The post–Cold War years thus constituted a revolution foregone. The real mystery, though, is why the post–World War II years passed without intellectual trauma. The world changed around the college radically between 1945 and, say, 1953, when negotiators reached an armistice suspending the first armed East-West clash of the Cold War, and when the Soviet Union detonated its first thermonuclear bomb . The U.S. Navy, moreover, had to beat back a threat to its very existence during those years, as the U.S. Air Force positioned itself at the core of U.S. nuclear strategy—and claimed not just missions but an outsized share of the defense budget.
Death ground, as Sun Tzu calls it, should concentrate minds—except it didn’t, judging from the words of eminent naval officers. Naval War College president Richard Conolly, to name one, took the service to task for emerging from the Pacific War as a corps of superb tacticians and administrators that had utterly lost the art of—indeed, the vocabulary for—debating strategy.
Nor was the navy or the Naval War College bereft of strong leadership. Destroyer-squadron commodore extraordinaire Arleigh Burke rose to the post of CNO, for instance, while the likes of Admiral Ray Spruance led the college. All the ingredients of a revolution—external stimuli coupled with hardheaded leadership—thus appeared to be in place. And yet, it seems, strategic thought remained stagnant. Some combination of complacency, the loss of a focal point for strategy—an enemy around which to structure strategy and forces—and the ambiguous nature of Cold War strategic competition must be at fault.
Where does this all leave us? Doing some comparisons to avoid the pitfalls of the past, I hope. Here’s a parallel, and a nettlesome one: both intellectual revolutions-that-weren’t—post–World War II and post–Cold War—came after the sea services won so big that they deprived themselves of peer rivals. Strategic drift ensued . It took a quarter-century after the Japanese surrender—along with the rise of a globe-spanning Soviet Navy and a debacle in Vietnam—to precipitate the Turner revolution. It’s been a quarter-century since the Cold War, and the fleet has suffered no defeat to furnish a catalyst. Can the navy leadership nurture a revolution through conscious action rather than being driven to it by some visceral trauma?
The challenge before the Naval War College and the U.S. Navy, then, is to answer that question yes. Let’s make Admiral Richardson’s fourth revolution more like the interwar age of girding for the next big thing—and less like the funk following World War II and the Cold War.
W. S. Sims, call your office.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. He filed this from the International Seapower Symposium in Busan, South Korea. The views voiced here are his alone.
Image: Flickr/ U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa