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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BOOK REVIEW – Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860

Philip Hichborn, Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860. Edited by William H. Thiesen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010. Notes, appendices, index, 148 pp.

Review by Timothy G. Lynch
SUNY Maritime

In Cruise of the Dashing Wave: Rounding Cape Horn in 1860, we are treated to a first-person account of what it was like to serve aboard a clipper ship in mid-nineteenth century America. The slim volume, part of the now-discontinued series on maritime history and nautical archaeology formerly published by the University Press of Florida (and now continued under the able stewardship of Gene Smith and James Bradford at the Naval Institute Press) is based on the diary of ships’ carpenter Philip Hichborn. The original manuscript was discovered by Coast Guard Historian Bill Thiesen while he was researching material for his own book, and makes for a fascinating read.

Most accounts of sailing ship experiences are based on the journals of officers or, less frequently, of men sailing before the mast. Hichborn adds a new dimension to this binary discussion—as a part of the ship’s crew he is able to relate universal experiences to the reader, and as a relative outsider (though he would have a long and distinguished naval career following this journey) he is able to comment on things that seem extraordinary to him. The 143-day trip provides ample material for Hichborn to comment candidly on the social life and living conditions aboard ship, as well as to revel in the amazing features of the natural world. Squalls, ice floes, doldrums and scorching heat mark the voyage, and Hichborn routinely questions why he chose to leave the relative comforts of his Massachusetts home. True, some of the material is mundane, ranging from weather conditions to the abysmal quality of food served in the galley, but there are also insightful comments made about the nature of life under sail, including penetrating analysis of the role of the captain and the inherent dangers of life at sea. One of Hichborn’s fellow crewmen loses his life after a frightening fall, and many of those remaining harbor serious misgivings about the competencies and abilities of their curmudgeonly captain, leading to a dramatic series of events that almost culminates with a mutiny.

The journal is contextualized in a well-written introduction, whereby Thiesen introduces the main players and tells the history of Dashing Wave, one of the most well-known clippers of its day. A series of appendices, including a sail plan and glossary of nautical terms, allows even the most landed of readers to quickly acclimate themselves to the nautical world, and closes the loop on many of the major figures covered by the journal, including the ship itself. A nice compilation of images and photographs chosen from the leading archives of nineteenth century maritime history add a poignant visual element that similarly help the reader better understand the subject matter.

Cruise of the Dashing Wave is an easy and interesting read that adds a new dimension to our understanding of life on a nineteenth century clipper. The human dimensions are as compelling as the challenges posed by the natural world, and Hichborn and Thiesen have done a great job in making these available to 21-century readers. This volume is a welcome addition to the extant literature in the field.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEW – The Development of Mobile Logistic Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953

Peter V. Nash. The Development of Mobile Logistic Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. 320 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz
British Commission for Military History

Field Marshal the Earl Wavell is reputed to have said, “Amateurs talk strategy whilst professionals talk logistics.” The general soundness of this view is amply displayed in The Development of Mobile Logistics Support in Anglo-American Naval Policy, 1900-1953, a well researched and well written survey of how two navies were required by force of circumstances to reinvent their operational doctrine through the adoption of at-sea resupply to meet the changed strategic environment of the Pacific theatre between 1942-5. If the general lines of the story are recognized by many, the actual means adopted and the revolution in naval operations that it portended have been largely ignored previously and Nash fills this void ably. The work is profusely illustrated with appropriate photographs, maps, and technical diagrams taken from many of the primary source materials accessed and never fails to inform. Nor does the work ever become stale in discussing a topic that lacks the appeal of battle or the drama of recounting a life of strong personality.

Though the work seeks to survey the story of mobile naval logistics for the first half of the last century, in truth, it is primarily focused on the period 1944-53: the last year of the Pacific naval war through the years to the Korean conflict. This is understandable, as this was the moment when mobile logistics came of age. Yet, surveying the first 40 years of the story in a mere 20 pages is probably the books only real weakness, as the context of why more was not achieved is never really engaged by the author. After all, the Royal Navy had much experience in supporting out-of-theatre amphibious operations in the First World War, such as the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia, with their heavy logistics demands and the lessons that these evolutions offered along with the yearly combined exercises of the British staff colleges is not traced. As the Royal Navy examined the lines of a possible Japanese conflict at length between the wars, the question arises why the British did not feel compelled to further develop such mobile support. The short answer is that the British would fight a limited war based on attacking Japanese commerce to force a fleet action leaving it to the negotiations that followed to restore any loss of territory experienced such as Hong Kong. Thus, the strategic requirement and operational necessity were missing.

Still, such shortcomings are on the margins and Nash is to be credited with surveying the operational changes, the bureaucratic evolutions, the progressive technical means adopted along with the role of reserve fleets and mobilization. If the United States Navy was the superior agent of change given its wealth and industrial output, the Royal Navy did well, indeed, to catch up in World War II and held its own during the Korean War. Given the fiscal pressures operating against both navies following 1945, a reversion to type was always a possibility at a certain point, but, here, Nash shows how the adoption of jet-propelled aircraft with their higher demands in logistics support, especially in fuel and ammunition, ensured that mobile logistics was a force to stay. Nash is particularly good at highlighting the ethos of each navy as it relates to logistics, and this difference is fundamental to understanding why the Royal Navy, master of innovation in so many spheres of naval warfare, would not drive this revolution. Its executive officers vis-à-vis their American counterparts generally had a lesser grasp of logistical issues, and if the Naval Staff was originally formed to allow the Admiralty to better concert its plans with the War Office, then its evolution where logistics now found a home was largely a response to having to concert its plans with the Americans in a second global conflict. This was all to the good and coordination between the services on logistic issues continued in the uncertain peace following, if not always on a reciprocal and balanced basis.

Yet, the broader story is also one of how each nation faced making war (the dog that fails to bark in Nash’s work) as the British ever set their strategies to what was economically affordable and cost-effective, whilst the Americans, once actually engaged in hostilities, could waive any financial limitations and seek the means to victory. Thus, Nash never really addresses the cost-effectiveness of mobile logistics support and the balance desired between afloat and ashore capabilities. As surplus capacity existed in both navies following 1945, it may be the issue falls largely outside the bounds of his study, but it is ever a current problem. Filling as it does a noticeable void in historiography, this work is highly recommended to the naval professional and to the serious student of war. As for the generalist reader, price alone may daunt the work’s appeal but Wavell’s warning remains ever so.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEW – At War in Distant Waters: British Colonial Defense in the Great War

Phillip G. Pattee, At War in Distant Waters: British Colonial Defense in the Great War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 273 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz
British Commission for Military History

Though the historiography of naval operations during the First World War is fulsome, rather less attention has been paid to its governing naval strategies, and it is this that Phillip Pattee addresses with regard to the Royal Navy in At War in Distant Waters. Specifically, the focus is on the evolving strategic environment Great Britain faced in the years before the World War and the responses—political, diplomatic, naval and economic—adopted. Where others have focused on the competition in armaments and, most especially, the race in capital ship construction between Germany and Britain, At War in Distant Waters emphasizes the commercial and colonial underpinnings of the British Empire and the role of the Royal Navy in safeguarding the mercantile trade upon which all else rested. Perforce this takes British maritime strategy beyond the confines of the North Sea and, as the empire was a global construct, so too, was British naval strategy.

The author’s methodology follows one model of present military planning for examining a situation. If alien to how British statesmen and naval officers would have approached the challenges facing them, it remains, nevertheless, a useful vehicle for establishing the objectives of prewar British maritime strategy. It also allows Pattee to evaluate the subsequent course of events with an eye to rendering a final judgment on the overall effectiveness of British maritime strategy. The author ably relates why the challenge of a German Navy married to an already formidable military was such a fear to British leaders. Upsetting the balance of power at home, it threatened British survival if access to markets and agricultures were denied abroad. How Britain responded owed as much to diplomacy as naval measures and both, deftly adopted, ensured that the nation and the Navy were ready in 1914. The conclusion reached by the author is that the Royal Navy successfully executed its strategy during the World War and was able to meet its three main tasks: Forestalling invasion of the home islands, supporting the military on the continent all while maintaining and protecting British trade.

That it did, but the effort was daunting and in the words of Lord Fisher all hinged on whether the Army could win the war before the Navy lost it. Thus, it was not sufficient for the Royal Navy to succeed in its strategy. British grand strategy had to be effective too. British naval strategy also had to be more than defensive and the three tasks allowed by Pattee—and it was. This is important for a central tenet of the author is that the war in distant waters was not a sideshow or an adjunct to the greater war, but played a role in the victory that was ultimately secured. Surely, that is to claim too much. Contraband control was effective because Britain controlled the narrow waters of the English Channel and North Sea. Though Germany commanded the Baltic and had access to interior communications, British economic pressure exerted by the Navy against Norway and Holland limited the usefulness of these avenues.

Meanwhile, depredations by German cruisers could cause Britain pain; they could not cause defeat. As Germany lacked overseas docking and repair facilities, her surface raiders lacked the ashore wherewithal to mount an effective campaign for a sustained period. Eventually, the ships would have to return to Germany for repair where they would face interception in the North Sea. Alternatively, they might opt to be interned in neutral ports. Either suited the needs of the Royal Navy. This was why the submarine war was so dangerous; its bases were inviolate and near at hand.

The work is supported by archival research using not only official records, but personal papers, as well, and all are buttressed with reference to the best of contemporary secondary literature in the field. This is a solid work and is highly commended. Never dogmatic, Pattee is excellent at describing the interwoven fabric of empire, trade and Navy and how technology affected all, in turn. The assessments made are reasoned and reasonable. That said, a number of minor factual errors are present—Churchill was never First Sea Lord and it was HMS Princess Royal rather than HMS Tiger that was re-tasked to augment the search for Von Spee’s squadron following Coronel—these should be corrected in any second printing.

The assessments remain reasoned and reasonable. They are not definitive. An important omission is the author’s failure to address the Dardanelles-Gallipoli campaign which cost more in resources and effort than was available locally. Before this operation began, the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron of the Royal Navy had executed many of the types operations described so well by Pattee in Pacific waters, including securing local enemy intelligence and destroying enemy telegraphs. Yet, this was not done to effect sea control, rather being the fruits of already enjoying that privilege.

This points to another consideration. Tackling German overseas territories (or Ottoman) could be pursued for multiple reasons beyond simply ensuring the protection of British mercantile trade. Few British leaders in 1914 appreciated how the war would evolve—Kitchener being a notable exception—much less, end. Capturing or attacking enemy colonies suited the needs of the British Navy, as it sought to secure the destruction of enemy raiders, but it also suited the needs of higher policy. Pattee is a little too dismissive of the latter. For a nation much experienced in the give and take of war and their negotiated settlements, war in distant waters served a corollary purpose.

In the end, if this reviewer does not agree with all the findings reached, this owes everything to the chance that other interpretations are possible in the face of the proof presented and that which is not. Such is the nature of historical discourse. At War in Distant Waters is an excellent piece of scholarship. Lucidly told, it addresses a side of naval strategy too frequently ignored and is warmly recommended to the academic no less than to those only acquainted with the topic.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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BOOK REVIEW – Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009

Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine, eds., Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009. Newport: Naval War College Press, 2013. Index, bibliography, tables, 356 pp.

Review by Jason W. Smith
Class of 1957 Post-doctoral Fellow in Naval History, US Naval Academy

The recent saga of the Maersk Alabama reminds us of the continued relevance of guerre de course. Commerce raiding and protection have been and continue to be important functions of navies. In Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009, the most recent edition in an excellent series published by the United States Naval War College, editors Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine have compiled sixteen studies that range widely in chronology and geography. The result is a valuable international perspective, both in content and authorship, to this important aspect of naval war and strategic study.

Comparative histories like this are challenging to execute well, but editors Elleman and Paine have done fine work in identifying contributors and synthesizing their findings. The authors are a multinational and multidisciplinary group whose experience ranges from policy analysis to academia and the military. Each offers an insightful contribution here. Thomas M. Truxes writes on the Seven Years’ War, Christopher P. Magra on the American Revolution, Silvia Marzagalli on the Napoleonic Wars, Kevin D. McCranie on the War of 1812, Spencer C. Tucker on the American Civil War, David H. Olivier on France and German naval thought in the late nineteenth century, Paine on the First Sino-Japanese War, Elleman on the Russo-Japanese War, Paul G. Halpern on German submarine warfare in World War One and Kenneth J. Hagan and Michael T. McMaster on the Anglo-American response, Willard C. Frank, Jr. on the Spanish Civil War, Werner Rahn on Germany’s submarine campaign in World War Two, Ken-ichi Arakawa on Japanese merchant shipping and Joel Holwitt on American submarine warfare in the Pacific, George K. Walker on the Persian Gulf tanker war, and Martin N. Murphy on Somali piracy.

The authors contribute concise essays, focusing, according to the editors’ guidelines, on the international context, the belligerents, the distribution of costs and benefits, the logistical requirements, enemy countermeasures, and the operational and strategic effectiveness of these campaigns. The greatest strength of the book is in the less-studied cases such as the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the tanker war. Set within the comparative framework of more well-known instances of commerce raiding such as the German U-boat campaigns of the world wars, these case studies break new ground and fill historiographical gaps. Magra’s essay, in particular, challenges historians to reconsider their interpretations of the American Revolution. He argues that the Continental Navy initially adopted a multi-faceted strategy that consisted of intelligence gathering and prisoner taking as well as commerce raiding. That said, I question Magra’s contention of “the widely held belief” among historians that “Americans relied only on privateering throughout the entire Revolutionary War” (36). Magra should be praised for pointing to the complexity of American naval strategy at the outset of the conflict, but I wonder whether he is also making too much of the argument.

In an introduction and conclusion that nicely flesh out the larger significance of these studies as a whole, Elleman and Paine identify three factors that influence “how and why” commerce raiding strategies have been adopted and conducted (2). First, they point to the well-known maxim that commerce raiding is usually, though not universally, the strategy of the inferior force. The usefulness of this study is in showing that commerce raiding and protection have been both primary and important secondary strategies in many maritime conflicts. In considering naval strategic thought, it is useful not to think in binary terms of guerre de course or guerre d’escadre, but of a varying and subtle mix of the two—a point that Magra’s essay, among others, illuminates. The second factor is the length of the campaign. The more protracted the war, Elleman and Paine suggest, the less effective commerce raiding becomes. The third factor is the use of technology. Innovations such as steam power, the airplane and submarine, and GPS have significantly influenced the conduct and effectiveness of commerce war. The editors tie these various strands together in a conclusion containing a number of useful comparative figures.

Ultimately, Elleman and Paine argue, commerce raiding offers an “efficient way to impose disproportionate costs on the enemy.” It can be decisive “in protracted war,” they contend, but only in combination with other military operations. Finally, even in instances outside war, such as piracy or the Persian Gulf tanker war of the 1980s, “attacks on commerce can threaten the orderly growth of global commerce” (8). Implicit in these arguments is that guerre de course, as a strategy in and of itself, has not historically brought about decisive victory in war.

A study of this scope and structure will, by nature, leave some issues unaddressed. More emphasis, for example, might have been placed on the cultural dimensions of guerre de course. The editors hint at the “popular—albeit often misguided—image . . . of the dashing privateer” and state that guerre de course campaigns “have been conducted with relatively little public awareness” (1,3). Yet public condemnation of German unrestricted submarine warfare during the Great War or the human, but terrifying image of Somali pirates in the 2013 film Captain Phillips suggest that commerce raiding, in fact, influences public imagination with important consequences for strategy and policy-making.

The book also raises, but does not fully address, the fundamental question of how to define commerce raiding. Is commerce raiding by navies similar to commerce raiding by privateers or pirates? How is it different? Is it worthwhile to consider them together or on their own terms? Martin N. Murphy speaks to this point in his essay, arguing that Somali piracy should be more appropriately considered through the lens of state-sponsored privateering. Ultimately, the book is weighted heavily in favor of naval guerre de course—perhaps appropriately enough—at the expense of privateering and piracy. The reader is left wondering how to make sense of these various strands of commerce warfare.

These quibbles largely derive from the nature of the subject and the inherent structure of an edited compilation, and they should in no way take away from a valuable study that is ambitious in scope. The editors and authors should be commended for a book that is broadly international in context and authoritative in its contributions, placing well-known cases among lesser known studies. This is comparative history executed at a high level. The insights derived from it transcend the extant scholarship on the subject and will prove valuable to historians in the military, the government, and the academy alike.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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Taking the Moral High Ground: The United States, Privateering, and Immunity of Private Property at Sea

Michael J. Crawford
Naval History and Heritage Command

On 12 April 1961 President John F. Kennedy lodged with the secretary general of the United Nations the 1958 United Nations Convention on the High Seas, which the Senate had ratified. 1 Unremarked at the time, the United States thereby reversed what had been a guiding principle of American foreign policy since the 1790s. Article 8 of the Convention on the High Seas defines a warship as “a ship belonging to the naval forces of a State and bearing the external marks distinguishing warships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government and whose name appears in the Navy List, and manned by a crew who are under regular naval discipline.” This is the definition the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 used in its seventh convention, on the conversion of merchant ships into warships, the intent of which was to reaffirm the abolition of privateering of the Declaration of Paris of 1856. 2 The United States refused to relinquish privateering by acceding to either the Declaration of Paris or the Hague convention on the conversion of merchant ships into warships. The War of 1812 was the last time the United States commissioned privateers. 3 Despite allowing this power to lie dormant, the U.S. Congress approved participation in none of the international agreements that renounce privateering until 1961, when it did so by implication in ratifying the U.N. Convention on the High Seas. This was not because Congress had been reluctant to deny itself a power given to it by the Constitution, nor, at least since World War I, because it expected some day to exercise it again. 4 Rather, the United States did not sign because it insisted that such an agreement be tied to ending the practice of subjecting belligerent private property at sea to capture and because international agreements lacked that provision. Throughout the nineteenth century, American policy on privateering was tied to the resolve of the United States to end the discrepancy between warfare on land and warfare at sea in which private property, immune from seizure on land, was liable to capture at sea. 5 On 7 December 1941, U.S. policymakers abandoned their commitment to the principle of immunity of private property at sea, and having abandoned that, had no reason not to concede that privateering was no longer a legitimate mode of waging war.

This essay explains U.S. policy regarding privateering from the founding of the Republic to World War II by examining the origins and evolution of Americans’ moral, philosophical, and utilitarian ideas about the practice.

Article 1, section 8, paragraph 11 of the United States Constitution gives Congress the power “to declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Curiously, the Constitution empowers Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal, which are authorizations of privateers, in the clause in which it confers the power to declare war and before it mentions raising armies and providing a navy. Privateers had played an important role in the War of Independence and the framers of the Constitution expected them to continue to do so in future wars. Despite the weight the framers gave to privateering as an arm of the nation’s war-fighting forces, Americans from the founding of the country onward held ambiguous attitudes regarding the practice.

American objections to privateering can be divided among four distinct although overlapping categories: morality/humanitarianism; public policy with regard to the value of commerce; the amelioration of warfare consistent with changes in the law of warfare on land; and pragmatism. Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on privateering, which he sums up in a 1782 essay, reflect the antiprivateering views of many of the American republic’s Founding Fathers, and touch on all four categories of objections. Franklin begins his essay with the assertion that ending the prospect of booty that privateering offered would remove an incentive to war. He then calculates that as soon as the enemy begins to arm his merchantmen and protect them by convoys, privateering becomes unprofitable. Just as the mass of adventurers lose their investments in privateers, so the nation that authorizes privateers loses thereby, by the forfeiture of the labor of men gone off in privateers, the destruction of habits of industry brought on by privateersmen’s propensity for drunkenness and debauchery, and the increase of robbers and highwaymen as privateersmen turn to brigandage when peace puts an end to privateering. And finally, invoking the Enlightenment’s faith in free trade, Franklin rues the ruin of “many honest innocent Traders and their Families, whose Substance was employed in serving the common Interest of Mankind.” 6

We shall consider the evolution of each of these lines of argument from the Revolutionary era to the end of the nineteenth century before turning to the culminating episode in this history, the Second Hague Peace Conference, during which the U.S. delegation martialed a combination of these arguments in a grand but unsuccessful attempt to win international approval of the American proposal that privateering and maritime prize be abolished together.


The Moral/Humanitarian Argument

From the time of the American Revolution onward, American critics of privateering relied on arguments based on morality and humanitarianism. During the War of Independence, William Whipple, one of New Hampshire’s delegates to the Continental Congress, for instance, asserted that privateering should be abandoned because it promoted vice, dissipation, and avarice. 7 William Rotch, a leading operator of whaling ships in Nantucket, Massachusetts, opposed it from his Quaker, pacifist, point of view, underscoring privateering’s inhumane aspects. Judging it to be armed robbery, the Society of Friends made not only participation in privateering a disciplinary offense but also the purchasing of prize goods, which they condemned as the same as receiving stolen goods. Rotch lamented the economic hardship that New England privateering caused to unoffending civilians of Nova Scotia. He pleaded that “the cries of innocent parents & their tender Offspring, perhaps for the want of Bread . . . brought on by the Destruction from privateers, must be a very moving scene to a mind susseptible of but a small degree of Humanity.” 8

American privateer "General Armstrong" Capt. Sam. C. Reid / lith. & pub. by N. Currier. Library of Congress  LC-DIG-pga-05783.

American privateer “General Armstrong” Capt. Sam. C. Reid / lith. & pub. by N. Currier. Library of Congress LC-DIG-pga-05783.

Whipple’s position that privateering debases morals and Rotch’s that it is inhumane and unchristian foreshadowed arguments employed by peace advocates in their campaign for congressional abandonment of the practice during and after the War of 1812. The War of 1812 renewed the debate in the United States over the merits and demerits of privateering, the debate now assuming a partisan character, with Republican supporters of “Madison’s War” portraying privateers as patriots who contributed to the war effort without cost to the taxpayer and Federalist critics of the war denouncing privateers as piratical ruffians preying indiscriminately on unoffending civilians for the sake of filthy lucre. 9

In the aftermath of that war in 1815, religiously motivated reformers, principally Unitarians, established non-denominational societies in New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio whose purpose was to cultivate the principles and spirit of peace. 10 The 16th U.S. Congress considered four petitions submitted during December 1819 and January 1820 by peace societies calling for the abolition of privateering. The peace societies in New England and its colonies of settlers in Ohio repeated the Federalist moral critique of privateering in their 1819 and 1820 petitions to Congress for abolishing the practice. 11 These pleas emphasized the immorality of violence for private gain, the uncharitable character of depriving noncombatants of the fruits of their labor, and the deleterious effects of privateering on the moral sensibilities of its practitioners.

Two such petitions from Ohio objected to the taking of private property at sea as prizes of war because of the harm it did to innocent families uninvolved in the conflict when merchants whose vessels were captured lost their livelihoods. The petitioners believed that privateering was a barbaric form of warfare because it targeted the weak and those who should not be targets in warfare. 12 A petition from the Plainfield (Massachusetts) Peace Society argues that privateers are schools of vice in which the nation’s youths are taught to commit “acts of injustice, depredation, and violence.” During the War of 1812, they point out, privateersmen

were commissioned to capture, rob, or destroy, the property of innocent merchants, and, in case of resistance, to maim or murder innocent seamen while pursuing their lawful occupations. In this way hundreds of merchants in the two countries were unjustly despoiled of their property, many of them ruined, and their families reduced to poverty, wretchedness, and despair. The number of seamen who lost their lives in consequence of these licensed depredations was doubtless very considerable.

 The petitioners found it unsurprising that young men would continue to practice in peacetime the trade to which they had been apprenticed in time of war and perpetrate piracies and highway robberies. 13 Members of the Massachusetts Peace Society, representing themselves as “inhabitants of the State of Massachusetts,” likewise presented privateering as a practice injurious to innocent victims and productive of moral depravity.

The habit of preying on the possessions of others, and of growing rich by a violent appropriation of their wealth, can hardly fail to engender, in those who are engaged in this pursuit, a rapacious and avaricious spirit, eager for riches, and little solicitous about the means by which they are acquired; negligent of others’ rights, and ready to raise a specious pretext for invading them. This spirit will continue when the war has ceased; and there is too much reason to fear, that those who have plundered under the sanction of the laws, may continue to plunder in defiance of their prohibitions.

Although sanctioned by laws, privateering is nonetheless unchristian.

 The voice of religion and humanity has gone forth distinctly, and leaves, without excuses, the man who prowls the ocean to plunder unoffending strangers, to prey upon the weak, to grow rich on the spoils of those who are following a useful and honorable trade, to shed blood for no other ends than private gain.

Christian civilization has advanced far enough, these petitioners reason, that privateering should go the way of other archaic practices of war that have been abolished. 14

In the War of Independence and the War of 1812, the United States used prize money, a reward for the capture of enemy ships and property at sea, whether warships or merchantmen, as an incentive for privateersmen as well as for naval personnel. In their antiprivateering petition of 1820, the Massachusetts Peace Society members acknowledged that logical consistency would require that private property on the seas be immune from seizure by public ships of war as well as from privateers, but they confined themselves, for the moment, to seeking the abolition of privateering, which they conceived as the greater evil. They did suggest, however, that denying prize money to naval personnel and restricting the distribution of proceeds of captures at sea to the public would benefit the cause of humanity and peace. 15 In 1856, in arguing that immunity of private property at sea should apply to captures made by naval vessels as well as to prizes of privateers, U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy pointed out that “if it be urged” against privateering, “that a participation in the prizes is calculated to stimulate cupidity, . . . the same passion is addressed by the distribution of prize-money among the officers and crew of ships of a regular navy.” 16

The U.S. government continued to offer prize money to naval personnel during wartime, through the Spanish-American War. In 1899, following the end of the war, however, Congress eliminated the practice, establishing a new naval pay system that, more or less, equalized pay between the army and the navy. Previously, navy pay had lagged behind the army’s, with Congress justifying the difference on the basis that soldiers did not have the opportunities for prize money enjoyed by sailors. With the elimination of prize money, that justification no longer applied. 17 Although the new law did not eliminate the practice of wartime commerce raiding, it did do away with the incentive of sailors’, including officers’, private gain, a motive deplored by American moralists, from the Quaker Richard Rotch, to the Rationalist Benjamin Franklin, to peace society activists, as corrosive of the sailor’s character. 18 The American delegation to the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907, referring to the American abolition of prize money for captures of enemy merchantmen, would remark that it “has generally been regarded as a material incentive to such capture.” 19


The Argument from the Value of Free Trade

From the end of the Revolutionary War to the Second Hague Peace Conference, the official policy of the United States was to seek international concurrence with the principle that private property at sea would have the same immunity to seizure as had long been accorded to private property on land. During the era of the War of Independence, Americans based the policy on principles deriving from Enlightenment economic thought, namely, the rejection of mercantilism in favor of free trade.

The republican ideology embraced by intellectual leaders of the American revolutionary movement had been developed by philosophes of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This ideology produced misgivings among America’s leaders about the propriety of making prize of war of private property captured at sea and the practice of privateering that rested on taking such prizes. In the thinking of many philosophes, republican government would solve society’s great evils, including that of war. Advocates of republicanism believed that wars resulted from the greed and ambition of monarchs and aristocrats and that eliminating kings and nobles and putting government in the hands of the people would eliminate the principal causes of war. The common man would not vote for war merely to gratify the nobility’s lust for conquest and dominion. In furtherance of the goal of universal peace, republics would deal with each other equitably and openly, including in matters of international commerce. In place of the mercantilist competition among empires to monopolize the world’s resources, competition that inevitably led to wars, republics would substitute a free trade conducive to the natural flow and rational redistribution of goods that improved living standards for everyone and thus promoted peaceful relations among nations. Only in republics, advocates believed, was it fully understood that commerce could benefit everyone. From this idea that free and open commerce could bring prosperity to all nations derived the notion that merchants, as historian Paul Gilje puts it, “did not serve any one nation; rather, they were citizens of the world and at the service of humanity.” 20

This notion that merchants are at the service of humanity would have implications for U.S. policy regarding privateering and maritime prize law, for, American policymakers reasoned, if merchants do not exclusively serve one nation, their ships and goods should be immune from seizure in war unless involving contraband, that is, armaments and accoutrements intended to strengthen the enemy’s ability to make war. During the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, who as U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France was responsible for commissioning three privateers, 21 advocated the abolition of privateering on Enlightenment principles. “I wish,” he wrote in a letter in 1780,

for the Sake of Humanity, that the Law of Nations may be farther improved, by determining that even in time of War, all those kinds of People who are employed in procuring Subsistance for the Species, or in exchanging the Necessaries or Conveniences of Life, which is for the common Benefit of Mankind; such as Husbandmen on their Lands, Fishermen in their Barques, and Traders in unarmed Vessels, shall be permitted to prosecute their several innocent and useful Employments without Interruption or Molestation, and nothing taken from them, even when wanted by an Enemy, but in paying a fair Price for the same. 22

The American commissioners, including Franklin, when negotiating the treaty with Great Britain that would end the War of Independence, proposed an article that incorporated Franklin’s wish and in words mirroring those in his letter into a draft treaty. The same proposed article additionally stipulated that in case of war between the two nations, neither would commission privateers to prey on the other’s commerce. The final treaty included none of these provisions. 23

In 1784, as the United States, now recognized as independent, prepared to enter into commercial treaties with European trading partners, Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Confederation Congress, drafted a model treaty to be used by U.S. ministers to Europe. Among its provisions that embodied Enlightenment ideas of free trade was one stipulating that, in case of war between the parties to the treaty, unarmed merchant ships and their cargoes were to be immune to capture by either the national or the private warships of either belligerent. This provision follows the wording of the similar article in the American draft proposal for the treaty of peace with Great Britain, with only minor changes. 24 The draft treaties grounded these provisions on the proposition that merchants serve the generality of mankind by producing prosperity. Just as scholars, farmers, artisans, manufacturers, and fishermen, whose occupations “are for the common subsistence and benefit of mankind,” were to be left unmolested by the armed forces of the enemy, and anything the enemy found necessary to take from them was to be paid for at a fair price, so too “all merchant and trading vessels employed in exchanging the products of different places and thereby rendering the necessaries, conveniences and comforts of human life more easy to be obtained and more general shall be allowed to pass free and unmolested.” Furthermore, “neither of the contracting powers shall grant or issue any commission to any private armed vessels empowering them to take or destroy such trading vessels or interrupt such commerce.” 25 The Kingdom of Prussia alone accepted this provision, agreeing to incorporate the model treaty’s wording nearly verbatim into its 1785 Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States of America. 26 Not until the United States and Italy incorporated the principle of the immunity of private property at sea in their treaty of 1871 would the United States succeed again in including such an article in an international agreement. 27

The rejection of mercantilist thought, that countries were in competition for the world’s economic resources and should strive to monopolize seaborne commerce in their own merchantmen, and the substitution of the ideal of free trade, the conviction that the flow of goods and resources unimpeded by national restrictions improved the economic condition of all involved since the only exchanges that took place would be ones that benefitted both parties, was a momentous change in thinking that underlay the commitment of the United States’ founding fathers to end the taking of private property at sea as prize of war. They believed that as mercantilism provoked wars and free trade fostered peace, so merchants involved in international trade deserved protection when pursuing their peaceful pursuits. Emblematic of the connection between the belief in free trade and the founding of the American republic is the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which gives mercantilism its name in order to reject it as unsound policy, in the same year the thirteen colonies declared themselves the independent United States of America.

Among their arguments for the abolition of privateering in 1819 and 1820, the New England and Ohio peace societies also appealed to the Enlightenment notion that merchants are citizens of the world. Referring to the anticommercial warfare provision of the 1785 Prussian treaty as well as to Franklin’s antiprivateering pronouncements, the petition from the Peace Society of Massachusetts developed the argument that seaborne commerce benefits all nations, as follows.

Commerce is in the interest of the world; it connects distant regions, multiplies and distributes the fruits of every climate, and makes every country a sharer in the natural, intellectual, and moral wealth of others. To facilitate commercial intercourse, and multiply the incitements to industry, should be the wish of all nations. Confine any considerable part of the world to the consumption of its own products within itself, and you diminish the resources of all the other parts. Every cause, therefore, which embarrasses and restricts commerce, operates unfavorably to the progress and welfare of the human race. 28

By the middle of the nineteenth century, peace advocates, according to one historian of peace reform, would have “elevated free trade to a theological virtue,” one such advocate announcing that “free trade would ‘render international wars impossible’” and another considering it “‘the Commercial Harbinger of the Millennium.’” 29 “That international commerce would destroy all motives for making war” remained a core belief of liberal thinking into the twentieth century. 30


The Argument from Progress and the Amelioration of Warfare

In the last half of the eighteenth century, writers on international law introduced a new and more persuasive reason for ending the practice of maritime prize of private property: the replacement of the feudal kingdom by the sovereign state. The Peace of Westphalia that ended Europe’s Thirty Years War in 1648 made concrete the novel theory of the sovereign state, an entity in itself, separate from the monarch who ruled it and from the subjects of the monarch, tied to him by obligations of fealty. 31 Following the Peace of Westphalia, some political theorists began to conceive of war not as personal between rulers, and thus requiring enmity between every subject of the one and every subject of the other, but as a condition that existed between belligerent states, distinct from rulers and populace. From this premise, writers on international law derived the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the former being the proper objects of violence, and the latter to be left unmolested in their property and peaceful pursuits. 32 Gradually European nations agreed that private property in wartime should be immune from confiscation and an enemy should pay for any private person’s belongings it took for the war effort. By the end of the eighteenth century, a number of theorists were calling for the extension of that principle to private property at sea. 33

The United States of America, at the forefront of the new order in rejecting both mercantilism and feudal obligations, concomitantly led the movement to end the practice of maritime prize of private property. Republican France soon followed America’s lead. Implementing economic policies advocated by the philosophes and doing away with the last vestiges of feudalism in law, the French embraced the concept that wars were between states and not between the individual citizens of warring states, as well as the corollary that the property of private individuals should be immune from uncompensated confiscation, whether on land or at sea. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. ambassador in Paris, responded favorably to overtures from the National Assembly of France regarding the abolition of warfare against seaborne commerce. Yet, because the British continued the practice of commerce raiding by both public and private warships during their wars with Republican and Napoleonic France, the French continued it as well, justifying themselves on the basis of retaliation. 34

Although British political radicals and the Manchester school of economists endorsed the belief that the ending of private war on the seas would lead to universal peace, makers of British official policy rejected it, seeing such sentiments both as naively trusting in the benevolence of human nature and basely promoting the private interests of the merchant class. 35 British legal theorists, upholders of the old order against the revolutionary movements in America and France, rejected as well the view that wars were between states, distinct from individuals, objecting to such an interpretation explicitly because they saw it as a ploy to exempt private property from maritime prize. Most Britons did not choose to forfeit the advantage in economic warfare their dominant navy gave them. 36

The Massachusetts Peace Society petition of 1820 against privateering expanded on the notion that private property should have the same protections on water as it enjoyed on land, arguing,

It seems to be the design and scope of modern laws of war to exempt, as far as possible, from the effects of hostilities, all persons who bear no voluntary part in the contest. On the land, public possessions alone become a prize to the conqueror. The common consent of nations has attached deep disgrace to the plunder of an unresisting foe. On the sea, too, certain trades deemed necessary to human subsistence are privileged from capture. Why should not the same immunities be extended to all ships engaged in carrying on the commerce of nations, without agency in the war? 37

The peace society petitioners, like most of their contemporaries, assumed that Christian civilization was progressively improving and as a part of that progress warfare was becoming more humane and was even on the way to extinction. The abolition of privateering and the immunity of innocent seaborne commerce from capture were, they believed, logical steps in that evolutionary process.

The rapid increase of privateering and piracy that accompanied the Latin American wars of independence in the late 1810s and early 1820s stimulated the antiprivateering movement because of the accompanying depredations on U.S. commerce and the unseemly and illegal participation of U.S. citizens in those sea roving adventures, involving them in piratical attacks on merchantmen of nations with which the United States was at peace. Besides petitions from peace societies calling for the legal end of privateering, Congress received others from citizens seeking restrictions on privateers. In 1819 “an American Citizen,” published An Appeal to the Government and Congress of the United States, Against the Depredations Committed by American Privateers, on the Commerce of Nations at Peace with Us. 38 In 1820, a committee of Baltimore citizens called for measures to prevent involvement of American citizens in privateering and to limit the U.S. ports into which cruisers of Latin American governments could enter. 39

By the 1820s, to Rationalism’s faith in the gradual progress of civilization and the Revolution’s trust in the pacific tendency of republics, American reformers had coupled a belief in the influence of Christianity on lessening the evils of war, and ultimately on the abolishing of war altogether. Fully embracing these sentiments, John Quincy Adams sought to promote the “empire of peace” by ending what he called “private war on the sea,” believing that were he to be successful, it would be his most valuable contribution to civilization.

In place of the Founding Fathers’ contention that merchants were benefactors of mankind in common, Adams substituted the notion that war was between states and not between individuals. As a result, “by the usages of modern war, the private property of an enemy is protected from seizure or confiscation” on land and by logical extension should be protected at sea. Asserting his liberal conviction that “the right of property is, in moral principle, . . . sacred,” Adams concluded, it is “unjust and impolitic that any private property of individuals should ever be destroyed or impaired by national authority for national quarrels.” 40

John Q. Adams, 6th President of the United States / On stone by A. Newsam ; P.S. Duval, Lith. Philada. Library of Congress LC-USZC4-5801.

John Q. Adams, 6th President of the United States / On stone by A. Newsam ; P.S. Duval, Lith. Philada. Library of Congress LC-USZC4-5801.

In 1823, Adams, then President James Monroe’s secretary of state, judged that the appropriate conditions prevailed to make an attempt to persuade the governments of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom to engage to end both privateering and capture of merchant ships by public warships. Adams reasoned that, with the United Kingdom at peace, the British government would have an interest in protecting its commerce from depredations by the Latin American privateers. “From the time when the United States took their place among the nations of the earth,” the abolition of private war on the sea, Adams remarked, “has been one of their favorite objects,” referring to the Prussian treaty and the writings of Franklin as evidence. He also linked the proposal to the widely accepted practice of protecting private property ashore from wartime depredations, and, drawing a parallel between abolition of the slave trade and abolition of maritime prize, he endorsed the notion that under the influence of Christianity civilization was making progress toward ameliorating the lives of mankind. France and Russia were sympathetic to Adams’ proposal—at the commencement of the Franco-Spanish War of 1823, France had announced it would not commission privateers—but would not accede to it without the United Kingdom. For reasons mainly unassociated with the issue of maritime prize, the negotiations with the British failed. 41 As president, Adams continued to press the proposal, having his secretary of state, Henry Clay attempt to advance it, in the face of continued British opposition. 42


The Pragmatic/Utilitarian Argument

During the War of Independence, Americans debated the wisdom of the Continental Congress’s decision to authorize privateering. Most of the arguments pivoted on the practical issue of whether the practice did more to advance or to hinder the war effort. 43 The utilitarian value of privateering to America’s war-fighting prospects would continue to inform U.S. policy.

From the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the U.S. declaration of war in 1917, the contest between neutral and belligerent maritime rights was a major focus of U.S. foreign policy. In general, the United States government pressed for adoption of international rules that favored neutral traders. The United States sought a change in international law that would treat enemy goods in a neutral merchantman as neutral property and thus, with the exception of contraband, make such goods exempt from confiscation, the principle of “free ships make free goods” in which the flag covers the goods. The U.S. government held that a neutral’s goods in an enemy vessel were also to be treated as neutral, although the government was inconsistent in applying this rule in its international treaties. The United States favored limiting the nature of goods to be considered contraband, supplies intended for an enemy that a belligerent could legitimately confiscate from a neutral vessel, even at times promoting elimination of the notion of contraband entirely. Eliminating the right of belligerents to seize contraband would, in turn, limit the practice of warships visiting and searching neutral vessels to those merchantmen attempting to enter a blockaded port, thus resolving another contentious issue in American foreign relations. American officials rejected as conflicting with international law the British “Rule of 1756,” which held that neutral vessels engaged in trade that had been closed before the war, such as between a nation’s colonies and the mother country, were subject to confiscation. The United States asserted, to the contrary, that neutrals had the right to trade non-contraband goods between a belligerent’s ports. The U.S. government insisted that a blockade was legal only if it was publicly advertised as well as effective enough to present a merchantman attempting to enter a port realistic danger of capture. And the United States promoted the immunity of private property at sea. 44

American promotion of the rights of neutrals to trade freely without fear of interference by warring parties in preference to the rights of belligerents to prevent trade goods from reaching their enemies was firmly rooted in American self-interest. U.S. policies were those of a nation with a large mercantile fleet—in the course of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the United States grew to become the world’s largest neutral trader—and a small navy. 45 During the American Civil War, when the United States found itself in the situation of a nation employing a large navy engaged in denying the enemy supplies from abroad, American officials looked more favorably on belligerent maritime rights and temporarily modified some of the country’s traditional positions on international law. The same kinds of utilitarian considerations informed America’s policies regarding privateering’s elimination. When at the turn of the twentieth century Alfred Thayer Mahan argued for a change in American policy on maritime rights, he insisted, “the question is one of expediency, and what was expedient to our weakness of a century ago is not expedient to our strength today.” 46

In 1785 the United States and the Kingdom of Prussia signed a commercial treaty that contained the idealistic provision in which each party bound itself, in case of war between them, not to commission privateers. By the time the treaty came up for renewal in 1797, American policymakers had second thoughts that led Secretary of State Timothy Pickering on utilitarian grounds to instruct the U.S. minister to Prussia, John Quincy Adams, to have that provision omitted: With a small navy but a large merchant marine, privateering was America’s chief means of distressing a maritime enemy. 47 From this point on to the eve of the First World War, with the exception of the Civil War years, the United States government maintained a consistent position: The United States would give up its right of issuing letters of marque and reprisal to private ships of war provided other nations did so as well and gave belligerent private property the same immunities to capture at sea by public warships as it enjoyed on land from military forces.

The Crimean War and the Declaration of Paris at its conclusion in 1856 provided a context in which the United States explained more fully the pragmatic basis for this position. In 1853, when the French and British Empires joined together to fight against the Russian Empire in the Crimea, the two allies had to reconcile their conflicting practices with regard to maritime prizes. France gave up its traditional practice of confiscating neutral property in enemy ships and the United Kingdom broke precedent by agreeing to exempt enemy property in neutral ships from confiscation. As part of this process, the two allies announced they would forego privateering during the conflict. Influencing British policymakers in these decisions were the desires to accommodate neutral Sweden and Denmark, whose actions could seriously affect naval operations in the Baltic, and to conciliate the United States. By obliging American commitment to the doctrine that free ships make free goods, the British sought to avoid confrontations over British seizures of Russian cargoes in the holds of U.S. merchantmen. By assuring the Americans that their merchantmen would not be subject to boarding by privateers searching their cargoes for enemy and contraband goods, the British hoped to dissuade the United States from allowing Russian privateers to use U.S. ports as bases of operations or to recruit American sailors. 48

In view of the British and French commitment to refrain from commissioning privateers during the war with Russia, the King of Prussia suggested that all countries renounce their right to use privateers in time of war. President Franklin Pierce discussed this suggestion in his 1854 State of the Union Address but rejected it. Pierce judged that the abolition of privateering naturally favored powers with large navies, making them less reliant on the combat capabilities of their merchant marine, and would put nations with modest navies, such as the United States, at a significant disadvantage in a time of war. Pierce’s contribution to the American position on privateering and the abolition of commercial warfare at sea was the elaboration of the strategic argument, explicating the nexus between the two issues. The United States, with many merchantmen and few naval vessels, would be at a disadvantage in a war with a nation having a large navy even if both were to forego licensing privateers: The enemy navy would much more readily capture America’s seaborne commerce than the U.S. Navy would capture the enemy’s. Believing large standing armies and navies burdensome to the taxpayer and dangerous to liberty, the United States was disinclined to enter into an international agreement that would require it to develop a large navy for its defense in case of war. Pierce also argued that, although the proposal was “professedly founded upon the principle that private property of unoffending noncombatants, though enemies, should be exempt from the ravages of war,” it was not equitable because it lacked protection for this property from capture by public naval ships. When this immunity could be guaranteed, the United States would gladly forfeit its right to offer letters of marque to potential privateers. 49

Whereas Prussia took the occasion of the British and French decision to forego privateering during the Crimean War to advocate the permanent abolition of the practice, the United States sought advantage from the British and French agreement on rules of maritime prize that favored neutrals for the duration of the war to push an initiative that would embody those rules permanently into recognized international practice. Secretary of State William Marcy negotiated a treaty with Russia establishing those rules, and incorporated into the treaty a provision that would enable other countries to sign on to the agreement by a mere formal declaration of accession. 50

In 1856, the Congress of Paris, setting the terms of the end of the Crimean War, included a declaration regarding maritime law in time of war. The first article of the Declaration of Paris reads simply, “Privateering is and remains abolished.” This article was tied to the other three, with the stipulation that a signatory country would have to accept the entire set of four articles. The other articles established the principles that, with the exception of contraband, free ships make free goods and neutral goods in enemy ships are not liable to capture, and that blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective. The seven governments participating in the congress—France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire—signed the declaration and invited other nations, including the United States, to do so as well. Forty-five nations ultimately did, but not the United States, even though the declaration enshrined several of the protections for neutral commerce the U.S. government had long sought. The Pierce administration responded to the invitation to accede to the declaration by objecting that it interfered with the American initiative to incorporate the “free ships make free goods rule” into a multilateral international agreement without the renunciation of privateering required by the Declaration of Paris, and by offering an amendment, named for Secretary of State William L. Marcy. The Marcy Amendment added to the Declaration’s antiprivateering proposition the provision, “and that the private property of the subjects or citizens of a belligerent on the high seas shall be exempted from seizure by public armed vessels of the other belligerent except that it be contraband.” In other words, the United States wanted belligerent private property, not just neutral private property, exempt from capture. As reasons for insisting on this amendment, Marcy elaborated on the argument President Pierce had made in his 1854 State of the Union Address. 51

Some commentators in the United States questioned whether it was constitutional for the government to bind itself by treaty not to exercise a power enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, but on consideration it became clear at the time, “that this objection was untenable, nearly all our treaties having surrendered some right that ‘existed at the formation of the Constitution,’ in exchange for similar concessions on the part of other nations.” 52 The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of treaty provisions committing the United States to refrain from exercising one or another constitutional power. Such a treaty would not remove any power from Congress, for any subsequent legislation authorizing privateering would be constitutional and take precedence over the treaty provision it violated. 53

It appeared that most countries favored the amendment, with support coming from France, Prussia, the Netherlands, and Italy, among others. 54 Resistance from Great Britain and a change of administration in the United States were partially responsible for the amendment’s failure. After taking office in March 1857, President James Buchanan suspended negotiations over the proposed amendment with Great Britain, objecting that the amendment did not protect the United States from commercial blockades, which would be exempt if within territorial waters rather than on the high seas. 55

Four years later, following the secession of southern states and the formation of the Confederate States of America, the administration of Abraham Lincoln resumed international negotiations regarding the outlawing of privateering. In response to the Confederate government’s intention of pursuing privateering against the North—the Confederacy having announced it would not accept the Declaration of Paris’s renunciation of privateering—U.S. Secretary of State William Seward offered to accede to the Declaration of Paris, even without the attached Marcy amendment. Seward hoped that offering to make the United States a member of this pact would persuade the signatory members to confirm that the Confederate states were still part of the Union and prevent the Southerners from engaging in privateering against Northern commerce. France and Great Britain accepted the accession, with the latter adding the caveat that it “does not intend thereby to undertake any engagement which shall have any bearing, direct or indirect, on the internal differences now prevailing in the United States.” British Foreign Secretary Earl Russell later expanded on this exception, explaining that Great Britain did not view the Confederacy as a signatory of the declaration and that belligerent was therefore within its rights to pursue privateering. This was unacceptable to Seward and the United States backed out of the agreement. 56

In The Influence of Sea Power upon History, published in 1890, American naval officer Alfred T. Mahan espoused a naval theory, quickly becoming the prevailing naval theory, that commerce raiding or guerre de course was never a decisive factor in combat between two modern navies. Although this theory would seem to favor ending the practice of maritime prize of private property, Mahan, himself, on the eve of the Second Hague Conference, argued against the United States’ giving up the right to the maritime capture of the private property of enemy subjects. He reasoned that, like contraband of war and goods captured in attempts to run in or out of a blockaded port, both of which categories of property could be private, merchandise carried by enemy merchantmen on the high seas contributed economically to the ability of the enemy to carry on the war and therefore lost any neutral character it might otherwise have: “Between the fact that property embarked in commercial venture is private in ownership, and the assumption that therefore it is not sustaining the enemy’s cause, is not really belligerent, there is a gap in the reasoning.” Mahan judged commerce cruising both permissible as a matter of right and desirable as a matter of practical policy: It diverted greater forces of the enemy to combat it than it required to practice. 57 In a war plan he prepared in 1890, the same year as the publication of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, Mahan called for arming every American ship fast enough for the purpose and dispatching them to cruise against the enemy’s commerce, the objective being to induce the enemy to disperse his fleet and thereby provide an opportunity for the concentrated U.S. battle fleet to attack the enemy’s now diminished battle fleet. 58 Even in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, as Bernard Semmel has pointed out, Mahan endorsed commercial war as a secondary strategy “for a considerable naval power,” a position he would reinforce in later studies of the Napoleonic wars, in which he judged destruction of French commerce “England’s primary, not secondary strategy.” In 1904, working to persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to endorse belligerent rights to conduct commercial warfare, Mahan argued that controlling commerce could be of “decisive importance.” 59

Whereas at the Second Hague Conference the American delegation would argue that no modern war had been shortened by commerce cruising, citing Union victory over the Confederacy despite the success of a few southern cruisers in driving Union shipping from the seas, Mahan appealed to the experience of the Civil War to draw a contrary lesson. “To the downfall of the Confederacy,” Mahan reasoned, “no single cause conduced more than did the entire destruction of its commerce,” judging immaterial to the issue the fact that blockade rather than cruisers on the high seas bought about the destruction. Finally, Mahan pronounced commerce cruising a humane way of war, for it brought victory closer by weakening the enemy economically rather than by casualties in battle. “Depend upon it,” he concluded his argument, “the interest of humanity demands that war is not to be a mere question of champions, land or sea, but that the whole people should be made to feel, individually, that the war will find its way to them, in purse as well as sorrow.” Mahan’s vision rather than that of the American delegates to the Hague conference would be the more predictive of the character of warfare in the twentieth century. 60

Writing in 1899, Captain Charles H. Stockton, the U.S. Navy’s foremost expert on international law at the time, shared Mahan’s view that the capture of the enemy’s seaborne commerce could have a profound influence on bringing about peace by diminishing the enemy’s ability to fight. 61 Eight years later, on the eve of the Second Hague Peace Conference, speaking before the first annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, now Rear Admiral Stockton addressed the question, “Would Immunity from Capture, during War, of Non-offending Private Property upon the High Seas Be in the Interest of Civilization?” 62 Although Stockton gave the ambiguous answer, “this depends upon whether the exercise of this war right makes for the prevention of war or not,” his discussion makes it clear that he believed that, on the contrary, the right of capture of private property during wartime itself was conducive to peace, especially if it could bring pressure on an enemy country’s food supply. Stockton pointed out that British strategists were coming to the conclusion that Britain had become so dependent on foreign imports to feed its people that if during a war it were ever to lose control of the seas it would be forced to make peace. In contrast, the food supply in the United States was relatively impervious to commerce raiding. Stockton argued that the practical circumstances of the United States and the United Kingdom had become reversed. The British merchant fleet was large and therefore vulnerable during wartime, whereas by the turn of the twentieth century, the American merchant fleet had dwindled and the U.S. Navy had burgeoned. While the British were rethinking their customary policy, strategists like Mahan and Stockton were rejecting the traditional American pragmatic argument on pragmatic grounds, since the strategic conditions from which the traditional position derived no longer prevailed. Strategists like Mahan and Stockton turned the pragmatic argument on its head, making the issue of maritime warfare a matter for debate rather than consensus in American councils.

Mahan and Stockton wrote during a period of intense economic rivalry between European states and their imperial expansion overseas. A social Darwinian belief that nations were in a struggle for survival, a struggle that required the mobilization of all of a nation’s resources, intensified the rivalry. Neo-mercantilist policies of protective tariffs and exclusive trading rights replaced the free trade practices of the nineteenth century. As a result of the war with Spain, the United States joined the community of nations having overseas empires requiring naval defense. A movement toward naval strategies compatible with mercantilist thought accompanied the rise of a neo-mercantilist world economy.

Despite the strategic rethinking going on in the U.S. and Royal Navies, their countries’ delegates to the 1907 peace conference would maintain their customary positions. 63


To the Second Hague Peace Conference

In 1899, the same year that the United States did away with maritime prize money, it sent delegates to an international peace conference at The Hague, the Netherlands, called by Russian Tsar Nicholas II to establish international agreements on arbitration of international disputes, laws of war, and war crimes. The major accomplishment of what came to be known as the First Hague Peace Conference was the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The 1899 convention focused mainly on laws relating to warfare on land. In December 1898, shortly after the close of the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley reported to Congress that the time had arrived for the United States to propose to the international community the end of maritime war on private property, and, accordingly, the American delegation to the Hague Conference proposed the issue of the inviolability of private property in naval warfare, excepting only contraband and ships attempting to run blockades. Representatives of several of the great powers, however, balked at discussing the proposal in the absence of instructions from their governments. Instead, the conference closed with the anticipation that a subsequent conference would deal with laws relating to maritime warfare, including that of maritime prize of private property. 64

Influenced by the general movement to codify the laws of war, as exemplified by the First Hague Conference, the United States Navy adopted “The United States Naval War Code of 1900,” drafted at the Naval War College by Charles H. Stockton, in emulation of the 1863 “Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the field,” known as the Lieber Code, after its author, Dr. Francis Lieber. The naval war code, containing “the laws and usages of war at sea,” included in its definition of the special objects of maritime war, “capture or destruction of the . . . maritime commerce” of the enemy and specified that “all merchant vessels of the enemy, except coast fishing vessels innocently employed, are subject to capture, unless exempt by treaty stipulations.” 65 However, in a memorandum circulated with the preliminary draft of the code, Stockton observed that, in view of the policy of the United States to seek international agreement on the abolition of maritime commercial prize and of privateering with it, the articles relating to privateers and to the capture and destruction of private property at sea were to be omitted in any version of the code that might be presented to other countries as the basis of an international agreement. 66 The Navy Department implemented the code by General Order Number 551 of 27 June 1900. In the summer of 1903, the staff of the Naval War College and senior active naval officers met there to discuss and make recommendations regarding the code. The conferees proposed a number of wording changes, but their major finding was that by adopting the code unilaterally the navy had bound itself to observe certain practices that put the United States at a disadvantage in a conflict with an enemy who had not subscribed to it. The Navy Department adopted their recommendation that the code be withdrawn and be used as the basis of negotiations for an international agreement. General Order Number 150 of 4 February 1904 accordingly withdrew the code. 67

In the autumn of 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the movement for a second Hague Peace Conference. In a message to Congress in which he quoted McKinley’s message of 1898, Roosevelt advocated renewing the attempt to secure an international agreement making private property at sea immune from capture. He supported the measure not only “as a matter of humanity and morals” but also on the basis of changed circumstances of commerce: Any commercial ship and its cargo were now much more likely to be the property of citizens of many nations than in the past, thus multiplying the complications of prize adjudication. In addition, he appealed to the doctrine, which Mahan originally espoused but later modified, that commerce destroying “can never be more than a subsidiary factor in bringing to terms a resolute foe.” 68 On 28 April 1904, in anticipation of a second Hague Conference and in response to Roosevelt’s message, Congress issued a declaration calling on the president to seek an international agreement incorporating into international law “the principle of the exemption of all private property at sea, not contraband of war, from capture or destruction of belligerents.” 69 After intense but ultimately unsuccessful lobbying by Mahan to reverse U.S. policy before the conference met, 70 Secretary of State Elihu Root’s instructions, citing the congressional resolution, enjoined the American delegates to the Second Hague Peace Conference to “maintain the traditional policy of the United States regarding the immunity of private property of belligerents at sea.” Root reminded the delegates that the resolution was “an expression of the view taken by the United States during its entire history,” and that the country had refused to sign the Paris Declaration of 1856 ending privateering only because the declaration lacked such a provision. Root urged the delegates to press for agreement on this issue on moral grounds, stating,

The principle thus declared is of such permanent and universal importance that no balancing of the chances of probable loss or gain in the immediate future on the part of any nation should be permitted to outweigh the considerations of common benefit to civilization which call for the adoption of such an agreement. 71

Thus, it was because the United States government did not want to appear inconsistent by suddenly departing from its traditional position that it argued for immunity of private property at sea at the Second Hague conference principally on moral grounds and refused to accede to the abolition of privateering in the absence of that immunity. 72

Tsar Nicholas II, the convener of the first Hague conference, agreed to convene the second. Postponed by the Russo-Japanese War, the meeting opened when representatives of forty-four countries gathered at The Hague on 15 June 1907. The delegates completed their work on 18 October, having produced a Final Act, or agreement, containing thirteen conventions with the purpose of prolonging peace among all nations.

The United States delegation of Joseph H. Choate, General Horace Porter, Uriah M. Rose, David Jayne Hill, Brigadier General George B. Davis, Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry, and William I. Buchanon 73 ratified ten of the conventions, adhered to one with reservations, and abstained from signing two others, conventions VI and VII, which were “The Status of Enemy Merchant Ships at the Outbreak of Hostilities” and “The Conversion of Merchant Ships into War-Ships.”

The sixth convention stated that it was desirable that merchant ships in an enemy’s port at the outbreak of hostilities “should be allowed to depart freely, either immediately, or after a reasonable number of days of grace.” As James Brown Scott, the American delegation’s technical delegate and expert in international law, explained, the delegation refrained from signing this convention because custom already dictated such safe passage and the convention established this freedom as desirable rather than mandatory. The convention thus “was restrictive rather than declaratory of existing international practice” and the delegation therefore would not ratify it. 74

More relevant to the present inquiry is the delegation’s rationale for its refusal to ratify the seventh convention, which stated that any merchant vessel converted into a warship would have to be placed under the direct authority, immediate control, and responsibility of the state it represented, be commanded by a commissioned naval officer, with a crew under naval discipline, and that its change of character must be publicly announced in the belligerent country’s navy list. 75 Essentially, this convention sought to extend the abolition of privateering enacted under the Declaration of Paris of 1856. Although nearly every other naval power ratified the 1907 convention, the United States abstained because the conference did not adopt a convention that would guarantee the immunity of private property on the seas to capture by national ships of war, which, in accordance with their instructions, was a high priority for the delegation. 76 The American delegation acknowledged the constitutional question occasioned by the United States Constitution’s empowering Congress to “grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water,” 77 but, nevertheless advocated for adoption of their proposal with great force and enthusiasm.

In an extended address to the conference on 28 June 1907 in favor of the so-called “favorite doctrine” of the United States, the “Immunity from Capture of Private Unoffending Property of the Enemy upon the High Seas,” Joseph H. Choate rehearsed the history of the United States’ efforts to secure international agreement with its position and employed the full gamut of rationales Americans had used in its favor from the Revolutionary Era to the time of the conference. He pointed out that the protection of private property on land was a well-established rule of war and therefore it should be extended to the seas. He argued that it was inhumane and counterproductive to peace efforts to allow innocent civilians to become targets for belligerent warships. Furthermore, limiting the theater of naval engagements by excluding private commercial ships would make war less destructive and terrible for all parties involved. He contended that, as international commerce was a unity that advanced the world’s economy, striking at one part of it, even if the enemy’s, impaired the whole, including that of both belligerents. Choate appealed also to the belief that wars should be limited to a contest between the armed forces and public property of states, and that every effort should be made to restrict its effects on private persons and their property to military necessity. To these traditional rationales, Choate introduced additional ones, for instance, one that advocates of the 1856 Declaration of Paris used to support the abolition of privateering: The specialization of warship construction and weaponry made the conversion of merchantmen into ships of war impractical. Lastly, Choate argued that commerce cruising was of little practical value to a warring state because “none of the great navies now existing could afford to employ any of their great and costly ships of war or cruisers in the paltry pursuit of merchantmen scattered over the seas.” Modern navies concentrated on building battleships, which they kept together in order to oppose the united fleet of an enemy. 78 Even though the last-mentioned of Choate’s arguments in favor of ending maritime prize of private property reflects the prevailing naval theory of the time, espoused by Alfred T. Mahan, that commerce raiding was never a decisive factor in war, we have seen that Mahan, himself, argued against the United States’ giving up the right to the maritime capture of the private property of enemy subjects.

Although Choate spoke with what one reporter called “an eloquence and a dialectical force difficult to surpass,” the American proposition failed to be adopted. Of the forty-four nations represented, the proposition received twenty-one yeas, including those of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy, eleven nays, including those of France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, and one abstention, with eleven states not responding. This vote indicated that there was neither a chance of unanimous support nor sufficient agreement for a general accord. 79 Nevertheless, Choate viewed it as a step in the right direction in case further conferences were convened to discuss the issue. In an address to the New York State Bar on 24 January 1908, Choate reflected on the progress and said, “We do not stand any more where we did at the beginning of the conference, nobody assenting to it but ourselves, but twenty-two nations of greater or less importance pledged to the proposition which makes so strongly for peace.” 80

The conference planned to reconvene in 1915, but the outbreak of World War I precluded any such meeting. After the war, the conference’s role was largely replaced by the League of Nations, of which the United States was not a member, despite its instrumental role in its formation.


From The Hague to the Present

German submarine "U-7" at full speed circa 1914. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3292-10.

German submarine “U-7” at full speed circa 1914. Library of Congress LC-B2- 3292-10.

In 1897, Francis R. Stark, fellow in international law at Columbia University, published The Abolition of Privateering and the Declaration of Paris, an extended polemic in favor of abolishing privateering. In the work, Stark expressed his absolute faith that, eventually, and probably sooner than later, “the right of capture of private property on the high seas in time of war . . . once universally recognized . . . will not be recognized at all.” 81 Stark assumed that the institution of private property’s immunity to capture at sea would be the death blow to privateering. Events would prove Stark mistaken. In falsely prophesying victory of the immunity principle for private property at sea, Stark foresaw neither the transformations warfare would undergo in the twentieth century nor the influence those transformations would have on the treatment of private property, on land as well as at sea. New technologies, only in early stages of development at the time of the Second Hague Conference, soon altered the character of warfare: The automobile torpedo 82 and the submarine made seaborne commerce more vulnerable to attack as the airplane similarly rendered factories on land. Germany employed U-boats against seaborne commerce in attempts to bring the United Kingdom to economic collapse in both world wars, and the United States waged submarine commercial warfare to break the Empire of Japan in the latter war. With the outcome of World War II pivoting essentially on a contest of production capacity between the Allies and the Axis, the Allies sent sortie after sortie of bombers to destroy Axis factories. The atomic bomb made no distinction between public and private—property or lives. These changes turned private property into objects of hostile action and enlarged the numbers of warfare’s civilian victims.

Convention Number Seven of the Second Hague Peace Conference made privateering generally recognized as contrary to accepted international practice, without an immunity provision for private property. Despite the refusal of the United States to accede to the convention, after 1907 privateering ceased to be a matter of international concern or discussion. But proposals to institute immunity did not yet disappear from international discourse. Only with World War II and the American decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan would the United States drop its project to end war on seaborne commerce.

At the Second Hague Peace Conference, participating nations had determined to create an international prize court that could exercise appellate, and in some cases original, jurisdiction in maritime prize cases. The court was to apply either rules agreed to by treaty between the countries whose citizens were party to the case, accepted international law, or, where agreement on the laws of war did not exist, general principles of justice and equity. In order to give such a court a more definite code of international law on which to base its judgments, representatives of the world’s leading naval powers met at the London Naval Conference of 1908-1909 to settle differences among them in interpretation of prize law. The conference focused exclusively on matters affecting relations between neutrals and belligerents, specifically rules governing blockades, the definition of contraband, what constituted un-neutral service, what circumstances justified destruction of neutral prizes, where and when transfer of a vessel to a neutral flag was legitimate, whether the enemy character of a vessel depended on the citizenship or the residence of the owner, whether a neutral merchantman under naval convoy should be exempt from visit and search, and when resistance to visit and search made a neutral vessel liable to seizure and condemnation. Even though the conference produced a compromise agreement that balanced the rights of neutrals and belligerents, none of the powers would formally ratify the Declaration of London and an international prize court never sat, much less apply the new rules in a prize case. Presenting the argument in favor of British ratification, Norman Bentwich, “sometime Whewell International Law Scholar of Cambridge University and of Lincoln’s Inn, Barrister-at-Law, and author of The Law of Private Property in War,” pointed out that the conference was able to disregard issues associated with privateering, since the Hague convention on conversion of merchantmen had established rules that “sufficiently distinguish the character of converted merchantmen from that of the privateers of a century ago.” Instead, the London conference debated, and left unsettled, whether the conversion could take place at sea or must be effected within the territorial waters of the nation making the conversion. Bentwich pointed out, further, that the Declaration “does not affect in any way the rights of belligerents against enemy property at sea. The right of capture of private property at sea . . . is the most clearly and uniformly established international practice.” The London deliberations treated both the matter of privateering and the question of immunity of private property at sea as settled. 83

The matter of privateering may have been buried, but that of immunity was not yet dead. British Radicals and pacifists continued to press for immunity of private property to maritime prize as the surest guarantor of peace. Early in World War I, while the United States was still neutral, the administration of Woodrow Wilson demanded that the British not merely adopt the rules governing commercial warfare agreed to in the Declaration of London, but also institute the principle of immunity, leaving all merchantmen, enemy as well as neutral, unmolested. In preparation for peace negotiations in 1918, Wilson’s Fourteen Points included a call for “freedom of the seas” that included immunity within its wide embrace: “Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war.” 84 Although Wilson, more concerned about other matters, did not raise the issue of immunity during the peace negotiations at the Versailles, a decade later Wilson’s confidant Col. E. M. House published a call for adoption of immunity. 85

USS Gato (SS-212) in 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives L45-106.

USS Gato (SS-212) in 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command, Photo Archives L45-106.

It was America’s World War II contest with Japan that put an end to America’s traditional view of freedom of the seas. As historian Joel Ira Holwitt writes, the order to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan, targeting “all Japanese shipping, from fishing trawlers to freighters to tankers,” issued at precisely 5:52 pm, Eastern Standard Time, on 7 December 1941, was “a major and dramatic change to the American attitude toward freedom of the seas.” This change “ushered in a new a more pragmatic conceptualization that classified merchant sailors as combatants and their cargoes as legitimate military targets.” Another historian, Janet M. Manson, may not exaggerate when she characterizes the decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare as one that “no other foreign policy reversal in U.S. history quite matches in magnitude.” 86

Here is a paradox: Modern conditions of international relations and warfare rendered privateering inappropriate as a means of carrying on war at the same time these new conditions rendered obsolete the version of “freedom of the seas” that vindicated the notion of immunity of private property, which, if adopted, would have rendered privateering useless. Modern conditions removed one justification for ending privateering, the immunity principle, while leaving others and creating new ones. Writing in the midst of World War II, the British writer William Arnold-Forster accurately foresaw, “that, when the world has had experience of two World Wars, the doctrine of immunity of private property, so long regarded as a promising and radical reform, will be recognized as affording no solution to the real problem called ‘Freedom of the Seas.’” 87 The immunity principle, the notion that an enemy’s private property at sea should be immune from capture in wartime, rested on three assumptions grounded in the conditions of international relations and the character of warfare as they existed in the middle of the eighteenth century: (1) War could be restricted to combatants, while non-combatants could carry on their daily activities more or less unaffected by the movements of armies and warships; (2) the only property valid as a target of hostile action was public, what belonged to the hostile state; and (3) war was a lawful instrument of national policy, an essentially amoral activity of sovereign states with which non-belligerent nations had no business interfering. Before the eighteenth century had run its course, the French nation’s levée en masse, signaling the coming of peoples’ wars in place of warfare between armies of professional soldiers without broad participation of the populace, undermined the first of these assumptions. The second assumption collapsed with the total wars of the twentieth century, in which governments pursued victory by mobilizing their nations’ entire economies in support of the war effort, turning privately-owned assets, such as factories and railroads, as well as raw materials and food stuffs and the ships transporting them, into national war-making assets that were legitimate objects of hostile action. And finally, first the development of ideas of mandatory international arbitration of disputes between nations at the turn of the twentieth century, and then the institution of collective security agreements enforced by supranational authoritative bodies, the League of Nations and the United Nations, in the aftermaths of the First and Second World Wars, undercut the sovereign right of the post-Westphalian state to declare and wage war. Through the course of the twentieth century, war came more and more to be seen as an unlawful instrument of national policy and the immoral aggressor-state as the proper subject of collective isolation and punishment by the international community of peace-loving nations. This new understanding of international relations is the basis on which “the old-style freedom, involving the active defense of neutral rights during private wars,” 88 has been displaced by a collective-security version of freedom of the seas in which a system of international covenants backed up by international sanctions against offending states keeps the seas free for international commerce.

The traditional American rationale for retaining the right to commission privateers evaporated on U.S. entry into World War II when the United States abandoned its commitment to the sanctity of private property at sea. Comparison of the U.S. Navy’s Naval War Code of 1900 with the 1955 U.S. Navy publication The Law of Naval Warfare measures the dramatic change that took place in naval concerns about privateering by the middle of the twentieth century. In paragraph 2 of Article 9, the 1900 code recognizes, by implication, the legitimacy of privateers:

Art. 9. In addition to the armed forces duly constituted for land warfare, the following are recognized as armed forces of the State.

(1) The officers and men of the Navy, Naval Reserve, Naval Militia, and their auxiliaries.

(2) The officers and men of all other armed vessels cruising under lawful authority. 89

In stark contrast, the 1955 Law of Naval Warfare, intended to aid “the naval officer in making and understanding operational decisions dictated by the necessity for adherence to international law and in recognizing the violations of international law,” incorporates the provisions of the Hague Convention on the Conversion of Merchant Ships into Warships that define the term “warships” in such a way as to exclude privateers:

The term “warships” includes all vessels commissioned as a part of the naval forces of a State and authorized to display the appropriate flag or pennant as evidence thereof. Such vessels must in addition be commanded by a member of the military forces of a State and must be manned by a crew subject to military discipline. 90

The contents of the 1955 volume in the U.S. Naval War College’s International Law Studies series, The Law of War and Neutrality at Sea, by Robert W. Tucker, confirms the suspicion that the U.S. naval personnel who incorporated the Hague’s definition of a warship into the 1955 Law of Naval Warfare were oblivious of, or at least blissfully unconcerned with, the traditional U.S. policy on privateering. The Naval War College volume serves in effect as a commentary on the 1955 Law of Naval Warfare, which it incorporates as its appendix. In discussing the issue of what constitutes a warship, Tucker treats the 1907 Hague convention on the conversion of merchant ships as well as the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as if they were established international law, without any indication that the United States had refused to accede to either. He limits his discussion of privateering to the question of whether the Hague convention actually revalidated privateering, which he concludes it did not. 91

Tucker’s main concern in writing the 1955 Naval War College volume was to explore the relationship between modern belligerent practices and the traditional law of naval warfare. He concludes that modern practices are in accord with the principles behind the traditional law. The standard international law texts, Grotius, Vattel, and others, were written during an era in which merchant vessels did not pose a serious threat to warships, and therefore the accepted practice was to require a belligerent warship, before firing on an enemy merchantman, to identify itself and give the enemy merchant ship a chance to surrender. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the vulnerability of submarines to sinking by armed merchantmen altered this calculus: It is unreasonable to expect warships to expose themselves to the probability of their own destruction. Tucker argues that it was both the arming of merchantmen against vulnerable submarines and changes in the way nations at war employed merchantmen, making them in effect part of the military forces, that rendered them, like an enemy warship, subject to unannounced sinking in accordance with traditional international law. He writes, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the immunity granted merchant vessels by the traditional law can be observed only under the conditions that merchant vessels do not present—in terms of their armament—a serious threat to enemy warships and that they are in no way integrated into the military effort of a belligerent. If either, or both, of these conditions do not obtain, and they were not satisfied even in World War I, warships—whether submarines or surface vessels—cannot be expected to refrain from attacking enemy merchant vessels.” 92

The U.S. Navy’s use of the 1907 Hague convention’s privateer-excluding definition in its September 1955 publication preceded by three years the United States’ signing, 15 September 1958, and by nearly six years U.S. ratification of, the United Nations Convention on the High Seas, which employs the wording of the Hague Convention on the Conversion of Merchant Ships into Warships to define what constitutes a legitimate warship. 93 In the drafting of the Convention on the High Seas in Geneva, the definition of a warship was never a matter of controversy, and the U.S. delegation specifically endorsed the definition as “good and entirely acceptable.” At no point in the negotiations did anyone suggest that a private vessel could be a warship. 94

Thus, in the mid-1950s, first by practice and then by treaty, the U.S. government and its navy accepted the prevailing international view that privateering is illegitimate. This is not to say that the United States finally adopted the definition of a warship that had long been the international standard because it no longer had a rationale for retaining privateering, but rather it is to say simply that the rationale no longer impeded acceptance of the definition that excluded the practice of privateering. A measure of how little serious thought U.S. naval strategists gave to privateering in the mid-twentieth century is the fact that, whereas between 1901 and 1936 “privateers” and “privateering” appear in the indexes of sixteen of the thirty-six volumes of the Naval War College’s International Law series, these terms disappear from the indexes for the next thirty years, reappearing only in the volume for 1966 in relation to the Declaration of Paris in the context of a historical survey of neutrality laws. 95 After World War II, privateering had fallen so far out of national consciousness that it elicited no comment when the U.S. Senate and the president ratified a treaty that in effect accepted privateering’s illegality.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)


