Category Archives: Interviews

The Nazi’s U-Boat Ace

By Christopher Nelson

Author Larry Paterson joins us to discuss his new book, Otto Kretschmer: The Life of the Third Reich’s Highest Scoring U-Boat Commander

Nelson: Let’s start with you. You live in Italy, you’re a SCUBA instructor, a drummer for a heavy metal band, and you write books about naval history. I’ll admit, it is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve read on a book flap. So how did you end up writing books on naval history?

Paterson: It does seem to surprise people sometimes! Growing up in New Zealand, a lot of people we knew had served in Second World War and even the previous war. One of my grandfathers had gone ashore on the first day of Gallipoli in 1915 and then gone through the Somme, Passchendaele, and so on, while the other was ex-Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy, and fought in the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. So, the subject of military history was always around, and both of them taught me that it was never as simple as black and white, good and bad, when it came to warfare. Most people hated Germans, while both my grandfathers respected them. I suppose that my interest in the German side of Second World War stems from that.

I left New Zealand in 1988 to be a drummer in the UK (and to see Iron Maiden live because they kept canceling New Zealand tours), so found myself near most of the battlefields I had read about. I’ve been diving since I was a teenager, and I became an instructor, eventually running my own little operation in Brittany, France, which is littered with Kriegsmarine wrecks. The U-boat bunkers and Atlantic Wall are all still there and a friend of mine called Jon Gawne sent me a copy of the First U-Boat Flotilla’s War Diary, who were based in my area. The rest just seemed to come together after that really.   

Nelson: Your newest book is about one of the Nazi’s most successful U-Boat commanders. U-boats, I believe, are a subject in some of your other work. What is it about the German Navy of World War II, particularly U-boats, that fascinates you?

Paterson: I have studied – and continue to study –  all aspects of the Third Reich’s military machine, and specializing in the Kriegsmarine kind of came around by accident after receiving the War Diary and diving on a lot of Kriegsmarine wrecks. Of course, you can’t study one side of a military and political conflict in isolation, so Second World War warfare, in general, is fascinating. I’m glad I was able to know so many people that were actually there, because most are gone now.

Why am I fascinated with U-boats? I don’t honestly know. It’s an intensely interesting subject, as is the whole of the Wehrmacht. What motivated people to fight against such odds? I do not for one minute subscribe to the ‘all Germans were Nazis’ idea that people keep saying, as that provides purely political motivation as a driving factor. There were undoubtedly some like that, as there are now in overly nationalistic people, but in general, the Wehrmacht was made up of ordinary working people. Even the Waffen SS can’t be explained by running home to the ‘Nazi’ label. It was an extraordinary phenomenon, the military services of the Third Reich.

One of my all-time favorite historians Max Hastings writes very lucidly about it and claims, with (I believe) great validity, that the German forces were probably, as a whole and in general terms, the most militarily adept of the war. It’s hard to deny the fact though they were frequently led by chaotic orders, and with such finite resources and a regime despicable in its treatment of subjugated people (even their own) they were always bound to fail. This in no way denigrates other nations’ military. For example, I now live in Italy, a nation whose efforts in the Second World War are roundly mocked, and yet who had superb Special Forces, paratroopers, and torpedo bomber pilots. So…going back to your original question before I got sidetracked into the complexities of it all…why am I fascinated? I have no idea!      

Nelson: Who was Otto Kretschmer? Where does he sit in the ranking of other U-boat commanders when you refer to “scoring” in the subtitle of your book?

Paterson: Kretschmer was the most successful U-boat captain of the Second World War, and the term ‘scoring’ relates to the total tonnage of shipping that he sank while commander of both U23 and U99. It’s terminology that is frequently used in military books dealing with all branches of service, be it tank commanders, fighter pilots or U-boat skippers, but in reality, it is a rather glib way of putting it. Counting tonnage sunk was at the heart of Dönitz’s entire U-boat campaign which, in effect, was designed to sink more merchant shipping carrying capacity tonnage than could be replaced, thereby reducing the cargo carrying potential to Great Britain and correspondingly succeed in enforcing a blockade that could starve Britain into submission.

U-52, A Type VIIB German Submarine (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it has probably become a term that is used too freely in books that deal with the U-boat war. Every ship that was sunk was the home of those crewmen, and even those that went down with no casualties frequently involved a lot of fear, panic, the loss of belongings and even the stoppage of wages for many merchant seamen! Then there are the other ships that sank in flames with men killed and injured and frequently left to die. The other side of the coin is identical: U-boats being sunk with men trapped inside the hull and crushed by extreme pressure or dying through air starvation or the myriad other ways that killed three-quarters of the men of the U-boat service. As always, that is the reality of such a war, which can be somewhat ‘anesthetized’ by talking about a U-boat commander’s ‘score.’ Nevertheless, it is a quantifiable measure of military success, and Kretschmer ranks at the very top of that ‘league table.’ 

Having dived on many wrecks which are war graves, that moment gives you a sense of humility and gravity that I think is very important to remember. The same as standing at the cemetery near Omaha Beach. Truly sobering, and an important feeling for anybody who studies and writes about war to be aware of.

Nelson: What was the standard path for a German submariner to become a captain of their own boat? Did it differ greatly from the allies?

Paterson: Not particularly, though it accelerated greatly as the war dragged on and the ‘old guard’ were either posted ashore or lost in action. In the early stages, men enlisted as officer cadets, served as midshipmen, then junior officers before — if judged competent — given their own command. Often a training boat at first, though that morphed into a combat boat involved in training and trials before heading to the front. Kretschmer was amongst the ‘first wave’ of young captains, the men that served as his First Watch Officer amongst the ‘second wave’ and beyond that the entire process got quicker and quicker. Men were sometimes going to sea with little command experience, and with crews that had been drafted into the U-boats. The mythology of a force of volunteers is just that, a myth.     

Nelson: Did the Germans have better submarines than the allies? How quickly were the German’s able to innovate and field new submarines, and what types of submarines did Kretschmer serve on?

Paterson: Perhaps the Germans possessed better submarines in the early stages of the war. Certainly, the Type VIIB (like Kretschmer’s U99) was a finely-honed weapon, and the larger Type IX cruiser submarines well-suited to more distant operations. However, there hadn’t really been that much development between the wars and the types were reminiscent of those that served in the First World War. The Type II that Kretschmer started on a was a good coastal boat, but of limited endurance and weapon load. The Type VII was the backbone, particularly the later Type VIIC. These had excellent seakeeping qualities and a well-designed hull that gave it quite an extreme depth capability for a boat of its time. Creature comforts were few, but then that can be the story of the Wehrmacht. Conditions aboard a combat boat were difficult, particularly on a long voyage where living and working space was sacrificed for supplies, and yet people just dealt with it.

U-37, A type IXA U-Boat in Lorient (Wikimedia Commons)

As far as development after the war had begun, that proved a major stumbling block. Rather than create a completely new design, modifications to the existing frames were made so that by 1943 the boats were virtually obsolete. The Germans failed in the cypher war most spectacularly when they refused to concede the possibility of compromised codes and were frequently one step behind Allied countermeasures such as radar, the Leigh Light, and air superiority.

The finite resources that Germany waged war with sealed the fate of the entire Wehrmacht; the Luftwaffe declining quickly and unable to counterbalance Allied material and tactical strength. Things like the snorkel helped briefly but were never going to swing the tide of war, much as the German attack that became the Battle of the Bulge was never going to alter the outcome of the war but gave the Allies a momentary fright. The development of the Walther propulsion system never came to fruition and the Type XXI electro-boats would have had to come into service in early 1944 to make any appreciable difference, and even then it would be doubtful. They too were deeply flawed in their construction, due to the dislocation caused by Allied bombing. The Type XXIII electro-boat saw service and was an effective machine, but carried only two torpedoes! The same loadout as a Seehund midget submarine — and not really of much greater endurance. 

So, before the war had gone past 1941, the Germans were reacting to Allied technological and tactical advances rather than leading the field. Dönitz never had enough boats in action during the early years when they could have made a difference. He wanted 300 before war was declared — he started with 57. By the time he had the numbers, the U-boat war was already lost and the ‘greats’ who had captained the ‘Ace’ boats were gone.    

