds most problematic for a number of reasons.

Foremost, the performance of the Royal Navy during the war was better than what the author concedes. Its logistics planning was excellent and the readiness levels achieved by the fleet in the wake of the battle of Jutland is testimony to this fact. Secondly, the real problem facing Britain during the World War was not operational or tactical though issues of these there were, it was strategic and the author fails to address the lamentable coordination of the higher direction of war operating at the Cabinet level. This was never truly resolved during the war and British operations against Soviet Russia in the period immediately following demonstrated the machinery remained far from sound. Finally, the author makes a number of assertions where evidence is lacking to support his contention. Here, the claim that gunnery and torpedo specialists dominated the service can be cited. This may well be the case, but as there were few billets for such officers above the rank of commander, did they advance in the service because of their specialization or because they were also the most capable officers? The question is not investigated which points to one omission in the author’s methodology: his failure to systematically review the service record files of officers held at the National Archives, Kew which offers the clearest testimony why certain officers were promoted.

For all the presumed conservatism of the service during the period, what remains striking is the level of innovation readily accepted by the Royal Navy. This was more than just the acceptance of technology and encompassed changes in its educational practices, its embrace of historical method, its willingness to challenge existing shibboleths, and the adoption of newer management controls in the shape of a Naval Staff. Davison’s work is an excellent starting point for our understanding of these efforts, but it remains only a starting point.

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BOOK REVIEW – 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era

Benjamin F. Armstrong, Editor, 21st Century Mahan:  Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.  Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2013. Notes, 179 pp.

Review by John J. Abbatiello, PhD
Monument, Colorado

1914 was a momentous year for naval affairs.  One hundred years later, we remember the opening of the Panama Canal, the American occupation of Veracruz, and the start of the Great War.  On 13 March 1914, Edward “Butch” O’Hare was born; he would become the US Navy’s first carrier ace and naval Medal of Honor recipient of World War Two.  And on 1 December 1914, Alfred Thayer Mahan—American naval officer, educator, historian, and strategist—died of heart failure in our Nation’s capital at the age of 74.

Readers of IJNH will not require a review of Mahan’s considerable influence on strategic thinking from the 1890s to present.  Suffice it to say—and regardless of his perceived relevance today—he remains one of the most important strategists America has ever produced.  It is a pity that most of us derive our understanding of Mahan’s strategic thought from perhaps one or two of his books and a handful of interpretive volumes about his written work.  He has so much more to offer.

In 21st Century Mahan, Benjamin Armstrong makes available five of Mahan’s lesser-known works to serve as a corrective to common misperceptions about this key naval theorist.   The editor selected these five essays to show Mahan’s “readability and relevance” to current audiences and to demonstrate that he examined more than Jominian theories of naval warfare focusing on battleship-heavy combat fleets.  On the contrary, Mahan was a keen student of naval leadership, administration, and education.

In Armstrong’s first selection, entitled “The Principles of Naval Administration,” the editor demonstrates Mahan’s capacity to tackle important questions of organization and support of the fleet.  The 1903 article, originally published in the National Review, provides the reader with an interesting comparison between the British and American systems of civilian and naval leadership.  Mahan discusses civilian heads or secretaries, the American Bureau system, and the Royal Navy’s “Sea Lords.”  The focus of the piece is that administration should be efficient with accountability clearly defined and exercised.  And at all times, military and naval considerations “must necessarily continue supreme.”  The editor lauds Mahan’s conclusions and reminds the reader that in times of tight budgets Mahan’s focus on combat capability versus swollen staffs should serve as a warning to a peacetime US Navy.

The second piece, a 1902 essay entitled “Consideration Governing the Disposition of Navies,” examines the interaction of maritime interests, geography, trade, and naval forces.  Yes, it is true—Mahan actually thought about cruisers and the importance of positioning the battlefleet to protect trade routes.  As Armstrong points out in his introduction to the essay, Mahan’s discussion of cruisers equipped with wireless telegraphy and how they should be positioned is an unexpected topic for most readers today.  We should pay attention to Mahan’s thoughts on forward-deployed assets and overseas bases as a foundation for strategic agility.

In “Naval Education” Armstrong exposes readers to Mahan’s thoughts on how to educate and train naval officers and sailors.  The editor shares the interesting origin of this essay; Mahan wrote it for an essay contest sponsored by the US Naval Institute in 1879.  He happened to be President of the Institute at the time, but the essay placed third.  The piece appeared in the The Record, forerunner of Proceedings, and was Mahan’s first written work to be published.

At a time when the Naval Academy was the only source of commissioned officers for the US Navy, Mahan suggests a detailed course of study, class by class, semester by semester, and includes divergent tracks for line officers and engineering and ordnance specialists.  Mahan’s bottom line was that his selection of subjects provided three things required of a naval officer:  “moral power” (i.e., leadership and command ability), “physical vigor,” and knowledge necessary to carry out assigned duties.   Disappointingly, neither Mahan nor Armstrong address a key question about the Naval Academy, and service academies in general:  should they focus on producing competent junior officers or future flag officers?  The two objectives are not necessarily compatible.

The last two essays are about leadership.  In both cases Mahan highlights Royal Navy admirals from the Age of Sail, his favorite naval era, providing rich examples of how to lead a ship’s crew and a sailing battlefleet.  Originally written as a 1905 speech to Boston’s Victorian Club and later published in 1908, “The Strength of Nelson” focuses on the Victor of Trafalgar’s “peculiar sense of duty” and “conviction” the he could trust his subordinates and his own decisions and instincts.  His example, in Mahan’s reverent view, was a gift not only to Britain but to the entire world.  In “Pellew:  The Frigate Captain and Partisan Officer,” Mahan applauds the career of Edward Pellew, later Lord Exmouth.  Taken from a collection of naval biographies published as Types of Naval Officers:  Drawn from the History of the British Navy, this final essay curiously focuses on a frigate sailor, and Armstrong takes the opportunity to point out that Mahan was able to appreciate a naval officer not associated with ships of the line.  The historical piece guides the reader from Pellew’s early career during the American Revolution, through the wars with France, and closes with an account of his successful command of the 1816 expedition against Algiers.  Mahan points out Pellew’s superb seamanship, decision-making, and strategic thinking—principles important for all naval leaders.  Armstrong includes this essay to show today’s sailors that service “outside the main battlefleet” is both valuable and “vital to naval success.”

Overall, this is a superb collection of essays that succeeds in demonstrating Mahan’s lesser-known naval thought, addressing topics that are as relevant today as they were at the turn of the last century.   As the editor points out, today’s strategic environment is not too different from the one Mahan lived in.  Critics might haggle over the choice of essays, absence of illustrations, or lack of discussion of Mahan’s years at the Naval War College, but these are minor issues.  Benjamin Armstrong—naval aviator, helicopter pilot, Naval Institute Editorial Board member and frequent contributor to current naval affairs—gives us a glimpse of Mahan that is both valuable and pertinent.  We should look forward to the next volume!

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BOOK REVIEW – The Search for HMAS Sydney: An Australian Story

Ted Graham, Bob King, Bob Trotter and Kim Kirsner, eds., The Search for HMAS Sydney: An Australian Story, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2014. 320 pp.

Review by Tom Frame
Director Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) at the University of New South Wales

The sinking of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney off the West Australian coast on 19 November 1941 stands alone in the annals of Australian naval history. Not only did the close quarters exchange with the German armed raider HSK Kormoran claim 645 lives making it the nation’s greatest naval loss, no other event has been so shrouded in mystery and surrounded in controversy. As Sydney was sunk with all hands and disappeared virtually without trace, what could be reliably established about the ship’s final engagement and subsequent sinking was frustratingly limited.

We know that Kormoran, a vessel designed as the cargo ship Steiermark and converted for wartime raider operations, sank more than 68,000 tons of shipping in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the eleven months since she first put to sea. On the night of 19-20 November 1941, Kormoran was heading towards the West Australian coast to lay a pattern of mines in Shark Bay. At 5pm, as the sun lowered in the sky, Sydney was returning from Sunda Strait where she had escorted the troopship Zealandia. The Australian ship observed Kormoran on the horizon. While the disguised raider attempted to pass herself off as a Dutch freighter, Sydney closed to a range of just 1,200 yards. By then the cruiser had given away a considerable tactical advantage. After a short and devastating engagement at point-blank range, both ships were mortally damaged. When Kormoran was scuttled six hours later, the Germans observed Sydney ablaze and making way slowly over the horizon to the south-west. Most of Kormoran’s crew was recovered from lifeboats several days later with 314 Germans becoming prisoners of war. In tragic contrast, there were no survivors from Sydney.

The disappearance of HMAS Sydney was extremely difficult to explain to a deeply shocked Australian public which had recently celebrated its great operational achievements in the Mediterranean. The only source of information about what had occurred off Carnarvon was the Kormoran survivors. The nation wanted to know how such a catastrophic loss of life could have happened to such a capable ship. Surely the famous Sydney was not lost to a mere armed merchant raider? Many more questions were raised in the years that followed. Some were mischievous, others were even malevolent. Eventually only two remained. What induced Captain Joseph Burnett in Sydney to forego his long-range gunnery superiority when he brought his ship so near to Kormoran? Why was Sydney lost practically without trace when so many Germans had survived?

The loss of Sydney is the most thoroughly researched event in Australian naval history – by a very long way. No other ship has received such attention and no other engagement such scrutiny. I need to declare that I am responsible for one of the books published on Sydney [HMAS Sydney: Loss & Controversy, 1992) a work that has happily been through three editions owing to the enduring and expanding controversy. In March 2008, the Finding Sydney Foundation managed to do what I had previously thought and said was impossible – they found the wrecks of HSK Kormoran and HMAS Sydney. This was news of national and international significance and I was the first to admit publicly that I was wrong. The search team led by David Mearns had not only proved the critics were mistaken, they had shown what thorough research, careful analysis, creative use of technology and sheer determination could produce: a stunning triumph. Why and how a small group of energetic people managed to locate the wrecks is the subject of The Search for HMAS Sydney – a beautifully produced volume that deserves to be ‘the last word’ on the loss of the famous Australian light cruiser.

This hard-bound, lavishly-illustrated, and well-designed work presents a series of perspectives and reflections on the ship and its achievements, the final battle and her tragic loss, the mystery of her disappearance and the needless controversy that followed, the publication of competing views and the angry exchanges between historians, and, finally, the emergence of a small team of professional researchers and community enthusiasts who believed it was possible to find the ship and gain elusive answers to questions that had long haunted the families and friends of those who had perished. The book reveals the extent of goodwill generated within both the public and private sectors, and the collaboration of scholars from a very wide range of disciplines which had previously shown little interest in maritime archaeology. I would venture to suggest that never before had the search for a ship brought together such a gathering of experts, each eager to contribute from the insights of their discipline.

The search also attracted community groups keen to remember the 645 men who lost their lives and then occupied a watery grave whose location remained unknown for more than 60 years. The ways in which disparate local organisations honoured the memories of the cruiser’s men revealed the extent to which the Sydney belonged less to New South Wales and much more to Western Australia – now her permanent home. Anyone unfamiliar with the Sydney story now need purchase only one book to gain a sense of why this ship and its loss proved to be so poignant, and why so many people with no personal connection to those who died were prepared to give of themselves so completely to find the wreck. This book shows the extent to which maritime archaeology remains a fascination to an island people like Australia and the degree to which its practice is enriched by the synergy that flows from a group containing experts and enthusiasts. Readers with a technical interest in the search will be as rewarded as those with a personal interest in commemoration.

This is simply a stunning book and a fitting tribute to those who were lost and to those who found them.

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BOOK REVIEW – Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters

Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. Notes; bibliography.  304 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters is the latest book by the prolific naval affairs commentator Bernard D. Cole. Cole’s previous books include Gunboats and Marines: The United States Navy in China, 1925-1928 (1982), The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the 21st Century (2001), Taiwan’s Security: History and Prospects (2006), and Sea Lanes and Pipelines: Energy Security in Asia (2008). As the titles indicate, the focus of Cole’s scholarship has been maritime affairs in Asia, and especially China. In Asian Maritime Strategies, Cole first surveys the naval strategies and current security concerns of each of the maritime nations of Asia, which encompasses both the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. He then concludes by describing some possible scenarios for conflict and cooperation at sea in this volatile but economically vital part of the world: as Cole points out, international maritime trade accounted for 87 percent of the region’s gross domestic product in 2006. (p. 19)

In defining maritime strategy for the purposes of his book, Cole quotes Julian S. Corbett, who described it as “the principles which governs a war in which the sea is a substantial factor.” (p. 19) Cole notes, however, that maritime strategy in the twenty-first century is shaped by a complex variety of factors. As he writes, “a nation’s domestic political priorities and economic demands are major, indeed vital, influences on the development and execution of a maritime strategy.” (p. 19). In Asia, the interplay of economic and political priorities has provoked contention among the maritime nations of the region, most importantly regarding the issue of sovereignty over oil-rich islands of the South China Sea. Cole suggests, however, that it also provides opportunities for cooperation. In particular, the maritime nations have a common interest in maintaining the security of the sea lines of communication.

On one hand, Asian Maritime Strategies has a couple of strengths. The first is its comprehensive geographic scope, which rightly ties together the Indian and Pacific Oceans and includes description all of the maritime nations of the region, both large and small. The book is also thoroughly researched in English-language sources. On the other hand, Asian Maritime Strategies is limited by its almost solely encyclopedic and descriptive nature. For example, much of the chapter on American naval strategy consists of large sections of U.S. Navy strategy and planning documents reproduced more or less verbatim, with little in the way of the author’s commentary or analysis. Especially baffling is the relative lack of attention to the historical context shaping the present-day maritime strategies of the Asian nations. Moreover, the profusion of acronyms, constituting a staggering six-page list, is a frequent inconvenience to the reader. As a result of these limitations, Asian Maritime Strategies is not the definitive work that it could have been, and will likely appeal only to a narrow audience of naval affairs specialists. Readers seeking broader analytical insights into this dimension of Asian international security issues will likely have to look elsewhere.

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Giving Teeth to the Carter Doctrine: The Marine Corps Makes the Case for its Strategic Relevance, 1977-1981


“…the Marine Corps is in serious trouble…The brutal truth is that a growing number of defense analysts regard the Marine Corps as an under-gunned, slow-moving monument to a bygone era in warfare.” 1

– William Lind and Jeffrey Record, 1978

Since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted, there has been an increased interest and growing recognition of Marine Corps capabilities. Because of our readiness and ability to deploy quickly to the scene of a crisis, we can expect to assume an even greater role in the defense of our nation in the years ahead…I view the decade of the 80s as an opportunity for our Corps to demonstrate its unique capabilities to the Nation and make a significant contribution to national security. 2

– Commandant Robert Barrow, 1980


Roles and Missions
Outside Critics
Why a Marine Corps?
Shifting Strategic Priorities
The Marine Corps and the Rapid Deployment Force

By Nathan Packard
Fleet Seminar Professor, Naval War College

WILMINGTON, NC (July 3, 1980) U.S. Marine Corps’ M-60A1 tanks await loading on USNS MERCURY (T AKR 11), a roll-on, roll-off ship of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, during Leading operations this week. (Photo by PH3 George Bruder, USN/DoD Image)

WILMINGTON, NC (July 3, 1980) U.S. Marine Corps’ M-60A1 tanks await loading on USNS MERCURY (T AKR 11), a roll-on, roll-off ship of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, during Leading operations this week. (Photo by PH3 George Bruder, USN/DoD Image)

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps was a service in search of a mission.  Traditionally, it had justified its existence by highlighting its capabilities as a rapid response force for Third World contingencies and as amphibious shock troops in the event of a conventional war.  The American people, however, had little appetite for interventions following the recent experience in Southeast Asia. Likewise, a massed amphibious assault – the Marine Corps’ raison d’etre since the interwar period – was considered highly unlikely in a war with the Soviet Union. Thus, by the mid-1970s, there were on-going discussions within the Department of Defense, Congress, and the media about the future role of the Marine Corps.  Critics referred to it as an anachronism and “a dinosaur which had outlived its usefulness.” 3

Ultimately, events in the Middle East – specifically the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 – provided the Marine Corps with a new strategic purpose. In his 1980 State of the Union Address, President Carter made it clear that Washington was prepared to use military force to defend U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Sensing an opportunity, the Marine Corps adapted its capabilities to the strategic goals outlined in the Carter Doctrine.  This article examines how the Marine Corps made the case for its continued relevance by offering itself as the solution to one of the nation’s most vexing foreign policy challenges – ongoing instability in the Middle East. 4

Roles and Missions

In 1954, Samuel Huntington coined the term “strategic concept” to refer to a military service’s roles and missions relative to national policy objectives. The concept described “how, when, and where the military service expects to protect the nation against some threat to its security.” Absent a compelling concept, a service “becomes purpose-less, it wallows about amid a variety of conflicting and confusing goals, and ultimately it suffers both physical and moral degeneration.” Its efforts lack unity of purpose and as an institution it is unable to convince society to commit the resources required to maintain it.  A service must be able to answer the following question: “What function do you perform which obligates society to assume responsibility for your maintenance?” 5  A strong strategic concept has been especially important for the Marine Corps. Unlike the Army or Navy, it could not point to the militaries of potential adversaries to justify its existence. Most countries did not maintain a Marine Corps.

As outlined in the National Security Act of 1947, the primary mission of the Marine Corps was to prepare for and execute amphibious landings. 6 In subsequent legislation Congress solidified the Corps’ amphibious orientation and mandated a permanent force structure of at least three active amphibious assault divisions and three air wings. The National Security Act and the debates and reports surrounding it also reaffirmed the Corps’ secondary role as a crisis response force. The Act stipulated that the Corps be prepared to “perform such other duties as the President may direct.” 7  In practice, this meant the service could be used by the executive branch to resolve situations that fell in the gray area between diplomacy and war. 8

The legislative protections outlined above ensured the Marine Corps’ survival in the defense unification debates that followed the Second World War; however, amphibious assaults seemed to have little place in the strategic context of the 1970s. The other services rebounded from the Vietnam War by re-focusing on their enduring responsibilities with respect to the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately for the Marine Corps, its strategic concept was better suited to an island-hopping campaign against Japan. Because Soviet power was primarily land-based, U.S. war plans, should the Cold War go hot, minimized the role of maritime forces and relegated amphibious operations to diversionary attacks on flanks of the Eurasian landmass.

In 1971, Commandant Leonard F. Chapman predicted that “the golden age of modern amphibious warfare is still in the future,” but some Marines were skeptical. 9  Retired Colonel James Donovan, for example, a decorated veteran of World War II, regarded basing force structure, doctrine, and budget requests on an old mission as a clear case of “strategic regression.” The Marine Corps was focusing on the type of war it wanted to fight rather than the one it was likely to fight.  Over the long term, trying to perfect Iwo Jima-style assaults would drain limited resources and serve as a drag on innovation. 10

Similarly, the promulgation of the Nixon Doctrine as the Vietnam War was winding down sent a clear signal that the White House had little interest in Third World interventions. In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Richard Nixon informed allies that in the future they would bear primary responsibility for their own security. The President’s pledge to “reduce our involvement and our presence in other nations’ affairs,” accurately reflected the national mood after five years of war.  11  Such pronouncements did not bode well for a service that had long been policymakers’ force of choice for armed involvement in the internal affairs of other countries. Congress also took steps to limit presidential latitude in the use of force with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which required congressional approval for the commitment of U.S. forces to combat abroad.  The general reluctance to use force often referred to as the Vietnam Syndrome discredited one of the Marine Corps’ historic missions.

For the armed services, roles and missions are of the utmost importance; it is how they lay claim to their portion of the defense budget. With one of its primary missions considered antiquated and the other distasteful, the Marine Corps would be hard-pressed to justify its budget requests during the lean years of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations.

In general, the period 1972 to 1979 was the most austere in terms of defense budgets since World War II.  Although the post-Vietnam drawdown in some ways resembled the typical boom and bust cycle associated with a nation shifting from war to peace, the situation was exacerbated by the weakened state of the domestic economy. In terms of economic performance, the 1970s was the worst decade for the U.S. economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted from 1000 to 577 from 1972 to 1974 and would not hit 1000 again until late 1982.  The economy was plagued by stagflation, a situation in which rising unemployment was paired with high inflation.  Both the inflation rate and the unemployment rate hovered around nine percent in the mid-1970s. Domestic economic woes not only affected standards of living and the national mood – contemporary commentators referred to the 1970s as an “Age of Limits” and an “Era of Decline” – they also affected the defense budget. 12   While the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford sought to slow the growth of defense spending, Jimmy Carter came into office pledging to cut billions of dollars in defense spending. The combination of double digit inflation and spiraling fuel costs made the 1970s some of the most austere years in U.S. history in terms of defense buying power.

In a 1985 report, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Burns used fiscal data to quantify the impact of stagflation on the Marine Corps. He focused primarily on the Operations and Maintenance and Ground Force Procurement Appropriations. These were the two areas of the budget over which Headquarters Marine Corps had the most discretion when it came to actual spending. These were the funds used to buy equipment, maintain facilities, and conduct training exercises. Burns calculated that between FY 1977 and FY 1980, the Operations and Maintenance budget had increased by roughly 46 percent, from $594.365 million to $872.59 million. The large increase kept it just slightly ahead of inflation. The Ground Force Procurement Appropriation, on the other hand, had decreased by 13 percent during the same period. Under Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, the service saw its procurement budget drop from $326.7 million in FY 1977 to $283.785 million in FY 1980. Secretary Brown also refused to fund the construction of any new amphibious ships or the procurement of the AV-8B Harrier aircraft, the Marine Corps’ top aviation priority. 13

Burns’ findings supported a 1979 report by the U.S. Comptroller General, which had concluded: “Since 1970, the Marine Corps budget has increased only about 25 percent in actual dollars, which represents a decrease in purchasing power of about 30 percent in 1979 constant dollars.” 14  Simply put there was less money to go around and what money there was bought less and less each year.

Outside Critics

As budgets tightened, criticism of the Marine Corps intensified. Most worrisome were critiques on the part of Congressmen and members of their staffs. Historically, Congress had been a long-time ally of the Corps and repeatedly protected it against budget cutters in the executive branch.  By the mid-1970s, however, even many of the Corps’ friends in both Congress and the media believe that the service’s roles and missions had become disconnected from the nation’s actual defense needs. The message was plain – the Marine Corps must adapt to present realities or run the risk of strategic irrelevance.

According to Allan Millett, the foremost historian of the Marine Corps and a serving officer during the period in question, critics advanced  six arguments: (1) the U.S. military was unlikely to get involved in conflicts outside of the European theater (2) amphibious forces had little utility in a war with the Soviets (3) the Marine Corps lacked the mechanized forces required on the modern battlefield (4) the Marine air component was vulnerable to sophisticated air-defense systems (5) the Corps had little to offer NATO, moreover, integrating the service into existing NATO plans would prove difficult, and (6) due to budget constraints the Navy would not make the construction of amphibious shipping a priority. 15

During the period of 1975 to 1978, defense analysts William S. Lind and Dr. Jeffrey Record offered the most cogent analysis of the Marine Corps’ shortcomings in articles and policy papers with provocative titles, such as Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here? and “Twilight for the Corps?” 16  Lind and Record, both congressional staffers who worked military issues in the U.S. Senate, reiterated their arguments in a white paper endorsed by Senator Robert Taft, Jr. (R-OH). In 1978 the paper was reissued with the endorsement of Senator Gary Hart (D-CO). 17  Bi-partisan support for statements such as, “The maintenance of almost 200,000 men in an obsolescing force structure cannot be justified,” caught the attention of Marines at all levels. 10

Lind and Record’s analysis relied heavily on the 1973 Arab-Israeli War as a template for future wars. Fought from October 6 to 25 of that year, the conflict pitted a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria against Israel.  It involved thousands of state of the art tanks and sophisticated fighter aircraft maneuvering rapidly on and above the battlefield. From their study of the conflict, Lind and Record concluded that future wars would be quick, technologically intensive affairs defined by the rapid movement of heavily mechanized forces.  In their opinion, the Marine Corps was ill-suited for this type of conflict for two reasons. The first was that the Marine Corps’ amphibious ships would never have gotten them to the war in time. Second, even if they were able to get to the fight, they lacked the armor needed to win on the modern battlefield.  Consequently, according to Lind and Record, “[t]he brutal truth is that a growing number of defense analysts regard the Marine Corps as an under-gunned, slow-moving monument to a bygone era in warfare.” 19

The first challenge fell under strategic mobility – how the Corps planned to get to the fight. Lind and Record believed the “principal issue confronting the United States Marine Corps today is the future viability of the amphibious mission.” 20  America’s most dangerous adversaries, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China were land powers whose vast territory and large armies offered few opportunities for a decisive amphibious assault. In a war with either power, amphibious operations would serve as little more than a diversion. In addition, the concentration of forces required during the ship-to-shore movement phase of a landing, made such forces vulnerable to precision-guided weapons. Most importantly, the limited quantity of amphibious ships and their slow rate of speed called into question the Marine’s utility as a crisis response force. 21

Criticism of the amphibious mission was echoed by senior administration officials. For example, in 1974, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger commissioned a series of studies that asked, among other things, why have a Marine Corps?  In 1975, he expressed his doubts about amphibious ship-building programs in his annual report to Congress:

[Our] amphibious forces are not cheap….These programs, their costs, and the delays that have attended their completion have raised questions about the need for an amphibious assault force which has not seen anything more demanding than essentially unopposed landings for over 20 years, and which would have grave difficulty in accomplishing its mission of over-the-beach and flanking operations in a high-threat environment. 22

Later that same year, the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had historically been friendly to the Corps, directed that the service conduct a complete review of its force structure and manpower situation. The shortage of amphibious shipping led Senator Sam Nunn, previously a strong supporter of the Corps, to doubt the service’s ability to get to the fight: “If the U.S. Marine were called upon to undertake a major landing in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East, they would probably have to walk on water to get ashore.” 23  The relative slowness of amphibious transit was highlighted in a 1976 report by the Congressional Research Service which concluded that shortages in amphibious shipping would result in a two-month lead time to launch a division-sized operation. 24

By the mid-1970s there was a widespread belief within defense circles that the Marines were too slow to give the White House the responsiveness it desired. Transit times via amphibious shipping from the United States to potential trouble spots in Asia and the Middle East were anywhere from one to two months. Critics charged that the window for action would close before Marines could arrive in sufficient numbers to advance U.S. interests. Thus, amphibious capabilities were a low priority in a time of tight defense budgets. Such doubts were expressed in the declining share of the budget devoted to Marine Corps programs.  The 1979 defense budget, the first produced entirely by the Carter Administration, was a prime example. The Marine Corps’ funding request for the Advanced Harrier (AV-8B) program, its top aviation priority, was cut from $173 million to $85 million. The administration also pushed back the planned procurement of a new dock landing ship (LSD-41) from FY 1979 to FY 1981. Although Secretary Brown testified that delays to both programs would produce design efficiencies over the long-term, it is telling that in a budget that discussed only three Marine-specific programs at length – the AV8-B, the LSD-41, and the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) – two of the programs were being cut or delayed.25

Furthermore, even if the Marine Corps possessed the strategic mobility needed to get to a conflict, it lacked the firepower, armor, and tactical mobility needed to fight and win on the modern battlefield. Here again, the service was limited by its amphibious orientation.  In order to get everything it needed aboard ships, it was constructed primarily around three divisions of light infantry. Although the Corps possessed three tank battalions of 55 tanks each, these were employed in a supporting role not as an independent maneuver element. Furthermore, the tanks, M-48s and M-103s, were nearly two decades old. In addition, the service had hundreds of armored amphibious tractors for transporting troops. Because of the need to operate on both land and sea they were inherently inferior to infantry fighting vehicles developed for land use only.

