The Yom Kippur War (1973) was a war of great victory for the Israeli Navy, in contrast to the Israeli Air Force and Army. The Navy’s success in the Yom Kippur War was the fruit of lessons learned by the Navy during the Six-Day War (1967), in which the Navy failed in most of its missions, even though they were insignificant in the grand campaign conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
After the Six-Day War, the Navy suffered a wide budget cut, with most of the IDF’s budget directed to strengthening the Air Force and the ground forces, which had proved their importance and capabilities in the war against the Arab armies. Moreover, during these years, the Navy experienced two disastrous events: the sinking of the INS Eilat by a barrage of anti-ship missiles from Egyptian missile boats (October 1967); and the loss of the submarine INS Dakar (January 1968).
In the process of drawing lessons from the Six-Day War and the other two events, the Navy realized that it must act with its relatively limited resources to build its power and develop a response to the naval threats of Syria and Egypt. The two countries’ navies began a buildup process that intensified in the 1960s by acquiring Soviet Osa-classmissile boats, equipped with advanced Styx anti-ship missiles, a fairly novel capability at the time.
Following the war, Israel’s navy changed its combat doctrine and started operating with small and fast missile boats (which replaced larger surface combatants equipped with cannons). From the INS Eilat sinking’s lessons and insights, the Navy realized that it had to equip the new ships with advanced radars for long-range target detection and surface-to-surface missiles against the potential threat of dozens of Egyptian and Syrian Osa missile boats.
The Gabriel anti-ship missiles developed indigenously by the Israeli defense industry in the late 1960s were short-range missiles (about 11 nm). This range was significantly shorter than the Russian Styx missiles’ range (about 24 nm). The difference in the ranges of the two missiles created a significant operational problem for the Israeli Navy. The Israeli missile boats had to operate within the weapons engagement zone of the Russian Styx missiles’ to fight against the Osa missile boats.
To cope with the operational problem and enable the effective firing of the Gabriel missiles against the Osas, the Israeli Navy developed electronic warfare systems. The systems were meant to transmit electromagnetic signals based on understanding how the attacking missile’s homing seeker operates (active electronic warfare), along with the launch of decoy rockets scattering clouds of metal particles (chaff). The jamming signals, together with the chaff, made it possible to mislead the attacking missile’s seeker, thus diverting it from its flight trajectory and preventing it from hitting its target.
During the Yom Kippur War, more than 50 Styx missiles were fired from Syrian and Egyptian missile boats against the Israeli missile boats, but none of them hit intended targets. The Israeli Navy missile boats all returned to their base safely after sinking most of the Syrian and Egyptian Navy ships by firing Gabriel missiles under the electronic warfare systems’ protective umbrella.
When designing the electronic warfare systems to protect the vessels, the Navy assumed that the Soviet Styx missiles were designed for use against large ships and would not be able to hit small targets such as the Sa’ar-classmissile boats. But an incident in 1970 completely changed the Navy’s mindset.
In May 1970, a fishing boat named Orit was sunk off the Egyptian coast by Styx missiles fired by the Egyptian Navy. The sinking of the fishing boat proved that the Styx missiles were also effective against small ships, forcing the Navy to change its electronic warfare systems’ design, capabilities, and doctrine. The sinking of the Orit and the deaths of two fishermen arguably saved the lives of hundreds of missile boat sailors three years later in the Yom Kippur War.
The Orit fishing boat
These were the days of the war of attrition. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, was unwilling to accept the results of the Six-Day War, and in a speech delivered on May 1, 1970, he threatened to attack Israel by air, land, and sea. In his speech, Nasser emphasized that the Egyptian Navy would sink any Israeli ship found in Egyptian maritime territory without warning.
During the period between the two wars, many Israeli vessels sailed in the Bardawil Lake area (in the vicinity of Port Said, Egypt). Most of them were fishing boats, trying to make a living from the fisheries in the area. In order for the Navy to guarantee their safety, the fishing boats were required to report their location to the Navy four times a day (08:00, 13:30, 16:30, and 00:30).
The Orit was a relatively small fishing boat (about 20 meters long and with a tonnage of about 75 tons) that regularly operated from the port of Ashdod. The fishing boat had a four-person crew led by Captain Adam Yassar.
On Wednesday, May 13, 1970, about two weeks after Nasser’s speech, the fishing boat crew decided to sail towards Bardawil Lake, where there was a large quantity of fish and where nighttime fishing was relatively easy. That evening, about twenty miles from Bardawil Lake, the Orit sent its last location report on its way north.
At about 22:30, between three and four Styx missiles were fired by the Egyptian Osas toward two Israeli Sa’ar-classmissile boats that were in the Bardawil Lake area. The Israeli missile boats used their electronic warfare systems and were not hit by the Egyptian missiles, which were heard exploding in the distance. But shortly after the Styx missiles’ blasts were heard, the Orit mark disappeared from the radar screens of the Israeli missile boats. The attempts to call Orit went unanswered.
The next morning, May 14, no further report had been received from Orit and the loss of communication caused a great deal of concern. Extensive searches for the Orit began at sea using other fishing boats and Navy missile boats. That day, remnants of the fishing boat were discovered floating on the water. The remains of the boat were removed from the water and brought to Israel. Most of the boat’s hull remained on the seabed.
Two of the Orit’s crew survived the missiles and managed to float on the water. They swam for over a day toward the Sinai coast where their lives were saved. But two of its crew members, Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, did not survive.
Ackerman’s body was found floating on the water, and Adam Yaasar was trapped in the wheelhouse and drowned with the boat’s remains. Adam Yassar’s body was found only after about eight days by a commando unit team, who dived to search for him in the wreck of the boat left on the seabed.
One of the survivors, Oded Kopelnik, reported what happened and said that two Styx missiles exploded over the fishing boat and caused it to disintegrate and sink.
Following the incident, the Israeli Navy and its commander, Admiral Avraham Botzer, were severely criticized by the press, with concerns about the Navy’s ability to secure Israeli fishing boats and merchant ships in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The allegations were that the Navy did not build the maritime picture as required, did not maintain continuous contact with the Israeli fishing boats operating in the arena, and did not provide them with spatial protection from the threat of warships and Egyptian missile batteries.
The allegations were that the Navy had not drawn lessons from incidents in the years before the Orit’s destruction. The Orit’s sinking came two years after INS Eilat, the Navy destroyer, sank in the exact same area by the same model missiles fired by Egyptian missile boats. What is more, in February and April 1970, several months before Orit sank, the Navy was unable to prevent an Egyptian commando force’s daring operation to mine a vessel in the port of Eilat.
The Orit incident was another layer in the allegations made against the Navy about its inability to fulfill its obligations to maintain the Israeli maritime border and the merchant ships’ security at that time. There were calls for establishing a state commission of inquiry to investigate the Navy’s sequence of failures, including the Orit incident, although an inquiry commission was never formed.
The Styx missiles fired from the Egyptian Osas were tracked in flight by the radar of the Israeli missile ships, as well as by the electronic warfare systems, which picked up the missile homing seeker transmissions and identified their operational logic. The electronic warfare systems identified that the missiles found a target and locked on it.
In 2020, an interview with a retired Egyptian Navy admiral revealed more information about the incident. The admiral, who was the area commander at that time, noted that the fishing boat was observed in the radars of the Egyptian missile boats, and the decision to fire the missiles immediately was taken with the assumption that the fishing boat was an Israeli intelligence ship.
During the Israeli investigation of the incident, one of the hypotheses was that the electronic warfare system of the Israeli missile boat may have diverted the Styx missiles that sank Orit. This hypothesis was eventually rejected and the confession of the admiral confirmed that the fishing boat was the intended target.
The seekers’ locking on Orit as a legitimate target led the missiles to navigate toward it and to detonate their warheads near the Orit (with the warheads weighing five hundred kilograms each).
The analysis of the Israeli electronic warfare systems’ recorded signals, together with the radar detection of the Styx missiles during their flight, later led the research and development teams of the Israeli Navy and the defense industry to understand that the Styx missile seekers captured Orit as a legitimate target, despite its small size and low radar cross-section (RCS). These insights led to a change in overall perceptions of anti-ship missile defense and enabled updating the electronic warfare systems in the Israeli Navy.
These changes, made before the Yom Kippur War and after the Orit sinking incident, enabled the Navy in 1973 to operate within the range of the Egyptian and Syrian warships’ Styx missiles. More than 50 missiles were fired without effect at Israeli Navy ships during the war. The Israeli Navy launched its Gabriel missiles, sank 44 Egyptian and Syrian ships, and returned back home safely without any casualties and losses.
The naval superiority achieved in the Yom Kippur War allowed Israel to control the sea trade and commerce routes and to secure the supply of weapons and ammunition shipped from the United States to Israel. These sea shipments created a logistical backbone to Israel and allowed the IDF to continue fighting in its various frontiers until military superiority was achieved.
The deaths of Segal Ackerman and Captain Adam Yassar, whose exact place of death was never determined, changed the face of the naval battles in the Yom Kippur War and in the next decades.
In their deaths, they commanded us life. May their memory be blessed.
Eyal Pinko served in the Israeli Navy for 23 years in operational, technological, and intelligence duties. He served for almost five more years as the head of the division at the prime minister’s office. He holds Israel’s Security Award, Prime Minister’s Decoration of Excellence, DDR&D Decoration of Excellence, and IDF Commander in Chief Decoration of Excellence. Eyal was a senior consultant at the Israeli National Cyber Directorate. He holds a bachelor’s degree with honor in Electronics Engineering and master’s degrees with honor in International Relationships, Management, and Organizational Development. Eyal holds a Ph.D. degree from Bar-Ilan University (Defense and Security Studies).
Featured Image: A starboard beam view of an Israeli Sa’ar 3-Class fast attack craft, with visitors aboard. Three Gabriel surface-to-surface missile launch boxes are near the stern. (Photo from U.S. National Archives)
By Captain Benigno R. Alcántara Gil, Dominican Republic Navy
The popular “Thucydides trap” implies that fear of a growing hegemonic power is a fundamental reason for a nation to go to war with another.1 Under this premise, many have argued that Britain, as an insular power, feared the German naval build-up of the early 1900s as the most severe threat to Britain’s mainland security and, as such, it was the primary cause of Anglo-German conflict in World War I.
Nonetheless, the fundamental cause of the conflict was aggressive German foreign policy carried out in complete disregard for geopolitics, by means of irrational diplomacy as well as a series of hostilities that undermined regional dynamics and the European balance of power. Three reasons support this claim.
First, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foreign policy, known as Weltpolitik (world policy), communicated aspirations for world domination and thus instilled grave uncertainty about the preservation of peace and the European balance of power.
Second, back then, other rising powers were also building up and modernizing their naval services (such as the United States, France, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Japan). The German naval build-up only served to accentuate antagonism and mightier naval accrual for the British fleet, which remained proportionally superior in tonnage and readiness.
Third, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality confirmed Germany’s full political determination to alter Europe’s equilibrium through war. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, plus the emergence of questionable alliances, constituted a threat to peace, economic performance, and freedom of commerce.
Erratic Diplomacy and the Balance of Powers
Kissinger described the European diplomatic continental theater in the period before the Great War (World War I) as a “political doomsday machine,” his reasons were based on many diplomatic flaws and series of questionable German endeavors that lead into an escalation toward war.
Before discussing the erratic shifts in German diplomacy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it may be helpful to establish common ground about two concepts copiously used hereafter: diplomacy and balance of power. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines diplomacy as the “art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations.”2 Encyclopedia Britannica provides a broader description: “The established method of influencing the decisions and behavior of foreign governmentsand peoples through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence.”3 Kissinger put it in much simpler terms as “the art of compromise,”4 and “the adjustment of differences through negotiation,”5 referring to an ability to create cooperation, settlement, agreement, or commitment.
Likewise, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines balance of power as “equilibrium of power sufficient to discourage or prevent one nation or a party from imposing its will on or interfering with the interests of another.”6 Moreover, theoretical consensus holds that such balance in the continental system works best if at least one of the following conditions is present:
A nation should be free to align itself with another nation in the same way;7 continually shifting alignments could also maintain equilibrium, as evidenced by Otto Von Bismarck’s diplomacy in his application of Realpolitik.
Whenever there are free alliances, there is a balancer that could ensure that none of the existing alliances becomes the only predominant force. This was Great Britain’s role just before it joined the Triple Entente.8
There can be rigid alliances and no balancer, as long as the level of cohesion is flexible enough to allow for changes in alignment upon any given event.9 The rationale for power equilibrium holds that if none of the previous conditions prevails in a system, diplomacy turns “” This leads into a zero-sum relationship among participating nations, and where this condition leads to armament races such as naval build-ups, and consequently to escalated tension such as those experienced during the Cold War.10
Returning to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Weltpolitik, it may be useful to provide a brief description of the Kaiser’s competencies as a national leader, from a critical perspective. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, during his war declaration against Germany in a speech to Congress, deplored Wilhelm II’s unprovoked assaults on the international order. He depicted the Kaiser as an individual with complete disregard for universal rights, and as the person responsible for propelling an immoral war in the self-interest of the dynasties.11
Conversely, Kissinger labeled the Kaiser’s diplomacy as both irrational and unsound, for he drove the German empire on a quest for a new world order without a clear understanding of historical relationships and underlying diplomatic dynamics. The Kaiser proved himself indifferent to possible contingencies and inflexible toward alternate courses of diplomacy.
Dismissing Otto Von Bismarck from office, and not capitalizing on the vast knowledge of such an illustrious chancellor, was another remarkable mistake (some historians suggest that Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck out of personal insecurity, rather than because of criteria or substance).12 A rational political leader would have considered keeping a man of such stature and experience handy, either as an advisor or as a counterbalance. Conducting foreign policy with a heavy-handed and bullying assertiveness, threatening the other European powers with insecurity, and increasing uncertainty was a rapid way to undo the alliance system carefully achieved through Bismark’s Realpolitik.
In terms of the alliance system, it is essential to point out that Bismarck favored validating Prussia as a great power, rather than creating a grand nation-state that included Austria-Hungary. The Kaiser favored the latter option, falling short in his appreciation of the geopolitics of Europe. Furthermore, Kaiser Wilhelm II rejected an offer from Tzar Nicholas II to extend for another three-year term the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia; this breakage caused Germany to lose leverage with Austria-Hungary. Bismarck had used it to maintain a balancer position, keeping Vienna in check and Russia as a relative friend.
By breaking the treaty, Germany sent unclear signals to an already anxious Moscow, which paved the way for France to seek understanding with Russia, which suspected that the breakage was due to German support to a potential Austrian incursion in the Balkans. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s rejection of Russia’s agreement occurred because he did not want to inherit complex alliance entanglements. Also, the Kaiser wanted to reassure Austria of Germany’s support and because he saw Russia’s agreement as an obstacle to allying with Britain (which he preferred over Russia). Consequently, the Franco-Russian agreement took place in 1894, in which France would aid Russia in diplomatic issues with Great Britain, likewise, both powers would support each other in the case of German aggression (whether by itself or with its allies).13
Another costly diplomatic misconception took place when the German and the British governments signed a colonial agreement where they exchanged and settled African colonial issues. The colonial agreement was very beneficial for both parties; however, it brought a series of misunderstandings, mainly because Germany envisioned the agreement as a new stage in bilateral relations and as a prelude to an Anglo-German Alliance.14 Thus, German diplomats ignored important historical precepts set by the British “Splendid Isolation” policy15 and instead continued to push for a formal alliance assertively. However, Britain rejected a formal entente, which hurt Kaiser Wilhelm II’s feelings and pride, thus missing the geopolitical and strategic perspective, and failing to realize that to be safe with Britain, a simpler accord of neutrality would have sufficed. Despite the British disposition to enter in a less formal cooperation entente with Germany, the Kaiser rejected such informality and again demanded a formal alliance with legal binding. Consequently, Britain rejected any type of accord with Germany.16
Kissinger affirmed that an informal accord to keep Britain as a benevolent neutral in case of a continental war was far more valuable than any other type of legal agreement, for Germany could have won any conflict as long as Great Britain remained unaligned. However, German impatience and intransigence sent the opposite signals to Great Britain and generated substantial doubts about Germany’s true intentions.17
After nearly 15 years of inconsistency and disquieting foreign policy that bullied the European balance of power, Germany managed to isolate itself. It went from having a genius system of alliances that allowed it to preserve its relative equilibrium, to virtually isolating itself on the continent. Simultaneously, it took about the same time to extinguish each of the conditions that ensured the balance of powers in the European theater. This imbalance ignited the armament race, which later turned into tests of strength, which after the violation of Belgium’s neutrality, ultimately triggered Britain’s declaration of war against Germany.
Germany‘s Naval Build-up
The German and British arms race emerged from the deterioration of the European balance of power. Nevertheless, despite the undeniable budgetary constraints and heightened public anxiety the German build-up instilled upon the British admiralty, Britain remained the naval hegemon with unmatched naval superiority and unrivaled naval warfare prowess.
In fact, despite the build-up, the German fleet still could not compete navy-to-navy with the British fleet, neither in size nor in naval warfare competencies. According to figures and statistics presented by Paul Kennedy, the naval build-up was not sufficient to jeopardize Britain’s indisputable control of the sea. For instance, at the height of the arms race, Germany’s total warship tonnage was estimated around 1.3 million tons, while Britain’s total warship tonnage was around 2.7 million tons.18
Conversely, if the issue had been the naval build-up, then the U.S. naval build-up would also be equally threatening to Britain. The U.S. became a mighty maritime power in the western hemisphere, where its build-up gave it the next largest fleet after Germany’s, with a total warship tonnage of about 900,000 tons. Incidentally, the United States also contested European powers at sea through the application of the Monroe Doctrine in the western hemisphere. Moreover, it directly contested Britain’s maritime hegemony and achieved political concessions over the Venezuela disputes, Isthmian Canal, and the Alaska boundary. One could wonder why this did not translate into an Anglo-American conflict.
Because of the grave anxiety produced by Weltpolitik throughout Europe, the antagonist naval arms race only served to encouraged a mightier naval accrual for the British side as part of a natural reactionary response to competition. David Stevenson also depicted the total number of warships on each side, revealing the extent to which the Royal Navy outnumbered the German Navy.19
According to Stevenson, the German build-up conceived by Wilhelm II, Admiral Alfred Von Tirpitz, and Bernard Von Bulow never envisioned to actually fight Britain, but rather to use the fleet as a negotiation advantage to encourage Britain to come to terms and make concessions in a future crisis.20 Conversely, Germany formally negotiated not to employ its navy against France and to slow its naval build-up in return for British neutrality in the conflict. Britain turned down both offers in 1909, which implies that the build-up was not Britain’s main concern.21
Why was the Build-up so Frightening?
Some blame the extraordinary German industrial boom, as it supported the rapid and massive military build-up, as well as the robust economic growth experienced in the years preceding the war.
German figures (1910-1914) depict notable increases in all areas of national development. For instance, German military personnel approximately rose by 30% (67% over Britain), relative shares of manufacturing output grew by 15% (14% above Britain), total industrial potential increased by 80% (8% over Britain), iron and steel production increased by 30% (128% over Britain) and more importantly, warship tonnage increased by 35% (about 50% less than Britain).22
The speed and magnitude of the German naval armament build-up seemed to threaten the British hegemonic position in control of the sea. Sir Eyrie A. Crowe;23 in his famous memo, dated January 1, 1907), explained why an accord with Germany was not feasible and why German capabilities were more important, per his views. In his own words: “Germany was aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy, threatening the independence of her neighbors and incompatible with the survival of the British Empire.”24
Britain’s insular and advantageous geopolitical position could also have become a source of concern, as the tranquility of Britain’s maritime buffer could only be threatened by hegemonic continental German rule, assisted by an overwhelming naval build-up. Moreover, the influence of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theoretical constructs about “sea power”25 only reinforced the strategic value of sea power and sea control on both sides. Furthermore, both British and the Germans, as avid readers of Mahan, understood the concept “command of the sea,” and Kaiser Wilhelm II did try to rely on this knowledge to secure an accord with Britain. However, the British realized that such an alliance would only constitute a temporary placebo. The fear of unexpected dramatic shifts if Britain had remained neutral or if it had entered alliance would have allowed Germany to become a continental hegemon that would later contest Britain’s command of the sea.
Consequently, the British instead embraced the French entente which was more friendly to the British maritime hegemon, and where the 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention did not endanger Britain sea power. Therefore, the French carefully crafted the entente with Mahan in mind.
Pre-Conflict Kinetic Dynamics
Germany’s mobilizations in support of Austria-Hungary and the violation of Belgium’s neutrality confirmed a clear disruption in Europe’s balance of powers, and ultimately served as casus belli.26The German mobilization was an important part of the Schlieffen Plan,27 where the plan pre-calculated a scenario based on time, force, and space considerations. Significantly, it included violating neutral countries in order to attack France. For this reason, the German Army presented the monarchy of Belgium an ultimatum for free passage through Belgium, which the Belgians refused under the claim of neutral status in the war. As a consequence, German troops invaded neutral Belgium on August 4, 1914.28 In essence, the Schlieffen Plan aimed to destroy the French Army by a direct and swift attack on its own soil, and where this preemptive attack expected to capture Paris and trap the French Army in just six weeks. Then Germany would turn toward Russia before it could complete the full mobilization of its army.29
Despite German acknowledgement of the Treaty of London with the Low Countries (the kingdoms of the Netherlands and Belgium), the German plan contemplated a violation of Belgium and the Netherlands.30 However, it did not account for potential British involvement, despite the fact that Britain was determined to protect the Low Countries from any major power incursion.31
Notwithstanding, on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a militant in a Serbo-Croatian revolutionary group called “Young Bosnia” (a group affiliated with the Serbian paramilitary called “Black Hand”) assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand along with his wife in Sarajevo.32 The Archduke’s assassination led to Austria-Hungary (which was backed by Germany) to declare war on Serbia. Unreceptive of Serbia’s official reparation offers and willingness to work out a peaceful solution, Austria-Hungary mobilized against Serbia. In the background, Russia and France entered an entente to back Serbia. In parallel, Germany made pacts with the Ottoman Empire, and it later attacked France. Britain made up her mind and resolved to join the triple entente with France and Russia. In the distance, the United States remained vigilant but did not join the war theater until later.33 Although put in a rather simplistic narrative, it illustrates the convoluted political and kinetic dynamics that resulted in gross miscalculations that completely fractured Europe’s balance of power and thus led to the Great War.
Arms races and military build-ups are a recurring phenomenon in global politics even today. Today’s media features multiple headlines such as “Military build-up in the vicinity of the recently annexed Crimea”;34 “China’s menacing naval build-up and claims about its territorial seas, the Spratly and Paracel islands”;35 and news about Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) tests from North Korea, as well as massive armament build-ups despite the peace pact with South Korea.36
The second headline in particular relates directly to the essence of what has been discussed herein and applies to an ongoing naval build-up between two indisputable superpowers, the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Reportedly, the U.S. Navy augmented its ship production goals to attain a 355-ship fleet (up from around 290 ships today). More recent force structure assessments put the desired number even higher, at more than 500 ships. Recognizing the need for more Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers (DDG-51) to counter growing ballistic missile and anti-ship missile threats,37 the U.S. is bringing its DDG-51 production to a total of 85.38 In contrast, the Chinese Navy (PLA Navy) has surpassed the U.S. Navy in overall numbers of battle force ships.
According to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) estimated that by the end of 2020 the PLA Navy would attain 360 battle force ships, compared with a projected total fleet of 297 ships for the U.S. Navy at the end of the year. ONI also projects that the PLA Navy will have 400 battle force ships by 2025, and 425 by the end of 2030.39
Besides the naval issues, ongoing commercial and trade disputes between China and the United States have substantially affected international markets. The effects of the so-called “trade war” reflects in the balance of payments, economic performance, and economic growth of many countries around the globe. The world economy not only had to revise (lower) its growth potential expectations but also had to accept prospects of an equally adverse and pessimistic trade outlook for the near future.
Nevertheless, it is always worrisome when reactionary political countermeasures and economic retaliation takes the place of sound high diplomacy from a global perspective. For instance, the current bilateral arms race among major powers today includes and is not limited to the production of aircraft carriers, surface combatant ships, combat aircraft, submarines, unmanned vehicles, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles, and C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems.40 As such, logic dictates that no superpower would benefit from this competition, for in an age with so many nuclear-capable nations, a clash that could escalate to thermonuclear levels will only yield losses and disaster on a global scale. It would be like if no lessons were learned from the Cold War period (1947-1991), a period that kept the world under the stress of continuous geopolitical tension and uncertainty due to the cataclysmic implications of nuclear-capable great powers.
Clausewitz41wrote about the complexity of war; how nations are typically driven into conflict due to a combination of factors, such as, military capability, the political value of the object (aims), the geopolitical governing dynamics, and social sentiments and passions (people and public opinion). The Anglo-German conflict occurred due to a series of cascading and unfortunate events in Europe, including the July Crisis, along with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Serbia’s attack, and the violation of Belgium’s position of neutrality.
Today, the world’s balance of powers will depend upon sound diplomacy under the terms of legitimacy, specifically under the terms of Clemens Von Metternich.42 Conversely, sound diplomacy shall refer to a consensus within the framework of the international order of all major powers, put in Kissinger terms, to the extent that no state is so dissatisfied (as Germany was after Versailles) that it will engage in deliberate violation of international treaties, of the international rule of law, and another state’s national sovereignty.43
Captain Alcántara was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He is a graduate from the Dominican Naval Academy with a Bachelor in Naval Sciences (1996). He holds masters degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (MBA, 2005), and from Salve Regina University (MSc, 2017). He is also a proud alumni of he U.S. Naval War College, Naval Command College (Class of 2017), and the Naval Senior Leadership Development Concentration track (NSLDC), U.S. NWC.
1. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster. (1994).
2. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, (2004).
3. Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House. (1987).
4. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books. (2017).
5. Mahan, Sir Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783. Little Brown and Company. Boston. (1890).
6. (423 BC). Robert B. Strasser. The Landmark: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Touchstone, New York. (1996).
7. Keegan, John. The First World War. (2000).
8. Kossmann, E. H. (1978). The Low Countries, 1780–1940. Oxford University Press. (1st edition).
9. O’Rourke. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities. (2020).
1. Thucydides (423 B.C.) edited by Robert B. Strasser. The Landmark: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Touchstone, New York. (1996). Ancient war correspondent and historian, Thucydides wrote, “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.” Further, history seem to have validated this theory, for almost on every occasion a rising power threatened to displace (Instilled fear) a ruling one, the result has usually been war.
