Tag Archives: alternative history

Sheppard of the Argonne: Alternative History Naval Battles of WWII

Weatherly, William G. Sheppard of the Argonne. Herndon: Mascot Books, 2015, 324pp. $24.95


By Sally DeBoer

How would the world be different if the Five-Power Treaty (also known as the Washington Naval Treaty) had never been signed, allowing unfettered naval rearmament by the world’s major military powers in the wake of World War One? Sheppard of the Argonne, the impressive debut effort by author G. William Weatherly (interviewed by CIMSEC here), the pen name for Captain George Jackson, USN (ret.), takes place in just such an alternative history. Opening at the beginning of the American effort in World War Two, Weatherly’s story intertwines his detailed, illustrative take on “what could have been” with faithfully rendered historical details and factual events. History buffs and naval enthusiasts alike will find something to enjoy in Sheppard, a novel with a diverse, carefully-drawn cast of characters and an eye for meticulous technical details. Indeed, it is the harmony between the men themselves and the machines they command and operate that makes Sheppard such a delight to read.

We meet our protagonist, Captain Sheppard McCloud of the United States Navy, shortly after the events of December 7th, 1941. In the immediate wake of Weatherly’s version of Pearl Harbor, Captain McCloud, then in command of Shenandoah,  makes a bold and fateful decision to pursue and attack the Japanese aggressors off the coast of Hawaii. The consequences of this decision weigh heavily on Sheppard; as a result of the engagement, a significant portion of Shenandoah’s crew lost their lives, while many more were severely injured, including Sheppard himself. Though he is hailed as a hero for his actions, the physical and mental scars of contact with the enemy are forever in the forefront of Captain McCloud’s mind. Reflective of the attitudes of the day, Sheppard feels he must carry this burden alone.

At the outset of Weatherly’s tale, an injured but resolute Sheppard is assigned command of Argonne, one of two Norfolk-based capital ships about to accompany two carriers into the increasingly dangerous Atlantic theater of World War Two. Under the larger command of Admiral Hamilton, Argonne and her sister ships have a simple but crucial mission: stop German naval forces from completely starving the British population and ending their war effort. Aboard Argonne, Sheppard is joined by a dedicated and diverse crew of officers and men, including, much to his delight and relief, some familiar faces from the Shenandoah. Upon leaving Norfolk harbor, Sheppard and his men must immediately rise to the challenge of their tasking.

G. William Weatherly’s background as a U.S. Navy captain shines in careful, detailed way Sheppard presents not only the naval engagements but also the technology itself in meticulous relief. Readers who are familiar with naval technology will be delighted by Weatherly’s explanations and renderings of the ship’s armament and technology complement. While much of the equipment and techniques are faithfully rendered in accordance with the time period, Weatherly has accelerated some developments as they might have been if the Washington Naval Treaty were never signed. Readers experience the full spectrum of naval warfare, from the cockpits of Argonne’s Kingfisher complement to German U-boats below the water’s surface. As Sheppard is a fast-paced and action packed tale, Weatherly does readers a great service by clearly illustrating naval tactics and procedures.  Even those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of battle on the high seas will be able to follow along with the events of the novel as they transpire.

As any member of the naval profession will attest, the men who make up a ship’s crew determine its success or failure just as surely as its technology and design. So too is the case in Sheppard of the Argonne. Captain McCloud himself is a complicated but aspirational protagonist; every decision and action is influenced by his harrowing experience in the Pacific. In addition to her commanding officer, readers are introduced to Argonne’s department heads, junior officers, chiefs, and enlisted men. Sheppard’s presence and leadership style is among the novel’s most memorable aspects; naval professional’s will appreciate the care the author uses in developing relationships between the Commanding Officer and his crew. Further, Weatherly’s wide-reaching scope includes the perspectives of high leadership, Germans, and British officers. The result is a complete and engaging look at the many personalities and passions that make up the naval service.

Sheppard of the Argonne is a gripping alternative history that will surely appeal to a wide audience; historians, naval enthusiasts, and casual readers alike will enjoy following Captain McCloud and his crew into battle. G. William Weatherly’s realistic and faithfully rendered portrait of service at sea will be especially enjoyable to veterans of the sea services. As the saga continues, Sheppard McCloud and his men will surely continue to develop as a crew. Readers can look forward to hearing more about Sheppard and the men of the Argonne in the future; Weatherly will soon finalize the second novel in the series and work is well underway on the third.