By comparison, while the Corps had spent nearly a decade focused on counter guerilla operations in the jungles of Southeast Asia, modern militaries had become increasingly mechanized.  By the mid-1970s the U.S. Army, America’s NATO allies, as well as likely adversaries, namely the Soviets and Warsaw Pact countries, employed tank formations to spearhead advances; infantry and supporting elements rode in mechanized vehicles configured specifically for high rates of speed and mobility, a style of warfare reminiscent of the German Blitzkrieg of World War II. In such a conflict, the Marine Corps would have difficulties integrating with allies as well as engaging the enemy. Once again, the 1973 Arab-Israeli War was a case in point. During a little more than two weeks of fighting, the two sides lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 tanks, nearly six times more than the Marine Corps had in its entire inventory.  26  By the mid-1970s, many Third World militaries possessed the economic resources required to field several mechanized divisions. Consequently, though Lind and Record concluded that the best use for the Marine Corps might be to focus it on Middle East contingencies, it would be at a serious disadvantage in that region as well. As of 1978, the Corps had 238 tanks in active service as compared to Iran’s 3,200, Egypt’s 1,930, Syria’s 2,600 and Iraq’s 1,500.  27    Based on these numbers it appeared that the Marine Corps was headed towards “comparative impotence.”  It lacked the firepower and mobility needed to win on the modern battlefield.  28

As a solution to the service’s ills, Lind and Record suggested that the Marine Corps focus exclusively on Third World contingencies and that it organize and equip itself as a first-rate mechanized force. The relative slowness of sea transit could be overcome through the prepositioning of supplies, the forward deployment of forces, and an increased reliance on air transport. In the event that the President called for an overseas intervention, the overall concept involved forward-deployed Marine amphibious units and air-mobile contingents serving as the lead elements. The lead contingent would be reinforced by heavier forces whose personnel would arrive via plane and marry up with prepositioned equipment or be transported to the area by amphibious shipping.  Thus, the Marine Corps would be structured so as to offer “a new capability to project a quick-reaction insertion-capable force able to defeat mechanized opponents in mobile warfare.” 29

Why a Marine Corps?

As a result of critics such as Lind and Record and misgivings over the Vietnam War, the 1970s was a period of intense institutional self-examination on the part of the Marine Corps. General Anthony Zinni, a junior officer at the time who would command Central Command in the late 1990s, recalled “in 1974, ’75, and ’76, those of us within the Marine Corps recognized that we had to change. The battle was over how.” 30   Debates were on-going and took place in various forums, both formal and informal.  Marines ranging in rank from sergeant to general let their views be known on the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette and in other defense-related publications. In articles, speeches, and Congressional testimony, Marines made their case for why the nation should maintain a Marine Corps and what such a force should look like in the future.  In so doing, the service tried to match its traditional missions to the current strategic context.

In 1975, Commandant Louis Wilson convened the Haynes Board to “develop alternative force structures, concepts of employment, and disposition and deployment of Marine Corps forces through 1985.” 31  The Haynes Board Report provided a synopsis of how the Marine Corps envisioned its role within the national security establishment in the mid-1970s. Completed in 1976 and named for Major General Fred E. Haynes, Jr., the chair of the board, the report reinforced traditional roles while also recommending sweeping changes. It reaffirmed the basic structure of three active divisions and wings as well as the service’s naval character and amphibious orientation.

However, the board repeatedly recommended that the Marine Corps shift from low intensity conflict in Asia to mid to high intensity conflicts in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Like Lind and Record, the authors of the report concluded “today’s Fleet Marine Forces should be organized, trained, and equipped to engage an armor-heavy enemy in other than defensive combat.” Furthermore, each of the three alternative force structures they recommended called for increased firepower and mobility. The report envisioned tanks as “a ground-gaining maneuver element,” procurement of a dedicated infantry fighting vehicle, and improved antitank capabilities.  32

The Haynes Board Report, along with a plethora of articles and speeches by senior Marines, made it clear that the Marine Corps would base its future relevance on being the nation’s amphibious force in readiness.  First, geography made the need for expeditionary forces obvious. Other than a conflict with Mexico or Canada, any future conflict would involve sending U.S. forces overseas. Furthermore, in the event of a war with the Soviets, the seizure of geographic choke points such as the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz, or the Straits of Malacca would be critical. Second, amphibious forces could hover offshore and be inserted and extracted quickly, giving policymakers a degree of flexibility not offered by other forces. Their mode of transit eliminated the need for basing and over flight rights.  Using the sea as maneuver space also generated uncertainty in the eyes of possible adversaries; until Marines actually landed it was hard to determine where they were headed.  Third, amphibious forces offered a forcible entry capability and could fight their way ashore if necessary. Fourth, amphibious forces were equally comfortable on land, on sea, or in the air, thus they could bridge the gaps that existed amongst the other services which tended to think in terms of a single domain.   33  Commandant Wilson summed up the Marine Corps’ collective response to those who considered amphibious operations outdated when he told an interviewer, “critics had said that before. They were wrong then and just as wrong now.” 34

The Haynes Board recommended updating the definition of “amphibious operations” to bring it more in line with what Marines were doing in the latter half of the 20th century.  It was not so much that the concept was antiquated, but rather, that critics had an antiquated conception – think Sands of Iwo Jima – of amphibious operations. To start, the definition in joint doctrine should be changed from:

An attack launched from the sea by naval and landing forces, embarked in ships or craft involving a landing on a hostile shore.

To the more inclusive, but far wordier:

Operations conducted from the sea by naval and landing forces for the purpose of projecting US influence ashore into either a hostile or non-hostile environment. Amphibious operations can be conducted during peacetime, threatening crisis or war, to achieve political, military, and/or economic aims and may involve the landing of selected or total elements of the force, or an amphibious demonstration without landing.

Such a definition would cover the full range of military operations from general war to the evacuation of U.S. citizens and disaster relief. 32

Throughout the latter half of the 1970s, the Marine Corps spoke with a common voice regarding the strategic advantages of amphibious forces. By 1980, Headquarters Marine Corps had compiled and distributed to all general officers a four page list of talking points that not only refuted the various arguments against amphibious forces, but also offered no less than twenty possible scenarios that would require amphibious forces. 36

Central Command's Area of Responsibility (AOR) in 1983 and 1989 (Courtesy Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations)

Central Command’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) in 1983 and 1989 (Courtesy Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations)

Likewise, senior Marines refined and defended the force in readiness portion of their mission. According to General Haynes, while his team identified much room for improvement, the nation needed a crisis response force and Marines were the best candidates. General Haynes concluded, “the corps’ overall philosophy – i.e., seeing itself as posture for contingencies anywhere on the globe, with flexibility of force and a high degree of readiness – has remained unchanged and sound.” 37

Marines believed effective diplomacy required credible military force to back it up and U.S. interests required protecting, often on short notice.  As such, they had long billed themselves as most ready when the nation was least ready.  In 1978, for example, Commandant Louis Wilson told Congress, “[o]perational readiness is at the apex of our efforts. It is the cornerstone of our existence as a fighting military organization.” 38  In simple terms, military readiness was nothing more than a unit’s capacity for executing an assigned mission in a timely manner. The Corps’ focus on readiness was evidenced in its force laydown, expeditionary mindset, and principal organization – the air-ground task force.

In terms of force laydown, the Marine Corps was divided into three Marine Amphibious Forces (MAFs); one each on the East Coast, West Coast, and in Okinawa, Japan. Thus, it was well-positioned to access the oceans and continents of the world. Furthermore, since World War II, the Corps had contributed to the nation’s “forward defense” strategy by permanently maintaining smaller Marine Amphibious Units (MAUs) of approximately 2,000 Marines each; aboard ships in the Caribbean, Western Pacific, and Mediterranean seas. Along with aircraft carrier strike groups, MAUs were often the first entities Washington turned to when it sought to project power abroad or resolve a crisis short of war. The national command authority could order MAUs moved as it saw fit or instruct the Corps to reinforce them by means of a Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) or even the entire MAF. Of the options provided by amphibious forces afloat, General Al Gray, who would go on to become Commandant in 1987 said, “If the Navy and Marines had an amphibious task force off Norfolk one night, we could land anywhere from Long Island, New York, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the next morning.” 39

As for the Corps expeditionary mindset, Marines dating back to the turn of the 20th century had prided themselves on being able to pack-up and ship-out on short notice. Everything Marines own can be packed up and put aboard ship. On this topic, General Zinni remarked:

We are by our nature “expeditionary.” This means several things. It means a high state of readiness; we can go at a moment’s notice. It means our organization, our equipment, our structure, are designed to allow us to deploy very efficiently. We don’t take anything we don’t need. We’re lean. We’re slim, we’re streamlined. 40

By comparison, the U.S. Army of the 1970s was very much a garrison force geared towards permanently stationing large units where they were expected to be employed. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the Army organized itself around conventional armored warfare on Europe’s central front. 41  It wanted nothing to do with messy Third World conflicts and turned its back on contingency operations. Thus, the Marine Corps stood ready to do what the Army did not want to do. While Marines were certainly not satisfied with the experience of Vietnam, they recognized that these missions were not going away and stood ready to execute them. 42

Furthermore, the Marine Corps’ principal organization, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF; pronounced mag-taff), was designed with rapid response in mind.  MAGTFs grouped an air combat element, a ground combat element, and a combat service support element under a single commander.  They were flexible in that while the basic organization remained the same, the number, size, and types of units in each of the core elements could be adjusted based on mission requirements. They could also be formed, reinforced or disbanded on short-notice.  Integrating air and ground forces under a single commander enhanced combat effectiveness and proved remarkably versatile and responsive. According to one former commandant writing in 1976, MAGTF’s “represent the nation’s – and the world’s – only truly balanced ready force of combined arms, whose air and ground components are linked by training and tradition and are ready without lost motion or time-consuming last minute preparations.” 43   No inter-service coordination was required. Ultimately, the MAGTF construct ensured that the Marine Corps could respond to contingencies across the range of military operations.

In the process of responding to their critics, the Marine Corps leaders refined and articulated what it was they wanted their service to be, namely, “an elite air-ground force capable of global deployment”. Nevertheless, a clear sense of purpose was not enough to free up scarce dollars during the first three years of the Carter Administration. According to one Marine general, “you couldn’t sell the need for global power projection in the Pentagon prior to events in Iran, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua in 1979.” 44  It would take a major reorientation of national security policy for the Marine Corps to match its capabilities to strategic needs and get the dollars flowing again. The service would find its mission in the chaos and disorder of the Middle East.

Shifting Strategic Priorities

In the realm of national strategy, the Marine Corps’ main challenge in the mid-1970s lay in the fact that its capabilities were not matched to a specific adversary or problem set, as had been the case with Japan in the 1930s. The situation changed dramatically in the late 1970s.  Following the withdrawal of the British from their positions east of the Suez in 1971, the U.S. had relied on Iran to maintain stability in the Middle East. Civil unrest in that country beginning in 1978 eventually led to the fall of the Shah in early 1979. U.S. strategy was in disarray. Later, in December of that same year, at a time when 52 Americans were being held hostage in Tehran, the Soviet Union dispatched troops to Afghanistan. To U.S. policymakers, it appeared that the Middle East, a region whose oil supplies were vital to the West’s economy, was spinning out of control. To make matters worse, Washington was powerless to do anything about it. 45

Newsweek Cover - July 9, 1979 (via Newsweek/TheBlaze)

Newsweek Cover – July 9, 1979 (via Newsweek/TheBlaze)

The United States’ involvement in the Middle East had deepened over the course of the 20th century, mainly due to the region’s vast supplies of oil. The economic and strategic importance of Middle East oil cannot be overstated. In the opinion of Daniel Yergin, a leading historian of the oil industry, “oil has meant mastery throughout the twentieth century” because those who possessed it were often able to translate it into military, economic, and political power. 46   Modern warfare became totally dependent on oil and the internal combustion engine in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1970s, all major weapons systems, save nuclear powered carriers and submarines, ran on oil. Oil was equally important to the civilian economies of industrial nations. Following World War II, oil fueled nearly two decades of economic growth in the United States and Western Europe, leading one British official to refer to it as “the lifeblood of the economy;” while another regarded fossil fuels as “not ‘just another commodity,’ but the precondition of all commodities, a basic factor equally with air, water, and earth.” 47  As result of its strategic and economic importance, ensuring access to oil was one of the top concerns of U.S. policymakers.

The oil crisis of 1973 to 1974 highlighted the degree to which the United States and other industrial nations had come to depend on the unimpeded flow of Persian Gulf oil.  U.S. domestic oil production peaked in 1970. With consumption on the rise, the United States had to import more and more oil to meet ever-growing demand. U.S. imports rose from 23.2 percent in 1970 to 36.3 percent in 1973; at a time when the Middle East was providing 40 percent of total world supply. 48  In response to Washington’s support for Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) embargoed oil shipments to the United States and other Western nations, and cut production. The result was a quadrupling of oil prices. Another outcome of the crisis was that Western oil companies were forced to cede control of production and pricing to producing countries. Based on the 1973-74 oil crises, a number of observers concluded that the economic balance of power was shifting in favor of the developing world.  The price of oil skyrocketed from $3.29 in 1973 to $11.58 in 1974. 49  As the price of oil rose, so too did the prices of all petroleum based products from gasoline to plastics.

Beginning in earnest in 1974, many scholars, business leaders, and policymakers in the U.S. suggested using military force to ensure the flow of oil. Frustrated by America’s apparent weakness, they recommended military solutions. That these suggestions were being made so soon after Vietnam shows the degree to which rising energy prices negatively affected the domestic economy. In 1974 for example, Maxwell Taylor, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited the need for “flexible conventional forces” and “the threat or application of discriminating force” to deal with oil crisis-type scenarios. 50  Pieces appeared in journals ranging from the left-leaning Harper’s to the conservative Human Events advocating the seizure of Arab oil fields by force. As the decade wore on and the U.S. economy continued to sputter, arguments for the use of force abroad to serve economic ends became more sophisticated and predictions increasingly dire. A 1977 RAND report drew heavily on world-systems analysis to explain the interconnectedness of the global economy and the possibility that it would break down if the U.S. did not use force to manage it. 51

Unrest in Iran increased tensions in the Middle East, as did growing Soviet involvement. Iran had for two decades been one of America’s closest allies in the region and a leading oil producer. Occupied as it was with the Vietnam War, the administration of President Richard Nixon adopted a “Twin Pillars” strategy for maintaining stability in the Middle East. Nixon’s strategic vision called for regional actors to bear primary responsibility for their own defense.  In the case of the Middle East, those pillars were Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which received sizable arms transfers as well as other military and economic aid from the United States.  Of the two, however, Iran was by far the senior partner. Between FY 1950 and FY 1977, the Shah’s government purchased $10.7 billion in U.S. arms under the Foreign Military Sales Program, making Iran America’s number one arms customer during the period. According to a 1979 report by the Policy Studies Institute, the arms transfers accelerated under the Nixon Doctrine, with the President giving the Shah a “virtual carte blanche to purchase anything in the US arsenal except nuclear weapons.” Deliveries rose from $215 million in FY 1972 to a high of $2.8 billion in FY 1977. 52

The weakness of the strategy became apparent, however, when long simmering discontent with the Shah’s rule erupted into widespread civil unrest in early 1978.  With the country paralyzed by strikes and demonstrations, the Shah and the Iranian military became internally focused.  At roughly the same time that the situation in Iran was spinning out of the Shah’s control, pro-Soviet governments took power in Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Afghanistan, leading to increased Soviet military activity in the region, mainly in Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.  From Washington’s perspective, it appeared Soviet influence was growing at the same time that its regional ally was barely hanging on. 53  The situation came to a head in January 1979 when the Shah abdicated and fled the country; the radical Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power shortly thereafter and became head of a revolutionary government hostile to the U.S.

The political turmoil in Iran brought about a second oil crisis in 1979. The doubling of oil prices led to panic on the part of many U.S. consumers and long lines were seen at gas stations across the country. Between 1973 and 1979 the cost of oil per barrel had increased from $3.29 to $31.61. 54  With the U.S. economy seemingly at the mercy of events in the Middle East yet again, calls for the use of force to ensure energy supplies reached a crescendo. One edition of Business Week depicted the Statue of Liberty in tears on its cover. In an article entitled, “The Decline of U.S. Power,” the author argued:

Now there are signs of U.S. weakness everywhere, and cracks are appearing in the system. The policies set in motion during the Vietnam war are now threatening the way of life built since World War II. The military retreat that began with the defeat of the U.S. in a place that held no natural resources or markets now threatens to undermine the nation’s ability to protect the vital oil supply and the energy base of the global economy.” 55

To many Americans, a more activist foreign policy was the obvious solution to ensure access to vital markets and raw materials. Inaction would risk a further reduction in America’s economic standing in the world.

By 1979, a consensus had developed amongst American policymakers and the general public in support of a more direct role for the United States with respect to stability in the Middle East. Appearing on Face the Nation, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown told viewers, “The United States is prepared to defend its vital interests with whatever means are appropriate, including military force where necessary, whether that’s in the Middle East or elsewhere” and oil “is clearly part of our vital interest…I said and I repeat, that in the protection of those vital interests we’ll take any action that’s appropriate, including the use of military force.”  56  In congressional testimony, Secretary Brown compared the dangers of international economic disorder to the military threat posed by the Soviet Union. 57  The notion that the United States was coming out on the losing end of a resource competition with the developing world was echoed in policy papers, speeches, and journal articles.

General Robert H. Barrow (USMC History Division)

General Robert H. Barrow (USMC History Division)

Senior Marines wholeheartedly endorsed what Michael Klare, one of the few vocal critics of the approach, derisively referred to as the Brown Doctrine – military intervention as a means for dealing with disturbances in the global economy. 58  In a draft speech, Commandant Robert Barrow referred to the “traditional ‘have-not’ nations” of the Third World that possessed “the raw materials that give the superpowers their strength…these ‘have nots’ no longer seem to be content with the status quo.” Although he held that these nations should be treated fairly, he posited naval forces as the ideal antidote to instability, since much of the Third World was accessible by sea. 59  Junior officers echoed these assumptions in professional journals. According to one officer, “a lack of stability in distant parts of the world threatens the United States and, in our age of interdependence and transnational intercourse, also threatens global economic and security interests. Access to resources vital to our economy must be protected…a minimum world public and economic order system hinges upon stability.” 60  Another general officer predicted chaos in Western Europe and Japan should the flow of Persian Gulf oil be interrupted. Such views would eventually be taken as a given in Marine Corps planning documents, one of which began with, “…the unimpeded flow of Persian Gulf oil to the world market is vital to the economic stability and national security of the US and its allies.” 61

In the spring of 1979, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski began pressing for a new security framework for the Persian Gulf.  He envisioned something of enduring significance on par with the Truman Doctrine or NATO and called for a major strategic reorientation. In his estimation, America’s geostrategic concerns centered on three zones – Western Europe, Japan, and the Middle East – all of which were inextricably intertwined due to the first two being dependent on Middle East oil. That the latter region was part of what he considered an “arc of crisis” meant that it would require increasing involvement on the part of the U.S. going forward.  Brzezinski went so far as to predict that, “[it] is very likely that in the 1980s we will be involved in an unprecedented effort to assure stability, and therefore exercise deterrence, in the Persian Gulf.” 62

The Carter Administration’s concerns were not new. Two years earlier, during an initial security review in 1977, the administration identified a need for enhanced power projection capabilities, specifically in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.  The report’s authors considered the Persian Gulf region a likely trouble spot and were greatly concerned that, according to one declassified top-secret memorandum, of all the regions of the world, “the U.S. would face the greatest difficulty projecting power in the Middle East.” 63  It recommended the creation of a joint (four-service) force able to deploy rapidly in response to contingencies outside Europe and Korea.  The outcome was Presidential Directive 18 (PD-18) which ordered the Department of Defense to “maintain a deployment force of light divisions with strategic mobility independent of overseas bases and logistical support…These forces will be designed for use against both local forces and forces projected by the USSR based on analysis of requirements in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, or Korea.” 64

What became known as the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) never got off the ground, however, due to a lack of funding and disputes within the administration. According to historian Olav Njolstad, the initiative stagnated because the Department of State viewed the RDF as too provocative. For its part, the Department of Defense and the military services regarded it as a distraction and a drain on scarce resources. Although PD-18 is evidence that a shift was underway in U.S. defense priorities as early as 1977, at the time, according to William Odom, Brzesinki’s military assistant, the directive was simply ignored. 65  Although the Secretary of Defense would eventually direct the services to establish a task force focused on Southwest Asia on October 22, 1979, it would take two additional crises to get the project moving.

The situation in Iran went from bad to worse on November 4, 1979, when Iranian students supportive of the Islamic revolution took dozens of American diplomats hostage. The hostage crisis brought to the fore America’s severely limited military options in the region. In response, Brzezinski initiated a Special Coordination Committee (SCC) called the “Persian Gulf Security Framework SCC.”  The committee was tasked with finding ways to leverage America’s military, economic, diplomatic, and informational tools of national power to bring about favorable policy outcomes in the region. On Christmas Day 1979, only a few weeks after the formation of the committee, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Citing the need to defend a pro-Soviet Afghan government against rebels as justification, Soviet forces were in complete control of the Afghan government by December 28. 66  The invasion completely changed the strategic equation. It provided a sense of urgency and enabled proponents of more robust military capabilities to overcome bureaucratic opposition. From Washington’s perspective, it appeared the Soviets were making a play for regional hegemony and control of the region’s oil resources.

