For Samuel Eliot Morison, the satisfaction and triumphant joy that marked the August 1945 surrender of Japan mixed with personal despair with the near-coincident death of his wife, Elizabeth, from a coronary occlusion at age 59. “Bessie,” as he called her, had accompanied him on the 1939–40 Columbus expedition, which retraced Christopher Columbus’s transatlantic paths. Despite her failing health, she had encouraged her husband to go to war. With Bessie in mind, Morison returned to Washington, determined to “put everything” into telling the Navy’s war history—and telling it his way.
In July 1946, when Morison outlined the project to a Boston Globe reporter, he made the parameters clear: “I am not writing the history for the Navy and the Navy has nothing to say on it.” Nonetheless, “I have been given access to all Navy records . . . not only the Allied reports of naval action, but also . . . the Germans and the Japanese and have talked to officers in those navies.”
Morison brimmed with optimism. According to an article in The Boston Globe, a contract specifying “not less than (10) nor more than (15) volumes” had recently been signed by Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal with publisher Little, Brown and Company.1 The historian authorized “the publisher to pay substantially all the royalties into the United States Treasury,” instead receiving a flat fee of roughly $4,300 (equal to about $55,000 today) per volume. The first volume would “come out about the end of . . . . I hope to be finished in 1950.”2
Seemingly, Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Naval Operations) was well under way. Indeed, the Globe article headline—“Harvard Man Reveals How He Wrote World War II Navy Epic”—suggested completion. But a month later, Morison shared misgivings with his publisher: Getting a volume published “at the earliest date . . . will be the best argument for continuing Navy support.” Naval Operations had Forrestal’s backing, but nothing prevented some “ill-disposed successor from dropping the whole thing and leaving me holding the bag.”3
Though never left holding the bag, Morison required 16 years—not four—to complete his magnum opus. And, along the way, he navigated controversies and clashes with fellow historians, newspaper editors, collaborators, the Navy, and, not least, icons such as Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, and William Halsey.
Prior to its February 1947 release, volume 2 (second in chronology but first in print) underwent two rewrites—a sign that Morison cared deeply about its reception. As New York Times military affairs correspondent Hanson Baldwin (a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and wartime Pulitzer Prize winner) observed, “The first volume often sets the tone.”
In Baldwin’s estimation, Operations in North African Waters “is, and will remain . . . the basic source book for the naval phase of these operations.”4 Writing for the scholarly American Historical Review, University of Virginia history professor and former Army intelligence officer Oron Hale believed volume 2 presaged “a new kind of naval history . . . avoiding the specialist approach . . . [but not] . . . so popular that a naval operation seems like an adventure story.”5
Kudos followed The Battle of the Atlantic’s publication that November, though volume 1’s technical detail disappointed some. Reviewing it for The Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, A. H. Perrin stipulated that “convoys and anti-submarine warfare are complicated technical subjects. . . . Readers . . . will find the color and grand scale of Operation Torch missing here.”6
Meanwhile, the Times’ Baldwin identified a disconnect between the Navy and Morison. An introduction penned by retired Navy Commodore Dudley Knox blamed prewar unpreparedness on naval disarmament treaties, pacifist propaganda, and Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s lobbying for airpower over seapower. By contrast, Morison wrote that “unpreparedness was largely the Navy’s own fault,” and Baldwin heartily concurred.7
In September 1948, with publication of Rising Sun in the Pacific (volume 3), Naval Operations entered the Pacific and remained through volume 8. The Pacific, after all, was where the U.S. Navy initially stumbled before emerging triumphant. But unresolved disputes—the prewar breakdown in U.S./Japanese relations and Pearl Harbor accountability—lurked in its expanses.
Though the first was a political/diplomatic matter, Morison nonetheless afforded it “considerable space,” reasoning that military history “loses . . . significance unless we know what the fighting was about.” His estimation that “internal conflict within Japan . . . was largely responsible for turning one of America’s traditional friends into an implacable enemy” pleased contemporaneous critics. Reviewing volume 3, for example, prominent military commentator Fletcher Pratt argued that Morison “places the responsibility on the Empire . . . firmly enough so that the matter can never be in doubt again.” By contrast, Pratt wrote, Morison gave “little space . . . to . . . who was responsible on our side for the surprise at Pearl Harbor.”8
Arguing that Congress had issued “a thorough, painstaking report which is readily available,” Morison took a measured approach.9 In the Saturday Review, Philip Crowl (a former infantry landing craft gunboat skipper and later a Naval War College professor) termed Morison’s Pearl Harbor chapter “superb both as narrative and as an assessment of responsibility. . . . It [Pearl Harbor] was, in Morison’s words, ‘an outpost . . . where military men are supposed to be better alert at all times.’”10
Morison, however, could not resist lambasting the Chicago Tribune (prominent for its isolationist, anti-Roosevelt stances) for betraying “Rainbow 5” (the basic U.S. war plan) by “‘patriotically’ [publishing its main features] to the world a few days before [7 December] as evidence of the ‘duplicity’ and ‘warmongering’ of the Roosevelt Administration.”11 A 10 October 1948 Tribune editorial dubbed Morison “A Hired Liar.” He “is doing his job as his patrons [Roosevelt and the U.S. Navy] would want it done.”12
With Morison returning to his prewar career as a Harvard history professor, Naval Operations’ production lagged. A 1948 Naval Records and History Office (NRHO) memorandum projected a 13-volume series to be completed by 1954.13 Going forward, the timetable continued slipping and, before long, made room for a 14th volume. Volume 4, meant to combine coverage of Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, instead was split into volumes 4 (Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions) and 5 (The Struggle for Guadalcanal).
The split rewarded readers but also fattened the author’s and publisher’s wallets. “Volume four makes the easiest reading of the four so far published,” wrote the Hartford Courant book critic. “Midway emerges as clear as crystal.”14 But, in an otherwise glowing review, New York Times critic Ira Wolfert (another Pulitzer-winning combat correspondent) regretted the “price of $6 [about $65 today] on each volume. . . . [They] ought to be . . . as accessible as the daily paper.”15
In fact, a more widely accessible Pacific war account appeared a year later with newspaper serialization of portions of Winston Churchill’s multivolume The Second World War. Perceiving that Churchill cadged extensively from Naval Operations volume 4 to depict Midway and Coral Sea, Morison complained.
“Ordinary courtesy,” he wrote his attorneys, “dictates some sort of acknowledgment.” Churchill’s grudging accommodation was a note in subsequent U.S. editions citing “my debt to Captain Samuel Eliot Morison, U.S.N.R., whose books on naval operations give a clear presentation of the actions of the United States Fleet.”16
Yet another infringement issue brewed closer to home. Henry Salomon, Morison’s first Naval Operations colleague, had left to help produce Victory at Sea, a monumental NBC-produced documentary TV series and feature-length film portraying World War II naval operations. After an NBC prospectus overstated Salomon’s Naval Operations contributions, Morison’s lawyers objected: If Salomon “describes himself as a collaborator in the whole series . . . without even mentioning Professor Morison as the author . . . you can be sure that Mr. Morison is very bitterly upset.”17
Morison used volumes 5 through 8 to perfect a narrative template. Just as the United States’ hitherto discordant service branches harmonized resources to conquer the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Aleutians, Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, so Morison fine-tuned his approach to portraying these sea-air-land campaigns. Fletcher Pratt characterized the pattern as “each section opening with a brief exposition of the circumstances surrounding the campaign, enough about the American commanders involved to identify them, then swinging into quick narrative and closing with a brief summary in which judgments are laid down.”18
Morison’s methodology satisfied most readers but not all critics. For example, while a Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer lauded Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls (volume 7) for “its dramatic picturization of the maturing of fast carrier-force tactics, logistic support and amphibious . . . organization,” Hanson Baldwin, critiquing New Guinea and the Marianas (volume 8), judged that Morison “catalogues operations which come to have . . . a repetitious monotony.”19
Even before volume 8 reached booksellers in October 1953, Morison’s Naval Operations editorial team (an ever-evolving cast of reserve junior officers and Morison doctoral candidates leavened by long-term stalwarts such as Japanese linguist Roger Pineau and former enlisted yeoman Donald Martin) had shifted labors to Europe and the Atlantic for volumes 9 through 11. Philip K. Lundeberg, a destroyer escort veteran, German linguist, and primary researcher for The Atlantic Battle Won (volume 10), conveyed the tight-knit setting: “Everyone called him ‘the Skipper.’ Our feeling was we were part of his crew.”20
With the overall project (launched in 1942) now into its second decade, both skipper and crew sometimes found the going choppy. In an effort to retain autonomy, for example, Morison limited his staff’s cooperation with other services’ historical branches. And he was reputed to have strained relations with official Navy historians such as Rear Admiral Richard Bates and Captain Walter Karig.
Such tensions in part prompted appointment of an external committee to evaluate the Navy’s “Historical Organization and Programs” (the Naval Records and History Office). Its study, produced in 1955, lauded Morison for publishing “the best, single record of operations in a modern war in the English language,” but noted that “the amount of [NRHO] publication has fallen below the Army.” The committee proposed increasing NRHO staff and funding, but Morison demurred, aiming, according to biographer Gregory M. Pfitzer, to “maintain a calculated space between himself and the ‘Navy Brass.’”21
For their parts, book critics didn’t always credit Morison’s vaunted independence and objectivity. Calling Struggle for Guadalcanal “a good book, not a great one,” Ira Wolfert, for example, chided the historian for operating “as a member of the Annapolis country club, speaking of incompetent commanders in tones of locker-room worship that may further the cause of the club but certainly harm the cause of history.”22 To be sure, Morison had built a short list of favorites such as Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance. He also found occasion to soft-pedal lackluster leadership or unduly extol unit commanders under whom he had served.
Still, Morison was more than capable of faulting icons. In New Guinea and the Marianas, for example, Morison cast Southwest Pacific Commander-in-Chief Douglas MacArthur as a near-megalomaniacal figure “acknowledging only one road to Tokyo, his own.”23 So incensed became Gordon W. Prange, chief historian on MacArthur’s postwar historical staff, that, according to Pineau, he “set up roadblocks to our research efforts in Japan.”24
Such iconoclasm was on full display in Sicily–Salerno–Anzio (volume 9), in which Morison decries the “cleavage of opinion” between U.S. and British strategists, bemoans Britain’s Bernard Montgomery for poor use of seapower, and assesses Anzio as a bloody fiasco. Though again faulting volume 9’s “inevitable repetitiousness,” Hanson Baldwin conceded that “Morison, a good historian who has shown his independence of judgment in his past work, now demonstrates it again.”25
One rare military leader who emerged unscathed from volume 9—and thereafter soared in Morison’s pantheon—was Dwight Eisenhower. It was “Ike” who reconciled the “cleavage” in Anglo-American strategy; coaxed the navy, army, and air force into cooperation; established unity of command; and displayed a penchant for decisiveness.
Volume 11, The Invasion of France and Germany, used U.S. Rear Admiral Morton E. Deyo’s impressions to convey Eisenhower’s qualities. As Deyo and other high-ranking attendees took their seats for a spring 1944 Operation Overlord conference, they were understandably apprehensive. Overlord’s failure, each knew, “could result in chaos.” But when Eisenhower spoke, his “quiet confidence . . . dissolved . . . the mists of doubt.” And, once Ike finished, Deyo marveled, “the tension was gone.”26
Leyte (volume 12, published in 1958); The Liberation of the Philippines (13, 1959); and Victory in the Pacific (14, 1960) closed out the war with Japan. Assessing these penultimate volumes (volume 15, General Index and Supplement, followed in 1962), critics credited Morison as much for Naval Operations’ cumulative excellence as for any individual book’s merits. “Throughout the series he has maintained the vigor and style with which he began,” wrote Army historian S. L. A. Marshall of volume 13.27 Proclaimed Hanson Baldwin in a review of 14: “Morison . . . is a modern Thucydides.”28
Meanwhile, though sometimes waxing elegiac, Morison still resisted pulling punches. Offering summary comments on the epic, multistage Battle of Leyte Gulf in volume 12, for example, he refused to “brush off errors on the ground that they were canceled out by what was superbly done.” Turning to the biggest of these errors, Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey’s fateful decision to pursue a Japanese decoy fleet, Morison was ready with a pointed pronouncement: “Lord Nelson would have left a frigate to watch San Bernardino Strait and give him advance notice of the approach of an enemy fleet.” And, though not fully absolving others, he judged that “Admiral Halsey’s erroneous estimate . . . was the primary event in a chain of wrong assumptions.”29
Morison was hardly the first to second-guess Halsey’s Leyte Gulf decision-making. But volume 12 made him a convenient target for Bull’s considerable wrath: The “son-of-a-bitch named Morison . . . pontificates on what the decision should have been and spreads for all to see.” The issue came to a head when Morison delivered a post-publication lecture at the Naval Historical Foundation during which, according to some partisans, he referred to Halsey’s “blunders” in a “very pointed manner.”30
Phil Lundeberg, recently deceased at age 95, a Smithsonian curator emeritus and (to his and my knowledge) the last surviving veteran of Morison’s enterprise, recalled what followed: “Halsey was outraged, insisted that he have equal time for a rebuttal at the same venue. Richard Pattee, one of my colleagues, had the job of pulling together information for Halsey. Dick and I would act as ushers at the meeting.”31
The actual contents of Morison’s lecture and Halsey’s rebuttal are lost to history. But it was surely among the more dramatic episodes during the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II’s long voyage. And the historian must have been mindful of it when he wrote, in the preface to volume 14, “I pick up my old mooring buoy and row ashore, happy to have reached home safely.”32
Mr. Sears is the author of four books, including Pacific Air: How Fearless Flyboys, Peerless Aircraft, and Fast Flattops Conquered the Skies in the War with Japan (DaCapo, 2011). He earned 2017 Naval History Author of the Year honors for his pair of articles in the February issue: “Flying the Empire Express” and “Pipeline to Freedom.” He currently is writing a book to be published by the Naval Institute Press about a classic World War II duel between a U.S. Navy destroyer and a U-boat in the North Atlantic.
Is Morison Still Relevant?
“Historians in years to come may shoot this book full of holes,” admitted Samuel Morison in volume 1 of United States Naval Operations in World War II, “but they can never recapture the feeling of desperate urgency in our planning and preparations, the excitement of battle, of exultations over a difficult operation successfully concluded, of sorrow for shipmates who did not live to enjoy the victory.”
This perceptive caveat perhaps best explains the secret to Naval Operations’ longevity. For seven decades and counting, as new information has surfaced and historical contexts have evolved, historians have indeed shot holes in Morison’s narratives. Yet the volumes (totaling
2.3 million words!) remain in print.
Most recently, from 2010 to 2012,
the Naval Institute Press issued a paperback edition. As Morison biographer Gregory Pfitzer notes: “The fact that the USNI series volumes are still being read confirms Morison’s pronouncement that only those histories that are actually consumed by readers contribute meaningfully to a usable past.”
I asked authors who wrote introductions to the Naval Institute volumes to reflect on Morison’s relevance for present-day readers and scholars. Their comments, condensed and edited for context, appear below.
• Vincent P. O’Hara (vol. 2, Operations in North African Waters; vol. 6, Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier): Morison’s limitations are well known, but his much greater strengths keep his work relevant. I still go to him first when I want to get a quick summary of events, an overview of an operation or campaign, or details like commanders and orders of battle.
• Jonathan Parshall (vol. 4, Coral Sea, Midway and Submarine Actions): Morison’s operational details have
been superseded by more current works, yet he is always a great read, and worth
it for the summary.
• Barrett Tillman (vol. 8, New Guinea and the Marianas): Even when I was a youngster, Morison the scholar and Morison the elegant writer stood out prominently. Probably the main distinction now is the emergence of far more Imperial Japanese Navy material, though Morison’s appendices (tables
of organization) remain a reliable
• Douglas Porch (vol. 9, Sicily–Salerno–Anzio): Morrison was very much a man of his time, writing a history of Mediterranean amphibious operations. Current historians, by contrast, mine the impact on Mediterranean countries, not simply viewing operations as an Anglo-American military venture. Morison contemporaries often criticized Mediterranean operations as improvised by a sick U.S. President dominated by his overbearing British ally. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fact, had a very clear strategic vision for the postwar Mediterranean.
• Thomas J. Cutler (vol. 12, Leyte): There are few works that ever reach the iconic status that Morison’s has. We might never see a repeat of the Roosevelt decision to have Samuel Eliot Morison embark on this project. The logic and timing were exquisite.
• Anthony Tully (vol. 13, The Liberation of the Philippines, Luzon, Mindanao, the Visayas): One thing I learned has direct bearing on Morison’s continued value: Don’t underestimate the care taken preparing these volumes. To this day, few seem quite able to capture the succinct clarity and yet brisk prose that make them so readable.
• Richard B. Frank (vol. 14, Victory in the Pacific, 1945): It is Morison’s descriptions of personalities and motives that often need updating. However, his phenomenal ability to handle huge topics in comprehensive fashion and his very pleasing style remain standards against which other historians can and should
Mr. O’Hara is the author of Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory (Naval Institute Press, 2015); Mr. Parshall and Mr. Tully are coauthors of Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (Potomac Books, 2005); Mr. Tillman cowrote Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II (NAL, 2005); Dr. Porch is the author of The Path to Victory: The Mediterranean Theater in World War II (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004); LCDR Cutler, USN (Ret.), wrote The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23–26 October 1944 (Harper, 1994); and Mr. Frank is the author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (Random House, 1999).
1. “Harvard Man Reveals How He Wrote World War II Navy Epic,” The
Boston Globe, 8 July 1946.
2. Contract Number Nod-7424, Office Files of Rear Admiral Samuel E. Morison, Naval History and Heritage Command archives (hereafter NHHC), Washington, DC.
3. Letter from Samuel Eliot Morison to Alfred McIntyre, 16 August 1946, NHHC.
4. Hanson Baldwin, “The Navy’s Role in World War II,” New York Times (hereafter NYT), 23 February 1947.
5. American Historical Review 53, no. 1 (October 1947).
6. A. H. Perrin, “Volume I of Naval History,” Cincinnati Enquirer, 17 December 1947.
7. Hanson Baldwin, “Clearing the Atlantic Sea-Lanes,” NYT, 7 December 1947.
8. Fletcher Pratt, “Operation U.S. Navy,” NYT, 10 November 1948.
9. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931–April 1942, vol. 3, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (hereafter Naval Operations) (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), ix.
10. Philip Crowl, “Ships and Sailors vs. Nippon,” Saturday Review, 27 November 1948.
11. Morison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 219.
12. “A Hired Liar,” Chicago Tribune, 8 October 1948.
13. “Naval History Memorandum No. 4 3/1/48,” NHHC.
14. “Valuable History,” Hartford Courant, 30 October 1949.
15. “Battle of the Pacific,” NYT, 25 September 1949.
16. Gregory Pfitzer, Samuel Eliot Morison’s Historical World (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), 225–26.
17. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 238–39.
18. Pratt, “Operation U.S. Navy.”
19. John McCullough, “War Echoes of Pacific,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 October 1951; Hanson W. Baldwin, “Turning Tide in the Pacific War,” NYT, 28 June 1953.
20. Author interviews with Philip K. Lundeberg, 2 and 25 February 2019.
21. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 239–40.
22. Ira Wolfert, “The Guadalcanal Story,” NYT, 27 November 1949.
23. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 210.
24. Pfitzer, 239.
25. Hanson Baldwin, “And Anzio,” NYT, 14 November 1954.
26. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 221.
27. S. L. A. Marshall, “Hell and High Water,” NYT, 20 December 1959.
28. Hanson Baldwin, “From Iwo Jima to Hiroshima,” NYT, 6 November 1960.
29. Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944–January 1945, vol. 12, Naval Operations (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958; reprint, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001), 336, 247, 289.
30. Pfitzer, Morison’s Historical World, 246.
31. Lundeberg interviews.
32. Samuel Eliot Morison, Victory in the Pacific, vol. 14, Naval Operations (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960; reprint, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), x