The Intellectuals Behind the First U.S. Navy Doctrine: A Centennial Reflection

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Dec. 1 marks a lesser-known World War I anniversary: the centenary of the publication of the U.S. Navy’s first official service doctrine. This seven-page document, written by the chief of naval operations, Adm. William S. Benson, is the direct ancestor of Adm. John Richardson’s 2016 “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” another short document conveying another chief’s thoughts. Comparing the two, the reader is struck by the difference between Richardson’s wide-ranging “lines of effort,” and Benson’s narrow focus on warfighting — perhaps an indication of a shift in naval officers’ intellectual focus toward management, bureaucracy, and technology and away from the enduring issues of fighting and winning at sea.

Given the number of service and joint doctrines circulating around today’s Defense Department, it may seem odd to point to Benson’s little-known document as an intellectual milestone. However, Benson’s “Doctrine” united the service’s officer corps under a foundational framework for leadership and combat operations. Drawing on war games, exercises, and wartime experience, “Doctrine” served as the baseline for the Navy’s intellectual framework entering the interwar period, and its ideas continued to shape the Navy’s warfighting through World War II.

The creation of this doctrine was of the result of efforts by a group of reformers who had taught or studied at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. In the years leading up to World War I, the Naval War College underwent a revolution in pedagogy, borrowing the Army War College’s “applicatory system” of war gaming, which improved Newport’s already-robust war gaming program. The system, which could be transferred to real-world operations, was based on producing an “estimate of the situation,” writing clear, but general, orders to subordinates, and letting them execute in accordance with the commander’s intent as expressed in the estimate.

The applicatory system, combined with the introduction in 1911 of a 12-month residential “Long Course,” gave the Naval War College increased intellectual rigor, as a small cadre of attendees and staffers tackled the major problems of Navy strategy. This group began explicitly trying to develop doctrine for the Navy. As the president of the Naval War College, Capt. William L. Rodgers, noted in a speech after the first Long Course, the college “devotes itself to the investigation and deposition of strategic and tactical principles. . . . [T]he object is to develop a uniform method throughout the service.”


The combination of the Long Course’s new and refined pedagogical methods with the applicatory system for war gaming profoundly altered the thinking of the participants. The star performer of the first Long Course, William S. Sims, perceived the Naval War College as “the experience I need most — a study of the theory of strategy and tactics — and I would like to have that before going to sea again.” All students studied tactics, strategy, policy, and logistics and applied the information in preparation of situation estimates and gaming of solutions. Instructors guided every student to derive general principles from their studies and peer discussions.

Upon leaving Newport, Sims was assigned to command the Atlantic Fleet’s destroyers, then known as the Torpedo Flotilla, where he set about putting his War College training to good use. From June 1913 to October 1915, the Flotilla became Sims’s laboratory at sea. In a letter to the secretary of the navy’s aide for operations, Rear Adm. Bradley Fiske, Sims argued that the Flotilla provided the ideal opportunity to “develop the strategical and tactical employment of these vessels in connection with the operations of a great battle fleet.” Drawing upon his Naval War College teachings, Sims utilized a conference method in which all commanding officers could bring their collective knowledge to bear in an open setting to discuss solutions and policies. Sims sought to break the mold of previous commands, which did not utilize the perspective and intellect of subordinate officers.

These regular open discussions enabled the commanding officers to tackle the primary matters of developing torpedo tactics and doctrine. Using a large game board and ship models aboard the flotilla’s flagship, the officers tested the gamed tactics at sea against the battleship fleet. Through this practical application of Nval War College training, the group in 1914 produced a codified flotilla doctrine, a revolutionary document for employing destroyers in specific situations such as search, contact, and night attacks. The new process made a viable torpedo attack possible upon receipt of a 30 to 40-word radio message, rather than a 1,200-word or longer written order and accompanying blueprint.

