It was Augustine Birrell, the British author and statesman of the early part of this century, who abused history as “that great dust heap.” Henry Ford, in the witness box during his libel action against the Chicago Tribune, put the same view with the terseness of the tycoon by declaring that “History is bunk.” Thomas Carlyle stigmatized history as “a distillation of rumour.” But in his famous essay on history he took a different view, asking “What is all knowledge but recorded experience, and a product of history?” Jackie (Admiral Lord) Fisher, twice First Sea Lord of the British Navy, called history “the record of exploded ideas.”
On the other hand, Alfred Thayer Mahan considered that “the study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice. It is therefore the basis, the cornerstone upon which instruction of a war college rests.” While George Hegel the philosopher declared that “what experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
To define my own position in this debate, I would say that it accords with that of my countryman, R. G. Collingwood, who described history as transient and concrete.
Some of the finest writing in all languages has come down to us through the medium of the historian’s art. Consider how much poorer the world would be had Herodotus not given us his great story of ancient Greece; nor Thucydides, whose work never seems to lose its topical validity, described the Peloponnesian War; if Edward Gibbon had not written his monumental study of the Roman Empire, or if Ibn Kaldun had not recounted the rise and ruin of the Arab peoples, and given us the first philosophic and sociological conception of history. Even the scientists, who have come to exert such profound influence on our civilization, have found it necessary to encourage study of the history and philosophy of science, which has in most universities become a specialized branch of the parent subject. The case for the study of history as part of the process of education is unchallengeable.
My second concern—the practical value of history in the field of strategy and in the training of young men to take the responsibilities of leadership—is a far more complex issue. For definitive history—the sort of history that claimed to be able to deduce lessons which were valid for all time—went out with the 19th century and is not likely to re-establish itself. Sir Julian Corbett, for instance, one of the greatest naval historians, remarked in his history of the 1914-18 war that “the value of history in the art of war is not only to elucidate the resemblance of past and present, but also their essential differences.” And today it is right, indeed, that we should be more conscious of the differences than of the resemblances.
Yet, that there are resemblances—and that they have not been produced merely by historians repeating each other—seems to me a claim that can reasonably be put forward—: even though it must be put forward with caution. For example, I am quite often asked to address staff colleges and such like audiences on maritime strategy. I always begin by questioning whether there really is any such thing. The history of warfare suggests rather that strategy can never be compartmented between land strategy, maritime strategy and, latterly, air strategy. But in some wars, the sea has undoubtedly played a greater part than in others, while some statesmen have been endowed with a greater perception of the importance of the sea than others.
During the long struggle between Britain and France for supremacy in India and North America in the 19 th century, the sea was always an important factor, but it was only in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and in the War of American Independence (1775-83) that it came near to proving decisive. Marlborough, in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), showed full awareness of what sea power could accomplish in the Iberian Peninsula to aid his campaign on the continent. Yet, his march to the Rhine, culminating in the victory of Blenheim, was far more influential than all the amphibious operations conducted by the British Navy on the coast of Spain. During the War of American Independence, Washington was never in doubt that the outcome would depend largely on whether France supplied the sea power that he lacked. In April 1781, he wrote “If France delays timely aid it will avail us nothing if she attempts it hereafter.” And it was of course Admiral de Grasse’s opportune appearance off the Capes of the Chesapeake in the following September that led directly to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Yet, de Grasse’s fleet would have been of little or no avail if the military forces of the colonists had not been ready and able to seize the opportunity which it presented to them. The battles of the Nile and of Trafalgar were as decisive as sea battles can be; yet Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign dragged on for three years after the former, while ten years of arduous struggle on land and sea separated Trafalgar from Waterloo. On the other hand, the battle of Jutland was, in spite of British claims at the time, indecisive: and Germany did not collapse until its armies were beaten more than two years later.
In the Seven Years’ War, the elder Pitt (Chatham) possessed the genius to visualize what sea power, properly applied, could do. He not only realized that Louisburg held the key to the St. Lawrence River, and Quebec to control of North America, but he chose the commanders of the expeditions sent to capture them, and wrote out their orders in his own hand. In our own time, Churchill, perhaps influenced by his study of his ancestor Marlborough and by admiration for Chatham, repeatedly tried to emulate the successes achieved through the exercise of sea power in the 18th century. Though the failure of the Dardanelles expedition of 1915 certainly cannot be laid at his door, and it is now generally recognized that it was the one imaginative strategic venture of World War I, one may nonetheless doubt whether Churchill ever appreciated the real hazards and difficulties of amphibious operations. Certainly the constant pressure which he exerted after he achieved supreme power in 1940 to seize an island here, to make a raid on that port, or to effect a landing somewhere else, lays him open to the charge levelled at Chatham by those who opposed his peripheral strategy—that of “breaking windows with guineas.”
