Channelling Roosevelt in Asia

The waters around Asia are of growing strategic importance to the US. It’s time for some Roosevelt-like attention.

The other day we paid a call on our boss, Rear Adm. Phil Wisecup, who is president of the Naval War College. While waiting for him in the anteroom, we noticed a photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt with a group of naval officers. The photo was taken in 1908, when Roosevelt personally interceded in the intricacies of battleship construction. It’s a reminder that statesmen must sometimes inject themselves into debates over operations, tactics, and even engineering—matters usually considered the sole preserve of officers and technical experts.

From a young age, Roosevelt was an avid student of naval warfare. He converted his undergraduate thesis at Harvard into The Naval War of 1812, arguably the standard work on the subject. It remains in print to this day. He subsequently became a practitioner, serving as assistant secretary of the navy during the run-up to the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt earned his post at the Navy Department partly on his record as a scholar of sea power. And, as president, he habitually involved himself in fleet tactics and technical questions. Gunnery specialist Lt. W. S. Sims, for instance, wrote to Roosevelt lamenting the ‘very inefficient condition’ of the US Navy, and in particular the deplorable state of marksmanship among navy crews. Not so mysteriously, Sims soon found himself assigned as Target Practice Inspector for the China Station and, within months, for the entire service.

Roosevelt’s background equipped him to speak with authority about matters normally reserved for seamen. His penchant for action—Henry Adams pronounced him ‘pure act,’ a man in perpetual motion—impelled him to get involved. In those days, the War College student body and faculty spent their summer months holding a conference on nautical affairs. But in 1908, as our college website notes, ‘Conference interrupted at direction of President Theodore Roosevelt. General Board and Dept. Bureau Chiefs join NWC staff and students in “Battleship Conference.”’ Feedback on ship design from the ‘Great White Fleet’ then circumnavigating the globe prompted the presidential intervention. Furthermore, Cdr. A. L. Key of the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, had filed a sharp critique of the designs of the battleships North Dakota and Delaware with the Navy Department.

In effect, Roosevelt ordered the Newport Conference to drop everything and consider Key’s findings and recommendations on such topics as the placement of main and secondary guns, the thickness and positioning of protective armour, and the optimal configuration of battleship superstructures for ship handling and fire control. Roosevelt made the short voyage to Newport from his home at Oyster Bay, Long Island, to chair the conference deliberations on July 22. His chief concern was to determine whether the alleged defects in USS North Dakota and Delaware could be remedied at reasonable cost and without serious delay, and also whether plans for the Florida and Utah—the next two ships in the class—should be modified to meet Key’s objections. ‘I desire to have the whole matter before me for my judgment,’ read the presidential mandate. In short, Roosevelt personally drove deliberations over the shape of the future US Navy fleet while picking the right people—such as W. S. Sims—to put his wishes into practice.

Theodore Roosevelt was by no means the first senior policymaker to immerse himself in maritime strategy and operations. Historian Julian Corbett credited England’s ‘great sea-king, Henry VII,’ with orchestrating a revolution in naval affairs. King Henry applied himself to ‘the creation of a standing Navy.’ He unlocked ‘the English genius for maritime warfare,’ putting to sea ‘a type of galleon peculiarly (England’s) own and a Navy such as the world had never seen before.’ At royal behest, wrote Corbett, the Royal Navy ‘ignored the vessel that all ages had regarded as the ideal capital ship,’ namely the galley, in favour of sail-driven men-of-war. More recently, think of John F. Kennedy, who took office five decades ago last month. While Kennedy drove few innovations in military technology, he concentrated US energies on a manned moon landing. Ronald Reagan had his Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars,’ which no longer appears so whimsical after 30 years of advances in ballistic-missile defence technology.

And now the time may be ripe for presidential intervention in the maritime realm. The US sea services fashioned a new Maritime Strategy in 2007 with little evident supervision from the Bush administration. Whether the strategy chimes with the Obama administration’s strategic priorities is uncertain. Nor is it clear that the US Navy’s arms purchases will fulfill Washington’s aims. For instance, the navy’s newest warship design, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), is intended to replace several ship classes, including frigates that act as protectors of carrier and amphibious task forces against air and subsurface attack. Yet Ronald O’Rourke of the Congressional Research Service reports that the LCS isn’t sufficiently hardened to withstand the shock of high-intensity combat. During the early stages of LCS development, moreover, the navy awarded contracts for two competing designs of the vessel—only to procure both of these radically different hulls! These are surely warning signs.

President Obama can’t match the maritime technical acumen of a Theodore Roosevelt. Nor could he avoid Washington policy wonks’ charges of micromanagement if he tried issuing directives about ship design the way his predecessor did. But rapidly changing strategic circumstances demand adroit, bold leadership. As the nautical environment becomes more complex and competitive—particularly in Asian waters—clear US resolve will be at a premium. As a result, Obama must approach today’s controversies with the same tenacity Roosevelt displayed during the Battleship Conference. If the president puts his own time and energy into solving a policy problem, he tends to get results. Now, as in Roosevelt’s day, naval affairs is a subject worthy of presidential attention.


James Holmes, a former battleship sailor, and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are theirs alone.