2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diplomacy, accessed on 03/31/2017.
3. Chas. W. Freeman & Sally Marks. Meaning of diplomacy. https://www.britannica.com/topic/diplomacy, accessed on 03/27/2020.
4. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.
5. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of Peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books.2017.
6. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/balanceofpower, Accessed on 03/31/2017.
7. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.
8. Triple Entente: An informal understanding agreed by The Russian Empire, The Third French Republic and Great Britain, which served as counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, 1914-1918.
9. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.
10. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 182.
11. Ibid. Pages 48-49.
12. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 14.
13. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 181.
14. Ibid. Page 178.
15. Splendid Isolation: Foreign policy guidance preventing the British Empire to entangled itself in continental alliance systems and to military agreements, under the formal objective to remaining active in the high seas.
16. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Pages 178-180.
17. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Pages 183.
18. Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987. Page 203.
19. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 70.
20. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 15.
21. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 212.
22. Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. Page 15
23. Sir Eyre Alexander Crowe (30 July 1864 – 28 April 1925) was a British diplomat and a leading expert on Germany in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Best known for his vigorous warning, in 1907, that Germany’s expansionist intentions toward Britain were hostile and had to be met with a closer alliance (“Entente”) with France.
24. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Memorandum_on_the_Present_State_of_British_Relations_with_France_and_Germany. Accessed on 02/03/2020.
25. Mahan, Sir Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783. Little Brown and Company. Boston. (1890).
26. Motive of war; herein, seen as actions by an actor perceived to have initiated war.
27. After Alfred Von Schlieffen (Chief of the General Staff of the German Army from 1891 to 1906). In 1905 and 1906, Schlieffen devised an Army deployment plan for a decisive war-winning offensive against the French Third Republic.
28. Kossmann, E. H. (1978). The Low Countries, 1780–1940. History of Modern Europe. Oxford University Press. (1st ed.).
29. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 205.
30. The Treaty of London of 1839 was a treaty signed on 19 April 1839 between the European great powers, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium. Also known as the First Treaty of London, the Convention of 1839, and the London Treaty of Separation.
31. Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994. Page 213.
32. Keegan, John (2000). The First World War. Vintage. p. 48. ISBN 0-375-70045-5.
33. Willibald Krain. (1914). Kladderadatsch. Der Stänker
34. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04ndbk3 (accessed on April 1, 2017).
35. http://www.businessinsider.com/maps-explain-south-china-sea-2017-3, (accessed on April 1, 2017).
36. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB986149564452369050, (accessed on April 1, 2017).
39. R. O’Rourke. 2020. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files, accessed on 28/03/2020.
40. R. O’Rourke. 2020. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress. https://www.everycrsreport.com/files, accessed on 28/03/2020.
41. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Col. J.J. Graham (1832), available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1946/1946-h/1946-h.htm
42. Klemens Von Metternich, Austrian statesman, minister of foreign affairs (1809–48), he is credited with helping achieve the alliance against Napoleon I, and the restoration of Austria as an European power
43. Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problem of Peace, 1822-22. Friedland Books.2017.
Featured Image: The 2nd Squadron of the German High Seas Fleet sails to the North Sea. (Wikimedia Commons, colorized by Irootoko Jr.)
During WWI, maritime artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson proposed that the answer to the growing U-Boat threat, rather than concealment, was for a ship to expose itself to the enemy.
At the commencement of WWI, anti-submarine warfare theory was still in its infancy. There were no instruction manuals on submarine tracking, nor had sub-surface weapons been developed to counter the threat posed by submarines. The initial German U-Boat campaign of 1914 against Britain’s Grand Fleet proved highly successful, resulting in the sinking of nine British warships by the end of the year, including the cruisers Aboukir and Cressy, and the battleship Formidable.
This disastrous beginning to the war forced the Royal Navy to seek safer anchorages off Donegal on Ireland’s North Atlantic coast. The following year, Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare saw a dramatic escalation of attacks, and corresponding losses to the Allied merchant fleets. During the first six months of the war only 19 merchant vessels had been lost to U-Boat activity, however in January 1915 alone, the same amount of tonnage was sunk as was destroyed in the previous six months of conflict.
Allied navies resorted to arming trawlers and merchantmen, and some basic tactical instruction was disseminated detailing ideas to counter the U-boat threat, including heading into the line of attack, and attempting to ram hostile submarines.
It was not until 1917 that a Royal Navy officer wrote to the admiralty in London with what he considered might be a possible solution. Norman Wilkinson was a successful painter of maritime seascapes, and an artist for the Illustrated London News, who had set his career aside in 1915 to join the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. After submarine service in the Mediterranean, he was transferred to mine-sweeping duties in home waters and it was at this point that his idea for a radical form of effective camouflage began to take shape.
Naval camouflage was not a revolutionary idea. The ancient fleets of the Greeks and Romans had experimented with painting their vessels in shades of blue and green to blend with the surface and horizon, and in the early 20th century, navies of the United States and Europe stipulated shades of grey or off-white in accordance with shipping regulations in an attempt to do the same.
Wilkinson’s idea for dazzle camouflage ran contrary to previous thinking. Instead of attempting to hide vessels from enemy view, he intended that they should be highly visible with the key aim of sowing confusion in the mind of the attacker.
During early submarine operations, the task of computing a fire control solution for a U-Boat commander was a manual process. The target intercept course for a torpedo was calculated using slide rules and based on visual tracking of the current position, course, speed, and range of the vessel to be attacked. This problem was further complicated by the fact that the average speed of a torpedo was between 35 and 45 knots, only moderately faster than most warships of the age, therefore plotting information from a visual fix could be inaccurate at best.
Wilkinson reasoned that geometric dazzle patterns painted on ships would take advantage of the complexity in gauging the optimum firing solution for a torpedo by masking a vessel’s true course and speed, thereby confusing the commanders of German U-Boats and deceiving them into miscalculating the submarine’s fire position.
The bold patterns and extremes of color used in his designs, particularly at the bow and stern would disrupt the visual shape of a vessel, distorting perspective and falsely suggesting that a ship’s smokestacks or superstructure pointed in a different direction than it truly was.
Painted bow curves suggested a bow wave and oblique lines in stripes at the corresponding angles of bow or stern could give the illusion of shortening the vessels length, again confusing the computations of a ship’s attacker. Wilkinson’s ideas borrowed from modernist art concepts of cubism (indeed Picasso, in conversation with the American poet and novelist Gertrude Stein, claimed that the Cubist movement should take credit for its invention), the school of futurism, and its short-lived offshoot, vorticism.