The advent of air power has of course made all strategic problems far more complex. But the claim put forward by the extreme proponents of air power in between the wars, to the effect that air power would by itself decide any future conflict was totally disproved by events. It is true enough that command of the air was essential to the success of all operations in World War II. Yet, Sir Julian Corbett’s remark about sea power that “we are inclined to forget how impotent it is of itself to decide a war against great continental states” is equally true of air power—certainly up to the arrival of the atomic bomb.
It is surely beyond argument, then, that control of the sea has exercised profound influence on the conflicts in which nations have, to the suffering and sorrow of mankind, become engaged. World War II again proved this to be true. After the British withdrawal from the continent in 1940, it was chiefly our control of the sea that stood between Hitler and command of the whole of Europe, perhaps of the world. The successful application of our sea power at that time can within reason be described as a silent victory. And the fact that the destruction of the Wehrmacht must be attributed largely to Russian resistance (and Russia’s climate) does not invalidate the view that without control of the sea the re-entry into Europe in 1944 and the final victory of Allied arms would scarcely have been possible. Once again, as in so many earlier conflicts, seapower conferred the ability to strike at times and places of our own choosing, and to supply our allies with the sinews of war.
Furthermore, between 1939 and 1945, combined operations, which had become widely discredited after the failure at Gallipoli, again assumed the importance they had held in the 18th century. Still more was that true of the Pacific War of 1942-45, in which the U. S. Navy developed such undertakings to a pitch of efficiency never before equalled, let alone surpassed.
I would therefore suggest that the study of history can help the young officer to appreciate the broad capabilities, and the limitations of sea power, and its place in an integrated strategy; and the same can be said with regard to the merits and the hazards of combined operations. Such understanding may I think be useful to the naval officer at any stage of his career: but should he reach high command it will become essential to him. And, of course, we must educate our young officers on the assumption that all of them will reach the top of the naval ladder.
To enlarge on the need to study past combined operations, the pages of history, and perhaps especially British history, are replete with examples of failures arising from faulty planning or execution, and from disagreements between the naval and military commanders—- which Corbett aptly described as the “corrupting blight” on such undertakings. Having had the effectiveness of a well-planned amphibious assault re-emphasized as recently as September 1950 at Inchon, it is surely reasonable to claim continued validity for the statement then made by General Douglas MacArthur that “the history of war proves that nine times out of ten an army has been destroyed because its supply lines have been severed,” and to suggest that situations may still arise when they can be severed most economically by assault from the sea.
So great was the legacy of mistrust towards amphibious warfare bequeathed by the Gallipoli fiasco that in between the wars Great Britain employed its Marines almost solely to man a proportion of the big ships’ armaments. And such exercises in combined operations as were carried out were so primitive as to be laughable—with the soldiers ferried ashore in towed rowing boats for instance. True enough, in the 1930s, we formed an Inter-Service Training and Development Centre: but it was always starved of funds, and when war came it was closed down on the grounds that “there would be no requirement for combined operations in this war.” That statement shows how dominant the continental school of strategy was over the maritime school in Britain in 1939.
It seems to me that the United States did a good deal better with its Marine Corps, by making the amphibious function its primary role. But the United States was perhaps fortunate in being given time to avoid repetition of our mistakes.
Another strategic problem of olden times which re-appeared in new guise in both world wars concerns the defense of trade by means of convoy and escort. Throughout the whole era of sail it was the custom of maritime nations to escort their merchant ships in dangerous waters. The defense of the Flotas of Spain, which brought home the wealth of the New World in the 16th century, provides a good example. But with the introduction of steam the ancient principle was widely believed to have lost its validity. The price exacted was very heavy before we had relearned the lesson that a convoy not only provides the best defense but produces countless opportunities for a vigorous counterattack by its escorts. In both world wars the convoy system finally became the lynch pin of Allied strategy—as it had been in every earlier struggle. The serious effects of the neglect of convoy against submarine attack in between the wars by both the British and the American navies is an example of the unhappy consequences that can result from the failure to study history.
Admittedly, by the Elihu Root Resolutions incorporated in the Washington Treaties of 1921, the signatory powers agreed that submarines would not again be employed against merchant ships; and by the London Treaty of 1930, submarines were obliged to conform to international law, with regard to “visit and search” of merchant ships. But it was surely a little optimistic to believe that such declarations would be maintained under the stress of war. Indeed, recent history had strongly suggested that international law was always likely to be an early casualty once hostilities had opened.
Another example of the ill effect of ignoring the lessons of history is contained in the story of the North Sea Mine Barrage of 1917-18, into which the U. S. Navy put a very big effort. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels attributed this idea to President Woodrow Wilson and after the war called it a decisive measure against the U-boats. In fact, it was nothing of the kind; only two U-boats may have been sunk in it. Yet, in 1939, the British Admiralty decided to repeat the barrier, ordered thousands of mines and equipped minelayers especially for this purpose. Perhaps it was lucky that Hitler’s invasion of Norway put a stop to this project. But we went on laying the mines between the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The whole undertaking was a colossal waste of effort, which we could ill afford, and which could have been avoided had the lessons of the earlier struggle been carefully studied.
Mahan regarded the possession of overseas bases as an essential element for the exercise of sea power, and it is perfectly true that for several centuries it was the chain of strategically placed bases possessed by Britain that made it possible for its fleets to exercise world-wide control of the seas and oceans. But the advent of air power had reduced the value of such bases even before the rising tide of nationalism in former colonial territories made it difficult or impossible to maintain their possession. Nonetheless, fleets cannot operate for prolonged periods at great distances from their home country without an efficient organization for their supply and support. In Britain, we did begin in a somewhat tentative and half-hearted manner to study the problems involved in substituting mobile and floating support for the fixed bases in between the wars. But at a time of acute financial stringency it is not surprising that very little money was devoted to such purposes. I find that there was in Britain and among American naval men a lively awareness of the consequences of the “status quo” agreement signed at Washington in 1921, whereby the United States, Britain, France, and Japan agreed not to fortify their possessions in the western Pacific. Again and again did the Admiralty warn the government that this meant that the United States could no longer intervene effectively in that vast area, and that all British and American interests were now hostages to Japanese sea power. And the U. S. Navy’s General Board stressed exactly this same point. That those warnings were little heeded is shown by the very slow development of the Singapore base, which was specifically excluded from the Four Power treaty signed in Washington in 1921- Though the final achievement of the U. S. Fleet train was one of the outstanding applications of an old principle in modified form, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that had the influence of the 1921 agreement on the strategic problems involved in control of the Pacific been more carefully studied, the harsh adversities of 1941-42 might have been mitigated, or even avoided.
The instruments of sea power have changed out of all recognition in our lifetime. But I think it is true to suggest that between the wars both the British and American navies were afflicted by what I have elsewhere called the “fallacy of the dominant weapon.” And the dominant weapon of those days was of course the big gun. History suggests that there is danger in allowing the protagonists of any particular instrument too great influence in naval or military counsels. For they will always want to acquire the largest possible share of the available funds. It was this that led the Royal Navy to give far too little attention to the development of underwater and airborne weapons as alternatives to, and possibly substitutes for, the dominant gun. And it is an interesting fact that in the 1920s your General Board and our Board of Admiralty repeatedly expressed identical views on the continued dominance of the battleship and with equal vehemence.
Leaving now the field of strategy, let us glance briefly at certain other problems affecting a fighting service regarding which some guidance may be gained from history. The first I would mention is the disruptive influence which political and personal disagreements among senior officers, and especially political disagreements, can exert. The British Navy of the mid-18th century provides us with the classic example. During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and still more during the War of American Independence, that service was riven from top to bottom by such dissensions. The court martial and dismissal of Admiral Thomas Mathews after the Battle of Toulon (1744) and the notorious court martial and execution of Admiral Sir John Byng after the loss of Minorca (1756) had political overtones. But it was in the series of unsavory feuds between Whig and Tory Admirals, culminating in the courts martial on Admirals Augustus Keppel and Sir Hugh Palliser following the unsatisfactory Battle of Ushant in (1778) that the schismatic effect of political disagreements, and their disastrous influence on fighting efficiency, were fully exposed. Since those days the British Navy has on the whole adhered to the tradition that its officers must remain aloof from the field of political strife. But personal feuds between senior officers have not been so successfully avoided; and they were almost as disruptive as the earlier political feuds. The most notorious was, of course, the public quarrel between Admirals Sir John Fisher and Lord Charles Beresford early in this century, which split the service between those who were “in the Fishpond,” and those who were not. Fisher was without doubt a very able man; and it cannot be denied that at the beginning of the 20th century the Royal Navy was suffering from the ill effects of a century of virtually unchallenged supremacy. Yet, the Fisher reforms could surely have been achieved by less fissiparous means than he adopted. I am afraid I regard Professor Arthur Marder’s assessment of Fisher’s life and work as altogether too eulogistic. If history underlines the fatal influence of political disagreements, it surely also suggests that senior officers should beware of publicly airing their differences on defense policy. Whatever may be wrong with it, the means by which they endeavor to find the cure can, I think, sometimes be worse than the disease. Is the U. S. Navy less inclined to feuds? I rather doubt it!
