On 17 November 2020, Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite, a devoted student of and strong advocate for the U.S. Navy’s history, sat down for an interview with Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Bill Hamblet and Naval History Editor-in-Chief Eric Mills. Here, edited for length, is that conversation.
Mills: Mr. Secretary, it’s an honor speaking with you today. What is your favorite period of U.S. naval history, if there is one?
Braithwaite: I’ve been greatly influenced by the history of the formation of the U.S. Navy. I go back and I read about the early years of our Navy being created in the 1790s and the efforts at creating the first six frigates—I’m a huge fan of those ships. As you probably know, I recently named the new class of frigates after one of the original six [the Constellation]. So that’s a period of interest to me, including the formation of the young naval officer corps, people like Stephen Decatur and Oliver Hazard Perry. Their biographies are very interesting to me.
I also like the New Steel Navy era. People like Bradley A. Fiske, William Sims, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the warfighter George Dewey all really appeal to me. That era saw the support and advocacy of Teddy Roosevelt, who I think was one of the greatest advocates, the architect, if you will, who put our Navy clearly on the map, projecting us into the 20th century in a way that made us forever the most capable Navy in the world. Teddy Roosevelt was greatly influenced by early U.S. Navy history. He wrote that incredibly complete naval history of the War of 1812. [See “The Roots of Roosevelt’s Navalism,” p. 32.] And if we would have had a Navy Reserve when he joined the Army to head off to Cuba, I suspect he would have been a Navy Reserve officer rather than an Army Reserve officer.
Hamblet: Sir, those who love and appreciate history can enjoy it for its own sake, but the lessons of history are applicable to many of today’s issues and challenges in real ways. Is there a particular era in naval history that contains lessons, in your mind, that are relevant to today’s fleet?
Braithwaite: A couple of aspects of that question have visited me in a very personal way since I’ve been the Secretary of the Navy. During my confirmation process, I found the time to go back and read Ian Toll’s book Six Frigates, and I was amazed at how some of the issues that were directed at me were the same issues directed at Secretary Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, and the arguments of why we needed to build a Navy were directly in line with our efforts today to increase the size of the Navy, to redirect the funding to that effort. So, it seems that some things never change, such as trying to design, develop, and build a greater Navy than we’ve historically had—whether that was at its inception or where it is today.
The other aspect of this is that I see a lot of synergy between the efforts of the United States Marine Corps under Assistant Commandant General [John H.] Russell, later Commandant of the Marine Corps, to create the Fleet Marine Force concept and amphibious warfare that helped keep us in the game during the early days of the island-hopping campaign in World War II. The current commandant, Dave Berger, is a visionary. If you’ve had the pleasure to meet him, he is an incredible patriot and a great visionary to take the Marine Corps back to its roots and create an amphibious force that will be more relevant tomorrow as it was relevant during World War II. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on his vision, marrying that up with our distributed maritime operations and what we’re doing from the Navy side of the department, truly creating the “one team, one fight” concept that was envisioned all along between the Navy and the Marine Corps.
It’s no secret that in the last 20 years the Marine Corps has drifted off to be land-centric because of the demands coming out of the Middle East. That’s no longer our primary challenge, so today, again going back to the lessons of history, we see some of those vectors of where we need to take the Marine Corps today and tomorrow. That’s very exciting.
Mills: You’ve touched on this a bit already, but we’re wondering who were some of the stand-out individuals from the naval past who’ve inspired you during your career. Who are your favorite naval history heroes?
Braithwaite: There are so many I could name that we don’t have time nor do you have space to include them all. But I wanted to join the Navy since I was six years old, partly because my mother was such a fan of a President by the name of John F. Kennedy, and, of course, I knew of his PT boat fame. And I grew up on the Great Lakes in Michigan and I was on small boats. My dad was a boater. So that really appealed to me, to be a PT boat officer.
