The Sine Waves of Naval History

February 5, 2016

Craig L. Symonds, The U.S. Navy: A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2015)


In his 2014 Hattendorf Lecture at the U.S. Naval War College, the noted historian of strategy and war Paul Kennedy told his audience: “We engage in historical study to broaden our awareness, to sensitize us, to make us ask questions. We have no fixed blueprint, but we know what blueprints are.” But where does that historical study begin? The truth is we cannot all be experts in every field. While I am clearly biased enough to believe that Americans should know the history of their Navy, most people do not. In modern debates and discussions of national security policy we are lucky if people accurately remember the events, ideas, and strategies of the Cold War, never mind nearly two and a half centuries of American seapower.

Efforts to introduce those 240 years have generally offered massive tomes from giants in the field like E.B. Potter and Dudley Knox. They are masterful works of history, but they tend to appeal to the time and place in which they were written and to be much longer texts than today’s average reader is willing to tackle. Especially for a subject in which a reader has only a passing interest. This is a challenge that historians of all fields have faced since time immemorial: How do you draw the average reader to your work? The U.S. Navy: A Concise History, the most recent book by Craig Symonds, is a fascinating effort in pursuit of that goal. The book is the ultimate short introduction to the subject of the U.S. Navy and attempts to do it in barely over 100 pages. The result is a book with easy and flowing prose that can be read in a few spare hours over the weekend and offers a career’s worth of insight to help the reader begin asking questions.

Craig Symonds started his teaching career at the Naval War College. Now professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, he has spent the majority of that career helping future officers in Annapolis understand their past and the value of historical study (disclaimer: this reviewer included). When Harrison Ford was looking for the quintessential naval historian to shadow as research for his role as Jack Ryan in Patriot Games, he spent his time with Symonds. Considering these decades of experience, dozens of books, and uncounted articles, the effort to distill the subject of a life’s work into such a short volume must have been a distinct challenge. What the reader receives from this, however, is the opportunity to see not only the broad brushstrokes of the narrative of American seapower but also the patterns and the recurring issues involved in our history.

Besides serving as a naval precis for policymakers and scholars whose expertise remains shore-bound (landlubbers, we might call them), several themes emerge from Symonds’ narrative that seem relevant to today’s continued national security discussions. These themes lead, following Kennedy’s suggestion, to important questions for American seapower. They include the historic tension between peacetime and wartime naval responsibilities, the fundamental role of congressional action in naval affairs, and the rise and fall of fleet constitution.

Viewed over the expanse of two and half centuries it becomes clear that the U.S. Navy has always had a responsibility for both combat and non-combat operations during what is otherwise considered peacetime. Navies have had daily involvement with international politics and economics, not just preparation for war. The years after the War of 1812 but before the Civil War included a multitude of diplomatic efforts led by the Navy, partnership building, and maritime security operations to help ensure the safety of Americans around the world and of the international system itself. This occurred consistently, even during the doldrums of the 1870s and 1880s, well into the 20th century, and still today. There tends to be a conception of seapower, which took root in World War II and extended across the Cold War, that views it exclusively as a combat exercise, a conception that doesn’t really match with a long view of naval history. As Peter Haynes showed in his book Toward a New Maritime Strategy, this view of seapower can have significant implications for American policy. By avoiding the exciting and sometimes glorious combat narratives of the Navy, in order to keep his larger narrative moving (the Battle of Midway gets less than a page), Symonds’ concise approach reveals the fact that forward naval presence and maritime security operations have long been American naval responsibilities.

The policy decisions about the size, shape, and armament of the Navy across its history also illuminate the centrality of congressional action and leadership in naval affairs. Since warships are such large and expensive purchases for the nation, this shouldn’t surprise us. However, a pattern emerges from Symonds’ narrative that illustrates how congressional support or opposition to the Department of the Navy’s plans have been critical elements of American naval history. Whether restraining the construction of massive ships of the line in the age of sail, or pushing the secretary of the Navy into the steam age despite his reservations, or hearings on the development of naval airpower in the 1920s, the active and responsible engagement of congressional leaders has had a long connection with the sea services’ success.

Finally, Symonds identifies what he calls a “sine wave” pattern to describe the size and composition of the U.S. fleet. Rather than a story of constant progress and increases in size and scope, as America moved towards assuming the mantle of a great power and eventually lone superpower, A Concise History demonstrates that the number of ships in the fleet has grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk again. This rising and falling of the wave has depended on the resources provided but also the American people’s impression of their role in the world. Debates over the size of the fleet today, or even over how to count the ships, are usually completed without historical context or with comparisons designed to align with politics rather than historical accuracy. Pure numbers of hulls in the water is important, but so are considerations of the sizes of those hulls and the capabilities they bring. The real challenge is balance. The history of the U.S. Navy appears to be a constant struggle with finding that appropriate balance in the size and shape of the force to complete both wartime and peacetime missions.

One unfortunate element of such a compact narrative is that there are many times in this book where readers will want to learn more about a particular event or decision. And there are times that it seems Symonds passes over a bit of analysis too quickly. That is, unfortunately, one of the limitations of being concise. Likewise, the effort to be brief results in a section of endnotes that are infrequently and inconsistently offered and all but useless to anyone, whether academic scholar or hobbyist reader. The book would have been better served if the publisher had dispensed with the notes entirely and used those pages to give the author a few more paragraphs to expand his narrative in certain places. On the other hand, the few pages of recommended further reading offer a book list that would serve as an excellent syllabus for a graduate seminar on American naval history and seapower. It suggests fantastic options for readers whose interest has hopefully been sparked.

In his newest book Craig Symonds sails close hauled against the wind, skippering the difficult task of covering as short a distance as possible in his succinct history of the U.S. Navy. The result is an excellent primer for those unfamiliar with that history. But it also offers a welcome opportunity for those who are conscious of the details of America’s maritime past to step back and take another look at its broad expanse. In doing so, perhaps both groups will be better prepared to lay out our naval blueprints for the future, with better questions to inform our policies because we have a better sense of what those blueprints are.


BJ Armstrong is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an active duty U.S. Navy officer who is reading for his PhD in War Studies with King’s College, London. He is the series editor of the “21st Century Foundations” books from the Naval Institute Press. This article represents his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.


Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Russell, U.S. Navy