MacArthur, FDR, and the Politics of Leyte Gulf

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Six days later, on the other side of the world, one of the guests at a White House dinner asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reveal how the general had escaped from the Philippines. The President, with a mischievous glint in his eye, replied in a conspiratorial tone, "General MacArthur took a rowboat and, disguised as a Filipino fisherman, rowed to Australia-right past the Japs."

Not everyone laughed at President Roosevelt's outlandish explanation, and apparently at least some of the guests were quite willing to believe it. In retrospect that seems rather naive, but when viewed in the context of the times, such a feat did not seem beyond the capabilities of Douglas MacArthur. Parents christened their newborn babies after him, mothers reportedly invoked his name to entice their children to eat spinach, colleges heaped honorary degrees on him, the Blackfeet Indian tribe had conferred on him the title Chief Wise Eagle, and a widely publicized news story reported that when an Atlanta junior high school teacher asked his class to name an American possession in the Far East, a pupil proudly answered, "General MacArthur."

Many, however, felt quite differently about MacArthur. His many achievements-including heroic leadership in World War I and a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Army-were offset by a towering ego that frequently manifested itself in Olympian declarations and pompous passages of purple prose. Rarely would he willingly share the limelight, and his use of the first person was legendary. The general's leadership during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines was flawed, and his strong will and single-mindedness often took him to the very brink of insubordination.

Roosevelt was very aware of the antipodal reactions to MacArthur. The general's advocates, however, were pressuring the President to give him command of the entire Pacific theater, while MacArthur's enemies were violently opposed to the idea. From a purely military viewpoint, there seemed no logical place for MacArthur in the Pacific war. American naval leaders convincingly argued that the aqueous expanses of the Pacific dictated that the war there would primarily be a naval one and should therefore be led by an admiral rather than a general. MacArthur's larger-than-life persona and extreme seniority, however, prevented his being subordinated to any naval commander. But viewed politically, MacArthur's considerable following posed a potential threat in future elections; perhaps the general could even emerge as a presidential candidate to rival Roosevelt himself. There is an old political axiom that says, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," and Roosevelt was nothing if not a savvy politician.

The President ultimately handled the sticky problem of what to do with MacArthur as most political dilemmas are handled: by compromise. MacArthur was not given command of the entire Pacific war, nor was he shelved. The Pacific was carved into theaters, with MacArthur named as supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area, which encompassed Australia, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, New Guinea, the Netherlands East Indies (except Sumatra), and the Philippines; the rest of the Pacific was assigned to Admiral Chester Nimitz, with the title of commander-in-chief Pacific Ocean Areas. The seniority (and ego) aspects were handled by considering each as an independent command with neither the general nor the admiral answering to the other.

This may have seemed a good solution but for one glaring problem: To find their common superior, one had to go to the other side of the world. Nimitz's immediate superior was the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, and MacArthur answered to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall. Although King and Marshall deferred to a degree to Admiral William Leahy, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, it was Franklin Roosevelt who had the final word on matters concerning the conduct of the war, so the common commander in the Pacific was, effectively, the President himself. Initially this posed no major problem, but it would have severe consequences later.

Three Words

The course to the Battle of Leyte Gulf was set shortly after MacArthur's escape from Corregidor when he held a press conference in Australia. MacArthur was determined to recover from the ignominy of having been driven from the Philippines, to avenge the defeat by going back as soon as possible with the forces necessary to drive out the invading Japanese, and to restore America's-and his own-honor. Voicing this determination to the world, MacArthur captured the imagination of those Americans and Filipinos who had placed their faith in him with three small, but powerful, words: "I shall return."

So, in the summer of 1942, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area began planning to make good on his promise to the Philippines. But Douglas MacArthur's prophecy of return was not destined for fulfillment in any short order. The course of the war dictated that it would be more than two years before that return would be considered feasible. And even then, one man's promise was not necessarily his government's policy.