  1. United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, “Convention on the High Seas, 1958,” in United States State Department, United States Treaties and Other International Agreements (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963), 13:2312-88. The Convention on the High Seas concerns “all parts of the sea not included in the territorial sea and internal waters. It deals specifically with: the freedoms of the high seas; the right of a State to have ships flying its flag under conditions fixed by it, stating the controversial requirement of the existence a ‘genuine link’; the rights and obligations of the flag State; piracy; the right of visit; hot pursuit; and the laying of submarine cables and pipelines. It also contains two early and pioneering provisions on pollution by the discharge of oil and of radio-active wastes.” Tullio Treves, “1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea,” Audiovisual Library of International Law, available at
  2. “Convention Relative to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War Ships,” in James Brown Scott, ed., Texts of the Peace Conferences at The Hague, 1899–1907 (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1908), 246–51. After enumerating the provisions of the conventions agreed to at the Second Hague Peace Conference relating to the conversion of merchantmen into warships, the “The Laws of Naval War Governing the Relations Between Belligerents,” a manual compiled in 1913 by the Institute of International Law, states baldly: “Privateering is forbidden.” Section II, Article 12. In Dietrich Schindler and Jiri Toman, editors, The Laws of Armed Conflicts: A Collection of Conventions, Resolutions, and Other Documents, 4th revised edition (The Hague: Martinus Nihjoff, 2004), 1124-25.
  3. Although Congress authorized privateering in early 1863 (Ch. 85, Stats at Large of USA 12 {1863} ,758), as a threat to British commerce with the Confederacy in order to persuade the British to stop the construction of Confederate warships in British shipyards, the government did not commission any privateers under the act. Nicholas Parrillo, “The De-Privatization of American Warfare: How the U.S. Government Used, Regulated, and Ultimately Abandoned Privateering in the Nineteenth Century,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 19 (2007), Issue 1, Article 1, available at The current essay and Parrillo’s article examine the same policy developments over much the same period of time, seeking answers to parallel but different questions. While Parrillo explains why the United States ultimately abandoned privateering, the present essay seeks to explain why the United States delayed so long to do so formally.
  4. Eccentric suggestions that the United States resume issuing letters of marque occasionally surface. See, for example, John Lehman, On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (New York: Free Press, 2001), 68–69.
  5. Donald A. Petrie, The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 141. For a brief overview of official acts and pronouncements of the United States between 1780 and 1918 in favor of immunity of private property at sea to capture, see Carlton Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 2 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1934 and 1936), 1:119-21.
  6. “Franklin’s Thoughts on Privateering and the Sugar Islands: Two Essays,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard W. Labaree, et al., eds. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959—) 37: 617–20.
  7. Michael J. Crawford, “The Privateering Debate in Revolutionary America,” Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord 21 (2011): 229–31.
  8. Ibid., 231; William Rotch to Nicholas Brown, 26 Nov. 1776, in Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William B. Clark, et al., eds. (Washington, D.C., 1964—) 7:292–93.
  9. Paul A. Gilje, “Sailors’ Rights or the Right Sailors: The American Privateersmen in the War of 1812,” paper delivered at “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath,” Annapolis, Md., 13 June 2013.
  10. Valarie H. Ziegler, The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 2001), 18-27. For the American peace societies in the nineteenth century, in addition to Ziegler, see Peter Brock, Radical Pacifists in Antebellum America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968); Merle E. Curti, The American Peace Crusade 1815-1860 (1929; reprint ed., New York: Octagon Books, 1965); Charles DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1980); and W. Freeman Galpin, Pioneering for Peace: A Study of American Peace Efforts to 1846 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Bardeen Press, 1933). Of these, only Curti and Galpin address the antiprivateering efforts of these societies.
  11. An analysis of the membership of the Massachusetts Peace Society finds it primarily a “Federalist-clerical-mercantile organization.” Clyde Winfield McDonald Jr., “The Massachusetts Peace Society, 1815-1828: A Study in Evangelical Reform” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Maine, 1973), quoted in Ziegler, The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America, 24.
  12. 35 Annals of Cong. 850–51 (1820).
  13. “Application to Abolish Privateering in Time of War,” petition of the Plainfield (Massachusetts) Peace Society to Congress, 27 Dec. 1819, in American State Papers, 6, Naval Affairs, 1:643–44.
  14. “Application to Abolish Privateering in Time of War,” petition of inhabitants of Massachusetts to Congress, 26 Jan. 1820, in ibid., 723–32.
  15. Ibid., 724.
  16. William L. Marcy to Count de Sartiges, 28 July, 1856, in Maritime Law: Correspondence Relative to Neutral Rights between the Government of the United States and the Powers Represented in the Congress at Paris (Washington, 1856), 12–13.
  17. The assertion that the crew of USS Omaha, who received a monetary award in 1947 for the capture of a German blockade-runner in 1941, was the last U.S. Navy crew to receive prize money is not pertinent. In the case of Omaha, the payment was for salvage, based on the argument that by trying to scuttle the captured ship, the German crew had abandoned the vessel.
  18. Donald Chisholm, Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes: Origins and Development of the U.S. Navy’s Officer Personnel System, 1793–1941 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2001), 128, 287, 342, 463. See also, Harold D. Langley, “Windfalls of War,” Naval History (May/June 1998) 12:27–31.
  19. “Mr. Choate’s Address on the Immunity from Capture of Private Unoffending Property of the Enemy upon the High Seas, June 28, 1907,” in Joseph H. Choate, Horace Porter, and James Brown Scott, American Addresses at the Second Hague Peace Conference (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1910), 4. Parrillo argues that the U.S. Navy’s change from a strategy of guerre de course to one of guerre d’escadre “reduced the attraction of prize and bounty for naval officers that may have been decisive” in getting prize money abolished. Parrillo, “The De-Privatization of American Warfare,” 90-95.
  20. Paul A. Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights in the War of 1812 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 13–17, 36; quotation from p. 17.
  21. William Bell Clark, Benjamin Franklin’s Privateers: A Naval Epic of the American Revolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956).
  22. Benjamin Franklin to Charles-Guillaume-Frédéric Dumas, 5 June 1780, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 32:476. Franklin repeated these sentiments in similar words in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan of 10 July 1782, in ibid. 37:609–10. See also, “Franklin’s Thoughts on Privateering and the Sugar Islands: Two Essays,” ibid., 617–20, and Franklin to David Hartley, 8 May 1783, ibid. 39:569–70.
  23. “Propositions made to Mr Hartley for the definitive Treaty,” {29 June 1783}, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin 40:257–58; “Definitive Treaty of Peace,” 3 Sept. 1783, Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, Hunter Miller, ed. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931), 151–56.
  24. Franklin, having initiated it, naturally endorsed this provision of the model treaty, writing to a friend, “the United States, tho’ better situated than any European Nation to profit by Privateering . . . are, as far as in them lies, endeavouring to abolish the Practice, by offering, in all their Treaties with other Powers, an Article, engaging solemnly, that, in Case of a future War, no Privateer shall be commission’d on either Side, and that unarm’d Merchant-ships, on both sides, shall pursue their Voyages unmolested.” Benjamin Franklin to Benjamin Vaughan, 14 Mar. 1785, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Henry Smyth, ed. (London: Macmillan, 1905–1907) 9:299.
  25. “Draught of a treaty of Amity and Commerce between his Majesty the king of Denmark and Norway and the United States of America,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, et al., eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950—), 7:486. See also, Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, 49–51.
  26. “Treaty of Amity & Commerce between his Majesty the King of Prussia & the United States of America,” Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, 2:178–79.
  27. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:100, 482-84; Francis R. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering and the Declaration of Paris (New York: Columbia Univ., 1897), 30.
  28. “Application to Abolish Privateering in Time of War,” petition of inhabitants of Massachusetts to Congress, 26 Jan. 1820, op. cit., 723.
  29. Ziegler, The Advocates of Peace in Antebellum America,” 114. See also, Curti, The American Peace Crusade, 148-49.
  30. Bernard Semmel, Liberalism & Naval Strategy: Ideology, Interest, and Sea Power during the Pax Britannica (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), 4.
  31. Westphalia was “the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularized legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. The classic ‘Westphalian state’ rests on individual sovereignty that both excludes external agencies and does not share the exercise of internal governance with other domestic bodies. In addition, it possesses well-demarcated, non-porous borders and a common identity and culture among its inhabitants.” Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009), 754.
  32. See, for instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (London, 1949), 9.
  33. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 13–31.
  34. Ibid., 21–29; Henry Wheaton, Elements of International Law: The Literal Reproduction of the Edition of 1866 by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Classics of International Law, George Grafton Wilson, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1936), 380.
  35. Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Strategy, 1-83.
  36. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 32–37.
  37. “Application to Abolish Privateering in Time of War,” petition of inhabitants of Massachusetts to Congress, 26 Jan. 1820, op. cit., 723.
  38. Anon., An Appeal to the Government and Congress of the United States, Against the Depredations Committed by American Privateers, on the Commerce of Nations at Peace with Us (New York, 1819).
  39. 35 Annals of Cong. 1951 (1819).
  40. Adams to Rush, 28 July 1823, in American State Papers, 1, Foreign Relations, 5:529–33.
  41. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 40–42; Gilje, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, 298; Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:46-51; Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, to Minister to Britain, Richard Rush, 28 July 1823, in American State Papers, 1, Foreign Relations, 5:529–33; Wheaton, Elements of International Law, 380–81; instructions of Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, to the Minister to Russia, Henry Middleton, and to Chargé in France, Daniel Sheldon Jr., 13 Aug. 1823, in Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:315-20; and James Monroe, “Seventh Annual Message,” 2 Dec. 1823, in Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 2: 210.
  42. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:51-53; Message of President John Quincy Adams to the House of Representatives, 15 Mar. 1826, Secretary of State, Henry Clay, to the Appointed Delegates to the Congress at Panama, 8 May 1826, and Secretary of State, Henry Clay, to the Minister in Great Britain, Albert Gallatin, 19 June 1826, in ibid., 324-31; Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 436-47.
  43. Crawford, “The Privateering Debate in Revolutionary America,” 219–34.
  44. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, passim. For a convenient summary, see 1:114-21.
  45. “Privateers are especially useful to those powers whose navy is inferior to that of their enemies. Belligerents, with powerful and extensive naval armaments, may cruise upon the seas with their national navies; but should those States, whose naval forces are of less power and extent, be left to their own resources, they could not hold out in a maritime war; whilst by the equipment of privateers they may succeed in inflicting upon the enemy an injury equivalent to that which they themselves sustain.” Alphonse de Pistoye and Denis Charles Duverdy, Traité des Prises Maritimes (Paris: A. Durand, 1855), quoted in William L. Marcy to Count de Sartiges, 28 July 1856, in Maritime Law, 14.
  46. Mahan to President Theodore Roosevelt, 27 Dec. 1904, quoted in Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Strategy, 155.
  47. The Secretary of State to the Minister in Prussia, 15 July 1797, in Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:223.
  48. “British Declaration, with reference to Neutrals and Letters of Marque, March 28, 1854,” in British and Foreign State Papers, Vol. 46, 1855-1856 (London, 1865), 36-37; Petrie, The Prize Game, 140–41; Sir Francis Piggott, The Declaration of Paris 1856, a Study (London: Univ. of London Press, 1919), 29, 45, 69-71.
  49. Franklin Pierce, “Second Annual Message,” 4 Dec. 1854, in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789–1897, James D. Richardson, comp. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897), 5: 276–77.
  50. Martin Lemnitzer, “’That Moral League of Nations against the United States’: The Origins of the 1856 Declaration of Paris,” The International History Review (2013), pp. 8-11, available online at
  51. James W. Gerard, The Peace of Utrecht: A Historical Review of the Great Treaty of 1713-14, and of the Principal Events of the War of the Spanish Succession (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885), 361-62; William L. Marcy to Count de Sartiges, 28 July 1856, in Maritime Law, 7-18. Piggott, The Declaration of Paris 1856, prints the texts of many of the documents regarding the declaration’s background, negotiations, and ratification.
  52. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 149.
  53. “Some have found in the separation of powers a different limitation, that a treaty cannot ‘bargain away’ the powers of any of the branches—say, the power of Congress to impose a tariff or declare war. That argument is fallacious. Any treaty commitment by the United States ‘bargains away’ its earlier right to do the contrary, usually by an act of Congress or the President. . . . {S}uch self-limitations are what many treaties are about, presumably in exchange for some advantage to the United States. A treaty, moreover, does not dispose of constitutional power: internationally the United States retains the power (not the right) to violate its treaty obligations; constitutionally, the President and Congress can exercise their powers even in violation of a treaty undertaking. Louis Henkin, Foreign Affairs and the Constitution (Mineola, N.Y.: The Foundation Press, 1972), 150-51).
  54. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:76-81, 381-99; Petrie, Prize Game, 141; Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 140–48; Wheaton, Elements of International Law, 358–59.
  55. Ibid.; Wheaton, Elements of International Law, 359. When the New York Chamber of Commerce requested Buchanan renew negotiations over the Marcy Amendment, Buchanan replied that he would not do so unless the proposition were coupled with doing away with blockade. “The Perfect Immunity of Private Property from Capture on the High Seas,” New York Times, 4 Oct. 1860.
  56. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:89-90, 416-19, 432-39; Gerard, The Peace of Utrecht, 364-65; Piggott, The Declaration of Paris 1856, 154-61; Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 155; Wheaton, Elements of International Law, 359.
  57. “Comments on the Seizure of Private Property at Sea,” in Alfred Thayer Mahan, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire, eds. (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 3:623–26. Mahan elaborates on these arguments in “The Hague Conference of 1907, and the Question of Immunity for Belligerent Merchant Shipping,” in A. T. Mahan, Henry S. Pritchett, and Julian S. Corbett, Some Neglected Aspects of War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1907), 155–93.
  58. “Contingency Plan of Operations in Case of War with Great Britain,” in Mahan, Letters and Papers, 3:559–76.
  59. Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Policy, 92-93, 155.
  60. “Comments on the Seizure of Private Property at Sea,” in Mahan, Letters and Papers, 3:623–26.
  61. Charles H. Stockton, “Capture of Enemy Vessels at Sea,” North American Review (Feb., 1899), 206, cited in John Hattendorf, “Rear Admiral Charles H. Stockton, the Naval War College, and the Law of Naval Warfare,” in Michael N. Schmitt & Leslie C. Green, eds., The Law of Armed Conflict: Into the Next Millennium, (International Law Studies 71) (Newport, R.I.: Naval War College, 1998), xli.
  62. Charles H. Stockton, “Would Immunity from Capture, during War, of Non-offending Private Property upon the High Seas Be in the Interest of Civilization?” American Journal of International Law 1 (1907): 930-43.
  63. For the British debate on naval policy leading up to the Hague Peace Conference, see, Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Policy, 99-109. For a survey of British policies on international laws of maritime warfare that concludes those policies were consistently guided by pragmatic considerations, see Andrew Lambert, “Great Britain and Maritime Law from the Declaration of Paris to the Era of Total War,” in Rolf Hobson and Tom Kristiansen, eds., Navies in Northern Waters 1721-2000 (London: Frank Cass, 2004), 11-38.
  64. Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:102-3, 490-91; “Instructions to the American Delegates to The Hague Conference,” 31 May 1907, in James Brown Scott, ed., Instructions to the American Delegates to The Hague Peace Conferences and Their Official Reports (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1916), 80.
  65. United States, Department of the Navy, “The United States Naval War Code of 1900,” in Naval War College, International Law Discussions, 1903 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 103, 106.
  66. Naval War College, International Law Discussions, 1903, 5.
  67. Ibid., 90–91, 101. For the history of the writing of the naval war code and of its subsequent influence on international law, see Hattendorf, “Rear Admiral Charles H. Stockton, the Naval War College, and the Law of Naval Warfare,” xli-xlvi and l-lvi.
  68. Message of President Theodore Roosevelt to Congress, 7 Dec. 1903, in Savage, Policy of the United States toward Maritime Commerce in War, 1:506.
  69. “Secretary of State of the United States {John Hay} to the American Diplomatic Representatives Accredited to the Governments Signatory to the Acts of the First Hague Conference,” 21 Oct. 1904, in Scott, ed., Instructions to the American Delegates to The Hague Peace Conferences and Their Official Reports, 61–62. For the story behind the calling of the Second Hague Peace Conference, see Calvin D. Davis, The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference: American Diplomacy and International Organization 1899-1914 (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1975), 91-118, where it is seen as a product of the international peace movement’s promotion of arbitration as an alternative to war as a means of solving international conflicts.
  70. Alan M. Anderson, “Two Ships Passing in the Night: The United States, Great Britain, and the Immunity of Private Property at Sea in Time of War, 1904-1907,” a paper delivered at the 2013 McMullen Naval History Symposium, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md.; John W. Coogan, The End of Neutrality: The United States, Britain, and Maritime Rights 1899-1915 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), 26-89; Semmel, Liberalism & Naval Strategy, 154-58. For the story behind the calling of the Second Hague Peace Conference, see Calvin D. Davis, The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference: American Diplomacy and International Organization 1899-1914 (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1975), 91-118.
  71. “Instructions to the American Delegates to The Hague Conference,” 31 May 1907, op. cit., 81–82.
  72. For an account of the discussions on the issue of immunity of private property at sea among the U.S. delegates in preparation for the conference, see Davis, The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference, 138-40, 171-72.
  73. Joseph H. Choate (1832-1917), a prominent New York City lawyer active in the Republic Party, had served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1899 to 1905. General Horace Porter (1837-1921) had served as personal secretary to General and President Ulysses S. Grant and to General William T. Sherman, as vice president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and as U.S. ambassador to France from 1897 to 1905. Uriah M. Rose (1843-1913, a leading Arkansas lawyer, had served as president of the American Bar Association from 1901 to 1902. David Jayne Hill (1850-1932) had been an academic, a university president, U.S. assistant secretary of state from 1898 to 1903, and U.S. minister to Swizerland, before attaining his current position as U.S. minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Brigadier General George B. Davis (1847-1914) was the U.S. Army’s judge advocate general. Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry had been president of the Naval War College from 1903 to 1906. William I. Buchanan (1850-1909) of New York, an expert on South American diplomatic affairs for Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, had served as U.S. minister to Argentina and to Panama.
  74. James Brown Scott, “The Work of the Second Hague Peace Conference.” American Society of International Law 2, no. 1 (1908): 17.
  75. “Convention Relative to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War Ships,” in James Brown Scott, ed., Texts of the Peace Conferences at The Hague, 1899–1907 (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1908), 246–51.
  76. Scott, “The Work of the Second Hague Peace Conference,” 18.
  77. “Report to the Secretary of State of the Delegates of the United States to the Second Hague Conference,” in Scott, ed., Instructions to the American Delegates to The Hague Peace Conferences and Their Official Reports, 110.
  78. “Mr. Choate’s Address on the Immunity from Capture of Private Unoffending Property of the Enemy upon the High Seas, June 28, 1907,” op. cit., 1–24; quotation on p. 20.
  79. Ibid., 1.
  80. American Addresses at the Second Hague Peace Conference, xxi; Davis, The United States and the Second Hague Peace Conference, 227-31.
  81. Stark, The Abolition of Privateering, 12, 159–60.
  82. The term automobile torpedo distinguishes self-propelled submerged munitions from stationary mines, formerly referred to as torpedoes.
  83. Norman Bentwich, The Declaration of London (London: Effingham Wilson and Sweet & Maxwell, 1911), 10-11, 12-14.
  84. Woodrow Wilson, Address to Joint Session of Congress, 8 Jan. 1918. Available at’s_Fourteen_Points.
  85. Semmel, Liberalism and Naval Policy, 128-29, 161, 169-71.
  86. Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2009), 1-3; Janet M. Manson, Diplomatic Ramifications of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 1939-1941, Contributions in Military Studies, No. 104 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 1. See both of these works for the story of how and why the United States made this momentous decision.
  87. William Arnold-Forster, The New Freedom of the Seas (London: Methuen & Co., 1942), 38.
  88. Ibid., 101.
  89. United States, Department of the Navy, “The United States Naval War Code of 1900,” in Naval War College, International Law Discussions, 1903 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), 105.
  90. Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Law of Naval Warfare, NWIP 10-2, September 1955 (Washington, D.C.: 1955), section 500.
  91. Robert W. Tucker, The Law of War and Neutrality at Sea, Naval War College International Law Studies 50 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1955): 38-43.
  92. Ibid., 55-73, quotation on 62-62. Tucker summarizes his argument in a passage on pages 68-70, the concluding sentence of which reads: “These novel circumstances are—from the present point of view—neither the submarine (and aircraft) nor the central importance of what has come to be known as economic warfare, but rather the insistence of belligerents upon the resort to measures which have as their direct consequence the integration of merchant shipping into the military effort at sea.”
  93. The most recent update of the U.S. Navy’s Law of Naval Warfare is the 2007 edition of The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, a publication of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard “designed to provide officers in command and their staffs with an overview of the rules of law governing naval operations in peacetime and during armed conflict.” The current handbook uses the Hague definition verbatim. Department of the Navy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, and Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12.1/COMDTPUB P5800.7A, Edition July 2007 (Washington, D.C.: 2007), paragraph 2.2.1.
  94. Whether ships owned by the state and employed otherwise than as warships, including commercial uses, should have the same sovereign immunity as warships had was the closest that the drafting committee came to debating the meaning of the term warship. United Nations, Conference on the Law of the Sea, 24 February-27 April 1958, Official Records, Vol. 4, Second Committee: High Seas General Regime (A/CONF.13/37-42), 67-74, 76-79, 99-100, quotation on p. 68, available at See also Ann L. Hollick, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Law of the Sea (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), 144-47.
  95. Naval War College, International Law Studies 1966 (Washington: GPO, 1968) 68: 98-99, 102, 153.

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View from the Quarterdeck: July 2014

chadbournHave you ever wondered why it is that some individuals seem to be almost innately curious about the study of history? I vividly recall my mentor at the University of Washington, Professor Wilton B. Fowler, saying at the beginning of his course on U.S. Diplomatic History, “History is both my vocation and my avocation!” For a young graduate student just off three years of sea duty as a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy, those words expressed both enthusiasm and inspiration for the intellectual examination of the past, as well as genuine love for the subject.

In essence, Dr. John B. Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the United States Naval War College, raises a somewhat similar question in his article, “Changing American Perceptions of the Royal Navy Since 1775.” Why do nations decide to expend resources to build navies? Professor Hattendorf observes that a navy is not only “an expression of a nation’s power” but also reflects “the nature, character and spirit of its people and its institutions.” These things did not spring newborn with the birth of the American nation, but rather have developed over almost three centuries. Professor Hattendorf offers an engaging intellectual analysis of how the American Navy has viewed its English counterpart during this period through what he calls a “changing kaleidoscope of viewpoints.” The perspective of the American Navy has grown from that of “being an enemy and infant offspring to peer- competitor and close ally.” The impact of the Royal Navy on their American cousins is not lost to the careful reader.

Likewise, Dr. Hazel Sheeky Bird, an Independent Scholar in Great Britain, in her article, “Naval History and Heroes: The Influence of U.S. and British Navalism on Children’s Writing, 1895-1914,” examines how naval advocates in both Britain and America were instrumental in producing books for children touting the importance of sea power for national greatness in the years prior to the First World War. Dr. Bird demonstrates that clearly by 1910 British naval writers “sought to underplay historic antagonism between the two countries, American writers often emphasized it.” Dr. Bird concludes these authors not only “shaped British and American children’s views of their future allies” but also prepared them for the roles their nations would play in the coming decades. A sense of national identity stems from many sources, not the least of which is the influence of literature which we read to children from an early age.

Analyst William Kyle, a recent graduate of the University of Mary Washington, and Navy LT Brent Powers, examine the significance of the so-called “pivot to China” in American Foreign Policy and its impact on the United States Navy. Mr. Kyle focuses on what his paper calls “The Strategic Logic of the American ’Pivot to the Pacific’” in his work which examines the current strategic environment in that region with particular attention to the challenges posed to American Naval Power in East Asia. He concludes that “the ‘strategic pivot ’is a direct application of smart power instead of a fear and insecurity-driven policy as realists have suggested.” He argues that in an era of “shrinking Navy force structure and modernization budgets, a national security strategy based on ‘smart power’ principles to lessen the need for Cold-War like naval forces in the region may be the only viable option.” In “Learning to Fail: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century from the Pacific War,” LT Powers looks at the potential of future naval conflict in the region through the lens of failures in naval warfare experienced during the momentous naval engagements of World War II in the Pacific. Both articles remind us of the international dimensions of war at sea.

In our inaugural issue I promised to try some new approaches with future editions of IJNH, as well as to mentor our younger colleagues, the next generation of naval historians. In this edition we do both. Our final article is a brief, 10-minute documentary on “Vietnam War Prisoners of War: Taking Responsibility When Deprived of All Rights” which won first place as a group documentary at the recently concluded National History Day Competition at the University of Maryland in College Park. Not only is this a “visual article,” it was produced by junior colleagues who display sophisticated understanding of the issues surrounding American Prisoners of War in Vietnam. I think you will agree it tells a remarkable story of human courage and perseverance in war under the most trying of circumstances. Much of the footage in this documentary is original and never seen before.

As always I welcome your comments, suggestions, ideas, and potential articles. Such historical dialog is productive in the development of historical dialog.

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

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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Changing American Perceptions of the Royal Navy Since 1775

John B. Hattendorf
Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History, U.S. Naval War College

There are many dimensions to a navy. At its most obvious, a navy is an expression of a nation’s power, but at the same time it is a microcosm of a nation, representing its industrial and technological capacities as well as reflecting the nature, character, and spirit of its people and its institutions. While a navy is a national creation that fully reflects its parentage, a navy also exists within the much broader and very different context of world affairs—the arena of competing powers and national interests that has deadly enemies as well as neutrals, friends, and allies. Outside Britain there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints from which to view the Royal Navy. The view from the United States of America is but one among many, but it presents a changing kaleidoscope of viewpoints. Over two hundred and forty years, the American Navy has viewed the Royal Navy as rebellious colonies, as a minor-power navy fighting a superpower navy, as a role-model, as a peer-competitor, and then as its closest ally as a great power navy. 1

In the beginning. Without an established and well-organized state bureaucracy, the process of creating a navy in America was a slow and hesitant one. 2  As the political crisis between Britain and her American colonies grew into an open rebellion in 1774 and 1775, the Royal Navy was the superior naval power in the world, although at this point the French Navy had potential superiority in its unmanned ships in reserve at Brest, Toulon, and Rochefort, with additional Spanish ships-of-the-line that might come available in a Franco-Spanish alliance. 3  On opposite sides of the Atlantic, both the British and the Americans were initially reluctant to engage in an all-out naval conflict. In 1775, American representatives gathered in the Continental Congress and were beginning the 15-year long process during which they eventually examined and debated nearly every fundamental aspect of representative democracy. While some expressed radical ideas about complete independence others were reluctant to take any steps that would preclude an advantageous political solution for the American colonies within the British Empire. 4 One of those steps that might be a serious disadvantage, some believed, was the creation of an American naval force. 5

At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the subject of a navy came up for debate in 1775. One of South Carolina’s representatives, Christopher Gadsden, who had served years before in the Royal Navy as a purser, believed that the Royal Navy was not so formidable as many feared. He suggested that the Americans could easily start a navy by capturing some of the smaller British cutters, sloops, and schooners. In New England, John Adams made a similar argument. 6 June 1775. Christopher Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and the Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution. (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 182-183.]  Other members of Congress slowly came to see that there might be a role for American naval forces. First, they thought about using small armed vessels adapted from merchant service to capture larger warships from the Royal Navy and, thereby, acquire purpose-built warships and trained sailors. Second, they saw an opportunity to force British forces to evacuate Boston by interrupting their supply lines stretching across the Atlantic. Third, American merchants believed that, with armed ships, they could effectively evade the British blockade of American ports. 7

The American patriots faced a number of practical military necessities in fighting British forces ashore that required maritime support. Several American commanders developed ad hoc arrangements to meet these needs. These local initiatives were far from the establishment of a formal American navy to oppose the Royal Navy, but they were precursors that eventually led to the creation a national navy. In his Autobiography, John Adams recalled that opposition to having a navy was “very loud and vehement.” 8 The very idea of intercepting and attacking British forces at sea was “represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that had ever been imagined.”

It was an infant, taking a mad bull by his horns; and what was even more profound and remote, it was said it would ruin the character, and corrupt the morals of our seamen. It would make them selfish, piratical, mercenary, bent wholly upon plunder &c. &c. 9

An ardent naval advocate, Adams’s life experience on the Massachusetts seacoast and his career as a lawyer in dealing with maritime cases placed him as a leader in this cause. 10 Eventually his arguments and those of others, the Continental Congress moved forward with the first step on 13 October 1775 toward establishing what came to be called the Continental Navy. As a member of the Congressional Naval Committee, John Adams wrote the original draft 11 of the navy’s organizational principles and rules for the newly established Continental Navy, 12 adapting them directly from the Royal Navy’s Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea. 13

One of the greatest challenges for Congress was to find an effective administrative organization to support the fleet. A number of approaches were tried, ostensibly based on British models that included the establishment of a Navy Board and even a Board of Admiralty. The management of naval affairs became increasingly challenging. Seeking to know more about how the Royal Navy managed its affairs, William Ellery, a Rhode Island member of the Marine Committee, wrote to a knowledgeable friend at home, William Vernon:

. . . I should be glad to know what is the Office of Commissioners of the Navy, and that you would point it out particularly; unless you can refer Me to some author who particularly describes. The Conduct of the Affairs of a Navy as well as those of an Army We are yet to learn. We are still unacquainted with the systematical management of them, although We have made considerable Progress in the latter. 14

Others also assumed that the British approach to naval management would be the best to emulate, but no one among the American leaders had any knowledge of naval administration or knew how the Admiralty or the Navy Board managed the Royal Navy. 15

During its ten-year existence, the Continental Navy played a very limited role. Its purpose was to contribute to a civil war between American Englishmen and Englishmen at home in Britain and to a revolution that brought independence to the thirteen United States of America. In this, the Continental Navy’s role was one of several maritime equivalents of the peoples’ and partisan warfare ashore. While the Navy complemented the privateering activities that more precisely fit this characterization, the Navy did serve with some effectiveness during the war in undertaking some vital tasks for the nascent revolutionary government that could not effectively be given to privateers, such as showing the flag in foreign waters, carrying government funds, and delivering official diplomatic representatives. These were vital functions that underscore the Navy’s role in the development of the American State, yet it was no match for the power of the Royal Navy, which largely eliminated it as a threat. The critical maritime role in the war fell to the French in alliance with the new American republic. It was the French Navy that was able to create a local maritime supremacy in the waters in and around Chesapeake Bay in 1781 that contributed directly to the surrender of the British Army at Yorktown.

The Early Republic. With the recognition of American independence in 1783, the young United States saw no immediate need for a navy and had neither the financial capacity nor the effective central administrative to sustain one. The last ship of the Continental Navy was sold in 1785 and the young country was left with no armed force at sea. From the British point of view, this was the best situation. Those in Britain and British North America who were knowledgeable about American affairs saw danger in even allowing Americans the right to fish on the Grand Banks. In 1783 as the peace negotiations were being completed, a British newspaper, The Public Advertiser, reported the views of “a Country Member of Parliament” who felt that allowing Americans to use the Atlantic fisheries would have “at one stroke annihilated our navy” and “put an end to our existence as a commercial nation.” 16 He and others saw the fisheries as the traditional nursery of a navy that would lead Americans, along with the French, to train up to 80,000 seamen. They feared that the United States could create a navy, leaving Britain in a position where, as another writer in The Public Advertiser noted, “it will be in vain for us to defend any of our possessions.” 17

In fact, there was no immediate fear of that happening. It would be seven years before the United States put any armed maritime force to sea and that occurred in 1790 with the U.S. Revenue Marine’s Cutter Service, the earliest predecessor element of the current U.S. Coast Guard. It was only in 1794, after American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean began to suffer from attacks by North African corsairs, that the new republic saw the need to establish a permanent naval service. Before that time, American merchant shipping had benefited from Portugal’s containment of North African corsairs around the entrance to the Mediterranean and in the western Mediterranean. When the war against Revolutionary France led Britain to urge Portugal to make peace and stop her diverting war with the North African states, neutral Americans were left to fend for themselves.

