Tag Archives: Navy General Board

Crimes of Command in the U.S. Navy – A Conversation with Michael Junge

By Christopher Nelson

Recently, Captain Michael Junge published an interesting book on why and under what circumstances the U.S. Navy relieves commanding officers. His book, Crimes of Command, begins in 1945 and proceeds through numerous historical case studies up to the modern era. I think many people – not only those in the surface warfare community – but commanders, leaders, and sailors in other communities will find our exchange interesting.

The book is worth your time – and it is a perennial topic that deserves attention.

Nelson: Would you briefly describe what the book is about and why you wanted to write it?

Junge: In short, it’s about why the Navy removes commanding officers from command – the incidents that lead to removal, the individuals removed, and what the Navy does about the incident and the individual. But instead of a look at just one or two contemporary cases, I went back to 1945 and looked across seven decades to see what was the same and what changed.

Nelson: In the book, when referring to the process of relieving commanding officers, you talk about words like “accountability,” “culpability,” and “responsibility.” These words, you say, matter when talking about why commanding officers are relieved. Why do they matter and how do they differ?

Junge: The common usage blends all three into one – accountability. We see this with the press reports on last summer’s collisions – the Navy’s actions are referred to as accountability actions.” Most people, I think, read that line as “punitive actions” mostly because that’s what they are. But accountability isn’t about punishment – it’s about being accountable, which is to give an accounting of what happened, to explain one’s actions and thoughts and decisions. The investigations themselves are an accountability action. The investigations are supposed to determine who was responsible for the problem, what happened, who was at fault, and then determine if within that responsibility and fault there is also culpability.

Culpability is about blame – accountability is not, even if we use it as such. In investigations, when you mix culpability, blame, and accountability together end up being about finding fault and levying punishment instead of finding out what happened. That keeps us from learning from the incident and preventing future occurrences. We’ve completely lost that last part over the past few decades if we even had it to begin with. Every collision I looked at, for example, had four or five things that were the same – over seven decades.

Nelson: Later in the book, you say that as virtues, honor, courage, and commitment are not enough. How should we reexamine those virtues? Isn’t this always the challenge – the challenge of the pithy motto vs. the substantive truth, that’s what I was getting at. And it’s not that there is some truth to the motto or slogan, but rarely are they sufficient alone – yes?

Junge: Honor, courage, and commitment make for a great slogan, but will only be inculcated in the force when our leaders routinely say them and live by them. I wrote a piece for USNI Proceedings in 2013 that commented on how naval leaders rarely used those words. That hasn’t changed. If they are used it’s in prepared text and often used as a cudgel. Leaders need to exemplify virtues – we learn from their example – and if they don’t use the words we don’t really know if they believe in them. But they are a great start, and they are ours – both Navy and Marine Corps.

What I meant in the book is that honor, courage, and commitment aren’t enough for an exploration of virtues in general. For the Navy, they are an acceptable starting point. For individual officers, or for the Naval profession, we need to think deeper and far more introspectively. My latest project is looking at the naval profession and a professional ethic. My personal belief is that we don’t need, or want, an ethical code. Or if we have one it needs to be like the Pirate Code – more as guidelines than rules. There’s science behind this which is beyond our scope here, but rules make for bad virtues and worse ethics. Rules tend to remove thought and press for compliance. At one level that’s great, but compliance tends to weed out initiative and combat leaders need initiative.

Nelson: So, after studying the historical data and specific events from 1945 to 2015, what did you conclude? Why are there more commanding officers relieved today than there were fifty years ago?

Junge: Even after all the research and the writing, this is a tough one for me to encapsulate. In my dissertation defense, I made a joke at the end that the reason we remove more officers now is complicated. And it is. Every removal is a little different from the others. That makes linking details difficult. But, when you lift back a little and take a really long view, I could find some trends. Not only do we remove more commanders today, we do it for more reasons, and we have almost completely ended any sort of recovery for officers removed from command.

Chart courtesy of the author.

Without giving too much away, because I do want people to read the actual book, today’s removals come down to a couple of things – press, damage (material or emotional) to the Navy, and the commander’s chain of command. If the chain of command relationship is poor, the press gets a story, and there is some level of damage to the Navy (metal bent, people hurt, or image tarnished) then the commander is likely to go. But it’s not a direct line. Sometimes the information comes out later – we saw this with USS Shiloh last year and in one of the cases I covered, the helicopter crash in USS William P Lawrence. Neither commander was removed from command, but both careers were halted after the investigations were done and the administrative side of the Navy took over. If those incidents happened in the 1950s or 1960s, both commanding officers would have unquestionably moved forward with their careers. Whether that would be good or bad depends entirely on what those officers might have done with the knowledge gained from the investigations that challenged their leadership and individual character but we won’t know anymore. Maybe we should.

Nelson: When you started this book and after looking at the data, did anything surprise you? Did you go in with particular opinions or develop a theory that the data disproved or clarified?