Sally DeBoer is the Book Review Coordinator for CIMSEC. She can be reached at books@cimsec.org.

To the Shores of Tripoli An Alternative History of the Birth of the U.S. Navy

Alternate History Topic Week

By Christopher Stephens

The United States has been a maritime power since its inception.  Maritime trading has always been essential to its economy and over the years has stretched across the globe.  Protecting these interests is the job of U.S. Navy.  Its origins date back to  when North African pirates began seizing American merchant vessels and holding their crews to ransom.  This article will explore what could have been if the United States had decided to appease the pirates instead of investing in a national navy to protect its economic interests on the high seas.  

The United States had barely stepped on to the global stage, when it faced its first foreign crisis. Its merchant fleets were increasingly coming under attack by North African pirates from the Barbary States.  This problem of piracy was hardly new:  since the 16th century, European commerce in the Mediterranean had been under threat from the Barbary Nations in North Africa.  These states consisted of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis, which were nominally protectorates of the Ottoman Empire, along with the independent Sultanate of Morocco.  The economies of this region were heavily dependent on piracy and a series of warlords, called Deys, maintained their power largely by bringing in tribute.  The European nations had found it easier to simply pay off the pirates rather than engage in sustained military action that would likely forge either temporary peace or require an expensive occupation of North African territory. 

American merchant shipping had, in its early years, been protected by European powers: by the British during the colonial period, and during the Revolution later by the French.  The onset of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, however, drew attention from the pirate threat in the Mediterranean and left American merchant vessels with European help.  Furthermore, upon achieving independence, the fledgling U.S. government found itself short of money.  The Continental Navy, which fought during the revolution, was disbanded and the remaining vessels were sold off to raise funds.   Unfortunately, this left American merchantmen to fend for themselves on the high seas. 

The first U.S. merchant ship was seized in October of 1784 by a Moroccan raider.  The crew was held captive for a decade and many wrote letters home describing the deplorable conditions of their imprisonment.  The resulting public outcry compelled renewed interest in dealing with this persistent pirate threat.

Dealing between Morocco and the U.S. were not necessarily negative, however. Morocco was the first nation to recognize the United States in 1777 and subsequently signed The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship in 1786.  The other Barbary States were not as easily dealt with.  Algiers continued to demand tribute from the U.S. and ransomed captives, although a peace treaty was signed in 1796.  The agreement proved very costly for the U.S. (requiring up to 10% of its annual revenue) and military options were increasingly considered.  In 1801, Congress approved the construction of six frigates for use in protecting American shipping and compelling the Barbary States to allow American ships to sail the Mediterranean unscathed.  Tripoli declared war the same year after its demands for tribute were refused by the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson.

The U.S.S. Chesapeake, one of the U.S. Navy's original six frigates.
The U.S.S. Chesapeake, one of the U.S. Navy’s original six frigates.

A fleet under the command of Edward Preble was ordered to blockade the port of Tripoli.  The expedition was largely successful although losses were taken.  The decisive action of the conflict occurred when the former U.S. consul William Eaton led eight U.S. marines and approximately five hundred foreign mercenaries on an overland march to capture the city of Derne, and threatened the capital of Tripoli.  The fall of Derne marked the first U.S. victory on foreign soil (and is immortalized in the lyrics of the Marine Corps Hymn).  Tripoli subsequently signed a peace treaty with the U.S. in 1805, ending the first Barbary War.

With this first American victory on foreign shores, the Navy demonstrated its ability to project power over long distances and sustain an extended naval campaign away from home ports.  In addition, this was the first U.S. Marine landing and subsequent land campaign.  The U.S. had demonstrated that it could protect its citizens and could meet any aggressive acts against it with force. In addition, the U.S. was no longer compelled to pay tribute to any foreign nation.

A second Barbary War began when the War of 1812 again drew European attention away from North Africa.  Once again U.S. merchant ships were taken by pirates and again the Navy was dispatched to the Mediterranean.  In 1815, a fleet under the command of Stephen Decatur won several battles against Algerian pirates and forced Algiers to sign a treaty protecting American vessels from piracy.

