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Sunday Book Review: America’s First General Staff


Historian John Kuehn has written a new book on the US Navy’s General Board, America’s First General Staff. The Board came into existence in 1901, after the Spanish-American War had exposed problems in USN planning and procurement.  The Board remained in existence until 1950, in somewhat variable configuration, and was responsible for developing a strategy to manage some of the biggest challenges that the Navy has ever faced.  America’s First General Staff is the first one volume treatment of the Board and its impact on the development of the 20th century USN.

The Naval General Board

In the 19th century the Navy was dominated by system that concentrated power in the hands of influential, sometimes competitive technical bureaus.  Elements of this system persisted deep into the 20th century (finally being reformed away in the 1960s), but in the wake of the Spanish-American War it was clear that the US Navy needed some body capable of conducting long-range institutional planning. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Navy effectively had a writ from the US government to build a world-class Navy. Despite a long maritime history, the USN had not developed the institutions necessary for the careful planning of a new fleet.

The late 19th century was one of the most exciting and innovative period in the history of American naval thinking, with the establishment of the Naval War College and the publication of the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan.  The USN started off behind many European continental navies in terms of resources and technology, but interest in the Pacific helped drive innovation and funding. A core of sophisticated thinkers developed at the NWC, fulfilling some of the roles that a general staff (a long range, peacetime military planning organization on the Prussian style), but the General Board itself did not come into existence until 1900.  When the Board was finally was authorized, its founders were well aware of the foreign precedents, as were many of its critics.

A key strategy for making the Board influential (and survivable) was the inclusion of Admiral George Dewey, hero of Manila Bay, as its head. This immediately offered the Board a degree of power and prestige on both the military and civilian side, although some other senior personnel were more important in shaping the Board’s output.  The Board faced immense challenges in its first two decades.  These included the final days of the transition from sail to steam; the advent of the dreadnought, and then the aircraft carrier; the change from coal to oil propulsion; and perhaps greatest, the shift in US strategic horizons from continental defense to imperial policing and protection. At the time, the USN expected that ships would remain in service for decades and that new construction would not necessarily be available in crisis situations, and thus procurement strategies required careful, long-range planning for balancing innovation, combat readiness, and construction. The General Board also facilitated improvement in operational planning, or the allocation of specific warships to specific tasks in context of a large-scale movement of formations.

The General Board played an extremely important role in US deliberations over the Washington system of naval treaties. Developing a response to the international interest in naval arms limitation required careful planning at various stages of the process. The Board helped inform US negotiating strategy, thinking through expectations about what fleet design could look like under alternative rules, then advising negotiators on how to pursue US advantage.  After the first treaty was concluded a long-range planning office was obviously needed, as the USN had to approach construction carefully given economic, political, and legal requirements. The General Board fully expected that the USN would build to its limits (the overwhelming economic strength of the US was an important consideration), and that the US would be able to use its relative strength as an advantage in the next negotiating sessions.  As it happened, Congress was less enthusiastic about naval construction, and the US lagged behind (at least with respect to its own ceiling).

The influence of the Board waned in the 1930s, only  to return to prominence on the eve of war.  The Board helped manage the expansion of naval construction, and prepare for operations in both the ETO and the PTO.  The Board also served as a place to think about the next revolutions in naval technology in the late 1940s.  But changes wrought by the 1947 National Security Act, in combination with the failures of the Revolt of the Admirals in 1949, fatally reduced the Board’s influence.  It met for the last time on November 6, 1950, and was officially dissolved in January 1951.

The General Board in Perspective

Kuehn makes the argument that the General Board represented a compromise between civilians (wary of a real general staff on the Prussian model) and naval personnel (many of whom sought a fully empowered general staff that could conduct long-range planning).  Despite the constraints on its influence, Kuehn argues that the Board was immensely influential in the Navy’s ability to prepare for and conduct operations in both World Wars. Kuehn helpfully frames the General Board within broader thinking about social and bureaucratic progress in the first half of the 20th century.  It represented a big “P” Progressive faith in science, technology, and careful bureaucratic planning.  The USN, like many other American institutions of the time, held strong beliefs regarding the strength and innovativeness of US economy and society, and framed its thinking in these terms.

Kuehn’s prose is strong; he’s able to offer a clear understanding of the place of Dewey in the naval firmament around the turn of the century, and also gives strong characterizations of some of the more pivotal personalities on the board. Kuehn also has what amounts to a historian’s ear for dialogue.  His account of the Naval Board’s meeting with Brigadier General William Mitchell would make for good dinner theater.  The Naval Board politely listened to Billy Mitchell rant at them in April 1919, responding to each outlandish claim with equanimity and (presumably) feigned curiosity.

The starting point for the discussion was the Navy’s acquisition of a number of Sopwith aircraft for training and to test out some concepts.  Mitchell’s first words were confrontational: “My opinion in regard to the employmen of an air service, as a general proposition, is to get what material the people who are using it desire for their work.  The airplanes mentioned will be shot down as fast as they go up against an enemy.”  When Winterhalter stressed that the planes were simply for training, Mitchell remained adamant, firing back “We should shoot [them] down immediately.”

It gets better, believe it or not. There are plenty of other nuggets for those with an interest in interwar military history.


Given the nature of the claim “America’s First General Staff,” it would have been helpful if Kuehn had offered more detail with respect to both of these; what specifically constitutes a General Staff, and why the Naval Board was the first of these in American history. Regarding the former, while Kuehn discusses the immediate antecedents to the General Board within the Naval War College, he perhaps could have compared it to some of the institutions that from time-to-time managed future planning in the US Army, such that they were. Regarding the latter, non-specialists could have used a bit more discussion, at least, of why the United States has historically shied away from the development of general staffs, even as some in the military have continued to display a strong interest in the development of such institutions.  The United States currently has a Joint Staff that fulfills many of the functions of a general staff, although the broad approach to institutional inclusion has benefits and drawbacks.

It would also have been nice if we had more detail on how the Naval Board had ceased to be. Kuehn’s account trails off as interest within the Navy in the General Board wanes, likely as a result of the changes that came in 1947. How did succeeding institutions manage the problems that the General Board was designed to solve? Kuehn spends a lot of time on the founding of the General Board, which was surely consequential, but not so much on its end, and (perhaps more importantly) on why this end was so inconsequential.

But this is an outstanding work, worth the time of both naval enthusiasts and people with an interest in the history and development of the modern administrative state.  Regarding the latter, it provides grist for some very interesting thinking on how bureaucratic innovations spread across the international system; although Kuehn doesn’t linger on the point, he does discuss the influence of the Prussian example on American thinkers. For a good podcast on Kuehn’s book, see here at Midrats.

USS Delaware (BB-28) - NH 61870.jpg
USS Delaware (BB-28) on trials. By N. L. Stebbins – Public Domain.


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