President Carter laid out his administration’s response in his State of the Union Address delivered on January 23, 1980: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”  Furthermore, “We are also improving our capability to deploy U.S. military forces rapidly to distant areas.”  67  The President regarded the invasion as a clear strategic threat that needed to be answered. He paired what became known as the Carter Doctrine with a request for increased defense spending of approximately $100 billion from 1981 to 1985, which he referred to “as a matter of fundamental policy.” 68   The morning after Carter’s speech, the Washington Post referred to the oil wells of the Gulf as “the heartbeat of Western civilization,” and noted that “For the first time since the high point of involvement in the Vietnam war a decade ago, the United States is increasing its military forces and security commitment in a far-away region rather than reducing them.” The article went on to describe Pentagon officials working feverishly to address the challenges of projecting power into the Middle East. 69

In the minds of policymakers, the geostrategic stakes could not have been higher. In one speech, President Carter told listeners: “In recent years it’s become increasingly evident that the well-being of those vital regions [Europe and Japan] and our own country depend on the peace, stability, and independence of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf area. Yet both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the pervasive and progressive political disintegration of Iran put the security of that region in grave jeopardy.” 70  The President’s sentiments were echoed by Secretary Brown in congressional testimony delivered in 1980: “what is at stake in the Persian Gulf is [the] economic and political well-being of the United States and its allies. If the industrialized nations of the world were deprived of access to the energy resources of the Gulf, the results…would very probably be [the] collapse of our allies and the world economy.” 71

Wreckage at Desert One, Iran (April 1980) where eight Americans died. (United States Special Operations Command History, 1987-2007)

Wreckage at Desert One, Iran (April 1980) where eight Americans died. (United States Special Operations Command History, 1987-2007)

At the time, however, the U.S. lacked the military capabilities needed to protect the interests identified by policymakers and to enforce the strategic commitments outlined in the Carter Doctrine.  Prior to 1980, the United States had interests in the Middle East, but limited capacity for projecting force. In the mid-1970s, for example, the Chief of Naval Operations, after reviewing military options in the Middle East concluded: “It becomes evident that there is little we can effectively accomplish in M.E. [the Middle East].” 72  This conclusion was borne out by the Desert One debacle, a failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Teheran that cost the lives of eight American servicemen in April of 1980.  The operation highlighted shortcomings in the areas of logistics, equipment, training, and command arrangements. In order to reach Teheran, the mission had to fly over 1000 miles from an aircraft carrier and refuel multiple times. In the end, it had to be aborted because too many aircraft were lost during the transit phase. According to William Odom, the U.S. was simply “unprepared to conduct major military operations in Southwest Asia and the broader Middle East.” 73

To remedy this deficiency, a renewed emphasis was placed on the RDF. During Carter’s final months in office, his administration produced two policy documents that represented a shift in Washington’s approach to the Middle East: Presidential Directive 62 (PD-62) – “Modifications in U.S. National Security” and PD-63 “Persian Gulf Security Framework.”  The former made it clear that a shift in strategic priorities had occurred. America’s allies in Europe in Asia would be expected to bear more of the burden while the U.S. redirected its attention to the Middle East. PD-62 also noted the need for increased spending on military readiness. One draft version stated, “the Persian Gulf shall have highest priority for improvement of strategic lift and general purpose forces in the Five Year Defense Plan.” 74  For its part, the Persian Gulf Security Framework took things a step further by outlining a number of security initiatives – basing and over-flight agreements, combined exercises, arms transfers, a joint command responsible for the region, and a rapid deployment capability – to enhance U.S. military options in the region. Upon learning of these policy statements, one analyst concluded, “The essence of Carter’s plan, when stripped of its less-developed political and diplomatic elements, is to improve the U.S. ability to project and sustain military power in this far-away, yet vital, area.” 69  In time, the U.S. would assume direct responsibility for ensuring stability in the region, becoming what one historian has referred to as the “guardian of the gulf.” 76

The Carter administration’s strategic pivot to the Middle East opened new opportunities for the Marine Corps. The service had long-prided itself on its readiness to conduct expeditionary operations. And while it had limited experience in the Middle East, the fact that much of the region was accessible from the sea played to the service’s amphibious orientation. Over the next several years, the Marine Corps would play a leading role in turning Carter’s strategic vision into a military reality.  Senior Marines presented the service’s capabilities as the solution to the administration’s most vexing foreign policy challenge, how to project military force into the region.

The Marine Corps and the Rapid Deployment Force

After much prodding from the White House, on October 22, 1979, Secretary Brown finally directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish a joint task force that would have operational planning, training, and exercise responsibility for rapidly deploying forces worldwide, but with a specific focus on Southwest Asia.  On November 01, 1979, it was determined that the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) would be a subordinate component of Readiness Command, the headquarters responsible for all general purpose forces based in the continental U.S.  On March 1, 1980, the RDJTF headquarters was established at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida under the command of Marine Lieutenant General Paul. X. Kelley. The challenges facing the new command lay primarily in the areas of strategic mobility and sustainability. Unlike previous wars typified by incremental build-ups, the RDF concept called for introducing massive combat power in the initial stages of a crisis. Political considerations, however, precluded the stationing of large numbers of U.S. troops in the region. Thus, the bulk of the forces would need to come from the United States.  The central question was how to quickly transport tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of combat ready troops to an area literally on the other side of the world. The Marine Corps, in helping to answer this question, infused the RDF with its ideas of strategic mobility and readiness, and in so doing, endeared itself to the administration.

As the RDF took shape in the fall of 1979, Marines were reluctant to participate. As they saw it, they already provided policymakers with such a force. Many Marines considered it yet another attempt by the other services, mainly the Army, to usurp one of the Marine Corps’ primary missions. Attitudes shifted quickly, however. In a speech to a group of retired officers, Commandant Barrow described the situation:

Now there are many people who said, why do we need another Rapid Deployment Force – isn’t the Marine Corps a Rapid Deployment Force? I even succumbed to a little bit of that thinking myself. Again, it became apparent that standing off on the sidelines and throwing rocks at it would not kill it if indeed it needed to be, but we were going to have something called a Rapid Deployment Force whether the Marines liked it or not. So then you make a conscious decision, let’s take it over. Let’s kind of ease in there and make it our game. 77

Some of the Corps’ leading minds provided rhetorical support for increased Marine involvement in the RDF.  According to Lieutenant Colonel William M. Krulak, a noted strategist and brother of future Commandant Charles C. Krulak, the service’s success in World War II was due to a singleness of purpose and a clear institutional focus.  However, it was time for change. The amphibious assault, a form of warfare better-suited to the sands of Pacific beaches, was no longer relevant to the current strategic environment.  To persuade his fellow Marines, Krulak relied on media reports as well as Secretary Brown’s FY 1980 budget testimony in favor of increased funding for non-European contingencies. Embracing the RDF mission would be an evolutionary development and ensure the long-term viability of the Marine Corps. It was imperative that the Marines “take positive steps to become the cutting edge of the Rapid Deployment Force…[it] is an idea whose time (and dollars) has come.”  This was the type of mission that would free up funds, seeing as it “is considered vital to national defense, and to the degree that the force levels justified for it can be determined, the resources necessary to support it become valid claimants on defense dollars.” 78

General Paul X. Kelley (USMC History Division)

General Paul X. Kelley (USMC History Division)

Once the Marine Corps’ leadership embraced the RDF mission, the service proved well-suited to the task at hand. In the process of developing the military capabilities to back up the administration’s strategic commitments, the Corps endeared itself to policymakers due to its actions in five areas. First, Marines believed in the mission. As mentioned above, senior Marines were in lock-step with civilian policymakers regarding the importance of oil to the world economy and the need for an intervention force to ensure its flow. The vocal support of highly decorated veterans was greatly appreciated by the embattled Carter administration, which was often perceived as being weak on defense.  Time and again in congressional testimony, interviews, and speeches, Marines echoed the concerns of President Carter, Secretary Brown, and National Security Advisor Brzezinski, often using the same statistics and phrases. 79

This singleness of purpose had much to do with the Marine Corps being “at a strategic crossroads” in the late 1970s, according to former Marine and senior defense official Bing West. 80   William Odom recalled the other services being reluctant. The Army and Air Force, for example, doubly committed forces to NATO and the RDF and gave the RDF mission a lower priority. In their defense, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had enduring missions in Europe and Asia as well as responsibility for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Marines, on the other hand, needed a mission and viewed the RDF as vital to their service’s future.  Thus, they were far more willing to adapt. Commandant Barrow stressed the relationship between the Marine Corps and the RDF in a package he sent to senior Marines. The packet included Secretary Brown’s speeches along with articles on the RDF and maritime prepositioning; recipients were instructed to share the contents with their subordinates.  In his cover letter, Barrow explained,

Since the Persian Gulf crisis erupted, there has been an increased interest and growing recognition of Marine Corps capabilities. Because of our readiness and ability to deploy quickly to the scene of a crisis, we can expect to assume an even greater role in the defense of our nation in the years ahead. The major role given to Marine forces assigned to the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) already affirms this…I view the decade of the 80s as an opportunity for our Corps to demonstrate its unique capabilities to the Nation and make a significant contribution to national security. 81

Its enthusiastic support for the mission led the Marine Corps to devote considerable intellectual effort to the problem of projecting force into the Middle East. For example, a list of studies sponsored by the Advanced Amphibious Study Group in the late 1970s indicates that the vast majority dealt with Middle East issues, such as the suitability of landing beaches in Kuwait, evacuating civilians from the region, the challenges of forcible entry and so on. 82  While the Army and Air Force were preparing for war in Europe, the Marine Corps focused its planning efforts and training on desert operations.

Second, the Marine Corps worked closely with administration officials to craft solutions to strategic mobility related challenges.  From its inception, the RDF was plagued by deficiencies in strategic mobility, defined as the ability to deploy and sustain military forces over great distances in support of policy objectives.  Few areas of the world are further from the United States than the Persian Gulf.  The tyranny of distance was compounded by the relative austerity of the theater and the lack of bases in the region; desert warfare is logistically intensive and requires vast supply networks to support operations. On strategic mobility, P.X. Kelley commented: “To the best of my knowledge, we have never, in 205 years of our history, attempted to rapidly project and sustain a force as sizable as the RDJTF over such vast distances. In contrast, Vietnam involved a relatively slow, incremental build-up over years – not days or weeks.” 83  Nevertheless, for the RDF to support policy objectives, it needed to be able to get to the region in question and operate effectively there.

Headquarters Marine Corps made good on its promised readiness and strategic mobility by working with civilian officials within the DoD to bring the Maritime Prepositioning Ships (MPS) Program to fruition. The program, initiated in late 1979 as part of the Five Year Defense Plan, involved loading military equipment and supplies on government-owned, but civilian operated, cargo ships and prepositioning them in the vicinity of potential trouble spots. In the event of a crisis, Marines could be airlifted to the region, marry up with their gear, and conduct combat operations within a matter of days. 84  By 1984, the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) consisted of three squadrons that each carried enough equipment and supplies to support three 16,000-man brigades.

Third, Marines stressed that the geography of the region was particularly well-suited to amphibious forces.  Much of the region was accessible by sea and it included two of the world’s most strategically important waterways, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, political and cultural concerns precluded permanent U.S. garrisons and made coordinating overflight and basing arrangements difficult. Amphibious forces, on the other hand, offered flexibility and a light footprint. Unlike in Europe and Korea, in the Middle East U.S. policymakers could not be certain where the next crisis would take place, and thus flexibility was at a premium. Moreover, the forcible entry capability of amphibious forces was essential to the RDF and MPF concepts. There was no guarantee that friendly ports and airfields would be available where and when they were needed. If necessary, Marines could seize the infrastructure needed to introduce follow-on forces.

Fourth, the Marine Corps’ expeditionary mindset and emphasis on readiness was directly applicable to the rapid deployment mission. As the name indicates the intent for rapid deployment forces was that they move quickly. General Barrow stressed the Marine Corps’ readiness to fight on short notice:

[Readiness] is our bread and butter in the Marine Corps. It is our credibility with the American public and with Congress that we are to be ready as a state of mind… We are ready in the truest sense of the word… within minutes we could put forces in motion. Ready to go quickly to the points of embarkation and ready to fight at the other end. 85

Barrow’s claims were supported by Department of Defense readiness ratings that were calculated on the basis of four criteria – personnel, amount of equipment, quality of equipment, and training. At the time the RDF was established, 70 percent of Marine Corps units were rated as combat ready as compared to 37 percent for Army units. One analyst described the Army’s condition as “pervasive operational unreadiness.” 86  Furthermore, all Army units assigned to the RDF for planning purposes were already earmarked for NATO contingencies. In order to fight the Soviets, most of these units were tank-heavy and rather slow and ponderous in terms of strategic mobility, so slow that Senator Sam Nunn joked that the Army’s attempt at a “fast-deployment force…should be more appropriately called the last deployment force.” 87   By comparison, General Barrow told Congress that the entire Corps was ready to support the RDF if ordered. 88

Finally, the Marine Corps past experiences and basic organizing principle, air-ground task forces – were ideally suited to joint operations. As stipulated by Secretary Brown, the RDF was to include representation from all four services. For most of their histories, the Army and Navy existed in relative isolation from one another. The Marine Corps acted as something of a bridge with a foot in both camps.  General Kelley, a well-respected officer who served two tours in Vietnam as both a battalion and regimental commander, was unusual, in that during his career he had served tours with the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

Kelley stressed the importance of joint operations from the outset. Upon taking command of the RDF, he defined the mission of his headquarters as follows:

…to plan the employment of designated forces, to jointly train and exercise them, and to ultimately deploy and employ them in response to contingencies threatening U.S. interests anywhere in the world. In essence, to provide the essential command and control that will bring together, in a synergistic way, the capabilities of the four services. 89

Previously, no single commander had been responsible for U.S. military activities related to the Middle East. The Unified Command Plan, the document that divides the world into different areas of responsibility and assigns them to commanders, split the Middle East region between European Command, typically headed by the Army; and Pacific Command, a Navy run organization. The Middle East was not a top priority for either command. Furthermore, had responsibility been given to the Army or Navy, it most likely would have led to allegations that one was trying to gain an advantage over the other. Placing a Marine in charge, it was hoped, would minimize inter-service squabbling.

From the outset, it was intended that the RDF be much more “joint” than the other commands. According to General Kelley, the RDF was “the only group in this country whose current, fulltime activities focus on joint and combined combat operations.” 90  Along these same lines, Marine General George Crist, Commander in Chief, United States Central Command, the successor organization to the RDF, described his mission as driving “different communities to work together until they come up with joint procedures that produce a cohesive team.” 91  In light of the distances involved, it was imperative that the services cooperate to achieve policy objectives in the region. Of the services, the Marine Corps was arguably the best prepared to lead such an effort.

Moreover, General Kelley organized the RDF in accordance with MAGTF principles. He insisted that air and ground elements as well as the service components plan and train as a team. As Kelley was fond of pointing out, his headquarters was the first permanent peacetime headquarters with representation from all the services. 92  While all the services contributed to the effort, the Marine Corps’ joint focus played an invaluable role in easing the turbulence associated with forming a new command. In addition, similar to the MAGTF, scalability or the “building-block principle” as Kelley referred to it, defined the RDF from its inception. 93   Scalability allowed for the tailoring of forces to meet different policy objectives, which was exactly what the White House wanted. At the strategic level, the RDF’s value as a deterrent hinged on its ability to integrate and task organize elements of each of the services into a balanced and effective force of combined arms.

By 1981, the Marine Corps had so successfully adapted its capabilities to the challenge that one analyst referred to it as “the core” of the RDF.  94  The part played by the Corps in turning the RDF from concept into reality was appreciated by senior policymakers. In a sense, the sudden need for rapidly deployable forces brought about by the Iranian Revolution and Soviet takeover of Afghanistan led to what General Barrow referred to as a rediscovery of the Corps. 95   Secretary Brown, who was known to joke about not needing a Marine Corps in 1977 and 1978, asked Congress to increase the service’s budget in late 1979. 96   By embracing the RDF mission, the Marine Corps benefited significantly from the spending associated with it.

In late 1979, President Carter submitted his first spending requests that represented real increases in military spending; most of the increases targeted Persian Gulf issues. Arnold Punaro, a Marine reservist and legislative aide to Senator Sam Nunn, noted that the Corps was slated to get the bulk of the funding associated with the rapid deployment mission. He went on to say that due to its capabilities in this regard, “The Marine Corps is the force for the Eighties.” 97  In the end, the service avoided a planned manpower reduction and its budget grew by 10 percent in FY 1981 and another 30 percent in FY 1982. 98  The Marine Corps’ newfound strategic purpose, and the spending associated with it, led General Barrow to predict the 1980s would be “a kind of golden era” in comparison to the mid-1970s. 99    Along these same lines, one analyst wrote, “…the USMC has been given a new lease on life, largely because of public concern over the ability of U.S. military forces to deploy rapidly and fight in potential trouble spots around the world.” 100  By 1980, even Jeffrey Record admitted that the Marines had made enormous progress since his Bookings study four years earlier. 101


On January 01, 1983, the RDF officially became Central Command (CENTCOM), a permanent unified combatant command.  Although there were initial growing pains, an astonishing increase in power projection capabilities had been achieved in less than a decade. The Gulf War of 1990 to 1991 demonstrated the dramatic increase in strategic mobility achieved by the Marine Corps and validated the Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) concept. Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. On August 7, the 1st MEB in Hawaii, the 7th MEB in California, and the 4th MEB in North Carolina were alerted for possible deployment. On August 8, MPS Squadron 2 sailed from Diego Garcia and MPS Squadron 3 sailed from Guam. On August 12, the first of 7th MEBs 17,000 Marines boarded passenger planes with nothing but their individual equipment.  Less than two days later, on August 14, members of 7th MEB began unloading their gear from MPS Squadron 2 at the port of Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia. By August 20, ground elements of the 7th MEB occupied initial defensive positions and on August 25, the 7th MEB was fully operational. The Marine Corps, assisted by the Air Force and Navy, had moved 17,000 Marines 12,000 miles, their vehicles and supplies 2,800 miles, and integrated both into a combat-ready formation in less than two weeks. 102    The Marine Corps’ high state of readiness was evidenced by the fact that it provided the first combat-ready brigades without having to call-up a single reservist. 103  The service’s contribution eventually totaled 92,990 personnel, 372 aircraft, 268 tanks, 532 amtracks, 302 LAVs, and 216 artillery pieces, making Desert Shield/Desert Storm the largest operation in Marine Corps history. 104

Central Command AOR

Central Command AOR

Never before had the Marine Corps moved so many men and so much equipment so far so fast.  Former Commandant Barrow credited maritime prepositioning: “the MPS was probably the number one star in the early days of the Desert Shield operation.” 105   The 7th MEB had established itself in a matter of days. All subsequent units build-on it through compositing. Furthermore, it had only taken two days for the lead elements of the 7th MEB to get from the West Coast of the United States to their equipment in Saudi Arabia. By comparison, the 4th MEB, embarked aboard Amphibious Ready Group Two, took three weeks to sail from the East Coast to the Gulf of Oman. If not for the MPF program, the entire Marine component would have had to rely on sea transit. According to Colonel Turley, MPF in Desert Shield demonstrated that “closing times to almost any point on the globe could now be achieved in five to seven days from the notice to deploy.” 106  In 1979, Headquarters Marine Corps had firmly committed the service to the rapid deployment and prepositioning mission. The Desert Shield deployment made this decision appear remarkably prescient in hindsight.

Although the formation of the RDF was a collective endeavor involving civilian officials and all four services, the Marine Corps’ contributions proved instrumental in bringing the project to fruition. Over time, the strategic relevance of the Marine Corps grew along with the importance of the RDF and CENTCOM.  At the time the RDF was formed, the services agreed the command’s top position would be filled by Army and Marine generals on a rotating basis. The command thus provided a stepping stone to positions of greater influence for senior Marines. Prior to 1980, Marines simply did not serve in top positions. Thirty years later, they are arguably overrepresented in strategic-level policymaking, having served as Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as combatant commanders on eight separate occasions.

In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the events described above sheds light on an important post-Vietnam debate. As a result of the Vietnam War, Americans were deeply divided over the role of military force in their country’s foreign relations. On one side, were those who believed the war had been a mistake, an example of what can occur when military solutions are offered for problems that are fundamentally political or economic in nature. Simply put, intervening in another nation’s affairs was morally wrong. On the other side were those who felt the war had been a noble cause, one that had deserved the full support of the American people. In their opinion, the national interest was best served by a muscular foreign policy and a willingness to use force abroad. For the former, what became known as the Vietnam Syndrome was a positive development; policymakers should be reluctant to intervene militarily. For the latter, the Vietnam Syndrome was something to be overcome; America’s commitments must be backed by military force.

Activist and author Michael Klare, one of only a handful of outspoken critics of the RDF, argued that its formation marked the end of the Vietnam Syndrome. Although most senior Marines in the 1970s had served in Vietnam and were in some way dissatisfied with American strategy, their attitudes toward the RDF supported Klare’s argument.  They viewed military interventions as essential components of foreign policy. One major wrote that it was a “truism” amongst his fellow officers that timely interventions had a “deterrent effect.” 107  For his part, General Barrow held that arguments against ready forces were “the ultimate in ridiculousness,” similar to doing away with fire departments under the misguided notion that fires would just go away. 108   On the military necessity of a “pre-emptive strategy,” General Kelley averred that “once you get a force into an area that is not occupied by the other guy, then you have changed the whole calculus of the crisis, and he must react to you, and you not to him.” 109   The general also subscribed to the notion that the Third World was America’s to win or lose. Success would at times require firm military action. To do otherwise would be to “let it [the Third World] slip through our fingers.” 84

While the question of whether or not rapidly deployable forces deter or escalate conflicts continues to be hotly debated, what is clear is that the Marine Corps played a central role in making such forces a reality. As one Marine turned historian put it, although policymakers made the decisions to intervene, “[t]he Marines’ force-in-readiness was a fundamental enabler of that habit.” 111  For good or ill, the United States “kicked” the Vietnam Syndrome as President George H.W. Bush put it; and it was due, in large part, to the efforts of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The events described above also highlight the importance of oil in U.S. foreign policy. Concerns over Middle East oil supplies led directly to a shift in strategic priorities. Stability in the Middle East was put on par with the security of Japan and Western Europe. The Carter Doctrine committed the United States to use force to ensure the flow if Persian Gulf oil. The creation of the RDF, the military instrument needed to back Carter’s commitment, was a radical shift in U.S. military strategy and one of the most significant events in U.S.-Middle East relations in the past thirty years. Prior to the RDF, President Franklin Roosevelt was the only president to authorize combat operations in the region. By contrast, every president from Reagan to Obama has found cause to do so.

Although it is easy to find fault with policymakers for failing to foresee the pitfalls of their Middle East strategy, it is important to remember that the creation of the RDF enjoyed not just the wholehearted support of the Marine Corps, but the general public as well.  The need for an RDF inspired very little debate; in light of the events of 1979, it was taken as a given. Those debates that did take place were over how strong to make it.  The reason the RDF went from concept to reality in only a few months was because a general consensus formed around the need for enhanced military capabilities in the Middle East.  The Carter administration’s security initiatives were endorsed by congressmen on both sides of the aisle, as well as military leaders, and were later adopted by the Reagan administration. As one congressional staffer described it, everything about U.S. security policy changed after the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  84   With hostages appearing on the news every night, gas prices rising, and Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the American people believed their way of life and American prestige was being threatened and they demanded action.  Thus, the RDF highlights the link between domestic politics and the nation’s foreign policy.

From the end of the Vietnam War through early 1979, the Marine Corps went through a period of intense outside criticism and institutional soul-searching. While great effort was put into justifying its existence, were it not for turmoil in the Middle East, the Marine Corps most likely would have been reduced in size. In the event, national security objectives changed and the Marine Corps’ leaders matched their service’s capabilities to the new challenges. By playing a leading role in the RDF, the leadership of the Marine Corps ensured the service’s continued strategic relevance and the funding that came along with it. In the end, the institution had to adapt in order to survive. Marines entered the 1980s with a clear strategic focus. They knew they were the nation’s force-in-readiness and that the Middle East was the most likely theater.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)

FullSizeRenderNathan Packard received a B.A. in history from the College of the Holy Cross and completed his Ph.D. in History at Georgetown University. He is on the faculty of the Naval War College as a Fleet Professor and  serves as a reserve officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was awarded the Society for Military History’s First Manuscript Prize and the Secretary of the Navy Innovation Fellowship in 2015.