One of the greatest opportunities that I ever had was meeting Vice Admiral John D. Bulkeley [of World War II PT boat renown], and he was extremely influential, to the point that I stayed in touch with him. He came to speak to us at the Naval Academy. He was still on active duty, class of 1933. This was probably 1982, maybe ’83. I think I might have been a junior when he came to address our leadership class. He came in his dress blues, and the gentleman had ribbons up over the top of his SDBs and over, literally, the crease at the top of his shoulder.
But what I remember from what Admiral Bulkeley told us was that we were about to embark—and I’m about to give this talk to the midshipmen at the Naval Academy—that we were about to embark upon a career that other people would write about in history books, that we were given the opportunity to help create the history of the future, that the adventures that we were going to have would be ones that other schoolmates we grew up with could only dream about, and that if he could, he would trade places. He would give up all the gold braid and all the ribbons and all the decorations that he’d been awarded over the years, including, of course, the Medal of Honor, he’d give all that up to start over again and trade places with any one of us.
When you read what he accomplished in his career, starting out as a troubled young ensign who really had a difficult time finding his path forward, originally as an aviator, it is incredible. He graduated from the Naval Academy, was not given a commission right away because during the Depression they only commissioned part of the class, and he happened to be in the wrong part, the bottom part of the class—same part that I was in, by the way. And those inspired me, the lessons that he encountered.
We all know about Admiral Chester Nimitz, probably the greatest admiral that the United States Navy has ever seen serving in its uniform, and I have his portrait in SecNav’s office. It’s massive. It takes up almost the entire wall across from my desk. So, Admiral Nimitz is looking down on me, you know, and I think every day that if I can measure up to his expectation to help lead the Navy forward, that’s inspirational to me. But it’s the stories of the others that many times we don’t hear about or we don’t recognize, that the average sailor, the average young officer can identify with and, therefore, see their own career in those struggles, those challenges, those opportunities that come to them.
Hamblet: Some of the military services have a culture that is very steeped in heritage and appreciation of history. What’s your assessment of how strongly or effectively the U.S. Navy embraces its heritage, and if it can do more, what are some of the prescribed steps for doing more?
Braithwaite: We can always do more, right? We who love history need to bring it alive for young people so that they can identify with it. Instead of it being something that they struggle through to memorize dates, I’d rather them see the connections to those who, just like them, were young sailors at one time and helped change the course of the history of the world, helping to create the greatest Navy we’ve ever known.
One of the things that always attracted me to the Navy is that the maritime services are extremely traditional, and I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I love all the flags we have. My best friend is a West Point graduate. He teases me all the time. He says, “How’d you guys come up with such great sayings, ‘Don’t give up the ship,’ ‘Full speed ahead’?” All of the sayings that we have. We’re unique. There isn’t any other service with those kinds of mottoes from our history that we can draw from and be inspired by.
So, yes, I think we have an incredibly rich history, richer than the other services. The Navy is rich with examples of heroic leadership and service and extraordinarily glorious ships that have sailed into harm’s way. We need to bring more of that out and make it relevant to our sailors who serve today so they can be inspired.
I talk to young sailors wherever I go, and what I talk about is being part of something greater than oneself. Today, I think, through social media and all the immediate responses that we get by tuning in, we forget that we’re part of a greater legacy of those who have served before us, and we have a responsibility to do our best so that we attract those who will come into the Navy in the future. We build the Navy today upon what’s been accomplished in the past, to ensure that it becomes even greater in the future.
We’ve got to make history relevant today. We can’t make it some dry thing that’s in a book on a shelf. We’ve got to help sailors identify with personal stories of those who served in the same uniform many years ago.
Mills: Your bio indicates that you yourself are an amateur historian. We’d be interested to hear about any research or writing projects you may have in the works or any future plans you have along those lines.
Braithwaite: So, Eric, that is a great question. I have oftentimes sat down thinking that I would write a book, an article, about many different topics, and I just always seem to run out of bandwidth because of the immediacy of my career. Now, that said, I do have some thoughts about—and I spoke to a colleague of mine when I worked on Capitol Hill, who has an interest in naval history as well—the  Honda Point disaster. I’ve always been interested in the lessons learned from what happened there.
I’m also fascinated by Admiral J. O. Richardson, who was Commander of U.S. Fleet and moved the fleet from Long Beach out to Pearl Harbor and stood up, or tried to stand up, against President Franklin Roosevelt in saying why that was not such a great idea, and ended up being relieved of command. And, of course, a guy by the name of Husband Kimmel was given that command, and then what happened was exactly what J. O. Richardson said was going to happen. When he was on the General Board on the morning of December 8th, 1941, I think it was probably all he could have done to bite his tongue in frustration and say, “Why didn’t you listen to me, Mr. President?” So, there’s never been, other than his own autobiography, a study on Admiral Richardson.
Hamblet: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Navy and the Marine Corps today, and how have you tried to tackle that challenge?
Braithwaite: Wow. So that’s a bigger question than we have time for today. Probably the same way that Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert tried to tackle it. I see what the challenges are for the Navy and the Marine Corps, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, both as a U.S. ambassador [to Norway] and in this role. I’ve been traveling extensively to talk to our allies and partners, who I think are going to be more important than ever when we look to the future of great power competition, and a challenge to our very way of life.
I tell our sailors all the time that we are in the most dangerous period of our history since the War of 1812. And why do I say that? Because this is the first time that the United States is up against a potential adversary, like we were against Great Britain in 1812, that could have eliminated the United States as its own sovereign nation, and we would have ended up becoming a colony once again. But thankfully, there were people in the British Parliament who recognized that it might be better to have us as an ally and a trading partner as an independent nation than it would have been to be part of the British Empire once again, as well as the Royal Navy being tied up with issues on the continent from a guy named Napoleon. I think that saved our bacon at the end of the day.
After the British burned Washington, D.C., and withdrew, from that point on, democracy was never in a precarious situation to be taken from us. Even during World War II, the industrial might of the United States was able to carry us through the dark days of 1942 into 1943 and to see us eventually achieve victory. During the Cold War, I tracked Soviet submarines, but as I came to realize during a trip to Russia right after the Berlin Wall came down, Russia could never have carried out sustainable warfare with us. They just didn’t have the bandwidth. They didn’t have the economic resources.
Well, today, great power competition is right in front of us, and we do have a potential adversary that sees things completely different than we do, who at the end of the day is a communist nation, and is committed to communism as its form of government, and does have both the national will as well as the national resources to see those efforts come to fruition. I’m a big fan of General George C. Marshall, who said the only way we ensure victory in World War III is through deterrence, to prevent it.
The challenge for me sitting in this seat is to ensure that we build a Navy, as Teddy Roosevelt said, that was not a provocation to war, but was the surest guarantor of peace, to create a Navy that will provide the deterrence so that the People’s Republic of China or any other nation in the future thinks twice about taking a swipe at us. That’s the effort I think is most important, building a future Navy beyond 355 ships with the assets as part of that fleet composition.
We’ve got to build a greater Navy. We can’t have a hollow force. We need to make sure that the Navy and Marine Corps have everything they need to provide that deterrent edge so we’re never challenged, and we provide the national security that all Americans look to as a sacred part of the freedoms that we hold so dear.
I want you both to know that your efforts are not lost. You think you may be writing stories about events of the past, but they’re as relevant today and tomorrow as they were back then for the lessons they teach all of us. Your service to our nation and our Navy and Marine Corps, the work that you’re doing, really matters. I’ve been reading your magazines since I was a young lieutenant, both Proceedings and Naval History. I’ve had many subscriptions, U.S. News & World Report and The New Yorker and Foreign Affairs, all kinds of different things. I have consistently received Naval History, and it’s the one magazine that not only do I find enjoyment in, but I also find a lot of valid lessons that we can apply to the future. So, keep up the great work, both of you.