The Navy is issuing SWOs leather jackets! The Salty Millenial himself, Jimmy Drennan, (@thesaltyherald), joins Jared Samuelson (@jwsc03) to discuss the reaction to the announcement, whether or not SWOs like things, and agree that if the announcement bothers aviators, the jackets are a win!
The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It is republished in two parts. Read Part One here.
By David Alan Rosenberg
In 1981, the creation of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies further encouraged the shift from using war gaming primarily as a training tool toward using it for the analysis and development of strategy. The new center incorporated the old war gaming center, along with the Center for Advanced Research, the Naval War College Press, and the new Strategic Studies Group, made up of front-running Navy and Marine officers who were chosen by and reported directly to the Chief of Naval Operations. The center was to serve as a vehicle for the development and dissemination of naval strategy or, more accurately, to define the Navy’s place in national strategy.
The establishment of the new center meant greater responsibilities for the NFOIO detachment. To meet the challenge, the size of the detachment was increased. As of 1984, it was composed of seven naval officers, two civilian analysts, and two enlisted personnel for office and library support. Reflecting its increased capability, the detachment was assigned the additional task of providing the director of the new Center for Naval Warfare Studies and the Strategic Studies Group with intelligence support and background information “‘on matters pertaining to Soviet strategy and doctrine.’’ An eighth officer was added to the now redesignated Navy Operational Intelligence Center (NAVOPINCEN) detachment in 1986.
Presenting the Soviet side in war gaming and analysis, whether for the purpose of training officers or with the intention of shaping naval and national strategy, is a large, intricate, and time-consuming task. The 1986-1987 war gaming schedule listed more than 50 separate games or exercises. In addition, gaming personnel and NAVOPINCEN detachment members participated in training sessions and seminars related to war gaming. Since completion of the new enhanced naval war gaming computer system in early 1987, it has become possible for more and more games to be played at remote sites, including fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, and even London. This will decrease the amount of travel required of fleet personnel to Newport, allowing state of- the-art Navy war gaming to reach more commands. However, War Gaming Department and NAVOPINCEN detachment members have found that such remote gaming increases rather than decreases their workload because pregame preparations usually require as much, if not more, travel and advance planning as games played solely in Sims Hall.
Fewer than 40 percent of the games played at Newport are sponsored by the Naval War College, and an even smaller percentage are used purely for the instruction of War College students. The game sponsors today are active operational commanders and strategic planners in Washington. Among the game sponsors for 1986-1987 were the Commanders of the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets and U.S. Naval Forces Europe; the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; the NATO Strike Fleet Atlantic; the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic; the U.S. Seventh Fleet; Submarine Group Two in New London; and the Strategic Concepts Branch and the Director of Naval Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The game sponsor sets the parameters of the simulation to be played, including the general questions that need to be explored and the range of specific tactical and strategic issues that should be included during game play. Each one of these games has a War Gaming Department staff mentor assigned to it as a scenario design representative, and a NAVOPINCEN detachment member assigned as a representative to develop ways for the opposition to be played.10
The NAVOPINCEN detachment’s approach to playing the opposition in war games is more of an art than a science. The detachment draws heavily on data from the Washington intelligence community, including the Navy Operational Intelligence Center in Suitland, Maryland, the rest of the Naval Intelligence Community, plus the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency. The Operational Intelligence Center provides data on current Soviet operations and exercise activity, while National Intelligence Estimates and Soviet open-source literature provide reference points for building scenarios and conducting the games. In games involving joint action, the detachment can call upon the services of two Army Fellows assigned to Newport for two year tours to assist the War Gaming Department in getting ground operations correct. One of the Army Fellows is a military intelligence officer; the other is a combat arms professional. In addition, the NAVOPINCEN detachment regularly calls upon the U.S. Air Force “Checkmate” office and other Air Force commands for answers to questions regarding the simulation of Soviet air operations.
Before a game begins, NAVOPINCEN detachment members engage in extensive preparations. They work with the game sponsor and the War Gaming Department design representative in setting up scenarios that are realistic and yet tailored to facilitate analysis of the issues and courses of action the sponsor is concerned about testing. Opposing simulation forces are built up, computer databases prepared, and scenarios worked and reworked to fit the requirements of the game. By the time the players arrive and the game begins, much of the work of playing or being “Red” has been completed.
