America’s First General Staff

July 30, 2018
Posted by: Philip Towle

AMERICA’S FIRST GENERAL STAFF:
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GENERAL BOARD OF THE NAVY 1900-1950
by John T. Kuehn

The beginning of the 20th Century saw all the great powers making their armed forces more professional and better informed about their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was established in London, the European powers sent dozens of serving officers to observe the war between Russia and Japan in 1904-5 and the War Office and Admiralty produced several official histories of that war and a collection of the army officers’ reports. A pioneering aspect of this general movement was the decisions by the US Navy to set up a General Board in 1900 to plan how its ships should be designed and used in the event of conflict.
John Kuehn from the Army’s Command and Staff College traces the rise to prominence of this board, its relegation to the margins of power in the Second World War and its eventual demise in 1950 as other institutions replaced it, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Even at the start of the First World War there were already some who wanted the General Board superseded by a wider committee including the Secretaries of War and Navy, senior army officers and other politicians on the lines of the CID and the eventual US National Security Council. However at that time the Board’s supporters wanted to keep it a specifically naval and professional organisation.
The administration’s main problem in 1914-15 was to build a Navy for all eventualities without provoking the anger of the pacifists and supporters of rigid neutrality. The Board played a major part in navigating the course taken and its support for policy was used by the administration as public justification for this course. When the US declared war, the author shows how surprised it was to learn of the effectiveness of Germany’s submarine campaign against British shipping, and how effectively London had managed to hide this. Immediately after the war the Board was involved in the arguments with ‘Billy’ Mitchell over the vulnerability of capital ships to air attack and later it came into its own as the repository of knowledge and advice to successive administrations on the provisions of the naval limitation treaties. However in the Second World War it became something of a backwater for retired admirals and disappeared later as the pressures for the unification of the various Services under a single ‘Department of Defense’ became inexorable.
On this side of the Atlantic Dr Kuehn’s book will appeal most to those interested in bureaucratic politics or in the detailed history of US decision-making but it is also illuminating on the way the US Navy regarded other navies, and on the history of the inter-war period naval treaties.

Philip Towle