John T. Kuehn
Review of Hal M. Friedman,
Digesting History: The U.S. Naval War College, the Lessons of
World War Two, and Future Naval Warfare. Newport, RI:
Naval War College Press, 2010. Pp. xxvii, 375. ISBN
new monograph by Hal Friedman (Henry Ford Community College) adds
to his considerable body of work
on the U.S. Navy immediately following World War II. He is
well-suited to address this topic, having served in the Navy and
done extensive research at the Naval War College (NWC) in Newport,
Rhode Island. He focuses on the Pacific Ocean from the perspectives
of American imperialism, strategic policy, administration, and
bureaucratic infighting. This latest effort, part of the ongoing NWC
historical monograph series, might have been entitled "War College
Lessons Learned in the Recent War in the American Lake"; he plans
two further volumes on the same subject area.
Friedman believes decisions made in 1947-49 have had long-term
consequences for U.S. national security and that the context and
processes of those decisions, as well as the personalities behind
them, are instructive for those interested in policy, strategy, and
organizational dynamics during periods of change. Accordingly, he
examines the attitudes of officers at the NWC regarding the evolving
postwar security threats posed by the Soviet Union and the potential
use of atomic weaponry in future conflicts. Another concern is the
Navy's role and fleet structure in such an environment—from the
relevance of operational missions such as amphibious warfare to
warship design (349). He draws primarily on theses, speeches, and
lectures that address such "big" issues.
Friedman begins with an explicit disclaimer:
"The reader will find this book to be a very straightforward,
chronological narrative. I have not attempted to deeply analyze or
'deconstruct' what the historical actors have said, but instead I
have taken great pains to record what they said at the time as
closely as possible while creating a readable narrative" (xxv).
These words adumbrate both the strengths and the weaknesses of the
study. Strengths include its comprehensive and faithful summation of
the relevant theses, lectures, and speeches from the critical period
of Admiral Raymond Spruance's NWC presidency (Feb 1946-Jul 1948).
Friedman accurately explains the opinions and ideas of the Navy's
officer corps and even conveys some of the ambience of its premier
educational institution. In so doing, he carefully describes trees
and shrubs while somewhat neglecting the forest. The book could have
achieved more had it not been so strictly delimited in both
analytical scope and time period covered.
Another weakness is the
neglect of context. For example, in Chapter One, Friedman summarizes
a thesis by Lt. Cdr. Lodwick Alford without discussing his personal
background, wartime service, or subsequent career. Yet Alford's
early experience aboard destroyers in the Asiatic Fleet clearly
shaped his conclusions about preparedness and strategy (5).
There are three such thesis reviews in this chapter. Were these the
only three or are they representative examples? Friedman gives
little indication of his rationale for structuring this or other
chapters as he does. The result is a sometimes indistinct narrative
emphasizes the speeches and lectures of Admiral Spruance, but
missing are the interoffice memoranda or the like that might have
provided a "peak behind the curtain" of decision-making in the NWC
under Spruance's tutelage. In such an institution, there are always
agendas and "pet projects" being advanced, discussed, and acted on
at the senior levels of the administration. Why was "so and so"
asked to lecture? Were particular thesis projects encouraged or did
students have complete discretion in selecting them? There is little
of this kind of contextualization.
To his credit, Friedman
does address issues of context and analysis in his extensive notes.
For example, Adm. Robert Carney, in a commencement speech at the
College, made a series of self-serving justifications for Adm.
William Halsey's decisions at the Battle of Leyte Gulf (40-41).
Friedman neglects to remind the reader that Carney had been Halsey's
chief of staff (something he mentions in the first paragraph
introducing his summary of the speech). He says in a note that "it is
unclear from the document if Carney really believed his own version
of the battle ... " (56, n. 22), but stops short of asserting that his
defensive attitude reflected his responsibility for the atmosphere
of group think that contributed to Halsey's blunder. Thus, he misses the larger opportunity to show how rationalizations and bully
pulpits can undermine the disinterested pursuit of honest lessons
afforded by history.
This book gradually
uncovers a battle over history and naval reputations taking place
right under Spruance's nose. For example, it is especially
informative on the tarnishing of Adm. Frank "Jack" Fletcher's
reputation. Fletcher had been in command at the Battles of the Coral
Sea, Midway, and (in its first phase) Guadalcanal. Some postwar
officers at Newport made a concerted effort to undermine Fletcher,
especially in the school's "official" battle studies. Friedman, in
his account of curricular revisions, notes that Cmd. Richard Bates,
who supervised the NWC's Coral Sea battle study, made it his
personal mission to question and denigrate just about any action
Fletcher took (182-83). He was aided in this by one Capt. Fred
Dickey, an instructor in the Department of Aviation. Bates sent
Dickey to interview Fletcher, then Chairman of the General Board,
with the intent of gathering information with which to criticize
him. Dickey produced a less than flattering summary of the
Bates specifically wanted to see certain CINCPAC [Commander in Chief,
Pacific] dispatches to clarify how and when then-Rear Admiral
Fletcher put out an operations order during the battle to merge his
force with that of then-Rear Admiral John Fitch, Commander of Task
Force 11. Bates wanted to know if the order originally came from
Fletcher or from Admiral Nimitz. More exactly, Bates wanted to know
if it was "satisfactory" for Nimitz to have Task Forces 11 and 17
"running around" separately in the Coral Sea if they were supposed
to actually be combined into one force under Fletcher (199).
Friedman hints about this
emerging larger narrative in an endnote citing the pioneering work
of John Lundstrom
in largely rehabilitating Fletcher's reputation (197, n. 27).
Later, Friedman notes that
Bates criticized Fletcher for not commanding from a shore base like
his Japanese counterpart (Admiral Inouye), but then claimed Halsey
at Leyte Gulf (Oct 1944) was justified in commanding from a ship
because he was only directing a "raiding force." Friedman does not
identify this as a clear case of special pleading in the smear
campaign against Fletcher. One hopes that, in his promised future
volumes on war gaming at the NWC, he will revisit the issue of
the battle studies, which so often formed the basis for the games
concentration on American naval policy from 1945 to 1947 certainly
has merit, since this was a critical period of transition for the
United States and other countries from world war to a more stable
global "system," from imperialism and colonialism to the creation of
a more durable world order in the aftermath of the breakdown of the
grand alliance that had defeated the Axis powers. Such major issues
demand the sort of in-depth analysis and even synthesis found in
previous NWC publications.
Friedman's conclusions occupy no more than a mere page of text, let
alone a chapter. His audience would have been better served had he
shortened his lengthy thesis synopses to make room for more
analytical material. Given his mastery of this period of naval
history, he is certainly aware of broader trends and themes.
usefully reveals the raw insights of NWC officers of the selected
period in a slightly processed form suitable for other
specialists--but not for a wider readership.
Accordingly, I can recommend it only to naval historians already
conversant with the Pacific conflict and its study in the immediate
U.S. Army Command and
General Staff College