Scott Mobley. Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873-1898. Studies in Naval History and Sea Power Series. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. 432 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-193-7.
Reviewed by Ellen Adams (Alice T. Miner Museum)
Published on H-War (August, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
In Progressives in Navy Blue, Scott Mobley explores a pivotal period in the history of the United States Navy, when an influential group within the officer corps enthusiastically embraced the ideologies of progressivism. Far from being a bastion of tradition and conservatism, the US Navy was in line with other professions, such as medicine and academia, in its drive for a modern, “scientific” approach to its organization—and indeed, Mobley argues, was ahead of the curve in many respects. The changes that Mobley tracks, between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Spanish-American War, were driven both by technological change and by what Mobley identifies as a “strategical awakening”: a new recognition of the importance of the actions officers took outside of battle, such as selecting locations, moving forces, and organizing logistical support. Through the use of personal and official correspondence, government records, published memoirs, the popular press, and lectures, Mobley (himself a former naval officer) argues that by the time war broke out with Spain in 1898, elements of strategic thinking had permeated the navy’s professional culture.
Mobley begins by setting out the state of the US Navy prior to 1880. In many ways, the culture of the navy and officers’ professional identity had remained unchanged since the eighteenth century and had focused primarily on the skills of seamanship and the tactics of battle. During this period, the navy’s primary role was protecting the United States’ overseas commercial network; nautical competency was valued above all. However, changes in technology—the transition from sail to steam—as well as shifting international political conditions prompted some naval leaders to consider how to address these issues. During the age of sail, the United States’ geographical distance from the centers of power in Europe had always seemed like a guarantee of security. With travel speeds and weapons range limited, it was safe to assume that the US Navy would have ample time to develop a defensive strategy if the need arose. Now, the expansion of European influence in Asia and Latin America raised the risks of future conflict, as did dramatically faster ship speeds under steam as compared to sail.
It was this changed technological and geopolitical context, Mobley argues, that pushed a small but influential group of officers to initiate changes in naval education, organization, and practices that embraced strategy. Like their colleagues in other occupations that were similarly feeling the need to professionalize in the post-Civil War era, they were drawn to the elements of progressive ideology that emphasized the value of experts who used systematic and scientific methods to solve problems. The navy’s new strategic consciousness emerged from this broader project of professionalization. Mobley identifies the decade between 1874 and 1884 as the key period of “strategical awakening.” The establishment of the US Naval Institute in 1873 provided a national professional association and a forum for discussion and was followed in 1874 by a professional journal. During this period, Admiral Stephen B. Luce was perhaps the foremost public voice for the importance of naval strategy; he argued that strategic principles could be derived by gathering historical examples and, through inductive reasoning, drawing out the essential laws that underlay them. Tactics might change over time as technology evolved, but the principles of strategy, thus scientifically derived, were immutable.
Luce was the first to propose, in 1877, a postgraduate war college that would give experienced sea officers a more thorough grounding in naval strategy, tactics, and logistics. The Naval War College was finally established in 1884, first under Luce’s leadership and then with Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan assuming the presidency in 1886. The War College’s fortunes throughout the 1880s and early 1890s very much depended on who held political power at any given moment and whether the secretary of the navy was sympathetic to its objectives. Admiral Francis Ramsay, the War College’s most persistent nemesis (who clearly also had a strong personal antipathy to Mahan), used his position as the chief of the Bureau of Navigation to constantly throw obstacles in its path and argued that money spent on the college diverted much-needed resources from fleet construction. The Torpedo School at Newport, Rhode Island, and the Naval Academy at Annapolis already provided ample opportunities for advanced technical education, and lessons about naval warfare were best learned at sea. However, most of the War College’s detractors within the officer corps were not, Mobley emphasizes, tradition-bound and backward-looking. They were, in their own way, just as progressive as the strategists, but they believed that technology was the way forward. Future wars would be won with superior technology, and officers’ education should focus on science and engineering. Naval tactics and strategy would be shaped by the technology available. In contrast, Lieutenant Edward Very, winner of the Naval Institute’s 1881 essay contest, articulated the strategists’ view: broad considerations of strategy and national policy should guide the design of the fleet.
The appointment of William C. Whitney as secretary of the navy in 1885 marked another turning point for the US Navy. Whitney immediately began to express concerns about the navy’s aging and outdated fleet and called for “iron-clads and torpedo boats and cruisers and all that—a real navy” (p. 142). What Whitney had in mind was a force designed and trained primarily for combat, marking a radical departure from the navy’s traditional role as guardians of the outposts of American commerce. Mobley departs most sharply from historians of US imperialism in his analysis of the rationale behind the “new navy” of the late nineteenth century. The historiography of imperialism has traditionally linked the Gilded Age naval revival to the establishment and defense of overseas empire. Historians such as William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber have argued that the demand for overseas markets as an outlet for economic and social unrest drove the fervor for a powerful navy that could maintain American commercial supremacy through more aggressive strategy.
Mobley does not dispute the links between naval power and empire but argues that imperialism was a much less significant factor in shaping naval policy prior to 1898. Rather, the revival of the navy that began in 1885 was a response to an increased sense of national vulnerability. Not only did European powers have more sophisticated navies, but nations closer to home did, too; Brazil, Argentina, and Chile all had modern iron and steel warships. Americans had seen modern naval forces in action periodically throughout the 1870s and early 1880s (the Chilo-Peruvian War of 1879 was frequently pointed to as an example of the decisive effect of superior naval power). That the United States Navy might soon be involved in large-scale combat, or even be called upon to repel an invasion, was by no means outside the realm of possibility. While these fears of vulnerability were sometimes exaggerated and proved to be largely unfounded, they were, Mobley argues, genuine. This was not mere rhetoric employed to win support for the new navy.
Scholarship on military history has tended to place navy (and army) officers “on the nation’s social and intellectual fringes” (p. 183); similarly, studies of intellectual and educational trends have largely omitted the military. Mobley successfully argues that institutions such as the Naval War College and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ought to be considered alongside other occupational organizations in discussions of professionalization in the latter part of the nineteenth century. His chapter on the ONI is particularly effective. The ONI was established in 1882 to gather information and make it available through an archive and catalog system, as well as through official publications. However, the agency’s head, Theodorus Mason, always intended the ONI to be more than a clearinghouse for intelligence: “he also quietly shaped the office as a center for synthesizing, analyzing, and disseminating information with strategy in mind” (p. 131). The number of strategic studies and contingency plans produced by the ONI’s staff in the 1880s “suggests a pioneering strategic role largely unrecognized by previous scholarship” (p. 117).
That individuals and organizations within the US Navy adopted the methods and ideology of progressivism is amply demonstrated in Mobley’s book. However, how far this enthusiasm for strategy extended within the navy more broadly is harder to say. Mobley himself acknowledges that “it is difficult to gauge accurately the extent to which naval culture embraced the new strategic ideas, beliefs, values, and practices during the 1890s” (p. 247). He identifies what he calls “strategic ‘kernels’ ... germinating within the Navy’s professional culture,” within the professional literature of the period (p. 250). It is not entirely clear when these kernels of strategy finally came to fruition. Nonetheless, Mobley’s book is an engaging text that will be of interest to scholars of military and naval history, progressivism, US imperialism, and professionalization.
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Ellen Adams. Review of Mobley, Scott, Progressives in Navy Blue: Maritime Strategy, American Empire, and the Transformation of U.S. Naval Identity, 1873-1898.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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