The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy

Article excerpt

There is an ever-present human tendency to think that all that went before is irrelevant and useless, especially in an era of transformation and change. Navies are particularly susceptible to this tendency since, in contrast to officers in other branches of service, naval officers, by and large, have tended to ignore the value of and advantages to be found in historical insight.

This negative attitude toward history within the Navy has its roots in the prevailing naval culture; it is shared widely among navies that have developed within the Anglo-American tradition. A dispassionate look at the patterns and process of innovation in the past, however, reminds us that such tendencies are to be determinedly guarded against. Maritime history is a central part of an understanding of the heritage and tradition of navies, but its value lies in more than heritage alone. Knowing what actually happened in the past is central to understanding the nature and character of naval power. It assists in knowing the limits to the usefulness of naval power as well as in understanding where we are today in the development and progression of the art of naval warfare. As every navigator understands, it is critical to know where we are and what external forces affected us on the way there if we are to lay the best course toward where we want to be.1

These judgments have once again been reaffirmed in the most recent study of the uses of history by, for, and in the American navy. In 2000 on the recommendation of the secretary of the Navy's Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History, Secretary Richard Danzig commissioned an independent evaluation of the Navy's historical programs. This report, completed in October 2000, concluded that the U.S. Navy "has failed to use the rich historical information available to it in order to manage or apply effectively those resources for internal or external purposes."2 Moreover, "while history survives in isolated pockets the use of naval heritage history is disjointed, sporadic, inconsistent, and occasionally contradictory. Without a clear service-wide mission, history in the Navy has itself become an artifact, delivering traditional products for use in a Navy seeking other types of information." Subsequent meetings in 2000 and 2002-where representatives of the perceived stakeholders of naval history throughout the Navy and supporters of naval history outside the service joined in the discussions-reviewed early drafts for a proposed strategy and a five-year plan for implementing it.

Nonetheless, despite these initiatives, at the beginning of 2003 the Navy still lacks an integrated policy for employing naval history. The recommendations and requests of Dr. David A. Rosenberg, the chairman of the secretary of the Navy's Advisory Subcommittee on Naval History, for a strong and detailed policy statement, establishment of requirements, and the directives necessary to reverse the current trend have not yet been answered.

If this situation is to be rectified, the U.S. Navy's senior leadership needs to establish clear policy guidance. The establishment at Newport of the Maritime History Department this year is but one of the first steps to be taken throughout the Navy if we are to reap the rewards from the integration of history, its lessons and its cautions, into all aspects of contemporary naval thinking, doctrine, planning, and education.


The stakeholders and supporters of naval history within the U.S. Navy are few. It has been left largely to civilian specialists at the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard and the handful of academics and administrators in the Navy's twelve museums, at the Naval Academy, and the Naval War College. Naval history finds much more support outside the service, as can easily be seen in the keen interest in popular novels, films, and television programs with historical themes. A number of private organizations in the United States promote naval history and heritage, including the Naval Historical Foundation and the U. …