In 1938, children could get a wonderful print of the submarine USS Narwhal (SS-167) in exchange for Kellogg’s cereals box tops. The print’s caption read: “As a sentry of our shores, the Narwhal guards our right to peace.” It expressed a defensive American naval policy—even a “go it alone” one. Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States changed that forever. The United States fought World War II in the Atlantic and Mediterranean as part of an alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany and also teamed with Great Britain and China in the Pacific against Japan.
These alliances were a huge change in U.S. strategic policy. Before the end of the war in 1945, the U.S. government led the effort to create what became the United Nations. Shortly after that, the United States signed the treaty creating the NATO alliance. That alliance was essential to deterring the Soviet Union from overrunning Western Europe, the key prize in the Cold War. Even today, NATO—a military and political alliance—is essential to blocking Russia from extending its war with Ukraine to nations such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
The term “alliance” conventionally refers to a relationship established by a formal agreement (usually a treaty) between or among governments. By contrast, coalitions can be created without a treaty and function without the formal organization that NATO possesses. An example is the multinational coalition that in 1991 defeated the Iraqi Army that had invaded and occupied Kuwait. The words “alliance” and “coalition” are often used interchangeably, but it is more accurate to think of an alliance as an institutional arrangement that is both deeper and more permanent than a coalition.
Both alliances and coalitions have been important for the U.S. Navy, particularly since the United States became a major political, military, and economic power. However, working with allies was not unheard of before the 20th century. It had its roots in the American Revolution.
France and The American Revolution
The formal alliance between France and the rebellious American colonies was crafted and signed in February 1778 after the American victory at Saratoga in October 1777. In June 1778, France declared war on Great Britain, and a French fleet, sailing from Toulon, reached the Atlantic coast near Delaware Bay in July. General George Washington hoped to have his army cooperate with the French in attacking British-controlled New York, but the French ships-of-the line drew too much water to enter the harbor. In August 1779, another French fleet linked up with American soldiers to besiege the British garrison holding Savannah, Georgia, but the combined operation failed, and the French ships sailed home.
After British forces left Narragansett Bay in 1779, French ships landed troops there in July 1780. In the meantime, a British joint force had taken Charleston, South Carolina, in May, and British General Lord Cornwallis began moving north from Charleston to clear the Carolinas and Virginia of American soldiers. Cornwallis established a base at Yorktown, where he could be supported by the Royal Navy. The stage was set for a combined American and French attack on a major British force.
George Washington still wanted to attack New York, but French General Rochambeau in Newport persuaded Washington to slip away from New York and join American troops under the young Marquis de Lafayette facing Cornwallis at Yorktown. A French fleet under Vice Admiral De Grasse reached Yorktown at the end of August 1781 with French troops, and on 5 September 1781 fought a British fleet under Admiral Thomas Graves to a standstill. Graves’ ships could therefore not prevent 8 French warships and 18 transports from linking up with De Grasse’s fleet. Washington’s allied force employed Rochambeau’s reinforced army and its siege artillery against Cornwallis, and Yorktown fell on 19 October 1781, effectively ending the Revolutionary War in North America.
It had taken three years (1778–81), but the combined land and naval forces of the Franco-American alliance had finally succeeded in freeing the new American republic from British military domination. It had demonstrated what the military leaders of Britain—a great naval power—already understood, which was that the effectiveness of their world-encompassing navy could be thwarted by a well-led enemy allied joint force.
