View from the Quarterdeck: January 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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