The Naval Historian and His Library: An Interview with John Hattendorf

April 21, 2015

At seventy-three, John Hattendorf is still going strong. For over thirty years now, Hattendorf has been the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime Studies at the United States Naval War College. Ask around, and when naval history comes up, Hattendorf’s name is sure to follow. In 2005, Proceedings magazine said that he was one of the most widely known and well-respected naval historians in the world. He’s written over forty books on a variety of topics — from war at sea in the middle ages to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. He’s even written a book on the history of Newport’s historic Trinity Church. By day, his office is on the top floor of the Naval War College museum. Formerly, it was the building that the founder of the war college, Stephen B. Luce, used to teach the first class of students and where Mahan gave his first lectures on sea power. Hattendorf is unassuming, quiet, and when he talks about history he flashes a slight grin that shows his love for the subject. Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about books, his library, and naval history.

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You’ve been a historian for over forty-years. How did you get started?

I joined the Navy fifty years ago last month. I knew I always wanted to be a historian. But I didn’t think of naval history until 1967. I was just leaving my first ship. We had been in Vietnam and my commanding officer saw me at the officer club in Pearl Harbor. He asked me, “What would you do to stay in the Navy?” I said, “Not much.” He then said he could work out some good orders for me. I remember saying, “Nah, I want to go to graduate school and study history.” “Have another drink,” he said. So we kept irritating each other. Finally, I told him that the only orders that I would even consider were to what was then called the naval history division in the office of the chief of naval operations in Washington D.C. (which is now the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command). I figured that would really irritate him. Well, my commanding officer told me that he knew the admiral — Admiral Eller [the director of naval history from 1956-1970]. And I had message orders within twenty-four hours to report to Eller. I was there for two years working on the Naval Documents of the American Revolution and the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. That was my first exposure to naval history. In ’69 I got out of the Navy to work on my master’s degree; I went to Brown. But as I was finishing my degree the Navy had a shortage of junior officers who had surface combat experience. So I was then recalled and was an operations officer in a ship, here, in Newport, Rhode Island. When I was in that job, the commodore came on board the ship and told me that the president of the Naval War College wanted to see me. Well, the current president who had just come in was Admiral Stansfield Turner. I went there the next morning, and Turner hired me on the spot to be his research assistant and speechwriter. So I was supposed to report to the war college the next day at 0800. This of course rattled my commanding officer, my executive officer, and the chief of naval personnel.

What books have shaped you as a historian?

When I was at Brown, well, what is typical at a graduate program in history is that they ask you to write an essay about a historian you admire. So this turned out to be my first scholarly article on Sir Julian Corbett. The Naval War College published my first book, which was on the Writings of Stephen B. Luce. From my master’s degree onward, I have focused on nineteenth-century naval theorists and the theory of naval strategy. So I have been influenced by Admiral Henry Eccles, who was the great naval thinker at the Naval War College from the late ‘40s to early ‘80s. Then I got interested in his works about naval strategy. He sort of took me on and was a mentor for me, as was Admiral John D. Hayes in naval history. And then through those connections I met Admiral J. C. Wylie, who became a very close friend of mine. He taught me a lot as well. So these books and the authors became very important and helped to form me as a naval historian. But I was also influenced by a number of civilian scholars in how to think about history in general and to place naval affairs within a much broad perspective.

Who do you think is writing today — a historian, regardless of military focus — that you find fascinating?

I think the best naval historian writing today is a British scholar named Nicholas Rodger. He’s writing a three-volume history of the Royal Navy. It’s a fascinating overview of naval history; he does things that other naval historians aren’t getting to in the United States.

What historical fiction would you recommend?

Well, I did a lot of work on Patrick O’Brian. It seems to be a recurring interest. What interests me about O’Brian was that he was well read in history. And he’s done a considerable amount of research, which reflects in his fiction. One of the early books I did on him was a book called Sea of Words with a guy named Dean King. Dean contacted me and said he wanted to do a dictionary of all the nautical words in the O’Brian novels. I said that was a neat idea. A lot of Americans that were reading these books didn’t know many of the nautical words that O’Brian was using. So we ended up doing three books. But it opened up a whole new area of naval fiction. I was brought up as a kid reading C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series and his other novels. Interesting enough, many women find the O’Brian books much more interesting. There’s interesting women in the O’Brian books. And O’Brian’s plots and characters are more interesting. Also, some of James Fenimore Cooper’s naval stuff is very good — I actually went from his fiction to his nonfiction — the first history of the USN. Eventually, I wrote about the history of naval novels and love the work of novelists who were also experienced naval officers, like Frederick Marryat and Nicholas Monsarrat, or seamen, like Richard Woodman.

What historical naval figure is probably the most important today, but for whatever reason, we aren’t reading their works?