While this was an important impetus that led to the formal establishment of the permanent American navy, Americans were having a serious debate about the purpose and function of navy. There were two factions. On one side, there was the group that has come to be called the “navalists,” who saw the Royal Navy as its model. For them, the new navy should be the most effective expression and symbol of the nation’s power, honor, and prestige as well as a potent and capable and effective fighting force that played a major role in the world balance of power as an instrument of political influence. Their ideal was to use American naval force as an arbiter in world politics. This navy’s potential capabilities could serve as a continual deterrent to aggression as well as show America’s power abroad while her ships protected American commerce and interests abroad. In opposition to this view, another group, who have come to be called the “anti-navalists.” This group saw use for a navy, but argued that the navalists’ vision was impractical and far too costly. Their navy would be a sea-going militia force, smaller in size, with vessels whose capabilities were limited to a very few vessels operating singly on distant stations with the emphasis in home waters on coastal protection and the suppression of piracy. 18  For much of the first century of the new country’s existence, the anti-navalists held sway over American naval policy, but there remained a constant tension between the two viewpoints. By and large, the leaders of the young nation was satisfied to accept the benefits that came indirectly to the United States from the Royal Navy’s exercise of global naval power, while it focused on westward expansion across the North American continent. As Andrew Jackson told the American people in his inaugural address as President in 1829, the United States had “need of no more ships of war than are requisite to the protection of commerce.” 19

It was this type of thinking that led to building the large frigates that eventually made a mark in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Starting from the concept of the typical French and British frigates of the 1790s, American shipbuilders sought to design a small number of frigates for a small navy that would be an overmatch for possible opponents. Thus, they applied the scantlings of a 74-gun ship to a frigate that “in blowing weather would be an overmatch for double-deck ships, and in light winds to evade coming to action.” 20

A basic and recurring theme in the American naval view of the Royal Navy was the American desire to be recognized as a separate and independent nation and naval service. It was this that caused such deep American resentment over the impressment of seamen. In 1805, Captain John Shaw wrote the American consul at Gibraltar, “I wish the British Commanders to observe that our Service is very independent, and I hope our commanders will never let slip any insult which they offer to pass with Impunity.” 21 During the Anglo-American War of 1812-1815. American naval officers did not question British competence as fighters and seamen, but they were offended if they thought their British counterparts were questioning their honour. Secretary of the Navy William Jones lauded Captain John Rodger’s voyage in USS President across the Atlantic to the Norwegian coast and into the Arctic as “another proof of the exaggerated power and fictitious omnipresence of the British Flag.” 22 Yet an American naval rating saw his British counterparts as “hard fellows on salt water.” 23 When James Durand, a Connecticut seaman, was impressed for service in HMS Narcissus, he recalled that “only lately I had quitted the service of the U. States after enduring everything. The thought of serving with the British fleet touched every nerve with distress and almost deprived me of reason.” 24

The Late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The victories of the American frigates over the smaller British frigates during the first part of the War of 1812 soon developed a life of their own and became in the late 19th and early 20th century historical writing an important part of American patriotic culture, helping to develop public pride in American naval heritage as well as providing a new dimension to public support for current naval construction. 25

As the new American steel navy began to take shape from the 1880s onward, a small group of American naval officers began to turn to historical study as a means to find the fundamental principles of naval warfare as technological change revolutionized the physical characteristics of navies. 26 The most famous of these men was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy, whose series of four books on the “Influence of Sea Power” in the period between 1660 and 1815, showed in detail the strategic effectiveness of the Royal Navy. He famously declared that “the world has never seen a more impressive demonstration of the influence of sea power upon its history. Those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.” 27 In his third Sea Power volume, Mahan wrote on the War of 1812. Unlike other American writers, he saw the story of that war as a cautionary tale for the United States and a negative influence in America’s national history. “Not by rambling operations, or naval duels, are wars decided, but by force massed, and handled in skillful combination,” 28 Mahan cautioned. “It matters not that the particular force be small. The art of war is the same throughout; and may be illustrated as readily, though less conspicuously, by a flotilla as by an armada; by a corporal’s guard, or the three units of the Horatii, as by a host of a hundred thousand.” To complete his series, Mahan’s final volume was his Life of Nelson, “a study . . . of the one man who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends,—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together, to make him the personification of the navy of Great Britain.” 29 “Thenceforward,” Mahan wrote, “the name of Nelson is enrolled among those few presented to us by History, the simple mention of which suggest, not merely a personality or a career, but a great force or a great era concrete in a single man, who is the standard-bearer before the nations.” 30

Mahan’s historical works earned him great praise in Britain, bringing him honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge as well as an audience with Queen Victoria. They even earned him a proposal that he accept an honorary commission in the Royal Navy, which he politely, but firmly, declined. 31 Mahan clearly expressed the world’s admiration for the Royal Navy. In an interview published in early August 1914, Mahan noted “You people in England do not realize the immense admiration felt all over the world, yes, and in Germany also, for the British Navy. Speaking from my standpoint, as an American, I tell you that there is only one navy in the world, and that the others are mere striplings by comparison.” 32, in Seager and Maguire, eds, Letters and Papers of . . . Mahan, vol. 3, p. 701.]  While not underrating his own or any other navy, he noted “by comparison with the British, every navy still has much to learn.” 33

While praising the Royal Navy as a model for others, Mahan was also interested in practical cooperation. In the first decade of the twentieth century, American naval officers were observing the establishment of the first Dominion naval forces. They could see that how they would be part of the larger capabilities of the Royal Navy, although American naval officers seemed not entirely aware of the debates and issues arising between the Cabinet in London, the Admiralty, the Colonial Office, and the various Dominion governments about these forces. One of the earliest American comments about Dominion naval forces came even at the very opening years of the twentieth century in the context of discussion about what was then turned “imperial federation.”

In July 1904, Mahan was the guest of honor at a luncheon in London hosted by the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee. The well-known writer on imperial defence issues, Sir John Colomb, was in the chair. In introducing Mahan to the distinguished group that had gathered for the occasion, Colomb declared:

The object of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, in its truest aspect, is not to make wars, but to prevent them. And I take it that the Navy of which Captain Mahan has been a distinguished ornament, has, with ours, that common mission in the future. The great American Commonwealth of which Captain Mahan is a distinguished citizen, and the British Empire, of which we are all ourselves citizens, have a great common interest in the peace of the sea. 34

Colomb went on to draw Mahan’s attention to the words of William B. Dally, who had been attorney general, and briefly colonial secretary, in New South Wales during the 1880s, had suggested “Let there be one Navy, under the rule of a single Admiralty – a Navy in which the colonies shall be as much integrated as the Mother country, which shall be theirs as well as hers, and on which they may all rely in time of danger.” 35

Mahan’s response to all this was revealing. Linking the United States to this issue, Mahan commented, “. . . as the sympathies of the people who speak the same tongues widen, like those of the various communities under the British flag and our own are doing, that as they grow together there will be an approximation of the period which we have heard much¾the federation of the world.” 36

Six years later in 1910, Commander William S. Sims visited London in command of the battleship USS Minnesota and expressed similar sentiments. Sims, who would later become the U.S. Navy’s most famous and successful commander in World War I, had been born in Port Hope, Ontario, in 1858 and was raised there until the age of ten, when his American-born father and Canadian mother moved their family to the United States. During his port visit in 1910, the Lord Mayor of London ended a week of courtesy calls, parties, and festivities by hosting Sims with the officers and men of Minnesota to a luncheon at Guildhall on 3 December 1910. In a closing speech of thanks, Sims declared “If the time ever comes when the British Empire is seriously menaced by an external enemy, it is my opinion that you may count upon every man, every dollar, every drop of blood, of your kindred across the sea.” 37  His remarks were enthusiastically applauded by those present, but earned Sims a public reprimand from President William Howard Taft. Half a dozen years later in 1917 in the midst of the war with Germany, Taft noted “The ways of history are strange. When I was President I reprimanded an officer for saying exactly what he is doing now. That officer was, Commander, now Vice Admiral, Sims in command of the American Navy in Europe.” 38

Simultaneously, there was a separate current in American naval thinking. In the late 19th century, officers in both the U.S. Army and the U.S Navy were influenced by the successes of the German General Staff in Prussia’s wars and began to think about various contingency plan, an idea that was entirely new in American thinking.   The U.S. Navy was vastly outnumbered by the Royal Navy, and it seemed the most dangerous possible enemy, even if not the most likely. 39

Mahan himself drafted the first American naval war plan in 1890 based on a concept for a weak U.S. Navy to operate with a defensive-offensive strategy. This was appropriate to a small power and kept the American main battle fleet in port, waiting for an opportune moment to attack its larger adversary, while minor American squadrons were stationed in Puget Sound on the Pacific coast and on Lake Ontario. 40 “Any attempts against the British islands themselves, in the present relative strength of the two navies, is plainly impracticable. The belligerents will meet in the Western Hemisphere,” 41 Mahan predicted and then went on to say “Canada lies at our mercy, unless the British navy by action on our coasts can stay our hand.” 42  To do this, he forecast that the Royal Navy would need to use 24 ships to maintain a constant blockade of New York, with a reserve held at Halifax bringing the total to 30 warships. 43

In 1911-12,a war game based on the American contingency plan for war between the United States and the United Kingdom, by now named War Plan RED, was the subject that students at the Army War College. In contrast to earlier plans, it now suggested a reason why war might occur between the two countries and looked at the situation with a global perspective. The war game scenario was based on a situation in which RED (Britain) had caused BLUE (i.e., the United States) to declare war, when RED dispatched an Army division and a mounted brigade, totaling 22,000 men in fast transports, escorted by the first cruiser squadron sailing from Southampton to reinforce the army in Canada, and landed at Quebec. 44 In considering the roles of Australian, Canadian, and Indian naval forces in this scenario, the American naval officers saw the greatest use of these forces in partially manning the Royal Navy’s local squadrons on the Australian station, East Indian Squadron, and in reserve positions in Canada, thereby allowing the equivalent number of regularly trained officers and men for active service in the war against the United States. 45

The Great War.The United States remained neutral in the First World War until April 1917, when German attacks on shipping made that stance no longer an acceptable one. In 1917 and 1918, the United States Navy operated successfully in close cooperation with the Royal Navy in European waters with Admiral Sims in command of U.S. Naval Forces in European waters. An American squadron of battleships joined the Grand Fleet, while destroyers, naval aircraft, and transports carried out a wide range of cooperative operations. 46 Not all in the U.S. Navy were as happy as Sims was to be working with the Royal Navy. When the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels initially sent Sims to London in 1917, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William S. Benson, registered another opinion when he cautioned Sims: “Don’t let the British pull the wool over your eyes, we would as soon fight them as the Germans.” 47

The experience of American naval officers in operating with the Royal Navy was both positive and negative. As shown earlier with the American attitudes in the War of 1812 period, American naval officers were proud of their service and their new and improved ships. Henry A. Wiley, who had commanded the battleship USS Wyoming in the sixth battle squadron of the Grand Fleet, recalled:

I think we excelled the British in shooting. Of course, we were not put to the test in battle, and I don’t know how we would have fared under fire. Our ships were not as rugged as the British ships, and our fire-control system probably would not have stood up as well as theirs under heavy, well-directed fire. Our system of turret firing was superior, I think, and we could have delivered a greater weight of metal in any given time under normal conditions. 48

Anglo-American naval cooperation was very effective in this period and led to at least one major change to the United States Navy: a change in naval officer uniform design that endures to this day. On 17 March 1919, the U.S. Navy adopted for the first time a double-breasted, blue uniform jacket that was inspired directly by the Royal Navy’s uniform. While this also reflected current taste in civilian clothing, it was also a tribute to the close connection developed with the Royal Navy. The only major difference was that Americans used two vertical rows of six brass buttons, rather than the eight used by the Royal Navy, and with a star rather than a curl on the sleeve with the gold rank insignia. 49

At the same time that this uniform change took place in 1919, the peace negotiations at Paris raised great tension between the United States and Britain. While both agreed on the basic questions in dealing with the defeat of the Central Powers, major disagreement took place when the United States demanded naval parity with Great Britain with a United States Navy that was “second to none”. The so-called “Naval Battle of Paris” took place in March 1919, in which Americans showed their suspicions about British claims for continued naval supremacy and feared that that Britain’s supremacy and use of naval blockade against Germany might lead to a blockade against American ports in a future conflict. For this reason, American naval officers proposed that Germany retain a small naval fleet as a counterweight to the Royal Navy. For the same reason, they considered, too, the idea of a League of Nations naval force.

In analyzing the post-war situation, American naval planners first saw a number of reasons why a future war between the United States and Great Britain would be unlikely. Among these factors were the economic dependence of Great Britain on the United States, the proximity of Canada to the United States, and the possible lack of colonial support for a war against the United States unless British dominions saw it as a just war. 50 On the other hand, there were a number of reasons why a future war might break out. The main issues here were the disparity between British and American views of freedom of the seas, particularly in regard to belligerent rights. American naval officers were particularly sensitive to Britain’s reluctance to codify maritime international law and to apply the most liberal interpretation of belligerent rights on the High Seas and saw this as one of several reasons for maintaining a navy equal to Britain’s. As an example of the type of crisis that could arise, the U.S. Naval Advisory Staff in Paris used a Canadian contingency as an example:

. . . if Canada should attempt to gain her independence from Great Britain by force, and if the United States remained neutral, it is the British contention that Great Britain could blockade every port of the United States and could so regulate our imports that we could spare none for exportation to Canada. This is not International law, but an application of the law of force to neutrals. The only reply is the presence of a potential [U.S. naval] force that will secure the abandonment of the contention. 51

The Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1921-22 formally established the principles of nominal naval parity with Britain that the United States had been seeking during and immediately after World War One, 52 although the Unites States did not immediately build up to treaty strength, allowing the Royal Navy to remain numerically and qualitatively superior through the 1920s. Nevertheless, American naval officers remained distrustful of Britain. While they acknowledged war was unlikely, they still believed the Royal Navy might be used in its traditional role to protect and to further British trade at the expense of American interests. The underlying cause for such a war would most likely be a British attempt to promote its weakening trade situation by attacking the United States, its principal economic competitor. 53

In 1923, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence Monthly Information Bulletin reported that former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had said that the only country that gave any concern for a future war in the near future was the United States and that the points of friction between them were (1) the Irish question, (2) naval rivalry, and (3) the debt. 54

If such a war took place, British planners saw the eastern Atlantic, Canada, and the Far East as the most likely theaters for it to play out. 55 Yet, American naval planners looked at the same contingency more narrowly in terms of the defense of the western hemisphere. By 1930, the American War Plan RED was still basically a defensive plan in which CRIMSON [Canada] played a central role with the worst case scenario of British forces invading the United States from Canada. At this point, American war planners saw Canada as the most sensitive target and productive target that they could attack in a war with Britain. Even as late as 1930, American officers could not easily imagine Canada remaining neutral. Backed up by extensive analysis through war games at the Naval War College, American naval plans called for an attack on Halifax and other ports to prevent British forces from reaching Canada with the U.S. remaining in a defensive position waiting for an opportunity to engage. 56

World War II. During the interwar period, the separate, technical and professional development of the two navies had created two complementary bodies of professional experience and knowledge. Naval leaders in both countries were well aware that an exchange of information could be profitable, but the grounds upon which such an exchange could took place developed only very slowly. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the United States again remained formally neutral, but also began a range of activities to assist Britain even while remaining neutral. 57

The very first steps were private initiatives, beginning in September 1939 only a few days after World War Two began, when the first of a small group of 22 Americans took up an opportunity to become officers in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the first citizens of the United States to become sea officers in the Royal Navy. The initial volunteer, William E.G. Taylor, received his RNVR commission on 14 September 1939 and the last of the twenty-two, Peter G. Morison, the only son of the famous American naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, was commissioned on 10 November 1941, just barely a month before Germany declared war on the United States. Another, Draper Kaufman, retired as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, famous for having first organized what was the forerunner of the U.S. Navy SEALs. He had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, but poor eyesight had initially prevented him from getting his U.S. Navy commission. He recalled that he had received very effective training to become a sub-lieutenant in the RNVR at HMS King Alfred at Hove. He found the ten-week “Y” scheme course “excellent, very well run. . . . They did a superb job, for instance on indoctrination into the Royal Navy. Not stuffy. People might think that it might be, but it wasn’t at all—the history of the Royal Navy, that you should be darned proud to wear the uniform and that sort of thing.” 58

In the formal relations between the two services, a firm working basis was established by the summer of 1940. At first, this liaison developed between the separate technical offices in the Admiralty and the office of the U.S. Naval Attaché in London, but with so many different areas involved, this soon proved to be an unsatisfactory approach. In order to profit more effectively from British knowledge and experience, American naval officers with competence in specific areas were sent to London to examine matters within their own areas of knowledge. The first to do this was Lieutenant Commander J.N. Opie III who arrived in London in June 1940 to look into mine sweeping arrangements and report back to the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships. He was followed by a number of others with assignments in specific areas. Most officers stayed for just a few months, while a few stayed longer. Lieutenant Commander Joseph H. Wellings was the first to be sent to study fleet operations and tactics, and he stayed for ten months from September 1940 to June 1941. On his return to America, he had the good fortune to be in HMS Rodney, when she was temporarily diverted from her passage to Boston, Massachusetts, for repairs to participate in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Wellings’s numerous letters, reports, and diary reveal much about an American’s reaction to the Royal Navy. As he wrote to his wife in October 1940, “I find the English eat more than we do, and in addition more often. I find their habits quite interesting. It is remarkable how they differ from ours when after all we have so much in common.” 59 Later, while in HMS Hood, Wellings participated in a shipboard New Year’s Eve celebration.   As the ships’ bell struck 16, he was amazed to see the wardroom tables cleared away, a bagpiper playing, and observe the admiral, captain, staff, wardroom, gunroom, and warrant officers dancing. “Such a comradeship one would never suspect from the English who are supposed to be so conservative. I was impressed very much. Such spirit is one of the best British assets. This spirit will go far to bring about victory in the end.” 60

The ABC (American-British-Canadian) staff talks that began in January 1941 laid the formal basis for high-level cooperation between the two services in preparation for the time when the United States entered the war. These were not easy negotiations and involved some serious differences of opinion. Some of the leading Americans had memories of their experiences and observations of the Royal Navy as junior officers during the First World War that influenced their outlook in different ways during Anglo-American naval relations between 1941 and 1945.

For example, Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1939 to early 1942, and Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, in London between 1942 and 1945, had served on the staff of Admiral William S. Sims in London in 1917-1918. After the war, he had attended the Naval War College. Having had that experience, he wanted to avoid the quickly arranged ad hoc arrangements of that period and to replace them with well-planned and organized relationships that were firmly established before entering the war. Thus, as Chief of Naval Operations, he had been the organizer and mentor for the ABC-1 talks in early 1941. 61

Stark’s successor as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, had been the flag lieutenant to Admiral Henry T. Mayo, the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet during World War One. In this assignment, Commander King had travelled with Mayo and had the rare opportunity for an American naval officer to observe many of the senior British naval officers in command, including Beatty, Jellicoe, and Sturdee, as they interacted with Admiral Mayo during his visit to Britain and the Grand Fleet in 1918. King thought Sims, “a show-off” 62 and he did not like the way that Sims had allowed American ships to be taken under British overall command. He wanted the U.S. Navy to operate independently and not to be under any other country’s control. 63 King had a strongly nationalistic viewpoint that has often been misinterpreted as being anti-British in his viewpoint. As a student at the Naval War College in 1933, King had written in his thesis,

Our strengths have virtually reduced Great Britain to second place. . . . Great Britain must be considered a potential enemy not in questions of security, but as to matters involving our foreign trade, financial supremacy, and our dominate position in world affairs. 64

King’s long-held viewpoints along these lines surfaced in a number of ways during World War II. In explaining his priority for the war in the Pacific over that in the Atlantic, King observed:

The British have been managing world affairs for well over three hundred years, ever since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. I personally felt that the allies would lose the war against the Japanese unless we stopped them in a few weeks or months. . . . It seemed to me that the British ‘egged’ the U.S. on to accept their ideas since they were already fighting the Nazis when the U.S. entered the war and also since the Nazis were close by and the Pacific was far away. . . . I can’t get over the idea that the U.S. people had been sold a ‘pig in a poke’ at that time and were in the well-known situation of having been worked into a concept (even a real obsession) of British origin rather than to look out for the basic interests of the U.S.A. throughout the entire world. 65

In 1951, Admiral Lord Cunningham recalled in his published memoirs that Admiral King had been “at times rude and overbearing”. 66 The day after several American newspapers quoted this, 67  King recorded a memorandum for the record in which he recalled an incident during the summer of 1942 that had prompted Cunningham’s remarks. Cunningham, as head of the British Admiralty Delegation in Washington, had come to his office to ask if more destroyers could be made available for the North Atlantic convoy to Britain. At that time, King was using every available vessel and was, at the same time, busily engaged in setting up “Operation Torch” for North Africa. “I therefore interpreted Cunningham’s query as a ‘needle’ directed at me—and I was indeed very abrupt (rude) with him—and purposely so.” 68

In general, however, the naval relations between the U.S Navy and the Royal Navy were remarkably good and made for a very effective collaboration. American naval men and women clearly respected the professionalism and expertise of their British naval counterparts, although friction arose in a number of areas from differing approaches in training, procedures, and operational planning as well as in ascertaining which of the two navies should play the leading role for a particular function. This was apparent in a number of well-known instances, for example, in naval intelligence collaboration, during the planning for the D-Day operation, and during the operations of the British Fleet in the Pacific.

The Cold War and After. In 1946, it was apparent that the United States would need to take on a number of global responsibilities that the Royal Navy had previously exercises, beginning with Britain’s mantle in the Middle East. The United States Navy was deeply influenced by Royal Navy operational patterns and approaches. 69 In addition, the Second World War command organization, as it eventually evolved during the war, provided the fundamental model for this as it did for postwar naval cooperation through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation after 1949. 70  The gradual development, over the following forty years, of standardized procedures, equipment, supplies, and communications for multilateral naval operations, removed many the inter-service problems that the Royal Navy and the U.S Navy had experienced during World War Two. In this, for example, the Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, overcame what had appeared to be insuperable practical obstacles to become an effective force, and a model for other formal and ad hoc arrangements. 71  Through the NATO arrangement as well as through bi-lateral shared nuclear submarine technology 72 and other initiatives, the two navies grew increasingly more at ease and with less friction in their working relationships. Some clear differences remained. During the Cold War, Americans observed, among other things, the quality in sea training as well as the depth of knowledge that executive and engineer branch officers in the Royal Navy displayed, along with the ways that this compared and contrasted with the more generalist approach to officer knowledge and training in the United States Navy.

To conclude, as the vicar of Kew, the Rev’d Charles Caleb Colton, put it in the early nineteenth century, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A telling example of this might be found in an echo of the Royal Navy’s long tradition of Trafalgar Night dinners. In the year 2000, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay L. Johnson, announced that the U.S. Navy would pause to celebrate its heritage by beginning the annual practice of having a “dining in” to mark the anniversary of the battle of Midway,

one of the most decisive sea battles in world history . . . won, not by superior numbers or daunting technology, but by the courage and tenacity of sailors who fought a vicious air and sea battle against overwhelming odds. 73

Thus continues the long relationship and the changing kaleidoscope of viewpoints through which the American Navy has viewed the Royal Navy from being an enemy and infant offspring to peer- competitor and close ally.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

  1. The views and information in this paper express the independent research and academic judgments of the author and do not in any way reflect any current official policy of the United States of America, the United States Navy, or the U.S. Naval War College. This paper was originally presented at “The Navy is the Nation Conference,” held at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, 18-19 April 2012.
  2. For the first studies of early American naval administration, see Charles Oscar Paullin, “The Administration of the Continental Navy of the American Revolution,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, (September 1905), reprinted in Paullin’s History of Naval Administration (Annapolis: Naval Institute, 1986); Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy, Its Achievements. (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers, 1906); Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, 1912, 1940, reprinted (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962), chapter 2 “Naval Administration and Organization, pp. 20-58.
  3. Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 19.
  4. Raymond G. O’Connor, Origins of the American Navy: Sea Power in the Colonies and the New Nation. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 16-17.
  5. Richard Buel, Jr., In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 79-80.
  6. Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. I, pp. 628-629: John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, [7
  7. Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause, p. 186.
  8. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 308, fn 2: Journal of the Continental Congress, October 6, 1775: extract from John Adams’s Autobiography.
  9. Ibid.
  10. As early as 1755, Adams had written “…we have (I may say) all the naval Stores of the Nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us.” Robert J. Taylor, Mary-Jo Kline, and Gregg L. Lint, eds., Papers of John Adams, vol. 1 (1977), available online at Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed. .C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2007. John Adams to Nathan Webb, 12 October 1755, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807.
  11. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 1189: Autobiography of John Adams, November 28, 1775
  12. Clark, ed., NDAR, vol. 2, p. 1109: Journal of the Continental Congress, November 23, 1775.
  13. First published in 1731, it is not yet been determined which edition Adams used. The most recent edition was the eleventh edition, published in 1772. For a list of the editions published between 1731 and 1790, see Thomas R. Adams and David W. Waters, comps., English Maritime Books Printed Before 1801. (Providence: John Carter Brown Library, and Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, 1995), items 1418-1429.
  14. Morgan, ed., NDAR, vol. 7, p. 79: William Ellery to William Vernon, Providence, November 7, 1776.
  15. For a modern historical study of British practice at the time, see Daniel A. Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965) and “The Eighteenth Century Navy as a National Institution, 1690-1815,” in J.R. Hill, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 120-160. There was at least one available source that did provide an outline of British naval administration, but no evidence has yet been found that it was known or used by American officials at this time. See Josiah Burchett, A Complete History of the Most Remarkable Transactions at Sea (1720), a Facsimile Reproduction with an Introduction by John B. Hattendorf. (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints for the John Carter Brown Library, 1995). Burchett provided the outline of the Royal Navy’s administrative structure in the preface to this work.
  16. “A Country Member of Parliament” in Public Advertiser, 13 February 1783, quoted in P.J. Marshall, Remaking the British Atlantic: the United States and the British Empire after American Independence. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 51.
  17. “Piscator” in Public Advertiser, 12 February 1783, quoted in P.J. Marshall, Remaking the British Atlantic, p. 51.
  18. Craig l. Symonds, Navalists and Antinavalists: the Naval Policy Debate in the United States, 1785-1827. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980), pp. 11-25.
  19. Quoted in Ibid, p. 235.
  20. Joshua Humphries in ca. 1794, quoted in Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 4.
  21. Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1939-1944), vol. 6, p. 126: John Shaw to John Gavino, 19 June 1805. I am grateful to Dr. Kevin McCranie for drawing my attention to this quotation and the two that follow.
  22. National Archives, RG 45; Letters from the Secretary of the Navy to Officers. Microfilm M149, Reel 11, 226: William Jones to John Rodgers, 26 February 1814.
  23. Charles Denison, ed., Old Ironsides and Old Adams: Stray Leaves from the Log-Book of a Man-of-War. (Boston: W.W. Page, 1846). p. 10.
  24. James R. Durand, The Life and Adventures of James R, Durand . . . written by himself. (Originally published 1820, then with commentary New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926, reprinted Sandwich, MA: Chapman Billies Inc, 1995), p. 49.
  25. On this subject, see Mark R. Shulman, Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power, 1882-1893. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995).
  26. See Hattendorf, “History and Technological Change: the Study of History in the U.S. Navy, 1873-1890” in John B. Hattendorf, Naval History and technological Change: Collected Essays. (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing, 2000), pp. 1-16.
  27. A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812. (Boston: Little Brown, 1892), vol 2,, p. 118.
  28. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812. (Boston: Little Brown, 1905), vol. 1, p. v.
  29. A.T. Mahan, The Life of Nelson: the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain. (London: Sampson, Marston, Low, 1897), vol. 1, p. v.
  30. Ibid.
  31. William D. Puleston, Mahan: The life and work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), p. 180; Robert Seager II and Doris Maguire, eds, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Annapolis: Naval institute Press, 1975), vol. 2, p. 512: Mahan to J.B. Sterling, May 31, 1897.
  32. A.T. Mahan, “The British Navy: Fragment of a Newspaper Interview”, no place, no date [early August 1914
  33. Ibid.
  34. Captain A.T. Mahan on Imperial Federation. Speech delivered at a dinner of the Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee on July 6th, 1904. The Right Hon. Sir John Colomb, K.C.M.G., M.P. in the chair. (London: Imperial Federation (Defence) Committee, 1904)., pp. 1-2.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Quoted in Elting E. Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942), p. 281.
  38. Ibid., p. 284.
  39. Steven T. Ross, American War Plans, 1890-1939. (London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2002), p. 7.
  40. Robert Seager II and Doris Maguire, eds., Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), vol. III, pp. 559-578: “Contingency Plan in the Case of War with Great Britain, December 1890.”
  41. Ibid., p. 559.
  42. Ibid., p. 561
  43. Ibid., p. 564,
  44. Ibid., p. 7.
  45. For more on this subject, see John B. Hattendorf, “Commonwealth Navies as Seen by the United States Navy, 1910-2010,” in Richard M. Gimblett, ed., The Canadian Navy and the Commonwealth Experience: From Empire to Independence (forthcoming).
  46. See E.E. Morison, Sims; Williams S. Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1920, reprinted Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984, with an introduction by David F. Trask); William N. Still, Jr., Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. (Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  47. United States Congress, Sixty-Six Congress, Second Session, Naval Investigation: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Naval Affairs—Unites States Senate. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921), vol. II, pp. 1883-93, 1917-19, 1992, 3139. Sims attributed this quote to Benson during the testimony, raising an issue about the authority of the CNO. I am grateful to David Kohnen for drawing my attention to this quotation.
  48. Henry A. Wiley, An Admiral from Texas. (New York: Doubleday Day, Doran, & Co.,1934), p. 209.
  49. James C. Tily, The Uniforms of the United States Navy. (New York: Thomaas Yoseloff, 1964), p. 244.
  50. Michael Simpson, ed. Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1917-1919. Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol. 130. (Aldershot: Scolar Press for the Navy Records Society, 1991), p. 579: Document 435: U.S. Planning Section, early 1919.
  51. Ibid., p. 603: Document 448: Memorandum of the U.S. Naval Advisory Staff, Paris, 7 April 1919.
  52. J. Kenneth McDonald, “The Washington Conference and the Balance of Power, 1921-22,” in John B. Hattendorf and Robert S. Jordan, eds., Maritime Strategy and the Balance of Power: Britain and America in the Twentieth Century. (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 189-210.
  53. Christopher M. Bell, “Thinking the Unthinkable: British and American Naval Strategies for an Anglo-American War, 1918-1931,” The International History Review, vol. XIX, no. 4 (November 1997), pp. 757-1,008.
  54. “British Dominions,” Office of Naval Intelligence. Monthly Information Bulletin. No 7 (1923), pp. 2-23. Lloyd George quoted at p. 22.
  55. Bell, ‘Thinking,” pp. 799-800
  56. Bell, “Thinking,” p. 802; Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941. (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1980), pp. 99-112.
  57. See James R. Leutze, Bargaining for Supremacy: Anglo-American Naval Collaboration, 1937-1941. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977); Malcolm H. Murfett, Fool-Proof Relations: The Search for Anglo-American Naval Cooperation During the Chamberlain Years, 1937-1940. (Singapore University Press, 1984); Patrick Abbazia, Mr.Roosevelt’s Navy: The Private War of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, 1939-1942. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975).
  58. Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Draper L. Kauffman, U.S. Navy (Retired). Oral History series. (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1982), quoted in Eric Dietrich-Berryman, Charlotte Hammond, and R.E. White, Passport Not Required: U.S. Volunteers in the Royal Navy, 1939-1941. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010), p. 48.
  59. John B. Hattendorf, ed., On His Majesty’s Service: Observations from the British Home Fleet from the Diary, Reports, and Letters of Joseph H. Wellings, Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché, London 1940-41. (Newport: Naval War College, 1983), p. 44: Letter to Mrs. Wellings, 20 October 1940.
  60. Ibid., p. 85: Diary, 31 December 1940.
  61. B. Mitchell Simpson, III, Admiral Harold R. Stark: Architect of Victory, 1939-1945. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), p. 125, 129,-130, 136-137; Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. (Boston: Little Brown, 1980), p. 135.
  62. Buell, Master of Sea Power, pp. 48-53.
  63. Buell, Master of Sea Power, p. 278.
  64. Naval War College Archives, RG 13: Student theses, 1934: Captain Ernest J. King, “The Influence of the National Policy on the Strategy of a War;” Also quoted in Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919 – 1941. (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1980), p.   I am grateful to David Kohnen for drawing my attention to this and the following two quotations.
  65. Naval War College, Naval Historical Collection. Ms. Coll. 37: Thomas B. Buell and Walter Muir Whitehill Collection on Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King. Box 7, folder 7: “Random Notes” by Walter Muir Whitehill, ca. 1945.
  66. Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope,
  67. The U.S. newspapers carried an Associated Press story that was carried in the Washington, D.C. Sunday Evening Star and The Boston Globe, among other papers on 1 April 1951.
  68. Naval War College, Naval Historical Collection. Ms. Coll. 37: Buell and Whitehill Collection on King. Box 7, folder 7: Memorandum for the Record, 2 April 1951.
  69. Richard A. Best, “’Co-Operation with Like Minded Peoples:’ British Influences on American Security Policy, 1945-1949. (Westport, CT: Garland Publishing, 1986), pp. 96 ff.
  70. Sean M. Maloney, Securing Command of the Sea: NATO Naval Planning, 1948-1954. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995), pp. 5-46.
  71. Hattendorf, “NATO’s Policeman on the Beat: The First Twenty Years of the Standing Naval Force, Atlantic, 1968-1988,” in Hattendorf, Naval History and Maritime Strategy, pp. 187-200.
  72. See, Peter Nailor, The Nassau Connection: The Organisation and Management of the British POLARIS project, (London: H.M.S.O, 1988).
  73. CNO NAVADMIN 164/99, R 041653Z JUN 99, subject: Naval Heritage.

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Naval History and Heroes: The Influence of U.S. and British Navalism on Children’s Writing, 1895-1914

By Hazel Sheeky Bird
Independent Scholar, Great Britain

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a great number of navalist books were produced for children in Britain and America. 1  Navalism, namely the belief that sea power is integral to a nation’s greatness and that naval preparedness is a country’s best and cheapest means of defense, found popular expression around the globe, in the years approaching the First World War. At heart, navalist discourses were national discourses and so countries that shared navalist principles, were actually set apart by them, often becoming competitors, if not outright enemies. Recently, the cultural impact of navalism, and naval competition on Britain and Germany has received scholarly attention, as has the structure, politics and organization of navalist organizations, such as the British Navy League and the Navy League of the United States.  2

To date, there has been no attempt to seriously gauge the impact of navalism on children’s early twentieth-century culture. It is now a truism to say that navalist organizations such as the Navy League overtly targeted children with propaganda. Mark Hamilton for example, writes that ‘the awakening and influencing of British youth’ was ‘an area of continual […] effort’ for the British Navy League. 3  Likewise, Armin Rappaport notes that the Navy League of the United States formed a Junior League in 1915. 4  However, current understanding of how these organizations promoted navalism to children is limited to a few references to the Navy League Map of the World, and the giving of lectures and lanternslides. Certainly in Britain, scholars have largely overlooked the impact of navalism on children’s wider culture.

Underpinning this paper is the belief that British and American navalists used writing for children, to foster their enthusiasm for the navy and to view themselves as belonging to great naval nations. Focusing on just one aspect of this significant body of material, it argues that British and American navalists used the figures of Horatio Nelson and John Paul Jones, respectively, to personify the idea of sea power and the principles of navalism. In Britain, Nelson was used to construct a national maritime narrative linked to service and sacrifice, and in the U.S., Jones was made to embody the idea of American sea power, which was aligned with American independence. When read through the lens of early-twentieth century Anglo-American relations, these children’s books demonstrate the way that navalists used writing for children as a vehicle for promoting competing national maritime ideologies. Consequently, children’s writing was instrumental in the development of the ‘special’ and often fractious relationship between the two countries.

In Britain, popular naval interest groups, such as the Navy League (formed in 1898), turned to writing for children to encourage high naval ideology. For the prolific Navy League propagandist Arnold White, children were an important audience for the League’s work, a fact that was acknowledged in Navy League publications. One leaflet stated that ‘if only the rising generation can be made to grasp the supreme fact of Sea Power, they could never, under any circumstances, contemplate any reduction of naval estimates, or countenance any step which would loosen, however slightly, our Command of the Sea. 5  Equally, the Imperial Maritime League (formed in 1909) also identified children as a key audience for navalist propaganda. Consequently, in January of 1909, it established a Junior Branch. This was a subscription-based club that cost members 1s. a year and which was open to anyone under the age of 21. The express purpose of the Junior Branch was to ‘arouse the interest’ of British youth in the Royal Navy and the Empire, to remind them that the English were ‘“sea dogs,” [and] that our Navy and our sailors have made us a great Sea Power, and that without our ships our country would be like a man who is blind and a cripple: he would do nothing and go nowhere’. 6

For both organizations, the life and career of Horatio Nelson, rehabilitated by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s two-volume work, The Life of Nelson (1897) and Sir John Knox Laughton’s Nelson (1985), proved to be a central means of personifying British Sea Power for children. 7  The connection between navalism, Nelson and childhood was certainly not limited to children’s writing. Thomas Davidson’s painting, England’s Pride and Glory (1894), depicts a young naval cadet gazing in admiration upon Lemuel Abbot’s earlier portrait of Nelson, which hung on the walls of the Naval Gallery at Greenwich (Figure 1). The painting captures the symbolic relationship that was forged at this time between young boys and Nelson and links them both to the idea of British Sea Power; the latter being alluded to through the scenes of naval battles that surround Nelson’s portrait.

Figure 1: Thomas Davidson, England's Pride and Glory, 1894, oil on canvas 918 mm x 711 mm, (BHC 1811) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Figure 1: Thomas Davidson, England’s Pride and Glory, 1894, oil on canvas 918 mm x 711 mm, (BHC 1811) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Davidson’s budding Nelson became a popular motif for writers seeking to encourage British boys to pursue a life of naval service. While the life of Nelson remained a popular subject in children’s writing, the fledgling Nelson proved to be a powerful persuasive tool for navalist children’s writers. In books such as The Sea Monarch (1912) and The Fritz Straffers (1918), Percy Westerman used the figure of the budding Nelson to create heroes that British boys could reasonably aspire to emulate. It was, after all, not every man’s destiny to be a great Admiral but every British boy could fulfill his birthright through service in the Royal Navy. 8

For British navalists, the real value of Nelson’s life and heroism did not come from his being a mythical figure but a human one, one whose greatness came from the example that he set of duty, efficiency and foresight. This emphasis on duty permeated not only texts that were specifically about Nelson but virtually all British maritime writing for children. Moreover it proved to be an extremely fluid and effective means of personifying a service ethos to British children, regardless of gender. This idea was particularly strong in the publications produced for children by the Junior Branch of the Imperial Maritime League. The monthly Junior Branch Leaflet featured an essay written on a naval or imperial hero, and over four separate issues, it detailed all aspects of Nelson’s career for its members. Mahan himself wrote Issue 23 (Figure 2) and he used his essay to reiterate the lessons that all children could learn from Nelson’s character, rather than his heroic deeds. Mahan told his readers that Nelson’s famous signal at the Battle of Trafalgar, ‘England Expects that Every Man Shall Do His Duty’, should not be taken as the singular expression of the moment but rather the guiding principle of his life and career. 9  This belief in the principles of duty, service and sacrifice, was at the core of British Edwardian navalism and it shaped British children’s maritime writing for the next 40 years.

Figure 2: ‘Admiral A. T. Mahan’, Junior Branch Leaflet, 23 (January 1911) in Volume of pamphlets and/or newspaper cuttings: Imperial Maritime League - Junior Branch, 1909-12, NMM HSM 16, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Figure 2: ‘Admiral A. T. Mahan’, Junior Branch Leaflet, 23 (January 1911) in Volume of pamphlets and/or newspaper cuttings: Imperial Maritime League – Junior Branch, 1909-12, NMM HSM 16, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

If Nelson was made to embody the ideas of service and sacrifice on an individual level, the Royal Navy did so institutionally. British navalists projected an image of the Royal Navy as the arm of a benevolent maritime imperial power, one that worked tirelessly and selflessly to maintain peace around the world, protecting free trade and oppressed people. This construction was used to create a favorable impression of Britain and its navy, in comparison with competing naval nations; this, of course, applied to Germany, but it also included the United States.

British ambivalence toward the U.S. and its navy surfaced in British children’s naval stories, such as Gordon Stable’s 1902 invasion novel, The Cruise of the “Vengeful”. The novel recounts the planned invasion of Britain by a combined French and Russian force and sees Britain on the brink of defeat. Throughout Britain’s struggles America steadfastly maintains its neutrality, and Stables comments that the U.S. Navy was there only to protect American trade and that America was a ‘many headed hydra’, willing to extort high prices from Britain and take advantage of its vulnerability. 10  Thus British readers were encouraged to view the U.S. Navy as a means of ensuring American economic opportunism, in contrast to the Royal Navy that, so children were told, worked selflessly to maintain the balance of powers.

Other early-twentieth-century British writers were more circumspect in their comments but also intimated that the U.S. Navy was not fulfilling the role that might be expected of a major naval power – certainly, it was not fulfilling the role that Britain wished it would. Cecil Crofts’, Britain on and Beyond the Seas, (into its 6th edn. by 1911) was published by the Navy League and distributed to schoolchildren throughout Britain. The book recounts 400 years of Britain’s successes and failures at sea but it has surprisingly little to say about either the American Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. In fact, Croft’s entries on these conflicts focuses far more on the future possibilities of the U.S. Navy. So, following the briefest outline of the War of 1812, Croft observes of the U.S. that:

Recent events tend to prove that this great sister nation of the West is cementing these ties in a genuine and open-minded friendship with her natural ally, and that she is likely to take up in the future a larger share of the white man’s burden of attempting to raise the down trodden and oppressed even when they are some distance from her own shores. 11

Croft’s writing is an interesting exercise in projection as it reflects the way that some in Britain, sought to persuade the U.S. to use its navy to police the Pacific. This is evident in Croft’s hope that the U.S. will take a ‘larger share of the white man’s burden,’ – understandably such a view was likely to have been met with scepticism by many in the U.S., which had no intention of expanding its own navy in order for Britain to be free to protect its imperial interests. In his survey of Anglo-American naval relations, Arthur Marder points to Britain’s refusal at this time to see the U.S. as a potential enemy, writing that many in Britain thought, or hoped, that there was a natural racial affinity between the two nations, and that they were bound by blood and kinship. 12  Kathleen Burk also reiterates that some have seen something of a rapprochement forming between Britain and America by 1911. 13  Certainly this passage from Croft demonstrates the way that some British writers used writing for children to foster British citizens who would welcome closer Anglo-American naval relations.

The shape of American naval children’s writing at the turn of the century differed somewhat to that produced in Britain. In part, this was due to America’s ‘historic deep-seated revulsion’ toward a large standing navy, which forced American navalists to adopt different lines of argument. 14  The Navy League of the United States, formed in 1902, arguably faced more difficult challenges than the British. According to Armin Rappaport, not only was temper of the American people largely pacifist in the first decade of the twentieth century, but for many, a ‘two-ocean security complex’ rendered a large navy either redundant or irrelevant. 15  Although many British children’s books stressed the pacific role of the Royal Navy, Britain had been engaged in a naval arms race with Germany ever since the laying down of the German Naval Laws in 1898 and 1890. Moreover, for many Edwardian Britons, war was not only expected it was also welcomed. 16  British children’s books were therefore characterized by a combination of belligerence and benevolence. In America, however, navalists faced vehement and organized pacifist opposition, and so their work was shaped by the absolute necessity of avoiding accusations of war mongering and militarism. Thus, from around 1909, the Navy League of the United States began to actively use accounts of America’s past naval glories, to arouse enthusiasm for the navy by linking naval strength to American independence and neutrality.

Willis Boyd Allen’s Navy Blue: a story of cadet life in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis (1898) indicates the way that writing for American children aligned the U.S. Navy, as an institution, with independence and peace. The book follows the career of two Annapolis cadets and the early portions of the novel depict Norman Holmes’ decision to join the navy, a decision that is inspired by a trip to Washington. Holmes is thrilled by John Trumbull’s painting Declaration of Independence (1817) which makes him feel ‘as never before, a grand pride in being himself an American’. 17  Added to this is the pride he feels on looking at the ‘Peace Monument’ dedicated ‘in memory of the Officers, Seamen and Marines of the United States Navy, who fell in defense of the union and liberation of the country, 1861-1865.’ In a passage that speaks directly to pacifist criticisms of American navalism, Allen has Holmes realize that ‘America was not at war with any nation. Secure within her own borders, firm in the maintenance of honorable dignity’ and that her ‘hands stretched forth to succor the helpless, to feed the hungry, to clothe the destitute, her voice was ever for peace on earth, good-will toward men. […] He would be, not a warrior, unless she should call her children to arms, but a patriot of peace.’

While Allen stressed the peacekeeping nature of the modern U.S. Navy, other writers drew upon the naval past to illustrate the need for a strong, defensive navy. Willis John Abbot’s The Story of Our Navy for Young Americans (1910), is typical of American texts, that used the figure of John Paul Jones to advocate a large standing navy, to argue that naval defence was integral to America’s historic rejection of British tyranny and, ultimately, to personify the principle of independence for children. Abbot begins his book with a detailed and emotive depiction of the practice of impressment, which is used to illustrate both the tyrannical actions of the Royal Navy and the nation that it symbolises. He asks his readers to imagine a crew back from a long weary voyage, almost in sight of loved ones waiting for them on shore, who are kidnapped by a British man-of-war and made ‘subject to the will of a blue-coated tyrant’. 18  Abbot in fact refers directly to impressed sailors as being kidnapped by the Royal Navy and presents their actions and attitude towards Americans as oppressive and arrogant. He stresses a deep sense of American hatred for Britain, and particularly its navy, in the years before both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Royal Navy is not only depicted as being tyrannical toward Americans but it is also presented as a brutal institution. This was a popular theme in American naval writing for children. William O. Stevens, for example, made this point in his 1914 book, The Story of Our Navy. Like Abbot, he refers to impressed men as living a life of slavery.  19  It is perhaps unsurprising that British texts make no mention of impressments.

In American writing for children, the use of John Paul Jones bears resemblance to that of Nelson in Britain. A book like Abbot’s demonstrates the way that Jones’ life was used to inspire readers, not necessarily to serve in the U.S. Navy but to value the principle of liberty – a principle that Jones was made to represent. This point was conveyed by the connection that was repeatedly emphasized between Jones and the American flag. In his 1907 book, Heroes of the Navy in America (Figure 3), Charles Morris linked Jones to the first American flag, made of ‘yellow silk, bearing the picture of a pine tree with a rattle snake coiled at its root, and [bearing] the motto “Don’t tread on me”. 20

Figure 3: Front cover, Charles Morris, Heroes of the Navy in America (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1907).

Figure 3: Front cover, Charles Morris, Heroes of the Navy in America (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1907).

Similarly, he recounts that it was Jones who was first to hoist the Stars and Stripes onboard a ship of the U.S. Navy. Abbot also stresses this connection and the result is sense of shared symbolism whereby Jones embodies American independence almost as much as the flag. Where Nelson was made to embody duty, efficiency and foresight, Jones was most often associated with boldness, a deep love of America, consummate skill as a sailor and an absolute refusal to be cowed by Britain. This final point is stressed repeatedly in Abbot’s descriptions of Jones’ actions on the coast of Britain during the American Revolution. Abbot writes that ‘Paul Jones showed Great Britain that her boasted power was a bubble. He ravaged the seas within cannon-shot of English headlands. He captured and burned merchantmen, drove the rates of insurance up to panic prices, paralyzed British shipping-trade, and even made small incursions into British territory’.  21  He also refers to Jones having ‘alarmed all England’ and for bringing home the realties of war to ‘the people of the tight little island’. For Abbot, Britain’s unwillingness to acknowledge Jones as an American naval officer, branding him instead as a pirate, revealed its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of American independence (Figure 4).

Figure 4: ‘Paul Jones the Pirate as Seen by England’, Illustrative plate in Willis John Abbot, The Story of Our Navy for Young Americans, from Colonial Days to the Present Time (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1910), facing page 12.

Figure 4: ‘Paul Jones the Pirate as Seen by England’, Illustrative plate in Willis John Abbot, The Story of Our Navy for Young Americans, from Colonial Days to the Present Time (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1910), facing page 12.

It is difficult to say with certainty that the presence of navalist arguments in writing for children was always the result of orchestrated efforts to inculcate this ideology in its readers. Edwardian Britain has been described as a particularly ‘navy-conscious’ nation, so the strong presence of navalist discourses in British children’s writing could reasonably be ascribed to ‘passive ideology’. 22  Clearly, more work is needed to fully explore the connections between children’s writers and navalist organizations, if firmer conclusions are to be drawn. What is clear from this small survey of writing for children is that while British naval writers by 1910 sought to underplay historic antagonism between the two countries, American writers often emphasised it. There is a sense of revelry to Abbot’s writing that suggests a celebration of Jones’ victories over the British in the present moment and not only in the past. Moreover, while America continued to view Britain with hostility and suspicion, Britain, of necessity, viewed the U.S. as a ‘sister’ nation. Children’s naval books played an important role in the construction of this relationship, providing a cultural arena whereby British and American navalists could fight for the command of the seas, in the same way that naval theatres allowed Britain and Germany to compete in the years leading up to the First World War. 23  In children’s books historic naval battles could be fought anew, old rivalries and wounds explored and re-opened, and truces and treaties re-forged. In doing so, they shaped British and American children’s views of their future allies and prepared them for the roles that they and their countries would play in the coming decades.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)


  1. At present no substantial bibliographical source exists for British or American children’s navalist texts, and it is partly the aim of my ongoing research to form one. The balance of this article, as a result of my current research, perhaps leans towards British texts. Indicative titles about the history of the U.S. Navy, recommended to children would include, Cyrus T. Brady (himself a graduate of Annapolis), The Freedom of the Seas: A Romance of the War of 1812 (1899), James Barnes (born in Annapolis) Naval Actions of the War of 1812 (1896) and Benson J. Lossing, The Story of the United States Navy for Boys (1881); books about the Navy and its ships included F. E. Evans, The Marvel Book of American Ships (1917), Frederic Stanhope Hill, The Romance of the American Navy (1910); fictional series included Frank Gee Patchin’s Battleship Boys novels (1910-1918) and the historical Navy Boys series, including the novel The Navy Boys’ Cruise with John Paul Jones (1899; 1912).
  2. On the cultural and competitive nature of British and German navalism see Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game. Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); on role of British navalism in the development of imperial ideology see Andrew S. Thompson, Imperial Britain: the Empire in British politics, c. 1880- 1932 (Essex: Pearson 2000), 44-50; on the political construction of the British Navy League see Matthew Johnson, “The Liberal Party and the Navy League in Britain before the Great War”, Twentieth Century British History 22 2 (2010): 137-163.
  3. Mark Hamilton, “The New Navalism and the British Navy League 1895-1914”, Mariner’s Mirror 64 (1978): 37-44 (42).
  4. Armin Rappaport, The Navy League of the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962), 49.
  5. ‘What is the Navy League? The Aims and Purposes of the Organisation’, 2. In ‘My History of the Navy League’, NMM/WHI/142, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Quoted with permission from Woburn Abbey.
  6. Junior Branch, First Annual Report, 1st January 1909- 31st December 1909, 1 and Untitled Leaflet, c. 1909, unpaginated, in Volume of pamphlets and/or newspaper cuttings: Imperial Maritime League – Junior Branch, 1909-12, NMM HSM 16, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
  7. On the rehabilitation of Nelson’s reputation see, Andrew Lambert, The Foundation of Naval History. John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession (London: Chatham Publishing, 1998).
  8. The Fritz Staffers was republished in 1931 as The Keepers of the Narrow Seas A Story of the Great War (London: S. W. Partridge & Co, 1931).
  9. Many thanks to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich for allowing me to use my own photograph in this article (Figure 2), which I initially took just for research purposes.
  10. Gordon Stables, The Cruise of the “Vengeful” A Story of the Royal Navy (1902; London: Dean & Son, Ltd., 1936), 225.
  11. Cecil, H. Crofts, Britain On and Beyond the Sea; being a handbook to the navy league map of the world, 6th ed. (Edinburgh and London: Johnston Ltd., 1911), 50.
  12. Arthur Marder, Anatomy of British Sea Power. A History of British Naval policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era, 1880-1905 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1940), 443.
  13. Kathleen Burk, Old World New World, Great Britain and America from the Beginning (New York: Atlantic, 2008), 299.
  14. Rappaport, The Navy League of the United States, 23. See also William P. Leeman, The Long Road to Annapolis. The Founding of the Naval Academy and the Emerging American Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 20.
  15. Rappaport, The Navy League of the United States, 8, 14, 23.
  16. On the Anglo-German naval arms race see Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904 – 1919, vol. 1, The Road to War, 1904-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).
  17. Willis Boyd Allen, Navy Blue: a story of cadet life in the United States naval Academy at Annapolis (New York: E. P Dutton & Co., 1898), 12,14.
  18. Willis John Abbot, The Story of Our Navy For Young Americans. From Colonial Days to the Present Time (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1910), 3.
  19. William O. Stevens, The Story of Our Navy (New York and London: Harper, 1914), 54.
  20. Charles Morris, Heroes of the Navy in America (Philadelphia and London: Lippincott, 1907), 22-23.
  21. Abbot, The Story of Our Navy For Young Americans, 13.
  22. Thompson, Imperial Britain, 45; Peter Hollindale classifies two main types of ideology in children’s literature; ‘intended surface ideology’ is defined as the ‘explicit, social, political or moral beliefs of the individual writers and his wish to recommend them to children through the story’ and passive ideology as the writer’s ‘unexamined assumptions’. Peter Hollingdale, Ideology and the Children’s Book (1988; Oxford: The Thimble Press, 1994), 10. 
  23. On the cultural naval competition between Britain and Germany, prior to 1914, see Rüger, The Great Naval Game, 206-242.

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Strategic Logic of the American “Pivot to the Pacific”

William Kyle
University of Mary Washington, Class of 2013

Five years of Obama administration foreign policy are now in the history books as we continue to move beyond the Global War on Terror era. While the jury is still out regarding the ultimate impact of this administration’s re-direction of American foreign policy, its initiatives are clearly designed to steer American foreign policy in a profoundly Pacific direction. This shift has direct consequences for the U. S. Navy as we move further into the so-called “Pacific Century.” 1 This article examines the strategic logic of the American “pivot to the Pacific” through an assessment of the Obama administration’s policy implementation, actions and accompanying rhetoric, and possible implications for the future trajectory of the U.S. Navy. While popularly cast as a security-driven effort to hedge against China’s rise and growing assertiveness, closer examination reveals that the strategic pivot is more accurately described as an attempt to graft ‘smart power’ principles to regional policy as a means to integrate American hard and soft power assets to secure America’s regional interests. 2 The resulting culmination of carrot-and-stick tactics has significant implications for a U.S. Navy that faces increasing challenges in the rapidly militarizing Pacific region while facing declining resources to meet those challenges. The strategic pivot, therefore, seems to leave the U.S. Navy in the unenviable position of being the vanguard of this new American foreign policy direction while facing concomitant reductions in force structure and modernization budgets.   However, it is not at all clear that the Pacific “pivot” strategy as implemented by the Obama administration actually requires a dramatic, Cold War-like increase in American forward naval presence.

More than two years after Secretary of State Clinton outlined a broad policy to “pivot” to the Pacific, there are many indicators that the strategic pivot to Asia is more than just another step in an escalating US-China competition, even though some foreign policy realists simplistically depict this strategy as a classic, emerging hard power rivalry where competing national interests increasingly collide. 3  Instead, the US has stressed involvement in regional multilateralism and economic integration, prominently playing up US involvement and achievements in the region using symbolic rhetoric to convey the message (and the policy’s goal) that the United States is, and will remain, an integral Pacific power. 4 Although security policy already constitutes a key component of the unfolding multifaceted Pacific strategy, the limited security initiatives discussed to date do not appear to be the policy centerpiece. In reality, the pivot to the Pacific is more of an amplification of previous American policy in a symbolic shift in American focus toward the region, incorporating the Obama administration foreign policy imprimatur in the amalgamation of ‘smart power’ principles, rather than a revolutionary policy change that results in significant reallocation of resources.