  1. William S. Lind and Jeffrey Record, “Twilight for the Corps?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (July 1978):39-43.
  2. White Letter No. 9-80, “Events in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia,” April 22, 1980, Speeches and Talks, Box 23, Barrow Papers, Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections, Quantico VA [hereafter MCA
  3. LtCol Kenneth R. Burns, USMC, “Mobilization Studies Program Report – Marine Corps Warfighting Capability: A Comparison Between the Periods 1977-1980 and 1981-1984,” Research Report for the College of the Armed Forces, March 1985, 17.
  4. See David S. Painter, “From the Nixon to the Carter Doctrine,” in Robert Lifset, ed., American Energy Policy in the 1970s (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 61-92 for a discussion of the shift from the Nixon to the Carter Doctrine.
  5. Samuel Huntington, “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” Proceedings (May 1954).
  6. Section 206 (c), National Security Act of 1947, Public Law 253, 80th Congress; Chapter 343, 1st Session, July 26, 1947, S. 758. The Key West Agreement of 1948, and the Douglas-Mansfield Act of 1952of 1952 further solidified the Corps’ amphibious role. See Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Functions of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” April 21, 1948 and (Public Law 416, 82d Congress)
  7. Section 206 (c), National Security Act of 1947.
  8. Quoted in Millett, Semper Fidelis, 500.
  9. Colonel James Donovan, “The Military Continues to Prepare for World War II,” The Washington Monthly, December 1971.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Richard Nixon: “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 22, 1970, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, accessed August 15, 2014,
  12. James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7-10.
  13. Burns, “Mobilization Studies Program Report,” Table 1 and Figures 4 and 5, 34-39 and Harold Brown, Department of Defense Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1982 (Washington, D.C., GPO, 1981), 170.
  14. Comptroller General of the United States, Marine Amphibious Forces: A Look at Their Readiness, Role, and Mission (Washington, D. C.: General Accounting Office, 1979), 58.
  15. Allan R. Millet, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 608.
  16. Martin Binkin and Jeffrey Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here? (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1976). William S. Lind, “A proposal for the Corps: Mission and force structure,” Marine Corps Gazette (December 1975): 12-16. Lind and Record, “Twilight for the Corps?”
  17. Senators Robert Taft Jr. and Gary Hart, with the assistance of William S. Lind, “White Paper on Defense: A Modern Military Strategy for the United States,” Washington, D.C., May 15, 1978, 85.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Lind and Record, “Twilight for the Corps?,” 39.
  20. Binkin and Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here?, 30.
  21. Lind, “A proposal for the Corps,” 13.
  22. Annual Defense Report, FY 1976 and FY1977, Report of Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger to the Congress on the FY 1976 and Transition Budgets, FY 1977 Authorization Request and FY 1976-1980 Defense Programs (February 5. 1975), III-26. Quoted in Binkin and Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here?, 1.
  23. Owen Edwards, “Marines in Doubt: Are We Ready for a Crisis?” Saturday Review, January 19, 1980, 15.
  24. Congressional Research Service, United States/Soviet Military Balance (Washington, D. C.: GPO, 1976).  An analysis of how the report’s findings effected the Marine Corps can be found in Major General Fred Haynes, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), “The Marines Through 1999,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (September, 1976): 25-33.
  25. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations,  Department of Defense Appropriations for 1979: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on the Department of Defense, 95th Cong., 2nd sess, 1978, Part I, 584-585, 606-607, 646-647; Part II, 333-334.
  26. Estimates place Israeli losses at 400 tanks destroyed, 600 damaged, and 102 planes lost; the Arabs lost 2,300 tanks and between 300 and 500 aircraft. By comparison the Marine Corps had 450 tanks in its entire inventory as of 1975 and many of these were outdated or in long-term storage (Binkin and Record, Where Does the Marine Corps Go from Here?, p. 83). For more see Edgar O’Ballance, No Victor, No Vanguished: The Arab-Israeli War, 1973 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997).
  27. Lind and Record, “Twilight for the Corps?,” 40.
  28. Ibid. and Lind, “A proposal for the Corps,” 14.
  29. Lind, “A proposal for the Corps,” 16.
  30. Tom Clancy with General Tony Zinni (Ret.) and Tony Koltz, Battle Ready (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2004), 144.
  31. “United States Marine Corps, Mission and Force Structure Study,” Studies and Reports, Force Structure Studies, 1971-1975, MCA (hereafter cited as Haynes Board Force Structure Report).
  32. Haynes Board Force Structure Report.
  33. Representative articles from the period are Gen. Robert Cushman, Jr., USMC (Ret.), “The Marine Corps Today: Asset or Anachronism?” International Security 1, no. 2 (Fall 1976): 123-129, Col. John L. Tobin, USMC (Ret.), “Why Have a Marine Corps?” Marine Corps Gazette (June 1975): 28-40, LtCol Gerald L. Ellis and Maj Gerald J. Keller, “No doubt; the U.S. needs amphibious forces,” Marine Corps Gazette (February 1978): 27-34.
  34. Louis Wilson interview with Ike Pappas for CBS in November, 1975. Quoted in David H. White, “General Louis H. Wilson, 26th Commandant of the Marine Corps, 1975 to 1979 (paper prepared for presentation at the 7th Annual Naval History Symposium, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, September 27, 1985).
  35. Haynes Board Force Structure Report.
  36. “Point Paper #318-80: VIABILITY OF AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT,” August 29, 1980, Studies and Reports Collection, Conferences, General Officer’s Symposium (August 1980), Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections, Quantico, VA. The paper addressed topics ranging from the use of amphibious forces across the conflict spectrum, from nuclear war to small-scale interventions. It also covered possible Marine Corps missions on every continent save Antarctica.
  37. Haynes, “The Marines Through 1999,” 27.
  38. Louis Wilson, “Third Annual State of the Corps Message to Congress.” Reprinted in Gen Louis H. Wilson, “CMC reports on meeting the challenges of future battlefields,” Marine Corps Gazette (April 1978): 21.
  39. Benjamin F. Schemmer, “Marine Amphibious Assault Forces Get Big Boost in New Defense Plan,” Armed Forces Journal International (April 1982): 80.
  40. Clancy, Zinni, and Koltz, Battle Ready, 143.
  41. US Army, FM 100-5 Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1976). Additional information on army’s approach can be found in Paul H. Hebert, Deciding What Has to Be Done: General William E. DePuy and the 1976 Edition of FM 100-5, Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1988).
  42. Michael J. Stanley, Jr., “Vietnam: Failure to Follow the Principles of War,” MCG (August 1977) pp. 56-62. David Fitzgerald, Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (Stanford University Press: Stanford Security Studies, 2013).
  43. Cushman, The Marine Corps Today, 127. The MAGTF was formalized by the publishing of Marine Corps Order 3120.3 – “The Marine Corps in the National Defense, MCDP 1-0” in December 1963.
  44. Maj. Thomas C. Linn, USMC, “Amphibious Warfare: A Misunderstood Capability,” Armed Forces Journal International (August, 1987): 91.
  45. Olav Njolstad, “Shifting Priorities: The Persian Gulf in US Strategic Planning in the Carter Years,” Cold War History 4, no. 3 (April 2004): 21–55 and William Odom, “The Cold War Origins of the U.S. Central Command, Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (Spring 2006): 52-82.
  46. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 12 and 773.
  47. Yergin, 544 and 559.
  48. David Painter, “Oil and the American Century,” Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (June 2012): 33.
  49. British Petroleum, “Oil Crude Prices since 1861/Historical Data Workbook),” Statistical Review of World Energy, 2014, accessed August 1, 2014,
  50. And Maxwell Taylor, “The Legitimate Claims of National Security,” Foreign Affairs (April, 1974): 586.
  51. Guy Pauker, Military Implications of a Possible World Order Crisis in the 1980s, Report No. R-20030-AF (Santa Monica: RAND, 1977). For other examples see Robert W. Heinl, “Thinking the Unthinkable on Military Takeover of Arab Oil Fields,” Human Events (November 23, 1974), Miles Ignotus, “Seizing Arab Oil,” Harper’s (March. 1975): 45-62, John M. Collins and Clyde R. Mark, “Oil Fields as Military Objectives: A Feasibility Study, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, August 1975 and John M. Collins and Clyde R. Mark, “Petroleum Imports from the Persian Gulf: Use of U.S. Armed Force to Ensure Supplies,” Issue Brief, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, May 21, 1979.
  52. Department of Defense, Foreign Military Sales, Foreign Military Construction Sales and Other Security Cooperation Historical Facts, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, September 30, 2012, 268 and  Institute for Policy Studies, Background Information on the Crisis in Iran (Institute for Policy Studies. Washington, 1979).
  53. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), “Chapter 10: The Fall of the Shah” and “Chapter 12: The Carter Doctrine.”
  54. British Petroleum, “Oil Crude Prices since 1861.”
  55. “The Decline of U.S. Power,” Business Week, March 12, 1979.
  56. Richard Halloran, “2 Aides Say U.S. Will Defend Oil Interests in Mideast,” New York Times, February 26, 1979. Michael Klare, Beyond the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’: U.S. Interventionism in the 1980s (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981), 16.
  57. Michael Klare, Beyond the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’: U.S. Interventionism in the 1980s (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1981), 16.
  58. Ibid., 19.
  59. “Draft of CMC Barrow speech to Defense Orientation Conference,” 25 September, 25, 1981, “Speeches 1981-1982,” Box 23, Barrow Papers, MCA.
  60. David A. Quinlan, “The Marine Corps as a Rapid Deployment Force,” Marine Corps Gazette (March 1980).
  61. Advanced Amphibious Working Group, “Concept Paper: Strategy, Rapid Deployment, and the Fleet Marine Force,” May 1981, Studies and Reports, AASG Concept Papers/Working Papers, 1981-1985, MCA, 1. And P. X. Kelley, “Progress in the RDJTF,” Marine Corps Gazette (June 1981).
  62. Strobe Talbott, “Preserving the Oil Flow: The U.S. Seeks to Shore Up Security in the Persian Gulf,” Time, September 22, 1980.
  63. Brzezinski to Carter, 30 March 1979, quoted in Olav Njolstad, “Shifting Priorities,” 21–55.
  64. Presidential Directive (PD)-18, “National Security,” August 24, 1977, Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Presidential Directives Collection.
  65. Odom, “The Cold War Origins of the U.S. Central Command,” 58.
  66. Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 306-326.
  67. Jimmy Carter, “The State of the Union Address Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress,” January 23, 1980.
  68. George. C. Wilson, “Carter is Converted To a Big Spender On Defense Projects,” Washington Post, January 29, 1980.
  69. Don Oberdorfer, “The Evolution of a Decision: Behind a new Policy: Oil, Crisis and a Year of Deliberations,” Washington Post, January 24, 1980.
  70. Jimmy Carter, Address Before World Affairs Council, Philadelphia, PA, May 9, 1980.
  71. Jeffrey Record, The Rapid Deployment Force and U.S. Military Intervention in the Persian Gulf (Cambridge, MA: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Inc, 1983), 1.
  72. Quoted in Michael A. Palmer. Guardians of the Gulf: A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833-1992 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 100.
  73. Odom, “The Cold War Origins of the U.S. Central Command,” 52.
  74. Njolstad, “Shifting Priorities,” 44-46.
  75. Don Oberdorfer, “The Evolution of a Decision: Behind a new Policy: Oil, Crisis and a Year of Deliberations,” Washington Post, January 24, 1980.
  76. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf.
  77. “CMC, General Robert H. Barrow, Speech, Retired Officers’ Luncheon,” March 18, 1980, Speeches and Talks, Barrow Papers, MCA.
  78. LtCol William M. Krulak, “The U.S. Marine Corps: Strategy for the Future,” Proceedings/Naval Review (1980): 102-103.
  79. “CMC, General Robert H. Barrow, Speech, Retired Officers’ Luncheon,” March 18, 1980, Speeches and Talks, Barrow Papers, MCA.  P. X. Kelley, “Rapid Deployment: A Vital Trump,” Parameters XI, no. 1 (March 1981): 50-53 and Kelley, “Progress in the RDJTF.”
  80. Bing West, “Marines for the Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (February 1978): 42.
  81. White Letter No. 9-80, “Events in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia,” April 22, 1980, Speeches and Talks, Barrow Papers, MCA.
  82. “Memorandum for the Director, Development Center, MCDEC,” 16 November 1978, Advanced Amphibious Study Group Papers, MCA.
  83. P.X. Kelley, “Progress in the RDJTF,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1981, p. 39.
  84. George C. Wilson, “Marines to Form Rapid Reaction Force,” Washington Post, December 6, 1979.
  85. CMC Robert Barrow, “The Role of the Marine Corps in a Changing World,” undated, Speeches and Talks, Barrow Papers.
  86. Jeffrey Record, The Rapid Deployment Force and U.S. Military Intervention in the Persian Gulf (Cambridge, MA: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Inc, 1983), 36.
  87. Ibid., 56.
  88. Ibid., 52-53.
  89. Ibid., 52.
  90. Kelley, “Progress in the RDJTF,” 38.
  91. John C. Scharfen, “Interview with Gen George B. Crist, Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command,” Marine Corps Gazette (December 1986): 37.
  92. Kelley, Parameters, 48.
  93. Kelley, “Rapid Deployment: A Vital Trump,” 52.
  94. R. Lopez, “The United States Marine Corps in the 1980s,” International Defense Review 14, no. 4 (May 1981): 433.
  95. Ibid.,” 438.
  96. Burns, “Mobilization Studies Program Report,” 30.
  97. Edwards, “Marines in Doubt,” 19.
  98. Burns, “Mobilization Studies Program Report,” 60.
  99. “CMC Barrow to Retired Officers’ Luncheon,” 18 March 1980.
  100. Burns, “Mobilization Studies Program Report,” 43.
  101. Edwards, “Marines in Doubt,” 18.
  102. “February 1991- U.S. Marines in Desert Shield: Getting There,” Box 48, Gray Papers (Part II), MCA. See also Office of the Secretary of Defense, Final Report to Congress: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1992), 384-385.
  103. Ibid., BGen Edwin H. Simmons, “Breaching the So-Called Impenetrable Barrier,” Marine Corps Gazette (November 1998), and Millet, Semper Fidelis, 636-640.
  104. Ibid. See Simmons, “Breaching the Impenetrable Barrier,” 89, for specific numbers.
  105. Barrow Oral History (Session 15).
  106. Turley, Journey of a Warrior, 191.
  107. Quinlan, “The Marine Corps as a Rapid Deployment Force.”
  108. “Address of General Robert H. Barrow, Commandant of the Marine Corps to the Federal Procurement Conference at San Diego, CA,” 10 September 1979, Speeches and Talks, Barrow Papers, MCA.
  109. General P. X. Kelley, Speech at the Pentagon, June 18, 1980, quoted in Klare, Beyond the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, 77.
  110. George C. Wilson, “Marines to Form Rapid Reaction Force,” Washington Post, December 6, 1979.
  111. Aaron B. O’Connell, Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 254.
  112. George C. Wilson, “Marines to Form Rapid Reaction Force,” Washington Post, December 6, 1979.

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View from the Quarterdeck: January 2015


In 1950 Samuel Flagg Bemis, long-time Sterling Professor of Diplomatic History and Inter-American Politics at Yale, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography with his book entitled John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. A decade later Bemis would serve as President of the American Historical Association. Bemis and others long identified JQA as one of, if not the greatest, of American Secretaries of State. In this monumental study, Bemis, frequently referred to as the “founding father” of Diplomatic History in the United States, identified what he referred to as traditional American foreign policies. From his study he concluded these policies were generally pursued by all American Presidents, regardless of political party affiliation. Among these policies was Freedom of the Seas, normally favored by nations with small navies. The United States espoused just such a policy from the time of the American Revolution, when the nation had but a fledgling naval power as compared to Great Britain or France, even into the current century. More recently, Charles N. Edel, in his provocative biography John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic, has demonstrated convincingly that Adams was instrumental as the central architect of a grand strategy that shaped America’s rise.

For decades Americans viewed their ocean barriers as essentially providing what historian C. Vann Woodward referred to as “free security.” They concluded that having a small Navy could be made up for in time of war by privateering. With the early growth of an American merchant fleet, however, the issue of seizing private property at sea became somewhat more problematical for the young nation. Michael J. Crawford is Senior Historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC. His article, “Taking the Moral High Ground: The United States, Privateering, and Immunity of Private Property at Sea.” examines these issues in detail. He traces for us the origins and evolution of U.S. policy on privateering and immunity of private property at sea. The issues are more complex than at first blush, as American entry into World War I in 1917 attests.

For centuries most mariners have exhibited a profound, almost instinctive disgust for the scourge of piracy. Robert C. McCabe’s article, “The Development of Modern Counter-piracy Initiatives in Southeast Asia, 1979-1999,” offers thoughtful analysis of contemporary piracy. He demonstrates that while operations off the Somali coast have “placed the issue of piracy firmly in the media and public spotlight . . . it was the waterways of Southeast Asia . . .that played host to the first significant upsurge of contemporary maritime privacy.” He recounts for us how Vietnamese boat refugees in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea in the later 1970s and throughout the 1980s were further victimized by a series of violent and concentrated attacks while attempting to flee conditions of the war in their homeland. McCabe also advances the interesting idea that the late 20th Century demonstrates a cyclical pattern of maritime piracy.

Keith McLay’s “Swimming in the “Fishpond” or Solidarity with the ‘Beresfordian Syndicate’: An Analysis of the Inquiry by the Subcommittee of Imperial Defence into Naval Policy, 1909” reminds us that navies, like other bureaucracies, often experience intense, internal debates. This one, occurring just a few years before the outbreak of the war, contends the author, somewhat “ameliorates” Fisher’s reputation.

Finally, for those readers who wish to examine all aspects of World War I, I call to your attention two articles previously published in these pages dealing with maritime aspects of the war. Both appeared in the April 2002 issue. In “The Great Landing 1917,” CAPT Christopher Paige, RN (Ret.) tells the story of a fascinating operational plan intended for the Belgian coast in 1917 which never took place despite extensive planning. CAPT Paige’s interpretation challenges the common portrayal of our own time that senior military leaders of the First World War era were really not very bright and thus did not understand the nature of the war in which they were engaged, hence displaying a remarkable lack of imagination. On the contrary, CAPT Paige offers a different image and observes “how far the Royal Navy and British Army had advanced in its practices in a relatively short time . . . great imagination had been applied to the planning and every effort made to learn the lessons of the past.” Everyone knows the well-told stories of the attempted amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 and great cross-channel attacks at Normandy in 1944. Perhaps we can indeed increase our understanding of the past by thinking about and studying the courses of action planned but not taken. Doing so is far more than simple counterfactual contemplation and calls for sophisticated analysis.

Likewise in this same issue of IJNH Angus Ross examined another naval aspect of The Great War which ultimately would prove vital to the eventual outcome. Ross makes the observation that not all pre-war thinking on maritime issues turned out to be correct He shares this insight in “Losing the Initiative in Mercantile Warfare: Great Britain’s Surprising Failure to Anticipate Challenges to Her Global Trading Network in the First World War.” Together, these two articles illustrate the diversity of war at sea, hence commanding our interest.

Dr. Charles C. Chadbourn, III
Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Naval History
Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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The Development of Modern Counter-piracy Initiatives in Southeast Asia: Vietnamese Boat Refugees and Alternative Incidents 1979-1997

Robert C. McCabe
Maynooth University


VIetnamese refugees come alongside USS White Plains (AFS-4) in 1979. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives L35-04.

Vietnamese refugees come alongside USS White Plains (AFS-4) in 1979. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives L35-04.

Between 2009 and 2012, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a specialised division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), recorded 648 reports of actual and attempted pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. In 2009, attacks in this region accounted for over 80 percent of all reported incidents worldwide. 1 The frequency and scale of these attacks were the highest since the IMB began gathering statistics on maritime piracy in 1992. This escalation in incidents and the development of a formalised hostage for ransom situation off the Somali coast placed the issue of piracy firmly in the media and public spotlight. However, despite the widespread attention these recent incidents generated, it was the waterways of Southeast Asia and not Somalia that played host to the first significant upsurge of contemporary maritime piracy. While piratical attacks against merchant vessels escalated as a by-product of the financial crisis that gripped the region in the late 1990s, the genesis of modern Southeast Asian piracy transpired much earlier. This manifested in a series of violent and concentrated attacks against Vietnamese boat refugees in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

This article will firstly explore some of the reasons for this resurgence of piratical activity in Southeast Asia while illustrating some of the inherent difficulties that counter-piracy operations presented in the region and how they were addressed. This will be followed by an analysis of the efforts, both regional and international, initiated to counter this activity; focusing on the case of the Vietnamese boat refuges as a key example while also briefly referencing alternative episodes and responses. The small regional navies of Southeast Asia, in particular the Royal Thai Navy, were ill equipped to manage the piratical upsurge. The escalation of attacks in the late 1970s and 1980s would provide valuable operational lessons. Firstly, that interregional and international cooperation was vital in the suppression of maritime piracy and secondly, that maritime security issues could be just as destabilising as land-based threats and therefore merited investment and attention.


Problems with the statistics

There exist only a limited number of reliable statistical sources to confidently gauge the level of piratical activity in Southeast Asia during the late 1970s and 1980s [see fig. I]. This changed somewhat following the establishment of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kula Lumpur in 1992. Prior to this the primary statistical sources consist of (a) the ‘IMB chronology of pirate attacks on merchant vessels 1981-87’ located in IMB founder Eric Ellen’s 1989 editorial Piracy at Sea (b) the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Maritime Security Centre’s statistical resources from 1982-92 (c) Captain Roger Villar’s log of attacks from 1979-84 in his 1988 publication Piracy Today (d) the US National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agencies’ Anti-Shipping Activity Messages (ASAM) and finally, United Nations’ Security Council reports. Supplementary to these are numerous eyewitness statements, victim correspondence, academic works, press releases and official governmental and law-enforcement publications. Despite this, it is widely acknowledged that the actual rate of incidents was significantly higher than what was reported or recorded.

There were a number of reasons for this under-reporting including the potential loss of international reputation, fear of reprisal, costly investigations and impediments, cultural acceptability and governmental complicity. Villar recognised this deficiency in his own record of piratical attacks: ‘It is the authors opinion that this is the most complete and comprehensive record in existence’. 2 He acknowledged however that ‘…it probably represents no more than about half the actual numbers of attacks which have taken place’. 3 This notion is reflected elsewhere. In 1998 the UK Defence Intelligence Service estimated that the annual number of actual piracy cases could be 2,000 percent higher than what was being reported whereas the Australian Intelligence Organisation estimated the rate of under-reporting by 1996 was somewhere in the region of 20 to 70 percent. 4 The inconsistencies with these figures reflect the difficulties in establishing accuracy when utilising modern piracy reports and data. Gauging the genuine effectiveness of counter-piracy initiatives before 1992 is therefore problematic. The available resources do however, allow for a reasonable assessment of the fluctuation of incidents.

Aside from these primary sources of information, there are also a number of secondary works that include analysis on Vietnamese boat refugees and additional regional piracies before the Asian financial crisis. However, these are frequently examined within in the wider framework of a broad discourse on contemporary piracy or with a particular interest group/ political agenda in mind, therefore often lack specific detail and focus on counter-piracy issues during this period. 5

Fig. I

McCabe Fig 1 2015

Source: See: ‘IMB Chronology of Pirate Attacks 1981-87’ in Eric Ellen, Piracy at Sea (London, 1989), pp 241-71. ICC IMB, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Annual Report 1992-2002 (London). IMO-MSC, ‘Statistical Resources on Piracy and Armed Robbery 1982-1992’. Roger Villar, Piracy Today: Robbery and Violence at Sea since 1980 (London, 1985), pp 92-153. US National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, ‘Anti-Shipping Activity Messages 1979-1991’.



Piracy as it had been traditionally experienced had declined drastically by 1900 aside from sporadic occurrences of opportunistic piracies, chiefly in the South China Sea, in the decades after the Second World War. This relative tranquillity was not to last, as a new and more violent wave of piratical aggression beset the waters of Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Piracy is not a mono-causal issue. Several diverse factors can be attributed to its resurgence; chiefly colonial regression, post-conflict inheritance, the growth of global seaborne trade, economic hardship and inefficient coastal security facilitated by favourable geography. The cultural and political history of the region also undoubtedly contributed to the rise of piracy given the entrenched acceptance of many indigenous communities on maritime raiding as a legitimate vocation. During the nineteenth century, this extended beyond simple criminality to the consolidation of regional economic and political power bases. Pirates could not function successfully without the support of these local networks for resources, shelter and the concealment and movement of illicit goods. Indeed, piracy had never been totally eradicated from the region only suppressed to manageable levels. In the southern Philippines and northern Borneo, for example, piratical attacks continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s only on a ‘smaller – but still frequent – scale’. 6

Despite the inherent proclivity toward piracy that many of these coastal regions displayed, there was a distinct difference between the politically motivated piracies of the nineteenth century and the ‘systematic interdependent and interconnected…grey area activities’ 7 of pirates operating in the late twentieth century. Indeed, the European understanding of what constituted ‘piracy’ was quite at odds from that of the local inhabitants of maritime Southeast Asia for whom maritime raiding was often considered a ‘legitimate political or commercial endeavour’. 8 Therefore, ‘piracy’ from a western understanding only began to materialise in Southeast Asia in direct correlation with the expansion of European colonial enterprise there. James Warren’s study into the globalisation of maritime raiding and piracy in the region extrapolates this issue in more detail; he states: ‘the term [piracy] subsequently criminalised political or commercial activities in Southeast Asia that indigenous maritime populations had hitherto considered part of their statecraft, cultural-ecological adaption and social organisation’. 9

With this in mind, one of the underlying reasons as to why elements of these maritime communities began pirating in an extensive manner in the late 1970s was a substantial increase in poverty and economic hardship due to the commercial exploitation of fish stocks in the region. The availability of new technology developed since the 1950s enabled larger fisheries to procure catches at accelerated rates. Combined marine catches from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam increased fourfold between 1960 and 1980 from 1.5 million tonnes per year to 5.5 million tonnes per year. 10 This growth was stimulated by destructive mass-fishing techniques such as trawling, fish-bombing and cyanide poisoning. 11 This large-scale illegal fishing led to a significant depletion in fish stocks, which directly affected the smaller coastal communities for whom fishing was the single leading source of revenue. The experience was more acute in parts of Indonesia, which was described as ‘the poorest of the poor’. 12 Carolin Liss affirmed the effect: ‘Over-fishing, pollution and the ensuing poverty of fishers and their families’ impacts directly upon the occurrence of piracy in Southeast Asia’. 13 A number of these fishermen turned to pirating vessels to supplement their loss of income. Indeed it was aggrieved fishermen turned pirates who were initially responsible for some of the most ferocious piracies seen in modern times; that of the attacks on Vietnamese boat refugees. These attacks were largely responsible for amplifying piracy reports in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s due to the brutality and frequency of the incidents, which placed the issue on a wider international stage.

