American naval dominance has occurred only briefly in the history of the world. In June 1943, the USS Essex (CV-9) lay at rest in Pearl Harbor, freshly arrived from the West Coast. In July, the new USS Yorktown (CV-10) arrived. From that moment forward, the U.S. Navy grew at a nearly exponential rate, as the ships of the Two-Ocean Navy Act began to sail. Congress passed the bill in 1940, almost 18 months prior to U.S. entry into World War II, but building the ships took time, and it was three years before the Essex arrived to join the Pacific Fleet as the harbinger of U.S. ascendancy. By August 1945, the active ship force counted 6,768 ships of all types. It dwarfed the other navies of the world. It was a moment, fleeting as it might have been, of total American naval dominance.1 Since then, many Americans have treated naval dominance as a foregone conclusion—a condition that, once established, has little possibility of being lost.
However, except for that period from 1943 to 1945, U.S. naval dominance has been largely untested, existing as a potential outcome rather than a proven fact. In the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf conflicts, U.S. naval power was essentially uncontested, while in the 1970s, many believed that if the Cold War had turned hot, the Soviet Navy might have won. During World War I, the United States merely reinforced the naval hegemon, the United Kingdom. And Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote of the 1898 war with Spain that, rather than being dominant, the United States “cannot expect ever again to have an enemy so entirely inapt as Spain showed herself to be.”2
U.S. naval dominance is neither a foregone conclusion nor a legacy of progress or American exceptionalism. It cannot and should not be assumed in the 21st century. U.S. naval power—and its strength relative to other nations or navies—is instead a choice to be made by the American people through the actions of their elected representatives.
Alexander Hamilton and the Roots of U.S. Naval Power
In 1787, Alexander Hamilton was beginning to spend a lot of money on ink and paper. While James Madison and John Jay made contributions, Hamilton became the driving force behind the 85 political essays (all published under the pseudonym Publius) that have become known as The Federalist Papers. Hamilton tackled all manner of subjects related to the as-yet-unratified Constitution.3 After Jay discussed the great powers in “Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence,” Hamilton examined domestic factionalism and the dangers of competition among the states. This led Hamilton to his first argument about the need for the federal government to found a specific organization: a navy.4
In Federalist No. 11, “The Utility of the Union in Respect to Commercial Relations and a Navy,” Hamilton educated his readers on three key ideas: the importance of the relationship between a navy and the economic success of a nation; the need for a navy as a “resource for influencing the conduct of European nations toward us” or for navigating competition between the great powers; and the navy’s domestic relationship with the people of the United States. Before anyone proposed a State Department to conduct foreign affairs or suggested other mechanisms of national security, Hamilton first believed that the United States needed a strong navy.
Navies, in Hamilton’s thinking, were bound to the nation during both wartime and peacetime. As Mahan mirrored a century later, Hamilton suggested that any strategically minded discussion of maritime power quickly connects commercial and economic success with the peacetime diplomacy and protection provided by the well-maintained navy.5 Threaded throughout Hamilton’s discussion is also a realist’s understanding of the U.S. relationship with great powers. The United States was not then a great power, though Hamilton and many others believed it would become one. Despite its standing, the United States needed a navy to provide deterrence, diplomatic heft, and—if war began—capabilities. Hamilton wrote that a properly sized force offered the United States the chance to be the arbiter of success or failure when ships, “sent opportunely to the reinforcement of either side, would often be sufficient to decide the fate of a campaign.” This did not require a dominant navy but did necessitate one strong enough that a “price would be set not only upon our friendship, but upon our neutrality.” Navies are at the center of the relationships between great powers and the rest of the world.
Finally, Hamilton examined the connections between a navy, domestic politics, and the nation’s internal success. Ships take a long time to build, and they cost a good deal of money when compared with other government expenses. However, Hamilton pointed out that the money is spent domestically. Oak from the southern states would be transported to shipyards in the north, raw materials would move around the country and increase commercial activity, sailors would be recruited from seafaring communities from across the sectional divides, and the completed ships could be based widely to spread out the economic benefits of their maintenance. A navy is expensive, but, properly managed, it would benefit all Americans and it could bring the country together with a feeling of common identity.
Federalist No. 11 laid the foundation of U.S. naval power. The Constitutional Convention entrusted to Congress the responsibility “to provide and maintain a Navy.” The key elements of naval power and its relationship to U.S. success were established: the link between naval power and economic power, a navy’s vital contribution to managing a world of competing great powers, and the Navy’s beneficial relationship with the American people.
Americans and Their Navy
Discussions of U.S. naval power have tended to focus on the first two elements identified in Federalist No. 11. But the relationship between the American people and their Navy remains at the heart of how these first two elements are pursued. Hamilton recognized that, in a democracy, the size and shape of a naval force depend on the people and their elected representatives. Congress holds the responsibility to maintain a navy and controls the purse strings that decide how big or small it should be. The Navy’s size and capabilities have not been a linear development from that moment of Hamiltonian inspiration. Instead, historian Craig Symonds has called them the “sine wave” of U.S. naval power.6 The peaks and troughs of these waves were dictated by how Americans saw themselves and the role of their nation in the world—and how they expressed these things through the actions of their representatives in Congress.
In the era of the Early Republic, the very existence of a professional naval force was up for debate. As the Navy fought the Quasi-War with France and the First Barbary War, Congress oscillated between the navalists, who agreed with Hamilton’s ideals on maritime power, and anti-navalists, who shrank the Navy to coastal-defense flotillas during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.7 It was not until the War of 1812, when the power of the Royal Navy descended on U.S. shores for the second time in a generation, that the public agreed on the need for a permanent force of sufficient strength. With broad congressional support, the 1816 Act for the Gradual Increase of the Navy of the United States appropriated $8 million for naval construction, including the nation’s first ships-of-the-line, the battleships of the age. It was the largest congressional appropriation to that point.8
Through the rest of the 19th century, the waves of fleet size and shape rose and fell again. As the United States stretched economically, and U.S. merchants set off to trade around the world, the Navy followed to protect American interests—and grew slightly in the process. However, as the crisis of sectional politics set in during the 1840s, Southern congressmen called for shrinking the Navy. With the onset of civil war in 1861, the rapid growth necessary for enforcing the blockade and building river gunboats caused the Navy to crest yet again. By its height, during the fight with Confederate blockade runners and warships, the federal Navy had 600 ships. Just a few years after the war, the fleet had been cut to 60. By 1886, there were 38 ships in active service.
By 1890, however, the United States again was looking outward. Economic expansion and international prestige began to draw the attention of the public and their elected leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. And with that came larger appropriations for the Navy. It was politically messy and contentious, but the nation’s first steel battleships began construction, and another wave began to increase the size of the fleet.
The 20th century followed a similar pattern to the 19th. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt advocated for continuing to build the Navy, which extended through the Woodrow Wilson years and the public’s desire for a “Navy Second to None” as World War I approached.9 After the war, however, the public demanded savings—and peace. Americans began to see naval power not as a defensive measure to ensure U.S. interests, but as a dangerous arms race that would lead to destructive industrial wars. With the treaty system of the Washington Naval Conference, the American people shrank their Navy yet again.
Each time the size of the Navy rose and fell, there was a dominant variable: U.S. politics and the role Americans wanted to play in the world. In 1816, the people had lived through the blockade of the War of 1812 and the Royal Navy raids, and they did not want it to happen again. The Navy grew. In the 1850s, southern and western politicians saw the Navy as a branch of an overbearing federal government that could be used to enforce laws (such as the ban on the slave trade), and they reshaped it toward coastal defense.10 After the Civil War, the nation focused on Reconstruction and continental expansion to the west, as a result of which the Navy continued to shrink during the so-called doldrum years. The boom of the “Navy Second to None” through the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson years was followed by the bust of the treaty era and the peace dividend after World War I.
Naval Officers and their Fellow Americans
In June 1933, as the naval powers of the world began to evade the restrictions of the naval treaties and great power competition surged, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the graduating midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy.11 His speech did not include the standard discussions of the power of the Navy, its heritage of greatness in battle, or the glorification of new hardware, such as the aircraft carriers that were becoming a central element of fleet power. He told the midshipmen that, based on their studies in Annapolis, he expected them to know all those things. Instead, he focused on the young men and their relationship with the American people. He talked about their responsibility to defend their families and friends back home, as well as their responsibility to educate them and to discuss international and naval affairs with them. Roosevelt knew that Hamilton was right: Part of the Navy’s power was linked to its relationship with the American people.
In each cycle of naval growth and retrenchment, active and retired officers were dynamic public participants. Strategy and policy certainly have elements that should be conducted behind closed doors. The details of fleet architecture, the operational thinking behind new weapons and ship classes, the internal coherence of overall naval strategy, are the work not of the public at large but of dedicated professionals and determined civilian leaders. But strategy and policy are also public activities. Across generations, naval officers learned that they needed to communicate their professional and strategic value to the American people and their representatives in Congress, and they learned that the public needed to be properly educated to do so.
The public discussion of naval policy by naval professionals became common in the 19th century. In the years following the naval act of 1816, in newspaper and magazine articles naval officers discussed the need for reform and professionalism and the founding of a naval academy. Matthew Calbraith Perry, who commanded naval forces on the Gulf Coast during the Mexican-American War and led the U.S. diplomatic mission to Japan in the 1850s, was an active writer, publishing articles on naval policy and the Navy’s role in the world.12 He was joined in the years before the Civil War by other officer-authors such as Alexander Slidell MacKenzie and Matthew Maury. Following the Civil War, still more continued to play leading roles in the public discussion of naval policy. Stephen Luce famously founded the Naval War College, but he and other education advocates such as Caspar Goodrich often wrote both for professional publications, such as the Army and Navy Journal and Proceedings, and for popular magazines, including The Atlantic and Harpers.13
Alfred Thayer Mahan is most often remembered for The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783; however, that was just a small part of his substantial effort to educate the American people and their elected leaders on naval power. In the same year as the book’s release, he published in The Atlantic a widely read article, “The United States Looking Outward,” that set the tone for maritime thinking for the next two decades, connecting the economy, diplomacy, and the U.S. role in the world with naval power.14 Over the rest of his life, Mahan wrote dozens of articles that shaped the Navy’s growth. He was joined in the pages of newspapers and magazines by officers such as Bradley Fiske and Washington Irving Chambers. Between the world wars, naval officers wrote on the development of aviation, the Navy’s role in international affairs, and the need for more ships. In the 1920s and 1930s, Dudley Knox became a leading advocate for an expanded Navy, publishing books and writing for the Baltimore Sun.15
The Path to Dominance
In June 1940, German forces overwhelmed France, and U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark requested that Congress appropriate $4 billion to increase the size of the fleet by 70 percent. In response, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act, appropriating more than double the requested amount. Eighteen aircraft carriers were the heart of the plan, which led, three years later, to the Essex and Yorktown sailing into Pearl Harbor and the beginning of American naval dominance. But that dominance was not a simple policy decision made by the Navy, and it was not merely a strategic decision by the executive branch. The foundation had been laid with the Vinson-Trammel Act of 1934, and both the Navy and the President clearly wanted to increase U.S. naval power. Throughout the interwar years, officers and devoted senior civilian leaders had developed the policy and strategic concepts that would underpin a globe-spanning naval force. But it was the American people, through their elected representatives, who decided to establish American naval dominance.
In the 21st century, the United States again finds itself competing with great powers. The triservice maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, offers the Sea Services’ institutional assessment of themselves and their desires. But it is the American people, and the role they want the nation to play in the world, who will inform how Congress acts and will dictate the next peak or trough in American naval power. The Navy as an institution and naval officers as citizens have a responsibility to talk about naval policy and maritime strategy with the people whom they serve. They have a responsibility to think deeply about naval strategy and national policy and how the two interact and to be able to communicate that effectively to their fellow citizens. U.S. naval power has never been a foregone conclusion, and the size and shape of the fleet have ebbed and flowed across history. American naval dominance is not a birthright or anything strategists and policymakers can assume. American naval dominance is a choice.
1. Paul Kennedy, “Hegemonic War, Power Shifts, and the Naval Struggles of 1943,” keynote address at Society for Military History Annual Meeting, 22 May 2021. Ship count from “Active Ship Force Levels: 1886–Present,” Ship Histories, Naval History and Heritage Command.
2. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1899), 157.
3. Edward Millican, One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 2.
4. All quotes from The Federalist Papers sourced from The Federalist Papers: Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress.
5. Nicholas Lambert, “What Is a Navy For?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 174, no. 4 (April 2021): 44–50.
6. Craig Symonds, American Naval History: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), xx.
7. Craig Symonds, Navalists and Antinavalists (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1980).
8. H.R. 94, 14th Congress, 1st Session (1816).
9. Eugene Edward Beiriger, “Building a Navy ‘Second to None’: The U.S. Naval Act of 1916, American Attitudes toward Great Britain, and the First World War,” British Journal for Military History 3, no. 3 (June 2017).
10. Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 47.
11. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “1933 June 1,” in “The Great Communicator”: The Master Speech Files, 1898, 1910–1945, Series 2, file no. 634, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
12. John Schroder, “Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Precursor of the Steam Navy,” in John Bradford, ed., Captains of the Old Steam Navy (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 7–9.
13. John Hayes and John Hattendorf, eds., The Writings of Stephen B. Luce (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1975), 201–35.
14. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The United States Looking Outward,” The Atlantic Monthly (December 1890).
15. David Kohnen, 21st Century Knox (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 1–19.