Junge: When I started this I was pretty sure there were differences. One of the reasons I pulled all the data together was because in 2004 the Navy Inspector General issued a report that said, in essence, that a one percent removal rate was normal. If one percent was normal in 2004, when we had fewer than 300 ships, then we should have heard something about removing COs when we had 1000, or 3000, ships. But, we didn’t. So that there was a change wasn’t surprising.

I started off thinking that Tailhook was a major inflection point. I intended a whole chapter on the incident and investigation. In the end, the data didn’t support it – the inflection had already happened and Tailhook, especially its aftermath, was indicative of the change. I’m not minimizing the impact Tailhook had on Navy culture – we are still dealing with echoes twenty-five years later – but for the trend of removing commanders, it wasn’t a watershed. Likewise, I thought the late 1960s to early 1970s might be an inflection point – we had a rough couple years with major collisions, attacks, fires, Vietnam – but the data showed it wasn’t the turning point I expected.

It wasn’t until I plotted the information out that I saw the inflection of the early 1980s. When I saw the changes in the graph I had to go back to the research to sort out why. It was both frustrating and encouraging. It showed me I wasn’t trying to force data to fit a pre-selected answer, but it also meant leaving a lot of research behind.

Nelson: You go into some detail in your book about court-martials. Historically, why does the navy rarely take commanding officers to court martial?

Junge: The simple reason is that the Navy has a difficult time proving criminal acts by commanding officers. It’s not a new problem. When officers are taught to think for themselves and have sets and reps thinking critically, then when on a jury they are likely to take the evidence and make their own minds up. And that conclusion may run counter to what Navy leadership wants. Getting courts-martial into that real true arbiter of guilt and innocence was a major win for the post-World War II military. But, since leaders can’t control courts-martial anymore we now see this major abuse of administrative investigations, which runs counter to our own regulations on how we are supposed to handle investigations of major incidents and accidents.

Nelson: In fact, you threw in an anecdote in your book about Nimitz issuing letters of reprimand to the jury members on Eliot Loughlin’s court-martial. This was fascinating. What happened in that case?

Junge: In April 1945, Lieutenant Commander Charles Elliot Loughlin sank a ship without visually identifying it. The ship turned out to be a protected aid transport with 2,000 civilians aboard. Nimitz removed Loughlin from command and ordered his court-martial. The court found Loughlin guilty but only sentenced him to Secretarial Letter of Admonition. Nimitz was reportedly furious and issued letters of reprimand to the members of the court. In just answering this question I realize I never dug deep into what happened to those members – I might need to do that.   

Anyway, that was a rare case of Nimitz being angry. And in retrospect, I wonder if he was angry, or if he was protecting the court from the CNO Admiral King. There’s a story I’ve been percolating on in how Nimitz and King had differing ideas of responsibility and culpability. King was a hardliner – King could be seen as the archetype for modern culpability and punishment. There were some exceptions but he was pretty binary – screw up, get relieved. Nimitz was the opposite. Halsey put Nimitz into multiple tough spots where Halsey probably should have been removed from command – but Nimitz knew Halsey and erred on the side of that knowledge rather than get caught up in an arbitrary standard. That’s why I think those letters were out of character. But I have to temper that with the very real knowledge that Loughlin committed a war crime, was pretty blasé about it, blamed others, very likely put American prisoners of war in more danger than they already were, and might have endangered the war termination effort. Those conclusions run counter to the modern mythology around Loughlin, but are in keeping with the actual historical record.

Nelson: And if I recall, there was an XO that chose court martial rather than NJP ten or so years ago after a sailor on the ship was killed during a small boat operation. The XO was exonerated and cleared from any wrongdoing by the jury. Fleet Forces ended up putting a statement out how he disagreed with the verdict.

Junge: USS San Antonio – LCDR Sean Kearns. Sean remains one of my heroes for forcing the system to do what it says it will do. I firmly believe that Admiral Harvey stepped well outside his professional role and made his persecution of Sean a personal matter when he issued some messages and letters after the acquittal. I know among many SWOs that Harvey’s actions after the verdict really altered their opinions of him. Sean’s case is also major reason I am in favor of the Navy ending the “vessel exception” which precludes anyone assigned to a sea-going command from refusing non-judicial punishment and demanding a court-martial. Too many Navy leaders abuse this option. I know of a story where an officer was flown from his homeport to Newport, RI for non-judicial punishment, and another where an officer was flown from Guam to Norfolk for NJP. There are more cases where officers were removed from command, but kept assigned to sea duty so that they could not refuse NJP. That this even happens completely belies the intent behind the vessel exception.  

Nelson: You also talk in some detail about Admiral Rickover and the culture he fostered and how that culture affected command. Overall, how did he affect command culture?

