Two Centuries of American Naval Leaders
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD 1997, 455 pps
Hardback $42.50; Paperback $22.95
Reviewed by CAPT Ralph Enos, USN
This anthology of short biographical essays by distinguished naval historians appears to be an attempt to consolidate and update in one volume profiles of key naval personalities that previously appeared in three popular books, all edited by Bradford Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1775-1850, appearing in 1985; Captains of the Old Steam Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1840-1889 in 1986; and Admirals of the New Steel Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1880-1930 in 1990. For this volume the series was brought more or less up-to-date with new essays on Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Arleigh Burke, Hyman Rickover, and Elmo Zumwalt.
There are two problems with editing biographical anthologies. Whom do you include and whom do you leave out, and how do you avoid hagiolatry? Bradford’s Quarterdeck and Bridge generally solves the second problem but fails the first.
Hagiography is defined as the writing and critical study of the lives of saints, and hagiolatry is the worship of saints. We may assume, as Herny L. Stimson once did, that sea power is a strange religion where the U.S. Navy is the one true church and Mahan is its prophet. Then makers of American naval traditions are secular saints. and an anthology such as Quarterdeck and Bridge is a hagiography. Avoiding uncritical, adulatory, worshipful praise of these saints is an editorial challenge when you charge your essayists to focus on those aspects of the subjects’ lives that contributed significantly to the making of American naval tradition and then give them editorial freedom to do it in their own style. Bradford succeeds in this by selecting his writers carefully from among the best of a new generation of historians specializing in military history. These writers generally are from civilian academia, not from the old guard at the Naval Academy and Naval Historical Center.
Bradford fails the test of whom to include/exclude. Submariners in particular will be irritated that no operational submariner is included. True, Rickover makes the list and Nimitz and King were one-time submariners, but none of them made his career mark or won a battle as an operational submariner. If one considers, as we do, that the introduction of the submarine in the U.S. Navy in 1900 was as revolutionary as the introduction of aviation a decade later, simple fairness would put Charles Lockwood on the list to balance the included William A. Moffett.
Admittedly, when the work is limited to just 20 persons and these have to cover more than 200 years of naval tradition, making the right list is a tough job. In looking at the Navy for the period 1930-1980 and limiting yourself to six names, whom do you choose? Bradford chose King, Nimitz, and Halsey for the WWII period, and Burke, Rickover, and Zumwalt for the post war. Of those, whom do you drop to include Lockwood? My personal choice would be Halsey, even though John Wukovits’ essay on Halsey is the best in the book. Halsey’s contribution to American naval tradition was as much a triumph of press-agentry as it was based on solid achievement.
I have quibbles with some other selections. Why Ezek Hopkins? His contribution to American naval tradition was nonexistent, if not negative. I admire Stephen Decatur, but Preble and Rodgers had as much or more influence than he. Why Stockton and not Dahlgren? If you must include a Confederate-and it isn’t clear that you need to -why not Maury instead of Semmes? Why include the reformer Sims rather than the more important Fiske, or the much more influential Benson? Why Moffett and not Towers?
Undersea warfare is slighted not just through excluding an operational submariner; it is invisible or barely perceptible throughout. Farragut’s disdain for torpedoes is dismissed as a part of his audacity, whereas in reality he had very good intelligence on the location and condition of the minefield at Mobile Bay and was properly wary of undersea weapons that sank 26 Union vessels during the Civil War. The importance of naval aviation is a leitmotif in the essays on WWII whereas the successful American submarine campaign against Japan, which Chester Nimitz presided over, is dismissed in one sentence (along with aerial mining) in John Lundstrom’s essay on Nimitz. The importance of the
battleship and emphasis on the climactic battle, so important to Mahan and early 201b century navalists, and so misguided, is properly interred in the WWII essays. But to read them you would think that only carrier aviation was responsible. The fact that the torpedo was the principal sinking agent of most WWII capital ships, even those sunk by aircraft, is not discernable in these pages. Nor is the Battle of the Atlantic-treated in the essay on King as a sideshow.
Francis Duncan’s essay on Rickover will be read with great interest by submariners. I think Duncan tries to be open-minded and critical and include some negatives on Rickover, but the result is strangely sterile, as if the kindly old gentleman were still looking over his shoulder with the veiled threat to yank him off the job if he didn’t put him in a good light .. The animosity that Rickover engendered elsewhere in the Navy, his shameless courting of Congress and the press, his vindictiveness and pettiness, are all muted. The controversial influence of Rickover’s preoccupation with submarines’ power plants on a generation of submariners (clearly a new naval tradition) is barely mentioned. The troubles and excesses ofa failing old man in the late 1970s and early 1980s seem to receive undue attention. His technical legacy for the Submarine Force and Navy as a whole-careful, conservative, and high quality engineering and engineering execution-is not stressed nearly enough. It’s as if Duncan has leveled the highs and filled up the lows in this controversial career.
I particularly enjoyed Harold Langley’s essay on Robert Stockton and Robert Seager Il’s unusually critical piece on Mahan. The latter points out an aspect of Mahan’s world view-his intense religiosity-as being vital to an understanding of his work. Tamara Moser Melia Smith’s treatment of the insufferable David Dixon Porter goes lightly on his dislike-able personality and quite properly focuses on his post-Civil War career as a naval reformer. Lloyd Graybar’s essay on King is one of the finest short pieces on that brilliant and controversial man I’ve read. David Rosenberg’s Arleigh Burke-like King, the dominant naval leader of his generation-is excellent, with due attention to Burke’s role in bringing the all-nuclear Submarine Force and the FBM program into existence.
The book suffers at the outset by a couple of egregious editing errors. Thomas Truxtun’s name is misspelled on page xiii and consistently thereafter, an inexcusable error for the Navy’s semiofficial publishing arm. Van Buren was not president in 1833, nor was he in October 1841. CincPAC is not the same as Commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. One of the cardinal rules of historiography is to get your facts right. If simple errors in dates, spelling, or nomenclature slip through that any schoolboy can spot, it casts doubt on the credibility of the entire work.
If you are looking for a quick read to brush up on American naval history and traditions, particularly during the 18111 and 19111 centuries, Quanerdeck and Bridge will probably satisfy your need. But if you care about these traditions and want a full and balanced treatment, especially with respect to undersea warfare and the 20th century, you would be well advised to look elsewhere.