Tag Archives: Naval History

The U.S. Navy in the War of 1812: Winning the Battle but Losing the War, Pt. 1

By William J. Prom


Many popular American histories of the War of 1812 portray the conflict as a series of stunning successes for the young nation and the United States Navy in particular. This is a war that included storied events like the U.S. frigate Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides,’ the U.S. frigate Essex’s cruise of the Pacific, and numerous victorious frigate duels against the preeminent naval power of the era.

Some histories gloss over the U.S. Navy’s failures enough that it even appears the young nation won a war against the most powerful navy in the world. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, however, summed up the war quite differently stating that “although relieved by many brilliant incidents, indicative of the real spirit and capacity of the nation, the record upon the whole is one of gloom, disaster, and government incompetence, resulting from lack of national preparation, due to the obstinate and blind prepossessions of the Government, and, in part, of the people.”1 The U.S. Navy’s actions before and during the War of 1812 deserve critical examination to better evaluate the service’s success and understand how the war was fought. A consideration of the U.S. Navy’s preparation and conduct of the War of 1812 as a whole and at Lake Champlain in particular provides enduring lessons regarding maritime superiority and adversary-oriented planning.

Part One will discuss the U.S. Navy’s performance in general and Part Two will focus on Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s actions on Lake Champlain.

The Path to War

After resolving the Quasi War with France in 1800 and establishing peace in the Mediterranean with the Barbary States in 1805, the U.S. Navy’s clear antagonist was the British Royal Navy. Britain and France were in a relatively uninterrupted state of war with each other since the start of the French Revolution. The conflict intensified when Napoleon took control of France in 1803. To maintain their dominance on the seas, the Royal Navy relied on impressing sailors to man their ships. As a seafaring nation of immigrants mostly from the British Isles, American sailors were prime candidates for impressment into British service. American sovereignty and citizenship meant little to a monarchy that regarded its citizens as subjects indefinitely.

The British Government issued the first of their Orders in Council on January 6, 1807 to bolster their blockade of France. These Orders justified seizing and inspecting neutral ships to prevent any aid to Napoleon. American merchantmen were regularly stopped by the British to inspect cargo and impress sailors. On June 22, 1807, the most egregious infraction occurred when the frigate HMS Leopard stopped the American frigate Chesapeake off Norfolk. When the American Captain James Barron refused to allow the British aboard to inspect for suspected deserters, HMS Leopard opened fire.  Chesapeake was unprepared to engage and had to surrender after firing a single shot. The affair ended with three dead and eighteen injured aboard Chesapeake before giving up four suspected deserters to the British. President Thomas Jefferson believed that had Congress been in session or had he requested it, war would have been declared right then.2

The incident enraged the American public, but no change occurred with naval funding, manning, or deployment.  President Jefferson levied a heavy embargo against the British, and for their part the British Admiralty recalled HMS Leopard’s commander and admitted the error. The situation deescalated and soon the American public was enthralled by the revelation of Vice President Aaron Burr’s conspiracy and trial for treason. However, despite repeated American requests the British did not rescind the Orders in Council. Instead, they issued more and the impressments continued.

President James Madison spoke before Congress on June 1, 1812 regarding relations with Great Britain. He cited the impressment of American sailors, disregard for American sovereignty, and the plundering of American commerce as evidence of a state of war existing between the two nations.3 Since 1800, Great Britain captured 917 American ships and impressed 6,257 American seamen.4 With support from the War Hawks who sought to acquire Canada, Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Ironically, the British rescinded the maligned Orders in Council two days earlier.

In 1812 the British Navy included 130 ships of the line with 60-120 guns and 600 frigates and smaller vessels. And the U.S. Navy at that time? Seven frigates fit for sea, three needing repairs, eight brigs, schooners, or sloops, and 165 gunboats (of which 103 were in ordinary or under repair). Never large to begin with, the U.S. Navy almost evaporated after hostilities ended with Tripoli in 1805. Cuts continued even after the ChesapeakeLeopard incident in 1807, and accelerated in the spring of 1810.5 Naval historian Charles O. Paullin described succinctly that when Congress declared war, “the Navy Department was unprepared in every essential means, instrument, and material of naval warfare. It had no dry docks. It had few ships. With the exception of the naval establishment at Washington, the navy-yards were in a state of neglect and decay.”6 Thankfully for the U.S. Navy, Napoleon thoroughly occupied the British Navy and the American declaration of war was entirely unexpected by the British government. Of their hundreds of warships, the British had only one ship of the line, seven frigates, and a dozen smaller vessels operating out of Halifax in the summer of 1812.7

In the year before declaring war, Congress and the Navy Department did little to prepare for the conflict. In a country where many questioned the need for or even dreaded the existence of a standing military, the small staff of the Navy Department focused more on relevancy and survival than war preparations. Only months before the war, Congress slowly began a meager build-up but spent nothing on ship construction. Perhaps out of hubris, only weeks after declaring war Congress approved $829,000 for purchasing, repairing, and equipping captured enemy vessels. So much opposition to or disinterest in the war existed that Congress couldn’t pass a bill to build more ships until January 1813. They approved $2,500,000 for four ships of the line and six frigates—25 percent more than the Navy Department’s entire 1811 budget. These warships would never see combat against the British.8

The Maritime Frontier and the War at Sea

The U.S. Navy began the war with three objectives: defend the maritime frontier, capture enemy warships and merchantmen, and maintain naval superiority on the lakes. Defending the maritime frontier consisted of guarding the American ports with gunboats, barges, or other small craft. This consumed almost half the U.S. Navy’s personnel without even adequately manning every vessel. Early in the war, Congress spent almost $2 million to reinforce the maritime frontier, but unless supported by land-based defenses, they were entirely ineffectual.9 They occasionally discouraged small enemy vessels from entering harbors or landing, but could not stop attacks from entire British squadrons.10 In August 1814, Rear Admiral Cockburn’s squadron overwhelmed the flotilla defending Washington and landed Major General Ross’s army, which burned down the capital city. The money spent on gunboats could have built eight frigates, but most unfortunately, they were made from materials originally allocated for six ships of the line.11

The war at sea to capture enemy warships and merchantmen was the most desirable objective for naval officers and the most popular in historical accounts. The numerous ship duel victories in this theater are some of the most famous victories of the early U.S. Navy. They include Captain Isaac Hull and the frigate Constitution’s capture of the frigate HMS Guerriere, Captain Stephen Decatur and the frigate United States’ capture of the frigate HMS Macedonian, and Captain William Bainbridge and Constitution’s victory over the frigate HMS Java. These and most other victories at sea, however, occurred in the opening months of the war. By early 1813, the British had eleven ships of the line, thirty-four frigates, and fifty-two other vessels operating off North America, while the U.S. had only two frigates at sea.12 By November 1813, the British established a commercial blockade that stopped all traffic regardless of nationality across the entire east coast south of New England.13

The resources of the British Navy quickly overwhelmed the U.S. Navy’s famous heavy frigates. After evading the blockade out of New York in May 1813, Decatur’s squadron of the frigates United States and Macedonian and sloop Wasp had to escape to New London, CT.  They remained there for the rest of the war. After sinking HMS Java, Constitution saw little action. Even though the British did not yet have Boston under a full blockade, they kept “Old Ironsides” in Boston Harbor for most of the war. The frigate Congress managed to slip out of Boston, only to return by the end of the year too damaged to repair. Her guns were stripped and she spent the rest of the war in ordinary. The frigate Constellation never escaped Norfolk throughout the war.14 Again with a voice of reason, Mahan evaluated the U.S. Navy’s conduct of the war at sea accurately:

“Tradition, professional pride, and the combative spirit inherent in both peoples, compelled fighting when armed vessels of nearly equal strength met; but such contests, though wholly laudable from the naval standpoint, which under ordinary circumstances cannot afford to encourage retreat from an equal foe, were indecisive of general results, however meritorious in particular execution.”15

Ultimately, no amount of successful frigate duels could win a war against the most powerful navy in the world.

Earlier in April 1814, the British extended their blockade to include New England. American imports shrank more than 25 percent from 1811 and exports dropped from $108 million in 1807 to less than $7 million.16 In August, the British marched on Washington, D.C. and burned down the capital city. To deny the British any resources, the U.S. Navy burned down the Washington Navy Yard themselves, including the U.S. Navy’s first 74-gun ship of the line, Columbia.  Of the seventeen sea-going U.S. Navy vessels at the start of the war, only seven remained by its end.17 By the end of 1814, the British held almost as many U.S. Navy sailors as prisoners as the U.S. Navy had sailors out to sea.18 Signed on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent restored pre-war territorial borders but did not address the U.S.’s greatest concern, impressment. The British already ceased the practice. They had far less need for sailors after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig earlier in October 1814.

Part Two will provide a counterexample to the U.S Navy’s performance with Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s preparations at Lake Champlain.

William graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and served for five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan and afloat. He now writes with a focus on early American naval history.


1. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company, 1905), 1: 290.

2. Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 24.

3. “June 1, 1812: Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis — War Message,” Miller Center, February 23, 2017, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-1-1812-special-message-congress-foreign-policy-crisis-war.

4. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:299-300.

5. Charles Oscar Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 1775-1911 (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2012), 142, 148-150, 154; Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York: Putnam, 1902), 1:109-110.

6. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147.

7. Ships at Sea extract from the Admiralty Office, July 1, 1812, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 1:180-182; Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:109-110.

8. Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-149.

9. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:244-246; Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 147-154.

10. Paullin 147-148, 151-154; TR 98-100

11. J. Russell Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881) https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1881-07/naval-campaign-1812.

12. First Secretary of the Admiralty John W. Crocker to Admiral Sir John B. Warren, February 10, 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2:16-19; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 2:13.

13. Borneman, 1812, 174.

14. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 1:204-208; Borneman, 1812, 175.

15. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:289.

16. Borneman, 1812, 216; Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 1:406-407; Allan Reed Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 112.

17. Soley, “The Naval Campaign of 1812,” Proceedings 7, no. 3 (October 1881).

18. Jones to Madison, October 26, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:631-636.

Featured Image: “Action between U.S. Frigate Constitution and HMS Java, 29 December 1812″Painting in oils by Charles Robert Patterson. It depicts Constitution (at left), commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, exchanging broadsides with the British Frigate Java off Brazil early in the action. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Geometry of War at Sea: The Leyte Gulf Example

LCDR Daniel T. Murphy, U.S. Navy


General MacArthur’s operational idea, eventually embraced by Admiral Nimitz, President Roosevelt, and the Joint Chiefs, was to retake the Philippines as an intermediate base of operations from which to launch air strikes against Formosa, and eventually the Japanese home islands. Leyte was selected as the initial entry point to the Philippines because it had an “excellent anchorage” and was a location from which land-based bombers could reach all parts of the Philippines, the coast of China, and Formosa.1

The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had a strong feeling that the two prongs of the American offensive would converge on the Philippines in what Milan Vego would describe as a penetration maneuver, where the attacker seeks to break up or penetrate a selected sector of the defender’s main line of position and move into his rear area.2  Japan’s most critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) to the southern resource area ran through the Philippines. The Luzon Strait was an especially important SLOC. According to Donald Chisolm, the southern resource area provided 75 percent of the world’s rubber, 66 percent of the world’s tin, and had initially given Japan self-sufficiency in petroleum.  U.S. anti-shipping activities through 1944 had already reduced Japan’s oil supply to a trickle. Losing the Philippines would run the well dry.3

When U.S. forces landed in Leyte, Japan had prepared a quick counterattack in the hope of forcing the Mahanian battle they had sought since Midway. To destroy the U.S. fleet and retain the Philippines, Japan’s SHO-1 plan involved a double envelopment maneuver that required careful synchronization between diversionary and attacking forces.

Lines of Operation

For the invasion of Leyte, U.S. forces had one principal line of operation and two ancillary lines. The principal line was the landing on the western shore of Leyte, under the operational control of MacArthur. This principal line included land, sea and air components. The Seventh Fleet naval component, under Admiral Kinkaid, included a Northern TF 78 under Rear Admiral Barbey which landed at Tacloban and a Southern TF 89 under Vice Admiral Wilkinson which landed at Dulag.