Junge: This was my biggest surprise. If you’d talked to me before I started and asked about Rickover I’d have easily said he had nothing to do with the changes. Wow –that was wrong. I’m not sure how I could ever think that someone who served almost 30 years as a flag officer, hand selected each and every nuclear-trained officer, and personally inspected each and every nuclear ship for decades didn’t influence Navy culture. Rickover ends up with the better part of a chapter in a story I didn’t think he was even part of. But, the culture we have today is, I think, not the one he intended. Maybe.

Rickover was, and remains, an individual who brings up conflicted memories and has a conflicted legacy. Like many controversial figures, the stories about him often eclipse the reality behind them. I’ll paraphrase a student who spoke of my colleague, Milan Vego, and his writings – you have to read about Rickover because if you just reject him completely, that’s wrong – and if you just accept him at face value, that’s wrong – you have to read and think and read some more, then come to your own conclusion. I can tell you that in the professional ethic piece I am working on, I expect Rickover’s legacy to play an important part.

Nelson: If I recall, I believe you self-published this book. How was that process? Would you recommend it for other writers? What did you learn when going through this process for publication?

Junge: The process, for me, was pretty simple. Getting to the process was very difficult. We know the adage of judging a book by its cover – well there’s also a stigma of judging a book by its publisher.

Actually getting a book published through an established publisher, the conventional process, takes well over a year and is full of norms and conventions that, from the outside, seem unusual. In the same way that we wonder “how did that movie get made?” when you go through the process of publishing, you start to wonder “how did that book get published?” I have a long time friend who is a two-time New York Times bestselling author who gave me some great advice on the conventional route. Just getting the basics can take up to an hour of discussion.

I tried the conventional route but after sending dozens of emails to book agents and getting only a few responses back, all negative, I checked with a shoremate who self-published his own fiction and decided to take that route partly out of impatience, frustration, and curiosity. I’m just good enough at all the skills you need to self-publish that it worked out to be pretty easy, with one exception – publicity. I’m not good at self-promotion so even asking friends to read the book and write reviews was a challenge.

Anyway, whether I recommend the self-publication process – it depends entirely on your own goals and desires. I wanted my book read – that was my core focus. To do that I could have just posted a PDF and moved on. But, I also wanted to make a few dollars in the process – and people who pay for a book are a little more likely to read it. This book grew out of my doctoral dissertation and I have a friend who is doing the same thing – but his goals were different. His core goals are different – he’s a full-on academic and needs the credibility of an academic publishing house for his curriculum vitae. We both defended around the same time – his book comes out sometime next year. I’m happy to spend more time talking about what I learned in the process, but the best advice I can give is for authors to figure out their objectives first. That is probably the most important thing. Everything else can fall into place after that.

Nelson: I ask this question in many of my interviews, particularly of naval officers – if you had ten minutes with the CNO, and if he hadn’t read your book, what would you tell him about Crimes of Command? What would you recommend he do to change the culture if change was necessary?

Junge: I really thought about punting on this one and running the note our Staff Judge Advocate has been running about Article 88 and Article 89 of the UCMJ (contemptuous words and disrespect toward senior commissioned officers). If I had ten minutes with CNO I doubt I would get 60 seconds of speaking time. My conclusions run completely counter to Navy lore about accountability and 10 minutes isn’t enough time to change anyone’s mind. But, as I thought about it I think I would say this: “CNO, we have really got to follow our own instructions. If an instruction says ‘do this’ then we need to do it, or change the instruction. We can’t have flag officers making personal decisions about this rule or that based on short-term ideas and feelings. If the situation doesn’t fit the rule, either follow the rule with pure intent or change the rule. But we can’t just ignore it. That’s an example that leads us, as a profession, down bad roads.” I would hope that question would then lead to a conversation of leadership by example that would include everything from Boards of Inquiry to travel claims to General Military Training.

Nelson: Sir, thanks for taking the time.

Michael Junge is an active duty Navy Captain with degrees from the United States Naval Academy, United States Naval War College, the George Washington University, and Salve Regina University.  He served afloat in USS MOOSBRUGGER (DD 980), USS UNDERWOOD (FFG 36), USS WASP (LHD 1), USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68) and was the 14th Commanding Officer of USS WHIDBEY ISLAND (LSD 41). Ashore he served with Navy Recruiting; Assault Craft Unit FOUR; Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources, Headquarters, Marine Corps; Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Communication Networks (N6); and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has written extensively with articles appearing in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings magazine, US Naval War College’s Luce.nt, and online at Information Dissemination, War on the Rocks, Defense One, and CIMSEC. The comments and opinions here are his own.

Christopher Nelson is an intelligence officer in the United States Navy.  He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and views here are his own.

Featured Image:  (FORT BELVOIR, Va. (May 04, 2017) Hundreds of service members at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital gathered before daybreak and celebrated their unique service cultures and bonds as one of the only two joint military medical facilities in the U.S. during a spring formation and uniform transition ceremony May 4, 2017. (Department of Defense photos by Reese Brown)

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.)