The current Pacific-first policy approach emerged from a background of internal economic problems and the Obama administration’s desire to move beyond the tarnished and Middle East-centric legacy of the Bush foreign policy era. The expensive and controversial US War on Terror, coupled with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, questioned the perception of the United States as the pre-eminent international power and challenged the US-led liberal international system constructed in the years following World War II. A shift in the geography of global economic power to the East gave rise to perceptions that an ascendant Asia has begun to eclipse reeling Western nations and copious assessments that America’s “unipolar moment” has ended. 5 This reality faced the Obama administration when it formally announced a profound realignment of its foreign policy direction in 2011. From the beginning, President Obama placed Asia high on the American foreign policy agenda, going so far as to label himself America’s “first Pacific President” as early as 2009. 6 Fighting popular perceptions of previous American neglect in the course of America’s lengthy and distracting ‘War on Terror’ and its related contingencies, President Obama stressed that the United States was turning its principal attention towards Asia for good. 7  In November 2011, this new Asia policy directive got its own catch phrase when then- Secretary of State Hilary Clinton published an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” emphasizing both the current and future importance of the region and America’s desired role in Asia. In this article, Secretary Clinton stated, “In the last decade, our foreign policy has transitioned from dealing with the post-Cold War peace dividend to demanding commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As those wars wind down, we will need to accelerate efforts to pivot to new global realities.” 8  Thus was born the American ‘pivot’ to the Pacific.

Since Secretary Clinton’s pivot pronouncement, analysts and journalists typically have applied two very distinct narratives to describe the pivot strategy. The first narrative is heavily steeped in realist international relations thinking, and is clearly reflected in such papers as Robert Ross’s Foreign Affairs article “The Problem with the Pivot.” 9 Focusing disproportionately on the pivot’s security, Ross asserts that the Obama administration has “reversed Washington’s longstanding policy of engagement with Beijing, turning instead to costly initiatives whose force is disproportionate to the threat from China.” 10 Although it is far from a universally held view, concern over the perception of the ‘pivot’ as a new, highly militarized move that came at the expense of American interests elsewhere led the Obama administration to change metaphors for this foreign policy strategy, more recently denoting it as the American ‘rebalancing’ to Asia. 11 This subtle change reflects US policymakers’ attempt to emphasize this strategy as a continuation of US policy by eliminating the controversial ‘pivot’ metaphor, despite the term’s persistence in the debate. 12

This first type of narrative characterizes the pivot as a fulfillment of realist international relations theory expectations, as this school of thought anticipates adversarial interactions between a rising and a falling power. The influence of such works as A.F.K. Organski’s seminal 1958 book World Politics, with its power transition theory and related schools of realist thought (e.g. Robert Gilpin’s hegemonic war theory and John Mearsheimer’s offensive structural realism) furnish the theoretical framework for this narrative. 13  Cold War realism’s legacy clearly persists with such terms as ‘containment’ in the literature denoting America’s grand strategy towards peer competitor China. 14

According to the works of Organski, a rising power dissatisfied with the international system that the leading power administers nearly always results in conflict, as the dissatisfied power will seek to challenge the status quo. 15 Contemporary China is issuing such a challenge to the international order that the United States has overseen since the end of the Cold War. For example, China takes exception to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea territorial disputes, including its provisions for exclusive economic zone neutrality. 16  China also appears to be undermining Western economic conventions and institutions, seen in its lackluster enforcement of international trade practices following its 2001 accession to the WTO and aggressive use of cyber-espionage to strengthen its domestic industry. 17 In the security arena, China provide material support and diplomatic cover for pariah regimes in Iran and North Korea, and continues to threaten conflict with stalwart American ally Japan over the issue of sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. 18 Concomitantly, China is overseeing a substantial increase in military spending that has put it on course to overtake America’s defense spending in coming years, enhancing its ability to challenge American preeminence in the West Pacific and perhaps beyond. 19

All of these factors serve to increase mutual strategic distrust over long-term intentions between China and America. 20 A common realist interpretation of an international actor’s threat level as equal to its capabilities and its intention arguably dictates that the United States must react to enhance its security given the military rise of a strategically opaque China. 21 The pivot fulfills the role of a reactive security policy in this type of narrative. It is this filtering lens of realist analysis that crystallizes a distorted, security-centric view of Obama’s Pacific policy. Both hawks, who advocate more robust military deployments, and doves, who recommend more limited means to defuse heightening US-China security tensions, have employed this first type of narrative, despite their vastly different policy prescriptions for American diplomacy in Asia. 22

Despite the prevalence of realist-tinged and security-centric descriptions of American strategy in the Pacific, a second narrative from academic literature has also gained traction in the policy community. This narrative notes that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Pacific has consistently sought to engage in, and strengthen, regional multilateralism. 23  Secretary Clinton’s policy statements describe a multi-dimensional, three-pronged approach for future American statecraft in the Pacific. 24 Rather than simply rebalancing military assets from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration seeks permanently to shift diplomatically, economically and strategically to the Pacific. Even scholars belonging more in the idealist camp of international relations theory have described American policy in the Pacific in this light. 25 Maintaining flexibility, while stressing the importance of public goods such as the maintenance of global commons (e.g. freedom of navigation in the world’s oceans), this foreign policy strategy possesses many hallmarks of a new theory of statecraft: smart power.

The term ‘smart power’ has recently originated from such international affairs scholars as Suzanne Nossel and Joseph Nye, and has also gained traction as an idea inside the Beltway. 26 State Department officials are eager to proclaim smart power to be “at the very heart of President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s foreign policy vision.” 27 The 2007 Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Smart Power Report and Joseph Nye’s several publications on the same subject provide a starting point for analyzing the components of smart power. 28

In some respects, smart power is an amalgamation of Nye’s previous concepts of soft power (the intangible capacity of ideas and values to influence and legitimate an actor’s behavior in the international system) and hard power (a state’s ability to wield carrots and sticks in the international system to realize its interests, traditionally including military and economic power). In his words, “smart power is neither hard nor soft – it is the skillful combination of both.” 29 Smart power essentially is the efficacious use of a state’s soft and hard power assets employing ‘contextual intelligence,’ which is “an intuitive diagnostic skill that helps policymakers align tactics with objectives to create smart strategies.” 30 Some analysts contend that ‘smart power’ is a backlash to the allegedly strategically costly and ill-received foreign policy of the second Bush administration, reflecting a desire by foreign policy practitioners to develop a more informed, comprehensive and logically organized process to formulate strategy. 31 Whatever the motive for this integrated theory of power application, it is clear that this concept is rapidly gaining influence in the foreign policy community, undeniably spurred along as a result of declining defense budgets and less robust hard power capabilities in today’s age of sequestration. 32

The first key step in formulating a “smart” US foreign policy includes establishing clear objectives in American grand strategy. 33 According to Nye, American grand strategy should secure national survival and the provision of global goods such as the current international order. 34 He stresses the importance of maintaining old alliances and creating new power networks incorporating rising powers, understanding that current American preponderance does not equate to hegemony so it would be foolish to try to prevent the ‘rise of the rest.’ 35 Nye even specifically addresses what he refers to as the potential challenge of the rise of a hostile hegemon in Asia (i.e. China), recommending a “policy that welcomes China as a responsible stakeholder but hedges against possible hostility by maintaining close relations with Japan, India, and other countries in Asia that welcome an American presence.” 36  This type of policy certainly appears more consistent with the descriptions of the pivot versus the more confrontational, security-centric realist approach to East Asia that others advocate. 37 This approach is illustrated in the approach of the United States with regard to the recent conflagration surrounding Beijing’s establishment of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over disputed territory in the East China Sea. While the U.S. subsequently signaled its displeasure and non-compliance with this unilateral and aggressive step when it flew B-52 bombers through a portion of the ADIZ without prior notification to China, but fell short of direct confrontation and did not demand PRC leadership rescind the ADIZ during Vice President Biden’s recent trip to set the destabilized region aright. 38  It seems that the Obama administration is seeking to hedge and gradually integrate China into the existing rules-based order, rather than directly confront the increasingly capable and potentially belligerent Middle Kingdom.

While scholars and pundits disagree as to the direction that American Pacific strategy should take, a key motivation identified in all interpretations of the American rebalancing is the accelerating rise of China as a regional and perhaps world power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of the common threat that had served as the raison d’être for the initial cross-Pacific rapprochement, US-China relations have been in a state of uncertainty. 39 China’s consistent economic growth has been a game changer in East Asia, with the economic rise of other regional powers shrinking in importance when compared with the rapid ascent of the one-fifth of humanity who live in modern day China. 40 The question, then, is not whether the pivot is in part a response to China’s rise, but exactly what type of reaction it is. 41

Whether the rise of China results in conflict, such theoretical questions inform and shape American foreign policy in the region. Therefore, it is not surprising that American assessments of China’s capabilities and future intentions loom large in the strategic pivot discussion. In recent years, China has not been shy in using its growing clout to pursue its goals and interests more aggressively than hitherto, threatening neighbors and attracting worldwide attention. 42 This conforms with aforementioned realist ideas of power transition in world politics, with China apparently trying to translate some of its newfound power into reshaping the rules of the international system. 43  While the Obama administration has been at pains to emphasize that the rise of China is not driving the American pivot back to the Pacific, many analysts and scholars see things differently. 44 Copious realist analyses of China’s growing military capabilities regularly catch the attention of American academic and policymaker circles, such as those of scholars Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff, that,

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increasingly has the resources, capabilities, and confidence to attempt to assert China’s interests on its contested periphery, particularly in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas). This development has the potential to seriously challenge the interests of the U.S., its allies, and other partners in the region, as well as access to and security of a vital portion of the global commons—waters and airspace that all nations rely on for prosperity, yet which none own. That’s why the PLA’s development matters so much to a Washington located halfway around the world. 45

The stronger emphasis on engagement and integration efforts in American rebalancing may indicate that the Obama administration does not currently accept the China threat theory, but the pivot doubtless contains elements that constitute soft balancing efforts.

Diplomatically, the strategic pivot has initiated several concrete steps to ensure the United States’ continued role in the Asia Pacific. Secretary Clinton’s penchant for “forward deployed” multilateral diplomacy has led the administration to emphasize frequent official travel to the region to bolster alliances and strengthen multilateral institutions. 46 As part of the pivot, the US formally joined the East Asia Summit (which President Obama attended in person in both 2011 and 2012), signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, established a permanent mission to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and created a new regional assistance framework, the Asia-Pacific Strategic Engagement Initiative, signaling US desires to maintain a more integrated presence in the region. 47 In addition to reaffirming ties and commitments with traditional allies and partners in the region (e.g. the Philippines and Japan), the United States has also sought out new relationships with states like Vietnam and Indonesia. 48 Perhaps most notably, the United States has been very proactive in encouraging the ongoing democratic reforms in authoritarian Myanmar through increased diplomatic engagement, with President Obama even becoming the first incumbent president to visit the country in November of 2012. 49 The pivot has experienced its own share of shortfalls, however, as recurring domestic issues and crises and distracting developments in the Middle East (i.e. the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear deal) are contributing to a commonly held perception across Asia of a gap between rhetoric and action on the part of the United States, indicating an overall lack of seriousness in its allegedly renewed emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. 50

While China has been critical of America’s new Pacific posturing, the reality is that the Obama administration has also worked to deepen US-China relations. 51 President Obama and Hu Jintao, his former Chinese counterpart, met at least a dozen times since 2009, in addition to Secretary Clinton’s many meetings with regional officials and trips to the region which totaled over 100 days during her tenure. Secretary Kerry has continued this high level of personal engagement while both the US and China have invested substantial resources in over 60 issue-based and regional dialogues. 52 Even the US-China military-to-military relationship, traditionally the weakest component of the bilateral relationship due to China’s treatment of mil-mil contacts as a bellwether tool to signal disapproval of American policies, has improved substantially under Xi Jinping’s leadership. China refers to the new pattern of closer military ties as a “a new type of military to military relationship,” and have thus far encouraged more senior-level exchanges, an expanded range of dialogue topics, and growing joint military activities, signaling the desire of both countries’ leadership to forge closer connections and lessen the chance of any misunderstanding or miscalculations that may result in conflict. 53

Economically, the United States has pivoted in two key ways: promoting a series of business and economic initiatives to assist Pacific and Southeast Asian nations, and pursuing an ambitious regional free trade area agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 54 Besides trade and investment, the United States is seeking to make more comprehensive inroads in the region, reflected in such efforts as increased involvement in often overlooked economies in Oceania, and the creation of a new cooperative framework, the “US-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Partnership for a Sustainable Energy.” 55 Other significant programs and initiatives, such as the Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiative between the United States and ASEAN, have been publicized as important elements of American rebalancing to the Pacific. 56 Most notably, the United States joined, and is now sponsoring, a massive new Free Trade Area (FTA) in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently comprising much of the Asia Pacific with US-determined entry requirements that make imminent Chinese accession unlikely in the near-term. 57

Finally, the security aspect of the strategic pivot also seeks to enhance the United States’ military presence and image in the Asia Pacific in the coming “Asian century.” Perhaps it is because of early high-profile steps such as the stationing of 2,500 US Marines in Darwin, Australia and a squadron of littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore that this aspect of the pivot has been the most prominent publicly. 58 It may also be due to clear references in such important guiding documents as the Pentagon’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership – Priorities for 21st Century Defense” and the “Joint Operational Access Concept” to the threat that China’s apparent anti-access/area denial military strategy in the West Pacific poses to American interests. 59 Since their promulgation in 2011 and early 2012, respectively, the Department of Defense has continued rebalancing in many ways, such as gaining access to new bases, developing strategic partnerships via joint exercises and arms sales, and debating new force structure and doctrines. 60

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert provided a useful summary of the main ways that the armed forces are rebalancing to Asia, namely by deploying more forces (e.g. increasing the Pacific theater share of naval ships and aircraft from fifty to sixty percent of the navy’s total), fielding new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges, and developing partnerships and intellectual capital across the region. 61 Rather than encouraging our allies to challenge China’s rise, the United States has taken measures to assuage the fears of China, even including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to join in 2014s massive Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise and conducting joint naval and disaster relief exercises in Hawaii in November 2013. 62 However, an unfavorable budgetary environment on the home front may ultimately render American military rebalancing in the Pacific a paper tiger, with budget constraints, rather than a Pacific surge, dictating changes in force distribution. 63

At least one expert academic is keen to point out the gap between the forces that the current U.S. maritime strategy would require in the increasingly militarized Pacific of the 21st century, and the likelihood sufficient resources will be readily available. 64 Rather than expend exorbitant resources that may or may not materialize to maintain uncontested global command of the sea, a luxury that the United States enjoyed in the post-Cold War era until recently, the U.S. Navy may be better suited to tailor its strategy to reflect that of contemporary American foreign policy in the Pacific by becoming more multilateral. 65 While previous ideas and initiatives, such as Admiral Mullen’s “thousand-ship navy” and “offshore balancing”, have been proposed as a means to sustaining regional influence, the apparent continued reliance of the contemporary segmented hub-and-spokes American alliance system in the Pacific upon the US Navy as security guarantor indicate a lack of development in implementing this strategic concept. 66 As prospects for the U.S. Navy to meet even the relatively humble 306-ship navy plan fading rapidly, pursuit of a more coordinated and cooperative relationship with regional allies via equitable burden-sharing security arrangements is most likely the best way forward. 67 At the very least, this approach is more consistent with contemporary ideations of a “smart” foreign policy than the Cold War-era network of bilateral relationships the United States currently utilizes in the Asia Pacific. Expert scholars have recognized the risk that the pivot currently runs in potentially antagonizing China while cutting defense budgets and engaging only in limited hedging and soft balancing against its military rise. 68  This risk of making an enemy out of an increasingly capable great power while presenting only a hollow deterrent represents a sure recipe for disaster for American credibility and national interests. 69

The uncertainty accompanying China’s rapid emergence as a dominant regional power and rising global power clearly is not the only consideration behind the Obama Administration’s pivot to the Pacific. Stepping up America’s diplomatic involvement in the region, both in its bilateral relations (including its traditional hubs and spokes alliance system, new and previous partners, and especially with the People’s Republic of China) and in multilateral institutions, the Administration’s priority appears to be focused on maintaining America’s preeminence in strategically vital Asia rather creating a strategic encirclement of China. This is also true economically, where American efforts to foster greater regional economic integration are exclusionary only insofar as they promote current international standards. Finally, at a strategic level, while the United States is enhancing its symbolic role in the region, it is not undergoing a massive military buildup, nor is it overseeing a large regional redeployment of forces in terms of numbers capabilities to maintain regional hegemony in the face of an increasingly powerful PLA. 70

In attempting to uphold a stable rules-based system in East Asia while accommodating China’s rise, the Obama administration appears to be mixing diplomatic, economic and security policies to amplify America’s regional presence and ensure US readiness should China prospectively challenge the normative status quo. The pivot, then, is consistent with Nye’s smart power formulation and American ‘congagement’ of China, seeking to ‘integrate but hedge’ with regards to the PRC. 71 At its core, the ‘strategic pivot ’is a direct application of smart power instead of a fear and insecurity-driven policy as realists have suggested. Given the shrinking Navy force structure and modernization budgets, a national security strategy based on “smart power” principles to lessen the need for Cold-War like naval forces in the region may be the only viable option. Assuming no alleviation in the looming budgetary crisis facing the US defense establishment, the United States Navy must adapt its strategy and force structure with the times, or it risks finding itself increasingly outdated and outmoded in the America’s Pacific Century.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)


  1. Hillary Clinton. “America’s Pacific Century.” November 2011. (accessed September 28, 2012).
  2. James R. Holmes, “Woody Allen Meets America’s Pivot to Asia,” The Diplomat: The Naval Diplomat Blog (December 10, 2012), (accessed December 10, 2012); Joseph Nye, “Get Smart,” (July/August 2009), (accessed October 20, 2012).
  3. Robert D Kaplan, “America’s Pacific Logic,” Stratfor Forecasting, Inc. (April 4, 2012) (accessed September 28, 2012).
  4. The Economist, “America in the Asia-Pacific: We’re Back,” (November 19, 2011) (accessed September 28, 2012).
  5. G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affairs 87 no. 1 (January/February 2008): 25; BBC News, “Asia ‘to Eclipse’ US and Europe by 2030 – US Report” (December 10, 2012), (accessed December 10, 2012).
  6. Mike Allen, “America’s First Pacific President,” November 13, 2009, (accessed January 20, 2013).
  7. Jörn Dosch, “The United States in the Asia Pacific: Still the Hegemon?” In The New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, 2nd ed., editors Michael K. Connors, Remy Davison and Jörn Dosch (New York: Routledge, 2012): 22.
  8. Hillary Clinton. “America’s Pacific Century.” November 2011. (accessed September 28, 2012).
  9. Robert S, Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6 (November/December 2012).
  10. Robert S, Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6 (November/December 2012): 77.
  11. Richard Weitz, “Pivot Out, Rebalance In,” The Diplomat (May 3, 2012), (accessed January 20, 2013); Holmes, James R. “U.S. Navy’s Quantity Problem,” The Diplomat (June 26, 2012) (accessed February 25, 2013).
  12. ibid.
  13. A.F.K Organski,. World Politics (New York: Knopf Inc., 1958), 322-329; Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in International Politics. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1981): 186-210; John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001): 334-359.
  14. Joseph S Nye, “Work with China, Don’t Contain It,” (January 25, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013).
  15. A.F.K. Organski, World Politics (New York: Knopf Inc., 1958), 322-329.
  16. Lawrence, Susan V. and David MacDonald, “U.S.-China Relations: Policy Issues,” Congressional Research Service (August 2, 2012) (accessed February 23, 2013), 10-13.
  17. Susan V. Lawrence and David MacDonald, “U.S.-China Relations: Policy Issues,” Congressional Research Service (August 2, 2012) (accessed February 23, 2013); Mark Clayton, “Exposing China’s cyber espionage campaign hasn’t lessened scope, US says,” (November 21, 2013), (accessed December 9, 2013).
  18. Susan V. Lawrence and David MacDonald, “U.S.-China Relations: Policy Issues,” Congressional Research Service (August 2, 2012) (accessed February 23, 2013); The Economist, “China, Japan and America: Face-Off,” (November 30, 2013), (accessed December 1, 2013).
  19. The Economist, “China’s Military Rise: The Dragon’s New Teeth,” (April 7, 2012), (accessed September 22, 2012).
  20. Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust,” Brookings Institute: John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series no. 4 (March 2012), (accessed December 16, 2012).
  21. Remy Davison, “The Rise of China in the Asia Pacific,” In The New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, 2nd ed., editors Michael K. Connors, Remy Davison, and Jörn Dosch (New York: Routledge, 2012): 51.
  22. Bruce Klingner and Dean Cheng, “U.S. Asian Policy: America’s Security Commitment to Asia Needs More Forces,” The Heritage Foundation (August 7, 2012), (accessed November 2, 2012); Robert S. Ross, “The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 6 (November/December 2012): 70-82.
  23. Jörn Dosch, “The United States in the Asia Pacific: Still the Hegemon?” In The New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, 2nd ed., editors Michael K. Connors, Remy Davison and Jörn Dosch (New York: Routledge, 2012): 33.
  24. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” (November 2011), (accessed September 28, 2012).
  25. Shawn Brimley and Ely Ratner. “Smart Shift: A Response to ‘The Problem with the Pivot”, Foreign Affairs 92 no. 1 (January/February 2013): 177-181.
  26. Suzanne Nossel. “Smart Power,” (March/April 2004), (accessed September 30, 2012); Joseph Nye, “Get Smart,” (July/August 2009) (accessed October 20, 2012).
  27. Andrew J, Shapiro, “Political-Military Affairs: Smart Power Starts Here,”, September 9, 2009, (accessed February 1, 2013).
  28. Joseph Nye, The Future of Power, (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Center for Strategic and International Studies, “CSIS Commission Report on Smart Power,” (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2007), (accessed January 15, 2013); Joseph Nye, “Get Smart.” (July/August 2009), (accessed October 20, 2012); Joseph Nye, The Future of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).
  29. Center for Strategic and International Studies, “CSIS Commission Report on Smart Power,” (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2007), (accessed January 15, 2013), 6-7.
  30. Joseph Nye. “Get Smart.” (July/August 2009), (accessed October 20, 2012).
  31. Ernest J. Wilson, “Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008),,%20Soft%20Power,%20Smart%20Power.pdf (accessed February 23, 2013) 111; Nye, Joseph, The Future of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2011): 227-228.
  32. Cindy Williams, “Accepting Austerity: The Right Way to Cut Defense,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 6 (November/December 2013): 63-64
  33. ibid. 218.
  34. ibid. 218-220.
  35. ibid 231-232, 207-208.
  36. ibid 233.
  37. Aaron L Friedberg, “Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S. China Policy,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 5

    (September/October 2012): 48-58.

  38. Soble, Jonathan, Geoff Dyer and Demetri Sevastopulo, “Joe Biden Condemns China over Air Defense Zone,” (December 3, 2013) (accessed December 6, 2013).
  39. Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011): 89.
  40. The IMF reported an average growth rate of 9.6 percent between 1990 and 2010.

    Balbones, Salvatore, “The Middling Kingdom.” Foreign Affairs 90 no. 5 (September/October 2011): 79; The Economist: Pocket World in Figures, (London: Profile Books, 2011): 132.

  41. Ralph Cossa and Brad Glosserman, “Return to Asia: It’s Not (All) About China,” Center for Strategic and International Studies: Pacific Forum PacNet no. 7 (January 30, 2012), (accessed September 22, 2012).
  42. Jeffrey A Bader, Obama and China’s Rise (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012): 79-82.
  43. G. John. Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affairs 87 no. 1 (January/February 2008):26.
  44. Cheryl Pellerin, “Carter: Asian Defense Leaders Will Feel U.S. Rebalance to Region,” (March 22, 2013) (accessed March 25, 2013); Robert D. Kaplan, “America’s Pacific Logic,” Stratfor Forecasting, Inc. (April 4, 2012), (accessed September 28, 2012).
  45. Andrew S. Erickson and Adam P. Liff, “China’s Military Development: Beyond the Numbers,” The Diplomat (March 12, 2013), (accessed March 20, 2013).
  46. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” (November 2011), (accessed September 28, 2012).
  47. Alan Burns, “U.S. Joins East Asia Summit: Implications for Regional Cooperation,” National Bureau of Asian Research (November 17, 2011), (accessed November 20, 2012);   United States Mission to ASEAN, “U.S. Engagement with ASEAN,” (July 2012), (accessed December 1, 2012); Shawn Brimley and Ely Ratner, “Smart Shift: A Response to ‘The Problem with the Pivot,” Foreign Affairs 92 no. 1 (January/February 2013): 180.
  48. Jeffrey A Bader, Obama and China’s Rise (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012): 97-103.
  49. Vikram Nehru, “Obama in Southeast Asia: Symbolism or Substance?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (November 17, 2012), (accessed November19, 2012).
  50. The Economist, “America and Asia: Not Being There,” (October 12, 2013), (accessed November 1, 2013).
  51. Wu Zhenglong, “U.S. Should Be Constructive,” (October 23, 2012) (accessed December 30, 2012).
  52. Shawn Brimley and Ely Ratner, “Smart Shift: A Response to ‘The Problem with the Pivot.” Foreign Affairs 92 no. 1, (January/February 2013): 178; United States Department of State. “Former Secretary Clinton’s Travel.” (December 7, 2012), (accessed February 27, 2013).
  53. Richard Weitz, “China-U.S. Military Ties on the Upswing,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 13, no. 19 (September 27, 2013) (accessed October 30, 2013).
  54. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ ‘The Power of Balance’: Advancing US-ASEAN Relations Under the Second Obama Administration,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 37 no. 1 (Winter 2013), (accessed February 9, 2013), 123; The Economist, “The Pacific Islands Forum: More Stars than Cars,” (September 1, 2012), (accessed September 3, 2012); Bernard K. Gordon, “Trading Up in Asia: Why the United States Needs the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Foreign Affairs 91 no. 4 (July/August 2012): 17.
  55. James Grubel, “Tiny Pacific nations cash in on U.S.-China aid rivalry,” (September 3, 2012) (accessed September 20, 2012);The United States White House. “Fact Sheet on the U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Partnership for A Sustainable Energy,” Office of the Press Secretary. November 20, 2012. (accessed December 1, 2012).
  56. Murray Hiebert, “The E3 Initiative: The United States and ASEAN Take a Step in the Right Direction,”, (December 21, 2012) (accessed December 29, 2012).
  57. Bernard K. Gordon, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Rise of China.”, (November 7, 2011), (accessed December 1, 2012).
  58. John O’Callaghan and Manuel Mogato, “The U.S. Military Pivot to Asia: When Bases are Not Bases,” (November 14, 2012),,0,1426868.story (accessed November 26, 2012).
  59. United States Department of Defense, “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” (January 5, 2012), (accessed December 1, 2012); Department of Defense, “Joint Operational Access Concept,” (January 17, 2012), (accessed December 1, 2012).
  60. Luke Hunt, “U.S. Increasing Military Presence in the Philippines,” The Diplomat (December 18, 2012), (accessed December 30, 2012); Brendan Nicholson, “Chinese Invited to Naval Exercise,” (February 4, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013); Jim Wolf, “Analysis: U.S. Arms Sales to Asia Set to Boom on Pacific ‘Pivot,’” (January 1, 2013) (accessed March 7, 2013); Ward Carroll, “Army Reorganizing with Eye on Pacific Pivot,” (October 24, 2012) (accessed December 30, 2012); Randy J. Forbes, “America’s Pacific Air-Sea Battle Vision,” The Diplomat (March 8, 2012) (accessed August 14, 2012).
  61. Jonathan Greenert, “Sea Change: The Navy Pivots to Asia,”, November 14, 2012, (accessed November 20, 2012).
  62. Richard Jayad Heydarian, “U.S. Pivot Sparks Asian Arms Race.” Asia Times Online (January 17, 2013) (accessed March 6, 2013);

    Brendan Nicholson, “Chinese Invited to Naval Exercise,” (February 4, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013);, “China’s Navy to Join U.S.-led Pacific Drill in 2014,” (March 24, 2013) (accessed March 25, 2013);, “Chinese Troops Drill in Hawaii as Military Ties Deepen with U.S.,” (November 11, 2013) (accessed November 15, 2013).