The flotilla’s performance in maneuvers against the Atlantic Fleet’s battleships in March 1914 proved exemplary and provided proof of the value of the doctrine and War College methods to the Atlantic Fleet. In a letter to his wife, Sims remarked how his destroyers “with our brief instructions . . . applied the flotilla ‘doctrine’ and found and attacked the fleet in fine style, all the boats getting in their attacks.” Sims’s flotilla was also a launching pad for future flag officers: future chiefs of naval operations William Pratt, Harold Stark, and Ernest King served under Sims, as did future Fleet Adm. William Halsey.

Lt. Commander Dudley Knox, a classmate of Sims at Newport who followed him to the destroyers, was the mastermind behind the flotilla’s doctrine. After codifying the flotilla’s “tentative doctrine” in 1914, he promulgated his argument for a service-wide doctrine the following year. In his prize-winning 1915 essay for the Naval Institute, “The Rôle of Doctrine in Naval Warfare,” Knox defined, explained, and articulated doctrine with reference to the Naval War College and the flotilla’s methods. Knox argued that the flotilla’s methods should be extended to the entire service, particularly with war already engulfing the nations of Europe. Such a “concrete, comprehensive and coherent conception of modern war” would help the Navy in developing “strategy, tactics, logistics, gunnery, ship design, ship exercise, shore and ship organization and administration,” in short, ensuring that the entire service was on the same page.

Knox and many other Newport-affiliated officers viewed the development of doctrine as an integral part of creating a strong naval staff on the German model, which advocates like Fiske lauded as the future of military organization. Congressional and naval attempts to create such a staff were blocked by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. Instead, in early 1915, Congress created a chief of naval operations with relatively weak authority, to which Daniels appointed Capt. (later Adm.) William Shepherd Benson, an officer with no strong connection to the Newport reformers. Nonetheless, Benson soon found that Newport produced the officers best suited to staff his new office.

Developing Doctrine

The doctrine issue languished until the United States entered World War I in April 1917. With the Navy scrambling to work with its new allies, operate against German U-boats, and help transport an American army across the Atlantic, Long Course graduates proved themselves invaluable in managing the Navy’s wartime effort. Sims, recently installed as War College President, was ordered to Europe and, by June, had been promoted to vice admiral. Weeks later, he was placed in charge of all American naval forces in Europe. Sims insistently lobbied Washington for more Newport men to help manage the war effort, notably to establish a planning section to liaise with planners in the Admiralty. Likewise, many of the officers in Benson’s small Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) staff had experience with Newport’s new methods, including Capt. William Pratt, a former Long Course instructor who commanded Sims’s flagship in the flotilla, and two Long Course alumni, Capt. Josiah McKean and Capt. Volney Chase, in senior positions.

One problem that soon cropped up for OPNAV was cooperation with the Royal Navy. While America’s new allies were far ahead on the operational side, the U.S. Navy found it difficult to work with a service that seemingly placed little importance on strategy and staff work. In July, for example, Pratt wrote to Sims in London asking for the “Admiralty’s strategical and tactical conceptions . . . things we have a right to know.” He lamented, “[w]e could work so much more intelligently toward the same united ends, if we knew a little more.”

Despite the conspiratorial tone of Pratt’s letter, he was asking for something that simply did not exist. The Royal Navy never placed as much emphasis on the intellectual development of officers or the role of planning as its American counterpart. According to a 1913 essay from one frustrated would-be reformer, Captain Herbert Richmond, the typical British officer spent his career with “no incentive whatever to employ that portion of his brain that is concerned with analysis and reasoning.”

Matters came to a head in November 1917, when Benson visited Europe as part of a delegation conducting talks with other Allied nations. While in Britain, Benson visited the Admiralty to express his concerns about the lack of cooperative strategic planning. To placate Benson, the Admiralty prepared a memorandum on the “Naval Policy of the Allies,” outlining the current state of affairs in Europe. But Benson had expected more. He sent a cable back to Washington expressing his dissatisfaction with the British unwillingness to “offer definite plans,” and finally authorized Sims to set up a small staff of War College-trained staff officers in his London headquarters to jointly develop plans for operations with the British. This staff, known as the American Naval Planning Section in London, commenced work in December 1917 with three officers who had gone through the Long Course: Knox, joined by Captains Frank Schofield and Harry Yarnell.

