The following article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By Roger Misso
Once upon a time, there was a great and powerful nation. With booming trade, strong defense, and unparalleled pride, this land stood apart from all others as the finest in the world. As others struggled with disease, conflict, and stagnant economies, this country shone as a beacon in a storm. And importantly, its Navy was the envy of the world, protecting trade and sailing the high seas.
This nation was China, during the Ming dynasty in the 14th Century. The leader of its Navy was the quasi-mythical Zheng He, a palace eunuch who rose to glorious power, but was eventually erased from the history books.The rise and fall of Zheng He has striking parallels to the rise and fall of the United States Navy today. To avoid repeating the unfortunate history of seafaring superpowers, the United States must embrace the role of its Navy as an essential instrument of a successful, enduring nation.
In the middle of the fourteenth century in China, at the end of a line of harsh Mongol rulers, the Ming dynasty rose to power. One of the first acts of the new emperor, Zhu Di, was to build a massive naval armada. Rather than rely only on overland routes, he intended to exercise trade, diplomacy, and prove the sheer awe of Chinese power through his navy.
He nominated a palace eunuch who had risen in favor with the new regime, a Chinese Muslim by the name of Zheng He, to lead this force. Zheng was rumored to have “stood seven feet tall,” and his ability to speak both Chinese and Arabic was seen as a prudent choice for an expedition that would sail the Indian Ocean and interact with other Arabic-speaking peoples.
Zheng He’s fleet boasted more than 300 vessels. Unlike the typical European ships of the day, his were of enormous, complex construction and opulent adornment. Each ship housed more than sailors—doctors, soldiers, engineers, and statesmen made Zheng He’s fleet a floating arm of Chinese influence. Indeed, for more than 30 years, China dominated the sea lanes to its west, ensuring safe passage of its trading vessels and even engaging in limited conflict to secure favorable bases of support for its large fleet.
China’s dominance of the seas was short lived, however. New emperors came to power who viewed naval voyages as “extravagances.” Rather than respect the value of a navy to a great power, rulers began to look inward. Political power was legitimized by building things Chinese subjects could physically see and attribute to the greatness of the emperor, as opposed to a Navy that operated far from China’s shores.
It is a historical irony that the Ming dynasty traded what was the world’s greatest naval power, and used their treasure to connect and finish the Great Wall into what it is recognized as today. Soon, internecine conflict and pride erased nearly any mention of Zheng He and the grand Chinese armada from the national memory. For much of the next 600 years, China’s focus would remain within, even as their relative global power all but evaporated.
The lessons of Zheng He’s China teach a great deal about how a global superpower maintains its own geopolitical interests in the face of shifting domestic priorities. A strong Navy is a decisive component of the military instrument of national power, based on its unmatched ability to project power around the globe.
From John Paul Jones to The Great White Fleet to today’s Navy, it is easy to view the lens of America’s Navy as another incarnation of Zheng He’s: an awe-inspiring representation of the nation’s technological and economic might. The founders of the United States recognized the importance of a Navy to a prosperous nation, specifically enunciating in the Constitution that Congress must “provide and maintain a Navy.”
Yet, as in Zheng He’s time, competing policy choices and uncertainty as to America’s role in the world has eroded the commitment to maintain a naval force representative of the country’s geopolitical interests. Austerity and sequestration have slashed budgets with scant regard for shipbuilding, maintenance, and future fleet architecture. 650 years later, the United States Navy has fewer ships to its name than Zheng He’s armada.
The decline in quantity and quality of America’s ships-of-the-line will do great harm to the American people. The United States Navy is the bellwether of American power, protecting the nation from harm and safeguarding global commerce. The tragedy of both Zheng He and contemporary American navalists is their failure to adequately convince the population of the necessity of its Navy.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “industry, commerce, and security are the surest roads to the happiness and prosperity of people.” The Navy has been the guarantor of American happiness and prosperity since the nation’s earliest days. Yet, as the visible vestiges of American commerce have transformed from small markets and shops to massive online storefronts with inventory shipped by robots from warehouses, the average citizen’s concept of how commerce is enabled may be declining.
To this citizen, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet and online commerce might seem to suggest that modern military forces are becoming obsolete in the face of digital citizenship. Few people think about the steps between pressing “purchase” and receiving a good at their doorstep. In a tumultuous political climate, this leads many to clamor for decreased military spending and a more insular focus on domestic affairs. Yet this sentiment erodes the very naval service that ensures massive online commerce can thrive in the first place.
The percentage and volume of global trade by sea has shown no signs of slowing down. Whether iPhones, oil, or automobiles, most of the imported items belonging to a typical household have come to this country by sea. These items are carried on ships without guns or inherent self-defense measures. These ships transit through chokepoints controlled by nations with their own interests, who would rather leverage their own power at the expense of America’s supply of Apple devices.
The importance of a Navy is not a difficult concept. For example, if a saboteur has blocked both ends of the street on which you live, you may think of three potential responses: 1) stay home; 2) find another way out, though you are likely to leave the house less often and bring fewer things with you; 3) fight back. For businesses and nations who ship goods by sea, the first two options are unprofitable and untenable. It is only through a strong Navy that the third option is possible.
The consequences of a declining Navy are perceptible and stark. Though it took a few centuries, China’s inward focus eventually led to the crumbling of their sovereignty and, eventually, occupation by a foreign power. More contemporary examples, such as Great Britain and Spain, are instructive as they show nations on the declining slope of naval power dependent on a foreign power—the United States—to maintain freedom of the seas in accordance with its own interests.
If the United States abdicates its role as global naval power, either deliberately or through unchecked erosion of capability and credibility, she risks a radical plummeting of national and economic might. Nature and the sea both abhor a vacuum; in yet another irony, if the United States cannot maintain the global sea lanes, China may take its place as guarantor. An American economy and national security dependent on Chinese interests and the application of Chinese naval power would be weak and brittle, bringing extreme hardship to the American people.
More than ever, a strong Navy is required to protect the millions of tons of shipping that make possible American economy, infrastructure, and the basic political lives of her people. A citizenry may grow weary of land wars, but it cannot forsake trade and security. Nations that cannot protect open, unfettered access to the sea will fail. For these reasons, the United States Navy is not a nicety; it is a necessity.
History provides clear channel markers for decision makers today. The United States cannot repeat the curse of Zheng He; she must clearly articulate and re-prioritize a strong Navy that is present, capable, and credible.
Roger L. Misso is a naval officer, aviator, and speechwriter. He is currently a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a featured contributor to The Strategy Bridge. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Stockwell, Foster. Westerners in China: A History of Exploration and Trade, Ancient times through the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Publishers, 2003.
 Suryadinata, Leo. Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2005.
 Turturici, Armando Alessandro. “China Across Sea in Early Ming Dynasty – the Figure of Zheng He.” Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies, no. 3 (Spring, 2016): 111-114.
 “Status of the Navy.” Navy.mil. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/nav_legacy.asp?id=146
 “From Thomas Jefferson to Francisco Chiappe, 9 September 1789.” National Archives Online. Accessed online 4 Nov 2016. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-15-02-0386
Featured Image: Treasure fleet of Admiral Zheng He (Caravan Daily)
“My boy, you will be nothing insignificant, but definitely something great, either for good or evil.” – School teacher of Themistocles
Since he was only a child, he knew he had always wanted the respect and recognition of his fellow citizens. He hungered for it, dreamt of it, and prepared for it. While all the other kids would play and laugh, he would study and write, spending countless hours practicing speeches in his home. His parents were of no special heritage, and royalty did not flow through his blood. In its place, determination coursed through his veins. Themistocles, an Athenian, knew he was meant for something great. History would show that Themistocles, when he became archon, encouraged a naval policy in Athens, and helped drive off the Persian Empire and secure a place of strength and resolve for Athens in the world. Ancient scholars and historians, like that of Plutarch and Herodotus, have documented his life, allowing a glimpse into the magnificence of his achievements. Modern day scholars have shed even more light, suggesting that it was Themistocles himself who saved the future of western civilization. Themistocles, the commander of the Athenian fleet, should be bestowed the title of the Father of Naval Warfare due to his understanding of the Persian Empire, the importance of naval supremacy, and his involvement in the political process.
If we are to understand the rise of Themistocles, then we must first understand the impacts of the Ionian Revolt. R.J. Lenardon, in The Saga of Themistocles, says the Ionian Revolt “was to have momentous consequences for all of Hellenes, not least the Athenians and Themistocles, during the first quarter of the fifth century.”1 How this revolt would shape both Athens and Persia would set the stage for the incredible life of the aspiring, but young, Themistocles.
In the year of 499 B.C., the Hellenes of Asia Minor realized they had experienced enough. The Ionians grew restless of the oppression of the Persian Empire, and decided to fight back. For over 30 years, the superpower of the world, Persia, had subjugated the Greek cities of Asia Minor under numerous tyrannies, forcing the Greeks to build the cities of Persia and further the dominion of their empire. Under the rule of King Darius, he “undertook a thorough and systematic political and financial reorganization of the Persian Empire.”2 With these sweeping changes now taking effect, Darius thought it a no better time than to expand the land and influence of the Persian Empire. Under his guidance, the Persians blazed their way through Europe, “campaigning successfully against the Thracians and even securing the allegiance of Macedonia.”3 While these accomplishments were impressive, the rising discontent of the Ionians against Persia grew. After failing to convince the Spartans to join their cause against Darius, the Ionians looked toward, as Herodotus says, “the next most powerful state” after Sparta, that of Athens.4
Herodotus writes, “After the Athenians had been won over, they voted to dispatch twenty ships to help the Ionians and appointed Melanthion, a man of the city who was distinguished in every respect, as commander over them.”5 Herodotus goes on to write in a flare of foreboding that “these ships would turn out to be the beginning of evils for … the barbarians.”6 After the allied contingent of the rebellion sailed to Sardis and burned the Persian city to the ground, the Athenians, due to heavy losses, withdrew from the fighting, and “they refused to help the Ionaians any further.”7 Yet their actions, with the help of the Ionians, would send Darius into a rage against the Athenians. Herodotus recounts a chilling tale:
“When it was reported to Darius that Sardis had been taken and burnt by the Athenians and Ionians and that Aristagoras the Milesian had been leader of the conspiracy for the making of this plan, he at first, it is said, took no account of the Ionians since he was sure that they would not go unpunished for their rebellion. Darius did, however, ask who the Athenians were, and after receiving the answer, he called for his bow. This he took and, placing an arrow on it, and shot it into the sky, praying as he sent it aloft, ‘O Zeus, grant me vengeance on the Athenians.’ Then he ordered one of his servants to say to him three times whenever dinner was set before him, ‘Master, remember the Athenians.’”8
With the Athenian fleet now out of the picture, the Ionian Revolt began to wane. The final Persian push came at Miletus, where the Persian army and navy decided to disregard the more minor cities. Attacking the source of the rebellion, the Persians overtook the Ionians at Miletus and brought them under subjugation once again. The Ionian Revolt virtually ended, and the Persian Empire set about re-conquering the rest of the rebellious cities. This revolt had two major effects: The Persian Empire grew vastly in military power, and the wrath of Darius was now directed toward the Athenians. After all, how could he forget when he was reminded of their actions every time he sat down for dinner?
The Rise of Themistocles
After the successful defeat of the Ionian Revolt in 494 BC, Darius began his march toward Athens. Herodotus’ first mention of Themistocles comes on the heels of the advance of the Persian Empire on all of Hellas after its crushing defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Around 480 BC, after attempting to discern a prophecy from an Oracle, the people of Athens were disturbed as to its cryptic meaning, fearing the gods had predicted their end. “But among the Athenians was a certain man who had just recently come into the highest prominence; his name was Themistocles, and he was called the son of Neokles.”9 Themistocles convinced his fellow Athenians that the Oracle, in summary, was urging them to meet the Persians at sea. According to several ancient sources, the Oracle had spoken of “wooden walls,” and Themistocles used this interpretation to his advantage in his advising of a naval policy.
