The Past is Prologue: A Brief Survey of Proceedings Contributors from 1875-1919

There are many theories on the genesis of military innovation. One theorist, Vincent Davis, suggested in his 1967 work “The Politics of Innovation: Patterns in Navy Cases,” that the innovation advocate in the Navy is “usually an officer in the broad middle ranks.” If this is true, then the concepts which help the United States Navy and Marine Corps operate in the next maritime conflict may very well come from today’s junior officers. It’s why it’s important for those same mid-grade and junior officers to critique rather than criticize policies, programs, processes and platforms and articulate them respectfully in an appropriate forum. Who among those of us over forty would have predicted the respective roles of Youtube as political campaign game-changers, or Facebook and Twitter as a communication method during Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009 or the recent riots in Tunisia? Yet those who are half our age employed those tools daily as second-nature much as my generation grew up with a rotary phone and that seemingly musical necessity – the 8-track tape. Might some of our sailors have predicted the social media applications for military operations if they had written about them in a naval forum?

As a member of the U.S. Naval Institute for nearly twenty years and as a recent addition to its Editorial Board, I conducted a brief survey last month on the founding of USNI as a forum for understanding the country’s naval force to see what role, if any, our more junior officers had in writing for the magazine, building a dialogue on critical issues, and advancing concepts that would propel the U.S. Navy as a global power in the 20th century.

For this exercise, nearly 1,500 articles were tabulated from 1875 to 1919 by contributor rank and then sorted by decade. Civilians contributed a large number; these largely included civilians employed by the Navy as naval constructors or instructors at the Naval Academy.

The number of articles increased over the course of the first four decades (see Graph 1) due primarily to the increased frequency of publishing Proceedings as it developed from a quarterly, to a bimonthly, to a monthly journal. A brief drop in the number of articles during the 1890s was a result of longer articles, professional notes, and war reports, leaving less space for more articles.

Who wrote for Proceedings? The top group of contributors was, surprisingly, civilians with approximately 450 articles (see Graph 2). They were followed by lieutenants with nearly 350 articles. Combined, however, lieutenants and lieutenant commanders published 748 articles – half of all articles published in Proceedings. Interestingly, lieutenants and lieutenant commanders also accounted for most of the annual prize essay contests.

Among only officer contributors, junior officers led the way. More than half of all officer contributors were ensigns, lieutenant junior grades, and lieutenants. (see Chart 1) Among the mid-grade officers, the majority of contributors were lieutenant commanders. Admittedly, this was a period in the navy’s history when senior billets were rarer, resulting in older junior- to mid-grade officers.

The demographics changed throughout this time period (see Graph 3). During the first two decades of Proceedings, most officer contributors were O-3s and O-4s; absent were writers at the rank of commander and above. This changed dramatically from 1900-1909 not because senior officers suddenly participated, but because many were the same officers, such as Bradley Fiske, who had written for Proceedings at more junior ranks.

Some of the first authors for Proceedings from 1875 to 1889 were names later known for their naval contributions: Bradley Fiske, known for several inventions and prescient concepts, wrote at several ranks including as a Rear Admiral, later becoming President of the U.S. Naval Institute. During his tenure, the USNI secretary was a lieutenant commander who had first written for Proceedings as a lieutenant in 1909 and who eventually rose to the rank of Fleet Admiral, Ernest King. A subsequent secretary was Lieutenant Commander Isaac Kidd. Commander Alfred Thayer Mahan contributed an article on naval education in the 1870s. The 1880s witnessed articles by Lieutenant – later Rear Admiral – Reginald Rowan Belknap on the naval policy of the U.S., Lieutenant Richard Wainwright who later won the Medal of Honor.

While the time required to flesh out a concept may sometimes seem daunting in the face of long hours deployed or otherwise on duty, there are opportunities. For example, the Naval War College requires papers for its courses. Consider writing those papers not simply with the intent of getting a grade, but in the hope that it can be published (two of my NWC papers were published in Orbis and Vietnam Magazine while others were rejected, but it is possible.)

Was every article superior, every concept groundbreaking from 1875 to 1919? Perhaps, perhaps not, but at least they got the dialogue started on important issues to our Navy and Marine Corps. As it should be today. Just as it is important that the wisdom of today’s leadership foster the dialogue and provide guidance for more junior personnel, it is equally important that junior and mid-grade officers and sailors to see the Navy, Marine Corps and the world around them, to identify trends, recognize emerging challenges, and to challenge the status quo itself respectfully, logically, and in an articulate and persuasive manner. Just as they did at the end of the 19th century.

Lieutenant Commander Claude Berube, USNR is a member of the USNI Editorial Board and frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History. He teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are his own and not those of the Department of the Navy.

Posted by LCDR Claude Berube, USNR in From our Archive, History, Navy

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  • BJ Armstrong

    Its ironic that many senior officers advise their juniors to avoid putting their ideas out there because it might hurt their future chances at promotion, when your research shows that there’s a good chance that it may actually help.

    There is also something to be said for the idea that writing helps us develop the ability to organize our thoughts and communicate better…skills that are vital to being a successful leader. How many of us have served with senior officers that made us cringe when they get up to speak? Or who ignore questions and suggestions because they don’t seem to be able to listen to ideas that aren’t theirs?

    Great work Claude.

  • BJ speaks with big medicine – and well done post Claude.

    There is also the situation where senior officers actively suppress articles by those within their community that might be differently focused than the community line – preventing publication through intimidation. The same individuals have officers on their staff who are directed to edit proposed articles by others to ensure they are in alignment with the community directives – changing topic and focus of already penned articles submitted to the Chain of Command for review.

    Sadly, not uncommon. If you wonder why sometimes you read articles that seem a bit clunky or lifted from an industry PR trifold, that is why.

    Spike or frustrate one; silence dozens.

  • Claude’s analysis ought to encourage us to write and publish.

    We are all products of our own experience.

    In my case, having written 100+ articles and 5 books over the course of several decades, I would say the publishing neither helps nor hurts a career. In the end, how you drive a ship or fly or plane or dive a submarine — and what you do ashore as a staff officer — will determine how you come out in your career.

    But writing and publishing are, in a very real sense, a chance to engage in a conversation with a larger world and by doing so perhaps effect real change.

    What you say may or may not help or hinder your career. Worrying about that is counter-productive and misses the point. What matters is helping move the conversation along. And what real leaders do — in the literal sense of the world — is move the conversation along.

    So dare to read, think, write, and publish. It makes all the difference.

  • Personally, I think that writing helps to solidify one’s thinking, especially if it is a longer project that requires multiple drafts and collaborative review. It’s unfortunate, however, that so many organizational roadblocks prevent the aspiring author from pursuing publication. For example, most development and production contracts between the Navy and industry require that anything to be published be submitted to the government contracting officer for approval before release. Layered atop that, most if not all companies have a review process to ensure control over proprietary information.
    These may seem to be common sense measures, but in reality they stifle the ability to write timely pieces. In the case of company proprietary reviews, only one designated approver needs to say “no” to spike an item. With the government contracting officer, a lack of response is sufficient – the terms of the contract do not allow publication without his approval. I’ve seen contracts that require submission up to 60 days before the desired release, meaning that the author could be waiting (and writing) for two months in what is ultimately a futile effort.
    A recent tilt at this windmill illustrates my point. A colleague and I, responding to a call for papers, drafted an abstract for consideration. Our intent was to show how a new class of ship would fill a perceived gap in capability and capacity, and to advocate for one of our major product lines as a critical element of that new ship class. Nothing was proprietary about our proposed subject, and it sailed through reviewers until the contracts folks got their turn. The contract language for the product line required approval by the government contracting officer, and the company contracting officer decided that, since the material was not pre-approved by the government, that he could not approve our request. Arguments that he should submit the abstract to the government for approval fell on deaf ears, and the due date for abstracts passed, unmet.

  • This analysis begs for a comparison with the 1970s – 2010s. Could we learn anything of significance by slicing the data based on the highest rank held by each author, rather than the rank at publication? Clearly, in the first decades some junior officer authors went on to greatness. Was there a correlation then, and if so does it hold true today?
    Does writing help one become a good leader, or is it simply that good leaders write? Admiral Stavridis argues the latter point, and his career illustrates it, but I wonder if the former could also be true.

  • @Ken – very good point about the comparison and my assistant will be conducting that research.

  • I would be happy to help with that comparison.

  • Thanks Ken – Raymond from ID suggested the same idea. It would be an informative exercise.

    For us (USNI) and all, I hope. Please note, we plan to have to have the FULL archive of all of those articles up this year from the the sample time period on our main site. Mission Win for USNI online.

    Let everyone see Past as a Prologue: awesomeness.

  • Claude Berube

    Thanks for the feedback. My original intent was to conduct the study through 2010 but didn’t have the time to invest since I was in the middle of grading finals. Plus the data I found was sufficient for a subtheme in my dissertation. Ken, I agree with you about correlating the names with their respective career paths. I thought of that but was unaware of a follow-up to Hamersley’s List of Naval and Marine Corps Officers from 1775-1910 which has all their dates of rank.
    Admiral, thanks for your insight. I’ve been trying to convince my mids for years to turn their better papers into articles. Anytime you’re at USNA you’re more than welcome in my classroom!

  • The tone from the top is absolutely critical. Admiral Stavridis has been very clear for years on his support or the free flow of ideas, and has helped inspire many people to come out and write. He cannot do it alone though.

    Hopefully, we will see more and more ADM and VADM strike a similar tone – and more importantly, embrace challenging opinions publicly. When you see a critical mass of ADM and VADM doing this, it will have a positive effect on the RADM/RDML – and the CAPT who desire to become such – to adopt a similar attitude. That will draw out even more potential authors down the chain, for the better.

    In a broader sense – ADM Stavridis is not alone. On the civilian leadership side, we saw Under SECNAV Work last week in San Diego call out one of his intellectual opponents on LCS – John Patch – but in a positive way. He stated a rebuttal to Patch’s work, but made a firm point that he welcomed opposing opinions and wanted more. He saw the intellectual churn for what it was – healthy to the body as a whole, and helped sharpen and refine his own opinion and views.

    This is all good news. If we can get more from the “Stavridis and Work School” – and I would add Admiral Harvey in this group as well – to re-set the tone and the reward of the effort of others to join in the conversation, then the results will follow.

    As a side note, a few weeks ago the author John Derbyshire made an interesting comment generally related to this topic. He made the observation that when contrary or challenging speech is discouraged and suppressed by those in power, what does escape these barriers tends to be loud, sharp edged, and confrontational. It has to be in order to be heard through the barriers and background noise. However, when contrary or challenging speech is accepted and welcomed, it tends to mellow in style and tone. It is still contrary and challenging, but as it doesn’t have to fight its way through barriers and interference, it can “speak” in a more relaxed manner.

    That would be another very positive outcome – for both the reader and, ahem, the writer.

  • Byron

    @Salamander: here, here!

  • Mike M.

    Ken Adams raises a good point that I’ve run into myself. These days, senior leadership is frequently hostile to any sort of professional paper. The mindset is that if nothing is said, nothing bad can be said.

    Information management has become intellectual paralysis.

  • … a minor detail, but what’s with the major O-1 drop-off in the 1900’s?