The admiralty initially considered a number of proposals for camouflage schemes, including those from U.S. artist Abbot H. Thayer, whose theories of what he termed “concealing coloration” and “counter shading” were published in 1896 in the Journal of the American Ornithologists Union and are now known as Thayer’s Law. This law was based on the scientist’s many years of observing fauna across the continents of North and South America and concludes that animals are generally dark on top with white under surfaces. Seen from a distance this tends to cancel out the bright sunlight from above and shadow beneath, thereby effectively concealing an animal from potential predators. Thayer demonstrated his ideas to the Department of the U.S. Navy in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, however hostilities came to an end before his proposals could be acted upon.
A Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr, developed a keen interest in Thayer’s theories and after meeting in London during the 1890s the two remained lifelong friends, with Thayer forwarding a copy of his book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom to Kerr in 1914. Kerr’s own approach focused on two main interpretations of his own zoological studies combined with Thayer’s. In compensated shading, a theory he elaborated as “All deep shadows should be picked out in the most brilliant white paint and where there is a gradually deepening shadow, this should be eliminated by gradually shading off the paint from the ordinary grey to pure white.” He suggested a further camouflage scheme he named “parti coloring” which anticipated modern “disruptive pattern” concealment by emphasizing the need to break up the outline of ships by using “strongly contrasting shades.”
While both Thayer and Kerr clearly pioneered the ideas that formed the basis of dazzle camouflage, it was the ideas of Norman Wilkinson that the admiralty board eventually adopted. In recognition of his efforts a post-war award of £2000 was given to him, acknowledging him as the inventor of dazzle camouflage.
The Second World War
Despite the evidence, there was at the time no consensus as to the advantage of using dazzle camouflage, however, Allied naval authorities were sufficiently impressed to continue to employ the idea on both warships and their respective merchant fleets in WWII. The Imperial German Navy had shown little interest in camouflaging their vessels during the Great War and it wasn’t until the Second World War during the invasion of Norway in 1940 that the Germans embraced the possibility of employing the dazzle concept. Photographic evidence of the period shows the hull of the Bismarck painted in a monochrome pattern of dark grey or black and white stripes continuing up onto the superstructure, with the prow and stern area painted black. The intention was to disguise the length of the battleship, creating the impression of a smaller vessel. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was almost identically camouflaged along the waist with extremes of the bow and stern also painted in black, and the battleships Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer adopted individual dazzle patterns to mask their identities from Allied naval forces. For whatever reason the Kriegsmarine returned to the format of light or dark grey overall for all warships after 1941, whether the senior staff of Oberkommando der Marine were skeptical of the capabilities of geometric camouflage, or whether there were other reasons for the return to pre-war coloring, remains open to debate.
While the German navy discarded dazzle camouflage in the early stages of the war, the Allied navies continued its widespread use throughout hostilities until 1945. After continued analytical and evaluative groundwork at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., dazzle camouflage was deemed to be of merit and a phased roll-out was endorsed across respective fleets. In contrast to the Kriegsmarine’s employment of marine camouflage, as an anti-ship/submarine initiative, the U.S. Navy and to a lesser extent the navies of Britain and Canada attempted to use the bold patterns to disrupt attacks by enemy air assets as well as surface ships and submarines. By continuing the geometric shapes across the decks and superstructures of warships. Each ship was painted in its own distinctive camouflage to prevent the enemy from identifying a class of ship, resulting in a diverse array of patterns which made it considerably more difficult to evaluate its effectiveness.
The U.S. Navy implemented the scheme across most classes of vessel from minesweepers and patrol craft to aircraft carriers. Rigorous design, planning and testing was applied to each pattern and a standardized range of colors and shapes were instituted and applied across all theaters including the Pacific, specifically against the Kamikaze threat.
The Royal Navy’s use of dazzle commenced at the beginning of 1940 and was considerably less organised. The admiralty adopted a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to the idea and paint schemes were unofficial and individual to each vessel. It was not until later in the war that the admiralty saw fit to take a more serious view of dazzle camouflage and the navy’s concealment specialists devised geometric patterns which became known as the Western Approaches Schemes, to be employed against the sub-sea threat in the Atlantic. The initiative was developed, and the Admiralty Intermediate Disruptive Pattern was employed in 1942 and was superseded in 1944 by the Admiralty Standard Schemes.
The proliferation of black and white photographic images which have been left to historical posterity, while starkly delineating the vivid lines and curves of dazzle camouflage, are unable to convey the range of color and tone so important to the process of deception. Striking shades of blues, reds, greens and purples contrasted with the light and dark grays which made the experiment so effective.
Eventually post-war technological advances in rangefinding equipment and radar rendered dazzle camouflage largely obsolete, and it fell out of favor in post-war naval thinking.
Was Dazzle Camouflage Effective?
Establishing the effectiveness of Wilkinson’s ideas is almost impossible, not least due to the sheer number of variables to be considered such as color, pattern, and the combination of sizes of ships, vessel speed, and the anti-submarine evasion tactics used. An article in the April 1919 edition of Popular Science considered dazzle camouflage an effective tactic in confusing U-Boat commanders although only at short range and less so than what it termed “low visibility” camouflage.
Arguments continue into the present as to the results of gaudy geometric shapes in protecting ships at sea, but it might certainly be considered the most striking example of art being used to develop a solution in war.
While the United States Navy declared in 1918 that statistical evidence suggested less than one percent of merchant vessels painted in dazzle were sunk, these claims are difficult to substantiate. The testimony of U-Boat commanders who had launched attacks against merchant vessels painted in dazzle camouflage suggests that it was a highly effective countermeasure, even to the point of confusing the issue of the type of ships being attacked and the number of vessels in a convoy. Those convoys that were hit suffered less serious damage than those that were not camouflaged.
While debate over the capabilities of dazzle camouflage continues among naval historians, perhaps the final word should come from the man who officially invented the concept. In an article published in 1920 in the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, Norman Wilkinson stated that “The German Admiralty had dazzle painted a liner and had attached her to the submarine training depot at Kiel,” while at the close of hostilities, “a number of the surrendered submarines were painted in precisely the same manner as our merchant vessels.” It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it is this observation by Norman Wilkinson that may answer the question of the worth of dazzle camouflage.
Mark Wood served 15 years in the communications branch of the Royal Navy, with further service in HM Coastguard. After leaving the military he qualified as a history teacher and divides his time between the education sector and working as a freelance writer for military history magazines and websites. Mark is also currently engaged on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project as a volunteer with the UK’s National Archives.
Featured Image: French cruiser Gloire in dazzle camouflage. (Department of the Navy, Naval Photographic Center)
As the title clearly suggests, Admiral Leahy wielded tremendous power and influence, especially during the interwar period, WWII, and in the immediate aftermath of the war. What were the sources of his power and influence that led you to describe him as “the second most powerful man in the world”?