Nelson: I was fascinated to learn in your book that the Germans had their own problems with torpedoes. I’ve read about our own challenges with U.S. torpedoes in the early part of the war, but I wasn’t aware of the Kriegsmarine’s troubles. What exactly was the problem with German torpedo performance? Kretschmer experienced some of this, did he not?

Paterson: German torpedo performance was abysmal. It wasn’t just the Kriegsmarine that suffered this problem, it was the same with aerial torpedoes for the short-lived naval air arm and the Luftwaffe. A lack of rigorous testing and technological development rendered them next to useless. It was really a combination of things that damned the German torpedoes.

First, while the contact detonator that had been used during the First World War was simple and reliable, it had been redesigned between the wars to an overly complex series of levers that were supposed to provide a wider angle in which the trigger would fire, but in effect did not work. It was tested only twice before being issued, and even those tests did not go well.

So, U-boat skippers were advised to use magnetic pistols. However, not only did Allied degaussing provide a problem for them but geographical variations in the earth’s magnetic fields rendered them inoperable — as in Norwegian waters during 1940.

However, even if they had worked, the triggering of a magnetic detonator required the torpedo to pass beneath a ship’s keel at a set depth and German torpedo depth keeping was compromised by a leaking balance chamber. Original tests of the torpedo’s depth keeping had been done at ordinary atmospheric pressure, but the internal pressure of a U-boat differed, and this differential leaked into the chamber and caused torpedoes to run deeper than set and thereby not triggering. This problem wasn’t remedied until the end of 1942! Instead, commanders began to rely on pattern running and, later, acoustic-homing torpedoes that could be countered.      

Nelson: Another thing I read with fascination – again, because it is something that can plague any Joint Force today – and that’s Germany’s challenge of coordination between the navy and the air force. You write that on one deployment, the Luftwaffe attacks Kretschmer’s boat. What happened? And was this a problem throughout the entire war?

Paterson: Yes, indeed…For an effective military, they were extremely ineffective sometimes! The relationship between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine was frequently strained; a situation that stemmed from the very top as Göring was vainglorious and boastful and despised the ‘cold’ and aristocratic Raeder. It is true that Raeder did not really value the U-boat service as much as his ‘big ships’ but he also failed to understand the potential of aircraft as an offensive maritime weapon, soon demonstrated by most other countries’ navies. Göring, on the other hand, wanted tight control of everything that flew in Germany and frequently engaged in the kind of petty political maneuvering that was rife within the upper echelons of the Wehrmacht and Third Reich as a whole, often at the expense of operational necessity.

Kretschmer’s U-boat was actually attacked by a floatplane from the Scharnhorst after it strayed unintentionally into a prescribed search and attack radius given by the battleship’s reconnaissance aircraft who were guarding against British submarines. But there were more deadly examples of the lack of cooperation between the two services such as when two destroyers were sunk as a result of a German bomber attack. That example was a combination of faulty Luftwaffe navigation — most of their crews not properly trained in nautical navigation — and lack of communication between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands as neither was made fully aware of the other’s movements in time to brief operational crews.   

It’s an interesting topic in itself and I’m actually working on a book about Luftwaffe maritime forces, a long and complicated story! The reality is that although aircraft like the Focke Wulf 200 Condor are (in)famous for their role in the Battle of the Atlantic, they were woefully unprepared, unsuitable, undertrained and underequipped. Thankfully, for the Allies! Proper air and sea coordination between better led, better equipped, and better-supplied forces could have been devastating.   

Nelson: How good was Kretschmer as a tactician? Did he prefer the surfaced night attack? If so, why?

Paterson: He was very good. He was unwilling to follow the norm and obey whatever operational protocol was being promoted. Like many of his generation of U-boat commanders, he thought outside the box and always had two overriding motivating factors: combat effectiveness (i.e. results) and crew welfare. He would not jeopardize his boat or crew without a good chance of survival and success.

His preference was to penetrate the convoy body itself, at night and on the surface. Once submerged, the U-boat was slow, detectable, and unwieldy. On the surface it was fast, well-armed, maneuverable and hard to see as he would sail with the hull trimmed as low as feasible providing very little silhouette. It took great concentration, quick thinking, efficient lookouts, and a good torpedo officer as the First Watch Officer actually aimed and fired while surfaced as the captain maintained the ‘overall look.’

He was not the only commander to adhere to the ‘one torpedo, one ship’ mantra, as Erich Topp and Günther Prien did, to name but two. But their methods were far more successful than the prevailing operational advice of firing a spread of torpedoes from outside the convoy escort screen and hoping for one or two hits.   

Nelson: He’s eventually captured and taken into captivity in Canada. Yet he almost escaped. Can you briefly tell us about that episode?

Paterson: He was captured and did end up in Canada. The escape attempt was relatively far-fetched as it required traversing a great distance to be picked up by a U-boat off the Canadian coast. Not impossible, though as it transpired, not workable either. The tunnel was discovered, although one man did make it over the wire in a separate attempt and managed to reach the area of the rendezvous. Of course, the Allies had discovered the entire plan, and were waiting to trap the U-boat, U536, that had been sent to rescue them. The U-boat skipper sensed the trap and retreated, and the single escaped prisoner was caught. In fact, U536 was soon sunk thereafter as well.  

Nelson: Kretschmer was never a fervid Nazi, was he? What did he do after the war?

Paterson: He wasn’t a particularly politically motivated man, though he was undoubtedly nationalistic. His roots were in Silesia so he would have felt the fractious relationship with Poland resulting from the previous war and was probably in favor of the Third Reich’s stated ambition of reuniting and reinvigorating Germany. But, I don’t want to guess at his thoughts on the matter, as it is indeed a complex area which is also, of course, very sensitive for people. After the war he returned to Germany, studied maritime law, and then joined the navy once more. That in itself would have been a difficult time for such veterans as the Germans attempted to distance themselves from militarism, and yet some of their senior officers were ex-Wehrmacht and extremely militaristic. Tricky.    

Nelson: Das Boot (the film) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Brilliant. I actually prefer it to the book. One of my stock questions for U-boat veterans was what they thought of the film. In general, they were all very positive, give or take a few scenes. Many did not like the bar scene and said they would have little respect for officers who passed out and vomited on themselves. Others said there was too much noise from the crew during depth charging, but in general, the consensus was that it is as close to reality as any film has been. Personally, I think it is a superb film in every way. I was lucky enough to get a private tour of the film sets that are at the Bavarian Film Studios and open to the public, and it is remarkably like being inside U995 at Kiel. On the other hand, the movie U571 is junk of the worst kind, in every possible way, apart from a great U-boat model!

U995 in Kiel (Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson: Das Boot (the book) – underrated or overrated?

Paterson: Great book but prefer the film. More U-boat men that I spoke to don’t like the book so much. Sometimes that is because they could not stand the author Buchheim, an ex-propaganda reporter during Second World War. A man that certainly divided opinion amongst the veterans I have spoken to!

Nelson: Who, in your opinion, are some of the other naval historians writing about the German Navy during World War II whose work you admire?

Paterson: There are a lot, I’m not really sure who to name. As I’ve said before, I really like the work done by Max Hastings, though his books are not specifically naval at all. But his studies of aspects of the entire war are truly excellent. He has a refreshing ability to apply clarity and reasoned argument to subjects that are often considered done and unalterable. His views are forthright, accurate, and well presented and I find his books inspirational as he is not afraid to approach subjects as they actually are, rather than repeating the ‘party line.’ It’s hard to make a voluminous study of the war so readable, but he does it. In a similar way that Cornelius Ryan used to with such great books as A Bridge Too Far and so on. Also, Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle For Europe takes some beating. My favorite authors about U-boats? Very hard to say…maybe Jak Mallmann Showell’s older books, Jordan Vause, Eberhard Rössler… I would find it easier to say which books I don’t like…but I’m not going to! 

Nelson: This is great. Thank you.

New Zealander Lawrence Paterson has written fifteen books related to the Wehrmacht during the Second World War – predominantly concerning German naval operations – and one about his time on the road as part of the Blaze Bayley band. He is working on two more books which mark something of a new direction; the first being a history of Luftwaffe maritime operations, and the other detailing Operation Colossus, the first British parachute drop of the war. He is also a scuba diving instructor after having first learnt to dive in New Zealand in 1984, and a touring heavy metal drummer, a career that he started at about the same time! He now lives in Puglia, Italy, with his wife, three cats, two drum kits and a library of books.

