McMullen Part IV

John T Kuehn's picture

McMullen Part IV—as observed by John T. Kuehn

Admiral James Stavridis, Ph.D. (USN, RET)—McMullen Sea Power Address to the Midshipmen (Zoomed in) in Mahan Hall,  night of 22 September 2021.

“Admirals and the Voyage of Character”

As usual this event was attended by a lot of very tired midshipmen, many of whom took the opportunity to snooze, especially since retired Admiral and former dean of the Fletcher School James Stavridis was zooming in and thus would not see nor hear them snoring.  It was billed as a leadership lecture but Stavridis emphasized his talk would be about  character not leadership per se.  A chance to pitch several of his books—especially The Consummate Communicator: Character Traits of True Professionals( coauthored with Amy S. Hamilton 2020) & To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision (2022)

--his lecture was about what he called “sailor character”—looked at ten admirals.  Profiles in character, along the lines of Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy (and probably assisted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.)   First looked at Themistocles, leader of Athenian military.  Faced the Persian threat— Salamis and then the challenge of the Spartans.  Character trait focused on, The power of persuasion.  His men were free.  You must row to win your freedom (at Salamis), but also the idea of overreach in Athen’s decision to go to war with the Peloponnesian League.

Zheng He, Ming admiral.  A Eunuch leader of the Ming fleets.  He was resilient because of his sexuality(?)

Sir Francis Drake, pirate & patriot.  Went on to be in command against Sp. Armada.  A criminal, yin & yang of personality – that character is sometimes contingent and contextual, what works well in one environment can be criminal in others.

Nelson. Determination.  Team builder.  Personal life not something to emulate-- also a disobedient subordinate (but whose insubordination often led to good results).  I wished for more discussion of Nelson’s actions at Tenerife, and how they may have tempered his character.

Mahan—intellectualism as a character trait.  An enormous number of positive traits.  A commitment to the truth, no matter who it might offend.

Jacky Fischer —always innovating & seizing the day. Relentless innovator. A man who loved to dance.  In other words joie de vivre is a character trait that is worth study.

Nimitz-perhaps the greatest American admiral.  Calm, deliberate.  Temperance as a leadership trait (not temperance in the silly 21st century sense, but Temperance in the four virtues sense of self-disciplined and patient).

Zumwalt.  First admiral that Stavridis had actually met.  Held same job Bud Zumwalt as an aide to Secretary of the Navy.  Zumwalt changed the culture   An agent of change.   Brash and Passionate.

Rickover.  Brilliant, greatest engineer in Navy history.  Today he would be a toxic leader.  The master of targetted anger. 

Grace Hopper, Amazing Grace.  Her most interesting trait was her curiosity.   A voracious reader. Grace wanted to KNOW.


 Good listener- Nimitz.        

Intellectual curiosity —read fiction, & history, read widely

Values, did not go much into where character comes from, but did identify some from morality and ethics—did not mention gospels or Judaic tradtions, but did mention Buddha.  Mentioned the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thinking.

As yourself, what are we doing today that will look “bad” 50 years from now? 

One must judge those from the past with care and caution, posterity is a fickle observer of the human condition. [that last is me, not “Admiral Jim”]


Panel 4  23 September 2021

The Interwar Years and Naval Transformation

Chair and commentator,  C.C. Felker

1. “Losing the Crown,” Christopher L. Kolakowski, Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Began by looking at period prior to 1914 and  to address the question of the British losing the sea power “crown” to the United States. He identified four key components to loss of the "sea power" crown and Royal Navy (RN) decline:

-Global basing of the British Empire, served both warfighting and diplomacy.

-Brown water service—all the British officers with experience on riverine wars of the empire,  Beatty, Jellicoe, Callahan.  These operations led to leaders with direct combat experience.

-The rapid development of technology during this period in all areas, communications, propulsion, armor, weapons, motors, fire control, etc.

-People.  Personality played a big role.

So what happened to the UK and RN?  First, the Washington Naval Treaty, Britain agrees to co-equality with the United States as well as an Imperial Japanese fleet 2/3rds its size.  Two power standard no longer applies.   One power standard is measured against someone you will not fight.

Second reason, the Ten Year Rule and its yearly renewal by British governments into the 1930s.  However, their immediate impact was on people, on personnel—a reduction in force particularly of officers for a much reduced Navy.

Three—interservice rivalry, especially with the new Royal Air Force and its Air Ministry politicians who compromised the RN’s fleet air arm and naval aviation policy for the 1920s and into the 1930s.

Finally, Kolokowski identified overconfidence by the UK in general, but even inside the RN about its abilities and the future, but especially by politicians.

2.  “The British Reaction to the Japanese Departure from the Washington and London Treaty System,”  John T. Kuehn, US Naval War College (paper written while I was the King Professor at the Naval War College August 2020-August 2021)

Here was my abstract: This paper examines the breakdown of the naval limitation system inaugurated by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 (also known as the Five Power Pact).  Specifically it examines that breakdown after the London Naval Conference and Treaty of 1930 in response to subsequent Japanese reactions that included withdrawal from the League of Nations and then from the Washington and London Treaties.  The Japanese actions came at the worst possible moment for British Imperial Defense, just as Germany was rearming and concurrently with Italian aggressions throughout the 1930s.  Britain was forced to adapt from a one power standard for its Royal Navy that looked primarily at Japan as its biggest maritime threat to a situation where Germany, Italy, and Japan all demanded the resources of an increasingly thinly stretched Royal Navy.

Given that both Wells and Kolakowski were providing much of the context I also had in my paper,  I was hoping to “add value” by not going over what they went over, but I was taken by surprise when Felker had me go second instead of last.    I opened with some introductory comments about researching during a Pandemic that closed many of the archives and about how I learned to use the online British government cabinet papers archives as a source along with secondary sources and some primary material left over from my other research efforts on the naval treaties and the U.S. Navy.

I wanted to stay focused at the policy level.  Key findings in addition to what I identified in the abstract included:

-the continued existence of a one power standard for the UK/RN.

- Japan was the power/threat of the one power standard,  U.S. a budgetary "enemy" only.

-the role of the ten year rule in delaying building to treaty limits, even after the Japanese revolt against the Treaty system upon their delegation’s return to Japan (the paper had much in it about Japanese political violence).

-The pinning of so much hope on Singapore as the pillar of Far Eastern Imperial defense strategy, serving as the crux of a “fortified fleet in being."  A fortified fleet in being is a fleet of ships, often inferior to the offensive/aggressor nation's fleet, that relies on an impregnable base or fortress to even the odds and serving as the enclave from which to resume offensive operations.

-Relying on air power “substitution” for defense of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong instead of actually basing naval power in any numbers in the Far East.  Also, the woeful state of what was used in terms of air power in the Far East,  low priority for RAF after about 1938, best fighters and integrated air defense needed to defend the homeland.

-The cabinet meetings showed how the Far East moved from number one priority for the Admiralty to number two with the rise of Germany, and then number three with Italy joining the Axis and then the war and the fall of France sealing defense of the far east, still based on Singapore, as barely an economy of force until the 11th hour dispatch of Admiral Tom Phillips and Force Z composed of two capital ships and four destroyers.  Their sinking by Japanese naval aviation in the first days of the war in the Far East revealed the house of cards that was British imperial defense policy.

In other words, contingent developments have a way of subverting strategy—especially strategic “short cuts” like the Singapore fortified-fleet- in- being approach.

3. [[Wells may have gone first, which may be why my notes are so sparse for this one]]

“The Passing of the Torch:  The U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, and the Washington Conference,”

Nathan D. Wells, independent scholar.

Wells was making very similar arguments as Kolakowski.  The first step toward passing the torch of sea power leadership from Britain to the United States as the 1916 Naval Act, which dwarfed in size any previous naval expenditure bill.   The second step was  The Washington Conference of 1921-1922 . Well reviewed the treaty particulars, the battleship/capital ship ten year building holiday—history’s first ever collective limitation treaty  (early treaties had limited the militaries of specific nations regarded as aggressors or threats---Prussia in 1807 for example and German in 1919).

Also reviewed the aircraft carrier limitations that affected UK most (she already had her quota of carriers, but US and Japan could convert new hulls and build purpose built ships with latest and greatest technology).   Wells talked to the tonnage limits for all other ships, the failure to limit the so-called auxiliary classes (e.g. cruisers, destroyers, subs, and—significantly—naval aircraft).  He also mentioned the status quo fortification clause for the Pacific.  All of these were signs that the UK/RN were passing the torch, principally to the Americans.

Questions—wide ranging and since I was answering many of them, I did not transcribe them.  I do remember getting into a discussion of grand strategy, and how FDR and Stalin both intended to tie down the considerable Japanese Army by keeping China in the war to do just that.  I also mentioned the scholarship of Ted Lehmann that proposes that FDR used oil diplomacy to first hook the Japanese on US oil, and then use denial of that oil to dissuade them from opening a second front against the Soviets using oil-consuming mechanized forces.

To be honest most of what you have described in the first 4 parts have left me puzzled (my own ignorance). I am surprised that Admiral Stavridis did not mention Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea. Although all the admirals he named were different varieties of brilliant, in my opinion Admiral Yi is the only one who approaches Nelson in terms of tactical brilliance and strategic acumen. He is one of South Korea's national heroes of the Imjin War. Unappreciated by Korea's king, his honors were posthumous. There are prominent statues of him in central Seoul on Sejongno and Busan at the Busan Tower.
I found your summaries of the papers about the Washington Conference interesting. It seems that I remember that the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1923, but it expired in Washington in 1921) freed Admiral Fisher to concentrate on what he perceived Britain's main enemy - Germany. With the alliance and the Dreadnought class, he was able to withdraw Britain east of Suez relying on Japan to check Russia (?). The reality after World War I was that Britain no longer had the wherewithal to project naval power in East Asia. I agree that the steps taken in the 1920s and 1930s and the events of 1941-42 showed the British position in Asia (the Far East) was a big bluff. I'll speculate that air power then and using drones today are panaceas.
Lehmann's supposition is interesting, but the British, Americans, and the Dutch underestimated the Japanese and overestimated their own capabilities. I believe H.P. Willmott goes into this in some detail.
I find your abstracts interesting as they force me to think.
Kolkowski's paper seems to be most interesting based on your account.

First, thank you very much for sharing these, Dr Kuehn. I was disappointed to miss McMullen this year, most particularly due to Stavridis' talk and these posts have been much appreciated as a result.

Concerning the "The Interwar Years and Naval Transformation" panel, from your description it appears the focus was really on the way the British ceded their status as the premier naval power during the interwar period to the U.S. But I don't see much discussion of the larger reasons why? Surely the ultimate cause of the RN's twilight was the anticipated collapse of the British Empire, as well as simple economics? Did Britain chose to abandon the two power standard, or was it forced to abandon that standard by necessity?

That answer, I think, shapes how we view British policy and the "transfer" of the seapower crown from Britain to the United States.

Much of the recent scholarship on the passage of naval superiority from Great Britain to the United States has been written from an American vice a British perspective. Despite recent works, Stephen Roskill's two volume series "Naval Policy Between the Wars" well covers the British perspective and explains how a combination of factors (costs of WW1, an aging fleet worn out from multiple deployments, slackening interest in naval superiority among UK citizens, etc) ultimately forced Britain to shrink her aging fleet. Many US accounts also do not fully state that many US advocates for a larger fleet (Mahan, Sims, etc) saw the growing US fleet as part of a wider Anglo-American concordium of seapower rather than just US superiority (as was the case for Woodrow Wilson seeking to impose US views in the wake of WW1.) I would suggest that the transfer of maritime superiority was not really complete until the failed deployment of Prince of Wales and Repulse, after which there are few if any exercises of UK seapower that are fully independent of US support and action. Certainly by the time TF 57 deploys to the pacific the transformation is complete.

Paul, I think the short answer here is that Britain had to make certain trade offs after World War I, and even more during and after World War II due to the extreme situations she found herself in. After 1919 the trade off was equality in naval power with the United States at the Washington Naval Conference--we "owned" the British debt-- and we had a far easier defense situation than Great Britain. Our demand for a navy "second to none" was an offer they could not refuse, especially since we scrapped 900,000 tons of shipping and threatened a ruinous arms race with both Britain and Japan to get them to acede.

Secondly, after the Great War, the mood in Great Britain included many trends and attitudes, the growing anti-colonial movement (supported in part by the United States' ideological position on this), anti-war attitudes, and foremost economic factors, especially the budget for imperial defense and the Ten Year Rule.

By the late 1930s, many of these factors came home to roost. Following from Shakespeare, Britain's reach exceeded her tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow became more and more hazy and less bright. (see Macbeth) By the summer of 1940 she really had no choice, in order to survive she would have to cede what little agency her own sea power could give her to the United States, the lease part of lend-lease which gave the US its excellent diaspora of oceanic naval bases for the Cold War and that are still mostly in existence today (e.g. Diego Garcia, Bermuda, and Singapore).

My paper was about reacting to the Japanese build up with a specific defense strategy for the Far East--but much of the above can be discerned from my paper, which I hope to have incorporated as a chapter into an anthology S.C.M. (Sally) Paine is putting together at the moment. Some of it will also be incorporated into my new book for the Naval Institute Press on the creation and execution of Pacific War Strategy (by all parties).
Rich Frank has been critical in the development of my thinking on these issues.

vr, John T. Kuehn

Lewis, see my response to Paul. As for Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea, I couldn't agree more--I would have replaced perhaps one of the western admirals with him, but not Zheng He.

As for the work of Lehmann (and if combined with the work of Rich Frank)--the oil gambit succeeded in a global sense. The bulk of Japan's Army remained tied down in China, the second front was not opened against the USSR (recall that the authorities in Tokyo were not sure their subordinates in the Kwantung Army would not use "field initiative"/gekokujo to try another Nomonhan--so a lack of petroleum products, and the commitment of Japan's "hedge forces"--her fleet and naval air force in the south--foreclosed the logistics even if insubordination in Manchuria against the Soviet Far East occurred.
Even the fabulous victories of the first six months, Yamamoto's reputed "running wild"--did not result in more forces for adventures in the North--and the defeat at Changsha also showed that China was far from defeated.

Too bad Al Coox did not live longer to write some more about these matters, eh? vr, John T. Kuehn

'Secondly, after the Great War, the mood in Great Britain included many trends and attitudes, the growing anti-colonial movement (supported in part by the United States' ideological position on this), anti-war attitudes, and foremost economic factors, especially the budget for imperial defense and the Ten Year Rule.

By the late 1930s, many of these factors came home to roost. Following from Shakespeare, Britain's reach exceeded her tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow became more and more hazy and less bright. (see Macbeth) By the summer of 1940 she really had no choice, in order to survive she would have to cede what little agency her own sea power could give her to the United States, the lease part of lend-lease which gave the US its excellent diaspora of oceanic naval bases for the Cold War and that are still mostly in existence today (e.g. Diego Garcia, Bermuda, and Singapore).'
Prof. Kuehn's piece on Great War and 1930s effects upon Britain is pretty much as was taught when in Graduate School. The general point of those lessons were that Britain was so 'used' or 'depleted' from its efforts to win the Great War, sustaining its British Empire was weakened to point where 'exhaustion' more accurately described Britain victory over Imperial Germany in Europe. From that view, WW II just finished off the job of collapsing the Empire, Factor into this the rise of anti-colonialism and Europe's rule over non-Europe countries and peoples, which the US did oppose, you had the political, economic and military mix for what did come next, post 1945. Vietnam in the 50s and 60s were part to that history and its events.