The single most important element in Leahy’s rise to the top of the U.S. government in World War II was his longstanding friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The two men first met in the Navy Department in 1913 and grew to not only enjoy each other’s company, but to trust each other’s instincts. In the case of Roosevelt, this was special. Roosevelt, though outwardly charming, was not a naturally trusting individual. As he rose up politically, he was surrounded by ambitious people trying to take advantage of his power to further their own careers—and he often held them at arm’s length because of this. In the case of Leahy, he came across someone who was happy not to be in the limelight, but motivated to serve his interests first and foremost. It was why, as soon as Roosevelt became president, he started promoting Leahy up the naval chain of command, making sure that the admiral received every major position he could—chief of the Bureau of Navigation, commander of the Battle Force, and culminating in Leahy’s appointment as Chief of Naval Operations (1937-1939).
The two men also shared a similar strategic outlook. They were committed believers in the importance of a strong American navy and both had been strongly influenced by the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan. It meant that when they did work together running the American Navy in the 1930s, they instinctively reinforced each other’s perceptions and made a very strong team. By the time World War II started for the U.S., the American Navy was more the creation of these two men than any others.
Leahy actually retired formally in 1939, having reached mandatory retirement age. However by this time Roosevelt had made the decision that if a war did break out in the near future he would want to bring Leahy back to help him run it. He started discussing such a role with Leahy in the spring of 1939, and the two men honed the specifics of the role during the coming years. To allow this to happen, Roosevelt kept Leahy employed. He first made him governor of Puerto Rico, so that Leahy could help build up naval bases in the Caribbean. He then made Leahy ambassador to Vichy France. Both of these positions were a sign of the special trust the president had in the admiral.
Beyond the close personal relationship between Leahy and Roosevelt, the admiral had a number of key skills. He was instinctively political (this is discussed in more detail later) and he was undoubtedly competent and thorough. Though not the most deeply intellectual, Leahy had a way of getting a job done that was invaluable. When you combine this with his lack of interest in personal publicity, it was a powerful cocktail and made him stand out in a Washington DC populated by people who were always on the lookout for personal glory.
Soon after the U.S. entered WWII, it was confronted with a major strategic decision on how it should define specific war production priorities for its tremendous industrial might, a decision you described in the book as perhaps one of the most strategic decisions of the war for the U.S. What was Admiral Leahy’s role in these deliberations?
Usually strategy in WWII is seen as some great debate over where and when military force should be used. Discussions over whether the U.S. should have invaded France in 1943 or 1944, or whether it should fight a Germany-First war are perhaps the most famous examples of this. In our focus on the where and when, however, what is almost always overlooked is the what. All the great powers in World War II had to decide what to build in terms of equipment, force structure, how to balance needs between armies, navies, and air forces, as well as within the services such as balancing needs between, for example, fighters and bombers or tanks and trucks.
This was a far more involved process for the U.S. than many realize and William Leahy was at the heart of this debate. Not long after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt approved an arms construction plan of enormous depth and breadth which was nicknamed the Victory Program. However, by the summer of 1942, it was clear that even with the largest and most powerful economy in the world the U.S. could not build nearly as much equipment as was called for by the Victory Plan. A crisis ensued and hard choices needed to be made in the second half of 1942 about what would be built, and even more controversially, what would have to be cut.
Leahy was the most important person in the government, except for Roosevelt, in determining these priorities. By this point he was both the president’s chief of staff (the closest modern equivalent would be the National Security Adviser) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wearing his two hats he fought to cut army construction and focus on aircraft and aircraft carrier construction. By December 1942 he had emerged triumphant, and both his targets received the highest priority for the U.S. in 1943 and 1944. On the other hand, production for the army, particularly tank construction, was slashed. This decision, which has received little historical discussion, determined what the U.S. could and could not do during the war.
Another strategic choice that Leahy was instrumental in making at this time was about the size of U.S. armed forces. The other joint chiefs favored inducting huge numbers of men and women into the forces, at one point devising a plan for more than ten million U.S. military personnel. That plan, however, soon clashed headlong with the need to keep skilled personnel working in the economy to produce war material. Leahy was the only military officer to serve on a small committee chosen by Roosevelt to examine the question of military and civilian employment, and he came down strongly in favor of more equipment production and a small army. His preference was one of the reasons that the U.S. fought the war that it did. The United States opted for an equipment heavy, personnel-light military force structure that kept casualties down.
Admiral Leahy chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II (and afterward) and also participated in major strategic conferences of the war, such as at Yalta and Potsdam. What was his influence on wartime grand strategy and the conduct of WWII?
Leahy took over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs holding very different strategic priorities from the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Marshall. Looking at the war from an overall perspective, Leahy did not want the United States to fight a Germany-First war, which Marshall and many others, including Winston Churchill, strongly supported. Leahy was worried that if the Japanese were allowed to entrench themselves in their Pacific empire while the U.S. threw everything into the war against Germany, that it would have devastating consequences. It would, he feared, take many extra years and a great deal of American blood to take the fight to Tokyo.
In this, Leahy walked arm-in-arm with Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King. The Leahy-King alliance ended up triumphing in this fight, and contrary to what is widely believed, at no time in the war did the United States fight a Germany-First strategy. In 1942 the U.S. fought, if anything, a Japan-First war. The United States sent more overall equipment to the Pacific over Europe or North Africa. In 1943 and 1944 the U.S. fought two different wars. The Army and Army Air Force did prioritize the war against Germany—sending approximately two-thirds of their equipment to Europe. The Navy, on the other hand, sent at least 90 percent of its strength (including one of the largest air forces in the world) to fight Japan. This meant that in overall terms the United States, under Leahy’s watchful eye, fought a war almost evenly balanced between Europe and the Pacific but weighed slightly more toward the latter.
When it came to the war against Germany, Leahy’s vision was the one the United States followed more than any other chief’s. Leahy was the only chief who supported the invasion of North Africa in 1942, better known as the Torch Landings. Indeed, Leahy had been the first major policymaker who proposed a North African invasion to Roosevelt, suggesting such an operation in the summer of 1941 (when Leahy was ambassador to Vichy France). Leahy believed such an operation would confine Germany to the European continent, and allow for Allied domination of the Atlantic. Understanding Leahy’s strong support for Torch helps explain why Roosevelt backed the operation over the strong opposition of Marshall and King almost immediately after Leahy became Chief of Staff.
After Torch, Leahy’s number one goal for the war in Europe was to delay the invasion of France until 1944. He did not want to try an invasion in 1943, which Marshall supported, because Leahy believed it was an unnecessary risk which could result in high U.S. casualties (and he also believed it would deprive the war against Japan of needed equipment). He thus helped undermine the U.S. army’s attempt to get British approval for any 1943 invasion. However, once this was ruled out, Leahy enthusiastically supported D-Day in 1944, and helped force the British to accept this position at the grand strategic conferences in Washington, Quebec, Cairo, and Tehran which were held in 1943.