It is never possible to achieve complete accuracy and fidelity in playing the opposition. War games are by their nature only approximations of combat situations. Furthermore, intelligence is never perfect, and questions inevitably arise for which there are no answers. The problem of incomplete intelligence is compounded by the pressures of game play. When the NAVOPINCEN detachment is presented with an unexpected choice, it may be possible to come up with relevant data by doing a quick search of the literature or querying intelligence community sources. Sometimes, to expedite the game, the detachment is forced to fall back on the cumulative experience of its members in making a “best military judgment” regarding likely courses of Soviet action. In such instances detachment members are nagged by the thought that the answer might have been found if only there had been time to look for it, and the choice that was made may not have been consistent with the best possible information. The professional ‘Red’ team players find it sobering to consider that “rightly or wrongly, we are leaving high-ranking military officers with a certain perception of how Red is going to fight,” although every decision is not backed by hard data.11
This problem is further compounded when intelligence is available but cannot be used without violating security. The NAVOPINCEN team makes use of even the most sensitive information in preparing its scenarios, but once play begins, caution is in order since only a few of the games are classified above the “Secret” level. Detachment members will utilize their knowledge of highly classified information during gameplay only if this can be done without revealing the source. It may be necessary on occasion to play the Soviet side with less than total fidelity and precision in order to avoid Compromising critical intelligence sources.
The NAVOPINCEN detachment also faces another more mundane, but not insignificant, constraint on how realistically it can portray Soviet forces. The U.S. side in any given game will always have the use of far more computer terminals than the Soviet side. This is a logical arrangement since U.S. choices, not Soviet ones, are the focus of the game. Nevertheless, it does mean that the detachment is not able to present the actions of Soviet forces in full detail. For example, it is particularly difficult to present Soviet air operations on a full scale basis with this constraint. The shortage of control terminals has occasionally turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The fewer terminals “Red” has available, the fewer dedicated “Red” personnel are needed to man them. In a sense, the NAVOPINCEN detachment gamers face fewer command, control, and communication problems this way. Still, the lack of a fully staffed “Red” side means that those on the U.S. side may not have as complete a simulated picture as possible of the array of threats they would be facing in a real war.
There are also some larger questions about the design and use of the war games which are of concern to those who have served with or played against the NAVOPINCEN detachment. These are not specific constraints on how accurately the Soviets can be portrayed, but more general problems that are particularly apparent to those charged with being “Red.”
First, it should be noted that not all war games are alike. Some have a comparatively narrow tactical focus, i.e., examining military issues and possible options for the use of set numbers and types of forces to resolve certain specific regional problems. Others are strategic in orientation, looking at a large number of issues over a variety of regions and with a great array of military forces. These are more scenario and personality dependent; the designers and players have greater latitude in making decisions because of the complexity inherent in large numbers of variables. Both tactical and strategic games have their uses. Tactical games are most useful in assessing, through computer modeling, the technical boundaries and general parameters of military options. Strategic games are best characterized as politico military simulations whereby the military interaction is dependent on game-oriented political decisions rather than on more narrow technical and military considerations. They stimulate creative strategic thinking and are most useful in giving the players an opportunity to role-play decision making in wartime and crisis situations.12
Both strategic and tactical games often begin with a scenario that is strategically realistic but politically improbable at best. This inconsistency arises because, in order to mount a game, it is necessary to posit an outbreak of hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States, something both nations are, in fact, anxious to avoid. Since the United States never acts as the aggressor in war games, it is often necessary to “force” the Soviet Union to engage in open hostilities without adequately explaining its reasons for doing so.
A related problem revolves around the question of the “first salvo.” While the large, strategic global war games begin in peacetime or a crisis, many smaller games (particularly tactical exercises) open after war has actually started. To focus on naval engagements that permit room for American commanders to take the initiative, it is often necessary to skip over the Soviet attack that signaled the outbreak of the war and zero in on the U.S. response. The impact of the initial attack is merely written into the background scenario. It is never described as so devastating as to preclude response, since that would abort the game before it had begun. The Soviet Union, however, attaches great strategic importance to the first salvo and is likely to make it as devastating as possible. Skipping over this phase of the conflict could easily leave the wrong impression with those playing the game.
Navy and NAVOPINCEN detachment concerns about the battle of the first salvo have not been ignored at Newport. A number of specific games have been designed to focus on this phase of the conflict, and the experience gained from them has made the U.S. Navy much smarter about the first salvo challenge and, theoretically at least, more capable of dealing with it, both in simulation and real life. Real war is always uncertain, however, and students and officers who begin play in war games without experiencing and countering the first salvo need to be constantly aware that there is another dimension to the problem that they have missed, and about which they cannot become complacent.
War games are, of course, only best approximations of operational reality. Even discounting the problem of a summary initial scenario, the time frame in which war games are played does not permit a natural unfolding of events. Most war games last only a matter of hours, days, or, at the very most, weeks. Although it is possible to telescope time to simulate a somewhat longer period, it is impossible to game a prolonged conflict realistically under these conditions. The pressure of artificial time constraints distorts the interaction between the opposing sides and may result in unrealistic decision making.
Despite the best efforts of the War Gaming Department and the NAVOPINCEN detachment to make the scenarios, simulations, and interactions realistic, war games are competitive exercises in which the will to win is often stronger than the desire to learn. This is particularly true when those playing are knowledgeable operators who have come to Newport to test tactical concepts. They often have both a good grasp of the “Blue” side and a sophisticated understanding of the Soviet side; further, they have experience in playing war games against the NAVOPINCEN opposition teams at the war gaming center. Reality can be sacrificed when players become too familiar with the game. Those who have had experience with how the NAVOPINCEN detachment plays the opposition can often begin to take that experience into account in making subsequent war game decisions. They will become increasingly proficient at playing the gamers, rather than the game.
This is not necessarily a negative aspect. The war gaming program at Newport is intended to give players experience in thinking about how the Soviet Union does things so that they will not be surprised in real life. To the extent that “Blue” understands what ‘‘Red” is likely to do (even if only as a result of playing the gamers, not the opposition they represent), the purpose of the gaming experience will be served. It is imperative, however, that the “Blue”’ gamers be aware that tactics and techniques confirmed through this sort of game play may not be so validated in a real engagement.
One important way to avoid such misplaced lessons is for “Red” to avoid playing his side of the games so consistently as to become predictable. It may be difficult to introduce inconsistency deliberately, while still being faithful to the intelligence that has been gathered and analyzed so painstakingly over time. But the realities of naval (or any other kind of) warfare make it necessary, however, to think through to the unexpected on the game floor rather than at sea. With the best recent intelligence providing a solid base on which to build, the challenge for the “Red” war gamers is to find ways of simulating not just what we think “Red” would do in the event of war, but also what “Red” could do. This requires additional attention to nuance and detail, as well as increased dedication to the already difficult job of thinking “Red.”
Finally, it must always be remembered that war games are not surrogate history. The conflict they simulate did not actually happen. The lessons they teach are not lessons of history. Outcomes will vary even if the same game with the same scenario and the same players is repeated. Neither the scenario nor the outcome of any particular game is likely to be replicated in the real world. War gaming can be used legitimately to raise questions and identify potential problems, but beyond this it must be treated with caution. Those who cite the outcomes of war games as evidence in support of a particular theory or strategy may well be building a house on sand.
This is especially true when the conclusions (war gamers prefer the terms “insight” and ‘”issues”) being drawn from the games focus on the actions taken by the opposition. The members of the NAVOPINCEN detachment do their job well and faithfully, but they can only make educated guesses as to what the Soviet Union might or might not choose to do in combat. To conclude that the Soviet Union is likely to respond to a particular situation in a certain way because of what happened in a war game is to distort and misuse the war gaming concept.
During the past century, war gaming has proved itself a valuable tool in preparing officers for combat and strategic decision making. Although students at the Naval War College have less exposure to war gaming today than they did in the interwar period, it is likely to remain an important element in the curriculum.
The need for accurate intelligence about probable opponents has been recognized as a critical element of war gaming since the interwar period. The naval intelligence community currently plays a crucial role in war gaming at the Naval War College, providing systematic, detailed information about Soviet forces and doctrine during both the design and the implementation of the games, and seeking to “think Red” in order to give players a consistent, credible opponent.
Despite the constraints they face, the officers and analysts of the NAVOPINCEN detachment have every reason to be proud of their record. By playing a credible Soviet opponent, they have injected a measure of realism into war games that otherwise might be exercises in mirror imaging or even wishful thinking. Their professionalism generates the kind of challenge against which those engaged in war gaming can truly test their skills and their strategies.
Nevertheless, the current popularity of war gaming raises questions that deserve careful consideration. If war games are not surrogate history, just what role can and should they play in the development of strategy? To a large extent it comes down to the experience of each individual in the game. Just as in strategic planning, where it is not the plan but the planner who is important for the future, so too in war gaming, it is the gamer not the game. To the extent that individuals expand and test their minds in playing against a credible opposition and use that experience to inform (but not dictate) their actions and plans, the investment made in manpower, hardware, and money at Sims Hall at the Naval War College will continue to be a sound one.
David Alan Rosenberg is a Naval Reserve officer assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Analysis 0166 Reserve unit based at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. As a civilian, he is a professor in the Strategy Department at the Naval War College.
10. Naval War College War Gaming Department, Operations Division, War Gaming Schedule Update, 1986-1987, 15 August 1986.
11. Robert Marshall, “Thinking Red Wargaming: Naval Issues,” unclassified brief prepared for a 1985 National Defense University War Gaming Center Conference, copy courtesy Commander Marshall,
12. For a general discussion of contemporary war gaming, its varieties, and its usefulness to planners and policymakers, see the forum on “Political and Military Gaming” with articles by Lincoln Bloomfield, Paul Bracken, Garry D. Brewer, and Lloyd H. Hoffman, Jr., in ORBIS, Winter 1984, pp. 783-822. Hoffman’s article on “Defense War Gaming,” pp. 812-822, surveys the various U.S. Government gaming organizations and types of games played.
Featured Image: A U.S. Navy commander talks with a Soviet navy captain second rank as they walk along the pier past the Soviet guided missile destroyer Boyevay. Three ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet are in San Diego for a five-day goodwill visit. (U.S. National Archives/Scene Camera Operator: PH2 Bill Gazza)
As the title clearly suggests, Admiral Leahy wielded tremendous power and influence, especially during the interwar period, WWII, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. What were the sources of his power and influence that led you to describe him as “the second most powerful man in the world”?
The single most important element in Leahy’s rise to the top of the U.S. government in World War II was his longstanding friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two men first met in the Navy Department in 1913 and grew to not only enjoy each other’s company, but to trust each other’s instincts. In the case of Roosevelt, this was special. Roosevelt, though outwardly charming, was not a naturally trusting individual. As he rose up politically, he was surrounded by ambitious people trying to take advantage of his power to further their own careers—and he often held them at arm’s length because of this. In the case of Leahy, he came across someone who was happy not to be in the limelight, but motivated to serve his interests first and foremost. It was why, as soon as Roosevelt became president, he started promoting Leahy up the naval chain of command, making sure that the admiral received every major position he could—chief of the Bureau of Navigation, commander of the Battle Force, and culminating in Leahy’s appointment as Chief of Naval Operations (1937-1939).
The two men also shared a similar strategic outlook. They were committed believers in the importance of a strong American navy and both had been strongly influenced by the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan. It meant that when they did work together running the American Navy in the 1930s, they instinctively reinforced each other’s perceptions and made a very strong team. By the time World War II started for the U.S., the American Navy was more the creation of these two men than any others.
Leahy actually retired formally in 1939, having reached mandatory retirement age. However by this time Roosevelt had made the decision that if a war did break out in the near future he would want to bring Leahy back to help him run it. He started discussing such a role with Leahy in the spring of 1939, and the two men honed the specifics of the role during the coming years. To allow this to happen, Roosevelt kept Leahy employed. He first made him governor of Puerto Rico, so that Leahy could help build up naval bases in the Caribbean. He then made Leahy ambassador to Vichy France. Both of these positions were a sign of the special trust the president had in the admiral.