Building a navy and launching military expeditions against the Barbary pirates was by no means a unanimous policy decision on the part of the U.S. government, however.  Even within Jefferson’s own party, the Democratic-Republicans, there was considerable opposition to the idea of creating a regular navy in the first place.  Many prominent Americans were skeptical of creating a centralized standing military because they felt is could be used by rulers to oppress its citizenry.  From the Anti-Federalist papers (Brutus X):

 “The liberties of a people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise, but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one, according to the pleasure of their leader.”

Even if the military remained subservient to the state, there were concerns that a standing peacetime military would encourage the government to provoke wars and promote their own agendas that would not be in the best interests of the nation.  Still others felt that future of the new United States lay in expanding westward across the continent.  Building up a navy, they felt, would allocate resources away from this expansion.  In the end, Jefferson and his supporters won out, but it could have easily gone the other way.

Had history followed this alternate course, and the anti-navalists won out, the trajectory of America becoming a world power would have been curtailed.  The U.S. would have contended with numerous economic and geopolitical problems.  A U.S. Navy would have eventually been created, but not until an event such as the Civil War prompted renewed interest in military expansion.  Even then, the resources and expertise would not be in place to accommodate such a policy. 

 In the meantime, the U.S. would have continued paying tribute to the Barbary States in order to secure safe passage for its merchants, thus straining the national budget.  Even if westward expansion became a priority, maritime trade would have remained the economic backbone of the country.   In order to continue its overseas trade, the U.S. would be forced to remain reliant on Europe for maritime protection or limit its trade with Europe accordingly and remain a strictly regional power.  Instead, America would probably turn its gaze southward to the Spanish colonies in Central and South America.  This alliance would almost certainly spark tensions with Britain, France, and even the Dutch, the primary competitors for territory in the Americas.  Any number of conflicts could break out, making the War of 1812 look like a border skirmish by comparison.         

Alternatively, an agreement could be reached whereby U.S. goods would be transported in European hulls to overseas markets.  Such an agreement would deter piracy at the cost of ceding control of the U.S. economic lifeline to foreign powers who could gain immense leverage by threatening to choke it off.  While this would have prevented a rising America from coming into coming into conflict with other states, ultimately, this would have the effect of reducing the U.S. to little more than a de facto European colony yet again. 

Strategically, policies like the Monroe Doctrine would not be viable for the U.S., given the lack a strong deterrent.  Other European competitors would have free access to U.S. waters and generally be able to do as they pleased.  Indeed, the Quasi War with France in 1798 and the War of 1812 proved that the U.S. needed a naval force that could stand up to the other European powers.  In both cases, the Navy was able to protect American interests at sea.  Hiring privateers for protection would be an option for the U.S., though likely an expensive strategy in the long run.  In addition, with naval action relegated to secondary importance, it is unlikely that the U.S. would develop the capability to produce homegrown warships.  Noted ship designers such as Joshua Humphreys, the designer of the first U.S. frigates, would take their expertise elsewhere, not to mention the great American naval commanders who would remain unknown. 

Instead the U.S. began a strong naval tradition of projecting power globally that would manifest itself in the coming decades with the Great White Fleet, the opening of Japan, and the Spanish American war, and continued into the modern era.  It is telling, perhaps, that the 2011 Libyan intervention is sometimes referred to the Third Barbary War.

Christopher Stephens is a graduate from the College of William & Mary and is currently with the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.  He has formerly completed internships with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Staff College.


Ohls, Gary J. Roots of Tradition: Amphibious Warfare in the Early American Republic. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2008

Peskin, Lawrence A. Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Tinniswood, Adrian. Pirates of the Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean. New York: Penguin, 2010.

The Anti-Federalist Papers. Brutus X. January 24, 1788

United States Federal State and Local Government Revenue, Fiscal Year 1800, in $ million, usgovernmentrevenue.com.

“Looks Like a Chilean War”: The Baltimore Incident as Counterfactual Exercise

Alternate History Topic Week

By Thomas Jamison

On October 16th 1891, a group of USS Baltimore sailors, no doubt happy to have liberty after months at sea, set off to enjoy the delights of Valparaiso, Chile. After several hours (of, let’s be honest, presumably heavy drinking), a scuffle broke out between local Chileans and the American crew. The ensuing violence left two U.S. sailors dead, seventeen injured and a hemispheric relationship in tatters. Unable to resolve the issue locally, the USS Baltimore’s commander telegraphed Washington for instructions. The Chileans, meanwhile, held fast to their jurisdiction over the U.S. personnel, and the investigative proceedings more broadly, as a matter of national sovereignty. From these humble sparks came a war crisis over hemispheric leadership and the relative standing of the United States as a “great power.”

To date, scholars have tended to underestimate the Baltimore Incident as “a mere tempest in a teapot,” or at best a signpost en route to the War of 1898. That the crisis has inspired relatively little comment in English literature should obscure neither its significance to contemporaries nor its enduring relevance to strategic planners. Indeed, the Baltimore Incident  might better be understood as an acute manifestation of the larger, chronic competition between the United States and Chile over regional autonomy and control. When, in 1891, Chilean leaders provoked a confrontation with the U.S, they sought political advantage from the crisis (at a domestic and international level) and had good reason to be optimistic. Chile had used its maritime forces and commercial partnerships to defeat Spain (1866), Peru (1884) and to overawe the United States into diplomatic concessions in 1882, 1885 and 1888. By 1891, however, the realities of power-politics in the American Pacific had shifted dramatically. In the United States imperialist sentiment, domestic military production and a dedicated navalist lobby all underwrote a newfound bellicosity and assertiveness. Opinion in Washington held that Chilean regional primacy represented a substantial threat to American expansionism and, moreover, the self-image of the United States in the “great power” system. National “honor” was no idle phrase in the Harrison administration.

At this 1891 juncture for the “dominant position in the Western Hemisphere,” war seemed likely, perhaps even inevitable. As The New York Times reported on Christmas Day 1891: “Looks like a Chilean War, Little Hope Now of a Peaceful Settlement.” Nonetheless, and  to the chagrin of many, hostilities were averted in late January 1892 when Chile acceded to U.S. demands. The tantalizing question remains, what might have been? What if the United States and Chile went to War in 1890? What ramifications would conflict have had for the U.S. emergence in the great power system? And as long as we’re entertaining counterfactuals, what might defeat at the hands of “little Chili” have spelled for navalist ambitions and the U.S. role in South America?

The United States, Chile and the Pacific at the Fin-De-Siècle Such an outcome was hardly a remote possibility. In 1884, Chile emerged from the War of the Pacific (its territorial struggle with Peru and Bolivia over nitrate deposits), as the dominant naval power in the Pacific. That result seems as incredible today as it was obvious to contemporary observes. Secretary of the Navy John Long complained that in the 1880s, “the American Navy was inferior to that of any European and at least one South American power. Little Chile, triumphant over Peru, could have sent her Admiral Cochrane and Huascar against San Francisco and the United States would have been unable to repel them.” Likewise, the prize winning essay of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1884 lamented, “in our present condition, Brazil, Chili or the Argentine Republic might send a fleet of ironclads to devastate our seaport cities.” Overseas, in 1881, the London Standard noted (smugly, but with little exaggeration), “The American Navy, if not a phantom fleet, would certainly find it difficult to compete successfully with the Chilean fleet.”

Those observations reflected the scope of Chile’s investment in naval supremacy along the Pacific Slope in the 1880s and 90s. Chilean President Jose Manuel Balmaceda argued in 1891: Chile should be able to resist on its own territory any possible coalition, and if it cannot succeed in attaining the naval power of the great powers, it should at least prove, on the base of a secure port and a fleet proportionate to its resources, that there is no possible profit in starting a war against the Republic of Chile. Resources were appropriated accordingly and with some notable success. The most prolific Chilean naval historian estimated that (in absolute terms) the “peak of Chilean naval power was in 1899.” In 1882 Chile rebuffed—rudely—U.S. attempts to mediate an end to the War of the Pacific. In 1885, it countered U.S. incursions against the Colombians by deploying a gunboat to Panama. Most tangibly, in 1888 Chile annexed Easter Island as a symbol of its hemispheric stature and, more practically, a strategic (coaling/early warning) asset. By 1894, in a revealing detail, Santiago even began to export surplus warships to Japan.

Of the Pacific’s many foreign observes, none eyed Chile’s position with more concern than the United States. The central U.S. political objectives of the late nineteenth century were hemispheric expansion and the development of overseas markets, primarily in Asia—what Seward called “the chief theater of events in the world’s great hereafter.” Both efforts were contingent on an Isthmian Canal and/or sea lines of communication around South America, which in practice pushed the U.S. toward a policy of hemispheric hegemony. Andrew Carnegie captured the spirit of the age in 1882 when he wrote to then Secretary of State James Blaine, “You are exactly right. America is going to control anything and everything on this Continent. That’s settled. . . . No joint arrangements, no entangling alliances with monarchical, war-like Europe. America will take this Continent in hand alone.” In such an environment of imperial  ascendancy (U.S.) and regional resistance (Chile), the Baltimore Incident, or some similar provocation, was almost inevitable. 

By December 1891, institutional and political incentives had pushed the would-be belligerents to the “ragged edge” of war. That month, as a U.S. task force transited toward South America, the USS Baltimore was replaced on station by the USS Yorktown, commanded by “Fighting Bob” Evans (an officer who could calmly confide in his journal, “I cannot see any good reason why I should not be perfectly civil and polite to [the Chileans], even if I have to shoot them tomorrow.”) Relations deteriorated further when, on New Year’s Eve 1891, the Chileans provocatively fired rockets in the Yorktown’s vicinity, and days later—some sources say —conducted torpedo drills using the U.S. vessel as a notional target. “Fighting Bob” Evans, surveying the scene from the Yorktown was typically blunt, “I don’t see how war can now be avoided.”

RADM Robley Dunglison "Fighting Bob" Evans
RADM Robley Dunglison “Fighting Bob” Evans

Waging War with “Little Chili” Bombast and hindsight aside, if it came to war between the U.S. and Chile the outcome remained highly contingent. U.S. navalist pretensions belied a central irony of the crisis. American leaders managed to assert that Chile was simultaneously a real threat to U.S. regional hegemony and that it would be relatively easy to defeat in an offensive war. That dissonance spoke to the larger uncertainty about the balance of power in the Pacific. Perceptions of Chilean naval expansion had helped spur U.S. naval expansion in the 1880s, but in 1891 U.S. forces remained relatively limited, and decidedly untested. Tracy, for one, was shocked to learn that “the best American naval expeditionary force which could be mustered at this time numbered scarcely twenty warships.” Moreover, many of these ships teetered on obsolescence. As the Naval Historian Timothy Wolters convincingly documented, in the 1890s:

Naval recapitalization in the United States lagged well behind political debates over, and public perceptions of, the new American navy. Intriguingly, the data show that immediately prior to the country’s war with Spain in 1898, the old navy still consumed about one-third of the navy’s fiscal resources, contributed three-sevenths of the service’s aggregate tonnage, and accounted for just over half of all vessels in the navy’s inventory.

The gap between perception and capability bred miscalculation. Establishing a clear balance of “real power” from which to base strategic planning was frustratingly imprecise.

That was all the more true because naval assessments at the fin-de-siècle were complicated by recent and largely untested developments in naval technology. Innovations in naval architecture (low-freeboard, armored warships; rapid firing guns) and the application of second industrial revolution technologies (electric firing systems; navigational aids; armor piercing shells) rendered traditional assessments of naval efficacy unsure. Chile’s fleet of torpedo boats, for example, presented a novel form of power in the Pacific. It was widely noted that during the Chilean Civil War, the Balmacedist navy had become the first in history to successfully use a propelled “automobile” torpedo to sink another warship. What impact these new weapons might have on the ability of the Chilean’s to defend their coast against aggression was hotly debated.

Complicating matters further were geographic realities that hampered U.S. deployments and ensnared military preparations with European shipyards. The Peruvian minister in Washington, Jose Yrigoyen, appreciated as much, cabling his government to describe “the difficulties the [U.S.] squadron will have in a war with Chile.” Without “coaling station in the Pacific,” he argued perceptibly, the U.S. ships would be forced to ferry coal from San Francisco, a “difficult task, above all if Chile dedicates a few of its ships to capturing this important element of the American squadron.” These geographic challenges injected a sobering realism into the United States’ preparations for war. No less than Mahan wrote, “we are so confident in our bigness and so little realize the great extra load entailed by the distance of Chili, in case of war.” Relatedly, in the winter of 1891, Chile retained the services of a British shipyard for additional ship construction over the objections of the Harrison administration. How the interruption of global supply lines via an Atlantic guerre de course might effect power projection in the Southern Hemisphere defied clear assessment. All this is to say, the war was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed—looking forward to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War—we might even speculate about the use of torpedoes to asymmetrically attack U.S. capital ships (that is to apply a key innovation in second industrial revolution technology to obviate investments in steel, ships, guns etc…). The New York Times certainly did, arguing that “Naval constructors who advocate and powers that have adopted the policy of building larger and larger war ships with constantly- increasing thickness of armor will devote much study and sober thought to [Chile’s] first decisive exhibition of the effectiveness of the automobile torpedo in actual warfare.” Distance, new weapons systems and interruptible lines of communication all suggested that the United States might have fared no better than Spain had a generation (1866-72) earlier in its unsuccessful war with Peru and Chile (one which ended with the Spanish commander committing suicide to avoid humiliation). 

If Chile had defeated the United States in a limited regional war, it might have proved a a major setback for Tracy, Mahan and the like. It would likely have undermined U.S. stature in the great power system and elevated Chile on a par with, say, Japan. Indeed in the same way that Russian defeat in 1905 saw it recast as backwards, U.S. defeat might have seriously altered the time, place and manner in which it entered into the European great power system. It might also have seen Chile, backed by a commercial relationship with Great Britain, double-down on its program of navalist expansion and develop into a long-term regional competitor with the United States. It might even have encouraged Santiago to follow up on its territorial annexations (in the Atacama and Easter Island) to become a regional hegemon in its own right.


The resolution of the Baltimore Incident is at once a case study in crisis management and a cautionary tale of military and civilian leaders using war to advance their institutional interests. It is an equally useful reminder (and perhaps necessary corrective) of the limits of U.S. hemispheric control before 1890, and of the speed of the imperial-navalist transformation by 1898. The offensive capabilities of the United States morphed from a near-peer competitor with Chile in the 1880s into those of a global power in under a generation. In this sense, the Baltimore Incident is a window onto the United States “adapting to the status of a world power” amid a period of technological change and imperial rivalry.  The great diplomatic historian Ernest May argued that the United States became “a world power in many respects comparable to Great Britain or Russia or Imperial Germany” after the War of 1898. Looking back a decade, the Baltimore Incident marks an important precedent in a longer process of ascendancy. Considering alternative outcomes (namely defeat) further reminds us of that ascendancy’s contingent nature. As a nomological exercise, the Baltimore Incident suggests a raft conclusions. Namely, that regional actors often resist imperial hegemony in order to secure domestic cohesion; that military bureaucracies incentivize the militarization of foreign policy; and that technological progress can rapidly destabilize the balance of power, encouraging misperceptions and bellicosity. These tendencies belong as much to the twenty first century as they do the nineteenth. Parallels between the Baltimore Incident and recent Sino-Japanese tensions, to name one possible example, are almost irresistible. Consider in this analogy China as the Harrisonian United States and Japan as Chile; supported then, as now, by the world’s leading commercial power. It is conceivable, as in 1891, that a minor incident, like an attack on a foreign owned business, could encourage nationalist posturing in Beijing as a means to (1) rally domestic support, (2) advance the interests of recapitalizing military forces (a process ongoing in both China and Japan), and (3) assert regional primacy. That possibility should be especially concerning because of the comparative proximity of China and Japan and the profound uncertainties created by the militarization of digital technology. A critical perspective on the Baltimore Incident should sensitize policymakers to this relevant, but under-appreciated war scare. It should also reinforce the imperative of clear assessments of power as a tool for conflict mitigation amid the exaggerations of modern-day nationalism.

Tommy Jamison is a PhD candidate in International History at Harvard University. From 2009 to 2014 he served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own. 

President McCormack and the Vietnam War

Alternate History Topic Week

By Ben Lamont

President John W. McCormack assumed office on November 23, 1963, less than twenty-four hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, following the accidental killing of Lyndon B. Johnson by a Secret Service agent. Born into a Boston family of Irish immigrants and a lawyer by training, McCormack served in the U.S. Army during the final years of World War One and began his long political career shortly after returning. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1928.

