The U.S. Navy turns 243 years-old tomorrow. On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress commissioned two ships, each with eighty sailors, “for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies.” The foe at the time was Great Britain, whose navy ruled the seas. By the end of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy had grown to about fifty ships. In 1789, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the navy’s future by granting Congress the power “To provide and maintain a navy.”
George Washington once said that “as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive—and with it, everything honorable and glorious.” Those words are even more appropriate in the twenty-first century when U.S. interests span the globe. To serve and protect those interests the U.S. Navy today has 286 deployable ships, more than 3,700 operational aircraft, 328,267 active duty personnel, 98,748 reserve personnel, and more than 210,000 civilian employees.
John F. Kennedy was the first navy veteran to be elected president. But five of the next six presidents also served in the navy: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Well-known navy veterans include baseball hall-of-famers Yogi Berra and Stan Musial, basketball hall-of-famers David Robinson and John Wooden, football hall-of-famer Roger Staubach, former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, actor Humphrey Bogart, and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
I asked Captain Kevin M. Brand, a naval officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, what reading he would recommend for those wanting to learn more about the navy and its history. Here are his suggestions:
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890). This selection should come as no surprise since this highly accessible book gave birth to modern navies. Mahan, a U.S. Navy officer serving from 1859-1896, is perhaps the preeminent naval historian and strategist. He argued that, despite advances in modern technology, certain naval principles are constant. Mahan’s work was quickly consumed by the major powers of the time.
Sir Julian Corbett, Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911). Corbett was a British naval historian that viewed the sea like any other battlefield, where solid communication lines and a focus on outsmarting the enemy were imperative. He also argued that naval strategy must be incorporated into a larger national strategy. Unlike The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Corbett’s book is a bit more technical for those not well versed in maritime vocabulary.
Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U. S. Navy (2006). In 1794, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates: the USS Constitution, USS Chesapeake, USS Constellation, USS President, USS United States, and USS Congress. Toll traces the story of the navy back to the founding fathers and sheds light on their foresight about the important role America’s navy would play.
James D. Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (2003). The Battle of Samar took place off the coast of the Philippines on October 25, 1944. It was a battle where the U.S. Navy was far outnumbered by Japanese ships and one in which the Americans were sure to be defeated. But they weren’t. Hornsficher tells the story of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, whose crew beats the odds in one of the most riveting naval encounters of World War II.
James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (2011). The Battle of Guadalcanal, fought between August 1943 and February 1944, is perhaps one of the most famous military campaigns of World War II’s Pacific theater. However, most histories of the campaign focus on the Marines. In this book, Hornfischer sheds light on the role the U.S. Navy played in the campaign, highlighting the stories of those who manned the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers based off the coast.
Richard H. O’Kane, Clear the Bridge! The War Patrols of the USS Tang (1977). The USS Tang was a submarine that sank thirty-three ships during World War II. O’Kane was the ship’s commander and received the Medal of Honor for his service onboard the ship. Clear the Bridge is a gripping, first-hand account of submarine warfare during World War II.
Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea (1951). This novel tells the story of two British ships and their skirmishes with German U-boats in the North Atlantic during World War II. Monsarrat is said to have based the book on his own wartime experiences. The fictional characters shed light on the truthful hardships faced at sea during wartime.
James M. Ennes Jr., Assault on the Liberty (1979). Ennes was a U.S. naval officer onboard the USS Liberty in June 1967 when the Israel Air Force and Navy attacked the vessel in international waters during the Six Day War. Thirty-four U.S. sailors were killed.
Doug Stanton, In Harm’s War: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors (2001). A Japanese torpedo struck and sunk the USS Indianapolis on June 30, 1945 shortly after it delivered parts used to assemble Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Three hundred crewman died when the ship sank, while another nine hundred were left to the shark-infested waters with few lifeboats and almost no food or water to await rescue. When help finally came four days later, only 317 sailors were still alive. Stanton tells the story of the greatest single loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy from the sinking of a single ship through the narratives of the survivors.
Admiral James Stavridis, Seapower: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (2017). When we think of history, we often focus on the events that occurred on land. But human history has been shaped just as much by the geography of oceans and mankind’s encounters on them. Admiral Stavridis, the only admiral to serve as the supreme allied commander of NATO, takes readers onto the captain’s bridge for a lesson in seapower they will never forget.
Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October (1984). This book introduced the world to the fictional character of Jack Ryan. Red October is a Soviet nuclear submarine that is defecting to the West. Jack Ryan finds himself between two superpowers and the risk of nuclear confrontation.
P.W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (2015). This fictional tale of a twenty-first century world war imagines what a global conflict would look like with today’s technology. General Robert Neller, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said “It’s exciting, but it’s terrifying at the same time.”
Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander (1969). This novel is the first in a twenty-book series set during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a story about Jack Aubrey, the master and commander of the HM Sophie, and Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon. Aubrey is adventurous and daring as he and his crew sail and battle in the Mediterranean.
If that’s not enough naval information for you, you can learn more about the U.S. Navy online through the U.S. Naval Institute website.
Corey Cooper assisted in the preparation of this post.