BOOK REVIEW: Digesting History – The U.S. Naval War College, The Lessons of World War II, and the Future of Naval Warfare, 1945-47

By Hal M. Friedman, Naval War College Press, Newport, RI (2010).

Reviewed by Thomas P. Ostrom

Hal M. Friedman brings a scholarly background to his naval history writing: associate chair and professor of modern history at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, and an MA and Ph.D. in political science and international relations. Dr. Friedman has taught at civilian and military colleges and universities.

Professor Friedman has edited and written numerous articles and authored three books on defense, national security, and naval history. Friedman served as a USNR petty officer in intelligence units, and earned service awards.

His 375-page Naval War College and Pacific War history includes extensive notes, illustrations, military acronyms, bibliography, and index sections.

Maritime historian John B. Hattendorf traced Hal Friedman’s exemplary contributions to naval history and analysis from his meticulous research in the Naval War College archives and studies of the contributions of naval officers to professional issues and heritage based on their World War II perspectives.

Professor Friedman examines U.S. Naval War College (NWC) history, classes, research and conclusions from World War II to the Cold War, and issues with the Soviet Union, a World War II ally and then adversary.

Friedman is critical of the tendency of the military establishment to “fall back on traditional, strategic, operational and tactical concepts (to) meet these new challenges” of global conflict in the nuclear age.

Prominent World War II era officers administered, taught, and designed the curriculum at the NWC, and opened up admission to officers and officials of the U.S. Armed Forces and U.S. State Department staff to study military history, tactics, strategy, theory, logistics, and the applications of naval sea power and technological assets to geopolitical realities.

Friedman examines the traditional and innovative World War II and Cold War strategies offered by naval officers and students through the prism of the Pacific war.

World War II Pacific combat commander, and NWC president after 1946, Adm. Raymond Spruance was described as favoring the continuation of amphibious and littoral naval strategies, naval bombardments, aircraft carriers, and extended global maritime and shore presence in the coming age of nuclear powered vessels, guided missiles and atomic weapons. Spruance emphasized the need for a modern merchant marine to supply naval vessels and bases with food, fuel, armament, ordnance, and weaponry and a dominant defensive and offensive naval capacity. Spruance lectured on the need for cooperative and articulated U.S. Armed Forces training and missions.

Other naval scholars pondered the viability of traditional naval vessels; necessity of new designs and missions; and the extension of economic and diplomatic force against emerging Cold War adversaries China and the USSR.

Adm. Thomas C. Kincaid emphasized the significance of interrogating POW Japanese flag officers to better understand military policies in victory and defeat in the central Pacific and the Alaskan Aleutians; the significance of USN airpower in achieving victory; and the positive results of USN-U.S. Army cooperation, or as Friedman phrased it, “defense unification” over traditional “inter-service rivalry.”

Adm. Richard Turner lectured his students on the importance of understanding United Nations Charter ramifications, joint international missions, and disarmament treaties, while still maintaining a strong U.S. Navy, overseas bases, and transportation logistics which, it seems, are both pragmatic and contradictory objectives.

Fleet Admiral and NWC president Chester Nimitz emphasized the importance of offensive and defensive mine warfare and troop transportation, landings and supply with strong surface combat vessel, submarine, and land and sea air support.

Given the academic biases of this reviewer, it must be noted that Friedman neglects the combat and transportation contributions of the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II, its articulated missions at home and overseas with the other armed services as part of the USN, and its role in piloting landing craft, search and rescue, and beach operations.

However, given Friedman’s emphasis on the Naval War College, and the fact that USCG officers attended the NWC later in the Cold War and down to the present, the omission is understandable. The author does mention shipbuilding coordination issues and the “utilization” by the USCG of the Bureau of Docks and Yards for construction projects in the Alaskan Aleutians.

Friedman’s masterful introductory remarks and selected monograph narratives illuminate the traditional and innovative dichotomies exhibited by naval strategists as they emerged from World War II into the Cold War, nuclear age, and the geostrategic challenges posed by the USSR and China.

Ostrom is the author of three books on U.S. Coast Guard history, the latest The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (McFarland Publishing Co., Jefferson, NC: 2009.

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