The U.S. Navy’s Improbable Rise to Power
From the very first, when it punched well above its weight in the Revolution, America’s seagoing military has enjoyed an almost unblemished rate of innovative success.
The United States Navy is paradoxically the most traditional and innovative of America’s armed services. It is also by far and away the most diverse in terms of missions and capabilities. In addition to its fleet of cutting-edge surface ships and submarines, the Navy possesses its own ground force—the Marines—and an air force, both land and carrier-based, which has greater strike capability than the air forces of most developed nations. The Navy’s supercarrier battle groups function as mobile military cities, extending American power and influence across the entire globe.
Because the Navy bears primary responsibility for guaranteeing freedom of the seas, and because it invariably finds itself at the center of the international community’s response to geopolitical crisis, violent and otherwise, it could very well be said that the U.S. Navy is a world institution as well as an American one.
The purpose of Craig L. Symonds’s The U.S. Navy: A Concise History, is to explain in broad strokes how this enormously powerful and complex institution came to be what it is today, and to describe its myriad contributions to the nation’s wars, as well as to American foreign policy. With admirable economy, Symonds traces the sea service’s evolution from its origins in the Revolution as a scrappy, ad hoc force punching well above its weight against the mighty Royal Navy—with more than a little help from the French Navy—up through the War of 1812, where its record was a mixed bag of startling successes on the Great Lakes and in the great frigate duals (e.g., the USS Constitution vs. the HMS Guerriere) on the open ocean, and outright defeat on the east coast, where American gun boats proved no match for British ships of the line as they landed forces and sacked Washington.
In the 1840s and 1850s, the Navy made important administrative and educational strides, and began to experiment with new technologies and tactics that were to play a critical role in the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Among them were the first prop-driven warships, ironclad gunboats, and innovative tactics for riverine fighting.
Happy circumstances of geography and international politics after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 combined to insure that the United States needed only a modest peacetime navy of coastal defense ships and fast cruisers for commerce-raiding for most of the 19th century. Then, around 1880, the balance of power in Europe gave way to imperial competition, and the first modern battleships were constructed, leading to a race for coaling stations and colonies all over the globe. These developments opened up the very real prospect of attack on either the Atlantic coast or against American commerce on the high seas by powerful, new battleship fleets. Against such a threat the extant American Navy was essentially defenseless.
After thinking long and hard about this problem, a hitherto obscure Navy captain at the Naval War College in Newport named Alfred Thayer Mahan put forward a compelling potential solution. In 1890 Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, in which he argued that the new threat to national security could only be met with a bold new naval strategy and a modern ocean-going fleet to execute it. Mahan and his disciples, the navalists, called the new strategy “command of the sea.”
A new open-ocean fleet must be built around state-of-the-art battleships, strong enough to meet and defeat any potential adversary far, far from the nation’s shores in a decisive encounter. The best defense, said Mahan, was a forward-deployed offensive force. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy nicely summarized Mahan’s new concepts in a report for President McKinley:
“The defense of the United States absolutely requires the creation of a fighting force,” Tracy wrote. “We must have a fleet of battle-ships that will beat off the enemy’s fleet on its approach, for it is not to be tolerated that the United States, with its population, its revenue, and its trade, is to submit to attack upon the threshold of its harbors. Finally we must be able to divert an enemy’s force from our coast by threatening his own, for a war, though defensive in principle, may be conducted most effectively by being offensive in its operations.”
Mahan’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by McKinley’s successor, Teddy Roosevelt, and the American public alike. By 1897, the country had a world-class navy built around six new battleships, with more in the works. With the disappearance of the Western frontier, the national zeitgeist appeared receptive to the use of the nation’s formidable new naval shield as a spear to wrest its own colonial empire from the weak sister of European imperial powers, Spain. And so it did. The new U.S. Navy inflicted decisive defeats on Spanish fleets in Manila harbor, in the Philippines, and then off the coast of Cuba. Spain quickly threw in the towel. In effect,” writes Symonds, the upward trajectory of American naval expansion had crossed the downward trajectory of Spanish retreat from great power status.”
After the War, Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and Puerto Rico to the United States. Although Cuba gained its independence, the Americans exercised significant authority over the island for decades to come, and immediately established a great naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The United States was now a global world power thanks in large part to the U.S. Navy.
Between the Spanish American War and World War I, the size, technological capabilities, and professionalism of the new battleship Navy increased markedly—as did the navies of the other major powers. Ironically, the war witnessed only one great engagement between battleship fleets—an indecisive encounter between the Germans and the British—and the American Navy’s contribution to victory came in the somewhat inglorious form of convoy escort and anti-submarine action.
After the war, a series of naval treaties set strict limits on the numbers of battleships in all the leading navies in order to prevent an expensive arms race. Naturally this was a source of great frustration for senior officer corps in the big navies of Japan, Britain, and the United States. Yet in light of the looming war in the Pacific against Japan—the greatest naval war in world history by far—the strictures on battleship and cruiser production proved a godsend for the American Navy, as the energies and imaginations of some of the finest minds in the service were forced to turned away from battleship tactics and technologies to those of “lesser” craft.
The Navy converted a number of battleship and heavy cruiser hulls to aircraft carriers. Even as most strategists remained convinced future naval campaigns would be won or lost in great slugging matches between battleship fleets, U.S. naval aviation came into its own in the ’30s. Many forward-looking senior officers transferred from the surface fleet to the carrier forces, sensing that carrier-borne planes might well prove a decisive offensive asset in future conflicts. The submarine service also made great strides between the world wars in terms of tactics, technology, and prestige within the service.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps for the first time in history worked out a systematic doctrine and training regimen, and developed specialized equipment for amphibious operations against well-defended beaches—a mission that most military analysts thought suicidal given the lethality of modern defensive weapons. How wrong the analysts proved to be!
After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans and British found themselves very much on the defensive in the Pacific War for six months, as the Japanese gobbled up a huge swath of southeast Asia along with many islands in the Pacific. Then came the Battle of Midway. Codebreakers were able to glean just enough intelligence about the disposition of the Japanese fleet near Midway Island for Admiral Chester Nimitz’s aircraft to ambush and sink four enemy carriers, while losing only one of his own. “It was one of the most decisive and strategically important naval battles in history,” opines Symonds. “Though the war had three more full years to run, after Midway the Japanese largely conceded the initiative to the Americans.”
As American shipyards turned out an astonishing 30-plus carriers, ten battleships, and thousands of other craft, the Navy launched two simultaneous offensives across the vast Pacific Ocean, seizing one group of islands after another, from the Solomons to the Marianas, and finally to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two islands on the very doorstep of the Japanese homeland. Only twice did the Japanese fleet attempt to regain control of the seas around these newly conquered American enclaves—at the battles of the Coral Sea and Leyte Gulf. Both engagements were crushing defeats for the Imperial Japanese Navy. After Leyte, the Japanese Navy was bereft of trained replacement pilots, short of naval aircraft, and essentially finished as an offensive force.
But the Japanese hadn’t been defeated by carriers alone, as Symonds points out. American subs had cut Japanese merchant shipping to the bone. Even if the atomic bombs hadn’t been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan would have been starved into submission before too long. What make the Navy’s performance in the Pacific all the more impressive is that it carried out a series of daunting campaigns in the European theater simultaneously.
The Navy’s historic development, writes Symonds, “might best be understood as tracing a kind of sine wave—oscillating dramatically between periods of quiet torpor and moments of tremendous expansion.” After covering itself in glory in World War II, the sine wave headed steeply downward, though it must be said, not quietly. In a vicious political struggle, the Navy almost lost the Marines to the Army and its aviation wing to the new Air Force. President Harry S Truman, no friend of the Navy, retired about one thousand ships. The Navy’s bid to field a nuclear strike force aboard the new supercarrier United States was scrapped, with the funds initially allocated for that giant ship transferred to the Air Force’s new bomber program.
The Korean War rejuvenated the service, at least to a degree. After that war, the Navy’s role in America’s Cold War containment strategy translated largely into the mission of “presence.” Naval forces were permanently deployed in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Pacific, while at least one other carrier strike force was on call, ready to be dispatched wherever it was needed.
During the long misadventure in Vietnam, Navy jets flew off carriers to hit targets in North Vietnam, and to interdict the flow of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Small ships patrolled the coast to interdict Communist shipping, and Navy gunboats prowled the labyrinthine Mekong Delta in support of Army and Marine counterinsurgency missions. It was in Vietnam that the SEALS established their reputation as perhaps the finest commando force on earth.
After Vietnam, the Navy’s initial efforts to challenge the Soviet navy’s gambit to achieve maritime supremacy on the high seas fell afoul of steep cuts in the defense budgets. Then came Ronald Reagan, with his plans to make America—and her Navy—great again. A host of new weapons systems and ships entered the service with the objective of convincing the Soviets that they could never win a naval war against America, but the Soviet Union collapsed before the issue was put to the test.
In the end, the Navy’s most consistent Cold War-era mission proved to be crisis response and management. Between 1946 and 1996, the Navy was deployed in crises short of war no less than 270 times.
In 1992, the Chief of Naval Operations presented a new strategic concept in light of post-Cold War geopolitical realities. “Forward… From the Sea” announced a distinct shift in focus away from operations on the open sea—there was, after all, no longer a “blue water” navy capable of mounting a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy—and toward “power projection… from the sea to influence events in the littoral [i.e., coastal] regions of the world.” The new concept stressed the versatility of Navy-Marine expeditionary forces in responding to regional conflicts independently and fast, in seizing advance bases for extensive ground campaigns,, and in “operations other than war,” including peace keeping, peace enforcement, humanitarian relief, and in support of coercive diplomacy.
Since the end of the Cold War the Navy has been almost continuously engaged in power projection operations, from the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the ’90s, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the dramatic SEAL raid that resulted in the neutralization of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. In addition, the Navy is now the “global cop on the beat: quelling pirates, chasing smugglers, deterring terrorists, and occasionally extending a humanitarian helping hand.”
The author, a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of ten critically acclaimed books on naval subjects, is clearly in full command of his subject, but the writing here is surprisingly lackluster. The book reads more like a student primer than a proper trade book. At a mere 116 pages of large type text, the book might well have been subtitled A Very Concise History—and that may be part of the problem. No sooner has one topic been brought up than we’re on to the next. I’d have liked to have seen the narrative leavened with a few more arresting quotes, and gotten a better sense of Symonds’s personal take on what is, after all, a very dramatic story. He plays his cards very close to his vest here.
Nonetheless, the book provides an intelligent and clearly organized introduction to the subject at hand. It whetted my appetite to delve deeper into the story of an institution long at the center of America’s relationship with the wider world.