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: German U-boat attack, World War II. Artwork of German sailors on the conning tower of a U-boat (submarine) that has surfaced after sinking a British cargo ship during World War II (1939-1945). This 1941 painting is by German artist Adolf Bock (1890-1968).

Bow to the Hegemon – Dr. Kori Schake on a Peaceful Transition of Global Power

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the chance to talk to Dr. Kori Schake about her new book, Safe Passage: From British to American Hegemony. Her book describes the only case of a peaceful hegemonic transition between two nations. In this instance, it was the gradual transition from British to American hegemony beginning in the 19th century and ending at the end of World War II with America firmly situated as the global leader.

We spoke for over an hour about her book, history, the great Tom Schelling, and of course, what she’s reading these days. It was a fun and fascinating discussion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Christopher Nelson: Professor Schake, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Before we get into details of the book, I want to start by asking you about the book’s cover. It’s a fabulous picture and I got to say, it stands out in the sea of books on international relations and national security. Having listened to you speak on a panel before – full of energy and jazz –  I’ll admit that the picture reminds me of a 19th century Kori Schake. Did you discover it? Your editor? Where’s it from?

Kori Schake: [Laughter] Yes! It’s a 19th century portrait of me! You are exactly right. I did pick it. I found it when I was doing the research for the book. And I love the way it’s what we look like to Britain when America was a rising power: she’s confidently assessing her appearance in the mirror, adjusting a battleship hat, and the accoutrements of war are literally hanging off her purse strings.

Nelson: I’m a big believer that a book’s dedication is important. Quickly skipped by many, but important. You dedicated this book to Tom Schelling. Many readers will recognize his name and have read his work, some have not. I discovered Arms and Influence much too late in my naval career. It’s fantastic. Who was he, but more important, how did he mentor you as an academic, as a thinker, as a student?

Schake: I was so lucky to have the privilege of learning from Tom. He was not at the University of Maryland when I went there to do my graduate work. But he came there and he was such a warm, fostering, generous soul. It was such a privilege to learn from him. But I have to tell you, Tom Schelling gave me some of the best advice about life.

He rushed me through my PhD dissertation because I had been A.D.D for six years. I was a year into my dissertation research when I got a posh fellowship to go work as a civilian in General Powell’s Joint Staff in the summer of 1990. This was two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait. I went off to work with General Powell for a year and stayed in the Pentagon for six years. And Tom, bless his heart, kept writing letters to the chancellor of the university who was understandably trying to clear me off the rolls of the PhD program because it was so obvious I was never going to finish. Tom kept writing these beautiful letters saying, “She’s not working in a shoe store, she’s doing the kind of jobs we would want someone who held a PhD from this institution to be doing.” So he kept them from throwing me out.

When I left the Pentagon I wrote my PhD dissertation in six months. It’s terrible. What Tom kept saying was, “Get the dissertation done and make the book perfect.” He understood what a flight risk I was. And so I am living proof that if the minimum wasn’t good enough it would not be the minimum. I got my dissertation done and went on doing work that I liked and wanted to do.

Tom eventually brought me back to Maryland for my first teaching job. There is never going to be a better day in my professional life than the day of my PhD defense. At the end of it Tom thanked me for teaching him something about strategy.

Nelson: What did you teach him?

Schake: I didn’t teach him anything. It’s proof of what a gentleman he was. I wrote my dissertation on strategy and the Berlin Crisis in 1958 and 1961. I did not realize when I chose the topic that Tom had been an advisor to the Kennedy administration in 1961. The conclusion of my dissertation was that the Kennedy administration had actually made a delicate situation much worse by treating the crisis as a problem about the risk of war with the Soviet Union rather than treating it as a problem of how to keep Germany voluntarily allied with the West. So I ended up being very critical of the policy choices the administration he was advising had come to. He could not have been happier [Laughter]. He said it was wonderful that I thought for myself on the subject and agreed with me in retrospect. The frame of reference that the Kennedy administration put on the problem led to worse solutions than the policies the Eisenhower administration had taken.

Nelson: How did the idea come about to write the book? What is it about the transition between British and U.S. global hegemony that interests you?

Schake: The idea was germinating for a long time. With all of the talk of the rise of China and whether it can happen peacefully and what it means for the U.S., I kept wondering: What are the precedents?  What worked last time and what didn’t? I didn’t even know enough about the subject when I started writing to realize that there was only one peaceful hegemonic transition in history. I thought I was going to be looking at whole bunch of case studies. And when I started doing the research for the book I realized I couldn’t write it as a political science book because there are no case studies. There is a single case study if you’re looking at peaceful transition.

Nelson: So what would a statistician say?

Schake: If N=1 you can never draw a conclusion, that’s what a statistician would say. But history does not give us the luxury of an N sufficiently large to draw a robust conclusion. History gives us what it gives us.

If, for example, you read Graham Allison’s book on the rise of China, what Graham tries to do was force the problem into a political science framework by expanding the definition of hegemonic transition to get more than one case of a peaceful transfer. And I think that is much more problematic. For example, one case of hegemonic transition he uses is the shift of power from Britain and France after World War II towards Germany. But of course all three of those countries have the same security guarantor.

So first of all, it’s not a hegemonic transition. There was a hegemon setting the rules. And second of all, it wasn’t a hegemonic transition because we imposed the rules on our three close allies because we were worried about an entirely different problem.

I thought about the question of hegemonic transition a long time – years in fact. I kept worrying that somebody smarter than me was going to write this book before I got to it. I watched the book review section with enormous trepidation that someone like Aaron Friedberg would have turned his attention to this or anyone of the dozens and dozens of people who could do a better job than I did in the writing of this. But nobody got to it before I got to it!

Punch cartoon after the conclusion of the Tribunal of Arbitration that sought to settle the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. PEACE AND PLENTY. Lord Salisbury (chuckling). “I like arbitration — In the PROPER PLACE!” (Wikimedia Commons)

As you know, Chris, I’m not a historian of the 19th century. But I got obsessed with this question of peaceful hegemonic transition and I had to learn the history of the 19th century in order to answer the question I was interested in. My other big worry was that historians were going to point out that I wasn’t part of the tribe. You know, the thirty-seven things I ought to have understood about this period of time that anybody knowledgeable on the subject would know but I didn’t’ know – I kept waiting in agony that that would be the verdict. I feel like I got away with the jailbreak of the century, but so far the reviews have been good.

Nelson: Fascinating. How does this fit with the idea that there’s a list of smart, well-read, popular writers out there that are writing about topics as non-professionals, in the sense they may not have an advanced degree in the specific subject – and here I’m thinking of people like Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Taleb, David McCullough and many more – but they are able to connect different ideas, sometimes across different disciplines, and convey them very well.

Schake: I hate reading history where somebody avalanches everything they know on a subject at me; historians are curators, that’s what they do. I want someone to tell me what is relevant and interesting about a particular problem. As General Powell used to tease me all the time when I worked at the Joint Staff that there were lots of reasons to fire me but there were two reasons not to. The first reason not to fire me was that it was kind of funny to watch me do my job. And the second was because I was the only NATO expert he ever met that when he asked what time it was, I would just tell him what time it was [Laughter]. Yes. I wouldn’t start with first the earth cooled, and then sun-dials, and then clocks…

But back to your question, they ask interesting questions and then they tell a story. They’re engaging storytellers which is what every good teacher is.

Nelson: How do you research and write? For instance, are you a longhand writer that finds a few hours every morning to write and then transcribe it to a computer? What’s your process?

Schake: I basically break it down into three stages.

The first stage is just thinking about what’s the right question. What’s the right question that unlocks understanding about an important subject?  Many books that I’m bored reading are books that are about a subject, not about a question. I try to always discipline myself to think about issues in terms of what is the right question because then I can figure out what does it take to answer the question.

For me the second stage is trying to figure out what would prove the answer right and what would prove it wrong? What is the discriminating data that would help me figure out if I have the right answer or not. I’m extremely Germanic in my approach to writing. The architecture actually matters to me because I find that I’m a poor editor of my own work. Once I write it it’s hard for me to throw it all away, so unless I’m disciplined enough to structure it in ways that are not just driving down a rabbit hole, I need to understand this to explain this, and here’s the place to talk about this, that sort of thing. Unless I force myself into the discipline of structure I just walk around the house in my pajamas talking to myself and it doesn’t end up being something that is valuable to anyone.

The last third of it is the actual writing of it.

Nelson: So you’re the person who has to do the outline with pen and paper?

Schake: Yes. When I’m researching I start building blocks of research. As I look at flows of bits of information I am trying to figure out how to tell the story. I outline the book, the details are outlined, the research is plugged into the outline, and then I write to stitch the pieces together. It’s unimaginative and Germanic. But unless I do that I’m way too self-indulgent and I end up with a lot of stuff that will end up on the editing floor.

Nelson: Throughout the book you introduce different international relation perspectives when you outline how historians, political scientists, and others have tried to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Britain during this period of transition. In the international relations field, what do you consider yourself? Simply, what’s your worldview? Are you a Realist?

Schake:  I am badly trained in several disciplines.

Nelson: [Laughter]

Schake: No, that is the honest to god truth, Chris. My degrees are in political science, yet I write history and I was trained by an economist.

Nelson: [Laugh] That’s a lovely dodge. But seriously, I’m curious, what’s Kori Schake’s worldview?

Schake: I had the privilege of being with an extraordinary group of people a few months ago in something called the Civic Collaboratory. It’s run by an outstanding American by the name of Eric Liu who is dedicated to rebuilding the bonds of affection and cooperation among Americans.

The Collaboratory is something where everybody who goes is the head of an organization in the public sphere, for example, one person is the head of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Eric uses a diverse group of people, some of whom will pitch the next idea for what they are working on. Everybody else in the group tries to come up with ways to help. It can be big, it can be little, but the point is to try to help each other.

One of the most inspiring people I met in this amazing group of people was a woman who was teaching history. She told me the motto of her organization. It is now the motto of my worldview, which is this: people make choices, and choices make history. For me that really is how I think about it. I don’t believe in immutable forces of history like the crushing burden of economic determinism, or religious determinism, or political determinism. I think we have wide latitude to craft our fate and so I think the only thing that the Realists have right when talking about American foreign policy is that they were incredibly smart to choose the best name. Because if you’re the realist everybody else is unrealistic.

Also, the Realist description of how governments make choices don’t correlate with what I think of America in the 20th century. For me, the most powerful thing I learned when writing Safe Passage was that as the United States grew more powerful it grew more liberal. We reversed the trend that governed every other powerful state, which is as other countries became more powerful they bent the rules to their advantage. In contrast, when we became more powerful we gave wider latitude to others to affect our choices and legitimatize our power. That really does make America in the time of its hegemony unique. As an American I found it incredibly touching.

Nelson: Your book details nine historic moments between the U.S. and Britain, from 1823 to 1923, that you use to illustrate as pivotal points towards hegemonic transition – but it wasn’t smooth. What were some of the more significant points of friction between the U.S. and Britain during this time that could have led to conflict?

Schake: I love that question, especially because the answer is so obscure. The moment at which things were likely to result in war between Great Britain and the U.S. was the 1895 Venezuelan debt crisis – which nobody knows anything about, it’s lost to history. It’s the moment when war was likeliest, when a rising U.S. was breathtakingly reckless.

U.S. President Cleveland twists the tail of the lion (Britain). (Puck cartoon 1880s via Wikimedia Commons)

The basic story goes like this: Venezuela and Great Britain had been disputing the boundary line along the Orinoco river (which is in Venezuela) for 45 years or so. It becomes a crisis because the British get greedy, the Venezuelan cadillo defaults on loans that for British companies build infrastructure. As an aside it is important to understand that in judging the Venezuelan choices in this, they are only rudimentarily a state at this point. The quality of government is very poor. The British get predatory and they want the mouths of the Orinoco river in return for Venezuela defaulting on their debt. And again, none of this matters to us, except for the fact that the Monroe Doctrine had been American policy for over 70 years and the Venezuelan government had an American lobbyist working for them that wrote op-eds in newspapers all over the U.S. drawing attention to this issue.

Grover Cleveland who was the President at the time was so opposed to imperialism that he refused to proceed with the accession of Hawaii as an American territory. He considered the Monroe Doctrine troublesome. Yet this American lobbyist working for the Venezuelans forced it onto the political agenda by challenging that Cleveland was failing to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Grover Cleveland, who runs a cabinet-style presidency where he exercised loose control, allows the American Secretary of State to write a 12,000 word demarche to the British that concludes that American law is fiat on this continent. The British don’t even respond to such a ridiculous proposition. Grover Cleveland is then offended that we aren’t being treated more respectfully because we’re a rising power. So he starts to get more engaged and he defends the Secretary of State.

The British reply after another round of this, and they say that they control more territory on the North American Continent than we do – which adds insult to injury. Cleveland then does what every good American President does in foreign policy: he appeals to the recklessness of the American Congress. He gets an unanimous endorsement from Congress to go to war with Great Britain!

Great Britain was the dominant military force in the world at that time. The American Navy’s Caribbean squadron was six ships – and yet we were ready to fight the hegemon of the international order. The British flipped on the issue. In the space of six months they go from derision to Prime Minister Salisbury being cheered in the House of Commons when he announced that there is no greater supporter of the Monroe Doctrine than her majesty’s government. It’s a wonderful case study because why did it change? I found it a very poignant story because civil society in these two democracies is what changed their positions. The United States was an illiberal democracy in the 19th century. Britain wasn’t a democracy but had a more liberal government than most in the international order at the time.

What happens is civil societies reach across cultures. 354 members of the British Parliament write an open letter to the U.S. Congress encouraging peaceful arbitration to resolve the dispute between their countries. American newspapers initiate a write in campaign. The Prince of Wales – the husband of Queen Victoria – writes one of the letters suggesting that war between our two countries is fratricide. That sentimental connection, the sense of being the same, creates space for political compromise that avoids the war.

Nelson: Along that point, when you studied this through an entire century, when was there, as a culture, a sense of collective self-consciousness about the transition? Did the leaders or the populations sense this hegemonic shift?

Schake: I love where you are going with this. Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Yes – when did they know? One of the interesting things I learned when doing the research is that Britain was never a comfortable hegemon in the way the United States wears its power with ease. I think because the successes that made Britain the ruler and enforcer of the international order were all coalition victories. Britain had to work with Spain and Portugal in the fight against Napoleon, and they had to bring the Prussians into the fight. All of their defining victories are coalition victories. So they never think of themselves with the ease of power that the U.S. does after World War II. They always worry that it is too expensive, that it is not worth it. There’s never a moment that they aren’t thinking it is slipping away from them – they are always worried it will.

That’s the biggest difference in my perspective from Aaron Friedberg’s brilliant book Weary Titan. He looks at a tight timeframe of about ten years when the transition actually occurs and he ascribes characteristics to the British in the twilight of their hegemony that were actually true of them in the entirety of it.

Nelson: Moving to contemporary issues and themes. Your book is timely, because in one way it is juxtaposed to Graham Allison’s recent book on the Thucydides trap, that we’ve already briefly touched on. So two questions regarding that: What are your thoughts on the concept of a Thucydides trap? And second, what do you want readers to take from your book, namely, if peaceful transition is possible, but rare, how do see the future of great power conflict?

Schake: Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote a review of Graham Allison’s book, that if anyone writes a review like that of my book, you can find my body floating in the river – way down [Laughter]. It’s devastating.

My view is that Graham should be laughing all the way to the bank because whether you agree with his argument or not, he defines Thucydides in a really interesting and important way. He and I are firing salvos at each other on the Cato Institute website right now. I wrote an essay on how to think about the rise of China that Graham and several other people critiqued. So now I’m getting ready to fire my second salvo at them. It’s really fun. I’m learning a whole bunch from other people’s perspective on the problem.

My sense of the Thucydides story is different than what comes across in Graham’s book. Having talked to him about it several times and debated it with him several times, he doesn’t think that’s all that Thucydides says . There’s so much you can take from Thucydides. The way it comes through Graham’s telling of the book is a more narrow reading of Thucydides than I think is fair to Thucydides – which is a big beautiful canvas of a story, and I think Graham agrees with that.

I don’t think it is a trap because, again, people make choices. The Athenians make choices, Pericles is playing a dangerous game, there’s a lot going on there that makes it interesting. I also don’t think it describes the United States, which after all has encouraged the rise of the rest of the world. We have encouraged an international order where our power is constrained by rules and institutions, and patterns of cooperation that are mutually beneficial.