Following the death of his close friend President Roosevelt and the end of WWII, Admiral Leahy continued to be highly influential in the Truman administration and played a major role in many critical postwar questions. How did Admiral Leahy shape postwar formulations of the U.S. defense establishment and international order?
Franklin Roosevelt’s death led to a significant change in Leahy’s influence. For the two years before FDR died, Leahy was the most influential policymaker in the White House, as Harry Hopkins (who was more influential in 1942 when Leahy became chief of staff) saw his influence decline. However, Leahy had no pre-existing relationship with Harry Truman, and so he immediately lost his preeminent position as a close friend and longtime confidant of the president when Roosevelt passed. Truman also had a very high opinion of people such as George Marshall and James Byrnes and he started taking their advice more than Roosevelt did. That being said, Leahy did maintain a good deal of power. After meeting him, Truman decided he wanted to keep Leahy on as his chief of staff, and by 1946 they were even on the road to becoming friends. Leahy, for instance became an automatic companion of the president when Truman started taking his famous vacations at the naval base in Key West, Florida.
The establishment of a strong working relationship with Truman allowed Leahy to keep influence in a few areas—most importantly relations with the Soviet Union. By the time Truman took over, Leahy had met with Stalin twice, at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, and had discussed U.S.-Soviet relations with Roosevelt countless times. Though Leahy was never critical of Roosevelt, he was always instinctively more skeptical about the future of relations with the Soviets than the deceased president. He believed a long-term, friendly relationship between the two nations was unlikely and wanted the U.S. to toughen up in its positions—a stance he started urging on the new president.
Truman almost immediately after becoming president asked Leahy for briefings on relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, the first time Truman met with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, he asked Leahy to be in the room with him, providing support. Maybe Leahy’s greatest role in this regard was how he shaped Truman’s most important speech on Soviet relations, his Navy Day address of late 1945 and, even more surprisingly, Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech of 1946. Leahy was the driving force behind the writing of the Navy Day address as a series of points, with a noticeable message about the role of the U.S. in supporting free peoples. When Churchill heard the Navy Day address, he decided to press ahead with an address of his own, which became known as the Iron Curtain speech. Churchill discussed this speech with Leahy more than any other American, indeed they spent one entire morning going through the text when Churchill visited Washington just before it was delivered. Churchill was so grateful for Leahy’s advice that, years afterward, he privately thanked the admiral for it.
Admiral Leahy frequently interacted with many well-known individuals of the WWII era, including those known for their strong personalities such as Admiral Ernest King, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and others. How would you describe Admiral Leahy’s personal style of leadership and management?
Leahy was instinctively political, and this defined his career for either good or ill depending on your point of view. He had the ability to read people and situations and adjust his own responses in such a way to appeal to those with whom he interacted—without revealing his true opinions. His lifelong friend and fellow Admiral Thomas Hart claimed that Leahy was a “born diplomat” who “always gets on with others.” In social situations Hart claimed that Leahy could be as “comfortable as an old shoe.”
This political, personal skill was a powerful weapon in his arsenal. He could use it on people he genuinely liked, such as Franklin Roosevelt, or those of whom he was deeply skeptical, such as Vice President Henry Wallace. It seems from the moment that Leahy met Roosevelt in 1913 he found a way to appeal to the young politician, to behave in such a way that earned Roosevelt’s trust. On the other hand, someone like the left-wing Wallace, about whom Leahy was intensely skeptical, seemed to think that the admiral was a friend or at least thought well of him when that was certainly not the case. Wallace had no idea that Leahy was working to undermine his position when he was Secretary of Commerce under Truman.
Leahy’s political skills were evident in his chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff and his behavior at the great grand strategic conferences of World War II. As chairman or “senior member,” which was what he normally referred to himself as during the war, Leahy would usually let the other chiefs such as Marshall and King go on at great length with discussing their ideas and plans. If Leahy disagreed he would rarely say so outright, but instead, in a friendly manner, start asking questions of the plan being proposed and in doing so hopefully highlight its weaknesses. Leahy thus retained the impression of being impartial, when at times he was very partial indeed.
When dealing with the higher-ups such as Churchill and Stalin, Leahy normally said as little as possible, and when he did speak it was to support the position of the president. Both Churchill and Stalin eventually understood how much Leahy was valued by Roosevelt and by the end of the war treated him with great respect. Churchill even asked Leahy if the two could establish a private channel of communication, but Leahy, not wanting to do anything that would seem disloyal to Roosevelt, declined.
With the worldview and experience that he held toward the end of his career, how may have Admiral Leahy judged U.S. national security strategy as it stands today?
When Leahy’s career drew to a close in 1948 he was conflicted about the direction of U.S. foreign policy. He has sometimes been inaccurately portrayed as a simple, hardline Cold Warrior. Leahy had a far more nuanced view. He certainly wanted the United States to toughen up its policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union after the end of World War II, and did not believe the wartime alliance was going to continue. He also wanted the U.S. to support democratic movements around the world—in a mostly non-militarized way.
This points out the big difference between what Leahy believed and how he has been portrayed. While he had no confidence in the future of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. wartime alliance, he was also dead set against the U.S. turning into a world policeman, deploying troops around the world and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. He was particularly keen to keep the U.S. from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. That is why, when President Truman in early 1947 decided to intervene in Greece and Turkey, which is often seen as the start of the Cold War, Leahy was strongly opposed. He tried to change the president’s mind, but to no avail. When Truman decided to press ahead, Leahy, being the presidential servant that he was, publicly supported the move. However, his heart was not in it. Until the end of his time in office he did his best to keep the United States from becoming an interventionist power in the Middle East. He disagreed strongly with Truman over the U.S. decision to recognize Israel for instance, which he believed would lead to decades-long religious war in the region—a war that would eventually drag in the U.S. The differences between Truman and Leahy on the start of the Cold War and the Middle East were one of the reasons for the decline in Leahy’s influence from 1947 onward.
One might describe Leahy’s stance on foreign policy as robust non-interventionism. He was not apologetic about American power or influence, he just did not believe that much could actually be accomplished by interventions in other countries. In that sense, Leahy’s foreign policy vision could very well have resonance today. At the end of World War II the United States dominated world politics. It had half the world’s economic product and its most advanced armed forces. Though it is still the world’s leading power today, it is no longer as dominant as it was then. As such, the country could benefit by rethinking how and where it should involve itself in the world. A Leahy-like policy of greater restraint and less cost could be the natural choice for the U.S.
Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Born and raised in Boston, he graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before working on Wall Street for two years. He earned a PhD in British and American politics and naval policy before being selected as Cambridge University’s Mellon Research Fellow in American History and a Drapers Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Formerly at the University of Glasgow, he moved to St Andrews in 2016.
Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.
Featured Image: Admiral William Leahy saluting on the reviewing stand during the Navy Day parade, on Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C., 27 October 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)