What professional organization held its inaugural meeting the year before the first Kentucky Derby and has been in existence longer than the American Bar Association? If the tale is not apocryphal (no one knows for sure), what magazine did the National Geographic Society pattern its first publication after? What popular naval history magazine debuted in 1986? And what publisher went out on a limb with first books by unknown novelists—Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and Stephen Coonts' Flight of the Intruder?
The answers are: the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent nonprofit membership society of the sea services formed in 1873 "for the purpose of discussing matters of professional interest;" the Institute's monthly magazine, Proceedings, first published a year later as a forum for advancing the discussion of issues critical to the Navy of its day; its bimonthly Naval History, the premier magazine devoted to maritime heritage; and its book publishing arm, the Naval Institute Press, known as the unofficial university press of the U.S. Naval Academy.
The story here is about the Naval Institute—its magazines, its books, and its conference series—and what it has meant and continues to mean to sea service professionals, other members of the national security community, and enthusiasts around the world.
From buffs, hobbyists, and armchair flag officers to the highest levels of the military, government, science, journalism, exploration, and entertainment, a vast number of personalities have been members, written for Naval Institute publications, and participated in its events.
The Institute, said to have been conceived by Civil War veteran and future Naval Academy Superintendent Commodore Foxhall Parker, convened its first meeting on Thursday, 9 October 1873, more than 11 years after novel steam-powered ironclads rendered wooden sailing ships obsolete. A group of 15 naval officers assembled by Lieutenant Charles Belknap met that evening in the Academy's Department of Physics and Chemistry building, literally on the banks of the Severn River on the outskirts of Annapolis, within sight of Maryland's wooden Capitol dome.
Here may be a good place to dispel two long-held myths: one, that the organization serves and always has served only the highest-ranking officers of the sea services; and two, that the purpose of this first meeting was to discuss how the Navy was going to cope with a depleted and deteriorating post-Civil War Fleet. Rear Admiral John L. Worden (pronounced WERE-den)—skipper of the USS Monitor during her epic battle with the CSS Virginia in the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads—presided over the first meeting. But the bulk of the group consisted of commanders, lieutenant commanders, lieutenants, a Marine captain, a chief engineer, a medical director, and a pay inspector.
So anyone who thinks the organization's foundation was top-heavy with flag officers should think again. And today, the Institute is still not controlled by top leadership—or anyone else. In fact, it strongly encourages membership and participation in its independent forum from all ranks—active duty and retired—as well as civilians with something constructive to offer.
As for their deep concerns over the supposedly shameful state of the Fleet, the members of this first group may have felt such anxiety, but it wasn't addressed in the October meeting, at least based on what we know to be the topic of the first presentation.
These naval servicemen entered into a lively discussion, it is said, after Commodore Parker's reading of his paper, "The Battle of Lepanto," a lengthy discourse on the 1571 battle at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth between galleys of the Holy League coalition (also known as the Christian Fleet) and Turkish Muslim galleys. It was a performance for which the commodore received, according to the minutes of that first meeting, "a vote of thanks" from those assembled. What this might have had to do with the sorry state of President Ulysses S. Grant's Navy is a mystery.
But, happily for those who believe the Institute's founders had more lofty ambitions than reading history papers to each other, it didn't take long for the group to take up the future of the Fleet. For the next meeting in November, Captain Stephen B. Luce traveled from Boston to read his hastily prepared paper, "The Manning of our Navy and Mercantile Fleet," meeting head-on the issue of charting a course for the nation's maritime interests.
Captain Luce's argument for apprentice training in the Navy and Merchant Marine was so strong that his was the lead article in Volume I of The Papers and Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, what we know today simply as Proceedings. Publication of this article led to congressional legislation in favor of Merchant Marine training, a naval apprentice program, and the 1875 opening of the first state maritime school on the USS St. Mary's in New York City.
Just in its first year, the Naval Institute was making its presence felt, and it does so to this day, not only in its magazines, but in its books as well. Since 1898, the Naval Institute Press has been producing texts used by naval personnel to learn everything from shiphandling to knot-tying, while also getting into the realm of popular history, biography, and fiction. Contrary to what some may think, The Hunt for Red October—endorsed as it was in the mid-1980s by President Ronald Reagan and thus making it a runaway success—is not the all-time Naval Institute Press best-seller.
That honor goes to a handy pocket-size book currently in its 23rd edition, The Bluejacket's Manual, a primer on uniforms, weapons, ranks, rates, and other essential arcana for all naval personnel, from seaman to admiral. First written by Lieutenant Ridley McLean, this guide was first published in 1902, four years after the Naval Institute's Board of Control authorized the publishing of books "on naval and allied subjects."
The Press issued its centennial edition of The Bluejacket's Manual in 2002. Much has changed in the century since the first edition was published, including the tone, says retired Navy Lieutenant Commander Tom Cutler, currently in charge of updating the book's text. "I guess because it was assumed Sailors were going to misbehave, the tone was very pedantic," he says, "like a parent disciplining a child." Because changes need to be made frequently to this "Sailor's bible," especially as technology accelerates, the Press usually prints the book twice a year and distributes it to every Sailor joining the Fleet.
Among the luminaries associated with the Naval Institute in the past were future Admirals Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and Hyman Rickover, who wrote for Proceedings as junior officers. And over the years, a few other legends became involved.
Among them was the irascible Captain Joe Taussig, an editor of Proceedings and secretary-treasurer of the Naval Institute who had his leg shattered at Pearl Harbor but stayed at his battle station and continued firing on attacking Japanese aircraft. A Navy Cross recipient for his actions that day, he went on to be a red-tape-cutting champion for safety at sea.
But he was perhaps best known here at the Institute for his biting wit, referring to Navy and Marine jet pilots as "nasal radiators," and penning for Proceedings such hilarious gems as "My Life with the PIMPs," his tirade against the Navy's Productivity Improvement Programs (PIMPs), "through which upper-level managers further screw up already screwed up organizations by trying to unscrew the inscrutable." The Naval Institute's Executive Suite is named after Captain Taussig.
Then there was Rear Admiral Kemp Tolley, legendary for his naval exploits in China, Indonesia, and Australia (detailed in his Naval Institute Press books, Cruise of the Lanikai and Far Yangtze Station) and for his work as a naval intelligence officer in Stalin's Russia (the topic of his book, Caviar and Commissars). Admiral Tolley, who wrote dozens of articles for Proceedings, was well-known among the Naval Institute staff for other things, most notable among them being his photographic collection of women he had met in his world travels, which he used to illustrate his always unpredictable newsletter, the China Gunboatman.
And what article about the Naval Institute can ignore the contributions of Captains Edward L. Beach, Sr. and Jr.? While the senior Captain Beach was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, he was also a prolific author, having written 13 novels about Sailor life. But it was his son, Edward Jr.—Ned to his friends—who had the most impact on the Naval Institute.
A World War II Navy Cross recipient and the author of several books, the most widely known being the submarine saga Run Silent, Run Deep (later made into a movie with an all-star cast headed by Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable), Captain Beach was a tireless supporter of the Institute. The organization's headquarters bears the name Beach Hall in honor of father and son, warriors and authors, the embodiment of the Institute's sword-and-quill insignia.
Legends aside, the most potent participants in the Naval Institute's Independent Forum have been Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Merchant Mariners who wrote and continue to write about things that concern them. These have not been professional writers. But they are the ones—the pilots, the ship drivers, the equipment handlers, the ones with first-hand experience—who possessed what long-time Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Fred Rainbow called "the passion to make it happen."
Many writings published by the Institute have had a major impact on submarine warfare, surface-ship design, Marine Corps warfighting doctrine, naval aviation, and the use of technological advances to best naval and maritime advantage. These are only a few innovative topics to have been discussed in its magazine and book pages and on its conference stages.
Occasionally, the Naval Institute has had a purely unintentional but nonetheless significant impact. For example, in an interview with Naval History in 1994, mostly about his coverage of the Normandy invasion 50 years earlier, newsman Walter Cronkite, often described as "the most trusted man in America," recalled that an article in Proceedings inspired what he called "one of the best shows we ever had on The Twentieth Century," his popular television series that aired from 1957-67.
In December 1960, Proceedings published a piece by former Imperial Japanese Navy Ensign Takeo Yoshikawa, with Marine Lieutenant Colonel Norman Stanford, about Yoshikawa's top-secret assignment to spy on the movement of ships at Pearl Harbor prior to the Japanese attack. Every day he went to a Japanese tea house overlooking the harbor and soon noticed a pattern: The ships would leave every Monday and return every Friday. Consequently, he was certain most would be in port on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941. And they were.
The article at first drew little attention. According to Mr. Cronkite, "Nobody else picked it up, except a bright-eyed guy who worked for us. He brought the clipping in from Proceedings, and we went right to Japan." Producers for the program found Yoshikawa and persuaded him to return with them to Pearl Harbor and to the tea house where he had spied on the Pacific Fleet, promising they would keep his visit secret. But according to Mr. Cronkite, after Yoshikawa had a few drinks one evening, "the local clientele found out who he was, and we barely got him out of town before the lynching." If he hadn't told us, we would have never known.