Prior to the initiation of the principal line of operation, the first ancillary line was initiated by Vice Admiral Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38. TF 38, which included carrier groups TG 38.1, 38.2, 38.3 and 38.4, attacked Japanese air bases in Okinawa, Luzon, and Formosa. By destroying more than 500 aircraft and reducing Japan’s cadre of newly trained pilots, this initial ancillary line of operation reduced Japan’s air capacity to challenge the U.S. movement into Leyte.

A second ancillary line was the protection of the landing operation. This ancillary line had two operational commanders. Admiral Kinkaid had tactical control of multiple Seventh Fleet components, including the Fire Support Group TG 77.2, the Close Covering Group TG 77.3, the Escort Carrier Group TG 77.4 under Rear Admiral Sprague (which included the carriers assigned to Taffy 1, 2, 3 and 4), and the PT boat squadrons assigned to TG 70.1. Also providing protection to the landing operation was Halsey’s Fast Carrier TF 38, over which MacArthur did not have operational control. TF38 transitioned from the first ancillary line to this second ancillary line after the initial landings were completed. Halsey reported directly to Nimitz at CINCPAC and had a supporting relationship with MacArthur and Kinkaid.  Arguably, the lack of unified command over this secondary but critical line is one of the reasons that the Leyte operation was put at risk when Halsey uncovered the San Bernardino Strait to pursue the Japanese Northern force.

Approach of Naval Forces in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf (Via history.army.mil)

The deployment of the U.S. submarines DARTER and DACE to intercept and reduce Kurita’s Center Force as it approached the operating area may be considered a third ancillary line, especially since the subs were strategic assets that remained under CINCPAC control. 

To counterattack against the U.S. invasion, Japan had one principal and one ancillary line of operation.  According to Vego, Japan’s principal line of operation was the Center Force under Vice Admiral Kurita that intended to penetrate the San Bernardino Strait and attack U.S. landing forces at Tacloban. Vego said the Southern Force under Vice Admirals Shima and Nishimura that intended to transit Surigao and attack the U.S. landing force from the south was an ancillary line.4  One could argue that the Center and Southern forces were either: (a) two pincer components of one principal line of operation; or (b) two separate principal lines. The diversionary Northern force under Vice Admiral Ozawa was the ancillary line intended to divert the U.S. fast carrier task forces to the north, so that they could not threaten the Center and Southern Forces.

As the battle evolved, Japanese lines of operation remained static. However, U.S. lines shifted between 24-25 October. Halsey created a new line of operation when he transitioned TF 38 from a covering force to an offensive force focused on Ozawa’s Northern force.  Admiral Kinkaid created two new lines of operation when he detached Rear Admiral Oldendorf to guard Surigao Strait with his battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and PT boats against the Southern Force, and Rear Admiral Sprague to defend against Center Force which came through San Bernardino.

Basing Structure and Impact on Operations

Per Vego’s definition, a base of operations should provide multiple short lines of operations.5 Before Leyte, Japan occupied what Vego called a “central position with respect to the adjacent Asian landmass and any hostile force approaching from across the Pacific.”6 Compared to the U.S., Japan had multiple relatively short interior lines of communication. The Japanese home islands were the main base, and Luzon was an intermediate base.

However, as explained by Chisolm, Japan’s combined interior lines totaled more than 18,000 nautical miles and the Luzon Strait was a significant choke point in that network. The Japanese had not built sufficient submarines or destroyers to protect those lines and they had not built sufficient shipping capacity to make up for losses due to U.S. anti-shipping efforts.7 So, although Japan had a base of operations with multiple short interior lines, the U.S. found the weak points in that base early in the war and attacked it with the submarine force. Then, in the campaigns leading up to the Leyte operation, U.S. forces eliminated several of Japan’s fleet oilers. As a result, after the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Japanese carriers returned to home waters where they could be protected by land-based aircraft and continue to train pilots. Japan’s other large combatants moved to Lingga Roads (Singapore), where they had access to oil, but less access to ammunition and less ability to operate with the carriers.