Beyond the close personal relationship between Leahy and Roosevelt, the admiral had a number of key skills. He was instinctively political (this is discussed in more detail later) and he was undoubtedly competent and thorough. Though not the most deeply intellectual, Leahy had a way of getting a job done that was invaluable. When you combine this with his lack of interest in personal publicity, it was a powerful cocktail and made him stand out in a Washington DC populated by people who were always on the lookout for personal glory.
Soon after the U.S. entered WWII, it was confronted with a major strategic decision on how it should define specific war production priorities for its tremendous industrial might, a decision you described in the book as perhaps one of the most strategic decisions of the war for the U.S. What was Admiral Leahy’s role in these deliberations?
Usually strategy in WWII is seen as some great debate over where and when military force should be used. Discussions over whether the U.S. should have invaded France in 1943 or 1944, or whether it should fight a Germany-First war are perhaps the most famous examples of this. In our focus on the where and when, however, what is almost always overlooked is the what. All the great powers in World War II had to decide what to build in terms of equipment, force structure, how to balance needs between armies, navies, and air forces, as well as within the services such as balancing needs between, for example, fighters and bombers or tanks and trucks.
This was a far more involved process for the U.S. than many realize and William Leahy was at the heart of this debate. Not long after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt approved an arms construction plan of enormous depth and breadth which was nicknamed the Victory Program. However, by the summer of 1942, it was clear that even with the largest and most powerful economy in the world the U.S. could not build nearly as much equipment as was called for by the Victory Plan. A crisis ensued and hard choices needed to be made in the second half of 1942 about what would be built, and even more controversially, what would have to be cut.
Leahy was the most important person in the government, except for Roosevelt, in determining these priorities. By this point he was both the president’s chief of staff (the closest modern equivalent would be the National Security Adviser) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wearing his two hats he fought to cut army construction and focus on aircraft and aircraft carrier construction. By December 1942 he had emerged triumphant, and both his targets received the highest priority for the U.S. in 1943 and 1944. On the other hand, production for the army, particularly tank construction, was slashed. This decision, which has received little historical discussion, determined what the U.S. could and could not do during the war.
Another strategic choice that Leahy was instrumental in making at this time was about the size of U.S. armed forces. The other joint chiefs favored inducting huge numbers of men and women into the forces, at one point devising a plan for more than ten million U.S. military personnel. That plan, however, soon clashed headlong with the need to keep skilled personnel working in the economy to produce war material. Leahy was the only military officer to serve on a small committee chosen by Roosevelt to examine the question of military and civilian employment, and he came down strongly in favor of more equipment production and a small army. His preference was one of the reasons that the U.S. fought the war that it did. The United States opted for an equipment heavy, personnel-light military force structure that kept casualties down.
Admiral Leahy chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II (and afterward) and also participated in major strategic conferences of the war, such as at Yalta and Potsdam. What was his influence on wartime grand strategy and the conduct of WWII?
Leahy took over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs holding very different strategic priorities from the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall. Looking at the war from an overall perspective, Leahy did not want the United States to fight a Germany-First war, which Marshall and many others, including Winston Churchill, strongly supported. Leahy was worried that if the Japanese were allowed to entrench themselves in their Pacific empire while the U.S. threw everything into the war against Germany, that it would have devastating consequences. It would, he feared, take many extra years and a great deal of American blood to take the fight to Tokyo.
In this, Leahy walked arm-in-arm with Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. The Leahy-King alliance ended up triumphing in this fight, and contrary to what is widely believed, at no time in the war did the United States fight a Germany-First strategy. In 1942 the U.S. fought, if anything, a Japan-First war. The United States sent more overall equipment to the Pacific over Europe or North Africa. In 1943 and 1944 the U.S. fought two different wars. The Army and Army Air Force did prioritize the war against Germany—sending approximately two-thirds of their equipment to Europe. The Navy, on the other hand, sent at least 90 percent of its strength (including one of the largest air forces in the world) to fight Japan. This meant that in overall terms the United States, under Leahy’s watchful eye, fought a war almost evenly balanced between Europe and the Pacific but weighed slightly more toward the latter.