However, around 483 BC when Athens was receiving large revenues from lucrative silver mines, Themistocles spoke to the government urging them to spend the increased revenue on their naval fleet. For a long time, Athens was at war with Aegina, who had sided with the Persian Empire in providing them “earth and water.”10 Themistocles saw Aegina as the perfect pretext to build up the Athenian fleet, knowing full well that Athens would need this fleet to face the coming onslaught of the Persian Empire. Plutarch, in his biography of Themistocles in Lives, recounts this tale as well:
“And so, in the first place, whereas the Athenians were wont to divide up among themselves the revenue coming from the silver mines at Laureium, [Themistocles], and he alone, dared to come before the people with a motion that this division be given up, and that with these moneys triremes be constructed for the war against Aegina. This was the fiercest war then troubling Hellas, and the islanders controlled the sea, owing to the number of their ships.”11
Plutarch, in the text above, points out one of the earliest examples of Themistocles’ lobbying for a powerful navy. Calum M. Carmichael, in Historical Methods, makes note of the importance of the Athenian navy as a whole from the years of 480 – 322 BC:
“Of all the public services, the naval [public office] … was arguably the most important. It directly served the strategic and commercial interests of the state: the duties centered on the command and maintenance of the trireme warship for a year. It involved a large outlay: maintaining a single ship could require expenditure in excess of one talent, whereas other liturgies required half as much or less. And, more than any other public service, the naval liturgy was an object of reform throughout the democratic period.”12
As a result of Themistocles’ lobbying, Athens devoted their increased revenues to the building up of the Athenian navy, thus establishing themselves as a powerhouse among the Greek city-states. However, his policies were not met with unanimous praise. Plutarch makes note of it, saying, “…he made [Athenian warriors], instead of ‘steadfast hoplites’ – to quote Plato’s words, sea-tossed mariners, and brought down upon himself this accusation: ‘Themistocles robbed his fellow-citizens of spear and shield, and degraded the people of Athens to the rowing-pad and the oar.’”13
Yet Themistocles continued with his naval buildup. As he spoke to the Athenians concerning the Oracle’s cryptic message, he convinced them that rather than run and hide from the coming enemy, their salvation would come from the sea. Having just recently built up their naval power through the increased revenues from the silver mines, Themistocles capitalized on the moment, understanding that it was through naval power and not ground forces that would drive back the Persian Empire. Yet to fully grasp the sharp intellect of Themistocles as a naval advocate, we need to go back in time to 493 BC, when Themistocles found himself as archon of Athens, a perfect time to begin his march to the ocean.
Lenardan, in Saga of Themistocles, says, “Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us that Themistocles was archon at Athens in 493 BC, and the chronographic tradition recorded by Eusebius lends particular support to the assumption encouraged by other evidence that it was as archon in that very year that he began the fortifications of the Piraeus.”14 Themistocles was familiar with the advantage of the Piraeus. This natural harbor provided three ports that had far more strategic value than the smaller Bay of Phalerum that the Athenians were using at the time. Tom Holland, in Persian Fire, says this of Themistocles’ genius:
“Drawing up his manifesto, he began to argue for the urgent down-grading of the existing docks and their replacement by a new port at Piraeus, the rocky headland that lay just beyond Phalerum beach. The shoreline there afforded not one but three natural harbors, enough for any fleet, and readily fortifiable. True, it lay two miles further from the city than Phalerum, but Themistocles argued passionately that this was a small price to pay for the immense advantages that a new harbor at Piraeus would afford: a safe port for the Athenians’ ever-expanding merchant fleet; a trading hub to rival Corinth and Aegina and immunity from Aeginetan privateers.”15
Themistocles understood that trading the convenience of Phalerum for the strategic position of Piraeus was well worth the trade-off. Whether Themistocles began this project during his archonship, or if he started it later, possibly around 483 or 479 BC, is debated among modern-day scholars. Cornelius Nepos, a Roman historian who lived from 110 BC to 25 BC, says this of Themistocles’ involvement with the building of the port at Piraeus: “Themistocles was great in the war [at Salamis], and was not less distinguished in peace; for as the Athenians used the harbor of Phalerum, which was neither large nor convenient, the triple port of the Piraeeus [sic] was constructed by his advice, and enclosed with walls, so that it equaled the city in magnificence, and excelled it in utility.”16 Nepos dates the building up of Piraeus after the Battle at Salamis in 480 BC, and makes no mention of it being started during the time of Themistocles’ archonship. Plutarch also writes “After [he built the walls of Athens] he equipped the Piraeus, because he had noticed the favorable shape of its harbors, and wished to attach the whole city to the sea; thus in a certain manner counteracting the policies of the ancient Athenian kings.” 17
However, there is no reason not to suggest that Themistocles initiated the building of the Piraeus while he was archon. Having desired to build up the naval prestige of Athens as soon as he could, he very well could have looked to the promising port during his early days in office. The National Hellenic Research Foundation appears to solidify this belief: “Thus, within only one year, Athens and the northern part of Acropolis received new fortifications, which incorporated the older building’s pieces and offerings, even tombstones, while beginning the completion of the fortification of the Piraeus port, already launched by Themistocles himself as the 493 BC ruler.”18 The building of the Piraeus port allowed the Athenians a superior advantage in their conquest to become masters of the sea. By encouraging the Athenians to move their current harbor to a more secure one, Themistocles once again proved his intellect in understanding the multiple facets of naval power. He had built up a strong fleet through the use of increased revenue from the state, and moved the focus of their sea power to a safer, more strategic area.
What may be more impressive than anything else was his foresight. During the time after the Battle of Marathon, many believed that the Persians were defeated and would not come back. Lenardon makes mention of this: “Most of the Athenians believed that the defeat of the Persians at Marathon meant the end of the war; but Themistocles realized it was only the beginning of greater struggles.”19 Themistocles understood that after the death of Darius, Xerxes would seek vengeance, and it would come swifter and stronger than the last battle at Marathon. Themistocles had his fleet, and the construction of the Piraeus port was nearing completion. Now, he would test the resolve and courage of his fellow allies in battle at Salamis.
At the Battle of Salamis, we encounter first-hand the intellect and courage of Themistocles, now the commander of the Greek allied fleet. His exploits here are perhaps what has made him become the legend he is today.
Manipulating the Enemy
When the Greek allied fleet converged at Salamis, it was the largest contingent to have assembled. Thucydides accounts for the navies present:
“For after these there were no navies of any account in Hellas till the expedition of Xerxes; Aegina, Athens, and others may have possessed a few vessels, but they were principally fifty-oars. It was quite at the end of this period that the war with Aegina and the prospect of the barbarian invasion enabled Themistocles to persuade the Athenians to build the fleet with which they fought at Salamis; and even these vessels had not complete decks. The navies, then, of the Hellenes during the period we have traversed were what I have described. All their insignificance did not prevent their being an element of the greatest power to those who cultivated them, alike in revenue and in dominion.”20
Yet the admirals that were also in command of the Greek allied fleet were nervous and unsure. They believed that rather than fight the Persian fleet at Salamis where the Persian army was gathering, they would turn and sail toward the Isthmus at Peloponnese, and defend the city-state of Sparta from there. But Themistocles understood that the only way to defeat the Persian navy was to use their vast numbers against them. The straits and narrow passages at Salamis would force the Persian navy to thin their numbers in order to pass through the waters. From this vantage point, the Greek allied fleet could inflict serious damages on the Persians. Knowing this, Themistocles sent a messenger in secret to the Persian commanders. Herodotus narrates the story, writing that the messenger, acting as a defector, informed the Persian commanders that the Greek fleet was in disarray and unsure of themselves. Encouraging the Persians that now was the time to strike, he “made a quick departure” from the Persian navy.21
The Persian generals, eager to crush the Greek allied fleet and sail through to Athens and then Sparta, chomped on the bait, hoisted the sails, and sliced through the waters to Salamis. Themistocles was then alerted by a scout that the Persian navy was upon them, and the Greek allied fleet would need to make their stand at Salamis. Themistocles’ plan had worked. The fate of Athens, and the future of Greece, would rest at Salamis.
A Fitting Father Figure
Because of the cunning and intellect of Themistocles, the Greek allied fleet won a decisive victory at Salamis. The Persian navy found an organized and battle-ready Greek fleet, and the narrow passages of Salamis proved too narrow for the great numbers of Persian ships. The Greeks drove back the advance of the Persian Empire once again, reminding Xerxes of an earlier time, when his father, Darius, was defeated at Marathon.
Herodotus recounts, “Thus it was concerning them. But the majority of [Xerxes’] ships at Salamis were sunk, some destroyed by the Athenians, some by the Aeginetans. Since the Hellenes fought in an orderly fashion by line, but the barbarians were no longer in position and did nothing with forethought, it was likely to turn out as it did.”22
Xerxes’ final push came with the culmination of the land battle at Plataea and the naval battle at Mycale around 479 BC. There, the Greeks destroyed the advances of the Persian forces, and Xerxes retreated back into his homeland.
Modern day scholars, like that of Victor Davis Hanson, an internationally recognized military historian, have credited the battle at Salamis as “one of the most significant battles in human history.”23 Thucydides, in his landmark work of History of the Peloponnesian War, has this to say of Themistocles:
“Themistocles was a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular [war], he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled. By his own native capacity, alike unformed and unsupplemented by study, he was at once the best judge in those sudden crises which admit of little or of no deliberation, and the best prophet of the future, even to its most distant possibilities.”24
In earning such praise and admiration from his peers, Themistocles was made a legend. His knowledge and wisdom in naval warfare gave Athens the upper hand against the Persian Empire and, as scholars have argued, saved the future of western civilization. Should the Persian Empire have sacked Athens and Sparta, it would have immediately halted the advance of the Greek city-states. From there, Xerxes would have swept into Europe. But, “among the Athenians was a certain man who had just recently come into the highest prominence; his name was Themistocles.” It would only be fitting then that Thucydides, the Father of Scientific History, would write of the exploits and glories of Themistocles, as this author proposes, the Father of Naval Warfare.
David Van Dyk is a graduate of Liberty University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications Studies and a member of the Lambda Pi Eta honor society. He is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy with a focus in International Affairs at the Helms School of Government. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Robert J. Lenardon, The Saga Of Themistocles, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
4. Robert B. Strassler, The Landmark Herodotus: the Histories, New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
11. Lives: Themistocles And Camillus, Aristides and Cato Major, Cimon and Lucullus, 1 Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1914.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Piratesis an exciting account of an often overlooked but formative chapter in the history of American foreign policy and U.S. naval heritage. While even amateur naval historians recognize the names of heroes like Decatur and Preble, and every Marine sings the words “to the shores of Tripoli” while standing at attention, few recall the decade-long struggle and humiliations endured before achieving the honorable outcome that is taken for granted today. As the world’s sole superpower with a naval force of nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines, it is often difficult to examine the early struggles of the United States Navy without assuming that victory was a foregone conclusion. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, however, convincingly convey the narrow margin by which the victory over the Barbary pirates was gained and the many diplomatic, military, and personal setbacks that were overcome along the way. They also capture the bravery and determination of the American Sailors, Marines, and Statesmen who ensured a favorable conclusion of the Barbary Wars for the nascent United States. For these reasons alone, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates deserves to be on every commander’s recommended reading list for all ranks, especially in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
The book also explores several themes that are of recurring interest to CIMSEC’s readership: from justifications for force structure and naval presence, to the need for judgment and initiative in naval leaders, and to the role of the Navy in diplomacy. The thoroughly enjoyable book makes strong arguments for U.S. naval presence and the need for the United States to a “play a military role in overseas affairs,” without significant discussion of counter-arguments or allusions to alternative analyses. Although this may ultimately leave military historians and other scholars and theorists unsatisfied, these shortcomings seem to be by design, enabling the authors to maintain an exciting pace and to focus on the heroism of the characters from whom “the world would learn that in America failure is not an option.”