The London Planning Section soon proved its value. By summer 1918, OPNAV depended increasingly on the London personnel for its own planning purposes. In mid-July 1918, Benson cabled Sims that he wanted to continue planning work in Washington and ordered the transfer of Yarnell to OPNAV. The CNO also requested the London Planning Section prepare an outline of a planning organization based on recommendations from the war experience, the memorandum of which accompanied Yarnell to Washington.

Benson’s Doctrine

Even as he pushed for the Royal Navy to put its war plans on paper, Benson had decided to take matters into his own hands as far as his own country was concerned. Before returning to Washington in late 1917, Benson decided to write a set of general principles for the U.S. Navy. According to his biographers, Mary Klachko and David Trask, he wrote and disseminated “Doctrine” on his own while waiting for talks in Paris to conclude. If this is true, it reflects the strong impression his Long Course-educated staffers had made on the chief of naval operations. The operational portions of the doctrine, with an emphasis on annihilation and the offensive, fit neatly with the Navy’s preexisting Mahanian ethos, confirmed by the Spanish-American War, which aimed at gaining control of the sea by destroying the enemy’s battle fleet. More interesting, though, are concepts and phrases that can be traced back to the Newport-associated reformers and the changes made to Naval War College’s curriculum.

The chief of naval operations included an endorsement of Newport’s methods near the beginning of his doctrine. Ultimately, he argued, doctrine needed to rest on “a uniform system of special study and training, through which all of at least command rank shall have passed” (emphasis added). This statement applied to Newport alumni like Sims and Pratt, but not to Benson himself, who had only attended half of the Naval War College’s two-month “Summer Course” in 1906.

Benson also mandated that commanders follow the Naval War College’s practice by providing their subordinates with written commander’s intent: “a definite formulation of mission . . . followed by an analytical estimate of the situation, and the formulation of a plan of action.” Taking cues from the Torpedo Flotilla and from Knox’s 1915 essay, Benson deemed loyalty to the plan and to the commanding officer’s expressed intentions to be “the most essential element of successful cooperation.” This procedure continued at Naval War College through the interwar years: Before every wargame at Newport, each attendee wrote an “estimate of the situation.”

The Navy put these precepts in action during World War II, as Naval War College training gave the officer corps a common language and technique to use in planning and conducting operations. Alumni filled many of the Navy’s key positions during the war. Leaders like Chester Nimitz and Raymond Spruance used the “estimate of the situation” model while in command during World War II. Likewise, officers serving under Ernest King and his  classmate William Halsey learned the importance of total loyalty to and understanding of the commander.

Benson launched a reorganization of OPNAV in August 1919. Key to its new structure was a Planning Division, organized along enlarged lines of the London Planning Section memorandum, staffed with “capable youngsters with War College training and full of vim and vigor,” many trained by Sims, who served as Naval War College president between 1919 and 1922. By 1922, the division was renamed the War Plans Division, exclusively focused on preparing for war. The War Plans Division led OPNAV’s work during the interwar years in drafting a Pacific strategy for a potential war against Japan.

Reading Adm. Benson’s 1917 “Doctrine” takes us back to a time when the creation of doctrine was a revolutionary act urged by the service’s most forward-thinking officers. But the document also raises major questions about today’s Navy and the utility of service doctrine. Compared to the World War II generation, very few of today’s admirals have gone through Newport’s resident course. Without this common pedagogical bond, can the service develop a common understanding of command and operations that cuts across warfare communities?

More fundamentally, Benson’s “Doctrine,” written for a battleship navy, contained ideas and concepts that remained useful thirty years later in the wildly different technological, operational, and organizational environment of the Pacific War. Can today’s platform-centric Navy produce simple and general operational and planning principles with a utility independent of technological change or specific adversaries? If not, modern strategic planners should examine whether today’s doctrines and other strategic documents have strayed away from foundational principles. They would do well to start with the seven-page doctrine that Benson wrote in Paris 100 years ago.


Dr. Ryan Peeks works as a historian for the U.S. Navy in Washington. Dr. Frank Blazich is a curator of modern military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This article does not represent the views of their employers.


Image: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph