Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts on a Maritime Nation

Dropping Astern: HMS Guerriere versus USS Constitution
19 August 1812

The maritime theme that most often runs through this blog, and binds it together, is the same one that for over two hundred years has bound together the United States, and led to our success as a nation and great power. Due to our ability to recognize our failings, and self correct ourselves this path has led to a world more prosperous and secure, than any time since humans have existed. Our nation was founded by people who journeyed to our shores on ships, and then when divorced from Europe, founded a navy to protect our shores and lanes of commerce.

The past two decades since the end of the Cold War and ten years of war in Southwest Asia has seen the Navy take a back seat. First as the fleet, post-Cold War shrank to the smallest since the 1920's, and second, as the soaring cost of two land wars outstripped the treasury more than any conflict since World War II, and diverted funds from shipbuilding programs.

The recent decision by President Obama to commit to a "Strategic Pivot" to reinforce our presence in the Western Pacific has left the Navy with hard choices to do more with less, as it plans to retire 16 ships and now 7 more cruisers and 2 amphibious ships next year. Some in Congress have begun to question the logic and soundness of the Navy's decision. This topic has spread to the influential naval centric blog of Information Dissemination, where this post generated lively debate. Amid the plans for pivoting to Asia is a rather large fly in the ointment named Iran. Reading the "Tea Leaves" tends support the phrase, plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

Looking back, to the beginning of the nation Alexander Hamilton lobbied for the maintaining of a strong navy that was chronicled in the recent book, Six Frigates by Ian Toll. Our nation relied on ships like these were our first line of defense during the war of 1812 when the USS Constitution made history and due to her service remains on active duty as a tribute to those first ships.

At the end of the 19th century the pen of Alfred Thayer Mahan produced a book that introduced Theodore Roosevelt then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to apply the principles of The Influence of Sea Power on History 1660-1783 when he became president. Mahan's book was the bible that guided American naval strategy during the 20th century and now is being followed by China, as she moves to correct a historical mistake they made in the 15th century.

The story of our naval heritage in the 20th century and especially the War in the Pacific was written about in a masterful way by Samuel Eliot Morison who's books are still available from US Naval Institute.
USS Johnston at Battle off Samar 25 October 1944

Other authors have published recent books that chronicle our naval history during World War II. Men like James D Hornfischer who has penned three books bound to be classics, and Ian Toll whose Pacific Crucible joins his previous Six Frigates, as another classic account of the US Navy.

It might also be noted as President Obama is prone to call a "Learning Moment," to consider that the two presidents who had the most influence on the American Navy in the 20th century, both learned to appreciate sea power when serving as Assistant Secretaries of the Navy. As noted above, Theodore, and his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, held that post and both brought our Navy to the forefront of a global presence that has lasted to this day. One can only hope that future presidents heed their example, and maintain the Navy as a force that will continue to wear the mailed, or surgical glove, with equal mastery.

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