Over-fishing and increased pollution were by-products of the spread of the global market-driven system and globo-economic interdependency. This led to an exponential growth in maritime trade transiting Southeast Asia throughout the 1970s and 1980s [see fig. II]. Indeed, the last four decades have witnessed a quadrupling of total seaborne trade, from just over 8 thousand billion tonne-miles in 1968 to over 32 thousand billion tonne-miles in 2008. 14 This rapid economic development did little to benefit the poorer coastal regions. Instead, it widened the gap between rich and poor and further isolated already disparate communities. According to Graham Ong Webb economic globalisation had the effect of ‘reinforcing the conditions that compel marginalised maritime-orientated communities to turn to piracy’. 15

The Indonesian island of Batam serves as an example of the destructive and dissociative elements of this economic activity at a local level. Batam witnessed a huge growth in manufacturing industries during the 1980s that transformed it from a small fishing community to a major industrial hub. Eklöf described how an influx of migrants came to the island in search of employment but ‘were unable to find work in line with their expectations and education (or) find any work at all’. 16 The result was a rise in criminal activity such as piracy. The growth in maritime freight through the area also presented potential pirates with an abundance of high value targets transiting narrow and congested shipping-lanes. This new wave of piratical activity, facilitated by the rise of the consumerist system, was further enhanced by the decline of the colonial system. Historically in the ‘clash between the policies of free trade and the policies of territorial assertion, that is where the roots of piracy can be found’. 17

Fig. II

McCabe Fig 2 2015Source: Compiled from UN Department of economic and social development statistical office, 1992 International trade statistics yearbook, vol. 1 (New York, 1993), p. 1051.

Southeast Asia was to experience an era of rapid colonial regression in the years and decades following the Second World War. The resultant governments that emerged were fragile, under-resourced and over-pressured and struggled therefore to establish effective regional security. This instability was particularly evident in some of the more isolated coastal communities. These problems reflected, according to Peter Earle: ‘…the maritime dangers of a post-imperial world in which the navies of the great powers can no longer patrol where and how they wish and former colonies have neither the naval power nor the resources and will to eradicate the problem’. 18 The former British colony of Singapore was, to some extent, the exception to this. In the years after independence from Britain (and later Malaysia), the newly formed government began actively seeking foreign direct investment which eventually transformed the small state from a colonial trading outpost to a robust export economy. For most regional states, investment went into developing the army in the years after decolonisation and not maritime security capabilities. In the Philippines for example, this was primarily due to internal threats from communist organisations such as the New People’s Army, the military wing of the communist party of the Philippines, and later from Islamist separatist groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf in the South.

During the colonial period, maritime Southeast Asia featured a major western naval presence, which kept piratical incidents and disorder at sea to a minimum. The decline of ‘Pax Britannica’ and colonial control meant that this stabilising naval presence regressed. The progressive process of decolonisation essentially concluded when Britain announced its withdrawal from Singapore and Malaysia in January 1968, which was not completed until 1971 as a diplomatic concession to the Singaporean government. This was part of Britain’s wider strategic withdrawal ‘East of the Suez’ 19 owing to the heavy economic and financial burden of maintaining foreign naval bases. Parliamentary papers at the time estimate the naval base in Singapore consumed 15% of the British defence budget and 40% of defence costs overseas. 20 The haste in which Britain abandoned its naval presence left the waterways of the region unpatrolled and vulnerable. This weak new maritime security environment was acutely felt in the ex-colony and further afield. The Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew commented: ‘I was completely incredulous that there could be such a rapid chop and change…All I am asking you is to show the flag so that no rapacious attack will take place’. 21 The earlier American withdrawal from the Philippines in 1949 had provoked similar concerns and illustrated the vulnerability of the maritime environment without a commanding naval presence. The British legation in Manila wrote to the minister of state for foreign affairs describing the challenges facing the authorities following the withdrawal:

But now the American officers are gone and the Philippine authorities have not hitherto shown themselves capable of maintaining the constabulary at its old standards…The result among the Moros is, I fear, that they are reverting to type and are again finding in piracy and smuggling an easy way of making a living. 22

Combined with endemic poverty, weak governance and an increase in regional commercial activity, the maritime climate was heavily conducive towards illicit criminal activity such as piracy. The fledging national legal framework that developed after colonial regression was predominantly based on that of the former colonial powers with an emphasis on consolidating the rule of law. However, given what Graham Ong-Webb refers to as the ‘trappings’ of the globalised system – economic growth, the rise of ports and commercial maritime traffic 23 – these under resourced states were unable to rival the naval presence that their former imperial rulers offered. This lax coastal security was exacerbated by little or no multilateral cooperation in attempting to counter regional piracy in the early years of the re-genesis.

The conditions outlined above were further amplified by the availability of weaponry inherited from several regional conflicts during the post-war years. The saturation of many parts of Southeast Asia with military grade weaponry enhanced the capabilities of pirates and undoubtedly encouraged the spread of the activity. More worryingly for authorities the availability of this weaponry increased the levels of violence witnessed during piratical attacks in Southeast Asian waters particularly in the Gulf of Thailand and the Philippines throughout the 1980s. The issues described above combined to create the conditions for a resurgence of maritime piracy in Southeast Asia.

The initial victims of this new wave of piracy were the hapless ‘boat people’ fleeing Vietnam in a mass maritime exodus across the Gulf of Thailand 24 and the South China Sea. Indeed, it was this huge migration of people and valuables that presented disparate elements of impoverished coastal communities with an opportunity to recoup some of their material and financial losses. What began as opportunistic robberies on vulnerable targets by indigent local fishermen soon escalated into unprecedented violence and brutality that involved organised criminal elements. Piracy was not just confined to the Gulf of Thailand or the South China Sea however, as other regions of maritime Southeast Asia also witnessed a rise in maritime predations during this period. By 1991, according to one analyst, ‘these assaults have been of sufficient quantity to consistently designate Southeast Asia as, by far, the most piracy-prone region of the world’. 25


General obstacles to regional counter-piracy operations

Prior to analysing any specific counter-piracy measures initiated by regional and international actors in response to the re-genesis of piracy in the late 1970s, it is important to examine some of the enduring difficulties that maritime security operations have faced in the waters of Southeast Asia. Just as it facilitated piracy in previous centuries, the distinctive geographic features of the region hampered counter-piracy operations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Malay Archipelago, also known as the East Indies, which incorporates Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is the largest in terms of surface area on earth, consisting of over 25,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited. Indonesia alone is comprised of 13,667 of these islands resulting in approximately 93,000 square kilometres of inland seas. 26 Topographically the Philippines possess one of the longest coastlines of any nation on earth due to its archipelagic configuration. Thailand also possesses a significant coast line of 2,420 kilometres on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea whereas Singapore, despite a coastline of just 138 kilometres, was in terms of shipping tonnage, the world’s busiest port in 1988. 12 What this meant in terms of sea based counter-piracy action was that it made engaging pirates in any extensive way almost impossible. They could evade capture by crossing into other maritime jurisdictions or sheltering among the many bays, estuaries, rivers, reefs and tree-lined inlets beyond the reach of their pursuers.

Merchant vessels that approached the region from the west were funnelled into the narrow geographical chokepoint of the Malacca Strait, just 1.7 nautical miles at its narrowest point, as the most direct route to ports in north-east Asia. Similarly, the Singapore Strait and the Strait of Malacca constituted the main Sea Line of Communication (SLOC) between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. In 1982 an estimated 43,633 vessels transited the Malacca Strait. By 1993 this figure had risen to 91,826 vessels, an increase of 128.9% in a little over a decade. 28 These congested shipping lanes presented pirates with an abundance of slow moving ‘easy’ targets proximal to safe havens and sanctuaries ashore. The sheer scale of the maritime environment and coastline meant that any patrols initiated by the small regional navies were largely ineffective. Simply put, the geographic character of the region bolstered and encouraged illicit maritime activity while simultaneously hampered the ability to counter it. This was also the case during the nineteenth century. As Warren accurately observed: ‘They simply had to wait, sheltered behind a convenient island, headland or bay overlooking strategic sea-routes, and sooner or later ‘coastwise’ targets, never straying out of sight of land, would cross their path’. 29

Given this complex geographic setting it is little surprise that maritime territorial disputes arose. These disputes evolved primarily in reaction to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, which solidified the legal limits of a nation’s territorial sea (12 nautical miles from shore baseline), contiguous zone (24 nautical miles from baseline) and Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ (200 nautical miles from baseline). In the congested and archipelagic waters of Southeast Asia these boundaries often overlapped resulting in a lack of clear jurisdiction, bitter legal disputes and, as a result, a breakdown in regional maritime relations. The territorial dispute that emerged over ownership of the resource rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea for example illustrated the problem in this regard. Following the introduction of the EEZ under articles 55, 56 and 57 of UNCLOS, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei claimed exclusive territorial rights to all or part of the islands. These opposing claims led to a number of political and military engagements during the 1980s and 1990s weakening regional relations and creating instability in the maritime environment. Pirates operating in the region manipulated this instability to their advantage.

Peter Chalk highlights an incident from May 1992, which illustrates how this negatively affected unilateral counter-piracy operations. He described how a stolen trawler operated by pirates was stalking vessels near the disputed region of Sabah off the northeast coast of Borneo. The trawler was spotted by a Royal Malaysian Police marine patrol that commenced pursuit. The Malaysian vessel was forced to call off its pursuit when the trawler entered into Philippine territorial water as ‘no agreement of posse comitatus had been reached between Manila and Kuala Lumpur’. 30 Given this complex maritime environment, multilateralism and continuity, vital for effective counter-piracy operations, was not forthcoming.

These issues were compounded by allegations of corruption and governmental complicity. Empirical data, chiefly eyewitness testimony reported by shipmasters, suggests that this was an issue in China, Indonesia and the Philippines at various times throughout the period. Some argue that this manifested itself in ‘official sanctioning and collaboration’ 31 while others suggest, in the case of Indonesia for example; ‘[that pirates were] either actual members of the…armed forces or at least benefit[ted] from close links with Indonesian military and customs units…’ 32 . Jon Vagg suggests ‘…it is possible that [armed forces] condoned, assisted and ‘taxed’ non-military pirates just as they would many other illegal enterprises’. 33 This complicity was also evident in relation to attacks on boat refugees in the Gulf of Thailand. Numerous allegations of incompetence, abetment and collusion with pirates were directed at the Thai government in the 1980s. Pascal Dupont who reported for the French news weeklies Actuel and L’Express during the 1980s, alleged that in the spring of 1981, nineteen Vietnamese refugees were executed by the Thai Navy after they had killed several Thai pirates that had attacked them. 34 Duong Phuc and Vu Thanh Thuy, a Vietnamese couple who were victims of a pirate attack, suggested that the Thai government simply ignored the crisis in an attempt to discourage ‘new waves’ of refugees from seeking temporary refuge in Thailand. 35 The Vietnamese/American Boat People SOS committee, founded in 1980, made their dissatisfaction with Thai anti-piracy efforts clear in a white paper published in 1981:

Thai pirates, operating with virtual impunity in the Gulf of Siam, are subjecting thousands of refugees to ordeals of rape, robbery and murder. The unarmed refugees in their rickety fishing boats can neither escape nor defend themselves against the heavily armed pirates. The sickening tales told by survivors of these attacks should long ago have moved Thai officials to act. Instead, the Thais say only that they lack the resources to police a 2,000 mile coastline. While that is undoubtedly true, it is also apparent that Thai police and naval units are not even trying…It has been suggested that Bangkok’s willingness to look the other way as Thai pirates plunder, rape, and kill is the government’s way of discouraging new waves of refugees from seeking temporary haven in Thailand. If so, it is a vile tactic fully deserving of international condemnation. 36

Thai officials vehemently denied such allegations. The then Thai Secretary General, Chamlong Srimuang, responded to similar claims in April 1980:

The pirate activities in the Gulf of Thailand do not take place in the Thai territorial waters only…Our Police Marine has to combat against those terrorists who, from time to time, attacked not only the Vietnamese boat people but also those of Thai nationality as well…Furthermore the long eastern coast of Thailand does not facilitate our small marine force to accomplish such operation. 37

Regardless of whether the Thai government acted improperly or not, this response is reflective of the inherent difficulties small regional navies encountered in attempting to combat piracy in Southeast Asian waters.

The situation was further exacerbated by the inadequacies of the coastal states’ naval resources in the late 1970s and 1980s. As previously mentioned, state investment in the years following decolonisation focussed on strengthening land forces at the neglect of maritime security capabilities. Eventually attempts were made to modernise naval assets, however, this initially focussed on securing large patrol craft such as frigates, antisubmarine warfare corvettes, and missile-equipped surface combatants. Thailand, for example, entered into an agreement with China in 1988 and 1989 to acquire 4 Jianghu class and 2 Naresuan class frigates. 38 By 1997, Thailand had acquired a small aircraft carrier from Spain, a decision that reportedly perplexed its neighbours. 12 These uneconomical investments did little to benefit maritime security operations or promote regional cooperation. Instead, they illustrated that national prestige was favoured over utility – an indication of the insular nature of regional states at the time. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1964 to facilitate regional cooperation and encourage multilateral engagement. However, ASEAN was primarily concerned with the idea of nation building and economic consolidation and as such did not result in enhanced cooperation at sea. Keeping these causative factors in mind, a more revealing examination of regional and international efforts to counter the pervasive piracies against Vietnamese refugees in the Gulf of Thailand will be undertaken.


Vietnamese boat refugees 1979-91

Reports of pirate attacks on refugee boats transiting the Gulf of Thailand began to surface following communist victories in Vietnam in 1975, which resulted in large numbers of people fleeing the country, many of them by boat. However, the outbreak of hostilities between the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in early 1979 intensified this exodus drastically resulting in an estimated 2,000 refugees arriving in Thailand each month of 1979 40 . This figure had risen to 6,000 per month in 1980. 12 In 1981 a total of 15,479 refugees in 452 boats arrived in Thailand. 42 It is estimated that a staggering 77% of these boats were attacked by pirates operating in the Gulf of Thailand – an average of 3.2 times per attacked boat. 43 This amounted to a massive 1,112 attacks in 1981 alone. Despite the high frequency of incidents, it was the manner in which they were carried out that brought the issue to the attention of the international community. Reports for 1981 suggest that 571 female refugees were raped, 228 refugees were abducted and 454 refugees were murdered by pirates. TIME magazine described these events as a ‘Liquid Auschwitz’ in an article written in July 1979, the same month that the UN summoned a conference at Geneva to discuss the Indochinese refugee crisis. The typical modus-operandi of an attack is reported below:

Vietnamese boat left Vung Tau on 29 July [1983] with 28 people. Seven or eight pirates rammed it shortly after with a radar equipped fishing boat and threw most of the Vietnamese into the sea where they were left to drown. Gold and valuables stolen. Women raped repeatedly. Only two known survivors 44

The unprecedented levels of violence and brutality resulted in widespread condemnation and international pressure on the Royal Thai Government (RTG) to suppress the pirates operating in their territorial waters.

Fig. III

McCabe Fig 3 2015Source: ‘Piracy Statistics (Based on Refugee Reports)’ in Eric Ellen, Piracy at Sea (London, 1989), p. 282.

As early as June 1980 the RTG publicly stated its intention to mount a more ‘active’ campaign against the pirates and requested international assistance in the endeavour. 45 The under-resourced and overstretched character of Thailand’s maritime capability meant it could not tackle the problem in isolation. In 1980, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in what appeared to be a reactive gesture, provided the Thai Navy with a high speed, unarmed surveillance vessel to support anti-piracy patrols. However, the first tangible anti-piracy programme was not initiated until February 1981. This brief scheme was a bi-lateral endeavour between the United States and the RTG facilitated by a $2 million US donation to subsidise operational expenses. The initiative lasted just seven months; dissolving in September due in part to disputes over financial maintenance. It has been suggested difficulties arose as a result of investment in expensive and largely ineffectual air-sea surveillance, chiefly two twin engine O-2 spotter aircraft and a Thai coastguard cutter. 46 Despite this, the scheme had some limited success and paved the way for further cooperative initiatives. Twenty-five suspects were arrested and charged with piracy, five suspected pirate vessels were seized and an estimated 180 boat people were assisted while under attack. 47

Following a series of delays and negotiations, a more comprehensive and calculated counter-piracy initiative was launched on 23 June 1982. The Anti-Piracy Arrangement (APA) was convened under the auspices of the UNHCR and subsidised by donations from twelve countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Federal Republic of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States. A total of $3,672,033 was donated; $1.2 million coming from the United States government. 48 The operation was headed by the Thai navy anti-piracy unit from the coordination centre in the southern province of Songkhla with a nine man team stationed on small offshore islands, such as the notorious Koh Kra. Koh Kra Island had become synonymous with the worst of the violence and depredation witnessed in the piracies. Numerous graphic victim testimonies exist which relay the inhuman conditions suffered by the refugees abducted and held there by pirates. One eyewitness described the ‘sad scene that all people brought to the island must suffer’. She stated: ‘The men were tortured and beaten to find out where valuables were hidden, the women were gang-raped by different bands of pirates, which at the high point came to 50 different fishing boats clustered around the entrance to the island’. 49

A number of landward and seaward counter-piracy initiatives were spearheaded under the APA. An anti-piracy surface unit was established that consisted of three sixteen-metre fast patrol craft, six special operation task trawlers alongside a number of rubber patrol boats. The surface unit was complemented by an aircraft unit consisting of five surveillance aircraft including spotter planes that coordinated with the surface unit and land base to identify vulnerable vessels and patterns of piratical activity. Patrols were executed on a twenty-four hour rotating basis. The funds donated to the APA were also used for the enhancement of post-incident investigations, the strengthening of land-based information gathering, upgrading of communications equipment and a harbour department registration and licensing programme. 50

Despite these improvements and investments, the extent of the APA’s operational zone was limited. The available resources meant that only allowed a small section of the Gulf of Thailand could be monitored and patrolled. Roger Villar remarked: ‘Even twice that force would have little chance of covering so large an area effectively’. 51 Despite these limitations, the APA did achieve some success. Incidents of piracy dropped from 373 in 1982 to 117 in 1984 a decrease of over 50%. 52 The number of reported deaths at the hands of pirates also declined from 176 in 1982 to 59 in 1984 (see fig. III). 12 While it is evident that the 1982 anti-piracy arrangement did contribute to a reduction in attacks, the reduction in the flow of refugees must also be recognised as a contributory factor. The total number of refugees recorded as arriving in Thailand in 1981 was 15,479. This had dropped to just 3,343 in 1983 indicating a substantial decrease in refugee movement. 52

The UNHCR/RTG counter-piracy programme was extended in 1984 and witnessed an important progression from sea-based operations to land-based initiatives, primarily on the recommendations of a US interagency task force. Lessons learned from earlier operations meant that emphasis was placed on training, intelligence gathering and judicial development over acquiring expensive naval and air assets. It was acknowledged that the root cause of piracy was ashore, a fundamental realisation in the evolution of regional counter-piracy efforts. A number of substantial initiatives were launched under the 1984-87 programme, principally in relation to the apprehension and prosecution of suspected pirates. At the lowest level, this took the form of educative crime prevention, considered vital given the chiefly opportunistic nature of the piracies. 55 At the highest level, this resulted in several prosecutions and convictions.

From January 1982 to December 1985, just 30 suspects were arrested for offences against boat people, 56 reflective of the emphasis placed on sea-based counter-piracy operations under the APA. Under the new programme, 66 suspects were arrested in a little under two years between January 1986 and October 1987. 12 The sentences handed down ranged from two to fifty-years imprisonment, with one pirate sentenced to death in December 1986. The harshness of the sentencing was undoubtedly designed to act as a deterrent to those considering committing piratical acts. These positive results were facilitated by the development of compulsory computerised registration and a paid ‘informer’ system under the guidance of US law enforcement personnel. The UNHCR Poul Hartling commented in an address to the general assembly in 1985:

…very encouraging has been the increasing efficiency with which the Thai authorities are implementing the Anti-Piracy Arrangement…the deterrent effect is definitely beginning to show up in the statistics…I believe this can be a source of satisfaction both for the Thai authorities and the donors who have steadfastly supported their efforts to combat this evil. 58

Aside from efforts at the political and military level, the UNHCR also initiated programmes designed to encourage masters of commercial vessels transiting international waters to assist refugees who may be vulnerable to attack or may have suffered an attack. This request was initially met with some trepidation principally due to potential financial ramifications. The first of these initiatives, the ‘Disembarkation Resettlement Offers’ (DISERO), was designed to encourage ships flying flags of states operating an open registry or ‘flags of convenience’ to aid in the rescue of refugees at sea by facilitating their disembarkation and resettlement in countries that contributed resettlement places. By 1985, eight countries offered resettlement places for refugees under the DISERO scheme. These were Australia, Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

A second initiative was launched in May 1985 that offered to negate the financial burden of rescuing refugees at sea through ‘Rescue at Sea Resettlement Offers’ (RASRO). One month later in June 1985, a companion programme, the ‘Rescue at Sea Reimbursement Project’ allowed for costs directly related to the rescue of refugees to be directly reimbursed to ship-owners. The UNHCR circulated a pamphlet in 1985 that explained the procedures and guidelines for the disembarkation of refugees and reimbursement procedures. It stated: ‘On request, UNHCR will reimburse ship-owners for the subsistence of refugees on board ship…calculated at US$10 per refugee per day…The maximum amount reimbursed under any single claim should not normally exceed US$30,000.’ 59 These initiatives were bolstered by personal radio broadcasts from the high commissioner Poul Hartling encouraging and supporting shipmasters in the South China Sea to aid refugees in distress. These humanitarian and civilian initiatives had an immediate effect in disrupting piratical activity on the high seas. Hartling commented in 1985: ‘The appeals of UNHCR and the IMO have not fallen on deaf ears, and in the best traditions of the sea…ship-masters and crewmen – often at their cost, inconvenience, and sometimes personal risk – are going out of their way to save lives’. 60

The long-term impact of the rescue programmes should not be over-stated as the numbers rescued during the period 1985-87 were generally lower than the numbers from previous years. 61 However, the figures when expressed in relation to the total number of arrivals reveal a 5% increase in rescues between 1984 and 1985. 12 By 1987 only 8% of boats arriving in Thailand had reported being attacked compared to 23% in 1985, a partial indication of the achievement of the land-based counter-piracy initiatives. However, between 1988 and 1989 an upsurge in attacks resulted in an estimated 1,250 refugees killed by pirates and a sharp increase in abductions and incidents of rape. 63 The successful land-based initiatives, in particular the severe prison sentences, almost certainly had the effect of deterring the more opportunistic and presumably less violent ‘fishermen turned pirates’. This, according to W. Courtland Robinson: ‘[left] behind a hard core of professional criminals…[whom] were taking greater pains to leave no witnesses’. 64

Despite these setbacks the flow of refugees declined drastically by 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War reduced the rigid economic limitations placed on Vietnam, which opened the door for small-scale private and foreign direct investment. This combined with the end of the repression of the Hoa people in the south resulted in substantial economic growth and stability in the country and as a consequence a sharp decline in the migration of refugees. This reduction predictably led to a decline in piratical attacks in the Gulf of Thailand. Elsewhere however, attacks in the region escalated. In December 1991 the UNHCR anti-piracy programme was terminated, not because the piracy problem had been eradicated, but according to final assessment report: ‘…it [had] reached the stage where it [could] be effectively managed by local agencies’. 65

The evolution in counter-piracy strategy and philosophy was apparent in the years following the decline in attacks on refugees. Most regional states recognised that at least partial cooperation and information sharing was necessary if effective counter-piracy measures were to be initiated. Southeast Asian states’ naval forces were still comparatively small in the early 1990s, especially when considered in relation to the vast sea space that would have to be monitored and patrolled. This meant that some form of strategic continuity was essential in any seaward anti-piracy operations.


Alternative initiatives 1991-97

Historically, multilateral cooperation in Southeast Asia had been complicated due to the geo-political character of the region and the challenges presented in implementing coordinated patrols in respective territorial seas. The existence of ASEAN framework, for example, did little to promote cooperation at sea. The issue of multilateralism was partly solved by the implementation of bilateral initiatives after 1991. It was far easier to coordinate patrols with the navy of one country rather than multiple countries. Japan attempted to bridge this gap in the 1990s by providing training and assistance to the littoral states. However, it was not until 2006 with the signing of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia or ReCAAP, that multilateral cooperation on a governmental to governmental level was fostered and effectively utilised to combat regional piracy.

By 1991, regional piracy had escalated dramatically shifting predominantly from the Gulf of Thailand to the busy shipping lanes of the Malacca Strait and Indonesia (see fig. IV). There were 107 attacks reported worldwide in 1991. Notably, 88 of these occurred in Southeast Asian waters. 66 This equated to approximately 82% of all reported incidents worldwide. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) responded by pressuring regional states to:

…increase their efforts as a matter of the highest priority to suppress and prevent acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships in or adjacent to their waters as well as to ensure that further and prompt action including strengthening of security measures is taken against pirates and armed robbers reportedly operating in their waters 67

Incidents such as the violent attack on the Valiant Carrier in April 1992, in which a pirate had stabbed an infant girl during a botched raid, placed further pressure on littoral states to initiate a resolute response to the problem. The IMO recognised the importance of a multilateral approach and invited neighbouring states to ‘co-ordinate their actions against pirates and armed robbers operating in areas within or adjacent to their waters’ 68 . Motivated partly by the mounting international pressure and the loss of reputation, there were a number of initiatives launched in 1992.

Fig: IV

McCabe Fig 4 2015Source: ICC IMB, Piracy and armed robbery against ships annual report: 2002 (London, 2003), p. 5.

Unilaterally Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia began to increase the frequency of littoral patrols to interdict the movements of pirate groups along their respective coasts. These states also actively began to prosecute those suspected of engaging in piracy. Indonesia, for example, launched ‘Operation Eroding the Pirates’ (Operasi Kikis Bajak) in June 1992 which resulted in, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, seventy arrests for piracy in a six month period between June and November 1992. 69 The Malaysian government created a special unit called the ‘Sabah Police Field Force Brigade’ (PFF) with the dual intention of curbing maritime piracy and the entry of illegal immigrants. The PFF deployed intelligence gathering techniques and placed brigade officers and staff in strategic locations along the Sabah coast to deter and interdict piratical activity in the Sulu Sea. 70 The brigade, which was based in Sandakan on the north-eastern coast of Borneo, had up to 40 patrol craft at its disposal. Aside from these unilateral actions, a number of bilateral initiatives were also instigated.