But, if history points to some clear lessons for politically-minded and combative senior officers, it also shows how politicians need to heed warnings regarding measures which can be regarded by the men of a fighting service as less than straightforward. For anything that smacks of duplicity or unwillingness to observe contracts can be just as disruptive of discipline as feuds between officers. The humiliation of de Ruyter’s raid into the Thames Estuary in 1667 was chiefly brought about by the English government’s failure to pay its sailors. And the basic cause of the great mutinies of 1797 at Spithead and the Nore, which brought Britain to the very edge of irretrievable disaster, were fundamentally the same—a failure to honor conditions of service and to rectify justifiable grievances.
British governments of the 1920s, in their pursuit of deflationary economic policies, again and again pressed the Admiralty to accept reductions in the greatly improved rates of pay which had been belatedly introduced in 1919. The Admiralty constantly and strenuously represented that such action would be “a breach of faith on a colossal scale”; and on the whole their resistance to such measures was successful. But the fact that cuts in pay were in the air could not be concealed from the men, in whom it generated a profound mistrust of the government and, much less fairly, of the Admiralty. And, of course, there are always persons who are ready and willing to work on and exploit such feelings. When, in the economic crisis in 1931 pay cuts were enforced, it was not so much the size of the cuts as the remarkably inept way in which they were presented to the fleet by the Admiralty that caused the outbreak of indiscipline generally known as the Invergordon mutinies. And there is little doubt that those tragic and entirely avoidable events created a feeling in Europe that the Royal Navy was no longer a force that needed to be taken account of. And that contributed to the success of the Nazis in carrying out Hitler’s ruthless plans for territorial aggrandizement.
I know little about how parallel problems have been met by the U. S. Navy, but it does seem to me that, on the whole, the United States has coped with them more successfully than Great Britain. Nonetheless the warnings provided by history may still not be wholly irrelevant to any maritime nation.
Let us now take leave of the minatory lessons that history provides with regard to politics, personal quarrels, and pay, and turn to an altogether more congenial subject— that of tactical training. I need hardly emphasize here the great transformation which took place in the British Navy between the adversities of the War of American Independence and the climax of its accomplishments in the Napoleonic War. To a great extent this came about through the unifying influence of leaders such as Jervis and Nelson. But it was the frequently demonstrated superiority of British seamanship and gunnery, acquired through arduous training and prolonged sea service, that gave such commanders confidence in their ability to engage superior numbers with success. The combination of the mutual trust between senior officers which Nelson developed, together with the exceptionally high degree of technical efficiency on which he and others insisted, gave the fleet’s commanders a tactical freedom and latitude never before equalled. After all, it stands to reason that where senior officers completely understand their Commander-in- ChiePs intentions, and know that beneath their feet they have gun crews able to fire more frequent and heavier broadsides than the enemy, tactical risks can be taken which, in less fortunate circumstances, might well prove fatal. It is beyond doubt that the key to the Royal Navy’s achievement in that period is to be found in mutual trust between commanders and sound tactical training. Yet, the very greatness of the successes achieved contained the germ of future trouble. For the successes tended to produce over- confidence—and it was partly that over- confidence that enabled the American frigates to succeed in five of the famous series of single ship actions in the War of 1812. So, perhaps the history of a successful period contains a salutary warning against allowing confidence in one’s skill and training to become excessive, lest pride should lead to the inevitable fall.
I cannot take leave of the period of the Napoleonic War without drawing attention to the flexibility of the tactical system developed by Nelson, as exemplified by his famous Trafalgar Memorandum. This was the very antithesis of the rigid tactics enforced during the preceding 150 years by the existence of mandatory Fighting Instructions. Yet hardly was Nelson in his grave before the British Navy reimposed a greater degree of tactical rigidity than ever before. Indeed so great was it that the initiative of subordinate commanders was wholly stifled. The outcome can be measured in the results of the battle of Jutland, in which the British fleet was controlled on the principles laid down in the voluminous and very detailed Grand Fleet Battle Orders, which tried to provide for every conceivable tactical contingency. The lesson surely is that tactical orders should be restricted to the minimum necessary to establish broad common doctrine, and should allow a high degree of initiative to subordinate commanders.