When it came to the war against Germany, Leahy’s vision was the one the United States followed more than any other chief’s. Leahy was the only chief who supported the invasion of North Africa in 1942, better known as the Torch Landings. Indeed, Leahy had been the first major policymaker who proposed a North African invasion to Roosevelt, suggesting such an operation in the summer of 1941 (when Leahy was ambassador to Vichy France). Leahy believed such an operation would confine Germany to the European continent, and allow for Allied domination of the Atlantic. Understanding Leahy’s strong support for Torch helps explain why Roosevelt backed the operation over the strong opposition of Marshall and King almost immediately after Leahy became Chief of Staff.
After Torch, Leahy’s number one goal for the war in Europe was to delay the invasion of France until 1944. He did not want to try an invasion in 1943, which Marshall supported, because Leahy believed it was an unnecessary risk which could result in high U.S. casualties (and he also believed it would deprive the war against Japan of needed equipment). He thus helped undermine the U.S. army’s attempt to get British approval for any 1943 invasion. However, once this was ruled out, Leahy enthusiastically supported D-Day in 1944, and helped force the British to accept this position at the grand strategic conferences in Washington, Quebec, Cairo, and Tehran which were held in 1943.
Following the death of his close friend President Roosevelt and the end of WWII, Admiral Leahy continued to be highly influential in the Truman administration and played a major role in many critical postwar questions. How did Admiral Leahy shape postwar formulations of the U.S. defense establishment and international order?
Franklin Roosevelt’s death led to a significant change in Leahy’s influence. For the two years before FDR died, Leahy was the most influential policymaker in the White House, as Harry Hopkins (who was more influential in 1942 when Leahy became chief of staff) saw his influence decline. However, Leahy had no pre-existing relationship with Harry Truman, and so he immediately lost his preeminent position as a close friend and longtime confidant of the president when Roosevelt passed. Truman also had a very high opinion of people such as George Marshall and James Byrnes and he started taking their advice more than Roosevelt did. That being said, Leahy did maintain a good deal of power. After meeting him, Truman decided he wanted to keep Leahy on as his chief of staff, and by 1946 they were even on the road to becoming friends. Leahy, for instance became an automatic companion of the president when Truman started taking his famous vacations at the naval base in Key West, Florida.
The establishment of a strong working relationship with Truman allowed Leahy to keep influence in a few areas—most importantly relations with the Soviet Union. By the time Truman took over, Leahy had met with Stalin twice, at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, and had discussed U.S.-Soviet relations with Roosevelt countless times. Though Leahy was never critical of Roosevelt, he was always instinctively more skeptical about the future of relations with the Soviets than the deceased president. He believed a long-term, friendly relationship between the two nations was unlikely and wanted the U.S. to toughen up in its positions—a stance he started urging on the new president.
Truman almost immediately after becoming president asked Leahy for briefings on relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the first time Truman met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, he asked Leahy to be in the room with him, providing support. Maybe Leahy’s greatest role in this regard was how he shaped Truman’s most important speech on Soviet relations, his Navy Day address of late 1945 and, even more surprisingly, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of 1946. Leahy was the driving force behind the writing of the Navy Day address as a series of points, with a noticeable message about the role of the U.S. in supporting free peoples. When Churchill heard the Navy Day address, he decided to press ahead with an address of his own, which became known as the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill discussed this speech with Leahy more than any other American, indeed they spent one entire morning going through the text when Churchill visited Washington just before it was delivered. Churchill was so grateful for Leahy’s advice that, years afterward, he privately thanked the admiral for it.
Admiral Leahy frequently interacted with many well-known individuals of the WWII era, including those known for their strong personalities such as Admiral Ernest King, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and others. How would you describe Admiral Leahy’s personal style of leadership and management?
Leahy was instinctively political, and this defined his career for either good or ill depending on your point of view. He had the ability to read people and situations and adjust his own responses in such a way to appeal to those with whom he interacted—without revealing his true opinions. His lifelong friend and fellow Admiral Thomas Hart claimed that Leahy was a “born diplomat” who “always gets on with others.” In social situations Hart claimed that Leahy could be as “comfortable as an old shoe.”
