Benjamin F. Armstrong, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. 162 pp.
Review By Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History
Arguably, Admiral William Sims achieved greatness and professional success in the early twentieth century all while operating against the currents of institutional orthodoxies. Unlike Admiral George Dewey, who secured his renown on the strength of a famous naval victory at Manila Bay, the roots of Sims’ standing owed everything to tenacity of thought, single-mindedness of purpose and a certain presumptiveness. In 1902, that presumptiveness led a very senior Lieutenant Sims to write a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt castigating the navy’s gunnery efforts after his attempts at working through proper channels realized only rejection and frustration. That step paid immediate dividends to Sims and ultimately to the service he esteemed.
To the greater public, Sims was the face of the navy in the European War standing on a par with General Pershing who commanded the American Expeditionary Force. To the service, however, the culmination of Sims’ unconventional career was realized at the Naval War College where he served as its president in the periods immediately before America’s entry into the World War and then afterwards. To Sims, an officer much given to thought, the posting testified that the past was merely prologue, and, it is telling, that of the six essays penned by the Admiral over the course of his career and presented by Benjamin Armstrong in 21st Century Sims, three date from his tenure at Newport.
This monograph is a continuing number in the 21st Century series published by the Naval Institute Press which introduces the military thinking of past, significant naval and military leaders to the contemporary professional. Necessarily, 21st Century Sims is only an introduction, yet, for that, it succeeds on a number levels. By offering the Admiral’s views on the pressing questions of his day, the editor expands the discussion to relate how some issues have an eternal quality. As a long-running institution, this is not surprising for the U. S. Navy, though it is surprising how few probably take the time to consider this as they grapple with a pressing problem of the moment. As the adage goes, ‘If you want a new idea, read an old book’ or, failing that, then read from an older officer.
With the patronage of Roosevelt, Sims became Inspector of Naval Gunnery and a lieutenant-commander. He soon touted the advantages of the ‘All-Big-Gun, One-Caliber Battleship’ in the pages of Proceedings, the professional journal of the navy. This put him at odds with Captain Alfred Mahan, the doyen of naval history and strategic thought. Sims arguing from a position of informed knowledge had the better of the argument, but the modern reader should appreciate that time and future battle experience would demonstrate the limitations in his case. War gaming, strong scientific analysis and even the results of fleet firing practices at the heart of Sims’ views were better than mere conjecture, but where uncertainty and friction are present, they could never be truly predictive. As for the presumed superiority of U.S. Navy gunnery methods over the Royal Navy the editor posits, the reality proved to be otherwise as Rear-Admiral Hugh Rodman’s squadron found upon joining the Grand Fleet. Jutland should have been a resounding British victory if the tactical table was any guide. It wasn’t. It did, however, spur changes in material and procedure in a manner which peacetime serials and gaming alone could not.
What emerges from the essays offered is an officer seemingly more at-home with the dictates of tactics than with the demands of strategy. Thus, when lecturing in 1916 to would-be officers on the ideal attributes of the ‘Military Character’, Sims prizes those qualities of speed of thought and rapidity of decision. Doubtlessly, those essentials made their presence felt during the many war games played at the Naval War College, but were of less saliency to the strategist where allocating forces and realizing the greater object remained the first concerns. Tellingly, in the collection presented, Sims never adequately addresses the strategic role of the navy.
Sims could be prone to dogmatism and never the more so than over the relative value of speed in heavy ships. This trait was evident in 1906 in his set-to with Mahan, but it remained no less true in 1921 when titling at the windmills of ‘Military Conservatism’ in the fourth essay featured. Notwithstanding the evidence of Jutland when three British battle cruisers succumbed, Sims remained a firm believer in the efficacy of the type. Ironically, Sims’ advocacy now mirrored the very pitfalls he railed against, as he discounted and ignored evidence contrary to his long-held tenets. He also ignored the imperatives of finance and the institutional changes required to support the fielding and integration of any new weapon or technology. These concerns ever loomed large in seniors while juniors, not burdened with such worries, saw only the promise on offer. However, the greater point being made by Sims remained that officers needed to guard against falling into convenient patterns of thought and action. True then, it remains perfectly true today. Ideally, the service required a bedrock of sound first principles amenable to flexible application, or in the words of his British counterpart, Rear-Admiral Herbert Richmond, “In principles be an unchanging conservative; in their application be a red hot radical.”
Those serving today and reading 21st Century Sims will probably identify most readily with the final essay penned, “Promotion By Selection.” As with military education, any arrangement followed will never lack for critics of those who have served as all have experience of the system. Not without controversy and difficulties in 1934, when Sims had been on the retired list for many years, how much more so today when the equities and essentials at play are so much more varied? No system will ever be perfect, but the important thing to Sims was to ensure that the ablest and most popular advanced with the last attribute the key. That it be fair was a given. Given the criteria posited, how far a certain lieutenant would have advanced if the patronage of Roosevelt had been absent may be pondered.
This reviewer has no hesitation recommending the enjoyable and informative essays presented, all ably arranged and supported by the commentary of Benjamin Armstrong. Enlightening to the more junior, even senior officers will gain a better understanding of one of the service’s leading lights and take something of value away.