Thus, in the summer of 1944, the Japanese basing structure was already significantly weakened. If the U.S. was able to dislodge Japan from their intermediate base in Luzon, they would essentially turn Japan’s network of interior lines into a network of exterior lines, vulnerable not only to continued submarine attack, but also to land-based air attack.

Japanese shipping routes destroyed during the Leyte Operation. (Via history.army.mil)

In comparison, the U.S. occupied what Vego calls an exterior position in the theater. The U.S. mainland was the main base of operations, and Hawaii was an intermediate base. As explained by Chisolm, the U.S.’s exterior lines into the South Pacific were extremely long – more than six thousand miles from the U.S. mainland, and more than two thousand miles from Australia.8 However, the U.S. exterior lines were not as vulnerable as the Japanese interior lines. While the Japanese fleet was suffering from attrition, the U.S. fleet was expanding, and each month was able to increase the number of escort resources dedicated to the protection of shipping. And while Japan’s link to their southern resource area was becoming increasingly tenuous, CONUS-based war production was hardly resource-constrained.

Decisive Points in the Operation

Vego defines a decisive point as a geographic location or source of military or non-military power to be targeted for destruction or neutralization.9 As Vego suggests, the San Bernardino and Surigao Straits were decisive points for the Japanese heavy surface forces in their intended advance to Leyte Gulf.10 However, for Japan, the most decisive point in the operation was in the Leyte Gulf itself, where the U.S. landing force would be vulnerable and where the Seventh and Third fleets would be protecting the landings. It was there that Admiral Toyoda planned for his pincers to join in a combined action against the U.S. fleet, ideally with a Mahanian ending.

In contrast, prior to Japan’s counter attack, U.S. forces focused on two decisive points: the northern and southern landing zones on the west coast of Leyte. When Japanese forces counter-attacked, the U.S. changed focus and saw the two straits, San Bernardino and Surigao, as the most decisive points. As a result, Admiral Kinkaid massed the firepower of his surface fleet in the Surigao Strait and expected the airpower of Halsey’s TF 38 to cover San Bernardino. 


MacArthur’s operational idea of capturing the Philippines to create an intermediate base of operations for air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands worked. Seven years after Leyte, Nimitz said “from hindsight . . . I think that decision was correct.”11  In summary, U.S. lines of operation were more flexible and less interdependent than the Japanese lines of operation. Ironically, the external U.S. basing structure, when looked at holistically, had greater durability than the internal Japanese basing structure. Also, the U.S. more effectively concentrated kinetic effects on specific decisive points in the geography, and specifically in the Surigao Strait. U.S. forces ultimately won at Leyte because they better exploited the geometry of the operating area.  

Daniel T. Murphy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, currently serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence. In his civilian career, he is a full-time professor at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. Lieutenant Commander Murphy earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and from the National Intelligence University. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government.


[1] M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines, Washington: Center for Military History, 1993), 3.

[2] Milan Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2009), VII-54.

[3] Donald Chisolm, Leyte Gulf: The Strategic Background (NWC lecture), U.S. Naval War College, 2009.

[4] Vego, IV-64.

[5] Vego, IV-56.

[6] Vego, IV-53.

[7] Chisolm (NWC lecture).

[8] Chisolm.

[9] Vego, IV-60.

[10] Vego, IV-61.

[11] Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944-January 1945, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1958) 10.

Featured Image: The crew of the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku salute as the flag is lowered during the battle off Cape Engaño, October 25, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.)

Why Does the United States of America Need a Strong Navy?

The following essay is the winning entry of the CIMSEC 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest.

By Patrick C. Lanham

The United States of America was, is, and will remain a maritime nation. Flanked by vast oceans, covered from the north by Canadian arctic and the south by Mexican desert, the United States occupies one of the strongest strategic positions of any nation in history. This, however, comes at a cost: to trade and interact with most of the world, America must cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This exposes American trade to hostile nations, even relatively weak ones. This is not a new concept for American strategic planners. The United States’ first overseas conflict, the Barbary Wars, stemmed from this exact vulnerability. That struggle continues to this day, with the most recent example being U.S. Navy intervention in the Maersk Alabama hijacking by pirates off Somalia in 2009. Therefore, it has always been in the vital interest of this country to maintain a strong, well-resourced, and well-led navy. Without one, there is no conceivable way the United States could continue to maintain the world’s greatest economy in today’s globalized world.

Whenever America was most threatened or imperiled by conflict, the United States Navy has always stepped up to meet the challenge. From sparring with the great powers of Europe, to constricting the Confederacy, decisively defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy, and deterring the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy has a proven track record of keeping America safe. By projecting outwards, the United States has kept war and devastation away from American shores. This is a solid policy, but it is one that requires a strong navy to pursue in any meaningful manner. This is further enhanced by a robust network of allies which the United States currently enjoys, but these nations will not sit on the frontlines without clear evidence of credible and capable American commitment to their own security. In this regard, what better signal of commitment is there than the strongest Navy in the world off their coast?

A strong navy, used in concert with allied nations and backed up by a vigorous economy, is a potent deterrent to conflict and enables diplomacy. It convinces adversaries that war is either unwinnable or too costly to wage. This helps the United States negotiate favorable outcomes through diplomacy, which will always be preferable to war. Some might argue that by building a strong navy or military in general, it promotes jingoism and can escalate tensions between rivals. While this is certainly true in some historical instances, I would argue that in America’s case it has prevented conflict much more than it has incited it. For example, during the Cold War, the U.S. Navy integrated with the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and played a crucial role in containing the Soviet Navy in the North Atlantic. If not for their strong presence, any effort to reinforce NATO forces at the inner German border, in the event of a war with the Warsaw Pact, would have been spoiled by Soviet submarines. As we know, that war never happened and that is due in no small part to the U.S. Navy, which was both large and technologically advanced during that time period.

Yet again the United States stands at another crossroads in history. The post-Cold War peace is slowly eroding as revisionist powers seek to alter, through coercion, the international order to their benefit. Some nations, considered “near-peer” competitors, boast strong naval capabilities of their own. China is in the midst of a particularly large naval buildup using their extensive industrial base and newfound wealth to rapidly increase the quality and quantity of their naval forces. The U.S. Navy once again finds itself center stage in a great power rivalry after a nearly three-decade hiatus. The conflicts are dynamic, the competition is intense, and the advantages are fleeting. This is the new reality that we face today as a nation returning to competition with near-peer states. A strong United States Navy brings with it many tools that are useful to strategically outmaneuver these competitors. Chief among these tools is flexibility. In a world diseased with uncertainty, flexibility is the cure. It is not only critical to warfighting, but critical to avoiding conflict. A strong, well-trained, flexible navy is able to respond and adapt to new situations to maintain escalation control, but also fight to win if things go south. More on the warfighting side of the house, flexibility better enables U.S. forces in key regions to counter asymmetric threats or weapons – a favorite among some of the more prominent American adversaries. Another key tool is presence. A bigger, stronger navy is able to be deployed to build partnerships, deter potential enemies, and quickly respond to threats in more places across the globe. One only has to look at the recent chemical weapons use in Syria and the subsequent American response to realize that this not an abstract theory, but a proven concept.

For the United States, a strong navy is not a “want” but a “need.” Historically, it has been extremely effective at advancing U.S. national interests.  It is critical to deterring foreign adversaries and maintaining prosperity, not just for the U.S., but for all nations. Nations that have free and unrestricted access to global sea lanes for trade are more likely to grow and prosper which reduces the chance of conflict inside and outside its own borders. Throughout history, a strong navy has been a source of national pride and the United States is no exception. It gives us confidence and optimism as a society, and allows us to sleep at night knowing that someone has our backs.

Patrick C. Lanham graduated from Cocoa Beach High School and will be attending the University of Central Florida to study International and Global Studies. He may be reached on Twitter @p_lanham or via e-mail at pclanham@cfl.rr.com.

Featured Image: USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the Pacific Ocean with ships participating in the RIMPAC 2010 combined task force. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Dylan McCord)