The reputation of the Naval Institute invariably seems to precede us. When Naval History went to interview former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about his service in Fletcher-class destroyers in World War II, the first thing he asked was, "What is your relationship with the Naval Institute Proceedings?"
Appearing as the dinner speaker at a banquet during one of our Annual Meetings here in Annapolis in 1995, Herman Wouk—author of such classics as The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance—opened his address with a tribute to the cachet associated with the Institute: "I was signing books today at the Naval Institute's bookstore, something I haven't done in 30 or 40 years. . . . I must have signed 100 copies of the Naval Institute's special edition of The Caine Mutiny, and I was thinking to myself, well, after all, here is sure immortality for a work of fiction."
One life member and past Proceedings author is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who among other things lent his name to the first of the Institute's Joint Warfighting Essay Contests. When General Powell was chairman, a naval officer was charged with marking up publications that contained material he thought the general should read. On the officer's first day, he pasted notes all over the latest copy of Proceedings and took it into his new boss's office.
"You don't need to flag this," the chairman said. "I read Proceedings at home." While we like to think we're the best at what we do, we've heard comments from naval people around the world who say we are the only ones who do what we do. No other military-oriented organization adheres as vigorously as the Naval Institute does to its independence and its commitment to a forum for the responsible and civil exchange of ideas.
That hasn't always been easy. Those at the highest levels of their professions often find criticism hard to swallow. For example, life member, Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy, and 9/11 Commissioner John Lehman said in an April 2004 conference address that he's been a fan and supporter of the Naval Institute his entire career "with the exception of six short years when I was secretary of the Navy." Above scattered chuckles from the crowd, he added, perhaps only half joking, "Somehow, the institution got off track over those six years."
Disagreement over published opinions or something said in a conference is one thing. In fact, that's what we're all about. But in a few instances over the past century and a third, some officials in high places have tried to take control and stifle open debate in fits of pique against subordinates somehow seen as irresponsible and uncivil; others even tried to abolish the organization altogether. We're happy to report that, after several reevaluations of the purpose and the mission of the Naval Institute, sometimes by outside parties, none of these attempts succeeded.
General Powell himself once endorsed the organization's trademark unbridled exchange of ideas at an Institute conference. Having been seated at the head table with other panelists at a luncheon in Annapolis, he began his address by pointing out: "This is a real testimony to the open forum of the Naval Institute. Where else in the world could the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs be seated between Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and William F. Buckley of the National Review?"
Time has tested many of the ideas the Naval Institute has surfaced, and some ultimately improved the way the sea services operate or defined the role maritime heritage plays in helping us learn from the past. But it takes courage to buck the conventional wisdom, which is why President John Adams—an early and firm supporter of a strong Navy—is the Institute's patron saint.
For this reason, we invited the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough to address our Annual Meeting in spring 2001 just as his biography of our second president was about to hit bookstores. In his speech, he recited an Adams quote that has become the Institute's guiding principle:
One of the most moving passages, in all that he [Adams] wrote, was written when he was 30 years old—in 1765, ten years before Concord and Lexington—in something called A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law. The last sentence of it is the chosen motto of the U.S. Naval Institute. He wrote: "The true source of our suffering has been our timidity: We have been afraid to think." And here's the sentence, which I dedicate to all of you: "Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write."
Fortunately, for the sake of the sea services and national security, some of our best thinkers have so dared, and they still do.
Recently, Folio, the self-appointed "Magazine for Magazine Management," featured an article titled "The Centenarians," which toasted a handful of magazines still in circulation after 100 years or more in the marketplace. Starting with the Atlantic, first published in 1857 as The Atlantic Monthly, the article traces the origins and longevity of Railway Age (1876)—which merged with Railroad Gazette (1856) in 1908 and became Railway Age Gazette—Scientific American (1845), and Library Journal (1877). It also lists Drovers (1886), Popular Science (1872), and National Geographic (1888) as being the only other publications to have survived since the 19th century. Folio missed an important one. The first issue of the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings in 1874 preceded three in this group. And even though it has weathered some bumps in the road, the magazine remains healthy and vital, still occasionally ruffling feathers to make the sea services better than they already are.
Mr. Schultz is senior editor of Proceedings and Naval History and has conducted more than 70 interviews for both magazines, including those mentioned in this article, which originally appeared in the October 2006 Proceedings.