The U.S. Navy's evolving role

February 17, 1991|By Nathan Miller | Nathan Miller,Mr. Miller is the author of "The U.S. Navy: A History," among other books. A revised and updated version recently was published in paperback.


Kenneth J. Hagan.

Free Press.

434 pages. $27.95.

"Naval power . . . is the natural defense of the United States." So said John Adams, who most deserves to be called the "father of the American Navy." In the more than two centuries since his day, the U.S. Navy not only has been America's first line of defense but has played a leading role in projecting U.S. power abroad, as in the current war in the Persian Gulf.

Writing with verve and authority, Kenneth J. Hagan, a reserve captain in the Navy, professor of history at the Naval Academy and Director of the Naval Academy Museum, tells the story of this fighting force from the ragtag Continental Navy of the American Revolution to the giant aircraft carriers and ballistics missile submarines of today.

I can think of no better introduction to U.S. naval history for both the general reader and the professional than this book, but it is more than a simple chronicle. The usual elements of the story are all here in full panoply: John Paul Jones and the Bon Homme Richard, the struggle with Barbary pirates, the shocking victories of the "handful of fir-built frigates" in the War of 1812, Commodore M. C. Perry's "black ships" and the opening of Japan, the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia that revolutionized naval warfare, Dewey at Manila Bay, the "incredible victory" at Midway.

But Mr. Hagan's book also is analytic history at its best. He correctly sees the story of American naval development as a contest between two theories -- the free-ranging guerre de course, or war against commerce, and the big-navy philosophy propounded by Alfred Thayer Mahan with its emphasis upon a climactic sea fight of Nelsonian proportions. The first reached its apex with the cruise of the Confederate raider Alabama, the latter in the 20th century.

In the beginning, Mr. Hagan notes, the national needs were met by a navy of small, fast ships manned by bold officers and seamen. Their task was not the destruction of enemy navies and command of the sea in the mold of Britain's Royal Navy, but coastal defense, commerce protection and commerce raiding.

But at the end of the 19th century, under the influence of Mahan and his friend and fellow naval historian, Theodore Roosevelt, the navy was reshaped to meet new national goals. Having rounded out its continental borders, the United States embarked upon a course of economic and territorial expansion overseas. A powerful navy was the capstone of this new structure.

Light cruisers useful for showing the flag gave way to massive fleets of battleships bristling with big guns, and the navy prepared for a major fleet action in the manner of Trafalgar and Jutland. But this decisive struggle never occurred. The U.S. battle fleet was destroyed by the Japanese at the start of the long-expected Pacific War and the fast carrier replaced the battleship as the dominant force in naval warfare.

Mr. Hagan is at his most provocative, however, in dealing with post-World War II naval developments. Although the newly designated enemy, the Soviet Union, basically was a land power with only a coast-defense navy, the United States built a blue-water fleet in the Mahanian mode that was dominated by giant carrier armadas and the nuclear submarine. While this fleet may have been suited for the early days of the Cold War, Mr. Hagan argues that it is poorly structured for the challenges of our time.

With the unraveling of the Soviet empire, the U.S. Navy no longer faces a major opponent at sea but will increasingly be called upon -- as in the Persian Gulf -- to fight conventional and limited wars. By concentrating on supercarriers, the navy is prepared to fight the wrong war, according to Mr. Hagan. The task facing the service as it enters a new century is remarkably similar to the "gunboat diplomacy" of a previous era, and it must be reshaped to deal with this reality.

In Mr. Hagan's sure hand, history serves not only a guide to the past but a chart to the future as well.

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