Anglo-American Cooperation in the Mediterranean
Now jump ahead about 175 years, to 1955. The United States is the dominant power. Britain’s Royal Navy, which had controlled the Mediterranean since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was the U.S. Navy’s junior partner. Allies in World War II, the two navies had continued to work together after the war. Proof of their close relationship was evident in August 1955, when a British flag officer reported to his commander in the Mediterranean that he was “given tactical command by Commander, Carrier Division Six, who was most punctilious in seeing that I had my share of taking charge of the carriers [the British Eagle and Albion and the USS Intrepid (CVA-11) and Coral Sea (CVA-43)] throughout the time we were in company.” He also gave credit for much of the success of the combined operations to U.S. Admirals Ralph Ofstie and Clarence Ekstrom. This is just the sort of cooperation that then–Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman had intended when he set the standards of command of the Sixth Task Fleet from July 1948 to October 1949.1
Admiral Sherman was an accomplished student of naval history as well as a fleet commander and then Chief of Naval Operations. He well understood the desire of the leaders of the Royal Navy to retain influence in the new command relationships being developed after World War II. He therefore walked a fine line between asserting U.S. strategic interests in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and accommodating British military and political concerns. That he was successful was due in large part to the characteristics attributed to him by General Omar N. Bradley: “urbane, intellectual, diplomatic and smart as a whip.”2
The 1,000-Ship Navy
Now jump ahead once more, this time to 2005. In July, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, the new Chief of Naval Operations, tasked his deputy for strategic planning, Vice Admiral John G. Morgan Jr., to draft a new strategic plan for the U.S. Navy—one that would work in a post–Cold War world. According to then-Captain Peter D. Haynes, both admirals agreed that what the Navy needed to do was work with other navies to protect maritime trade and the security of ships at sea. This was necessary to support the new economic and political order that the U.S. government was building after the end of the Cold War.3
Trying to impose this new order on all maritime nations was not in line with overall U.S. policy, which emphasized the voluntary nature of the commitment of nations to stability, safety, and peace at sea. For this reason, the September 2005 National Strategy for Maritime Security made clear the need for “a common understanding and a joint effort for action on a global scale.”4
This language was significant and the goal ambitious. The U.S. government was proposing to digitally link the world’s navies to further the task of making the world’s oceans safer and the movement of ships more transparent. Because of its satellite network, the U.S. Navy would take the lead, but it would require multinational cooperation to monitor the oceans and halt crimes such as human trafficking, piracy, and drug smuggling.
Had the 1,000-ship navy come to pass, the U.S. Navy would have been the facilitator of an international coalition of almost all the world’s navies.
Shifting Tides and Changing Relationships
Governments fashion alliances and coalitions as they see fit. Today’s ally may be tomorrow’s adversary—a change the Soviet Union made from World War II to the Cold War. In 1781, France and the new United States were formal allies. By May 1798, the two former allies were fighting a “Quasi-War” at sea—and the United States was building a real navy. Governments also sometimes choose to cooperate with others even while refusing to admit to doing so. For example, the Monroe Doctrine, first put forward by the United States in 1823, was enforced in practice by Britain’s Royal Navy for many years, despite the absence of any agreement, formal or otherwise, between the U.S. and British governments. In short, there are ways for national governments to coordinate and cooperate that are not covered by “alliance” and “coalition.”
But forming an alliance or becoming a member of a multinational coalition can have lasting positive effects. NATO is the obvious example. Would it ever have been created without the success of U.S. and British cooperation during World War II? The governments of the United Kingdom and United States created a Combined Chiefs of Staff to manage their war efforts at the highest level. British and American officers did not always agree, but they came away from the experience with at least an understanding of what maintaining a military alliance required.
In addition, the personal relations between senior officers such as Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery helped the founders of NATO cross the initial threshold of negotiations that determined NATO’s mission. These kinds of positive personal relationships matter at all levels, especially in day-to-day contact between civilians and military personnel from allied nations. In the combined naval exercises in the Mediterranean in 1955, a Royal Navy flag officer was temporarily in charge of a force of two British and two U.S. carriers. If this sort of cooperation is little known to U.S. Navy officers serving today, it nevertheless was essential to the success of NATO.