Naval Presence and the Size of the Fleet
Kilmeade and Yaeger make a strong case that Thomas Jefferson was among the first American officials to recognize the need for a strong and persistent forward naval presence to protect American interests. In his role as American minister to France in 1785, Jefferson was an official advocate for Americans enslaved by Algerian pirates. He recognized that the United States could neither afford the tribute demanded by the Barbary States, nor could they cease trading with nations of the Mediterranean. Jefferson’s solution was patrols by armed American vessels in the Mediterranean; that vision would not be realized for another sixteen years. Initially, Jefferson did not convince fellow diplomat John Adams, Congress, or the President, who were pursuing a policy of neutrality and willing to pay the price (i.e. annual tribute to Barbary pirates) for peace. It was not until ten American vessels were captured in 1793 that there was enough support to pass the Naval Act of 1794 to build six frigates to respond to the “depredations committed by Algerine corsairs.”
Although the more academically sophisticated arguments for seapower made by Samuel Huntington in 1954 or more recently by CAPT Robert Rubel (ret)  and Seth Cropsey will be more edifying for CIMSEC’s regular audience, the arguments in Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates are self-evident, convincing, and accessible even to those who have shown little interest in strategic or maritime thinking. Thus, the book is a worthy read not only for the naval enthusiast but also for the accountant brother-in-law who balks at the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, to the family isolationist who argues that U.S. naval presence is always provocative and never stabilizing, or for the West Point graduate who just doesn’t get it.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates provides many case studies on naval leadership. The book examines many successful and unsuccessful commanders and diplomats who must carry out national policies and execute military operations with little communication and guidance.
While it is rare to execute any coordinated action today without communication before, during, and after each mission, the authors remind us that orders from the United States to commanders in the Mediterranean routinely took three months to arrive in theater. This made seeking guidance during a crisis, like the grounding of the USS Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor, impossible. Incidents like these formed the basis for naval principles like the absolute responsibility of commanding officers, the requirement to understand the commander’s intent, and centralized command and decentralized execution that continue to serve as the foundation for naval conduct. Looking at the 21st century battlespace, where instantaneous and continuous communications are often assumed for our naval and air forces, it is worth pondering how well we still adhere to these principles and how much decision making and execution would suffer should those communications be disrupted in combat. Kilmeade and Yaeger make clear that in the absence of higher guidance those who represented the country well were those guided by a commitment to personal and national honor.
The authors also assert that throughout the Barbary Wars, successful naval leaders demonstrated superior judgment and initiative. The authors contrast the risk-averse and lazy Commodore Richard Morris, who brought his wife on deployment and failed to impose a worthy blockade of Tripoli, with the decisive actions of Commodore Edward Preble, who quickly gained an “honorable peace” with Morocco, achieving a “significant victory” in a manner reminiscent of Sun-Tzu—“without firing a shot.”
The authors also recount the bold manner with which Preble overcame the loss of the USS Philadelphia by a subordinate commander. Preble and the young nation found an invaluable asset in the bravery, skill, and leadership of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. The leadership, persistence, and vision of William Eaton are credited with the successful execution of the elaborate plan to raise and march an army from Alexandria, Egypt to defeat the Bashaw of Tripoli. The success of Eaton’s 600-mile desert march that resulted in capture of the city of Derne, “one of the most remarkable military assaults in U.S. military history,” was in no small part due to the bravery and skill of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon and his seven U.S. Marines.
Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates provides a fresh look at leaders whose actions significantly shaped the character of the nascent Navy and Marine Corps and whose impact is still visible today. The book also recalls some of the earliest collaboration between military power and diplomacy in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy.
Diplomacy and the Military
Kilmeade and Yaeger recount the first attempt to support diplomacy with a display of naval power in 1800, when the USS George Washington became the first American warship to enter the Mediterranean. In spite of the bolstered confidence of U.S. Consul to Algiers, Richard O’Brien, and the clear display of American resolve, the incident resulted in humiliation for the United States due to a combination of insufficient force and naiveté on the part of the George Washington’s commander, the 27-year old Captain William Bainbridge. Still, naval forces represented a level of commitment and national resolve that provides significant leverage for diplomatic efforts.
As with the U.S. consuls to the Barbary States 200 years ago, diplomats today are often strong proponents of American naval power. In February, a former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore arguedthat cutting the number of Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) would damage U.S. diplomacy. Of course, the requirements for fighting a modern naval battle are often different than those for diplomatic shows of the flag, assurances to allies, and demonstrations of resolve. Still, even when the latter was the primary justification for the existence of the fleet in 1794, getting the right-sized force was a significant challenge. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates also demonstrates that, in addition to the right number of ships, success requires the right policies and military leadership to successfully support diplomatic efforts.
The book also highlights a natural tension between military and diplomatic elements of national power through its account of the termination of the war with Tripoli in 1805. After achieving an impressive victory at Derne, Colonel William Eaton and Lieutenant O’Bannon prepared to take Tripoli to depose the Bashaw. Before they could do so, however, U.S. Consul Tobias Lear, negotiated a termination to the conflict with terms that were ultimately ungratifying to Eaton, the military commander whose men had sacrificed much blood for a peace that allowed the Bashaw to remain in power.
