War on the Rocks featured an interview with John Hattendorf, the naval historian who has long held the post of Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime Studies at the United States Naval War College. Hattendorf mentions that Sir Julian Corbett was one of the most important influences on his thinking about strategy. Hattendorf has published a dictionary of naval words from the novels of Patrick O’Brian (like many of us, he grew up reading Horatio Hornblower, but considers O’Brian superior to C.S. Forester). James Fennimore Cooper, unknown to most, also wrote on naval matters. He recommends Tom Buell’s biographies of Admiral Spruance and Admiral E.J. King; and Roger Knight’s biography of Admiral Nelson. Hattendorf estimates the best naval historian writing today to be the British scholar, Nicholas Rodger.
As to which naval writer is perhaps most neglected today, Hattendorf mentioned Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond. Richmond was a British admiral who was raised as a pupil of Corbett’s. And then he went on to be a master at one of the colleges at Cambridge University. He cited in particular Richmond’s book, Statesmen and Sea-Power (1946), a study of the growth and evolution of British seapower from the Elizabethian Period through World War II. British grand strategy has from the very outset been confronted with notably complex issues. On the one hand, there is the necessity to control of the sea, as the sine qua non of the entire system, in order to ensure against invasion, secure trade, and maintain their colonies against European rivals.
This system of the “command,” however, was never enough. Britain could never truly adopt a policy of “splendid isolation.” In order to prevent her enemy – whether Spain, France, or Germany – from establishing control over the European continent, Britain has repeatedly been forced to mobilize that enemy’s Continental rivals and ultimately to become engaged, with large-scale land forces, in the Continental struggle. Command of the sea and maintenance of the Continental balance of power have been the correlated, not opposed elements of Britain’s system of strategy. The delicate question facing statesman has been how to apportion limited resources to achieve the proper correlation at any given time.
Richmond pays a great deal of attention to the increasing exertions imposed upon Britain over time to maintain her naval predominance; moving in the eighteenth century from a one- to a two-power standard to meet the threat of the two Bourbon powers; the similar necessity at the height of the naval rivalry with Germany at the turn of the twentieth century; and subsequent efforts to finesse the demands of protecting a two hemisphere empire without a two-hemisphere fleet. Here, one calls to mind Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976), which certainly qualifies as a Notable Book, at the very least.