I think Sir Julian Corbett — particularly his histories — and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, who is not really well known. Richmond was a British admiral who was raised as a pupil of Corbett’s. And then he went on to be a master at one of the colleges at Cambridge University. One of his last books, titled Statesmen and Sea-Power, is what is inspiring an article that I am writing about right now.

You are hosting a dinner and you get to invite three historians and three historical figures — dead or alive — who is at your dinner party?

Well, I’d have Nelson, E.J. King, I think…and of course in my career, Stansfield Turner, who had a great influence on me. And probably Admiral Bradley Fiske, who I think is a fascinating character. As for historians…a woman named Ragnhild Hatton. She was a Norwegian woman who wrote on wars and international relations in the early 18th century. Samuel Eliot Morison is another; he was a great writer. Two of my teachers had been his graduate students, so I have a kind of indirect intellectual connection to him. I met him a couple of times and had some correspondence with him, but he was a difficult character — he’d probably refuse the invitation. But he would be interesting to have at the party. Another would be Robert G. Albion, a great American maritime historian with whom I once studied.

What book do you save if the house is burning down?

I’d probably take my early eighteenth-century books.

You’ve written over forty books — any favorites? A book that you enjoyed writing and that you would recommend if you had to choose only one?

Well, it depends on the person and their interest. Now I’m focusing on writing an update on the history of the Naval War College. It’s an interesting and difficult task. Most times you write about history that is long past. My doctoral thesis was on early eighteenth-century, so everyone is dead, and you are just dealing with the documents. Recent history can be tough. Records aren’t kept the same way and you have to have a different approach. And it can be a highly political thing. Back in ’86 or ’87 I was asked to do a classified history of the Navy’s maritime strategy of the ‘80s. When it was done it was classified secret, so I never thought I would see it in print. But amazingly, the Navy decided to declassify it to show its work in strategy; it was eventually published by the Naval War College Press as a Newport Paper. It was highly political issue to write about as everyone claimed to be its father. And I was the hapless historian that got between the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the navy on that issue. Secretary Lehman was interested and honestly believed that he had invented the maritime strategy. Admiral Hayward and Admiral Watkins were sure that it was built on the Navy side of the house, not the civilian side of the house. My history basically shows that there is a long tradition on where these ideas had come from. And I even found there was a briefing at the Naval War College where Secretary Lehman was briefed about this strategy by the strategic studies group. I was something like the guinea pig sent out for slaughter. The secretary of the navy did not want the story to get out, but the chief of naval operations wanted it out. So through Admiral Watkins, I was able to publish an unclassified summary of my larger study in the Naval War College Review. He wanted to show that the Navy was doing good things. Later I ran into Secretary Lehman at Yale, at a panel, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, you — you’re the guy.”

What is the oldest book in your library?

Let’s see, on the top shelf I have the original reports of Perry’s expedition to Japan. I also have reports from the Wilkes expedition. The Perry books are worth thousands of dollars today. But I bought them for fifteen dollars at Kenyon College, when I was an undergraduate. I use them quite often because we have the Black Ships festival, so we usually have to speak or say something about Perry. My library is divided, so I probably have more books at home. My books on ancient history to the mid-nineteenth century are home, the rest are here. And in my library here, I have books on different navies around the world, in different languages. At home my oldest book is early eighteenth- century as I have a lot of original printed materials on the war of the Spanish succession.

Favorite Biographies?

Tom Buell’s biography on Admiral Spruance and his biography on Admiral E.J. King — these are both great naval biographies. And Roger Knight’s biography on Admiral Nelson titled The Pursuit of Victory is the best on that iconic figure. But I especially like to read autobiographies and published correspondence of naval officers who are not particularly well known. They often provide interesting and useful insights. The British Navy Records Society does a wonderful job with this and I have been trying to get started a similar American Naval Records Society to publish such things on-line.

What would you recommend for books on leadership?

There is a lot out there. But most of it is…bland. I think Nelson is a great leadership example — and the biography by Knight is a good place to start.

Sir — Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

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At the end of the interview, the professor walked over to a file cabinet and said, “Here, let me show you something.” He pulled down a gray colored file organizer from the top of the cabinet. He put it on a table and asked, “Have you ever heard of the Society of the Cincinnati?” I had not. He said, “It’s the oldest veterans’ organization of the United States. It was founded by George Washington. It is still active today, the membership goes by the senior son of the senior son sort of thing.” He then pulled out a letter. It was old. It was an ivory color with a beautiful cursive script. He placed it on the table in front of me. Immediately I recognized the signature — it was a letter written by John Adams. He explained to me that President Adams, in 1798, wrote the Rhode Island branch of the society, thanking them for a kind letter of congratulations on his recent election. He also pulled out a letter signed by George Washington. It was similar to the Adams letter, thanking the society for a congratulatory letter on his election as well. Hattendorf is organizing the letters for the Rhode Island society and writing its history. Many of them, he told me, had not been seen or used before by a historian. It was exciting to see these letters up close.   It was the perfect ending to an interesting discussion.


Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the US Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.