Although the authors’ treatment of the relationship between military power and diplomacy seems to suggest that the solution to bolstering diplomacy is always more military power, one does not have to accept that premise to appreciate the books’ account of early cooperation to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Few today recall the risks that were taken by the men of the naval and diplomatic services to defend the honor of the young United States against the extortion of the Barbary pirates, but Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger do a great service by remedying that situation. At the time that Thomas Jefferson was dealing the pirates from the Barbary States – Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—the confrontation was far from a foregone conclusion. Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates details how visionary leadership from Thomas Jefferson, William Eaton, and Edward Preble as well as the bold and daring initiative from Stephen Decatur and Presley O’Bannon enabled the young United States to prevail. The story explores the connection between naval presence and security, illustrates the need for judgment and initiative in executing distributed military operations, and the role of the Navy in foreign policy. It is worth reading and keeping on your bookshelf.
Commander Smith is a career naval flight officer and a former commanding officer of Patrol Squadron 26 (VP-26). He is currently serving as the Federal Executive Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University – Applied Physics Lab (APL). The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the Navy or APL.
 Huntington, Samuel P. “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” United States Naval Institute Proceedings. Vol. 50, Number 5. May 1954, 491.
 Rubel, Robert C. “National Policy and the Post-systemic Navy,” Naval War College Review Vol. 66, No. 4 Autumn 2013, 12.
Tom Ricks is no stranger. If you follow the US military, then you’ve probably stopped by his blog“The Best Defense”over at Foreign Policymagazine on more than one occasion.
Sometimes provocative, always interesting, Ricks has provided a voice for civilians, officers, and enlisted, to raise issues, debate defense policies, or often recommend a good book. In fact, Ricks’ comments on books and reading listshave fed my intellectual curiosity these past few years.
Tom Ricks joined me to talk about everything from the craft of writing, the size of his library, to one of his favorite books at the moment, a book on military innovation.
What got you started in journalism and why cover the military?
What got me started in journalism was I was living in Hong Kong and teaching English and English literature. I always expected to be a teacher. And I saw, when I was about twenty-two years old in Hong Kong, the people that were enjoying themselves were journalists — the young American, British, and Chinese journalists. I couldn’t believe that some adult would give them a credit card and just allow them to go around and ask people questions. It seemed like a good gig to me. Also, once I began in journalism, I found that the military really interested me. It was a interesting institution in of itself. You could write about everything from politics to international relations to technology — the basic human stories. And then I found in about 1995 when I was working on what became Making the Corps, it was also a very good way of looking at America; and looking at where our country is by talking to young recruits and so on. So I found out that I really enjoyed covering the military as well.
What were your favorite books of 2015? Your top three? And why?
It’s funny, I don’t really read books as they come out. I read books as they happen to provoke my interest. I think my favorite nonfiction book that I read last year was about the Comanches. It’s called The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen. In fiction, I really like Elizabeth Strout. I’d read her book Olive Kitteridge, so recently I went back and read an earlier novel of hers called Abide With Me. I read it in particular because it is about winter in Maine, which is six months long, and which I am living through, so her bringing a novelist’s eye to it really intrigued me. So those are sort of the two books that really struck me lately.
One other: I also finally got around to reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. It’s just a wonderfully written memoir about growing up in Southeast Texas near Port Arthur, near Houston in the 1960s. Her style reminds me of Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors.
Professionally, oddly enough, the book that has struck me is one that I read twenty years ago and I picked it up again recently. I liked it then—and re-reading it, I loved it. I wrote about it in the blog, it is by Stephen Peter Rosen, and its called Winning the Next War. It’s about military innovation, what works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is counter intuitive. Money is not important to innovation, in fact it may hurt it; technology is not that important to innovation; what is really important to innovation is organizational change during peacetime. It really is a very different take, and I find it intriguing because I think it is a crucial issue.
I worry that we have a big late Industrial Age military, which is a problem because we are on the cusp of Information Age. We confuse the ability to throw firepower with the ability to subdue an enemy. In that way today’s US military reminds me of the Royal Navy of 1939. The Royal Navy then was the biggest in the world, it had the most battleships and the ability to throw more firepower, but was almost entirely irrelevant in World War II. They neglected changes; they didn’t understand the submarine; they didn’t understand how to use the aircraft carrier; and they didn’t have enough destroyers. They won the Battle of the Atlantic but that was with us giving them a lot of destroyers and other help, like providing submarine support.
Is there a book that is coming out that you are looking forward to?
The new book that struck me most recently was a graphic novel — and I am not a big fan of those. It is by the guy who does Terminal Lance. It’s called TheWhite Donkey. It is a graphic novel about his time in Iraq. It was self-published but now it is coming out by Little Brown, the big publisher, in April. I am looking forward to see how well it does when it comes out.
What is your daily routine? As a writer, do you block off time each day to write?
I’m definitely a morning writer. I like to get up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down and start writing. I get the blog out pretty quickly, and then I turn to whatever book I am writing at the time. I usually try to do about four hours a day, stopping around lunchtime. I’ll have lunch with my wife, and then in the afternoon do some errands, maybe take a walk, and then sit down to read or do some research. I find that when I am too tired to write I like turn to research. And for me, the lesson in book writing is to stop when you start feeling tired. It really takes your full energy and full attention the way research doesn’t.
That sounds like pretty good advice to anyone who wants to write.
My advice is to establish a routine—that is, do not wait for inspiration. Writing is a lot more like carpentry than it is like poetry. It’s a craft. You have to get up and saw and sand and screw things together, and then stand back and look at it. Sometimes you’ll say, “OK, that didn’t quite work, let me rework it.” Sometimes it does work. But the people who tell me, “I’m writing a book on the weekends”—when they say that, well, I think to myself, no, you’re enjoying yourself and pretending to write a book on the weekends. The only way a book gets written if you really work on it every day. Every morning, for me.
Do you read with a pencil in hand? Is a notebook close by? Do you do a lot of marginalia when reading?
Totally. To me that is intellectual capital — the marginalia in any book. I remember a professor of mine in college who said, “If you are not reading with a pen in your hand then you are not reading.” I find that is especially true for nonfiction. I’m constantly taking notes. In fact, one measure for me is that how much I’ve learned from a book is the number of pages I’ve marked up. In Winning the Next War by Peter Rosen, which I just re-read, I probably took ten pages of notes the second time I read it — even more notes than I did the first time. Filling up the front and the back of the book with notes and thoughts and connections. And for me that will often become the grist for a blog item or even for something that I’m writing about in a book.
If you had the chance to invite three authors over to your house for dinner — living or dead — who is coming to your house, and why?
My favorite historian is David Hackett Fisher. I think I’ve read all his books. I love Washington’s Crossing. I read his Albion’s Seedtwice, and Paul Revere’s Ride, also by him, which is just lovely. I’ve never met him. I would enjoy meeting him and asking him what he thinks about books. I would love to see him write about the Civil War. He’s written about almost every other aspect of American History. I think he is my favorite American historian, and it seems to me that the Civil War is the essential event of our history. I would love to see him tackle that.
Another favorite writer of mine is actually a friend of mine, Eliot Cohen, who has written several terrific books. My favorite book by him is called Supreme Command. It’s how really good civilian leaders lead their militaries. One of the themes of this book is that they are not hands off, and they are not looking for consensus. Instead, they are constantly probing and asking questions, pushing their military leaders. They are especially looking to surface differences. To say, “now you guys disagreed on this, now tell me about this disagreement.” You see this in leaders like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and actually Dwight Eisenhower as well.
For a third one, let’s see, I’ve read almost all the novels by Jonathan Franzen. I think he is a lovely writer. But I also think he is a crank and curmudgeon. I’m not sure I would enjoy dinner with him, but it would sure be interesting to have dinner with him.
How many books do you have in your library?
It’s funny you should ask, because where we live in Maine, we finally have a really good basement, big and dry. So for the first time in my life I have been able to get all of my books in one spot, and I really like that. They’re on long boards and cinderblocks.
I measure it by the foot. I actuallywrote about this in the blog once. The biggest section is World War II, which I think is thirty-two feet. And there probably are seven and a bit shelves of Iraq, which going by the boards I used makes about 31 feet. And then there is 27 feet of Vietnam, 9 of the Korean War. Unfortunately the basement is filling up fast.
So you’ve been covering the US military for over twenty years. I’m curious about your readers. You’ve been blogging over at Foreign Policy for some time. Yet you don’t talk about your readers much. I’m curious about how many people stop by “Best Defense”? What types of readers are reading ‘Best Defense’?
I don’t know on the numbers, partly because Foreign Policy’s editors keep the numbers close hold. When I ask them about the numbers I get gobbledygook about unique hits, and you know, “push only visitors” and “unique visitors,” and all that stuff. It doesn’t tell me anything.
A few years ago, I believe I was told I was getting 30,000 to 40,000 readers a month. But that could be wildly wrong. I never really pushed the issue with my editors. Maybe they are afraid that if they tell me how many visitors I have, that I’ll ask for a raise.
Now, the types of readers I have, I’m better on. Start with a big military audience. I’d have to say concentrated on middle NCO’s and junior and middle officers with a smattering of younger enlisted and a smattering of O6 and above. That’s in the military.
The second big group is academics. And military history is a pretty lonely field, so academics seem to like a place that welcomes military historians.
The third group is defense journalists, think tank people, guys at corporations in northern Virginia, things like that. It kind of amuses my wife—she says that within three miles of the Pentagon, I’m a minor celebrity. Beyond that I’m totally anonymous and very happy with that.
You’ve probably been to more than a few archives. What is the most interesting thing you’ve read or discovered?
There are a lot of exciting things in the archives. It just amazes me that you can sit there and if you ask for the right files and explain what you are looking for, and the people in the archives that work there tend to be very helpful, you can sit and hold maps that guys held on the beaches on D-Day. The original maps that have their markings on them, the markings they are making in pencil as they figure out where a German machine gun nest is, or where the lines of communications are.
But I gotta say, the single most moving thing I ever found were some letters by a general, Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Sicily in August, 1943; a very good division commander, a very tough fighter. Terry Allen was relived of division command by Omar Bradley. It was very public and he didn’t know why. He had just won the key battle of the campaign in central Sicily and then he got fired, along with his assistant division commander, who was Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the President. He writes back to his wife a series of letters in pencil on blue lined school notebook paper. And one day he writes to his wife, “Patton dropped by, Patton thinks I’m being promoted to something.” Which is totally BS. And I think Patton knew it. Eventually Allen gets sent back to America without a job. George Marshall, the Army chief, admired Allen even though Allen was a very heavy drinker. When Marshall found out that Allen had been fired by Bradley, I found in the archives a note Marshall wrote to an aide that said: “Give Allen another division that is going overseas. Give him the 82nd if that is next to go over.” And when Marshall was told the 82nd was not the next, Marshall said: “Give him the next division that comes up.” So a year later Marshall has Terry Allen back in Europe commanding the 104th Infantry Division.
To hold that series of letters where Allen is trying to figure out what is going on, in the midst of just having played a central role in the first American campaign against the Germans on European soil, is just amazing to me. That really was a heart stopping thing for me when doing research.
Still, I have to mention that one of the hazards I didn’t know about when doing research, is that I’ll be sitting there in the Army archives, reading these things in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and frequently I’ll go back to my hotel room and at night I’d begin hacking, and I’d realize that I’d ingested a lot of dust looking at files that people that hadn’t looked at for years and years. If I go again I think I will wear a mask next time.
What books would you recommend to the next US President? The next Secretary of Defense? The next Joint Chiefs of Staff?