The neighbouring countries of Indonesia and Singapore signed a joint agreement in 1992 that provided for information sharing on regional piratical activities and coordinated anti-piracy patrols in the Singapore Strait and the Phillip Channel. These patrols occurred at a rate of four times per year, with one warship and one marine police vessel from Indonesia and Singapore for sixty days per coordinated patrol. 71 That same year Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to form a joint unit known as the Maritime Operation Planning Team to conduct coordinated patrols along their common borders in the Strait of Malacca. The mission consisted of four joint patrols annually involving customs, search and rescue and police. 72 Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore also concluded bilateral agreements between each pair of countries indicating their recognition that warships of either country may happen to enter territorial seas of other states in the course of controlling piratical activity. 73 Later, in 1994, Malaysia signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with The Philippines. This was the first of its kind and enabled both countries to conduct coordinated anti-piracy patrols along their common sea boundaries and to exchange information gathered from these patrols.

There were however, limits to these cooperation mechanisms. The then director of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Coordination Centre was quoted as saying: ‘Under no circumstances would we intrude into each other’s territory…If we chase a ship and it runs to the other side, we let the authorities there handle it’. 74 This was reflective of the enduring difficulties confronting counter-piracy operations in the region.

The intensification of counter-piracy initiatives launched between 1991 and 1994 resulted in a short-lived reduction in incidents. The IMO recognised, in its 18th Assembly session in 1993: ‘…the significant reduction in the number of incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Malacca Strait area since the implementation of countermeasures by the littoral states, including co-ordinated sea patrols’. 75 In just twelve months reported attacks dropped to just 15 in Southeast Asian waters. This success was, however, short-lived. By 1994 reported incidents rose to 39 and peaked at a substantial 122 in 1996. 76 In 1997, the region was plunged into a financial crisis, which witnessed the emergence of a more sophisticated, more ruthless and more organised breed of pirate and the beginning of a new era of piracy in Southeast Asia.



Piracy resurged in Southeast Asia in the late twentieth century due to several diverse though not divergent factors, some of which have been discussed here. Indeed, when taken in its wider historical context, maritime piracy displays a cyclical pattern and as such has enjoyed frequent periods of substantial growth and decline even before the earliest days of transoceanic trading. It is evident that the issue tends to attract more attention in times of relative peace when navies and governments are not concerned with macro-maritime issues such as the defence of trade in wartime. The early part of the period discussed here witnessed violent piratical attacks on defenceless boat refugees alongside opportunistic hit and run robberies in the regions busy sea-lanes. As the 1990s progressed these groups grew more organised and began hijacking larger targets. Regional states also recognised the benefit of organisation and cooperation in counter-piracy endeavours and began to coordinate and focus their efforts in a more substantial way.

In 2012, the IMB recorded 104 actual and attempted pirate attacks in Southeast Asian waters, the highest since 2004. In the same year, just 62 incidents were reported in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin indicating a considerable shift in piratical incidents back toward Southeast Asia (see fig. V). Given that that there are no failed states in Southeast Asia as opposed to Somalia, counter-piracy strategies must be formulated from a regional perspective with both historical and modern intricacies in mind. It is important therefore, that knowledge of the successes and failures of previous counter-piracy operations are analysed to facilitate more effective counter-piracy initiatives in the immediate present and foreseeable future.

Fig. V

McCabe Fig 5 2015Source: ICC IMB, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Annual Report 2005 & 2012.


(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)


  1. ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Annual Report, 1 Jan. – 31 Dec. 2009 (London, 2010), pp 5-6.
  2. Roger Villar, Piracy Today: Robbery and Violence at Sea since 1980 (London, 1985). p. 92.
  3. Villar, Piracy Today, p. 92.
  4. See: US Office of Naval Intelligence & US Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Centre, ‘Threats and Challenges to Maritime Security 2020’ (Mar. 1999) available at: Federation of American Scientists, ( (8 Oct. 2012).
  5. See for example: Peter Chalk, Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia (1998), Stefan Eklöf, Pirates in Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders (2009), Jack A. Gottschalk et al., Jolly Roger with an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy (2000), Derek Johnson and Mark Valencia, Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues and Responses (2005), Peter Lehr (ed.), Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism (2007), Carolin Liss, Oceans of Crime: Maritime Piracy and Transnational Security in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh (2011), Martin N. Murphy, Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World (2009). Ger Teitler, Piracy in Southeast Asia: A Historical Comparison (2002), Roger Villar, Piracy Today: Robbery and Violence at Sea since 1980 (1988).
  6. Stefan Eklöf, ‘The Return of Piracy: Decolonization and International Relations in a Maritime Border Region (the Sulu Sea) 1959–63’ in Working Papers in Contemporary Asian Studies, no. 15 (2005), p. 7.
  7. Carolin Liss, Oceans of Crime: Maritime Piracy and Transnational Security in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh (Singapore, 2011), p. 6.
  8. Carl A. Trocki, ‘Piracy in the Malay World’ in Ainslie T. Embree (ed.), Encyclopedia of Asian History, vol. 3 (New York, 1988), p. 262.
  9. James F. Warren, ‘A Tale of Two Centuries: The Globalisation of Maritime Raiding and Piracy in Southeast Asia at the End of the Eighteenth and Twentieth centuries’ in Asian Research Institute: Working Paper Series, no. 2 (June, 2003), p. 3.
  10. Daniel Pauly and Chua Thia-Eng, ‘The Overfishing of Marine Resources: Socio-Economic Background in Southeast Asia’ in AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, vol. 17, no. 3 (1988), p. 202.
  11. Warren, ‘A Tale of Two Centuries’, p.15.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Carolin Liss, The Roots of Piracy in Southeast Asia (Oct. 2010) available at: Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability ( (19 Apr. 2011).
  14. Maritime International Secretariat Services, ‘Shipping and World Trade: Value of Volume of World Trade by Sea 2010’ ( (10 Apr. 2012).
  15. Graham Gerard Ong-Webb, ‘Piracy in Maritime Asia: Current Trends’ in Peter Lehr (ed.) Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism (New York, 2007), p. 48.
  16. Stefan Eklöf, Pirates in Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders (Copenhagen, 2009), p. 48.
  17. Eklöf, ‘The Return of Piracy’, p. 12.
  18. Peter Earle, The Pirate Wars (London, 2003), p. 253.
  19. The phrase ‘East of the Suez’ is derived from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling in 1890 entitled ‘Mandalay’: ‘Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst…’.
  20. P.L. Pham, Ending ‘East of Suez’: The British Decision to Withdraw from Malaysia and Singapore 1964-1968 (New York, 2010), p. 22.
  21. The Straits Times, 15 Jan. 1968.
  22. See: Eklöf, ‘The Return of Piracy’, p. 4.
  23. Ong-Webb, ‘Piracy in Maritime Asia’, p. 47.
  24. Also known as ‘Gulf of Siam’.
  25. Peter Chalk, ‘Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia’ in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, vol. 21, no. 1 (Sept. 1998), p. 89.
  26. US Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, ‘Country studies (1988-98)’ ( (9 Oct. 2012).
  27. Ibid.
  28. Chia Lin Sien, ‘The Importance of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore’ in Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, no. 2 (1998), pp 305-6.
  29. Warren, ‘A Tale of Two Centuries’, p. 9.
  30. Peter Chalk, Non-Military Security and Global Order: The Impact of Extremism, Violence and Chaos on National and International Security (London, 2000), p. 76.
  31. Samuel P. Menefee, ‘Violence at Sea: Maritime Crime and the Rise of Piracy’ in Jane’s Defence 1997: The Yearbook for Jane’s Defence Magazines (1997), p. 100.
  32. Peter Chalk, ‘Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia’, p. 94.
  33. Jon Vagg, ‘Rough Seas? Contemporary Piracy in Southeast Asia’ in British Journal of Criminology, vol. 35, no. 1 (Winter 1995), pp 76-7.
  34. See: Pascal Boulanger, ‘The Gulf of Thailand’ in Eric Ellen (ed.) Piracy at Sea (London, 1989), p. 87.
  35. San Diego Union, Feb. 2 1980.
  36. Nhat Tien, Duong Phuc & Vu Thanh Thuy, Pirates on the Gulf of Siam: Report from the Vietnamese Boat People Living in the Refugee Camp in Songkhla – Thailand (California, 1981), p. 112.
  37. ‘Letter from the office of the Prime Minister, government house, Bangkok to Dr. Ven Thich Man Ciac’ 10 April, 1980 (Nhat Tien et al., Pirates on the Gulf of Siam, app. ii).
  38. G.V.C. Naidu, ‘ASEAN Navies in Perspective III’ in Strategic Analysis, vol. 21, no. 7 (Oct. 1997), p. 1061.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Villar, Piracy Today, p. 131.
  41. Ibid.
  42. ‘Piracy Statistics: Thailand (based on refugee reports)’ in Eric Ellen (ed.) Piracy at sea (London, 1989), pp 282-85.
  43. In 1981: Boats arrived = 452, Boats attacked = 349, No. of attacks = 1122 => No. of attacks per attacked boat = 3.2; See: Ibid.
  44. Villar, Piracy Today, pp 137-8.
  45. See: ‘Letter from US Department of State, office of Asian Refugees to the President of the Boat People SOS Committee’ 15 June, 1980 (Nhat Tien et al., Pirates on the Gulf of Siam, app. xii).
  46. W. Courtland Robinson, Terms of Refuge: The Indochinese Exodus and the International Response (London, 1998), p. 167.
  47. Robinson, Terms of Refuge, p. 167.
  48. Harry C. Blaney III, ‘Anti-Piracy in Southeast Asia: US and International Efforts and Programmes’ in Eric Ellen (ed.), Piracy at Sea, p. 102.
  49. Nhat Tien et al. Pirates on the Gulf of Siam, p. 29.
  50. See: Joachim Henkel, ‘Refugees on the High Seas: A Dangerous Passage’ in Eric Ellen (ed.), Piracy at Sea, p. 108.
  51. Villar, Piracy Today, p. 36.
  52. ‘Piracy Statistics: Thailand’.
  53. Ibid.
  54. ‘Piracy Statistics: Thailand’.
  55. I.R. Hyslop, ‘Contemporary Piracy’ in Eric Ellen (ed.) Piracy at Sea (London, 1989), p. 36.
  56. ‘Summary of Arrests, Prosecutions, Convictions and Sentences in Thailand for Piratical Offences against Boat People 1982-87’ in Eric Ellen (ed.), Piracy at Sea, p. 286.
  57. Ibid.
  58. ‘Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Executive Committee of the programme of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thirty-sixth session, Geneva’ (7 Oct. 1985).
  59. UNHCR, ‘Guidelines for the Disembarkation of Refugees’ (1985), p. 4.
  60. ‘Opening Statement by Mr. Poul Hartling’ (7 Oct. 1985).
  61. Hyslop, ‘Contemporary piracy’, p. 37.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The State of the World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action (New York, 2000), p. 87.
  64. Robinson, Terms of Refuge, p. 171.
  65. UNHCR, State of the World’s Refugees 2000, p. 87.
  66. ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Annual Report, 1 Jan. – 31 Dec. 2002 (London, 2003), p. 5.
  67. IMO, Resolution A.683 (17) (21 Nov. 1991), pp 1-2.
  68. IMO, A 17/ Res. 683, p. 2.
  69. Eklöf, Pirates in Paradise, pp 136 & 149.
  70. See: New Straits Times, 29. Oct. 1992.
  71. Susumu Takai, ‘Suppression of Modern Piracy and the Role of the Navy’ in National Institute for Defence Studies, Journal of Defence and Security: Security Reports, no. 4 (March 2003), p. 54.
  72. Yann-huei Song, ‘Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) and Enhancing Security in the Straits of Malacca: Littoral States’ and Regional Responses’ in Shicun Wu & Keyuan Zou (eds.) Maritime Security in the South China Sea: Regional Implications and International Cooperation (Surrey, 2009), p. 120.
  73. Susumu Takai, ‘Suppression of Modern Piracy’, p. 54.
  74. See: Chalk, ‘Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia’, p. 100.
  75. IMO, Resolution A.738 (18) (4 Nov. 1993), p. 1.
  76. ICC IMB, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships: Annual Report 2002, p. 5.

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Swimming in the ‘Fishpond’ or Solidarity with the ‘Beresfordian Syndicate’: An Analysis of the Inquiry by the Subcommittee of Imperial Defence into Naval Policy, 1909

Keith McLay
Canterbury Christ Church University

Admiral Sir John Fisher. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3330-5

Admiral Sir John Fisher. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3330-5.

Modern histories of the army and navy have long recognised that these institutions are in respect of their external and internal relationships, sui generis, political. The former relations, typically manifest in a competition for resources and prominence in campaign, have retained headline currency but it is arguably the latter associations which have proved more pointed and historically significant. 1  For the Royal Navy, the Edwardian period was especially divisive with the high command, and the officer corps more generally, split into two groups. A dominant collection of officers coalesced around the First Sea Lord, 1904-11, Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, thereby forming the ‘Fishpond’, while the opposition faction was known as the ‘Syndicate of Discontent’ and fostered by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, who between 1903 and 1909 served successively as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Squadron and the Mediterranean and Channel Fleets. 2.]

Sir John Fisher’s reputation as the preeminent naval officer of the Edwardian era has albeit with differing interpretations and emphasises been vouchsafed by his biographers and historians of early twentieth century naval policy. 3  Following A.J. Marder’s lead, though with varying degrees of approbation, a longstanding assessment of Fisher’s repute is founded upon his reform of the Senior Service which was at the turn of the twentieth century considered to be in an advanced stage of atrophy in terms of material, organisation and thinking. Promoting four strategic reform programmes, Fisher is commended for increasing naval efficiency and for creating a fleet ‘instantly ready for war.’ 4  Of these reforms, the first, the 1902 ‘Selborne Scheme’ of personnel reform, removed class barriers between the engineering and executive officer branches; the second, the revision of the fleet reserve, introduced a nucleus-crew system and permitted the decommissioning of obsolete warships; the third, a redistribution of the fleets, completed a strategic reorientation of naval defence; and, the fourth, the introduction of the Dreadnought class battleship, rendered obsolete the fleets of other European powers. 5  By contrast, revisionist scholars of Fisher’s tenure at the Admiralty argue that his naval reforms to restructure and control costs were focused upon prioritising the ‘flotilla defence’ of torpedo boats and submarines in home waters to prevent invasion while enabling the new, fast but heavily armoured ‘battle-cruisers’ to operate overseas in place of the Dreadnought battleships and armoured cruisers. 6  Both interpretations exemplify reform programmes of weight and interdependent elements which ensured that there was little latitude for those reluctant or opposed to accept only part. Although the revisionists disagree by degree, it was fortunate for the enactment and maintenance of his reforms that Fisher was a shrewd political admiral, enlisting with relative ease varying amounts of aid from successive First Lords of the Admiralty of different party political complexions. For many admirers, regardless of the route to success, Fisher’s genius was demonstrated when the concomitant of his reform programmes was an annual average reduction in the Navy Estimates of nearly £2 million over the three year period 1905-08. 7

Fisher’s achievements cannot be gainsaid but his record has given rise to hagiographic comment by contemporaries and historians which have uncritically diminished the opposition of the Syndicate. Verdicts such as those offered by Britain’s first modern Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, that Fisher was ‘probably the most remarkable man of his day’ 8 and by Marder that ‘in Fisher the Navy and the nation had found their man’ 9 imply that the faction within the service was a product of Fisher’s determined personality and not predicated upon disagreement over policy. Even Mackay’s balanced biographical treatment, which recognises that Fisher bore considerable responsibility for the fractiousness within the Service, characterizes its existence as a function of his character and not principled debate over the issues. 10  In a similar vein, the Revisionists applaud Fisher, his ideas and his reorganisation schemes but argue that enactment of his reform programmes required the advocacy of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, 1911-15, in the interval between Fisher’s first and second stints as First Sea Lord; this latter circumstance was more a product of a relative lack of political support than principled opposition to his polices. 11  It is notable, therefore, that from whichever perspective – traditional or revisionist – this historiography does not fully engage with the Syndicate’s criticism of Fisher’s programme on the two central issues of the disposition and preparation for war, both of which were championed by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford.

Born into an aristocratic Irish family, Beresford gained a reputation as a colourful career officer who was also active in national politics, sitting five times as a Conservative Member. 12]  Within the navy, Beresford’s standing was, nonetheless, largely established through his leadership of the Syndicate’s opposition to Fisher during the period when Beresford served as C-in-C, Channel Fleet, 1907-9, at that point the senior sea-going command. During these two years, Beresford agitated on the issues of fleet disposition and the preparation for a future war while simultaneously challenging the Admiralty’s arguments in favour of the then conventional wisdom that the strategic touchstone of the two power standard could be maintained simply by building more battleships than other powers. 13 Beresford’s challenge on these issues soon became an acrimonious public dispute with Fisher, as it spilled from private correspondence to the press and parliament. Ultimately, Beresford suffered the ignominy of being instructed by the then First Lord, Reginald McKenna, to haul down his flag on the grounds that a redistribution programme would absorb the Channel Fleet within the Home Fleet; Beresford’s naval career was effectively finished.

HMS Dreadnought. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives NH 61018.

HMS Dreadnought. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives NH 61018.

The dispute between the two admirals has been rejected as a ‘colourful footnote to Edwardian naval history’ 14 and this dismissal resonates in its rather cursory treatment within the histories of period, both specific and general, and within the biographies, all of which tend to focus attention upon Fisher’s agenda and his relative success in its implementation. 15 Where the relationship between the two men has been examined the emphasis has been upon its colourful qualities, the personal slights and intemperate behaviours rather than upon the substantive issue of policy. 16  That such a dismissal and focus upon the personalities is precipitous is vouchsafed by Beresford’s success in convincing Prime Minister Asquith that the Syndicate’s assessment of Admiralty policy merited an inquiry. This investigation comprised a Subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence chaired by Asquith with four other Cabinet Ministers – Robert, earl Crewe, the Secretary of State for the Colonies; John, viscount Morley, the Secretary of State for India; Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary; and R.B. Haldane, the Secretary of State for War – sitting alongside. The Subcommittee’s fifteen meetings between 27 April and 13 July 1909 and its subsequent report have generally received only cursory attention as a contribution to the politics and substance of naval defence prior to the First World War. Assessment, however, of the inquiry’s origins, deliberations and conclusions provides a powerful statement of the Syndicate’s opposition to Fisher and his programme and, moreover, it goes some distance to establishing equilibrium between the Fishpond and the Syndicate by reducing Fisher’s grand reputation while concurrently promoting the merits of Beresford’s poorly recognised views on naval defence.


Origins of an Inquiry

There are two prevailing interpretations of the inquiry’s origins. One considers it the outcome of Beresford’s pique at Fisher’s appointment as an Admiral of the Fleet in December 1905 which thwarted Beresford’s hopes of becoming First Sea Lord. 17    The second locates Beresford’s critique within the overarching framework of pre-existing opposition to Fisher. In this instance, Beresford’s agitation provided political momentum to previous calls for investigations into Admiralty policy; specifically, the strategic thrust of the Syndicate’s criticism focusing upon war planning and fleet disposition, which ignored the specifics of the 1904-5 reform, encouraged those Unionists who were not reconciled to the Opposition’s stance of bipartisan consensus on the broad parameters of naval policy to support an inquiry. 18  Both interpretations of the inquiry’s origins afford only scant attention to Beresford’s evaluation of naval defence and instead emphasise the personal or political factors. These latter elements are, however, tributaries to the main stream of the inquiry’s origins, namely the two-year period (1900-02) when Fisher and Beresford served respectively as C-in-C and Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet.  Viewed as a time of germination for the subsequent Fisher reforms, Beresford was also then active in developing ideas on naval defence which he maintained and subsequently linked to the personal and political dynamics to secure an inquiry into Admiralty policy.

Given the vindictiveness of the Fisher-Beresford dispute one could be forgiven for thinking that a pathological barrier prevented them conducting a congenial relationship. The reality was, however, more subtle. As the senior commanders of the Mediterranean Fleet at the turn of the century their relationship as work colleagues was pleasant, even friendly and familial. 19 Professionally mutual respect can also be inferred, with Beresford writing in February 1901 that ‘The Fleet, the Country and the Empire’ owed Fisher gratitude for bringing the civilians at the Admiralty on to the side of the naval experts. 20  Beresford’s 1900-01 ‘Dockyard Notes’ is a little used source which proves central to establishing that the Admirals’ early friendship was underpinned by similar visions for the Royal Navy and naval defence. Crucially, it also demonstrates that Beresford’s critique of Admiralty policy from 1907 onwards reflected long-standing views. Beresford’s biographer, Bennett, rightly terms the ‘Dockyard Notes’ a ‘cornucopia of facts and ideas’ 21 and, though they are not marshalled in a systematic fashion, the opinions are clear. In the ‘Notes’, Beresford applauded sixteen actions – ranging from increasing coal stocks to detailed war planning combined with fleet exercises – taken by Fisher to improve the fighting efficiency of the Mediterranean Fleet, while further approval is reflected under the headings ‘Administration’, ‘Organisation for War’, ‘Preparation for War’, and ‘Things to be Done’. 22  In these sections, Beresford made clear his contempt for Admiralty administration which, he believed, conveyed an attitude that ‘our past fortune is a guarantee for our future safety’. 23 Beresford’s opinions on the Admiralty’s organisation for war are presented as lessons derived from the army’s initial failures in the recent and on-going Boer Wars which, he suggested could have been avoided with detailed preparation. 24  For Beresford, adequate naval preparation should emphasise detailed strategic war planning appropriately undertaken by a ‘Thinking Department or General Staff’ – effectively placing a ‘Moltke’ in the Admiralty. 25  Beresford’s commitment to this proposal can be traced back to his time as a Junior Naval Lord when, after the 1885 war scare, he advocated a similar proposal, though then it applied more specifically to intelligence provision; it was a suggestion which Haggie demonstrates Fisher supporting despite his subsequent recantation. 26  In a similar preparatory vein, on the exercise of fleets, although Beresford made it clear that he wanted to avoid ‘theory faddism’ 27 , he placed considerable faith in the didacticism of fleet manoeuvres. Beresford argued that while in wartime one could ‘improvise’ manoeuvres’, it was impossible to ‘improvise officers’. 28  Such fleet manoeuvres would not, however, improve officer competence if they remained the standard Nelsonic in-line formations and that alternatively fleets should be divided with divisions manoeuvring against each other, providing commanders with greater signal experience thereby advancing their tactical independence. 29

The Admiralty’s intelligence on Beresford’s opinions reflected a pattern over time but it failed to appreciate that Beresford’s views on naval defence and his later criticism of Fisher’s administration were long-standing. 30  The Admiralty instead considered that Beresford’s opposition arose when he took command of the reorganised and reduced Channel Fleet in April 1907. While it is correct that Beresford did object to the creation of the new Home Fleet because it reduced the number of vessels under his peace time command from 67 to 21, the crux of his argument was not the absolute reduction in ships but that the re-organization promoted dispersal and, thus, was not well disposed to meet the force which the Germans could muster in home waters; in addition there was the related issue of the frequent reductions in strength of the Channel Fleet due to refit and repair. 31  The situation of the Channel Fleet was graver, according to Beresford, because the vessel substitutions promised by the Admiralty had not been forthcoming and there were doubts about the fighting efficiency of the Home Fleet. 32  Beresford argued that a force organised around three reserve and one full division could not properly be described as a ‘striking force immediately ready for action’ 33 and this description obscured the reality that the Home Fleet was actually a ‘fraud on the public and a danger to the state.’ 34

Beresford’s correspondence in the years prior to the inquiry also addressed fleet composition and war plans. From the second half of 1907, his complaints focused on the shortage of small craft and destroyers, that he had not been furnished with war plans by the Admiralty and that he possessed insufficient information to formulate his own plans. 35  These criticisms also included a stress on importance of fleet exercise, training Beresford considered the Admiralty deficient in promoting. 32

Despite their agreement during the Mediterranean tour on such matters, Fisher, now the Admiralty’s senior sailor, opposed Beresford’s agitation. An early meeting between the pair in the summer of 1907 mediated by the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Edward, baron Tweedmouth, failed to impose calm. 37  Their personal and professional correspondence became increasingly obstinate and bitter with Fisher claiming that Beresford’s staff was ‘always preparing ammunition to fire at the Admiralty’ and by the end of 1907 Fisher considered Beresford in ‘open mutiny’. 38  Throughout 1908 respective positions entrenched as Beresford became the recognised leader of the Syndicate and the Admirals’ supporters perpetuated the dispute through various media. 39  In April 1908, Fisher seized the opportunity presented by the appointment of a new First Lord, Reginald McKenna, to move against Beresford. He urged McKenna to recognise that Beresford’s conduct was disloyal and designed to promote a naval policy in opposition to the First Lord’s Admiralty’. 40  McKenna proved receptive, quickly concluding that Beresford’s opinions and the absence of a working relationship between the senior sea-going commander and the Admiralty were causing damage. Although in July 1908 the Cabinet baulked at McKenna’s conclusion that Beresford should lower his flag, by December agreement was reached that as part of a fleet redistribution programme Beresford’s term of command was to be reduced to two years. 41

Given Fisher’s political skills and his creation of a bipartisan consensus on naval policy, Beresford faced a considerable task linking his critique, with its acrimonious personal element, to a political dynamic which would force an inquiry. 18  However, Beresford demonstrated his own under-appreciated political attributes by acting in conjunction with the inveterate Fisher critic, H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the Standard, to push the Unionist leadership to reflect its own backbench and sections of public opinion, which was largely opposed to the Fisher consensus. Beresford rightly reckoned that a breakdown of the consensus would result in the withdrawal of the parliamentary safety net for the Admiralty thereby increasing the political pressure upon the Government. 18  Beresford requested several meetings with the Opposition Leader, A.J. Balfour, to press his case while Gwynne maintained correspondence with Balfour’s Private Secretary, Sanders. 44    Initially, neither proved successful in altering Balfour’s attitude. He was committed to the 1904-5 naval reforms and Fisher assiduously noted that any inquiry would constitute ‘a fishing expedition’ probing these earlier reforms. 45  Balfour did, nonetheless, offer some encouragement by indicating that that he had no objection to the public airing of such matters and indeed he implied that Beresford’s knowledge and experience legitimised his criticisms of the Admiralty. 46  Moreover, the immediate catalyst for the inquiry arose from Balfour’s recommendation that Beresford, now free from the King’s Regulations, write to the Prime Minister about his intent to air his views publicly. 47  The letter to Asquith in early April 1909 distilled Beresford’s previous correspondence and earlier opinions into a structured appraisal of the provisions for naval defence. He ranged through the general flaws in fleet distribution via the material deficiencies of the Channel Fleet during his period of command to the lack of detailed war plans, all of which derived from his earlier ‘Dockyard Notes.’ 48

Asquith’s motives in acceding to an inquiry are opaque. The letter announcing the inquiry’s establishment is cloaked by vague assertions about national security combined with references to Beresford’s high standing meanwhile the Prime Minister’s replies to parliamentary questions on the subject were elliptical. 49 Notably Asquith had kept the King informed of the increasing political divisions within the navy through his weekly written Cabinet briefings but on the eve of the inquiry’s first meeting he simply acknowledged its existence. 50  Not surprisingly Fisher was content to understand that it was all a result of Asquith’s funk. 51  Anxious, the Admiralty believed that an inquiry threatened constitutional principle because it represented an attempt by the Government to divest itself of responsibility for the settled policy of its Admiralty. 52  However, given the inquiry was to be undertaken by a subcommittee of the main Prime Ministerial defence advisory committee, the Admiralty argument could be easily countered. Inclined to procrastination, Asquith saw an opportunity to stop this constant carping at his Government’s naval policy but through a process which deferred decisive action and over which he had control. 53  An inquiry was thus an appropriate constitutional and political solution to a senior experienced officer’s long-standing and constant critique of the Government’s provisions for naval defence. Fisher, fulminating on what he had previously remarked as the ‘apparent tendency to wobbling in the Prime Minister’ 54 , had been out-manoeuvred by Beresford and the Syndicate.


Proceedings of an Inquiry

Guided by eight terms of reference, subsequently reduced to three headings (‘The organisation and distribution of the fleet in Home waters’, ‘Small craft and destroyers’, and ‘War Plans’) the Subcommittee met on fifteen occasions to hear oral and accept documentary evidence. 55  First Lord McKenna welcomed the narrow framework and after the first two meetings he sought Asquith’s reaffirmation that the proceedings would not turn into a ‘fishing investigation’ 56 ; Beresford was, however, not concerned because the three headings encompassed the very issues about which he and the Syndicate were principally concerned. 57

Admiral Lord C. Beresford. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3770-4.

Admiral Lord C. Beresford. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3770-4.

There were three parts to Beresford’s critique on the organisation and distribution of the fleet in home waters. First, with reference to the three fleets – Home, Channel and Atlantic – he argued that the Admiralty’s policy of dispersal undermined the country’s defence. Beresford considered this orientation ill-disposed to meet Germany’s naval force which he portrayed as homogeneous under one commander; Britain, he contended, should imitate this organisation. Beresford’s proposal for a single unitary fleet of no more than 60 vessels, comprising three divisions of which two would be ever present with the C-in-C, also attempted to provide a solution to his second criticism, namely that during his period in command the Channel Fleet was frequently under-strength. 58  Examples of absentee averages per week were two to three battleships out of 14, one to two armoured cruisers out of siz, and nine to ten destroyers out of 30. 59  Beresford ascribed such absences to ships undergoing refit or repair without the Admiralty providing the promised replacements and thus the nominal strength of Beresford’s proposed homogeneous fleet would exceed the necessary war provision. A supplementary feature of his proposal was the increased opportunity for fleet training because time would no longer be wasted in organising the conjunction of three or more fleets. Finally, Beresford turned his argument upon the then Home Fleet, claiming it could not undertake the role of an immediate attack force assigned to it by the Admiralty. Beresford based his argument upon his assessment of the reserve system and, although not opposing directly the nucleus-crew reserve system, he claimed that the Admiralty had over-estimated its mobilisation rate and had failed to take account of the time required for a ship to become a functioning battle unit; under the Admiralty’s fleet disposition this was an important point because the reserve immediately formed part of the main battle fleet in war time. As an alternative, Beresford stated that his proposed unitary fleet would enable an authentic reserve force which would not in the first instance form part of the front line battle fleet.

The Admiralty’s reply sought to demonstrate that for two reasons there had been no threat to national security during Beresford’s command. First, Beresford had over-emphasised the strength of the German Fleet and its purported concentrated organisation; the reality, according to the Admiralty, was that the German fleet’s operational effectiveness was questionable due to 25% of the ships’ complements comprising raw recruits upon their annual October draft. 60  Second, the Admiralty argued that Beresford had been caught in the transition of fleet redistribution. A strategic reorientation had begun in 1904 through a programme of reorganisation which redeployed the largest British Fleet to home waters. Thus, while the Admiralty accepted that the fleet disposition in home waters during Beresford’s command of the Channel Fleet was not ideal, it was a transitory arrangement. McKenna also provided a stout defence of the Home Fleet, indicating that the Admiralty’s conception of its role was based upon its full Nore Division.   Notably, McKenna’s arguments were not focussed upon Beresford’s point about the efficacy of a reserve fleet feeding into the battle fleet at the outbreak of war but instead comprised quantitative comparisons to demonstrate that Beresford’s mobilisation rates were erroneous and the claim that a reserve ship, when fully commissioned, took little time in becoming an effective fighting force.

Beresford’s evaluation of the lack of small craft and destroyers in home waters ostensibly appeared a quantitative concern. The figures he submitted of 27 small craft (Beresford too loosely interchanged this term with the generic class nomenclature – Cruiser – when he was in fact referring specifically to 2nd and 3rd class cruisers) compared unfavourably to Germany’s 38. 61  With reference to destroyers and torpedo boats, the problem was less the lack of them as a total figure but that the average number was frequently three to four short of a full flotilla complement. 62  Moreover, out of the full complement of 123 destroyers only 33 of the River and five of the Tartar Classes were suitable for work in the North Sea. 62  Beresford’s further point concerned the deployment and role of these vessels. The shortage resulted in the use of larger 1st class cruisers to reconnoitre the enemy’s coastal egresses which represented a ‘misapplication of force’ 64 on two levels. First, as reconnaissance bore large operational risks and thus the expectation of considerable wastage in wartime, it was profligate to commit the larger vessels; second, by so committing them, the trade routes were left largely unprotected. In support of the latter, Captain Campbell of the Naval Intelligence Trade Division testified that the situation was such that British trade routes were ripe for capture.

In reply the Admiralty again concentrated upon the numerical comparisons. McKenna, by extending the numerical set to include all cruisers and not just the 2nd and 3rd classes, easily produced a different set of figures flattering Britain’s position. The Admiralty did not, however, try to deny Beresford’s articulation of a proper deployment for naval reconnaissance; rather, they aimed to present it as an ideal. McKenna argued that as 1st class cruisers could adequately carry out this task, if not more so given that ‘armour is vision’ 65 , then it would represent gross fiscal irresponsibility not to deploy them; for the Admiralty it was a simple question of efficient use of the available resources. Moreover, while not repudiating Beresford’s negative cost-benefit curve, McKenna argued that the differential did not warrant scrapping the larger vessels to build more of the smaller 2nd and 3rd classes; a similar argument was used with reference to the destroyers and torpedo boats. The Admiralty highlighted that the 1908/9 and 1909/10 naval estimates laid down a total of 36 new destroyers and that in any event 55 of the older destroyers could be deployed because they were similar to those which had engaged and acquitted themselves well in the recent Russo-Japanese war under conditions far worse than those prevailing in the north sea. 62  To counter the allegations on exposed trade routes, McKenna called Vice Admiral A.K. Wilson who argued that the cost of guaranteeing the security of trade routes was prohibitive. Instead he concluded that Britain would have to accept huge initial losses, but that equilibrium would subsequently be established between the combatants. 67

The treatment of war plan provision in the Subcommittee’s hearings tended to get mired in the details of who was given what plan and when. In part this was a result of Beresford’s specific claim that he had not received any war plans on assuming command of the Channel Fleet. McKenna demonstrated that Beresford had not only received plans from the Admiralty (these were a set of four which Haggie identifies as produced by the Admiralty’s Ballard Committee) 68 but that also their receipt was a departure from standard procedure. Normally the Admiralty would pass to the C-in-C a set of war orders from which he would formulate a plan for consideration by the Board. The implication was that Beresford actually received help with war planning above and beyond precedent and accordingly the inquiry’s Secretary concluded that Beresford’s testimony was ‘very considerably modified under cross-examination.’ 69  Although this clearly damaged Beresford’s credibility, he ensured that the Subcommittee grasped his two points on Admiralty provision of war plans.

First, Beresford argued that a detailed war plan with all vessels told off therein was a prerequisite of naval defence. This argument was set within a framework of the overall utility of war plans and the Admiralty again called upon Admiral Sir A.K. Wilson to give contrary evidence. Wilson claimed that the inherent vagaries of war rendered detailed strategic plans irrelevant and therefore within the Admiralty there was little enthusiasm for their development. Beresford re-joined that the essential concomitant of detailed war planning was fleet training and by returning to a theme of the ‘Dockyard Notes’, he emphasised the merit for commanders of fleet manoeuvres based on plans; in this context, he lamented that he had only once (October 1907) secured the whole fleet (the Channel, Atlantic and Home fleets combined) for training which he would command in war. On war planning, Beresford’s intent was to press the point that numbers ‘do not denote strength’, rather that the key strengths were ‘good organisation made out beforehand’, and ‘good and constant training.’ 70  A related point upon which Beresford also touched was the provision of information to the commanding officer on the condition of all the vessels under his command and he argued that only when in possession of such knowledge could an adequate war plan be drafted. Specifically, Beresford accused the Admiralty of preventing the fulfilment of command responsibilities because of the poverty of information in its monthly Order of Battle. The Admiralty did not dispute the centrality of this issue to naval defence, only that its provision had been both adequate before, and more frequent after, Beresford’s complaints. Moreover, McKenna argued that Beresford could have made good any deficiencies through approaching his immediate subordinates. The Admiralty seemed to concede Beresford’s basic point on war planning but deny the necessity for a centralised process through which the information might be furnished.


Consequences of an inquiry

A month after the last meeting the Subcommittee published its report as a Parliamentary Paper. There was certainly no equivocation in the general conclusions that with respect to fleet disposition, the number of small vessels and the production of war plans, the Admiralty’s arrangements had not imperilled national security and the current dispositions were ‘quite defensible in themselves’ 71  Such an apparent victory for the Fishpond was reflected in government policy being upheld and none of the Admiralty Board, the CID or the Cabinet deemed it necessary to consider the issues further, a stance rigorously supported by many serving Admirals. 72  For the Syndicate the final insult may have been the report’s platitudinous note that the airing of differences of opinion amongst high ranking officers had impressed the Subcommittee. 73

And yet the head of the Fishpond was distraught. It took Fisher a week to assimilate the report but then he wrote to McKenna, unleashing a tirade. He condemned the report as a ‘Cowardly Document’, which would allow Beresford to claim a victory of ideas while the ‘5 Men’ (the Subcommittee members) were denounced as ‘great cowards’ whom he condemned to purgatory. 74  The King’s Secretary, Lord Knollys, was also negative, reflecting that the report’s conclusions were essentially in Beresford’s favour. 75  This was a conclusion that Beresford had similarly arrived at and he gleefully expressed to Balfour that the report could not have been more in his favour ‘without wringing the heads of the Admiralty.’ 76

On the specifics of fleet organisation and distribution, the report supported the victory claims of both the Fishpond and the Syndicate. Any notion that the disposition of the Channel Fleet during Beresford’s command exposed the country to danger was firmly rejected and that an accurate comparison with other fleets demonstrated that British organisation was not dissimilar; indeed its total and reserve strengths had been superior. However, in terms of the fleet disposition the Subcommittee considered that the March 1909 fleet redistribution programme created a home waters fleet equal to Beresford’s proposals and indeed the sole disparity between Beresford and the Admiralty concerned the retention of the Atlantic Fleet as an independent command. 77 Beresford scheme for a home water fleet was thus viewed as the correct palliative for an organisational malaise which the Admiralty believed had not yet demonstrated any symptoms.

The report’s brief dispatch of the alleged small craft and destroyer shortage was predicated upon an indecision revealed by a contradiction in the conclusions. The inquiry deemed Beresford’s criticisms on the matter contingent upon technical conceptions of ship design which were outside the purview of the Subcommittee and thus there was no confidence to express an opinion; enough confidence, however, existed to claim subsequently that no deficiency existed to imperil national security or the trade routes. The report therefore drew a conclusion from evidence which it reputedly found incomprehensible. No justification was given of the deliberations on this issue and the report thus belied the importance which the point would subsequently have in war planning. 78  In this instance Fisher’s horror recognised that Beresford had foreshadowed a critical aspect of the forthcoming debate on naval defence. 78

Perhaps not surprisingly, the report emphasised Beresford’s recantation that he had not received war plans but nonetheless a significant rebuke to the Admiralty followed. Acknowledging that Beresford had ascribed deficiencies in war planning to the absence of a proper Staff, the development of a ‘Naval War Staff’ was stressed. 71  Admiralty progress with the matter proved excruciatingly slow and the body’s impending establishment was only subsequently referred to in minutes three years hence. 81  Beresford, therefore, understandably cast doubt in his 1912 book, The Betrayal: Being a Record of Facts Concerning Naval Policy and Administration From the Year 1902 to the Present Time, on the veracity of the Admiralty’s claim at the inquiry that it had taken great strides towards the Staff’s creation. 82  His argument for strategic planning and its associated benefit of increased training had been recognised by the Subcommittee to be then frustrated by the Admiralty.

Beresford’s post-inquiry years were tragic. Although he was not immediately placed upon the retired list, the Admiralty blocked his subsequent promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in 1910. 83  He did successfully seek re-election to Parliament in 1910 where he continued energetically to advocate his case on naval defence but he became involved in a series of grubby disputes with Winston Churchill, including in particular an unedifying exchange in the summer of 1914 over Beresford’s alleged comments in the Carlton Club and elsewhere which questioned the loyalty of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg. 84  In 1916, Beresford’s naval service was in part recognised through his elevation to the Lords but he died three years later.

At the outset it was clear that Fisher’s position would be vulnerable if the inquiry did not find unequivocally in his favour and the resultant ambiguities did hasten his departure from the Admiralty. Although raised to the peerage in 1910, he seemed unable to accept his departure and failed to heed Balfour’s advice that ‘even a sailor must occasionally long for a calm.’ 85  Fisher continued his dispute with Beresford, even indulging in political chicanery by beseeching McKenna’s wife to use what influence she possessed to get the writ postponed in an attempt to thwart Beresford’s election at Portsmouth. 86  Fisher’s reputation and career were, however, of sufficient merit to earn him recall as First Sea Lord in 1914 only for subsequent disputes with Churchill and others to prompt his second departure in May 1915. 87

Both for policy and the protagonists, the inquiry thus produced formal and informal consequences. Of the former, the Subcommittee found in the Fishpond’s favour and the Glasgow Herald’s succinct headline ‘Admiralty Position Upheld’ 88 was apposite. The measure of the Fishpond’s success was the Admiralty’s subsequent inactivity and the retention of the policy status quo. Informally, though, aspects of Beresford’s conception of naval defence were recognised either as coinciding with current Admiralty policy or as policy to be formulated. The high water mark for the Syndicate was that such informal consequences forced their nemesis, Fisher, from the Admiralty. Both groups won and lost the arguments in equal measure and thus as Lord Esher commented presciently ‘I suppose the Report fulfils all ‘political’ requirements.’ 89

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)



  1. H. Strachan, The Politics of the British Army (Oxford: OUP, 1997), pp. 1-19, 234-62.
  2. P.G. Halpern, ‘Fishpond (act. 1904-1910)’ & ‘Syndicate of discontent (act. 1904-1910)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, online edn Sept.. 2011), [, accessed 8 Feb 2012
  3. R.F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford: OUP, 1973) remains the standard and best biography but please also see Admiral Sir R.H. Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (2 vols, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929), A.J. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1914 (2 vols, London: OUP, 1961) and A. Lambert, Admirals (London: Faber, 2009), pp. 291-333.
  4. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 38.
  5. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone , 273-350; Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, pp. 28-45.
  6. C.M. Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Reconsidered: Winston Churchill at the Admiralty, 1911-1914’, War in History, XVII (2012), pp. 334-35. For the Revisionist case see especially, N.A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), N.A. Lambert, ‘Admiral Sir John Fisher and the Concept of Flotilla Defence, 1904-1909’, Journal of Military History LIX (1995), pp. 639-60; J.T. Sumida, ‘Sir John Fisher and the Dreadnought: The Sources of Naval Mythology’, Journal of Military History LIX (1995), pp. 619-38
  7. Lambert, Admirals, pp. 293, 311; Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 344, Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 25.
  8. M.P.A. Hankey, The Supreme Command, 1914-1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), Vol. I, p. 145.
  9. Marder, From Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, p. 13.
  10. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 420.
  11. Bell, ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution’, pp. 334-36.
  12. V. W. Baddeley, ‘Beresford, Charles William de la Poer, Baron Beresford (1846–1919)’, rev. P.G. Halpern, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, online edn, May 2008). [, accessed 30 April 2012
  13. A.J.A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament 1896-1914 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 164-84.
  14. R. Williams, Defending the Empire: The Conservative Party and British Defence Policy, 1899-1915 (London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 127.
  15. See the works listed in footnotes 3 and 6.
  16. See in particular, G. Penn, Infighting Admirals: Fisher’s Feud with Beresford and the Reactionaries (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword, 2000); R. Freeman, The Great Edwardian Naval Feud: Beresford’s Vendetta against ‘Jackie’ Fisher (Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2009).
  17. A.J. Marder (ed.), Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (London: Cape, 1956 ), Vol. II, p. 115; Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone, p. 365; Bacon, The Life of Lord Fisher, Vol. II, pp. 29-30.
  18. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  19. Churchill College Archives Centre (hereafter CCAC), FISR 1/2 No.65: Beresford to Fisher, Feb.1901; FISR 3/2 No.1866: Beresford to Pamela Blackett (nee Fisher), 2 July 1906.
  20. CCAC, FISR 1/2 No. 65: Beresford to Fisher, Feb. 1901.
  21. G.M. Bennett, Charlie B’: A Biography of Admiral Lord Beresford of Metemmeh and Curraghmore G.C.B., G.C.V.O., LL.D., D.C.L. (London: Dawnay, 1968), p. 207.
  22. National Maritime Museum (hereafter NMM), GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A1-10 & Z15-19; O1-13, P11-12 & W7; P6-12 & W7; T6-12, U2-12 & V2-11.
  23. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A7.
  24. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, P6-12.
  25. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, O9.
  26. Bennett, Charlie B’, pp. 96-204; P. Haggie, ‘The Royal Navy and War Planning in the Fisher Era’, Journal of Contemporary History VIII (1973), pp. 113-31.
  27. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A5-6.
  28. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A3.
  29. NMM, GBK/1: ‘Dockyard Notes’, A3-7.
  30. CCAC, MCKN 3/24, fo. 2-28: Index to Lord Charles Beresford’s Opinions.
  31. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings of a Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence to Inquire into Certain Questions of Naval Policy Raised by Lord Charles Beresford (1909), Appendix 5B: Beresford to McKenna, 5 June 1908.
  32. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 3-18: Extracts from Official Correspondence & c, between the Admiralty and Lord Charles Beresford, Apr.1907-Jan.1908.
  33. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 5B: Beresford to McKenna, 5 June 1908.
  34. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo.11-12: Extract from Beresford to the Admiralty, 16 July 1907.
  35. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 17: Extract from Beresford to the Admiralty, 9 Dec. 1907.
  36. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, fo. 3-18: Extracts from Official Correspondence & c, between the Admiralty and Lord Charles Beresford, Apr.1907-Jan.1908.
  37. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 5C: Minutes of an Interview between Tweedmouth, Fisher & Beresford, 5 July 1907.
  38. CCAC, FISR 1/5 No.238: Fisher to Beresford, 22 Apr. 1907; Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, p. 151.
  39. Marder, Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol. I, pp. 77-8.
  40. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, Vol. II, pp. 172-3.
  41. CCAC, FISR 5/16 No.4266: Extract from the Communication Sent by the First Lord to the Members of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence, Mar.1909.
  42. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  43. Williams, Defending the Empire, pp. 120-37.
  44. British Library (hereafter BL), Add. MS. 49713, fo. 185-6: Beresford to Balfour, 17 Feb. & 24 Mar. 1909; BL, Add. MS. 49797, fo. 66: Gwynne to Sanders, 10 June 1907.
  45. BL, Add. MS. 49712, fo. 21-3: Fisher to Balfour, 29 Nov. 1907.
  46. BL, Add. MS. 49713, fo. 188-90: Balfour to Fisher, 27 Mar. 1909; CCAC, FISR 5/15 No.4260: Memorandum 1908.
  47. BL, Add. MS. 49713, fo. 188-90: Balfour to Fisher, 27 Mar. 1909.
  48. British Parliamentary Papers (hereafter, BPP), Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence Appointed to Inquire into Certain Questions of Naval Policy Raised by Lord Charles Beresford (London: HMSO, 1909), pp. 2-4.
  49. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p.5; Hansard (Commons) 5th Ser. III, 29 Mar.-23 Apr. 1909, cols 1-1871.
  50. NA, CAB 41/31/62: Asquith to His Majesty, 8 July1908; NA, CAB 41/32/11: Asquith to His Majesty, 26 Apr. 1909.
  51. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought Vol. II. p. 242.
  52. CCAC, FISR 5/13 No.4241: On the Board of Admiralty’s Supremacy & Inadvisability of an Inquiry into Admiralty Policy, Jan. 1908.
  53. A.J.P. Taylor, ‘H.H. Asquith’, in A.J.P. Taylor, From the Boer War to the Cold War: Essays on Twentieth Century Europe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p. 94.
  54. CCAC, MCKN 6/2, fo.55-58: Fisher to McKenna, 19 Mar. 1909.
  55. The subsequent analysis of the 15 meetings is based on the detailed minutes of the inquiry at NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 1-328 and also on the summary of proceedings at NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings: Appendix 48, pp. 228-45. Individual footnote references are only given in this section for direct quotations and figures.
  56. CCAC, MCKN 3/27, McKenna to Asquith, 29 Apr. 1909.
  57. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 5.
  58. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 4-8, 10-21.
  59. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 229-32.
  60. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 232-33.
  61. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, pp. 49-65.
  62. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  63. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  64. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, p. 239.
  65. NA, CAB 16/9A: Report and Proceedings, p. 227.
  66. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, pp. 241-2.
  67. A. Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 4-5.
  68. Haggie, ‘The Royal Navy and War Planning’, pp. 113-31.
  69. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 48, p. 243.
  70. NA, CAB 16/9B: Appendices to Proceedings, Appendix 11: ‘Criticism By Lord Charles Beresford of the Admiralty War Plans’.
  71. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 8-9.
  72. There are no references to the Inquiry in NA, ADM 167/43: Admiralty Board Minutes, 1909, ADM 167/44: Admiralty Board Minutes, 1910 or in NA, CAB 2/2: CIDM (09) 104, 19 Aug. 1909, CIDM (10) 105, 106, 107, 24 Feb., 14 June, 14 July 1910, or in NA, CAB 41/32: Asquith to His Majesty, 1909 (after 28 Apr. 1909); CCAC, MCKN 3/9, fo. 38: Admiral May to McKenna, 18 Aug. 1909.
  73. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 9.
  74. CCAC, MCKN 6/2, fo. 112-16: Fisher to McKenna, 19 Aug. 1909.
  75. CCAC, FISR 1/8 No.411: Knollys to Fisher, 19 Aug. 1909.
  76. BL Add. MS. 49713, fo.215: Beresford to Balfour, 29 Oct. 1909.
  77. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 5-8.
  78. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 8.
  79. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, p. 8.
  80. BPP, Command 256, Report of the Sub-Committee, pp. 8-9.
  81. NA, ADM 167/46: Admiralty Board Minutes, 4 Mar. 1912.
  82. C. Beresford, The Betrayal: Being a Record of Facts Concerning Naval Policy and Administration From the Year 1902 to the Present Time (London, 1912), pp. 87-94.
  83. CCAC, MCKN 3/18 fo. 1-4, 57-8: McKenna to Asquith, n.d, Asquith to McKenna, 26 Dec. 1910.
  84. CCAC, CHAR 13/43, fo. 99-104, 136-8: Churchill to Beresford, 29 Aug., 2 Oct. 1914, Beresford to Churchill, 29 Aug., 1 Oct. 1914.
  85. CCAC, FIRS 1/8 No.427: Balfour to Fisher, 3 Nov. 1909.
  86. CCAC, MCKN 6/2 fo. 138-42: Fisher to Mrs McKenna, 16 Sept. 1909.
  87. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone , pp. 464-505.
  88. Glasgow Herald, 14 Aug. 1909.
  89. BL Add. MS. 49719, fo. 93-96: Esher to Balfour, 15 Aug. 1909.

