BOOK REVIEW – Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters, 1919-1924

William N. Still, Jr., Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters, 1919-1924.Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018, 3922 pp.

Review by Joseph, Moretz, PhD

If a purpose of war is to secure a better peace, then it is remarkable how few studies take their accountings past the end of hostilities. This is true for the historiography of the First World War, no less than for the treatment of other conflicts. Much is this to be regretted. This is ever more the case for the First World War which proved to be such a watershed for what followed in its wake. William Still has this very much in mind in Victory Without Peace, the third volume in a series dedicated to reviewing the U.S. Navy’s experience in European Waters from the end of the American Civil War until 1929. The story presented is one that should be better known—to the public, yes—but more especially to current American naval officers as the challenges and constraints faced in the aftermath of the World War offer both lessons and warnings.  

During the war, the United States had fought as an ‘Associate Power’ against Germany and Austria-Hungary while never declaring against the Ottoman Empire. Thus, fundamental policy differences always separated the United States from its fellow co-belligerents. Somewhat masked and sidelined while operations were active, the close of hostilities brought contrarian views to the fore. Foremost, stood the American insistence on “Freedom of the Seas” as enshrined in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. To a maritime empire such as Great Britain that precept might be thought only obvious. Yet, it promised to defang the Royal Navy, for even in 1918, after four years of war and a major continental commitment, Economic Warfare as practiced through contraband control and blockade remained the cornerstone of British naval power projection and its command of the seas. In Wilsonian eyes and, in the view of many American naval officers, that command frequently operated at the expense of neutrals. Certainly, it had operated against the United States. Pleading and goodwill aside, British naval practice would never yield to American arguments while it retained might on its side. Thus, the United States now reaffirmed its intention to build “A Navy Second to None.” 

In Paris as the victorious leaders gathered to thrash out the terms of peace to be imposed on the vanquished, argument amongst the Allies raged. United in defeating German militarism and little else, unsurprisingly, disagreements were many. This included the fate of Germany’s High Sea Fleet. Parsing its remaining ships to the victors was one possibility, if agreement could only be reached on a satisfactory scale of distribution. The problem, however, proved insoluble until the Germans solved it themselves. In truth, the scuttling of the High Sea Fleet proved the perfect answer as it took at least one intractable problem off the table. Many others remained. Making peace may have not been as bloody as making war, but for the U. S. Navy in European Waters it was proving bloody enough as they now swept the mine barrage so recently sown in the North Sea.

If the United States had entered the war only late and reluctantly, then it wasted little time in trying to rid itself of further efforts. Returning 2,000,000 “doughboys” from France was one immediate challenge facing the Navy—the more so as the shipping situation remained acute. The British, so willing to bring the American Expeditionary Force to Europe in 1917, now demanded hard cash to carry the same troops home. That rankled and the more so as Admiral William Benson, the Chief of Naval Operations, sought to ensure his sailors returned home first. That many were reservists offers a partial explanation. That the Navy desired to rebalance its forces to the Pacific remains another. Still, the greater reason remained even more obvious: The World War was over and with it the Navy’s mission in Europe. Alas, such a view was decidedly premature.

Though an Armistice had been reached, political turmoil in eastern Europe and the Near East continued. Even where actual fighting had ceased, the plight of humanity remained acute with hunger and despair ever present. Unsurprisingly and worthy of a nation that had actually prospered from the war, it remained for the United States to take the lead in the relief efforts that now followed  the magnitude of which represented “a second war, involving thousands of personnel, hundreds of ships, and logistical problems nearly as complex as that during the conflict.” If the humanitarian efforts of Herbert Hoover remain that part of the story typically recalled, the nation could take pride in the contribution of its Navy, no less than in its civil agencies. For the U.S. Navy in European Waters this was no mean achievement. Having few ships and fewer still of the appropriate type, delivering that support taxed it to the utmost. Whether securing the necessary wharfage to hold the tons of relief shipped, protecting those stores once landed from the unrest all about and then guaranteeing its subsequent distribution, the Navy remained the vital enabler. Yet, perhaps no task was more challenging to the Navy than maintaining the communications guard via a chain of destroyers that allowed all to proceed.

With empires collapsing and much of Europe prostrate, turmoil in the aftermath of the World War was perhaps only to be expected. In a sense, the defeat of Prussian militarism merely returned things to the status quo ante. Thus, the Balkans and Asia Minor remained kindling to be lit. If not of a scale being experienced elsewhere, America too seemed a land in turmoil. The debilitation of President Wilson medically via stroke and then politically after the Senate’s defeat of the Versailles Treaty saw the creation of political vacuum. In Europe, a succession of flag officers now served but ever so briefly in London, Paris or in the Adriatic. How much this owed to affairs in Washington and its import on the management of the U. S. Navy in European Waters might have been considered more fully by the author. 

Ironically, the constant shuffling of flag officers ceased where it mattered most to American interests in postwar Europe: Turkey. Here, Rear Admiral Mark Bristol served concurrently as High Commissioner and Commander, U. S. Naval Detachment in Turkish Waters between 1918-1927. His task, never an easy one given America’s non-belligerency towards the Ottoman Empire, required doses of firmness, patience and resolve to be displayed towards London, Paris and Rome, no less than to Constantinople (and after 1923, Ankara). That the American diplomatic position was a weak one explains Bristol’s lengthy tenure. 

This is a history thoroughly researched employing both domestic and foreign archival and secondary sources. Accompanied by a fine selection of photographs of the principal officers discussed, the conclusions reached are always balanced. This is a fine addition to the U. S. Naval Institute’s Studies in Naval History and Sea Power and the work is highly recommended to those attuned to the period, or to those simply desiring to know more about the Navy in the aftermath of the First World War. Most especially, it is recommended to those professionals who weigh force drawdowns in the aftermath of hostilities for as Still reminds us, “The peacetime Navy is rarely at peace.” All who read Victory Without Peace will be amply rewarded.

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents)

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