Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II

Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II

Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II

Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II

Synopsis

Rehearsing and transforming combat

Between the First and the Second World War, the U.S. Navy used the experience it had gained in battle to prepare for future wars through simulated conflicts, or war games, at the Naval War College. In Playing War John M. Lillard analyzes individual war games in detail, showing how players tested new tactics and doctrines, experimented with advanced technology, and transformed its approaches through the sewar games, learning lessons that would prepare them to make critical decisions in the years to come.
Recent histories of the interwar period explore how the U.S. Navy digested the impacts of World War I and prepared itself for World War II. However, most of these works overlook or dismiss the transformational quality of the War College war games and the central role they played in preparing the navy for war. To address that gap, Playing War details how the interwar navy projected itself into the future through simulated conflicts. Playing War recasts the reputation of the interwar Naval War College as an agent of preparation and innovation and the war games as the instruments of that agency.

Excerpt

In October of 1960, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz delivered a speech to the staff and students of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, on how the “wargames” conducted at the War College during the 1920s and 1930s contributed to American tactical and strategic successes during the last two years of World War ii in the Pacific theater. in his speech Nimitz, recalled by former director of naval history Earnest MacNeill Eller as the “principal architect of the American victory in the Pacific,” asserted that “the war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms [at the Naval War College] by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise—absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war.” This quote eventually became ubiquitous in histories, testimonials, and analyses of wargaming in general and the War College in particular. Comments by naval historians on the veracity of Nimitz’s endorsement have run the full spectrum. Current Naval War College brochures print the quote without comment, Nimitz biographer E. B. Potter called the phrase “exaggerating a little … but basically tells the truth,” Raymond Spruance biographer Thomas Buell characterized it as “dead wrong,” and War College professor Douglas Smith wrote that the statement “could not be further from the truth.” From his position at the head of the Pacific Fleet during the war and as a War College graduate himself, Nimitz was certainly in a position to comment on the applicability of prewar training to actual combat. His confidence in the games’ efficacy . . .

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