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Mastering the Art of Command: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Victory in the Pacific & Nimitz at War: Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay

12 Apr 24

(Mastering the Art of Command was previously reviewed by Prof Geoffrey Till, and was Book of the Quarter, in Vol. 111, No. 3, Summer 2023, pp. 132-133)

Dr Joseph Moretz, FRHistS

Admiral Chester Nimitz’s reputation stood high in 1945 and the intervening years have done little to tarnish his image as a bold, effective leader who successfully resurrected the US Pacific Fleet’s fortunes following the debacle of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to deliver the greatest of naval victories in the ensuing war. Narratives of the Pacific War are legion and necessarily discuss the role of Nimitz at critical moments. Exactly how Nimitz performed as a theatre and fleet commander is a more specialised subject that has lacked a full telling to date. Thus, the entry of two works surveying that question at the same proximate moment is both welcomed and useful as it allows countervailing perspectives to be applied.

Neither Trent Hone’s Mastering the Art of Command nor Craig Symonds’ Nimitz at War is a biography in the true sense, though aspects of the admiral’s life feature in the telling of both accounts. Instead, both focus on the period of Nimitz’s tenure as Pacific Fleet commander. Though approaching the subject from different lenses, both Hone and Symonds conclude that Nimitz was a highly effective commander of an eventually highly effective organisation. Thus, their conclusions do not offer a corrective to our received wisdom so much as to cast fresh light on the correctness of the prevailing assessment of Nimitz.

To this venue, the bona fides of the authors are well-established with both having previously written acclaimed works on the US Navy. Now, both offer academically sound works anchored in official and personal primary sources and relevant secondary literature. Hone’s approach to accessing Nimitz the leader is via contemporary business systems and organisational analysis, while Symonds follows a more historical and humanist approach. In that sense, both works complement each other. It would be invidious to say one work was better than the other, though this reviewer does retain a clear favourite given his own inclinations. Both works capture the essential Nimitz. If criticism is offered, then two points arise. Firstly, both writers might have weighed Nimitz more directly as a component and theatre commander against his contemporaries. Secondly, any discussion of the Navy in the Second World War invariably must assess the role, influence, and centrality of Admiral Ernest King, the Commander-in-Chief Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations. Like the proverbial bad penny, Admiral King features regularly in both works. How could he not be given the numerous parleys—16 in total—held between the two throughout the war? This does not mean Nimitz was reduced to the level of middle management, but rendering Nimitz his due necessarily operates at the expense of King.

Nimitz, of course, assumed command when Pacific Fleet fortunes were at their nadir in December 1941. Here, chance played its part as the position of Pacific Fleet commander had been first offered to him a year earlier with Nimitz declining the appointment then. In his place, Admiral Husband Kimmel assumed the mantle of command and the censure that followed. Now plucked from the Bureau of Navigation, it is safe to say King was not a strong supporter of Nimitz initially. Still, Nimitz grew with the job and proved himself a sound and capable hand who faced his challenges with a degree of stoicism and bon homie. He would need those qualities in abundance in the weeks, months and years ahead as he faced a tenacious and resourceful enemy while dealing with a cast of inferior officers who, if largely capable, were also difficult team players at best. Of these, the Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith and Admiral William Halsey were at the fore. That commanders—even subordinate ones—should exhibit a measure of requisite tact and demonstrate professional competence is a given. Regrettably, some failed to measure up even if they remained in command. Of course, it is the nature of command that strong personalities will dominate and come to the fore. Nimitz, however, proved that rare breed—a strong and quiet personality who achieved his results absent brash publicity and affectations of style. If not cerebral himself, it was a quality he prized in others including Admiral Raymond Spruance. Spruance too was a ‘quiet warrior’ and unsurprisingly the two were firm friends.

Doubtlessly, the recovery of the Pacific Fleet and the subsequent successful drive through the Central Pacific owed something to Nimitz. Yet, the problem when weighing a subordinate official, even one as significant as Nimitz, is assessing their record against the war’s broader context and participants. For every Coral Sea stood the loss of the Indianapolis, for every Midway, the bitter defeat of a Savo Island. Significantly, neither author raises these missteps in adjudicating the performance of Nimitz as a fleet commander, focusing instead on the performance of those immediately involved in the disaster that was the battle of Savo Island. Even the victory that was Leyte Gulf was marred by poor decision-making abetted by poorly drafted orders governing the actions of Halsey. Thus, for all the material and tactical progress evidenced by the US Navy, proper staff work remained a particular bugbear late into the war within the Pacific Fleet.

A submariner by specialisation, Hone notes an early move by Nimitz was to move the submarine type command directly under his purview thus being “able to give the submarine force personal attention and maximize its potential”. That is a reasonable conclusion to draw though it suggests Nimitz must also then share some of the blame for that arm’s initial poor performance. Rigorous operational analysis within the Pacific Fleet staff and early forceful intervention at the command level should have corrected matters sooner. That this did not occur suggests a serious shortcoming.

Nimitz never commanded his realm from a flagship choosing instead to command from ashore, first, from Pearl Harbor, and, latterly, from Guam. This is the norm today where communications links are more robust and intelligence fusion transpires, but it marked a historical diversion. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham split his time in command of the British Mediterranean Fleet both ashore and afloat during some of the most significant naval actions of the war. Both authors might have said more about the evolving nature of naval command and the corresponding implications of that change in establishing the strategic conditions for operational success. Moreover, Hone’s assessment that Nimitz led his fleet in battle is too strong. More correctly, he led his fleet to battle with others then fighting the plan Nimitz had constructed.

The creation of an Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff and the division of the globe into specified theatres of responsibility was a feature not anticipated before the onset of the war. Even within American circles, clear differences of opinion existed on the nature and scope of inter-service command. Both works discuss the problems that arose in these arrangements as events progressed with one gaining the sense Nimitz was at pains to make matters work notwithstanding the egos of General Douglas MacArthur or Admiral King. In this, he was highly successful, though this reviewer questions the exact legal standing Nimitz enjoyed and assumed by Symonds as an allied and joint commander.

Midway, though, must stand as Nimitz’s greatest triumph and the embodiment of ‘calculated risk’. Though intelligence was key, luck played its part too. Still, good admirals create the conditions for good luck to prevail and Nimitz ensured that intelligence, fuel, and forces were on hand to exploit the opportunity provided. Intelligence also proved key in the ambush of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku. Nimitz made the decision and was vindicated in the outcome, though whether the decision was rightly his to make in view of the broader aspects of the problem might have been addressed more fully by both.

During his tenure, Nimitz suffered indifferent health to the point multiple hospitalisations were required. Additionally, he enjoyed at best a lukewarm relationship with James Forrestal when the latter became first Secretary of the Navy and then Secretary of Defense. Though both works focus on Nimitz as a wartime commander, it would have been interesting to have learned the authors’ views on these factors as determinants during the admiral’s period as Chief of Naval Operations.

Symonds’ conclusion is surely correct that “Nimitz’s greatness lay less in his ability to do great things than in his facility to convince others that they could do great things”. He created the atmosphere and allocated his forces to achieve the ends desired. Hone essentially agrees and stresses the cooperative, deliberative and flexible approach that allowed the Pacific Fleet to apply speed and manoeuvre to best the Japanese. Both authors are to be commended for their approach, their research, and the balance assessments rendered. Both works are therefore highly recommended. Nimitz’s reputation stood high before the verdicts of Hone and Symonds and both authors have clearly established the reasons why, the admiral’s reputation as a naval—and yes—interservice leader remains secure.