TO SHINING SEA: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991. By Stephen Howarth. Random House. 620 pages. $25.
IN MOST WARS the navy plays a secondary role to the army. The navy's job is to protect waterborne commerce, guard amphibious operations, bombard coastal fortifications and the like. This has been true historically. Only recently has that role been enlarged with the development of the nuclear ballistic-missile submarine.
Such a traditional role has been played by the United States Navy since its inception in 1775, when the Continental Congress passed a resolution urging each colony to outfit armed vessels for defense.
Since then the Navy has had its ups and downs, as described by Stephen Howarth in this most readable history. And Congress' interest in building and maintaining a powerful naval fleet has waxed and waned.
For instance, six frigates were authorized by Congress in 1794. Only three, the United States, Constitution and Constellation, were built. Twenty years later, the second war with Britain was confined mainly to single-ship actions by frigates and privateers, many of which sailed out of Baltimore. The Royal Navy maintained a tight blockade of the Atlantic coast ports, which the U.S. Navy was powerless to break.
A building program after the War of 1812 included nine 74-gun ships. Only two were completed. So it went: a flurry of construction for war, followed by periods of inactivity in which the fleet would be scrapped, mothballed or (in the case of a couple of battleships) blown up.
Blinded by such Anglophobes as Adm. Ernest J. King, who thought the Royal Navy had nothing to teach him, the U.S. Navy was blasted almost to bits at Pearl Harbor 50 years ago this winter. In the Atlantic during World War II, it was unable to protect the East Coast convoys for at least the first seven months of 1942, which resulted in a tremendous loss of seamen, freighters and tankers.
But the Navy recovered and went on to fight and win the greatest sea battle in history. The battle for Leyte Gulf comprised four separate engagements, covered an area larger than France and involved more ships and men than had ever been deployed at one time.
And so up to today. Under President Reagan, the Navy had a pretty easy time of it, and the U.S. budget deficit spiraled out of sight. The goal of a 600-ship Navy was almost reached, but budget considerations finally prevailed. There was a limit to the depth of the public purse.
Local readers may be unhappy that the index totally ignores the U.S.S. Constellation, now berthed in Baltimore, though this lovely old 1795 frigate and its captain, Thomas Truxton, are mentioned a number of times in the narrative. Howarth also ignores the part played by Baltimore privateers in the War of 1812. They stood in as commerce raiders for a Navy hopelessly outnumbered by British men-of-war.
One of Howarth's tidbits is that while several career soldiers have risen to become U.S. presidents, not one career sailor has made it. Generals get more votes than admirals, he concludes.
Baltimore writer Geoffrey W. Fielding was a British seaman in World War II.