(W)Archives: Dissecting Fleet Admiral Nimitz’ Grad School Thesis

November 14, 2014

Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz is one of the towering figures of American military history.  As Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, he oversaw some of the most famous battles of Pacific War: Coral Sea, Midway, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.  After World War II, he served for two years as Chief of Naval Operations from which position he championed then-Captain Hyman Rickover’s radical ideas about nuclear submarines.  Clearly, Chester Nimitz was a man of great ability.  But what did his graduate school work look like?  Could he write a good research paper?

As it happens, the Naval Historical Collection at the U.S. Naval War College can help us answer that question.  Among the treasures there is a paper that 37 year old Commander Nimitz wrote in 1922 on “policy.”   In this 25 page paper, Nimitz discusses how policy relates to war and he reviews the history of American foreign policy in the Pacific region.  The interesting part is the first third where Nimitz enunciates his understanding of what goes into national power.  From this text we can infer that Nimitz thought that Lenin had some important insights.  More importantly, Nimitz was clearly a follower of Clausewitz as well as being simultaneously a realist and a liberal.  Finally, and not surprisingly, given the time in which he lived, he seems to have had some ideas about race that many people today would consider retrograde.

The echoes of Lenin are brief but interesting.  In 1916 Lenin wrote that imperialism was the “highest stage of capitalism.”  Nimitz flirts with these ideas when he discusses the rivalries that can arise that can arise when states compete for “foreign markets to absorb excess food, raw materials and manufactured articles” and provide “land to accommodate increasing populations.”  Of course, while Lenin uses these ideas to castigate industrialized countries like the United States, Nimitz is very proud of American foreign policy.

International competition is a subject to which Nimitz devotes a good bit of attention and he does not look at it solely through a Leninist lens.  Though the term did not exist then, he displays strong signs of realist thinking.  He believes that the world system is characterized by anarchy because “there is no court of international justice whose edicts can be enforced” and that war will be with us “until human nature makes radical changes.”  He believes that geography, and the distribution of power over it strongly influence the behavior of states.  Without using today’s realist terminology, he discusses how a “nation surrounded by powerful rival states,” must engage in internal balancing by “becom[ing] militaristic and develop[ing] a vigorous foreign policy” or, if too weak to do that must externally balance by “seek[ing] alliances with its least hostile neighbors.”

In some respects, Nimitz is also an international relations liberal.  While realists believe that states are homogenous billiard balls, liberals believe that domestic politics influence foreign affairs.   Nimitz argues that in at least two ways domestic politics matter in national policy.  First, he says that “policy to be effective must be founded on right and justice and must be backed by public opinion, particularly in a democratic country.”  There is a small hint that he believes in one form of democratic peace theory when he writes that democracies will have more enlightened foreign policies because they “love justice and the square deal and [hate] oppression.”  Indeed, toward the end of the piece he maintains that democratic America’s foreign policy has been “in keeping with the principles of right, justice and fair dealing” in all but two cases (Colombia and Korea).

Rather lamentably, Nimitz also argues that demographic factors, which he approaches in a racialized fashion, affect foreign policy.  He starts by arguing that geographic factors such as climate have “an important part…in affecting the physical and mental vigor of those who inhabit the land.”  He goes on to say that ideally “a whole nation [will be] thoroughly unified by a vigorous feeling of nationality.”  A failure to do this weakens a country.  He explicitly refers to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which he blames in large part on “racial antagonisms” such as those that “now exist in our country.”  Perhaps thinking about the concerns during World War I over the loyalty of German-Americans and other hyphenated Americans, his policy prescription for the United States is a “complete stoppage of immigration.”  Toward the end of his paper, he returns to this theme, writing “we must first of all stop all immigration of peoples which we cannot readily assimilate and make into good citizens.  We must thoroughly Americanize those elements of our population which through ignorance or choice have retained their European…thinking.”

Clausewitz also clearly made an impression on Commander Nimitz, as well.  Nimitz is a Clausewitzian when it comes to civil-military relations.  “Modern war,” he writes, “is not separate and detached from policy nor does it supersede policy.  War is merely an instrument of policy, a means of furthering policy when the milder methods of diplomacy…fail.”  The army and navy, then, have the duty of conducting wars “with the means furnished by the statesman and this can best be accomplished when the military and naval leaders understand the political objective sought.”

In this paper, Nimitz does not rigidly limit himself to one way of thinking about the world as so many people in the academy do.  In part this is normal student behavior.  Students are not members of the intellectual guilds which so rigidly enforce doctrinal conformity.  In part it is because the field of political science generally and international relations theory specifically was not nearly so well developed in those days so the distinctions that seem so important to us today were not salient then.

It must be said, too, that Nimitz does not display any interesting original thinking in this paper.  I teach strategic studies to graduate students.  If this paper came before me I’d give it a respectable grade but nothing more.  Of course, Nimitz went on to do truly remarkable and important things.  It just goes to show that past performance is no predictor of future returns.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Billy Hathorn