John Ikenberry gets America in the time of its primacy exactly right. We shape the international order as a microcosm of our domestic political order. That’s why we face so few challenges to our dominance. That’s because most other countries think the current international order is better than they would get any other way. And that’s what we see playing out with China right now. Everyone wants the American order.

Nelson: This gets to your conclusion in your book. If peaceful transition is rare but possible, what do think happens in the next decade?

Schake: I think the way to bet your money is that hegemonic transitions will be violent. The only exception is the Britain-to-American transition. Because of the U.S.’ westward expansion, the consolidation of the American continent, after fighting the Indian Wars, we become an empire in our own minds. We come to have imperial reflexes because of our conquest of the West. So during this 20th century transition, Britain has become a democracy while we are becoming an empire. So we look similar to each other but different to everybody else. That sense of sameness created space for policy comprise. Political scientists hate squishy stuff like this – and they’re right, it’s not rigorous, it’s impressionistic. But what I learned trying to understand this one transition in great detail is that that was what mattered. That sense of sameness, that sense we were like each other and different from everybody else allowed for compromise.

So what to look for in future hegemonic transitions is that squishy intellectually unsatisfying definition of sameness, which takes us to Hegel and Frank Fukuyama, because China doesn’t feel similar to the U.S. right now. And if you think China can continue to rise without playing by the rules of the American order, and if you think as has been the case for the last 40 years that China can continue to rise without liberalizing, then it is very likely to be a violent transition.

I’m skeptical China can continue to rise without liberalizing because I think the law of gravity applies to them as well. It seems to me that, like Maslow’s pyramid, as people’s basic needs are met they become more demanding political consumers. So the challenge to China will be things like moms demanding safe baby milk, and parents infuriated that corruption meant building codes weren’t followed so schools collapse in earthquakes and kids get killed. You see an awareness of that risk in the anti-corruption campaign in China. I don’t think authoritarian societies get honest enough feedback to stay ahead of problems. In free societies you are always having to answer the question, for example, if you want to confiscate somebody’s property to run a high-speed train through it, you have to win the argument; in authoritarian societies where you don’t have to win the argument, I don’t see how they stay honest. I think the question is less about a hegemonic transition with a rising China, but rather: can China be successful in light of what its own citizens want?

Nelson: What would you recommend others read about this topic after they’ve finished your book? Specifically, what would you recommend someone read on this topic that takes a contrarian view?

Schake: There’s so much good material on this subject. Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold is a great book that has a very different take than I do. He’s much more of the belief that British and Americans considered themselves similar. I think it is a late-developing consciousness. Walter treats it as having the model right and passing it from one to another with a certain inevitability of its success.

But when I read World War II history it makes me derisive when contemporary policy makers say today is way more complicated than it ever was and nobody has had challenges as difficult as we do. Man, a lot of American leaders back then would trade their problems with some of our challenges. Fighting Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany simultaneously is a lot harder than what we’ve been called to do today. This is a long circuitous route to tell you where Walter and I disagree: Walter gives a sense of inevitability. I think the story is so much more interesting when you realize how fearful the leadership was in the 20th century that they would lose.

We think of World War II in broad, heroic terms because we know the outcome. But the people who had to make decisions at the time – for instance, whether you go to Europe first or fight the Asian campaign first – was a question of enormous consequence and the continuation of the Republic hung in the balance.

Bob Kagan’s work on America and the liberal order and Walter Russell Mead’s work – I admire them both so much – but in both cases I think they failed to embrace how close-run American successes have been. I also think, including John Ikenberry, who writes so beautifully about America in the 20th century, they don’t get their arms around the brutality of the U.S. in the 19th century. We were a democracy, but Britain was right, we were an illustration of what was to be feared about a democracy because we were profoundly illiberal. And not just on the slavery issues. The Indian Wars go on for 50 years after the abolition of slavery and almost nobody blanched about the barbarity of that. In the great state of California, it was legal up into the 1920s to take Native American children away from their parents.

One of the questions that animated me to want to understand this American history better was trying to understand how a political culture so proud of our Republican values could live the history we lived in the 19th century and still become what we are in the 20th century. That animates a lot about how I try to tell the story in the book.

Nelson: Professor, to close on a lighter note, and not related to your book, what have you been reading lately – fiction, non-fiction – that you’ve particularly enjoyed? Articles, books? Longform journalism?

Schake: As it happens, I have six books on my nightstand at the moment that I am reading. The first is Emily Wilson’s splendid, sparkling new translation of The Odyssey. I think about Odysseus and his story differently because of her translation. If you think about the opening lines of Fagel’s translation of The Odyssey: “Tell me Muse of the man of twists and turns.” Emily Wilson’s translation of that line is, “Tell me Muse of a complicated man.” She conjures a completely different approach. I am just reveling in how differently to think about a book I know well because of a translation. It’s wonderful.

The next book on my nightstand is The War that Killed Achilles. It’s about the lessons from the Trojan War.

The third book on my nightstand is Emily Fridlund’s novel The History of Wolves. I haven’t started it yet, but my sister read it and thought it was brilliant.

The fourth is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad – it won the Pulitzer Prize. I love her writing.

Next on the list is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I believe Phil Klay, the great short story writer and novelist, said this was a book that was important to him.

Finally, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence. The good and great Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recommended this book to me.

Nelson: And websites that you like to visit from time -to-time?

Shacke: You know where I’m going to start. I really enjoy War on the Rocks. I also really like The Strategy Bridge, Divergent Options, and I read everything Mira Rapp-Hooper and Tamara Cofman Wittes write because I always learn from them.

Nelson: This was wonderful. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

Schake: Thank you, Chris. I really enjoyed this.

Dr. Kori Schake is the Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She is the author of Safe Passage: the Transition from British to American Hegemony (Harvard, 2017) and editor with Jim Mattis of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military (Hoover Institution, 2016). She has worked for the National Security Council staff, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and both the military and civilian staffs in the Pentagon. In 2008 she was senior policy advisor on the McCain presidential campaign. She taught Thinking About War at Stanford University, and also in the faculties of the United States Military Academy, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of Maryland. 

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Cover of Puck magazine, 6 April 1901. (Columbia’s Easter bonnet / Ehrhart after sketch by Dalrymple.)

A Conversation with Belfer Center Director and Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

By Andrew Poulin

Andrew Poulin: Good afternoon, my name is Andrew Poulin, President of the Center for International Maritime Security. I am privileged to be here today with former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter here at Harvard University. Mr. Secretary, if you would in traditional CIMSEC fashion, please briefly introduce yourself to our readers.

Secretary Ash Carter: Thank you, Andrew. I’m Ash Carter, Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former Secretary of Defense.

Andrew: Thank you Mr. Secretary, it’s an honor to sit down with you today at the Belfer Center. The first question we have for you is that, today many senior defense leaders and scholars have described the current international security environment as the most complicated since WWII. How do you see the security environment, and are there latent threats that haven’t received enough attention?

Secretary Carter: The threats that are immediately apparent and that the Secretary of Defense needs to pay attention to today – I always describe it as “the Big 5” – Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. All different. Some actual enemies, some only potential enemies. But, these are all the things we need to have operations plans at the ready for protecting ourselves and deterring today. When you’re the Secretary of Defense, you’re also the Secretary of Defense of tomorrow. And that means, making sure that the two principal things that make the U.S. military the finest fighting force the world has ever known – namely our people and our technology – will be as good tomorrow as they are today.

That’s why Force of the Future was so important to me as a personnel management tool, and why working with the tech sector and acquisition reform was so important to me. And responsiveness, like the MRAP in Afghanistan, was so important, because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow and somebody’s going to be your successor. You will need to have left for them as fine an institution as you inherited from your predecessors. So, you are the Secretary of Defense of today and tomorrow.

Andrew: Great, if I could follow up on that, Mr. Secretary, on the five threats you mentioned, certainly they are all getting a lot of attention nowadays. Is there something that you think is not getting enough attention today that could impact the security environment – whether it’s climate change, a biological threat, or something else?

Secretary Carter: There are other things that are not matters of imminent threat that require immediate war plans or action which you keep an eye on for the future. Arctic security is an example of that, it’s not an emergency, but it’s not something we’re ignoring either. It just doesn’t make it to the list of the top five in terms of imminent threat.

Andrew: You were right at the epicenter of the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific – since you have left office, there have been a few developments, such as withdrawal from TPP, North Korea nuclear tests, to name a few. What are your thoughts on the evolving relationship between the U.S. and the region? 

Secretary Carter: Well, this is the single part of the world of greatest consequence for Americans of the future, and the rebalance was a way of recognizing that. The Middle East is tumultuous but fundamentally isn’t as important to our future because half of the world’s people, half of the world’s economic activity, is in the Asia-Pacific. And there are two big issues there – one is China and one is North Korea. Now North Korea has always been a kind of separate issue – everybody in the region treats it as geopolitically separate from the big issues of China, United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia. Those are the big moving parts. So, let me set aside North Korea for a moment.

The rebalance was really about the change in power dynamics, which the Chinese like to say is about their rise, but they’re not the only rising Asian military power. Japan is rising from its post-WWII mentality of defeat and pacifism. India is emerging as a military power. Vietnam has no love lost with respect to China. And in general, this is a region that has no NATO, where the wounds of the past are not healed, and there is no automatic way that peace is kept. And the United States has been one of the principal factors that has kept that stability. That stability will continue to be something we need to work on. China in particular, needs to be pushed back on where it is overweening. So that’s the principal strategic dynamic behind the rebalance.

Separately with respect to China, which gets to TPP, it is the economic arena, which is not entirely separate from the strategic arena, which is why I would say as Secretary of Defense that TPP is a strategic issue. It is for the following reason: China is a communist country and a one-party state, we all need to be realistic about that. Insofar as trade is concerned, that means China can behave in ways that we do not behave – anti-competitive, intellectual property theft, exclusion of American companies, and repression of the Internet. Unilateral decision-making is an advantage that allows China to coercively pick off one company or one country at a time, it’s the reason that they’ll win a game that simply becomes one of no rules and bilateral trade deals.

And that is why abandoning rules-based multilateral schemes like TPP is bad for American companies. We are leaving them and all of the people they might trade with, in Southeast Asia and so forth, to the mercy of the Chinese, acting as though China is like a big France. It’s not. It’s a communist country, let’s be realistic.

Andrew: A great deal of your career has been focused on nuclear weapons and reducing the threat of proliferation, how do you think the U.S. should approach the solution to North Korea?  There have been widespread discussions that any military solution would not be a solution at all and would have catastrophic consequences. How do you look at the problem and how can the military better support diplomatic efforts?

Secretary Carter: In the real world, there are not diplomatic solutions and military solutions, there are just solutions. It needs to be said, before we get to what I call coercive diplomacy, which is what I hope we would do at this juncture: the other things that we must do, because any form of coercive diplomacy may not work, are deterrence and defense. These need to come first. And that’s where missile defense comes in, and our forces on the peninsula, and what weapons we’re willing to place there and give to South Korea. So, deterrence and defense first and foremost.

Secondly though, we should give diplomacy a try, both because it might work, and because if the worst is to come, we will be better positioned for having tried it. The way that should work, to my way of thinking, is that you say to North Korea, “If you test another missile, here’s what will happen to you. If you don’t, here’s what the Chinese might do for you.” You work that out in advance with the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Chinese and us. And you pose it as their choice before they act. Right now, we tend to go to the UN to punish them, or go to the Chinese to punish them after they do something, which is certainly justified and emotionally satisfying, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. So, we should try to get out in front of their decision cycle with the carrots and sticks, that’s what coercive diplomacy should be – and it’s coercive because there are sticks as well as carrots. That’s what I hope we will do.

Andrew: Innovation has become a buzzword in the Defense Department today. What is your definition of innovation, and how can leaders up and down the chain of command really encourage and foster that environment?

Secretary Carter: Well, that’s a really good question because a lot of people only think about technological innovation, but that’s only one kind of innovation. There’s doctrinal innovation, there’s innovation in how we recruit, train, and retain talent. Just to take that one – out in the world around us, there is a revolution going on in how talent management is done. We can’t use all of those techniques, but we ought to pay attention to them and draw upon them.

Doctrinal is meant by, and we can’t go into detail on this but your readers will know some of this, that I was constantly telling our people who draw up our war plans that they need to look at them again and again and say ‘Is this really the best approach?’ And we had some that were not up-to-date in that regard. I, for example, did not think our China plan was where it needed to be until Sam Locklear and Harry Harris began working on it. Mike Scaparrotti and Vince Brooks did a great job with the plans for the North Korean peninsula, of which there are several.

And then of course is the matter of technological innovation. The key is to keep us connected to the commercial and international tech base, because we have a big tech base of our own, but it’s not enough anymore. It was enough 50 years ago because there was nothing much outside of the Pentagon’s five walls, but now there’s a lot and we’re not going to be the “firstest with the mostest” as Lyndon Johnson would say, unless we’re connected to the big world of tech out there.

Andrew: One issue I’ve heard you speak and write about before is that you seem very passionate about is developing the next generation of leaders. Not many people would come from your background of being a double major in physics and medieval history, and then go on to be Secretary of Defense. Can you briefly walk us through your own life of service and what lessons you took that now informs how you look at developing the next generation of leaders today?

Secretary Carter: As there are in the lives of all people, a certain amount of chance and accident. You don’t plot this out – you don’t start out at twenty-two years old and say “I think I’ll be Secretary of Defense of the United States.” I had no knowledge of or ambition for public life at all. I was asked as a young physicist to work on a technical problem of importance to defense where my knowledge was thought to be able to make a contribution. That was the issue of how to base the MX intercontinental ballistic missile. And it was supposed to be for just one year…36 years later I walked out of the Pentagon last January!

But I was struck by the seriousness of the issue with which I was dealing. It was the height of the Cold War, so nuclear annihilation was at stake. I could make a difference, in this case, because of my technical knowledge, and if that knowledge were not present in the room, a good decision would not have been made. And I thought, “Well, that really is a good feeling.” It mattered that I was there for something that was big. What better feeling in life can you get than that? So, you can go out and sell stuff and that I’m sure that is satisfying, but that’s not the same as saving the world from nuclear annihilation! Or, you can be a cog in the wheel of government and feel like it doesn’t matter that you’re there or not there.

And I had those two things come together for a moment, and that grabbed me. The other thing that was big was that there were people, military and civilian, in the generation above me that reached down and identified me and said, “Hey, keep doing that.” One of them was Jim Schlesinger who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Defense and another one was Brent Scowcroft who was George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, and another was Bill Perry, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.  

Andrew: Good mentors to have!

Secretary Carter: They were wonderful. They were everything that you would want – they were people of tremendous ability, patriotism, and dedication, but also very decent people who cared about tomorrow and not just today. It mattered to them that they developed the people who came after them. And so, they spent a little of their time and their energy paying attention to somebody who was a nobody because maybe I would stick with it. So, you ask, how do I have such a strong interest in our people in the military and DoD generally? It’s because somebody paid attention to me and it made a difference.

Andrew: Following up on that, how would you characterize your leadership philosophy – is it what you just outlined – take care of your people – is it reach forward while also reaching back?

Secretary Carter: I think my leadership philosophy is, have very high standards but also get the best out of people. And that means being strict when their conduct is not up to standard. But also making sure that you’re always getting them to do their best and giving them attention and credit so they are doing their best. The people that work for you are force multipliers. And I had the great fortune of having 2.8 million of them, and I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world, because if I only gave them a chance they would do spectacular things, and they did time and time again. That’s the way to do it. Of course, on the other end, it takes the excellent people that we have there and that’s why I’ll be proud to have been part of the Department of Defense of the United States of America for the rest of my life.

Andrew: One last question, is there anything you are reading currently or books that you read in the past that shaped you or are influential in looking forward?

Secretary Carter: I read the memoirs of people who came before us. And it’s good to remember that we owe something to those who come after us. And it matters that we do the right things. It also matters that we act decently and that we behave ourselves because our children our watching.

Andrew: Great, well thank you so much for your time Mr. Secretary, it was an honor to have you join us today.

Secretary Carter: Good to be with you Andrew. You have a great organization.

The Honorable Ash Carter was the 25th Secretary of Defense and is currently serving as the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and an Innovation Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 Andrew Poulin is the President of CIMSEC. The comments and questions here are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to attendees of a ceremonial swearing in in the Pentagon Auditorium, March 6, 2015. (DoD Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released)

Dr. John Kuehn on The Navy’s General Staff

By Chris Nelson

Professor John Kuehn’s new book, America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, 1900-1950, is a detailed and fascinating look at how the U.S. Navy’s General Board began at the turn of the 20th century and evolved into what would become the core of U.S. naval planning and strategy.

Dr. Kuehn, a military history professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, joins us to discuss his new book.

Christopher Nelson: Professor Kuehn, your book, Agents of Innovation, was also about the Navy’s General Staff. How is this book different?

John Kuehn: The difference is time period and focus. Agents (my nickname for it) covered naval innovation in the interwar period, 1919 to 1937, as affected by the Board, by War Plan Orange, and by the Washington and other naval conferences. The coverage of that innovation was episodic, not comprehensive, and the focus was on three case studies – battleship modernization, naval aviation, and mobile, at sea, basing. America’s First General Staff (AFGS) instead looks at the complete “life” of a relativity small organization that had a big impact at the strategic and policy levels. In short, AFGS gives another 30 years of the story while filling in some gaps for the 1920s and 1930s, as well as explaining how the organization came about.

CN: For readers who might have little or no understanding of the Navy’s General Board,  could you briefly describe what it was and its purpose?

JK: The General Board was a small group, about the size of a war college seminar, or smaller—generally from six to 12 officers, mostly captains and admirals, although they had non-member junior officers sometimes assigned and who were mentored by the senior ones. It was somewhat like the recently disestablished CNO strategic studies group (CNO-SSG)—but smaller and more independent. It was created in 1900 to serve as an “experiment” or proof of concept for the Secretary of the Navy for a naval general staff, which the naval reformers like A.T. Mahan, Stephen Luce, and Henry Taylor had been agitating for. As a naval general staff it did all those things one would expect a naval general staff to do, and in 1902 part of it went to sea! In other words, its primary job was contingency planning for crises and war—war planning—but it slowly extended its influence into all facets of the Navy, especially mobilization planning and fleet design. But it was primarily a shore and a peacetime staff, which was when it did its best work.

After 1909 it was the “balance wheel” or umpire for all ship designs in terms of what warships were being designed to do in war (or as deterrents in peace). After 1916 its war planning function migrated to CNO. Some bureaus kept forwarding their war plans inputs to the Board for years afterwards and CNO always had war planners at key hearings. I argue in the book that in many ways CNO became the operational naval general staff, while the small General Board, never more than 12 members or so, remained a sort of strategic and policy level executive body.

CN: A primary responsibility of the board was to produce reports on numerous topics. What were some of those reports? How valuable were they?

JK: They are known as General Board studies –their primary written product–but referred to by the Board as “serials.” I explain them rather well in Agents in my chapter on the General Board Process (chapter 3). As you can see Agents and AFGS really are a set, they complement each other.

The serials were extremely valuable because they went to the Secretary of the Navy, who had no SECDEF over him most of the time of the Board’s life, and set Navy policy on everything from uniforms to disarmament agreements to priority of naval construction. Especially critical for the historian are the 420 series “policy” serials that cover general naval policy (and strategy) as well as building policy and priority. These are my favorites. Reading them is like reading from a book of prophecy—they predicted so many things that eventually happened. Another great series are the arms limitations serials, the 438 series, that informed the Secretary of the Navy of the Board’s advice and recommendations about upcoming arms conferences at Geneva or London after Washington in 1922. 449 series are the ones on naval aviation. Anything with naval aviation is entertaining because of all the characters—Moffett, Turner, King, Mitscher, Towers, Mustin—that were involved with the hearings and the writing. Those guys had color in their language. The studies folders don’t just include the various drafts of the serials, but also the background material, so you get to read handwritten notes by Moffett for example. What an amazing organizational leader.

Most of the studies had an associated hearing that went with them. This is all indexed, by the General Board, and now on microfilm (or digitized by me). I haven’t digitized or organized everything yet, though!

CN: How did the board support the CNO through the long and valuable “Fleet Problem” series that ran from the early 1920s to the beginning of WWII?

JK: CNO, the Naval War College, and the Board worked hand-in-glove for most of the interwar period, even after CNO was no longer a member in 1932. Ironically, I think Pratt separated himself from the Board to give it more independence, not less, but it worked the other way, giving subsequent CNOs more power over time until King arrived and swept all the organizations of the Navy before him as he unified command as CNO/COMINCH. However, when given the chance to get rid of the Board, King proved instrumental in ensuring Nimitz did not abolish it, and he tried, believe me, after the war. Nimitz was being advised by wartime guys who valued war experience over the more careful methodical processes of the Board, guys like Ramsay and especially Mick Carney (Halsey’s chief of staff at Leyte Gulf).

Here is how it worked circa 1928. The war college would war game “strategic problems” at the college and then “hot wash” (AAR) these games. The results would go, as Al Nofi discusses in his great study (To Train the Fleet for War, Naval War College Press), to the CNO war plans division and the Fleet (i.e. the Fleet Commander and staff, CINCUS Fleet) and the agenda for the fleet problems for the annual exercise established. Not all the NWC stuff made it to the fleet problems, and sometimes the fleet problems dealt with stuff not gamed the previous year at NWC, but it was the interaction and feedback loops that were key—naval messages and talking back and forth between an informed officer corps. The General Board received inputs and feedback from these games and exercises, from the Fleet, from the war plans division of OpNav, and from the NWC in constructing its 420 -2 building priorities and warship designs, as well as its positions for the naval conferences. They would turn what was going on into policy and force structure. 

This is an oversimplification, but the process here was iterative, ongoing, and they managed to work through, either in NWC, in the hearings of the Board, and in the fleet during the annual exercises, most of the dynamics for most of the problems faced by the Navy in World War II. The closest thing to it outside the U.S. was the stuff being done by Hans von Seeckt and his small officer corps with the Reichswehr in the Weimar Republic.

I do not say these U.S. Navy entities necessarily “solved” those problems, but institutionally the Navy officer corps understood the framework of its problems as well, or better, than any other naval officer corps on the eve of war.

CN: How do the Navy’s bureaus and aide system fit into this story? Did they complement or cause friction?

JK: The Bureaus quite naturally opposed the Board’s creation and its influence, generally, unless they were led by a reformer like Henry Taylor or Bradley Fiske, then they worked with the Board. Fiske helped created the Aide system, which for your readers was a system from 1909 onward that created super-Bureau Chiefs, if you will, who handled material, operations, etc. They were aides not just to the Secretary of the Navy, but to the Board. But the aides were all part of the General Board system. As were some of the Bureaus…whose chiefs would sometimes be assigned on a temporary basis to the Board. Over time the bureaus collaborated effectively with the Board—especially the Bureaus of Aeronautics and Construction & Repair—which they saw as something of a reasonable counterweight to the increasingly powerful OpNav (CNO) staff. However, World War II changed all of that and both the bureaus and the Board lost power and influence that went to OpNav during that war. I explain all of that in this book.

As for the aide system, it went away with CNO’s creation in 1915 and until 1932 the Board and CNO collaborated effectively because CNO was an ex officio member of the board, although often not its chairman. The head of the Naval War College, the head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps were also on the Board during that time as ex officio members. The chairman was usually the senior retired Navy admiral still on active duty—but would always revert to rear admiral rank when no longer in a four star billet. Again, World War II changed much of this. I like the pre-World War II system and that is why I put the Board in civilian clothes as the picture of the dust jacket of my book. I think if not in service billet or global combatant or theater command, all flag officers should revert to two stars. That system worked for over 180 years.

The other organization that worked hand-in-glove with the Board, from 1900 until the Pratt decision in 1932 to pull the ex officio members off of the Board, was the Naval War College. AFGS offers much more discussion of this key decision and its long-term impact than does Agents. More to follow.

CN: In your book, you describe in detail some of the more outspoken and influential naval officers responsible for the success of the General Board.  In your mind, who were the top three or four officers who, in different ways, shaped these organizations?

JK: I have mentioned several of them already—Henry Taylor, and of course the one and only President of the Board, George Dewey. But Taylor was Dewey’s right-hand man and I do not think the Board would have come to fruition without him, at least in the way it did. Even so, as I argue, Dewey ensured its long-term success by simply living so long and also influencing things with a very light touch. Dewey was a master of organizational leadership using what the Army calls “mission command”—but Dewey’s approach was more German, he really gave general guidance and left his subordinates, like Fiske, room to make decisions. Dewey provided what today we call “top cover.” As Admiral of the Fleet, (the only one in American history), Dewey could do that.

Admiral Dewey the “Hero of Manila”(The Library of Congress, Dewey papers)

I mentioned Bradley Fiske, he was another key member of the Board, although he came to see it as not Prusso-German enough to be to effectively fight the Germans, who he and Dewey saw as the main enemy. Fiske engineered the creation of CNO to get a “real” naval general staff, but was frustrated in becoming its head, but Fiske played his role. Instead the cagey, and often maligned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels made the shrewd pick of William Benson, already serving on the General Board, as first CNO. Fiske was a fascinating, brilliant officer, but definitely one with militarist tendencies.

In the interwar period, the most important guys were Hilary Jones, Bill Pratt, and Mark Bristol, all of them exceptional, and even visionary in the case of Pratt. I am revisionist on the score of Jones, who many historians see as a fossil. I found him a model for the naval diplomat/strategist and just the guy the Board needed during the lean years of the 1920s, a lot more progressive than folks think. Noted naval historian William Braisted, by the way, agrees with this position.

Finally, in the years after World War II John Towers

Admiral John Towers/Courtesy of NHHC from the Towers Papers Collection

almost singlehandedly saved the General Board, bringing it back to very much the size and composition it had, with the Marines as members, similar to Henry Taylor’s original design and then the one in place from 1915 on. However, the NWC president remained off the Board, a key mistake I think. But once Towers left I think the Board’s days were numbered because of unification and the 1947 National Security Act. It is fitting though that the Board began with the most senior Admiral in the Navy and nearly ended with the most senior (by lineal number on active duty). However, the so-called revolt of the admirals seems to have hastened the demise of the Board as all the folks who knew its value departed the scene, especially James Forrestal, CNO Admiral Louis Denfield—fired by Forrestal’s replacement Louis Johnson—and Navy Secretary John Sullivan. They were all supporters of the Board and its value to the Navy.

CN: The General Board took detailed minutes of their meetings. To my knowledge, that’s not something we do today, in the Joint Chiefs’ “Tank” for instance. As a historian how valuable were these minutes? Is it disconcerting that we don’t have these types of records today?

JK: Invaluable, and yes, disconcerting. I was just writing to someone how the General Board seemed to have a sense of its unique historical importance, a sense of itself and the good work it was doing. This spirit came from the historical-mindedness of officers like Taylor, Badger, Dewey, Pratt, Dudley Knox, and Ernest King. See David Kohnen’s book 21st Century Knox for more on this score. The Board kept track of its every meeting in proceedings –written by its most junior member, the secretary of the board (usually a LCDR or CDR)–for its entire organizational life. Some secretaries of the Board include Thomas Kinkaid and Robert Ghormley. Being secretary for the Board was almost a deep select for admiral. Being on the Board as a junior officer or captain was a positive career move in today’s language. These “shore billets” attracted the Navy’s best and brightest.

The Board was also practical in terms of understanding what had happened, and how things happened. Anyone could go back and read the transcripts. As for the transcribed hearings, they came later in 1917. These changes –the complete transcription of the hearings with a stenographer/court recorder–were made as a result of the war in 1917, by Admiral Charles Badger, a guy who gets way too little credit. When the Board was disestablished its last chairman made sure the records were not destroyed and turned over all the files to Dudley Knox’s organizational baby, the Naval Historical Center (now Naval History and Heritage Command, NHHC). Most of them are now part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in downtown DC, but some records are still with the NHHC, for example Arleigh Burke’s General Board “notebook” from his time on the board during the Towers chairmanship.

CN: How were these naval officers able to remain collegial when they sat on the board? Strong personalities and competing visions of what the Navy should build and the adversaries we should prepare to fight are rife through our history.  Many disagreed. How did the board handle this?

JK: It is a fascinating lesson for today. One really must read the hearing transcripts at length to get a feel for how well they got on, even during contentious testimony like that of Billy Mitchell in 1919. That is why I included extensive passages of the banter in Agents, but I did not really have the room to do so in AFGS…a pity. I have thought about possibly publishing some of the more entertaining hearing transcripts in edited commentary format. 

Back to your question—they respected each other and their witnesses, it is that simple. They also knew, with one exception, that what they said would not show up in the newspapers or public debate because the hearings were all classified. Non-attribution if you will. The one exception, of course, was Billy Mitchell, and he was censured by the Secretary of War Newton Baker for doing so! Mitchell lied and told a Congressional Committee that the Board agreed with him that navies were “almost useless” in 1920 during a hearing on aviation. 

CN: Looking through your bibliography, besides the meeting minutes, there are plenty of other resources, like naval memoirs/biographies/autobiographies that you used to tell this story. Are there any autobiographies or biographies of 20th century or even 19th-century naval officers that you found particularly fascinating?

JK: John Towers’ biography was fun, a good read, but I disagree with its take on his time on the General Board. However, it is those guys without biographies that I found most fascinating, especially Mark Bristol, who has been written about much of late for his role in commanding the U.S. Black Sea squadron after WW I and then the Asiatic Fleet during the turbulent years of the China Patrol in 1920s warlord China. Taylor, of course, was fascinating and deserves a biography, too. I hope Al Nofi is reading this, he and I agree that many of these guys need a decent biographer. Gerald Wheeler’s biography of Bill Pratt is a gem, USNI should reprint it, and Fiske’s memoir is great, funny even, but one must be careful because sometimes his agenda displaces the actual facts. As for the 19th century, God and Seapower on a new spiritual biography of Mahan by Suzanne Geissler is essential, but for the real flavor readers are directed to the older issues of the Naval Institute Proceedings, now digitized from the 1870s on. It is there they will find the writings of these guys like Luce, Taylor, Chadwick French, etc., in articles and comments.

CN: What was the beginning of the end of the General Board?

JK: The General Board died a slow death. The decline, in retrospect, began with the departure of the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and President of the Naval War College as ex officio members in 1932. But the decline did not become pronounced until World War II, when the General Board found itself eclipsed by OpNav and the JCS strategic organizations under General Marshall. World War II was a key event that changed the culture and organizational focus and norms of the Navy, it midwifed the Navy we have today—forward deployed, primarily used for power projection, with an always high optempo. The Navy the General Board served for most of its life was not the kind of navy the U.S. had after 1941. The revolt of the admirals, creation of DOD, and ascendancy of what I call “OpNav Culture” were the final forcing functions that saw the Board die its quiet death in 1950, its passing overshadowed by the Korean and Cold Wars.

Its staying power in the face of all that is remarkable. Admiral King is the key, he could have easily have gotten Frank Knox or James Forrestal to abolish the Board but did not. I sometimes wonder if King considered perhaps retiring and then assuming presidency of the Board himself instead of Towers, that way he could continue to wield some of the enormous power he had held after stepping down as CNO and COMINCH. Perhaps though, that role did not have power enough for a man like King!

CN: Professor, this has been great.  Thank you.

JK: It has been my pleasure and thank you for allowing me to discuss my scholarship.

Commander (retired) John T. Kuehn is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. A former naval aviator, he is the author of Agents of Innovation (Naval Institute Press, 2008) and the coauthor, with D. M. Giangreco, of Eyewitness Pacific Theater (Sterling, 2008). He has published numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011. He has also published A Military History of Japan (Praeger 2014) and Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns (Praeger 2015). His next published work will be a chapter in an anthology on service cultures. Dr. Kuehn’s chapter is on the U.S. Navy cultural transformations between 1941 and the present.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is currently stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters.  The views here are his own.

Featured Image: Meeting at the Navy Department, Washington, D.C., 1932. Those seated are (left to right): Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol; Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay, Jr.; Captain John W. Greenslade; Commander Theodore S. Wilkinson (Secretary); Rear Admiral Jehu V. Chase; and Captain Cyrus W. Cole. Standing are (left to right): Lieutenant Colonel Lewis C. Lucas, USMC(Retired); and Commander Edgar M. Williams. Number over the door in left center is “2748”, indicating that this office was located on the second deck of the “Main Navy” Building. Note portrait of Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, first President of the General Board, on the wall to the left. (U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)