Answering Mayday

By William M. Beasley Jr.

However, McMaster will not be the last to trumpet the values of land power. Dwindling defense budgets have certainly ended the Pentagon’s traditional approach to funding allocation, which favors awarding relatively equal shares of the defense budget to the respective services, regardless of American grand strategy. Representatives Randy Forbes (R-VA) and Rick Larsen (D-WA) have already argued this “fair-share” approach should be replaced by budgets designed to meet strategic needs. 5 While an equal distribution is certainly fair, drastic cuts to funding require drastic strategic choices. If cuts are a must, simple strategic logic demands that a maritime power like the United States should allocate more money to the Sea Services.

Regrettably, Americans do not understand sea power. As the late naval historian Clark Reynolds lamented:

The special language of seafarers often deters “landlubbers” from understanding the particular ways in which the sea has been utilized by nations throughout history. Ships are simply ships—men-of-war or merchantmen—to most statesmen, generals, historians and even the lay public, who consequently lack an appreciation of the subtle application of . . . “sea power” to national goals. 6

Therefore, if American naval supremacy is to survive, navalists must explain the merits of sea power and advocate publicly for increased naval funding. History demonstrates that an effective lobby for American sea power will be critical to this task.

The Admirals’ Revolt Revisited

A budget-share battle among the services would not be new. While modern jointness culture has created a sense of calm among the services, this was not always the case. After World War II, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower placed strict caps on their defense budgets that forced the Pentagon to make the same difficult choices regarding which form of military power to fund faced by the current leadership.

The most heated debates developed between the Navy, which enjoyed a larger budget-share before the war, and the Air Force, which dominated postwar budgets. The services argued over everything—unification, postwar defense strategy, weapon systems, and, especially, service roles and missions—to claim a larger share of the limited defense funds. When Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, an Air Force sympathizer, canceled construction of the flush-deck carrier United States , the Navy, fearing for its existence, forced a set of congressional hearings to defend its views. Dubbed the “Revolt of the Admirals,” the hearings did not improve matters. The Navy failed to win any public support, Johnson fired Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, and strategic air power remained a budgetary priority. By Fiscal Year 1954, the Air Force received nearly half of Eisenhower’s defense appropriations. 7 The Air Force secured budgetary supremacy during the postwar years for a variety of reasons, but a strong air-power lobby and public-relations strategy enabled the airmen to control debate over postwar strategy and win valuable public support at the Navy’s expense, which aided their effort significantly. 8

In late 1944 a U.S. Army Air Forces study commissioned for General Henry “Hap” Arnold concluded “the American public has a historic tendency—to build up idols, and to knock them down. The AAF has been and is the idol of the American public. The public’s acceptance and support must be carefully planned and jealously guarded.” 9 The study was typical of a service that viewed PR as a paramount concern.

Bitter feuds between the air and sea services over the proper role of aviation had been ongoing since World War I. Hoping to gain separate-service autonomy, air officers turned to PR early in their careers to highlight the value of air power. Led by William “Billy” Mitchell, airmen participated in PR activities at every level. They entered air races, published frequently, made speeches, turned training activities into publicity stunts, participated in Hollywood films, and even endorsed political candidates sympathetic to their cause. These activities convinced the aviators that an effective PR campaign could achieve results. Consequently, Arnold, Carl Spaatz, and Hoyt Vandenberg, all pivotal figures to the postwar air-power lobby, used these techniques throughout their careers. 10

Air Advocates Ascendant

The advocacy culture also benefited from several civilian voices, most notably Alexander de Seversky and William Bradford Huie. De Seversky developed his views alongside Mitchell but became famous during World War II when he starred in Walt Disney’s Victory Through Air Power , an odd propaganda film based on de Seversky’s book of the same name that merged his air-power theories with Disney cartoons. Huie, a journalist and editor, served in the Navy during the war but later launched a smear campaign against his former service. Beginning with The Case Against the Admirals , Huie published a steady stream of bitter anti-Navy diatribes that painted the “the admirals” as self-absorbed malcontents who cared more about their own interests than the lives of their sailors. Like Mitchell before them, Huie and de Severski argued that air power rendered navies redundant, and the Fleet should either be reduced to a ferry service for the Army or eliminated altogether. 11

After the war, retired airmen joined the civilians. These former officers proved especially effective because their advocacy carried additional credibility, coming from professional voices that had just won a world war; being retired, these officers could sharpen their tone since their statements no longer required governmental approval. In 1948 Jimmy Doolittle, made famous by his raid on Tokyo, helped found the Air Force Association, an independent civilian organization established to counter Navy League advocacy. Doolittle helped set up chapters around the country and eventually became the organization’s national president. He used this platform to frequently advocate for air power in the media. By 1949 Spaatz had retired and accepted a position with Newsweek , and articles from Arnold also appeared frequently in newsmagazines. 12

Effective leadership from Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington ensured his advocates got their say. Symington worked closely with Stephen F. Leo, the director of Air Force PR, to gain powerful allies in the national media, which they employed to disseminate Air Force views. As a result, media outlets developed strong air-power sympathies. Articles advocating it filled Reader’s Digest , the most widely circulated magazine in the country, and its editors often refused to grant the Navy space to counter Air Force claims. For the unconverted, the Symington-Leo team perfected the art of the press release. Air Force officials were careful to issue clear statements of operational achievements that could be backed up with documented facts so their positions could not be assailed. Symington and Leo aggressively protested any newspaper or magazine article that reflected negatively on the Air Force, for even the most mundane reasons. However, the duo looked the other way if unofficial sources inflated Air Force capabilities or attacked the other services. By 1948, Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan privately complained about unequal treatment. 13

Navy Public Relations . . . or Lack Thereof

However, unequal treatment for sea power did not result from Symington’s PR strategy alone. The Navy’s approach to PR differed dramatically from the airmen’s methods and suffered from a culture of disengagement and anti-intellectualism. Naval officers preferred to let the Navy’s combat record speak for itself and avoided publicity, even to defend their service’s positions. The generation of naval officers led by Stephen B. Luce, which included Alfred Thayer Mahan, proved an exception to this rule. These officers openly lobbied and published frequently; Mahan himself produced an astounding volume of work consisting of 20 books and 137 journal articles, many of the latter appearing in newsmagazines, where he tailored his language for public consumption. However, Mahan’s superiors initially frowned on his advocacy. In 1893, Admiral F. M. Ramsey expressed his thoughts in Mahan’s fitness report: “It is not the business of naval officers to write books.” 14

Until the conclusion of World War II, the Navy got away with its apolitical views because the public never questioned the need to maintain a navy. However, following the destruction of German and Japanese naval power, political support eroded because Americans found it difficult to rationalize spending large sums of money on ships to combat the Soviet Union, a continental power. While navalists understood how sea power contributed to American goals, the average citizen did not. To gain public sympathy, the Navy needed to educate the public about the benefits of naval power. However, when it came time to take the public to sea-power school, navalists failed to hear the bell. By the summer of 1949, one Navy officer complained the Navy’s approach to PR placed it “on a par with garbage collecting. The output as a whole is dull, uninspired, tardy. The element of zeal, esprit de corps, all the devotion to a cause that the Air Force exhibits, is lacking.” 15

Poor leadership contributed to the problem. Following World War II, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal worked diligently to advocate for sea power. He granted interviews, published often, and testified before Congress in forceful tone. 16 Forrestal encouraged naval officers to end their apolitical culture and created several PR groups to coordinate Navy testimony and advise on political strategy. As a result, the Navy won several concessions during the debates on unification. However, Forrestal could not convince his uniformed counterparts to join the public lobby. Naval officers worked on PR issues but confined their efforts to the Navy Department and let Forrestal act as the Navy’s public face. 17 This strategy worked well during Forrestal’s tenure in the office.

However, when Truman promoted Forrestal to Secretary of Defense, his replacement, John Sullivan, and the new Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Louis Denfeld, curtailed their public advocacy. Denfeld also allowed his Vice-Chief, Admiral Arthur Radford, to speak for the Navy on strategic and unification questions, which proved disastrous. 18 Radford was a forceful advocate but a poor naval strategist. He assailed the Air Force and openly criticized its strategic concepts but devoted little time to explaining why the United States needed a large navy or how seapower contributed to containment. Arleigh Burke concluded this occurred because “people in the navy did not know very much about strategy. . . . That’s why we did not have any organization to lay out the Navy’s case or defend ourselves. . . . We suffered from a lack of knowledge within the Navy of what a navy was all about . . . .” 19

The Navy’s culture of disengagement, however, also discouraged a public discourse. In 1946, Admiral Forrest Sherman developed a postwar naval strategy that emphasized conventional offensive carrier operations against the Soviet Navy’s submarine and naval-aviation bases. Sherman’s “attack at the source” strategy provided a rational and clear argument for maintaining a large fleet of aircraft carriers. 20 However, the Navy did not release an unclassified version of “attack at the source,” which prevented officers from explaining why the United States needed a powerful fleet of carriers publicly and shielded the strategy from academic discussion. As a result, a postwar Mahan failed to emerge to counter voices like de Servesky and Huie, who openly debated air-power concepts. The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and the Navy League’s Sea Power magazine provided friendly forums for sea-power arguments, but none was made. In 1949, the year the Revolt of the Admirals occurred, not a single article on the utility of the USS United States or naval strategy appeared in Proceedings .

The lack of civilian advocacy also created a legal dilemma for the Navy. In a healthy civil-military relationship, the respective services advise on policy decisions and debate the issues, but when the civilian leadership reaches a decision, military professionals carry out policy and do not question civilian reasoning. Civilian control forced the Navy into a precarious situation by 1949, because Truman had replaced Forrestal and Navy Secretary John Sullivan, both sea-power-minded civilians, with air-power sympathizers, which deprived the Navy of any sympathetic voices in the administration. This forced active officers to openly testify against administration policy to defend sea power, which eroded civilian control, contributed to the Navy’s culture of disengagement, and destroyed the careers of many of the officers who testified during the Revolt of the Admirals.

Forming an Effective Sea-Power Lobby

Today, the strategic environment is far different than it was in 1949. However, the early Cold War debates illustrate the valuable role public advocacy can play in the policy-making process. If sea power is to reassert itself as the central tool of American foreign policy, navalists must not repeat their postwar mistakes regarding PR. To avoid theses pitfalls, several interrelated goals must be met.

First, the Navy cannot succumb to disengagement. It must create the intellectual spark that rekindles the sea-power debate by continuing to share its strategic and operational concepts with the public. Open discussion concerning the eventual update to the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and the ongoing debates regarding Air-Sea Battle (ASB) provide valuable avenues to inform the public about the merits of sea power. ASB has already generated significant literature and debate. In fact, it has received so much criticism and uninformed commentary, some navalists argue releasing the concept was a mistake. 21 However, this argument misses a very critical point. Having the debate is much more important than the accuracy of the commentary associated with these discussions, because it gets Americans talking about sea power and teaches them about its benefits. Navalists must answer criticism and uninformed comments with facts and analysis. In 1949 Symington cared little about the accuracy of outlandish claims made by air-power advocates, but his PR team did not allow criticism to go unanswered.

Second, the Secretary of the Navy must become a combative advocate for sea power. The Air Force’s drive for budgetary supremacy in the late 1940s, the Navy’s unification victories, and, to fast-forward, its successful Maritime Strategy of the 1980s were aided by politically aggressive leadership from civilian secretaries who saw themselves as forceful advocates, rather than passive managers. Even the birth of American naval power at the turn of the 20th century, which many attribute solely to Mahan’s advocacy, actually resulted from a collaborative effort between Mahan and Secretaries of the Navy Benjamin Franklin Tracy and Hilary A. Herbert, who used Mahan’s writings to lobby Congress for battleship funds. 22 The Secretary of the Navy should take these lessons to heart. The Obama administration’s Pacific “pivot” presents the Secretary with a potent opportunity to argue for expanded naval funding in support of a policy already on the books.

Finally, civilian navalists must lead the way. Active service personnel simply cannot advocate as aggressively as their nongovernmental counterparts. Healthy civil-military relations demand deference and open support for administration policy. Public criticism, even when cleared through the appropriate channels, can endanger careers. Therefore, civilian writers and retired officers must shoulder the load. Navalists need to champion the advocacy traditions of Mahan and the air-power advocates, publishing frequently but in media other than Navy-centric journals to avoid preaching to the converted. However, these advocates must stay on message. Navalists cannot adopt the advocacy traditions of Radford, putting forth arguments that attacked the Air Force but were divorced from America’s maritime narrative. They must remember that air power has always been controversial; sea power is simply misunderstood. Attacking the former to advocate for the latter does not explain why the United States should maintain its naval supremacy—it turns sea-power advocacy into an air-power debate.

Sea power is the foundation of American power. As President John F. Kennedy made clear to the American people following the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Events of October 1962 indicated, as they had all through history, that control of the sea means security. Control of the seas can mean peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the seas if it is to protect your security. . . .” 23 To ensure the United States continues to control the seas, it is time to pick up a pen.

1. President Woodrow Wilson, Annual Message to Congress, 8 December 1914, Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), vol. 31, 423.

2. Seth Cropsey, Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy (New York: Overlook Press, 2013),16–17. “Planning for Sequestration in FY 2014 and Perspectives of the Military Services on the Strategic Choices and Management Review,” hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, 113th Congress (2013); statement of ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, . Cropsey, “Hagel’s Navy,” The Weekly Standard , 26 August 2013, .

3. Clark G. Reynolds, “America as a Thalassocracy—An Overview,” in History and the Sea: Essays on Maritime Strategies (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1989), 79–80. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century , 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge 2013). Edward N. Luttwak, “The Political Uses of Sea Power: The Theory of Suasion” in Strategy and History: Selected Essays , (New Brunswick: Transaction Books 1985), vol. 2, 79.

4. H. R. McMaster, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War” The New York Times , 20 July 2013.

5. J. Randy Forbes and Rick Larsen, “The Pentagon’s Fair-Share Budget Strategy: Reps. Forbes and Larsen,” Breaking Defense , 28 June 2013, .

6. Reynolds, “Strategic uses of the Sea—Patterns and Options” in History and the Sea , 1.

7. David Allen Rosenburg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy,” International Security , vol, 8, no. 4 (Spring 1983), 29.

8. On postwar air-power advocacy, see Steve Call, Selling Air Power: Military Aviation and American Popular Culture After World War II (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2009). On the contrasting public-relations strategies pursed by the Air Force and Navy, see Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945–1950 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994).

9. As quoted in Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , 45.

10. Vincent Davis, Postwar Defense Policy and the U.S. Navy, 1943–1946 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 46, 80. Philip S. Mellinger, Hoyt S. Vandenberg: The Life of a General (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 11–12. Lawrence H. Suid, Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 34–39.

11. Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 128. Alexander P. De Seversky, Victory through Air Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1942), 101. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , 48–49. Call, Selling Air Power , 71-75. Vincent Davis, The Admirals Lobby (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 74–75. David MacIsaac, “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 624–47.

12. “About Us,” Air Force Association website, . See, e.g., Carl Spaat, “It”s Not a Billy Mitchell Case,” Newsweek , 17 October 1949, 26.

13. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , 48–49, 50-52, 199–200. Andrew Lewis, “The Revolt of the Admirals” (MA Thesis, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air Command and Staff College, Air University, 1998), 23–25.

14. Davis, The Admirals Lobby , 3–10. Philip A. Crowel, “Alfred Thayer Mahan: Naval Historian” in Paret, Makers of Modern Strategy , 448. Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed., 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 9.

15. Davis, Postwar Defense Policy , 82–85. As quoted in George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 299.

16. See, e.g., James Forrestal, “Keep the Navy to Keep the Peace,” Sea Power , no. 5 (July 1945). Michael A. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy: The Development of American Naval Strategy, 1945–1955 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988) 10–12.

17. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy , 12, 19. Barlow, “The Revolt of the Admirals Reconsidered,” 230–31.

18. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , 59–60; Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy , 43–55.

19. As quoted in Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power , 278.

20. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy , 28–40.

21. Bryan McGrath, “Five Myths about AirSea Battle,” War on the Rocks , 15 July 2013, .

22. Crowel, “Alfred Thayer Mahan”, 470–71.

23. Remarks of President John F. Kennedy on board the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63), 6 June 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to November 22, 1963 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964), 445.

Mr. Beasley is an attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Mississippi with a BA and MA in history and a JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Law Journal . Prior to joining Phelps Dunbar, Mr. Beasley worked as a research consultant with the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Virginia.


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