  63. J. Randy Forbes, “Rebalancing the Rhetoric,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 138 no. 10 (October 2012), (accessed March 20, 2013); Matthew Pennington, “Cuts Could Endanger U.S. ‘Rebalancing’ to Asia,” (March 1, 2013) (accessed March 5, 2013).
  64. Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013): 57-60.
  65. ibid.
  66. Ronald E. Ratcliff, “Building Partner’s Capacity: The Thousand-Ship Navy,” Naval War College Review 60, no. 4 (Autumn 2007): 44-46; Robert Farley, “Offshore Engagement: The Right U.S. Strategy for Asia,” The Diplomat, (November 20, 2013) (accessed November 30, 2013).
  67. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, (November 8, 2013) (accessed November 30, 2013): 1-3, 48-52; Bernard D. Cole, Asian Maritime Strategies: Navigating Troubled Waters (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013): 57-60.
  68. Andrew S Erickson, “China Channels Billy Mitchell: Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Alters Region’s Military Geography,” 6.
  69. ibid.
  70. Bruce Klingner and Dean Cheng, “U.S. Asian Policy: America’s Security Commitment to Asia Needs More Forces,” The Heritage Foundation (August 7, 2012), (accessed November 2, 2012): 9-11.
  71. Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011): 89-90; Joseph S. Nye, “Work with China, Don’t Contain It,” (January 25, 2013), (accessed February 11, 2013).

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Learning to Fail: Lessons for the Twenty-First Century from the Pacific War

Brent Powers
Lieutenant, U.S. Navy


Figure 1: Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has charged his officers with thinking about how they will show up to the next war and be lethal and dominant. Here he briefs the Pentagon press corps on America's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo 140123-M-EV637-053)

Figure 1: Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has charged his officers with thinking about how they will show up to the next war and be lethal and dominant. Here he briefs the Pentagon press corps on America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo 140123-M-EV637-053)

As the U.S. military finds itself several years into its rebalancing to the Pacific, with an unspoken focus on China, today’s naval officers would recognize the conditions that their pre-World War II forebears faced. At that time, “the possibility of a war with Japan dominated U.S. naval planning… The U.S. Navy spent the interwar period trying to solve the operational problems associated with a trans-pacific naval campaign.” 1 A tight fiscal situation meant “research on new technology took second place to maintaining and improving existing equipment,” 2 while its probable enemy “sought to improve the quality of its fighting forces to offset the U.S. Navy’s quantitative superiority.” 3 Substituting China for Japan, conditions today are much the same. In trying to determine what lessons today’s planners can draw from the Pacific War, the guidance of the current Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, provides one starting point. He recently challenged his current generation of surface warfare officers with “thinking in the offensive mode… how are you going to show up, how are you going to be dominant, how are you going to be lethal… to think about all scenarios, not just the ones…where we have enjoyed the basic air superiority, basic sea superiority.” 4 The U.S. submarine campaign and the surface naval battles in support of the Marines at Guadalcanal each inform the most important lesson for today’s planners: that the best plans, doctrine, and training formulated before the conflict will likely fail during execution. Commanders should expect that failure, identify its root causes, and take aggressive action to correct them. The American submarine fleet’s performance over the course of the war shows one way to overcome initial unpreparedness in order to conduct offensive operations, while the Allied surface fleet’s lackluster performance in night action at Guadalcanal demonstrates what happens when forces arrive to the sort of fight they do not expect and fail to adapt to it.

The Submarine Campaign

Figure 2: USS Tarpon (SS-175) recovering a practice torpedo, during exercises off San Diego, California, 22 August 1937. Prewar torpedo exercises failed to the reveal flaws in warshot torpedoes that would become evident early in the war. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 63184)

Figure 2: USS Tarpon (SS-175) recovering a practice torpedo, during exercises off San Diego, California, 22 August 1937. Prewar torpedo exercises failed to the reveal flaws in warshot torpedoes that would become evident early in the war.
(Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 63184)

The war that the U.S. submarine force waged in the Pacific offers a case study on the importance of matching one’s means to strategic ends. Although the world had seen the powerful effect that submarine raiding against commerce could have during the First World War, a number of international treaties during the interwar period forbade this sort of unrestricted submarine warfare. Indeed, just prior to World War II, Benito Mussolini used the Italian Navy’s submarines to support General Franco in the Spanish Civil War by sinking both belligerent and neutral merchant shipping. Enraged, the British, French, and Soviets came together under the Nyon Agreement to patrol the Mediterranean and sink all suspect submarines. Even before the patrols began, the international pressure forced Mussolini to abandon his undersea campaign. 5 Nothing during the interwar period suggested that the international community became more comfortable with use of unrestricted submarine warfare against commerce as World War II broke out.

For decades, the U.S. Navy had envisioned an economic blockade of the home islands in its planning for a war against Japan. Under this framework, the leap to accepting unrestricted submarine warfare matched strategic ends to the U.S. Navy’s available means. War Plan ORANGE called for an economic blockade of Japan, albeit by the surface fleet under the rules of cruiser warfare. 6 After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America found itself in a war against Japan, but without the surface ships or advance bases it needed to conduct a blockade. While it would acquire both over the course of the war, it still had its submarine force from the start. The decision to use unrestricted submarine warfare reflected the pragmatic realities and was “coolly, studiously strategic.” 7 As Holwitt concludes, “unrestricted submarine warfare carried a great deal of moral and legal baggage, but for naval war planners, the strategic necessity for unrestricted submarine warfare dovetailed with over thirty years of U.S. naval war planning.” 8 Although some submarine officers, including Hyman Rickover, “recognized the efficacy and probability of unrestricted submarine warfare…doctrine and training ignored their pragmatic opinion.” 9

Nevertheless, in the interwar period, American naval planners considered the submarine’s “most important employment [to be] in operations against enemy capital ships, and until that type of operation was reduced in its importance to the general employment of naval forces, [they] would not contemplate using submarines against commerce.” 10 In fact, the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s commander in 1936, Rear Admiral Reeves, commenting on likely missions of his submarine force in a war against Japan, opined, “the primary employment of submarines will be in offensive operations against enemy larger combatant vessels…No submarine will be assigned in the early stages of the war to operate against enemy trade routes.” 11 Given the expected primacy of the battleship in naval warfare and the previous history of submarine employment, the American planners made reasonable assumptions about the limited role their submarines would play.

Figure 3: Battle flag used while Barb was commanded by Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, circa 1945. One of the best examples of how successful an aggressive submarine commander could be, Commander Fluckey took the fight to the Japanese, even sending men ashore on the Japanese home islands to blow up a train. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 63789-KN)

Figure 3: Battle flag used while Barb was commanded by Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, circa 1945. One of the best examples of how successful an aggressive submarine commander could be, Commander Fluckey took the fight to the Japanese, even sending men ashore on the Japanese home islands to blow up a train. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 63789-KN)

American submariners developed doctrine for the sort of warfare that their strategy prescribed and international law permitted. They practiced penetrating anti-submarine screens and conducting submerged torpedo attacks against enemy capital ships, the sort of training that could have produced aggressive skippers who would have made short work of unarmed, unescorted merchant ships. Nevertheless, overestimation of the anti-submarine capabilities of surface ships and aircraft inculcated an overabundance of caution in submarine commanders that “constituted a significant obstacle to the use of the submarines as a strategically valuable weapon.” 12 Submarines that operated submerged, but with their periscopes just a few feet out of the water, could better evade the anti-submarine forces they feared. However, doing so reduced those submarines’ search radius to just a few miles. Further compounding the situation, the United States’ torpedoes suffered from faulty detonators and miscalibrated depth settings that hindered efforts to sink the targets its submarines did find. Once the Chief of Naval Operations issued his order for unrestricted submarine warfare against the Japanese on December 7, 1941, the American submarine force found itself using “false [tactical] lessons learned in peace” 13 with underperforming weapons to carry out a strategy its commanders had rejected before the war, and one that might be illegal under international law.

The submarine force’s lackluster performance throughout 1942 and 1943 forced its leaders to recognize that its prewar doctrine was failing. Extracting relevant lessons and tactics from the patrol reports of successful skippers, the force’s top leaders urged more aggressive action to little effect. By the end of 1943, the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance had fixed the technical problems with the torpedoes, while detailed intelligence of Japanese merchant ship movements provided by the U.S. Fleet Radio Unit Pacific aided submarines in finding targets. Nevertheless, “even with this intelligence support…submarine commanders using prewar concepts of operations had serious problems finding merchant ships.” 14 In order to get away from those prewar tactics, the submarine force swapped its underperforming commanders by relieving those who failed to sink enough Japanese ships over the course of two war patrols. While senior leadership used tactical bulletins to recommend aggressiveness and best practices, the character of the submarine skipper became the most important factor for success. The force needed commanders who took the initiative, thrived in a decentralized command structure, and possessed “emotional stability and daring.” 15 With “no satisfactory technique… ever found…to identify the right kind of men for submarine commands,” immediately removing those who were not performing became the best option. 15 Ultimately the submarine fleet took almost two years to transform into the lethal force responsible for the destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet, and “by the time the American submarine fleet was finished with their economy, the Japanese no longer had the capability of waging offensive warfare.” 17

Some might argue that the submarine force did a poor job of adapting its performance and that its success stemmed from combining intelligence on merchant ship schedules and tracks, derived from highly classified signals intercepts, with fielding reliable torpedoes, since the submarine force’s attempt to send feedback to its commanders through war report endorsements and Tactical Bulletins were considered ineffective. 18 In this case, having submarines properly positioned and equipped with effective weapons would make success against merchant shipping largely independent of the submarine commander’s mindset. Indeed, once commanders had good intelligence and a reliable weapon by the end of 1943, the rate of sinking Japanese merchants rose dramatically. However, the best intelligence that the submarine force had would not be effective without capable commanders who understood the nature of their submarines (possessed coup d’oeil in Clausewitzian terms). The ability to take risks and decisive action in order to locate Japanese vessels, even on the basis of precise intelligence, proved the decisive factor. Based on submarine technology at the time, intelligence could put submarines in the right area, but their skippers still had to operate properly in order to find, fix, and target the merchant ships.

Lessons for Today

Prewar planners can devise strategies based on the best intelligence they have at hand, but as Clausewitz argues, “the very nature of interaction is bound to make it unpredictable. The effect that any measure will have on the enemy is the most singular factor among all the particulars of action.” 19 Doctrine and strategy formulated during peacetime against a notional enemy may prove ineffectual against actual enemies who have conducted their own planning and have their own capabilities. Senior leaders should expect that parts of their untested strategies or tactics will fail, and they should be ready to shift to new ones, even without any guarantee of success. Although the submarine force could not empirically determine what made some commanders better than others, it could identify successful ones and remove those who were not. Today, Admiral Locklear sets a high bar of expecting his units to show up to a conflict lethal and dominant; but in the event they do not, evolutionary adaptability to whatever works, be it commanders, tactics, or a certain technology, offers a proven path to success.

Night Naval Battles at Guadalcanal

In the interwar period, most thinking about how to fight a Pacific naval war centered on the use of battleships

as the best way to transport firepower across the Pacific Ocean and bring it to bear upon the Japanese fleet. Only the battleship had the endurance to sail across the ocean under attack from Japanese airplanes, submarines, and cruisers and, at the end, be ready to meet the enemy fleet in a second Jutland. A battleship’s long-range heavy cannon could shoot farther than a torpedo, and its shot fell more accurately than a bomb. 20

Although the American fleet modernized throughout the 1930’s as its air, surface, and submarine forces brought new capabilities and weapons on-line, the United States focused on preparing for a decisive surface fleet engagement with the Imperial Navy. Japan, too, had a “supreme faith in the decisive fleet engagement as the ultimate arbiter of naval power.” 21 Since the Washington Naval Agreement limited the number and tonnage of capital ships each nation could construct, Japan was forced to develop asymmetric tactics for its cruisers and destroyers that would attrite the American fleet before the ultimate showdown. Indeed, the Japanese Navy General Staff spent much of the 1930’s studying night combat and developing doctrine and technology, such as optical devices, so that “by the end of the decade, the Japanese navy thus had more powerful, more effective, and more dependable night fighting equipment than did any other navy in the world.” 22 These advances made the Imperial Navy more ready than the U.S. Navy for the night fighting at Guadalcanal.

Figure 4: A U.S. destroyer steams up what later became known as "Iron Bottom Sound", the body of water between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, during landings on both islands, 7 August 1942. Savo Island is in the center distance and Cape Esperance, on Guadalcanal, is at the left. Photographed from USS San Juan (CL-54) from a location approximately due east from the northern tip of Savo Island. (National Archives, 80-G-13539)

Figure 4: A U.S. destroyer steams up what later became known as “Iron Bottom Sound”, the body of water between Guadalcanal and Tulagi, during landings on both islands, 7 August 1942. Savo Island is in the center distance and Cape Esperance, on Guadalcanal, is at the left. Photographed from USS San Juan (CL-54) from a location approximately due east from the northern tip of Savo Island. (National Archives, 80-G-13539)

American tactical development, driven by an expectation of a decisive fleet engagement, failed to anticipate Japan’s likely tactics from its history, even though the U.S. Navy recognized the threat that the Japanese posed at night. Even a cursory study of Japanese naval combat since the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1985 would reveal that the Imperial Navy had favored night attacks in prior wars, as evidenced by the night raids on Weihaiwei harbor in February, 1895 and the attack on Port Arthur nine years later in the Russo-Japanese War. The Office of Naval Intelligence reported on Japanese night combat training, while the U.S. Naval War College’s tabletop war games demonstrated how effective night attacks could be. 23 Still, the Americans’ preparations for night combat suffered from “mistaken assumptions about the nature of the upcoming war…[and] failed to provide for the strategic situation the navy encountered.” 24 Despite the warning signs, the chimera of a decisive surface fleet engagement drove an emphasis on the tactics of major fleet battles at the expense of minor actions, such as the ones fought at Guadalcanal. The U.S. Navy did exercise night search and attack tactics against enemy battleships as a prelude to the decisive engagement 25 and “night battle practice was an extremely important exercise” 26 in the interwar period. However, the Americans conducted this training in the context of a major fleet engagement and never “simulated the ‘Minor Tactics’ that dominated the battles off Guadalcanal.” 27 Thus, the American fleet remained unprepared for the sudden, close-range, and confusing mêlées that characterized these actions.

The results of the first night battle between surface forces of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Battle of Savo Island, revealed the mismatch in night fighting capabilities between the two fleets and should have offered an object lesson for the Americans. During a night attack, the incoming Japanese column evaded the Allied destroyer pickets and attacked two forces in succession, sinking four cruisers and one destroyer, while suffering limited damage in return. With some pickets even ignoring the approaching Japanese warships, the Allies failed to recognize that the Japanese were nearby until after the attack started. Then, poor communications prevented the pickets from warning the rest of the force that an attack was underway. This battle marked Japan’s most lopsided nighttime victory over the Allied surface force during the Guadalcanal campaign. The Japanese owned the night. They used it to ferry troops and supplies to the island, and to attack both the Marines onshore and patrolling naval forces for months.

Later engagements in October and November off of Guadalcanal and Tassafaronga resulted in heavy American tactical losses during night battles, although the American surface fleet did achieve some operational success by preventing some bombardments of Guadalcanal. One bright spot for the Americans occurred on the night of 11-12 October off of Cape Esperance when Rear Admiral Norman Scott’s force of cruisers and destroyers, augmented by one battleship, lost only one destroyer while sinking one Japanese cruiser, damaging two more, and killing a Japanese admiral. Despite this tactical victory, the Americans were unable to gain control of the night. Two nights later, on the night of 13-14 October, two Japanese battleships sailed unopposed off of Henderson Field and conducted the most vicious shore bombardment the Marines on Guadalcanal were to experience. Japanese cruisers continued the bombardment over the next two nights. 28 One month later, on the night of 12-13 November, a powerful Japanese task force, hoping to repeat the bombardment, smashed an American force of cruisers and destroyers and killed both of its admirals. Tactical victory again went to the Japanese in this action, although the Americans did accomplish their operational goal of preventing the planned Japanese bombardment of the island in this later engagement. The Americans also turned a tactical defeat into an operational victory the following night, 13-14 November, when Rear Admiral Lee’s Task Force 64 sank one Japanese battleship and forced the rest of the force to withdraw, at a cost of one battleship and four destroyers sunk or heavily damaged. Although the entirety of this action is widely considered an American victory, American pilots from the carrier Enterprise earned much of the credit by sinking or damaging one battleship, four cruisers, and seven troop transports the following day. 29

Figure 5: A victim of insufficient pre-war preparation, USS Quincy (CA-39), photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 50346)

Figure 5: A victim of insufficient pre-war preparation, USS Quincy (CA-39), photographed from a Japanese cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island, off Guadalcanal, 9 August 1942. Quincy, seen here burning and illuminated by Japanese searchlights, was sunk in this action. (Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 50346)

Mahnken claims that at one point the Americans did, in fact, change their tactics and that Rear Admiral Scott won this tactical victory because he “had studied previous engagements…and had carefully trained his force in night-fighting tactics.” 30 Furthermore, the characterization of the American surface fleet’s defeats over the course of the Guadalcanal campaign does not tell the whole story, since, in fact, the U.S. Navy ended up exchanging roughly equal warship damage over the course of the campaign and saved the Marines ashore on 13-15 November. Nevertheless, while the American surface fleet at Guadalcanal did claim a few tactical victories, such as the Battle of Cape Esperance and the night of November 13 that killed Rear Admirals Scott and Callaghan, usually the victory came about as a more intact Japanese force withdrew after taking less losses than the Americans. When meeting Japanese forces at night, the U.S. Navy’s failure to adjust its tactics kept leading to defeat as capped by the night action off of Tassafaronga on November 30. Here, despite enjoying a near-perfect radar picture and situational awareness, the American fleet lost one cruiser sunk and three damaged to an outnumbered force of Japanese destroyers at night. 31

Lessons for Today

While today’s commanders may not be able to predict exactly how their future enemy may fight, they will be expected to learn from mistakes and quickly adapt in order to become, in Admiral Locklear’s words, lethal and dominant. Although the Americans’ poor prewar assumptions about the nature of the coming conflict likely preordained the first defeats in night combat, an inexcusable failure to identify and address the root causes led to further unnecessary losses. Unlike the submarine force in the Pacific War, the admirals in charge of the surface fleet at Guadalcanal made little effort to change anything about how they were fighting over the months of the campaign. Mahnken attributes much of the credit for Japan’s success to continuity of command, by which it was able to “use combat experience to modify and improve upon its prewar doctrine,” and similarly finds its lack on the American side as the prime reason for successive defeats. 32 This explanation, however, misses the greater problem for the Americans, that they had foregone adequate prewar preparations and, after successive defeats, failed to find and correct the root causes of their failure.


Admiral Locklear sets a high bar for his commanders today by expecting them to arrive to his theater and become lethal and dominant. Had he been Pacific Fleet commander at the start of World War II, he would have been sorely disappointed by the inability of his submarine or surface fleets to fulfill this expectation. However, his commanders today can learn from the lessons of these two campaigns by making a realistic appraisal of their likely enemy and developing and exercising their own doctrine to counter his tactics. Most importantly, should a conflict occur, they should actively look for signs of failure, even expect these prewar tactics to fail, and then quickly identify the root causes and make corrections.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

  1. Thomas Mahnken. “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea: The Naval Battles off Guadalcanal, 1942-1943.” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, no. 12 (Winter 2011), page 98.
  2. Ibid., 99.
  3. Ibid., 100.
  4. Samuel Locklear. “Speech at the Surface Navy Association Conference.” 26th National Symposium. Surface Navy Assocation. Arlington, Virginia. 15 Jan 2014. Speech.
  5. Holwitt, 29-30.
  6. Ibid., 86.
  7. Samuel Flagg Bemis, “Submarine Warfare in the Strategy of American Defense and Diplomacy, as quoted in Holwitt, 87.
  8. Joel Ira Holwitt. “Execute Against Japan”: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009, page 87.
  9. Ibid., 77.
  10. Ibid., 75.
  11. Ibid., 76.
  12. Stephen Peter Rosen. Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, page 136.
  13. Ibid., 136.
  14. Ibid., 137.
  15. Ibid., 139.
  16. Ibid., 139.
  17. Eric Larrabee. Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War. First Naval Institute Press paperback edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004, page 397.
  18. Rosen, 139.
  19. Carl Von Clausewitz. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, page 139.
  20. Baer, 136.
  21. Mahnken, 99.
  22. David C. Evans, and Mark R. Peattie. Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy 1887-1941. First Naval Institute Press paperback edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012, page 275.
  23. Mahnken, 101-102.
  24. Trent Hone. “‘Give Them Hell!’: The US Navy’s Night Combat Doctrine and the Campaign for Guadalcanal.” War in History, vol. 13, no. 2 (2006), page 172.
  25. Ibid., 174.
  26. Ibid., 191.
  27. Ibid., 177.
  28. Mahnken, 103.
  29. Larrabee, 300.
  30. Mahnken, 108.
  31. James Hornfischer. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal. Bantam Books, 2011,pages 391-392.
  32. Mahnken, 106.

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National History Day 2014 Documentary: “Vietnam POWs Taking Responsibility when Deprived of All Rights”

A National History Day documentary by Jethro Abatayo and Logan Gibert
Pleasant Valley Middle School, Vancouver, WA

Editor’s Note: Established in 1974, National History Day (NHD) is an award winning, non-profit education organization offering year-long academic programs that engage over 600,000 middle and high school students around the world annually in conducting original research on historical topics. These research-based projects are entered into contests at the local and affiliate levels in all fifty states where the top student projects have the opportunity to advance to the national competition or finals at the University of Maryland in College Park. Through this program NHD also seeks to improve the quality of history education by providing professional development opportunities and curriculum materials for educators. Slightly more than 3,000 of these students advanced to the final round of the 2014 competition in College Park, MD in June.

Among the many prizes and awards presented in College Park is the Captain Kenneth Coskey Naval History Prize.   The prize is named for the late Captain Ken Coskey, a Vietnam War combat aviator and Prisoner of War, and former Executive Director of the Naval Historical Foundation. Rosemary Coskey, wife of Captain Coskey, and Captain Charles Chadbourn, USN (Ret.) presented the award on behalf of the Foundation as well as generous $1,000 cash prizes to the junior and senior division winners. This is the first year that the awards were given to both high school and middle school representatives for the best naval history projects. Captain Coskey was an avid, long time supporter of National History Day up until his death last year.

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BOOK REVIEW – Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of CAPT. Edward L. Beach Jr.

Edward F. Finch, Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of CAPT. Edward L. Beach Jr. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. 288 pps. Photos, Notes, appendices, bibliography, index

Review by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
Department of Strategy & Policy, U.S. Naval War College

Edward L. Beach, Jr. had an interesting and varied career in the U.S. Navy. A submarine officer, he received three of the four highest awards for valor of his service. (The only one he did not receive was the Medal of Honor). Beach was the commanding officer of four submarines, and one surface ship. He served as an aide to the Chief of Naval Operations, and then to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then the President of the United States. He also became a novelist and a historian. He is best known for his first novel, Run Silent, Run Deep, which later became a film of the same name. In 1960, as the captain of USS Triton, he and his crew circumnavigated the globe submerged, roughly following the route that Ferdinand Magellan took in 1519-1522.   After he retired from the Navy as a captain, he wrote several more novels and histories, taught at the U.S. Naval War College and served as editor of the Naval War College Review, and did some work in Republican politics.

Most of these events are discussed in adequate detail in Edward F. Finch’s biography of Beach. Finch brings clear enthusiasm to the project. He explains to his readers that his encounters with Beach’s writings in his childhood led to a lifelong love of reading about the U.S. Navy in World War II. He even participated on a conference panel with Beach. “Ned’s dedication to the Navy, his faith in the innate goodness of his fellow human beings, and the role that his father’s novels played in his life form the thesis of this biography” (p. xv). The “Ned” in that sentence is Beach. Finch constantly refers to him by that nickname, suggesting a familiarity with his subject that is unwarranted.

The bigger problem with that thesis is that it is not particularly analytical. This study basically follows in dutiful fashion, the writings of Beach. Both Beach and his father were naval officers/historians/novelists, but Finch never pushes very far in this regard, or in many other areas. There is no literary analysis of either father or son as writers even though he devotes a whole chapter to Run Silent, Run Deep. Beach always believed that United Artists bought the film rights to that book for the title alone, arguing that they already had a submarine story ready to go and wanted a well-recognized title for marketing purposes. Beach would hardly be the first or the last writer to run afoul of Hollywood, but Finch does not provide any assessment of this charge.

Nor, despite the sub-title, does Finch do much either to assess the U.S. Navy during the era of Beach’s career and the role of his subject. Finch uses Beach’s papers and oral histories, and interviews with others, but with little affect. Either the documents did not contain that much useful information, or Finch was unable to mine them effectively. The evidence cuts both ways. Finch does not consult the records of other naval officers or other institutions beyond the war reports and logs of Beach’s ships to assess how his subject’s efforts as a naval publicist were received. Finch needed more information to write this biography than he could get from a narrow investigation of Beach’s papers and, as a result, there are a number of conditional modifiers: “probably” or “could have.”

A good example comes from one of the biggest questions about Beach’s career; why he never made admiral. As he pointed out, he was the only presidential naval aide never to make flag rank. Finch addresses this issue, but never provides a good answer. His account repeats Beach’s own speculation and Finch provides some other possibilities, but never offers an answer that moves beyond informed gossip. There is no doubt that Beach was an accomplished officer with real ability, but Finch avoids an obvious argument. Beach simply might not have been up for the job. After two promotion boards chose not to promote him to flag rank, he resigned his commission before the meeting of a third board. To be blunt, he quit before his third and last chance, because he did not want to be rejected and in the process accepted the decision of the two previous boards that he did not merit promotion.

With these harsh judgments in mind, it would be remiss of this reviewer to fail to mention that Finch has done a good job as a biographer in developing and presenting the personality of his subject. Beach emerges as a professional military officer with real emotions. In an odd decision that was most likely a compromise between publisher and author, there is a lengthy 36 page appendix that is equal to 21 percent of the 171 page text that provides biographical sketches of Beach’s father, siblings, wife and children. This information really should have been presented in the main body of the book. One final note, Finch has a deft touch with the English language that makes this book an enjoyable read.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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