Strategic Arbiter

Driven by the natural engine of the Northeast Trade Winds, slowly undulating swells swept across the unbroken surface of the Pacific as far as the eye could see. From the gently heeling deck of the heavy cruiser USS Baltimore (CA-68), a 62-year-old man peered through his pince-nez spectacles at the blue waters sparkling in the sunlight. He had long had a love affair with ships and the sea, and now he appeared to be inhaling the warm salt air as though it were an elixir that could restore the color to his sallow cheeks and erase the deeply etched shadows beneath his intelligent but weary eyes. Although he could not have known at that moment, he would be dead within a year.

But before death could claim him, Franklin Roosevelt had much work to do. Important work. And that was why this wartime president was on his way to Pearl Harbor in July 1944.

Whether that work was strategic or political, only Roosevelt knew for certain. The official purpose of the journey was for the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy to meet with the two men running the war in the Pacific. But some claimed this trip was more politically motivated than strategically necessary, that Roosevelt had no need to confer directly with Nimitz and MacArthur, that he was jumping the chain of command by conferring with the two subordinate theater commanders, and that his real motivation was to be seen (and photographed) with General MacArthur. It was, after all, an election year, and just the day before his embarkation in the Baltimore, FDR had been nominated for an unprecedented fourth term as president.

Roosevelt may indeed have wanted to be photographed with his theater commanders so that the voters might see him in his role as Commander-in-Chief, as potential rival Douglas MacArthur's boss. Or he may have come merely to resolve the differences among his principal advisers, to decide where American forces should go next in the Pacific. He had been getting conflicting advice from those who had his ear in Washington, and perhaps it was time to hear what the on-scene commanders had to say without the filters and dilutions of the chain of command. Both MacArthur and Nimitz had moved steadily across the Pacific in their respective theaters, but the time was approaching when they would converge, and each had a different view of where that convergence should occur.

Whatever his primary reasons, Franklin Roosevelt was about to arbitrate between these two Pacific theater commanders, and the future course of the war depended on who would prove more convincing.

The Showdown

After the President's arrival at Pearl Harbor on 26 July and the formal inspections and other military rituals had been attended to, MacArthur, Nimitz, and Roosevelt sat down for a private dinner in a cream stucco mansion overlooking Waikiki's rolling surf that a local millionaire had lent to the President. The only other participant was Admiral Leahy. The dinner conversation was either highly classified or utterly mundane, because no record of it exists. But what was said after dinner was recorded, is no longer classified, and was far from mundane.

The four men left the table and moved into the mansion's large living room, where huge wall maps of the Pacific had been hung. Nimitz and MacArthur alternately stood before the President, occasionally pointing at the maps with a long pointer, and presented their ideas for the future strategy in the Pacific. Nimitz, supported by Admiral King back in Washington, advocated bypassing the Philippines in favor of an invasion of Formosa, while MacArthur, to no one's surprise, steadfastly defended the imperatives of a Philippines invasion.

Leahy, who was more observer of the proceedings than participant, later wrote, "After so much loose talk in Washington, where the mention of the name MacArthur seemed to generate more heat than light, it was both pleasant and very informative to have these two men who had been pictured as antagonists calmly present their differing views to the Commander-in-Chief." Noting that both Nimitz and MacArthur told the President that they could carry out their respective plans with the forces then available in the Pacific, Leahy added that it was "highly pleasing and unusual to find two commanders who were not demanding reinforcements."

Nimitz's arguments made good strategic sense. Formosa was well-situated geographically to block the flow of oil to Japan, and it was close to China, where American planners had long hoped to establish airbases for the strategic bombing of the home islands. It would also serve well as a marshalling point for an invasion of Japan when the time came.

Whereas Nimitz's arguments had been pragmatic and almost purely operational in scope, MacArthur's were more poignant and strategic. He pointed out that the Chinese population on Formosa could not be counted on to lend willing support to American forces and might in fact be openly hostile, whereas the Filipinos were, almost to a man, loyal to America. He cited the constant flow of information he had received from guerrillas in the Philippines since the Japanese occupation, communications that were maintained at no small risk to the Filipinos involved. He further insisted that the United States had a moral obligation to the people of the Philippines to free them from Japanese oppression as soon as possible.

MacArthur even resorted to opening the old wounds of Bataan and Corregidor, pointing out that America had abandoned not only the loyal Filipinos there, but thousands of Americans as well. He added that, at that very moment, American men, women, and children were languishing in Japanese concentration camps in the Philippines, suffering terrible privations as the numbered days of their wretched lives passed inexorably on. He warned that the Filipinos could forgive us for failing to protect them from the Japanese in the first place, they would even forgive our failing in an attempt to rescue them, but what they would not forgive was our not even trying to free them. And if the Philippines alone were not incentive enough, MacArthur admonished that the eyes of all Asia would be watching what we did in the Philippines, that our postwar image in that part of the world was at stake.

MacArthur was at his best that evening. He had no notes, no prepared maps of his own, and absolutely no doubt that he was right. He used his considerable powers of persuasion with consummate skill, and by midnight it seemed he was winning the day. Not only did Roosevelt appear to be accepting MacArthur's reasoning, but Nimitz's counterarguments were coming forth less frequently, and Leahy seemed to have sided with MacArthur as well. The meeting adjourned just after midnight, however, without a decision except that the four would reconvene in the morning.

The next day, MacArthur took advantage of a private moment with Roosevelt to say that if the Philippines were bypassed, "I daresay the American people would be so aroused that they would register most complete resentment against you at the polls this fall." Never to miss the opportunity to bring all weapons to bear, General MacArthur had fired a silver bullet with this remark. At the very least he was prodding the political animal inside of Roosevelt, haunting him with the politician's nightmare-the specter of lost votes.

Some historians have gone a step further, reading into MacArthur's admonition an implied threat that he would bring his influence among politicians back home to bear against Roosevelt in the coming election if the President did not give him what he wanted. Whether MacArthur did indeed intend that threat, and whether he had the political strength back in the United States to make good on it, are debatable issues. But what is certain is that Roosevelt decided in MacArthur's favor. A little more than a week later, the general received a letter from Roosevelt that read, in part, "As soon as I get back I will push on that plan for I am convinced that it is logical and can be done." The President also added (perhaps tellingly) that he wished "you and I could swap places, and personally, I have a hunch that you would make more of a go of it as President than I would as General in the retaking of the Philippines." More hurdles lay ahead, but MacArthur had won an important victory in Hawaii, one that virtually assured that his promised return to the Philippines would come to pass.

Strike!

A little after noon on 20 October 1944, a landing craft made its way toward the Leyte shore. Ahead, American dive bombers swooped out of the clouds, peppering the hillsides in back of the beach. Palm trees that fringed the far side of the beach burned like giant candles, and the pungent smell of cordite hung heavily in the smoke-filled air. Sitting near the stern of that diminutive naval craft, Douglas MacArthur, his gold-encrusted cap glinting in the tropical sunlight, scanned the approaching shore for familiar landmarks. Forty-one years before, young Lieutenant MacArthur had stood on that very shore, fresh from West Point, embarking on a long and glorious career. Now, his naval forces (the Seventh Fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid) and the heart of Nimitz's power (the Third Fleet commanded by Admiral William F. Halsey) had converged on the Philippines at Leyte to fulfill a promise, to avenge an ignominious moment, to regain lost honor.

The landing craft crunched up onto the shore, and the bow ramp rattled down into the surf. Still some distance from the dry sand of the beach, the general and his entourage had to step off into knee-deep water and wade the rest of the way in. It was one of those moments that would become a graven image in the American heritage, photos of which would flash around the world in newspapers and then settle indelibly into thousands of history books as icons of restored national honor.

MacArthur mounted the sandy shore and proceeded to a waiting microphone that had been prepared for the occasion. "People of the Philippines," he said in his resonant voice. "I have returned." The gray skies above suddenly opened, and rain cascaded from the clouds like tears so fitting to this emotional moment. "By the grace of Almighty God," MacArthur continued, "our forces stand again on Philippine soil-soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples."