McCormack was a staunch democrat and supporter of the New Deal. In the lead up to World War Two, he rose to prominence as chair of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities, which sought  to unmask U.S. citizens with Nazi or communist ties. McCormack also played a key role in the passage, in the face of isolationist resistance, of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which initiated the first peacetime conscription in U.S. history.

Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (D-Massachusettes) (standing), addresses those attending a luncheon at the US Capitol honoring top Department of Defense executives. Left to right are Congressman George H. Mahon (D-Texas), committee chairman of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee; General (GEN) Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman, US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Congressman McCormack.
Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (D-Massachusettes) (standing), addresses those attending a luncheon at the US Capitol honoring top Department of Defense executives. Left to right are Congressman George H. Mahon (D-Texas), committee chairman of the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee; General (GEN) Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman, US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff; Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Congressman McCormack.

Despite having served in the House of Representatives since 1928, McCormack came into the Oval Office with relatively little foreign policy expertise. As a result, McCormack was initially deferential to the stable of charismatic foreign policy advisors he inherited from President Kennedy: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense William McNamara, CIA Director John McCone, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor.

While managing the ongoing strategic competition with the Soviet Union always loomed, during his time in office McCormack’s foreign policy agenda was dominated by the war in Vietnam, which was at a crossroads when he arrived. Based on the advice of Bundy and others, McCormack authorized the deployment of hundreds more U.S. military advisers during the first few months of his presidency.

In the midst of the 1964 election cycle (McCormack won the Democratic primary virtually unopposed), the Gulf of Tonkin incident made Vietnam an election issue. McCormack sought and won the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in part to project an image of strength in the face of accusations by his rival in the general election, Barry Goldwater, that he wasn’t doing enough to roll back communist expansion. The resolution granted McCormack greater authority over how to use U.S. military force, which he used to deepen U.S. engagement in Vietnam over the following year. McCormack won the 1964 presidential election against Goldwater easily.

Over the next two years however, McCormack grew increasingly uncomfortable with U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A veteran and staunch Catholic, McCormack wrote to the widows and families of hundreds of service members who were killed in Vietnam over the course of his presidency. These interactions had a profound effect on McCormack, and his willingness to commit U.S. soldiers to the conflict began to erode in the winter of 1965-66, as U.S. casualties mounted.

U.S. troop levels in Vietnam reached a peak of 200,000 in the summer of 1966, which McCormack reduced to 40,000 by the spring of 1967. In his public speeches, McCormack cited his concern for veterans and his faith as the reasons behind his decision to disengage from Vietnam. McCormack was particularly affected by the activist Julia Moore, who brought attention how after the Battle of Ia Drang, widows were notified of their husbands’ deaths via telegrams delivered by cab drivers.

In late January 1968, around the time of the Tet holiday, North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces launched major attacks against the weakened U.S. positions that remained in Vietnam. Around three thousand Marines stationed at Khe Sanh Combat Base, close to the DMZ with North Vietnam, came under siege and had to be airlifted out under intense enemy fire. U.S. and South Vietnamese Army forces fell back to the perimeter of the Capital Military District around Saigon.

Although the U.S. government sought to portray the agreements between the United States and North Vietnam that McCormack oversaw as ceasefires, they were widely viewed as articles of surrender, and allowed U.S. forces to retreat from South Vietnam relatively peacefully in the latter half of 1968.

McCormack took massive criticism for his decisions from foreign policy hawks who believed that he had capitulated to the Soviet Union and communism. During the 1968 presidential race, McCormack’s opponent Richard Nixon hammered McCormack on the issue of Vietnam. While Nixon publicly championed the idea of “peace with honor”, The New York Times reported that Nixon called McCormack a “traitor” in a private speech to Republican donors a few months before the election.

After winning the 1968 election, President Nixon appointed a special task force to investigate the reasons behind America’s defeat in Vietnam, which became known as the Gates Commission after its chairman, former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates. The Gates Commission was highly critical of President McCormack’s decision-making during the war and recommended that the responsibility of commander-in-chief should be shared by the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rather than be the sole prerogative of the president. However the recommendations never materialized because of concerns about their constitutional legality.

After leaving the White House, McCormack became a fellow at Boston College, where he wrote a memoir of his long career entitled “Leadership in Turmoil”. He died in 1975.

Ben Lamont works in the Asia program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.