America’s First General Staff

America’s First General Staff

A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900–1950

John T. Kuehn

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 320 pages

Book Review published on: March 23, 2018

In America’s First General Staff, Professor John T. Kuehn has written an outstanding monograph on a little-known organization that had enormous influence in shaping the U.S. Navy to fight during the two world wars. He persuasively argues that the General Board of the Navy began as a “stealth general staff” and ended as a panel of elder statesmen in a “senior-officer think tank.” In the course of his narrative, he trenchantly describes the conflicting demands that have shaped American military policy and organization.

Kuehn begins with post-civil war naval reforms and professionalization, particularly the creation of the Naval War College and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Under Alfred Thayer Mahan, the War College gave naval officers a greater strategic perspective, while the ONI kept them informed on increasingly rapid technological developments of modern navies. In the nineteenth century, one of the key differences between the Army and the Navy was the greater relative power of the secretary of the Navy over operational and administrative matters. Naval commanders had a higher degree of autonomy over their deployed ships and squadrons, but the secretary via the staff bureaus had control over the size and character of the ships and squadrons. In the 1890s, Navy and Army reformers pressed for a general staff similar to the German General Staff. In order to increase their independence, the staff bureaus sided with the secretaries in rejecting an authoritative general staff.

The Spanish-American War revealed the strategic, operational, and organizational shortcomings of the Department of the Navy. Rather than create a general staff of military professionals to direct operations and strategy, Navy Secretary John D. Long created a panel to advise him on such matters. By secretarial directive on 13 March 1900, Long created the General Board headed by Admiral of the Navy George Dewey. With Dewey as president of the board, it had influence but limited authority, which is the way the civilian leaders wanted it. Tapping the resources of the War College and ONI, the board produced many highly incisive studies on naval threats, emerging technology, ship and fleet design, and especially logistics.

As the size and complexity of day-to-day naval operations increased, later secretaries also created a system of senior “aides” to assist them on operational matters. In wartime, however, civilian authorities turn to military experts to not simply advise but to make many complex technical and operational decisions. The demands of World War I transformed the aide system into the chief of naval operations (CNO) and his staff, giving them greater independent authority. The demands of war also resulted in the CNO gaining increased authority over the administration of the bureaus. Consequently, the role and influence of the advisors of the General Board diminished. World War I resulted in the creation of real general staffs in the Navy and the Army. These general staffs not only coordinated the administrative bureaus and controlled operational activities but also assumed many strategic planning functions. Nevertheless, the end of the war prompted naval secretaries to turn to the General Board as a source of independent advice.

During the interwar years, which the author covers in detail in his earlier book, Agents of Innovation, the General Board continued its studies on naval strategy and on fleet, ship, and weapons design, but it proved invaluable in analyzing and synthesizing naval policy in light of the various naval treaties that limited the size and character of great power navies. It was also an invaluable forum for the exploration and integration of the many technological developments, especially airpower, submarine and antisubmarine warfare, base building, and logistics. Kuehn appropriately describes the General Board as men who solved problems, and his account of how they went about solving the strategic, technical, diplomatic, and budgetary problems of War Plan Orange in the 1930s is a highlight of the book. Of particular note is the account of bomber evangelist Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell’s testimony before the board. Kuehn argues that the polite response of the members deceived Mitchell into thinking they agreed with him, when that was clearly not the case.

With the advent of World War II, advisors once again lost status to decision-makers as the small group of planners were displaced by the massive operational staffs necessary to fight a global war. After the war, the secretary of the Navy yet again attempted to revive the General Board as an independent policy formulation body and a counterweight to the CNO, but this was not to be. The creation of large staffs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the new secretary of defense assumed many of the board’s functions and, just as important, many of the senior officer billets. Kuehn’s shrewd analysis of the “revolt of the admirals” reveals that the Navy, now in competition for the future with the Air Force, could not afford independent or divided counsel. Thus, the General Board, as a “remnant of a bygone era,” disappeared in 1950.

Kuehn’s account of the General Board vividly depicts how American military organization has been shaped by the interaction of several dichotomies: civil and military authority, command and administration, plans and operations, decision-makers and advisors, and, finally, specialists and integrators. It is with this last element that the board and the author make their greatest contributions. Kuehn describes the board as the “balance-wheel,” or nexus, for “coherent strategy and fleet design.” They were not narrow specialists, but men of experience and imagination who could balance or integrate complex strategic, technical, diplomatic, and budgetary problems. Nor were they detached graybeards; the members continuously rotated from the fleet to the board and back. Finally, they were respectful of other opinions.

The General Board may be history, but the need for thoughtful, diversely experienced, creative, and respectful minds to aid decision-makers in navigating complex national security problems remains. America’s First General Staff offers an excellent example of what a small group of talented and dedicated professionals can do.

Book Review written by: Donald B. Connelly, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas