2017 McMullen Naval History Symposium

IMG_1786I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the “extraordinary breadth” of scholarship presented at the McMullen Naval History Symposium last week at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. It was a wonderful conference, and Cdr. B.J. Armstrong deserves a lot of credit for its success. I’m very glad I finally got to meet him.

I attended several thought-provoking sessions on World War I, the interwar period (1919-1939), and the Battle of the Virginia Capes. I participated on a panel titled “1942 and Its Continued Historical Relevancy for the U.S. Navy” and I was also fortunate to win second prize in the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) Naval History Essay Contest. I discussed my essay with some of the other winners in a session last Friday morning. Here are some of my highlights from the conference.

David Kohnen discussed the report of the “[Dudley W.] Knox, [William S.] Pye, [Ernest J.] King Board” issued in 1919 and its impact on officer education in the U.S. Navy. The report is an important part of the story of how the U.S. Navy harnessed the lessons of World War I and improved its approach to officer education before World War II. It was not surprising to hear that King was the “principal man” behind the report. It was also not surprising to learn that King published a version of the report in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1920, sparking heated debate. Kohnen pointed out the importance of officer relationships for understanding the U.S. Navy of this period. King was a protégé of Henry T. Mayo, who commanded the Atlantic Fleet during World War I, and also knew William S. Sims, who commanded American naval forces in Europe. These more senior officers gave King and his colleagues “top cover” for the report and its recommendations.

Alexander Howlett presented his research into lessons learned by the Royal Navy’s Air Service and the Royal Air Force (RAF) in their campaign against the German U-Boats in 1917 and 1918. I thought one of his most interesting findings was that the British Admiralty allowed a great deal of variability; the development of tactics and doctrine devolved to individual stations. Those that created effective partnerships with surface forces and devised new techniques were more successful. When the RAF was formed, much of this learning appears to have been lost. Increasing centralization and ignorance of the best techniques for fighting the U-Boats prevented the RAF from capitalizing on established lessons. I enjoyed discussing this important shift with Howlett later that evening.

Branden Little highlighted the fact that U.S. Navy ships were used to ferry gold to American citizens in Europe immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914. Currency destabilized and many vacationers found themselves stranded without a means to pay for food, transportation, or lodging. The gold was a deliberate loan to allow Americans to pay for their needs before coming back to the United States. Armored cruiser Tennessee alone provided $5,867,000 according to one contemporary newspaper.

Sidney M. Chester followed the path of Tennessee and her sister North Carolina. They were sent to the Mediterranean where they spent a good deal of time in Beirut, then the “center of American and protestant activity” in the Middle East. The ships helped maintain harmony between various religious and ethnic groups; Chester related how more frequent liberty for the crews furthered this goal. Evidently, the sailors were good at picking fights and the regular fisticuffs diffused ethnic violence, a fascinating dynamic that I had never considered.

In our 1942 panel, I discussed the importance of the fighting in the Solomon Islands and how it triggered the U.S. Navy’s system of organizational learning; K.J. Delamer explained that PT Boats, although they had few tactical successes, were part of a multi-dimensional system of unrelenting pressure on the Japanese; and Hal Friedman illustrated that the Naval War College’s exercises of 1946 harkened back to the challenges of early wartime battles like Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. I particularly liked Delamer’s description of the challenge of attempting to fight steel-hulled Japanese barges in wooden-hulled PT Boats.

I moved out of my main area of interest to attend the session on the Battle of the Virginia Capes, and I’m very glad I did. James Holmes presented his “strategist take on history” by describing the effective ways in which the British deprioritized the North American colonies in favor of more important strategic theaters, like the sugar islands in the Caribbean. Holmes used the concepts of war developed by Carl von Clausewitz to frame his discussion and it was quite effective. However, at the end he introduced the idea of antifragility as developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, suggesting that liberal democracies like 18th century Britain can “bounce back” from failures like that experienced by the loss of the colonies.

During the commentary and questions, I started to consider the implications of this. We can potentially do ourselves a disservice if we apply a clausewitzian frame to the process of military decision-making in all times and periods. The way Holmes described the British approach, it seemed much less like a clear process of finding the “decisive theater” and much more a series of experiments and hypotheses intended to determine the most effective potential outcome. More specifically, I started to wonder if the concept of antifragility might not be a better frame for understanding British strategy in the late 18th century. Could the move into the southern colonies, which ultimately resulted in disaster t Yorktown, be seen as a minor investment with significant potential upside rather than a strategic mistake? I think that is a valuable question worth further investigation.

There were many other important sessions and talented presenters. I regret that I could not attend them all, but it has me looking forward to the next one in 2019. The McMullen Symposium is a great opportunity to learn, connect, and share ideas with the most talented minds in the field of Naval History.