Practically, the members of an alliance, especially military members, need standardized procedures, terms, and technologies. Again, NATO provides the model with its standardization agreements, phonetic alphabet, and practice of enabling any NATO aircraft to land at any NATO airbase. NATO also provides working models of civil-military relations for its members and for governments that wish to join the alliance. NATO’s command and administrative organizations have changed over time, but the emphasis within NATO has always been on creating truly multinational staffs.5
There is also a need to provide for continuity within the alliance or coalition despite disagreements among two or more of its members. In 1959, for example, French President Charles de Gaulle pulled France’s Mediterranean naval forces from NATO. De Gaulle’s regime also prohibited NATO nations from basing nuclear-armed aircraft in France. In 1962, the French government withdrew its remaining naval forces from NATO, and in 1966 it pulled all its military forces from the NATO command structure. France did not leave the NATO alliance, however, and it did not withdraw its ground forces from West Germany. In fact, secret agreements between France and the United States provided for cooperation between French and other NATO forces in the event of war with the Warsaw Pact, and in 2009 the French military rejoined NATO as a fully participating member.
Alliances and coalitions also entail risks. For example, in June 1967 Israel fought with Egypt and Syria, which were at that time clients of the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders decided the Sixth Fleet was an asset to Israel because the Sixth Fleet could block Soviet naval and air forces from intervening in any future Israeli-Arab conflict. To counter the American advantage at sea, the Soviet Union fielded its 5th Eskadra, and the two fleets confronted each other during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.
This was a situation in which—in Norman Friedman’s words—“the clients could maneuver the superpowers that nominally were their masters.”6 The clients did just that, and fighting between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean was a real possibility by 25 October. Later, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt noted in his memoir that he doubted “that major units of the U.S. Navy were ever in a tenser situation since World War II ended.”7
Alliances and Coalitions Today and Tomorrow
When most people think about the Navy, they tend to focus on U.S. battles and leaders, but history provides many examples in which allies supported the United States and some in which they challenged it. Many members of Congress know a great deal about the Navy, but they necessarily focus on the number of ships and submarines the Navy has and on how much it costs to maintain the Navy and pay its sailors. However, since World War II, alliances and coalitions have been at the center of U.S. strategy. More Americans need to appreciate that a forward-deployed Navy is both a symbol of U.S. military potential and a tool of U.S. diplomacy.
In World War II, an allied alliance had to be created in exigent circumstances. And although Admiral Ernest King was acknowledged to be an excellent strategic thinker, he was not an alliance builder. He looked at World War II strictly from an American viewpoint. That served well enough for the war, but something more was needed for what came after the war, and it was left to a cadre of younger admirals—especially Forrest Sherman and Richard Conolly—to promote and protect the Navy’s role in a standing alliance.
Today, in the western Pacific, the Navy is building the foundations of possible alliances through the recent Australia, U.S., and U.K. (AUKUS) submarine agreement, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), and multinational exercises such as Rim of the Pacific and India’s Malabar exercise series. While the latter have not yet reached even a formal coalition stage and AUKUS is not a mutual defense treaty, the foundations of future cooperation in conflict are nonetheless being laid in these and similar efforts. The 1,000-ship navy never materialized, but its recognition that the future of maritime security will lie at least in part in multinational cooperation should continue to inform American thinking about sea power.
1. “Exercises with the United States Sixth Fleet,” from Flag Officer Aircraft Carriers, to Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, 29 August 1955, no. 1772/1705/3, Folder M253/92/55, “Exercises with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, August 1955,” 26 Oct. 1955, 4, para. 22, Public Records Office.
2. Cited in Michael A. Palmer, Origins of the Maritime Strategy: American Naval Strategy in the First Postwar Decade (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1988), 54; also see Jeffrey G. Barlow, From Hot War to Cold, The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945–1955 (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 308–16.
3. Peter D. Haynes, Toward a New Maritime Strategy, American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).
4. The White House, The National Strategy for Maritime Security, Washington, DC, September 2005, 2.
5. See, for example, Lord Ismay, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO: The First 5 Years 1949–1954 (Brussels: Division Diplomatie Publique, 1954).
6. Norman Friedman, The Fifty-Year War: Conflict and Strategy in the Cold War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 386.
7. ADM Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., USN (Ret.), On Watch (Quadrangle Books, 1976), 446.