This political, personal skill was a powerful weapon in his arsenal. He could use it on people he genuinely liked, such as Franklin Roosevelt, or those of whom he was deeply skeptical, such as Vice President Henry Wallace. It seems from the moment that Leahy met Roosevelt in 1913 he found a way to appeal to the young politician, to behave in such a way that earned Roosevelt’s trust. On the other hand, someone like the left-wing Wallace, about whom Leahy was intensely skeptical, seemed to think that the admiral was a friend or at least thought well of him when that was certainly not the case. Wallace had no idea that Leahy was working to undermine his position when he was Secretary of Commerce under Truman.
Leahy’s political skills were evident in his chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff and his behavior at the great grand strategic conferences of World War II. As chairman or “senior member,” which was what he normally referred to himself as during the war, Leahy would usually let the other chiefs such as Marshall and King go on at great length with discussing their ideas and plans. If Leahy disagreed he would rarely say so outright, but instead, in a friendly manner, start asking questions of the plan being proposed and in doing so hopefully highlight its weaknesses. Leahy thus retained the impression of being impartial, when at times he was very partial indeed.
When dealing with the higher-ups such as Churchill and Stalin, Leahy normally said as little as possible, and when he did speak it was to support the position of the president. Both Churchill and Stalin eventually understood how much Leahy was valued by Roosevelt and by the end of the war treated him with great respect. Churchill even asked Leahy if the two could establish a private channel of communication, but Leahy, not wanting to do anything that would seem disloyal to Roosevelt, declined.
With the worldview and experience that he held toward the end of his career, how may have Admiral Leahy judged U.S. national security strategy as it stands today?
When Leahy’s career drew to a close in 1948 he was conflicted about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He has sometimes been inaccurately portrayed as a simple, hardline Cold Warrior. Leahy had a far more nuanced view. He certainly wanted the United States to toughen up its policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union after the end of World War II, and did not believe the wartime alliance was going to continue. He also wanted the U.S. to support democratic movements around the world—in a mostly non-militarized way.
This points out the big difference between what Leahy believed and how he has been portrayed. While he had no confidence in the future of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. wartime alliance, he was also dead set against the U.S. turning into a world policeman, deploying troops around the world and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. He was particularly keen to keep the U.S. from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. That is why, when President Truman in early 1947 decided to intervene in Greece and Turkey, which is often seen as the start of the Cold War, Leahy was strongly opposed. He tried to change the president’s mind, but to no avail. When Truman decided to press ahead, Leahy, being the presidential servant that he was, publicly supported the move. However, his heart was not in it. Until the end of his time in office he did his best to keep the United States from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. He disagreed strongly with Truman over the U.S. decision to recognize Israel for instance, which he believed would lead to decades-long religious war in the region—a war that would eventually drag in the U.S. The differences between Truman and Leahy on the start of the Cold War and the Middle East were one of the reasons for the decline in Leahy’s influence from 1947 onward.
One might describe Leahy’s stance on foreign policy as robust non-interventionism. He was not apologetic about American power or influence, he just did not believe that much could actually be accomplished by interventions in other countries. In that sense, Leahy’s foreign policy vision could very well have resonance today. At the end of World War II the United States dominated world politics. It had half the world’s economic product and its most advanced armed forces. Though it is still the world’s leading power today, it is no longer as dominant as it was then. As such, the country could benefit by rethinking how and where it should involve itself in the world. A Leahy-like policy of greater restraint and less cost could be the natural choice for the U.S.
Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Born and raised in Boston, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before working on Wall Street for two years. He earned a PhD in British and American politics and naval policy before being selected as Cambridge University’s Mellon Research Fellow in American History and a Drapers Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Formerly at the University of Glasgow, he moved to St Andrews in 2016.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: Admiral William Leahy saluting on the reviewing stand during the Navy Day parade, on Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C., 27 October 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)
In advance of the Surface Navy Association gathering outside Washington, Bryan McGrath (@ConsWahoo) and Mitch McGuffie(@Mitch_McGuffie) join Jared (@jwsc03) to revisit Mitch’s 2009 article, “A Rude Awakening,” to discuss its impact on Surface Warfare Officer Training and discuss the current state of training.