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BOOK REVIEW – With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855

John A. Wolter, David A. Ranzan, and John J. McDonough, eds., With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. B & W illustrations; maps; appendices; notes; bibliography, 256 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

The 1852-1855 voyage of the US Navy’s East India Squadron to Asia has long been recognized as a watershed moment in history. Not only did it signal the emergence of the United States as a major power in Asia and the Pacific, but it also resulted in re-opening Japan to trade and diplomatic relations after over two centuries of self-imposed near-isolation from the outside world. As a result, this voyage has been the subject of numerous books, including narrative histories and first-hand accounts. Notable examples of the former are Samuel Eliot Morison’s biography of the Squadron’s commander Commodore Matthew C. Perry, “Old Bruin:” Commodore Matthew C. Perry 1794-1858, Arthur Walworth’s Black Ships Off Japan: The Story of Commodore Perry’s Expedition, and George Feifer’s Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853, while the latter include Perry’s own account as well as the diaries of other participants such William Heine, Dr. James Morrow, and Edward Yorke McCauley. Editors John A. Wolter, David A. Ranzan, and the late John J. McDonough add to the latter with their publication With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855.

William Speiden, Jr. (1835-1920) was a teenaged purser’s clerk who served on the steam frigate Mississippi, so he was not in a position to observe or comment knowledgably on the higher politics of Perry’s negotiations with the Japanese. Therefore, his journal of the voyage is frequently confined to rather mundane shipboard life. Nevertheless, it occasionally provides keen insights into the unforeseen practical ramifications of the opening of relations between the US and Japan. For example, he describes with great sensitivity the arrangements made with local Japanese authorities to inter the remains of deceased shipmates. While this may seem to have been a routine matter, the issue of the funeral service in fact required quite delicate handling because Christianity was still officially proscribed in Japan. Speiden’s journal also serves as a reminder that Perry’s voyage also included significant stopovers to and from Japan, including South America, Africa, China, and the Kingdom of the Ryukyu (Liu Chiu) Islands. His description of the last is especially interesting as it provides insights into its political structure, society, and culture before its annexation by Japan in 1873, when it became Okinawa Prefecture.

The editors have done a commendable job of restoring Speiden’s journal in a handsome format. They have reprinted a number of illustrations from that source, including several from Speiden’s own hand. The editing has preserved the essence of the original writing, while removing some of the grammatical and stylistic infelicities. The notes are impressively-researched, and frequently quite helpful, especially in identifying personnel mentioned by Speiden. One slight weakness is the failure of the authors to update the spellings of some of the Asian place names: most notably, the editors retain Speiden’s archaic spelling of the Ryukyu Islands as “Lew Chew.”

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEWS – Some New Looks at the Old Breed: Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps and Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945

David J. Ulbrich, Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2011. Index, photographs, bibliography, maps, notes, 285 pp.

Gregory J.W. Urwin, Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, 1941-1945. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Index, photographs, bibliography, notes, 512 pp.

Review Essay by John T. Kuehn
Major General William Stofft Professor, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS

[page numbers for reference follow the particular work being discussed]

The Naval Institute Press delivers two fascinating books here that bring new scholarship to bear on the history of the United States Marine Corps in World War II (WW II). In both cases the Marine Corps being looked at consists of members the pre-war Corps who fought in WW II, sometimes known as “the Old Breed.” Dr. Greg Urwin teaches at Temple University and has an illustrious curriculum vitae that includes eight other books, numerous articles, and service as a technical advisor on a number of highly successful films, including Gettysburg based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.   Dr. David Ulbrich, of Rogers State University, previously served as the command historian for the Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, MO and is a former doctoral student of Professor Urwin’s.   Thus it is no accident that both gentlemen are writing about the Marines.

What makes their work distinctive, and worth a review essay, are their topics. Urwin picks up where he left off in his book about the Marines’ heroic defense of Wake Island Facing Fearful Odds (1997).   He investigates the puzzle of why the 1600 Marines, sailors and (mostly) civilians who surrendered had such a high survival rate compared to other Allied and American prisoners captured during the war by the Japanese.   Ulbrich, on the other hand, eschews a standard biographical approach to look closely at the organizational leadership of General Thomas Holcomb as Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1936-1943 in the critical years before and during the early part of WW II in the Pacific. Both books might be classified as the “new military history” since they look at primarily non-combat stories either in high command in the strategic rear (Ulbrich) or after the battle in an entirely different sort of struggle against the brutality of Japanese incarceration (Urwin). The only actual connection between these two events, ironically, was that the reason the men were on Wake in the first place was partially due to Holcomb’s efforts to increase Marine defenses in the Pacific.

Both authors bring a great deal of empathy and scholarship to their tasks. Ulbrich’s book will probably be of most interest to an Army audience, since Thomas Holcomb attended both the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School (CGSS) at Fort Leavenworth (1924-25) as well as the Army War College (1931-32).   Ulbrich does a fine job of showing how Holcomb’s career path to the highest command reflected the Marine Corps’ enlightened attitude toward officer education. Holcomb thrived at CGSS, graduating with distinction in the top 20% of the class—a policy reinstituted at CGSS in 2012. (27-29, 33)   Holcomb’s education in arms, though, also included high intensity combat in command of at battalion at the grim battle of Belleau Wood in World War I. Throughout Ulbrich places Holcomb firmly within a cultural context of the Marine Corps, giving the reader as much an institutional history of the innovative Marines officer corps as well as of the key organizational leader that prepared it for World War II and laid the institutional and policy foundations for its later successes. These successes were many and included publication of key doctrines for counterinsurgency (The Small Wars Manual) and Amphibious Warfare (Landing Operations Doctrine, FTP-167). Also among Holcomb’s successes in doctrinal development and tactics included his advocacy for that portion of amphibious warfare doctrine involving advanced base defense as required by War Plan Orange (the war plan for conflict with Japan). Again, ironically, it was this doctrine that was tested first—successfully—at Wake Island when the Marine defenders repulsed the first Japanese assault on December 9, 1941.

Holcomb’s selection in late 1936 as seventeenth Commandant of the Marine Corps was the first time an officer so junior had been selected in over 80 years. Ulbrich shows how the innovative and progressive leadership of the Marine Corps, combined with a previous friendship between President Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in World War I, elevated Holcomb to the top job. (38-40) Ulbrich does an excellent job in showing how Holcomb took a Marine Corps of a little over 18,000 officers and men, smaller than the New York Police Department, and readied and expanded it for war. By the time Holcomb was relieved as commandant by Alexander Vandegrift, the hero of Guadalcanal, the Corps numbered over 385,000 and was a major component in the United States’ war effort in the Pacific Theater.   Holcomb was not without his faults.   As Ulbrich shows, he was not socially progressive and would today be termed a racist and anti-feminist, but he was in the norm for his times and exceptional in his organizational abilities—and he had a war to prepare the Marine Corps to fight.

Urwin’s book, as noted, begins with one of the United States’ rare early victories in WW II, the siege of Wake Island. Although the Japanese invaded a second time and overwhelmed the island’s defenders, the real meat of the book is its narrative account of the fate of the over 1600 prisoners captured at Wake on December 23, 1941.   Urwin’s account reads like a succession of miracles, from his explanation of the incredible job performed by Marine commander Major James Devereux in getting his “battle crazed” men “…to throw themselves at the mercy of a supposedly merciless enemy…” to his heartrending accounts of their various incarcerations at some of the Japanese Empire’s worst POW camps. (28)   Among the most valuable contributions of the book is its cataloging of the Japanese gulag through which Chinese, Americans, Filipinos, Malays, British, Australian, New Zeeland, and Dutch prisoners were moved, suffered, and often died.   Of particular interest will be his accounts of the various and different prisons camps, including the compound on Kyushu known as Fukuoka No. 18B where some of the civilian contractors ended up and known as a “virtual death camp” (319-321, 334).

Another interesting and little known story contained in the account involves the over 1100 civilians of the Contractors Pacific Naval Air Bases (CPNAB) who had signed on for the dangerous but high paying duty of building up Pacific island bases like Wake before the war. Although they got more than they bargained for (some of them were in the 60s when they were captured and there was even one 70 year old), Urwin shows how the hard work, good diet, and clean living on Wake prior to hostilities probably prepared them (along with the Marines and sailors) for the long incarceration ahead.   One would have expected that these first men captured would have had a very high death rate indeed but Urwin, throughout the book and especially in his final chapter, shows how luck, esprit de corps and various other factors combined to give this group the best survival rate of any of the Allied POWs in the Pacific. Among the most important factors, though, was the really good physical condition all the men were in when they were captured after the relatively short fight on December 23rd, unlike the starved and diseased defenders of Bataan, for example.

Ulbrich and Urwin have both done stellar work in producing these “new looks” at the “Old Breed.” Both bring a professional historian’s care as well as interest and passion in the topic to create two very readable books. Students of World War II and anyone interested in man’s ability to persevere in the face of severe odds will probably prefer the Urwin book, however, in order to understand how leaders mold successful institutions, they would be well-served to consider Ulbrich’s book as well. Accordingly, both are highly recommend to a broad reading audience… not just Marines!

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEW – Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa

Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Index, photos, maps, essay on sources, 317 pp.

Reviewed by John T. Kuehn. Major General William Stofft Professor, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS

When offered the chance to review this thoroughly researched book by Timothy Wolters, I jumped at the chance given my experience as a former combat direction center officer (CDCO) on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.   The first thing I checked was Wolters’ sources to see if his book referenced Norman Friedman’s Network Centric Warfare (2009).   In doing so I discovered that, indeed, his comprehensive essay on sources mentions Friedman on its first page (299), and (full disclosure) this reviewer’s work two pages later (Agents of Innovation). Setting aside this sort of scholarly obsessing for the moment, the reader interested in a broad history of command and control design and innovation aboard US warships from the Civil War to World War II will be well rewarded.

Wolters has mastered the sources surrounding this topic and writes in an easy style that highlights the role of individuals and U.S. Navy culture in the path toward the sophisticated command and control system in place by the end of World War II. He explicitly debunks the notion propagated by some historians about the inherent, almost reactionary, conservatism of the Navy’s officer corps during this period, introducing us to a fascinating, and often little-heard of, cast of innovative individuals. Although he provides abundant evidence for his revisionist thesis about the innovative culture of the Navy during this period throughout the book, Wolters states his case best in his discussion of the Navy’s exploration of the merits of wireless telegraphy on page 43:

In other words, the [U.S. Navy] simultaneously recognized the potential of radio communications and its existing operational limitations. [historian Susan] Douglas overlooks this vital point when she argues that the American sea service ‘was not the sort of organization in which technical sponsorship, especially of an invention that threatened autonomy and decentralization, was either desired or possible.’ As… shown, the U.S. Navy was just that sort of organization.

Another of Wolters’ major arguments can be found in the book’s introduction—in order to understand the development of combat command and control at sea, one must study the details. All too often these details lead the reader to learn about individuals who have often been opaque in the existing histories, at least as regards their relationship to this topic. I call these people the “behind the scenes folk,” and this book is full of them.   They are not names one finds in the standard navy hero pantheon: Foxhall Parker, Stanford Hooper, Charles Badger, John M. Hudgins, and Thomas Craven to name only a few. They might also be characterized as unsung heroes as Wolters writes, “Without their pioneering efforts … America’s victory in World War II would have cost even more in blood and treasure than it ultimately did” (1).

After a short introduction the book is organized chronologically into five chapters aligning with the periods of command and control as Wolters categorizes them followed by a short conclusions chapter. He covers the pre-radio era that used flags and flares prior to invention of radio in chapter 1 and covers the adoption and adaptation of radio in chapter 2. One of the sub-conclusions Wolters makes from this chapter on the impact of radio is a rather startling paradox that could apply to the cybernetic warfare of today: “…the battle space expanded while the time available to make decision shrank” (79). From there he examines the impact of World War I, especially its anti-submarine warfare component, and the period of peace after it in chapter 3 as radio became critically important to the Navy. We meet (again) Stanford Hooper, who we learn was sent to Europe to observe the use of wireless in naval operations and in effect, because of his expertise with radio receivers, conducted his own electronic eavesdropping from his hotel rooms and billets to gather the necessary “observations” (86-87)! The author shows how the introduction of radio command and control further increased the technological bent of Navy culture and in the bargain provides a neat little sidebar on the critical role of the Naval Research Lab in doing so (124-125).

Instead of jumping right into the final chapter on World War II, chapter 4, entitled “A Most Complex Problem,” addresses the impact of air power on the development of combat information systems in the Navy. He highlights the informational challenge presented to the Navy in trying to adapt systems maximized for surface warfare and threats to this new dimension of warfare. In this way, Wolters prepares the reader for the evolutionary developments of Combat Information Center (CIC) doctrine and implementation during World War II in chapter 5 appropriately entitled “Creating the Brain of a Warship.”   In chapter 5 he examines how the Navy’s leaders and their new, but untested, systems met the ultimate command and control challenges of over-the-horizon battles against surface, sub-surface, and air platforms, especially the “wicked” problem of the kamikaze, a weapon-tactic that prepared the U.S. Navy for the un-manned anti-ship cruise missile of the future (and our present).   Wolters does yeoman service in this final chapter, showing how today’s combat direction centers aboard naval ships owe much of their current form to how the Navy met the ultimate challenge in integrating information, sensors (like radar) and decision-making in high intensity war, especially during the hellish campaign at Okinawa (215-221). Admiral Chester Nimitz later famously observed that the only thing that Navy leaders had not really conceptualized during the interwar period had been the challenge of kamikaze. Wolters’ book modifies this claim somewhat—the difficulties posed by air warfare and radar needed much hard conceptual work during the war—but underlines its essential truth that naval officers were intellectually prepared for this challenge because the Navy was fundamentally an innovative culture. In this sense he builds on the work of Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone. 1

One minor weakness of the book has to do with its paucity of information on the role of the aforementioned General Board in these matters. However, this is more due, probably, to the vast amounts of material in the General Board archival materials that must be gone through and represents opportunity for future scholars to continue to add to our understanding of the contributions (or lack of them) by this body to the policies effecting the development of command and control systems for the fleet. Since many of the individuals referenced in this book served on the General Board, Charles Badger and Arthur Hepburn come to mind, it would be odd that the Board played no role at all in policy development for information systems. For example, the “1922 Naval Policy” written collectively by the General Board had an entire section devoted to “Information” in that milestone document. 2

Additional value in the book comes from fascinating photographs, schematics, and maps from the relevant periods that add to the overall narrative. This is an essential book for historians of technology, naval historians, and for naval officers in general and will have great appeal for anyone interested in innovation and the challenging dynamics of modern naval warfare. This book is most highly recommended.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)


  1. Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone, Battle Line: The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press,2006); see also Trent Hone, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2009, Vol. 62, No. : 67-104; and Thomas C. Hone, “Replacing Battleships with Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific in World War II,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2013, Vol. 66, No. 1: 56-76.
  2. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 204note.

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BOOK REVIEW – Clouds Above The Hill (“Saka No Ue No Kumo”)

Shiba Ryotaro, Clouds Above The Hill (“Saka No Ue No Kumo”) Edited by, Phyllis Birnbaum. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Paul McCarthy, and Andrew Cobbing, New York: Routledge, 2012-2014. 4 volumes.

Review by Robert P. Largess
Independent Scholar

Perhaps the most perennially fascinating conflicts in military history are those in which a weaker force seeks to defeat a numerically stronger opponent by superior tactics, materiel, and fighting quality. Classic examples are the German High Seas Fleet vs. the British Grand Fleet in WWI, and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia vs. the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. And of course, this was also exactly what the Japanese Navy hoped to achieve in its climactic struggle with the U.S. Navy in the Second World War. Each of these underdogs failed to gain a decisive victory through maneuver and spirit, and each struggle developed into a grueling war of attrition in which the stronger side won. Still, each of them secured some truly striking successes, enough to engender endless subsequent debate over whether Scheer, Lee, or Yamamoto could – through the right tactical choices or “the breaks of the game” – have possibly pulled it off.

Sometimes though, the conundrum has been solved, and the weaker force has won. The outstanding example of this is Japan’s victory over Russia in their conflict over possession of Korea, the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese possessed superiority in leadership, morale, discipline, and some important areas of materiel. But what prevented this struggle from descending into a long drawn out war of attrition, which Japan could hardly have won, was her stunning, crushing naval victory at the Tsushima Straits on May 27, 1905, which led to the annihilation or capture of almost the entire Russian Fleet. The largest contest of fleets since the Napoleonic Wars, this was one of the most decisive naval battles in history, and dealt the prestige of the Russian imperial system a blow from which it never recovered.

The 1904-5 war and Tsushima were the culmination of Japan’s Meiji Era, the remarkable period of Japan’s determination to Westernize and modernize its society to prevent its colonization following its opening to the West in 1853 – a phenomenon not quite like anything to be found in the rest of the world, a sort of national revolution by consensus, something repeated perhaps in Japan’s embrace of American democracy and culture in 1945. These issues form the subject of Shiba Ryotaro’s historical novel Clouds Above the Hill (“Saka no Ue no Kumo”) which first appeared in weekly serial form in Japanese newspapers 1968-1972, and was then published complete in eight volumes. One of the most published books in Japanese history; it is still in print and much read. Shiba retains an iconic status for the Japanese people as interpreter of their history through his many works, and most all this one. However, it has never before been translated into English until this four-volume 2013 edition, produced through the personal commitment of publisher Saito Sumio. Western students of naval history will recognize it as part of the groundbreaking flood of new knowledge from Japanese-language sources which has been enriching our field in the last few years, for example in Evans and Peattie’s Kaigun or Parshall and Tully’s Shattered Sword. Indeed, this work shares with Kaigun the major theme of how the 1904-5 war shaped Japan’s decision to go to war in 1942. It is of the deepest interest to anyone interested in modern Japanese history and culture, the 1904-5 war including the land campaign, navies of the Predreadnaught Era, and of course the Tsushima battle itself, described over 140 pages in minute-by-minute detail. It contains similar extensive and gripping descriptions of other naval actions including the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Ulsan in 1904, the Battle of the Yalu and the seldom-described night torpedo attacks on Weihaiwei which caused the loss of the battleship Dingyuan in the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, as well as the 1898 Battle of Santiago, where Japanese naval officer Akiyama Saneyuki was present as an observer with the U.S. fleet.

Clouds is not historical fiction in the American sense, but a dramatic recreation of history. It follows the background and events of the war from the viewpoints of many, many real historical people, but in particular Akiyama Yoshifuru, “father of the Japanese cavalry”, and his brother Saneyuki, who became Togo’s chief operational planner for Tsushima. (Kaigun calls his tenure at Japan’s new naval war college in 1903, “the beginning of independent Japanese naval thought.”) Clouds follows their boyhood as members of the newly-abolished samurai class, struggling to obtain Western-style educations and careers in public service, making unique contributions to Japan’s military development, and then achieving brilliant successes in action in the war. The exact genre of Clouds may puzzle American readers at first; it is neither exciting escape fiction nor a scholarly monograph. Actually, it most resembles something like Ken Burns’ TV series The Civil War. Shiba’s goal is to inform, and move us with the truth. The original serial format enabled him to take his time, exploring every aspect of his subject including diplomacy, national cultures, military science and technology, and the lives and personalities of many important figures. Like Burns, he introduces us to many scholars and first-person witnesses, bringing them onstage and letting them speak for themselves, delving into and summarizing many issues, but all unified by sweeping underlying themes.

The war, of course, was the test of the reborn young Japan’s ability to survive in the face of Darwinian Western imperialism that swallowed up the other ancient civilizations of the earth: India, Islam, and (almost) China. But perhaps the most important and mis-learned lesson of the war was how much it was a near-run thing. Japan was at the point of running out of money, resources, manpower, even ammunition when the war ended. The Russian army, forced out of Korea by tactical reverses, withdrew into Manchuria with its superior strength intact, following the strategy that worked so well against Napoleon and Hitler, forcing its enemies to stretch themselves to the limit in a futile and ultimately desperate attempt to force a decision. What saved the situation for Japan – one can imagine the broken remnants of a retreating Japanese army struggling to reach the safety of the Korean ports in the winter of 1905-6 – was the crushing, total naval victory at Tsushima.

Japan found – or put – itself in the same strategic situation in WWII, of going to war with inadequate resources and military strength, banking on a decisive naval victory to pull the fat out of the fire. Kaigun analyzes how the Japanese Navy spent the years between world wars preparing itself to fight the decisive battle and neglecting everything essential for a war of attrition. Japan went to war in 1941 with the misplaced confidence – or hope – that it could bring off this very chancy result. But the window of opportunity for this was very short – gone at Midway, perhaps, or at least after the carrier battles later in 1942. What made things different in 1904-5? In fact, more than a year of constant hard naval fighting punctuated by several major engagements preceded Tsushima. But it proved hard to bring the Russian squadrons to action, armored warships proved quite resistant to gunfire, Japanese losses were high, and Togo himself apparently fumbled tactically on two major occasions.

The first decisive development occurred when the Japanese captured 203 Meter Hill overlooking the Port Arthur anchorage, and brought the Russian Far Eastern fleet there under spotter-directed fire, using its 11-in. (28-cm.) siege howitzers to sink four of the five remaining Russian battleships on Dec. 5-7, 1904. (Bringing these monsters into the field was an unprecedented feat; it inspired the Germans to create their mobile Krupp 16-in. howitzers which they used to reduce the Belgian border forts in the opening act of WWI.)

The second was Tsushima. The Russian Baltic Fleet had travelled 18,000 miles and spent seven and a half months away from a base or shipyard, a serious matter for ships in the age of coal, with crews subjected to back-breaking labor in tropical heat, constant recoaling and resupplying, mechanical wear and tear on their reciprocating engines. Their commander Rozhestvensky led them into a hopeless tactical situation, with no way to a base (Vladivostok) except through the Japanese fleet, and with their inferior speed no way of disengaging once battle was joined. Indeed he threw away any chance of eluding the Japanese by passing the Korean straits in daylight, out of a probably exaggerated fear of night torpedo attack. Not the least of their problems was his complete lack of a tactical plan to fight the inevitable battle, apparently relying only on his substantial superiority in heavy guns (41 Russian 10 and 12-in. vs. 17 Japanese).

Does Shiba have any biases? He is very hard – perhaps too hard – on Rodzhestvensky , who is portrayed as an egotistic tyrant, in contrast to the doomed and tragic figure presented in Richard Hough’s 1958 The Fleet That Had to Die. Certainly he had the force of personality and determination to flog his fleet halfway around the world, but lacked the leadership skills to weld it into a confident, effective fighting force. Shiba also blames Japanese war hero Gen. Nogi for the huge casualties and slow progress of the Port Arthur siege. However, Port Arthur was incredibly strong and the Japanese desperately needed to take it and destroy the Russian battleships there in time to refit their own ships before for the arrival of the Baltic Fleet.

One point that will surprise many Western readers regards the 11-in. siege howitzers. Many Western accounts, such as Wilson’s 1926 Battleships in Action, state that the Japanese siege train of 18 11-in. howitzers was sunk by Russian cruisers in the transport Hitachi Maru on June 15, 1904; providing replacements retarded the assault on Port Arthur. This is apparently still accepted by the authors of Kaigun, and is repeated on Wikipedia today. In fact, none were lost on the Hitachi Maru; the original howitzers were coast defense weapons from fixed permanent mounts in Japan; the decision was made to move them into the field in September 1904 only as an expedient after the initial assault ground to a halt. This writer is unable to say when this misconception crept in; a very cursory look at some contemporary news reports of the sinking revealed no mention of the 11-in. weapons. Could it be that the Hitachi Maru was carrying heavy siege guns, likely 4.7-in., and some Western writer confused them with the later 11-in.? But Shiba tells the correct story.

Clouds Above the Hill rewards study from many aspects, but for the student with a particular interest in the history, thought, ships, and leaders of the Japanese Navy it is essential reading. And easy reading; the translation is simple, clear, and direct. Published in Britain in a small edition, at $76.50 each for the four volumes or $233.75 for the set, it is not cheap. However, a less expensive paperback edition is apparently coming out soon. In any case, it is in the libraries, and available from the online booksellers. How did I come across it? A small disclaimer: this reviewer had the good fortune to be an old friend of the editor, and was asked to proofread it as – how shall I put it? – a known certifiable naval history fanatic. Thus far it remains obscure in this country; but may it receive the attention it deserves! The story of the Japanese Navy is brilliant and tragic, and no one tells it better than Shiba.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)





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