With the sounds of mortal combat still thundering around him, soldiers of both sides dying not far away, this man, whom many characterized as an egotistical demagogue and others worshipped as a military saint, sent his words out over the Philippine archipelago to a people who had long awaited his return. "The hour of your redemption is here," he intoned, and countless Filipinos rejoiced. "Your patriots have demonstrated an unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom that challenge the best that is written on the pages of human history."

In the years that followed, MacArthur's detractors would pan this moment. They would accuse him of grandstanding, which is undeniable. They would criticize his use of the first-person, which is certainly questionable. Some would even characterize his speech as trite and overblown, which is arguable. But an objective observer would most certainly be compelled to recognize that this was truly an important moment in history. General MacArthur had given new hope to a people who had trusted in the United States of America to free them from the oppression of Japanese domination. A truly objective observer could hardly deny the deep emotions that America's return had stimulated in many of the Filipino people.

"Rally to me," MacArthur challenged. And many did. In the months following the landing at Leyte, many Filipinos laid down their lives, fighting as guerrillas in the Japanese rear as the Americans pushed inexorably on through the islands. These people had listened when MacArthur said: "Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike!"

Consequences

Douglas MacArthur had changed the course of the war-directly by steering the American forces to the Philippines and indirectly by his mere existence, which had led to the creation of a second theater in the Pacific. That second front had actually proved beneficial as the war progressed, because it had often kept the Japanese off balance, causing them to shuttle assets from one theater to the other as MacArthur and Nimitz thrust forward, sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously.

But all of that was nearly forfeited when MacArthur's and Nimitz's forces converged on the Philippines. When the Japanese responded to the landings at Leyte with a last-ditch commitment of their remaining naval assets, it was clearly a desperate gamble that by all rights should not have come close to success. Yet it turned out to be a very near thing.

The complex events that led to this narrowly avoided disaster are well known. With enemy naval forces approaching Leyte Gulf from several directions, various elements of the two American fleets responded with devastating consequences for the Japanese. Halsey's Third Fleet wreaked havoc on the forces crossing the Sibuyan and Sulu seas on 24 October, and in the early hours of the 25th, Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet all but annihilated the enemy forces coming up through Surigao Strait. But with the bulk of Kinkaid's firepower engaged to the south and Halsey taking the entire Third Fleet northward to chase a decoy carrier force, confused communications and a lack of coordination left the door wide open for a powerful Japanese surface force led by the superbattleship Yamato to steam in from San Bernardino Strait and attack the vulnerable remnants of the Seventh Fleet in the waters off Samar on the morning of 25 October. Disaster was averted only by the incredible courage of the American Sailors who sacrificed themselves by standing up to their gargantuan attackers and by the attacking Japanese commander's failure to adequately press his advantage at the critical moment.

Most analyses of this battle focus on the tactical decisions made by the various commanders-Halsey in particular-but by doing so, they are chasing a chimera with little hope of lasting lessons. We cannot change Halsey's impetuous bellicosity, and we cannot count on an enemy admiral to make a crucial mistake. What we can-and should-do is look for the strategic decisions that determined the conditions in which those tactical decisions were made, and learn the lessons such scrutiny permits.

From the foregoing narrative, it should be apparent that among the preventable errors in this instance, one has its roots in the earliest days of the war, when Roosevelt decided to handle the MacArthur dilemma by creating two independent theaters in the Pacific. Despite any benefits that may have accrued, this decision suffered from a very significant flaw, one that violated a sacrosanct principal of war: unity of command. For most of the war, when Nimitz and MacArthur were virtually fighting independent wars in the Pacific, there was little need for coordination, other than at the logistical level. But once their two campaigns merged at Leyte Gulf, this problem should have been rectified. No wonder the two fleet commanders-Kinkaid who answered to MacArthur and Halsey who answered to Nimitz-had difficulty communicating and utterly failed at coordination. The absence of a unified commander set the stage for a series of blunders that cost many lives and narrowly averted a much greater disaster.

