James Holmes

History Not Worth Emulating

Recent Features

James Holmes

History Not Worth Emulating

“Americans and their leaders made the conscious political choice not to field a great navy—and paid a heavy price for that decision.”

The Naval Diplomat took part in a War of 1812 conference in Saint John, New Brunswick, last week. The conference organizers zeroed in on the part British America played in that half-forgotten conflict. And a fascinating part it was. Presenters covered such topics as the 104th Regiment of Foot’s epic 700-mile march from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to Kingston, Ontario, during the frigid winter of 1813. And who knew about the 1814 sack of Bangor, Maine?

But enough about bloodthirsty Canadians! I held forth on how the warshaped early American attitudes toward the sea, and on how two eminent scholar-practitioners—Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt—later sought to revise Americans’ collective memory of the war. Both Mahan and Roosevelt wrote histories of the war at sea. Composed in 1882, TR’s remains in print to this day. It remains the account by which others measure themselves.

The upshot for both historians: U.S. naval strategy for the War of 1812 was something to avoid, not an example to emulate. They openly and unapologetically contradicted decades of lore surrounding the conflict, in hopes of helping Americans unlearn false lessons.

The founding generations saw war as an endeavor for minutemen at sea. When war broke out, the United States would dispatch its miniscule, lightly equipped navy to do battle with the enemy. It would also raise a “militia” force of privateers—private mariners issued government charters to raid enemy merchant shipping. Best of all, the republic could accomplish wartime goals while sparing itself the expense of maintaining standing peacetime forces—just as it had in 1812-1815. Right?

Well … no.

In popular memory, plucky U.S. Navy frigates commanded by the likes of Isaac Hull and Stephen Decatur stood out to sea to duel Great Britain’s Royal Navy. True enough, declared Roosevelt and Mahan. But they pointed out that U.S. frigates’tactical victories were strategically meaningless. Royal Navy squadrons subsequentlybottled up U.S. Navy warships in port while shutting down American trade. With no ships-of-the-line, the United States had no way to lift the blockade.

The war, in short, was a debacle. How to forestall future debacles? First, TR and Mahan beseeched Americans to embrace a culture of naval preparedness. And by preparedness they meant advance preparedness. Maritime strategy cannot be a slapdash affair. The republic had to build warships before a conflict erupted, or lag fatally behind events. And second, the U.S. Navy needed a true battle fleet, not a hodgepodge of small craft unable to win command of the sea. A modest force of capital ships would let the United States fight on equal terms, exercising dominion over nearby waters without bankrupting itself.

To protect commercial shipping, then, the United States needed a fleet capable of breaking any new blockade. Why did Roosevelt and Mahan belabor this obscure history? Because the United States only started riveting together a battle fleet during their lifetimes, seventy years after the Treaty of Ghent. They feared that public opinion would remain apathetic toward sea power. Tearing down a culture that considered naval warfare a pickup game—and replacing it with a culture of preparedness—was naval proponents’ aim.

Their cultural reformation goes on. Or at least it needs to. The U.S. Navy’s slogan for this year’s bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812 is “America’s Navy: Keeping the Sea Free for More Than 200 Years.” The promotional materials are uniformly excellent, including a video narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss. Nevertheless, TR and Mahan (and I) would attach an asterisk to the navy’s slogan. The U.S. Navy can plausibly claim to have kept American seas free since the 1880s, when its first battle fleet took shape. But since 1812? No way.

Sea power is a conscious political choice. Early in their history, Americans and their leaders made the conscious political choice not to field a great navy—and paid a heavy price for that decision. As a slogan, “Stuck in Port” would do little to fire enthusiasm for War of 1812 commemorations. But it might be more instructive than “Keeping the Sea Free”—especially in an age when America is again mulling its destiny on the high seas. Let’s be frank about past shortcomings.