I would recommend to all of them Cohen’s Supreme Command. For my money it is the best book about how the civilian leadership should run his military, and how military leaders should deal with their civilian overseers. It’s also about strategy. Strategy is not easy. If you are not crying than you are not making strategy. If you are not asking hard questions you are not making strategy. If you are not prioritizing between the important and the essential, you are not making strategy. Eliot Cohen’s book brings those points home and does it very well by examining a series of leaders and their decisions.
You are very good about not pushing your favorite articles on your blog. And at the end of the year you often run a top 20 most read articles. But I’m curious what are some of your favorite articles from guest authors?
You’re right, I try not push things, because I often run things I disagree with. Frequently an article will come out and I will make a comment, and then somebody reads it and writes me and says: “Sir, I am a big fan of your blog, but let me tell you why you are dead wrong.”And frequently I will write back and say, “that sounds interesting, why don’t you write it up into an article.” So a lot of articles come out of disagreements with me, or perhaps email exchanges.
As to favorite, I have two types. There is a special place in my heart for the pieces by the enlisted military personnel. I think officers have too large a voice in policy formulation, and that the enlisted have too small a voice, especially given their numbers. We have a very well educated, professional enlisted military these days. I don’t think we take sufficient notice of that or make sufficient use of it. So one of the things I try to do in the blog is I have this group called the “Council of Former Enlisted.” These are people who have been in the military but are now out, so they can speak freely. They are thinking about their experience. Many of them are in college, some of them are in grad school. And that council of the former enlisted I have really enjoyed. One of them in particular, Sebastian Bae, a former Marine sergeant has written a bunch of really good articles that I like.
I also want to mention another guy, Ryan Blum, who wrote a good article about living in Paris the past year. He said he went to Paris to get away from the war, but he found out with the terror attacks there in November that it followed him there.
Another article that is a favorite of mine is one that was published recently. It’s by a ninety-one-year-old Marine veteran of World War II. He writes about the country he knew as a child, the country he fought for during World War II. He ends up with a very gloomy conclusion. He says because of the income inequalities in this country these days, he thinks this country is not living up to the sacrifices he and his buddies made in World War II. We were fighting for a country of fairness and sharing, relative equality and income, he says, and now we don’t have that. The rich are much too rich in this country nowadays. A lot of people are struggling to get by, even with two incomes. He said that’s not the country I knew, that’s not the country I fought for. By having that country now, he concludes, we are not honoring the sacrifice of people who fought in World War II.
I understand you are working on a book on Orwell and Churchill? Can you tell us about your next project? What fascinates you about Orwell and Churchill?
Orwell and Churchill came to me oddly. The commonality is that in their youth they were both war correspondents. And so I came to them as a war correspondent myself. I actually did a staff ride in Spain with Eliot Cohen which I played the character of George Orwell.
And I’ve always enjoyed reading Churchill. So the interesting thing about these two are that they are so different, but they played such a key role in our understanding of totalitarianism, of fascism, of Communism — through Churchill’s speeches and Orwell’s essays and novels. It’s kind of parallel appreciation of the two. They never met each other, they admired each other, in fact, the hero in Orwell’s novel 1984 is named “Winston.”
At times you’ve been critical about military periodicals, and at other times you’ve praised some of the pieces in these periodicals. What would you do if you were the editor to make some of these periodicals better?
I look back to certain periodicals have good spells — times they should emulate. They shouldn’t do what Tom Ricks says, they should just do their best to be at their best. For example, Army Magazine I think is going through a very good spell and has for the last couple of years, and that’s changed—I mean, it used to be the dullest of military periodicals. Marine Corps Gazette in the 1980s and early 1990s was very powerful — it stood head and shoulders above the other military publications. And then I think it has been whipped around by the Commandants too much and kind of lost a lot of its bite that it used to have; it used to have really serious intellectual discussions — you just don’t really see that so much anymore. Likewise, Proceedings used to be very strong but really seems to me to be too focused on what’s going through Admirals’ minds these days. It’s run some absolutely fatuous pieces by admirals that just do not do it credit. So I think Proceedings has fallen down in recent years. And the Air Force, well, I see very little good writing coming out of it.
Decision time. Would you rather have Orwell’s Why I Write or Zinsser’s On Writing Well on your desk?
Here are the two things I recommend to anybody trying to write: One is Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s one of the best things written about the writing and about thinking.
The other is E.B. White’s book The Elements of Style. I actually tried to propose a rule policy at think tanks that I have worked at, which is that every intern must read this book and take a quiz on it before they start working here. I spent a lot of time working at think tanks, editing interns and translating their writing into English. And it’s not just interns, it’s also a lot of officers. Everybody who is trying to write for other people should read E.B. White’s Elements of Style. It’s short enough that you can read it in one night.
Tom Ricks, thank you so much for you joining us. All the best to you.
You are welcome. I enjoyed it.
Thomas Ricksis senior advisor for national security at the New America Foundation. He also is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog “The Best Defense,” which was named the best blog of the year by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2010, as well as the best military blog by Military Reporters & Editors. He is currently writing a study of the roles Winston Churchill and George Orwell played in shaping politics and culture of the 20th century.
Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. He reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was part of a Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. The series is posted at:
Ricks also was part of a Washington Post team that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism. Those articles are posted at:
He is the author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-05, which was a no. 1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second book on that war, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, was published in 2009. He also wrote Making the Corps, which won the Washington Monthly’s “Political Book of the Year” award. His first novel, A Soldier’s Duty, about the U.S. military intervening in Afghanistan, was published by Random House in June 2001–some four months before the U.S. actually did intervene there. He also has written on defense matters for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His most recent book is The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.
Born in Massachusetts in 1955, he grew up in New York and Afghanistan and graduated from Yale in 1977. He is married to Mary Catherine Ricks, author of Escape on the Pearl, a history of one of the biggest slave escapes in American history. They have two grown children. For recreation he enjoys sailing, hiking, sea kayaking, downhill skiing and reading military history.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the US Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii. Lieutenant Commander Nelson is a graduate of the US Naval War College and the navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The comments and questions above are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.