So, in the end, MacArthur and Roosevelt were central figures in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. MacArthur bears much of the responsibility for its very occurrence, and Roosevelt is accountable for the milieu that allowed costly errors to occur. These conclusions are drawn not for the sake of recrimination but for the potential lessons to be learned.

If there is one essential lesson in all of this, one might find it in semantics by differentiating between the words policy and politics. While both words have common roots, there is a significant difference in the two. When making his most significant utterance in his classic work On War, Carl von Clausewitz used the German word politik, which has various meanings. Consequently, his famous phrase has been translated as "War is a continuation of policy by other means" or as "War is a continuation of politics by other means." Judging from the experience of U.S. forces at Leyte Gulf, it becomes clear which should be the preferred translation. Strategic decision-making that incorporates policy is sound and justified-actually essential. But when such decisions are made on the basis of politics, a Pandora's box is cracked open.

Had Roosevelt been thinking solely as commander-in-chief and not as a politician, there might never have been a Battle of Leyte Gulf, or at the very least, it would have been fought without the embarrassing errors that taint this otherwise important U.S victory in the Pacific war.

 

MacArthur's Matinee Performance

When Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss strategy on 27 July 1944, several of the arguments MacArthur made for invading the Philippines were no surprise to Nimitz. The admiral had gotten a preview of them the previous March when he had visited the general at his Brisbane, Australia, headquarters.

In his subsequent report to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, Nimitz wrote:

Everything was lovely and harmonious until the last day of our conference when I called attention to the last part of the J.C.S. [Joint Chiefs of Staff] directive which required him [MacArthur] and me to prepare alternate plans for moving faster and along shorter routes towards the Luzon-Formosa-China triangle if deteriorating Japanese strength permitted. Then he blew up and made an oration of some length on the impossibility of bypassing the Philippines, his sacred obligations there-redemption of the 17 million people-blood on his soul-deserted by American people-etc., etc-and then a criticism of "those gentlemen in Washington, who, far from the scene, and having never heard the whistle of pellets, etc, endeavor to set the strategy of the Pacific War-etc.

When I could break in I replied that, while I believed I understood his point of view, I could not go along with him, and then-believe it or not-I launched forth in a defense of "those gentlemen in Washington" and told him that the J.C.S. were people like himself and myself, who, with more information, were trying to do their best for the country and, to my mind, were succeeding admirably.

-Eds.

 



Sources:

Robert J. Bulkley Jr., At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1962).

James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1970).

M. Hamlin Cannon, Leyte: Return to the Philippines, vol. IV, The War in the Pacific (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1954).

Stanley L. Falk, Decision at Leyte (New York: Norton, 1966).

James A. Field, The Japanese at Leyte Gulf: The Sho Operation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1947).

Frazier Hunt, The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur (New York: Delvin-Adair, 1954).

D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, vol. II, 1941-45 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975).

Eric Larrabee, Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and their War (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

William D. Leahy, I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on Notes and Diaries Made at the Time (London: Victor Gollancz, 1950).

Gavin Long, MacArthur as Military Commander (London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1969).

Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964 (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1978).

Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two Ocean War (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1963).

Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte, vol. XII, History of United Sates Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1958).

Samuel Eliot Morison, monograph, Strategy and Compromise (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1958).

E.B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976).

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: The Free Press, 1985).

Adrian Stewart, The Battle of Leyte Gulf (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1980).

John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1970).

Dan Van Der Vat, The Pacific Campaign: World War II, The U.S.-Japanese Naval War, 1941-45 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981).

C. Vann Woodward, The Battle of Leyte Gulf (New York: MacMillan, 1947).

Lieutenant Commander Cutler, the senior acquisitions editor for the Naval Institute Press, is the author of The Battle of Leyte Gulf (1994) and A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy (2004), both published by the Naval Institute Press, as well as other books.

 

 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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