The Navy

by Michael A. Palmer

Used by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Macmillan from Encyclopedia of the American Military, John E. Jessup, Editor in Chief. Vol. I, pp. 365-380. Copyright c 1994, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. [The views expressed in this history are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy or the U.S. government.]

The United States is a nation with a long maritime heritage. Until the advent of air travel in the mid-twentieth century, all Americans of European, African, and Asian ancestry came to North America by ship. For colonial America, the North Atlantic was the umbilical cord that connected the colonies to the mother country, Great Britain. Once Americans broke their political ties with Great Britain, the Atlantic became a new frontier, such as those in the North, West, and South, that offered the opportunity for expansion and potential avenues for a foreign invader.

Not surprisingly, Americans early on chose to establish a navy; in fact, they did so nine months before they declared themselves politically independent. To Americans, a navy was a symbol of their sovereignty, their national maturity, and their determination to fight for control of their seaboard frontier. Throughout its history, the United States has had a navy for all but nine years. While historically there has been a broad consensus in the country to support a navy, the type and size of the naval service the nation required has often been the subject of contention. As early as 1775, Americans debated what have come to be termed "roles and missions." What role was a navy to play within a national scheme of defense? What missions would naval forces be called upon to conduct in support of American interests?

Some comprehension of the changing nature of American national security policy since 1775 is necessary to understand the roles and missions assigned the U.S. Navy over the course of two centuries. Samuel P. Huntington, writing in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1954, suggested that the history of the nation's defense policy could best be divided into three periods. Huntington identified the continental period, beginning in 1775 and lasting until the 1890s, as an era during which threats to American national security were narrowly defined and either originated or were dealt with in North America. A navy, accordingly, played a secondary role in national defense. The oceanic period began in the 1890s and lasted until 1945. Americans defined their national interests in somewhat broader terms and chose to prevent would-be threats from reaching the continental United States, or even the Western Hemisphere. As the nation began to draw its national security horizons in the mid- Pacific and western Atlantic, the U.S. Navy found itself playing a preeminent role, becoming the nation's first line of defense.

Since 1945 the United States has defined its national interests even more broadly and attempted to head off or confront threats to those interests along the periphery of the Eurasian landmass. Throughout this post-World War II transoceanic period, the U.S. Navy, frequently as part of an integrated, multiservice team, has been assigned missions that involved the projection of naval power ashore by means of aviation, amphibious, and missile -- cruise and ballistic-- assets.


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