Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain Alfred T. Mahan to Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce

Quogue, N.Y.

August 31st


My dear Admiral:1

          Your letter followed me here and was not received until Monday.2 As regards its suggestion I am of course wholly in accord with the need of some embodiment of the military idea, now lamentably wanting. The most amusing concrete illustration — object lesson — of this condition of affairs is this War Institution {called a Navy Dept was that when it had constituted its War Board, it had absolutely no place to put it; and when I arrived we were under the eaves of the Dept Building in room with one window, which theretofore had been used as a lumber room for books no longer needed for the Library. As the Board was supposed to furnish the Dept with brains for the trivial + secondary purpose of carrying on the operations of the war,}the high eligibility of this pasture for broken down books “turned out to grass” was considerately clear, and the forcing process of a Washington summer and in such conditions upon our mental faculties was evident also. However, war being actually on, and a wholesome fear of the enemy existent, it was conceded that possibly a naval organization existed for some other purpose than to administer, and we recd. regard enough at last to give us two rooms, from the Library.3 The incident, nevertheless aptly shows the place preparations for war occupies in the mind of the Dept; and, after all we must recognize that like Popes and Czars, Secretaries pass away; but the Papacy, + the Czardom, + the Navy Dept remains. It is with an institution, not a person, chiefly, that we have to deal.

I own, I question the utility of my interfering with Mr. Long. A man who values Sicard so highly as to frame the last sentence of that letter, addressed4 — Sicard personally5 — “member” not members — cant value me much; I mean in the particular capacity of the War Board. Sicard is a clear headed man for Bureau work, but very second or third rate for what we had to do — in my judgment; and the Secretary knows this,6 for I told him so several times. Notwithstanding, he goes out of his way, according to this copy of the letter with me here, to laud him beyond fault.7 Long of course knows nothing about these matters himself, being a peace man; but he had the sound sense to see that he was being well served by a number of capable men in this Board + the Bureaus,8 and to allow them scope.

     I do not wholly refuse to do what you suggest,9 but I owe to a certain hopelessness which is not conducive to doing. As far as a Board is concerned, I dont believe in it at all; and less than ever since I served on this. I told the Secy so as soon as I arrived, and objected [to] it more than once. One a man — a Chief and subordinates — is needed; but I fear we cant get him because the service and the Dept dont want him. During my whole time on the Board, historical parallels to our positions were continually occurring to me. How many men in the Navy, do you suppose, know naval history, or think of naval operations, in that way? or how many, if they read this, would fail to call me an egotistic, superannuated ass? Yet unless there can be found in the navy a responsible body of opinion to recognize that war should be defended that way, I doubt sir how any demand for a General Staff is to arise, beyond a mere desire to get the better of this Staff by a side - wind. But such a notion will effect nothing.

     I believe that a series of articles for a magazine I am just beginning will afford a better lever to turn  public opinion, + naval opinion than a letter to the Secy.10 The instant a man leaves the room, or a letter is pigeon holed it is forgotten. The last thing the Board did — I wrote the letter — was to implore the Dept to get the battle-ships at once in first class order, and to have no parades + celebrations + traveling from port to port. When we left the dispositions seemed excellent, but to day I see the Massachusetts is going to Boston, + I suppose soon to Newport &c.11

     The navy — in my opinion — wants to stop grubbing in machine shops, and to get up somewhere where it can take a bird’s eye view of military truths, + see them in their relations + proportions. I dont believe this can be done by letters to a Secy; certainly not to one who sees in the President of the War Board a grand war horse. If I believed it would do good, I would feel bound to write; but I have written + talked and stormed for three months before the Board, the Secy, + the President, and I feel now very much like the teacher who after laborious explanations, receiving from one of his boys one of those answers we see in the funny columns of a newspaper.12

Sincerely Yours,

A. T. Mahan

Source Note: ALS, DLC-MSS, Papers of Stephen B. Luce, roll 9. Handwritten on top left-hand corner: “Confidential.”

Footnote 1: Mahan had an immense amount of respect for, and owed his writing career to, RAdm. Stephen B. Luce. Seager, Alfred T. Mahan, 209.

Footnote 2: For this letter, see: Luce to Mahan, 25 August 1898. Monday was 29 August.

Footnote 3: The Naval War Board met in the Navy Library located in the State, Army, and Navy Building.

Footnote 4: These lines were diagonally crossed out.

Footnote 5: RAdm. Montgomery Sicard, the president of the Naval War Board. Besides, Capt. Mahan, the other member was RAdm. Arent S. Crowninshield.

Footnote 6: Secretary of the Navy John D. Long.

Footnote 8: Long had no background in naval matters and relied heavily on the chiefs of the bureaus and other personnel. The Bureaus at this time were: Yards and Docks, Equipment, Navigation, Ordnance, Construction and Repair, Steam Engineering, Supplies and Accounts, Medicine and Surgery, and the Office of the Judge-Advocate General.

Footnote 9: Capt. Mahan is referring to RAdm. Luce’s suggestion of a permanent board, or at the very least, a group of advisers. See: Luce to Mahan, 25 August 1898.

Footnote 10: Capt. Mahan published a series of articles in 1898. They were eventually incorporated into the book Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1899).

Footnote 11: After the cessation of hostilities American ships held reviews in several port cities.

Footnote 12: There is evidence of a stormy relationship between the members of the Naval War Board. See Seager, Alfred T. Mahan, 369-70, 385-86, 387.

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