The history of World War II provides a somewhat similar lesson. It is no exaggeration to say that our score or so of destroyer flotillas of 1939 were splendidly manned and trained. Indeed they were the cream of the Royal Navy. But they were expended somewhat recklessly in the early inshore operations, suffered very heavy losses, and the survivors were soon widely dispersed. A large measure of the earlier tactical cohesion was thus lost- On the other hand, the convoy escort groups of the first period of the war were extemporized in a good deal of a hurry, because we had failed to take account of history, and were composed of many classes of ships—destroyers, sloops, corvettes and trawlers. Naturally, they lacked common doctrine. Group Commanders quickly set to work to remedy this by introducing their own systems—which was well enough until, as often happened, ships were transferred from one escort group to another, or two groups which had suffered losses or damage were amalgamated. Then the variety of the principles on which they had been trained was liable to prove a serious handicap. The need for common training and common tactical doctrine was finally met by first sending individual ships to carry out basic training under a specially created command, and then giving Group Commanders an opportunity to train their groups as a whole. But it was not until 1941 that the Western Approaches Convoy Instructions, which established systematized antisubmarine tactics within that command, were issued. And the Admiralty’s universal Convoy Instructions were not issued until three years later. Thus, it took at least two years before we had achieved in the field of antisubmarine warfare a tactical cohesion and a degree of efficiency in weapon training which may be compared with that reached in the Napoleonic War. Greater attention to history would have reduced the time taken to reach that stage.
But the lessons of the submarine campaign of 1914-18 were quickly lost to sight. For example, in 1918, the British commanders who were actually conducting the campaign were in no doubt at all regarding the importance of air convoy escorts and long-range air patrols: and their recommendations were placed in the Admiralty’s hands. But because no careful study of the first submarine campaign was ever undertaken in Britain, the great fund of recent experience was soon deeply buried by the weight of the day-to-day problems with which the Admiralty and the naval staff inevitably had to cope. Nor do I believe that the lessons of World War I were put to any very great purpose in the United States. The failure to study and apply those lessons was the main factor in the Admiralty’s reaching the conclusion that, in a new war with Germany, surface raiders would present a far more serious threat than submarines. And the belief that the development of the Asdic (Sonar) had produced decisive mastery over the submarine provides the explanation for the astounding fact that, to the best of my belief, the Royal Navy did not carry out between the wars a single exercise to-test the defense of mercantile convoys against day or night submarine attack. Nor have I so far discovered that the U. S. Navy did very much better in this respect.
Such, then, are some examples in the field of strategy, tactics, and training where the study of history could have yielded a fruitful harvest.
Let us now turn to the question of the place of history in the education and training of the naval officer. I do so with a good deal of diffidence, but I am encouraged by the very great interest in the problem of leadership in the present-day world, as shown by the frequency with which the subject crops up in the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings and in other journals such as the British Naval Review.
There can surely be little doubt that if any young man is to find full satisfaction in his chosen career, and especially for a career in a fighting service, he must understand the reason for its existence. And how can he arrive at such an understanding except from study of the pages of history? Of course, he must be fully competent in whatever technical branch of the naval service he may make his chosen subject. But professional and technical proficiency cannot alone bring the mental and spiritual satisfaction derived from knowledge that the job in hand is important for its own sake, and is worth the discomfort and sacrifices it may entail. Furthermore, history provides some of the finest recreational reading available, and the man who can find distraction and solace in books is likely to withstand the long periods of boredom which are inescapable in war far better than the man whose only distraction is to watch movies. At least I know that was my personal experience in the last war, and I see no reason to suppose that the same principle is not still valid.
Then, in the day-to-day management of men, it must surely be a help to the young practitioner of the art of leadership to know how problems similar to his own were faced, and perhaps solved, by those who trod the same road before him. Though the psychologist and the psychiatrist have greatly advanced our knowledge of the working of the human mind, and of the causes of the disorders to which it is subject, I am nonetheless convinced that it is chiefly the study of history that will provide the student with the clearest clues to the sources of the great leaders’ inspirations. But I think a word of warning to historians may not be out of place here. It is that they must on no account debase their art by lending it to the deliberate creation of myth about past leaders. The reason is not only that such travesties of history accord ill with the proud claim of the historian to record the truth as he sees it. There is the further objection that sooner or later such myths are shown to be what they are; and when that happens the young man may well throw all history onto the dust heap, and even turn in anger against those whom he has detected in the act of propagating myths. In the past there was in my country an unconscionable amount of myth-making about great naval figures; and all of it has now been discarded onto the dust heap. Recent historical and biographical re-assessments have, however, shown a vast improvement in that respect. Take only the late A. B. Rodger’s War of the Second Coalition (1965) with its fascinating study of Nelson’s reprehensible conduct after the battle of the Nile, including his flagrant and wrong-headed disregard of the orders of Lord Keith, his Commander-in-Chief. Or Piers Mackesy’s War of the American Revolution (1964)—a truly splendid re-assessment of the chief characters on both sides in that struggle. Perhaps it was, in the long view, fortunate that the rascally James Harrison stole and published some of Nelson’s letters to Emma Hamilton in 1814. For his unscrupulous action at least exploded the myth which Nelson himself had tried to create regarding his relations with Emma and the parentage of Horatia. And the funny part is that Nelson’s standing in the eyes of posterity is not one whit vitiated by the fact that, now that virtually all his letters have been published, we have come as near to the truth regarding his weaknesses and foibles as is historically feasible. By the same token I think it was a pity that Mr. Pierpont Morgan bought up and destroyed some indiscreet letters written by the youthful George Washington to a girl- Surely it was foolish to imagine that the peccadilloes of adolescence could tarnish the final assessment of history on Washington. Yet I constantly find the same tendency among owners of papers and letters which reveal some moral shortcoming on the part of their parents or grandparents. Such filial piety> though understandable, seems to me altogether mistaken.
But I have strayed from my real subject) the contribution of history to leadership in a fighting service. I suppose that everyone will admit that the greatest leaders in all walks of life have possessed some particular attributes of character which have enabled them to exert profound influence on their colleagues and subordinates. It may lie in the stern resolution of a George Washington or John Jervis in the deep humanity of a Nelson, in the all-enduring patience of a Collingwood in the tenderness of spirit of a Robert E. Lee, in the intellectual grasp on intricate problems of Chester Nimitz, in the ruthless realism of a Wellington, or in the fundamental integrity and nobility of spirit in face of adversity of a Wavell. And where but from the history books can the student hope to develop understanding of the infinitely variable characteristics of such men? And—make no mistake about this—he must also be able to study and understand the flaws and weaknesses in those same men’s characters—whether they lie in the streak of cruelty and vengefulness which mars Francis Drake’s life, or in the promiscuous adventures of John Paul Jones which contrast so sharply with his courage in battle, or in the arrogance and vanity which Mac- Arthur and Montgomery could and did display. For the present-day student will not be fooled by any suggestion that all great leaders of the past were paragons of military and moral virtues. That is why the historian and the biographer must practice truth in order to attain truth.
In the flood of memoirs and pièces justificatives which followed World War II, one can quite often detect a note of malice toward those, be they politicians or other fighting men, with whom the memoir writer disagreed. Which leads me to suggest that the historian, while fully entitled to set down the conclusions to which his study has led him, must eschew polemics as firmly as he must avoid malice. It was Lord Acton, the 19th century English historian, who declared that “the historian must be a judge, even a hanging judge”—an overt invitation to the substitution of polemics for historical conclusions. Acton’s view has, however, long been discredited in my country, and it is some time since any historian of standing followed his way of thinking.
In his inaugural address, Professor David Knowles, until recently Regius Professor of History in Cambridge University, not only firmly rejected Acton’s attitude, but declared that “No technique or learning can be a substitute for the firm care that never makes a statement which is not supported by evidence or by an authority which has itself been tested.” Assuming that we do not fall too far below the very high standard set by David Knowles, and that we avoid both polemics and hanging judgements, historians then may say to the young men: “We, and we alone, can put you on the road to understanding the sources of inspiration of those who helped to make your service and your country great. Of course they did not always live up to their highest ideals, any more than you and I have done or will do. But try and understand what their ideals were, and so in studying their lives and work you may find the key to unlock the door of fulfilment in your own.”
As regards the study of strategy and tactics, then, and the understanding of the fount from which great leadership springs, Mahan probably claimed too much, but Dr. Johnson, tiresome old pedant though he could be, was not so far wrong when he wrote, that “If we only act for ourselves to neglect the study of history is not prudent; if we are entrusted with the care of others it is not just.”