America’s First General Staff (Book Review)

By Randy Papadopoulos Joint Force Quarterly 89

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America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950
By John T. Kuehn
U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2017
$34.95 320 pp.
ISBN: 978-1682471913

Reviewed by Randy Papadopoulos
Dr. Randy Papadopoulos serves as the Secretary of the Navy Historian at the Department of the Navy.
America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950
America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950
America’s First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 180413-D-BD104-003

This trim book explains the full course of the U.S. Navy’s General Board, its institutional forum for innovation, during the period from 1900 to 1950. To remedy challenges identified during the Spanish-American War, Navy Secretary John D. Long established the board as an experiment. The Secretary realized he needed military advice, so he chose a mix of up-and-coming Navy officers, the head of the Bureau of Navigation that managed careers, and one Marine officer, all led by the redoubtable Admiral George Dewey, to offer it. From the outset, the General Board strove to coherently align what we today term strategy, campaign plans, force structure, personnel, and ship design.

The author of this institutional history, John Kuehn, is a former naval aviator who earned his doctorate while teaching at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. America’s First General Staff is an offshoot of his dissertation-turned-book, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008). The consistency between that book and this more comprehensive one lies in Kuehn’s conviction that military problem-solving is best revealed by understanding the decisionmaker’s options and constraints.

In the case of naval strategy and fleet designs, the constraints are many. Innovation is not easy, and the Armed Forces must design ships, procure equipment, create doctrine, and plan wars with degrees of uncertainty. Civilian leaders can swiftly change the context, while navies are long-term investments with ships lasting up to 30 years, causing rivalries for ship design authority. In America’s First General Staff, readers learn what happened when a 1921 Service secretary openly proposed bold international cuts to a principal weapon system (battleships) to save money, and subsequently agreed by treaty not to improve bases. That second point robbed the U.S. fleet of vital infrastructure needed for a protracted Pacific war. Only an organization that could assess threats, recommend investments, and provide top-level sponsorship for change could respond to such complexity, and Kuehn persuasively demonstrates how the Navy’s General Board provided that vision and ultimately shaped innovation across the fleet.

According to the author, the General Board grappled sequentially with changing technology, World War I’s evolving lessons, post-1922 treaty limits to construction, the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War. Throughout the pre-1941 period, the board sponsored studies, recorded testimony from witnesses (a reason historians appreciate it), and weighed the choices to be made. Its answers meant some ideas wound up discarded, as in fending off a single aviation service in 1925 before any procurement changes or realignment of careers took place.

The book uses the records of the General Board, backed by a large helping of related literature. The only book missing is Dirk Bönker’s Militarism in a Global Age: Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States Before World War I (Cornell University Press, 2012). Authors need not cite every book related to their work, but since Kuehn centers his argument on the Navy’s desire to create a Prussian-style “Great General Staff,” Bönker’s explicit comparison would have helped make his case.

Was the General Board “America’s first general staff”? As a measure of the board’s value, on one occasion President Herbert Hoover chaired a daylong meeting with the Secretaries of the Navy and State in attendance. The specific 1929 issue was negotiating cruiser limits with Great Britain. For the General Board to serve as the arms control forum, while writing war plans with the help of Newport, speaks to its central place as the Navy’s strategy organ. There was nothing equivalent anywhere else in the U.S. Government of its day.

In sum, America’s First General Staff explains how the U.S. Navy’s leadership grappled with rapid pre-1950 change. Through this work, Professor Kuehn provides a collective intellectual biography of the Navy’s leadership for the period. Among those leaders, pride of place must go to Rear Admiral Henry C. Taylor, who set up General Board practices before his death in 1904. Only more than 40 years later, when it faced the changed context of the Cold War, a new Department of Defense, and a bureaucratically stronger Navy staff, did its role lose importance. That it took such a long time and an array of altered circumstances to negate the General Board’s influence is a testament to the value it offered. JFQ