Archive for the 'Books' Category
By Paul Povlock
Many, many years ago, as a newly minted Ensign fresh out of the clutches of the Naval Academy, I participated in a wargame that considered one of the Cold War’s more dangerous possibilities. The wargame scenario postulated a combined attack by a Soviet Backfire Bomber regiment in coordination with an ECHO II class SSGN on a NATO convoy bringing reinforcements to Europe in response to a Soviet invasion. The game was run by Larry Bond, at the time known more for his design of the “Harpoon” the wargame ruleset. Having been accepted into the Navy Nuclear Power program with plans to join the Submarine Service, I was happy to act as the commander of the Soviet submarine. My partner on the red side was an insurance salesman from Baltimore, who when told of my service selection, offered that he had just written a novel on Cold War submarine operations that would interest me. He informed me that the book was about to be published by the US Naval Institute and should be available shortly. I muttered a non-committal response, all the while thinking that my teammate must think I was particularly dense, even for an Ensign, as everyone knew that the Naval Institute did not publish fiction. Having significantly damaged the NATO convoy by the conclusion of the game, I bade my partner goodbye, never expecting to see or hear from him again. Several months later when The Hunt for Red October topped the best seller lists, I could only mutter about being proven wrong. Yes, the Naval Institute really did publish fiction, and yes, I really had met the author, Tom Clancy, before he became world famous.
Many years later the Naval Institute’s practice of publishing high quality fiction featuring important concerns of the nautical world endures. Syren’s Song by Claude Berube, a former US Navy officer and current director of the Naval Academy Museum, continues this tradition. Instead of considering the force on force conflict of warring superpowers at sea however, this volume examines the increasingly hazardous maritime realm in an era where the Western navies have stepped back from security missions they find too costly, onerous or merely uninteresting. Into this vacuum other guarantees of security will flow, and Connor Stark, the novel’s protagonist, leads his company, Highland Marine Defense through a series of fast paced and entertaining adventures to help tame the rising tide of lawlessness. In this account, a non-state actor’s naval contingent, the reconstituted Sea Tigers of the former Tamil insurgency on northern Sri Lanka, use a combination of ruthless devotion to the cause and a technological breakthrough to launch a devastating attack on the Sri Lankan Navy. Under the leadership of Vanni, a fearless veteran of the previous guerrilla war, the conflict is renewed with the dream of finally achieving independence. Flying his flag on a discarded but refurbished US Navy vessel, Stark and his company are contracted to assist the Colombo government until more formal assistance can arrive. In the process they are joined by an American Arleigh Burke class DDG, the USS LEFON, with a Commanding Officer and crew willing and able to assist Stark’s efforts for the Sri Lankan government. A dead shot investigator from the Department of State searching for the murderers of another Diplomatic Security Agent official joins their attempts. The combined forces come together to determine the source of the insurgent technological breakthrough, an effective if short ranged Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon, the location of the enemy naval base and the killers of the American Foreign Service Officer. The plot is fast paced as the author ties together the various strands of the story together, showing how the insecure maritime commons might not be exploited by any number of unseemly national entities, multinational corporations with ties to continental powers, and nefarious non-state actors. As might be expected in this genre, the heroes act heroically, the villains perform vile acts with much zest, the weapons do not jam and the shirkers earn their just desserts. There is even a gratuitous slap at the somewhat ironically named Littoral Combat Ships that have been sent to replace the sunken hulls of the much attrited Sri Lankan Navy, perhaps because no one else wanted them. All in all Syren’s Song is a satisfying read that keeps the gentle reader’s interest across the two hundred pages of action and analysis.
Perhaps more important than the parts of the satisfying action filled intrigue are the background questions that frame the story but do not overwhelm the plot. What should be the role of private security companies (dare they be called mercenaries?) functioning in the maritime environment? How might these organizations operate with navies of smaller nations interested in protecting their own security and economic interests as well as the larger navies of more expeditionary states? What should the rules of engagement be when operating in the hostile and potentially highly lethal at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict? How might the maritime forces of non-state actors operate against more capable maritime forces that have had their communications capabilities degraded? The USS LEFON acts with, shall we say, somewhat more liberal authorities than US warships do in the current era of conflict that features only slightly less deadly threats and more secure communications with higher headquarters. Absent such lifelines, how should an American warship perform its duties and responsibilities to protect national interests and concerns? Is mission command merely a trite phrase that sounds intriguing in some doctrinal manual but at sea is executed only in fictional stories? These topical questions are answered decisively in this novel, but in the real world naval professionals need to think about these issues and come up with acceptable solutions well before the first round or missile goes down range, particularly if it is coming at their vessel. There may not be a Connor Stark and his elite cohort of sea going mercenaries to save the day, though one might surmise he will at least appear in a follow on book. There are too many nefarious actors yet to vanquish and unanswered questions to resolve for the Naval Institute to cut short Stark’s new career at Highland Marine Defense. Jack Ryan wants, no needs to know what comes next. You will too.
Please join us at 5 pm EST on 15 November 2015 for Midrats Episode 306: Author Claude Berube on his next book: Syren’s Song
This Sunday for the full hour our guest will be author Claude Berube to discuss his second Connor Stark novel, Syren’s Song. From the Amazon page,
“Syren’s Song is the second novel featuring Connor Stark, and it promises to be just as engaging as The Aden Effect. This geopolitical thriller begins when the Sri Lankan navy is unexpectedly attacked by a resurgent and separatist Tamil Tiger organization. The government issues a letter of marque to former U.S. Navy officer Connor Stark, now the head of the private security company Highland Maritime Defense. Stark and his eclectic compatriots accept the challenge only to learn that the Sea Tigers who crippled the Sri Lankan navy are no ordinary terrorists.”
We will also discuss the craft of writing, how emerging real world events can influence the writing of fiction, and as we usually do with Claude, perhaps some other interestiing topics that crop up in the course of our conversation.
Over the past nine months, a variety of companies and organizations have republished in book form the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s December 2014 report on the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program. Most of those publications tried to convey the impression that the SSCI report, produced by Senator Dianne Feinstein and her staff, was the definitive word on a very controversial part of American history. It was not.
These publications often did not even mention that the Feinstein report was produced by only one political party and that there were robust rebuttals to it produced by the then minority Senate staff and by the current CIA leadership.
Every senior CIA officer who was involved in the creation, administration or oversight of the interrogation program, as I was, are convinced that the conclusions of the Feinstein report were terribly flawed. For that reason, a number of us sought to have the historical record balanced – by the publication, in book form, of the SSCI Minority and CIA rebuttals. To provide additional context and illumination, eight of us wrote essays to also be included which give our personal perspective on the program. This personal perspective was important because, incredibly, despite working on their report for five years and spending more than $40 million in the process – the SSCI majority never spoke to a single one of us. Their excuses for failing to do so were laughable. They cited Department of Justice Investigations which ended years before their effort did as a principal reason. They claimed that basing their report entirely on a review of documents was an acceptable alternative to talking to eye witnesses and then they cherry-picked their way to conclusions that their chairwoman held before the investigation even started.
When our response, called Rebuttal, was published about ten days ago, the reaction from Senator Feinstein and her supporters was quick and predictable. They claimed there was nothing new in our publication. But Rebuttal contains the very strong responses from the SSCI Minority and CIA staff which were left out of other publications and which were only infrequently mentioned in press accounts following the initial December release. What will be new to many readers is the firsthand accounts from my seven former colleagues and me – which show the folly of Senator Feinstein’s staff working so hard to make sure our voices were never heard. In a second response published this week in the Huffington Post, Feinstein and her staff were quoted as saying “Only (former CIA Director General Michael) Hayden can say if he intentionally mislead policymakers.” No, anyone who knows Mike Hayden knows he did not – and in any case – if Feinstein had concerns –why didn’t she have the decency to ask him?
The media response to the publication of Rebuttal was similarly predictable. Some complained that in our essays we did not often mention things like waterboarding. True. That is because the issue was dealt with at length in the 300+ pages of the two following reports. Other media accounts repeated some of the canards from the Feinstein report as if they were gospel.
Let me stress that we are in no way saying that the program that we were involved with was perfect. Far from it. But we know for a fact that the enhanced interrogation program was legal, authorized, and accurately briefed to the highest levels of the U.S. government and senior officials on our Congressional oversight committees. We knew at the time the program was being developed and implemented that the details of the program would one day leak and would be controversial. But we never believed for a second that anyone would challenge the effectiveness of the program. Monitoring the intelligence windfall that came from the program day after day in the years immediately after 9/11 as I did – I can say with absolute assurance that the program was effective and saved lives. Those who believe that the absence of a major al Qa’ida inspired attack on our homeland over the past 14 years is just luck are fooling themselves and trying to fool the American public.
We are grateful to the Naval Institute Press who, unlike Senator Feinstein’s SSCI, gave us a forum from which we could tell our experiences and make accessible versions of the two other reports which undermine the credibility of the one that Feinstein’s staffers peddle as “the report.”
We entered into this effort solely to make sure that both sides of the story get told. Any profits produced by the publication of “Rebuttal” are being donated to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation – which looks after the children and spouses of Agency officers who die in the line of duty.
Please join us on Sunday, 14 June 2015 at 5pm (1700)(EDT) for Midrats Episode 284: 200th Anniversary of Waterloo with John Kuehn:
18 June will be the 200th Anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, fought in present-day Belgium. Just in time, a regular guest to Midrats, John Kuehn, has his latest book out, Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns where he covers the operational level analysis of European warfare from 1792 to 1815, including the tactics, operations, and strategy of major conflicts of the time.
More than just a description of set piece battle, there is a discussion of naval warfare, maneuver warfare, compound warfare, and counterinsurgency.
We’ve got him for the full hour … we should be able to get to most of it.
Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer in EP-3s and ES-3s. He authored Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, as well as numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011.
His previous book was, A military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century.
Yet, despite a review of Power Transition Theory examining why these states might come to blows, Ghost Fleet’s expedition into the near future primarily focuses on how such a great power conflict might be fought. Singer and Cole are at their best in teasing out the interplay between potential advances in emerging technologies – backed by impressive end-noting – rather than isolating the implications of a single capability. These range from Big Data and unmanned systems to additive manufacturing and augmented reality. The authors’ depictions of cutting-edge Chinese developments picking apart current U.S. weapons systems might make for queasy reading among some in the military. In this way it effectively serves to warn against complacency in presuming American technological superiority in conflict. But it bears remembering that success in employing the new capabilities detailed in Ghost Fleet, as in life, requires a level of creativity available (and not guaranteed) to both sides.
Singer and Cole also explore how the supposed American Way of War of grinding attrition, popularized by the eponymous 1973 Russell Weigley book, might fare in an age of offensive space and cyber weapons. In doing so they create intriguing portraits of empowered individuals (both socio-economically and skills-wise), expats, and a globalized defense industrial base on a war footing. Some of the most memorable scenes come from the juxtaposition of new capabilities with old operational concepts (occasionally set to the strains of Alice Cooper). Singer and Cole also ably confront readers with a reversal in the traditional role of U.S. forces in an insurgency and the ethical decisions it demands of them.
Ghost Fleet may be the authors’ first novel, but it’s not their first foray into helping tell a story. Singer has consulted on such projects as Activision’s “Call of Duty” video game franchise and honed his prose in such works as Wired for War, an earlier book on the future of robotics warfare. Cole meanwhile has been engaged in the development of insights on warfare by facilitating near-future science fiction writing at the Atlantic Council’s “Art of Future Warfare Project” (full disclosure: I had the opportunity to publish a short story of my own there). These experiences have paid off in a very enjoyable page-turner.
This is not to say Ghost Fleet is without flaws. One of the novel’s driving emotional stories, an estranged father-son relationship, never quite rings true. With an expansive and fast-moving narrative, a character here and subplot there trail off without satisfactory conclusion. Lastly, while the authors investigate many impacts of a war’s fallout on the U.S. Navy, including the resurrection of the ships of the book’s title and a call-up of retirees, they missed an opportunity to look at the complications a mobilization of existing Navy Reservists might cause. But such a minor sin of omission doesn’t detract from the overall merits of the work. Whether on a commute to the Pentagon or relaxing on a beach in the Hawaii Special Administrative Zone, readers will find Ghost Fleet a highly enjoyable, at times uncomfortable, and always thought-provoking read.
*It should be noted Singer and Cole don’t tie those nation’s current regimes to their countries’ futures, and in doing so remind readers that what would follow a collapse of the Chinese Communist Party is not necessarily more amenable to U.S. or Western interests.
I encourage you to spend forty-eight minutes of your day listening to author Karl Marlantes talk about war. Many of you are already familiar with his work. For those who are not, here is a short bio: Marlantes is a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar. After a year at Oxford, he left, joined the Marines, and was then in some of the worst fighting of the
Vietnam War. He was awarded the Navy Cross for assaulting a hilltop bunker occupied by the NVA. Here is a part of his citation:
“While continuing to function effectively in his primary billet, First Lieutenant Marlantes skillfully combined and reorganized the remaining members of two platoons, and on 6 March initiated an aggressive assault up a hill, the top of which was controlled by a hostile unit occupying well-fortified bunkers. Under First Lieutenant Marlantes’ dynamic leadership, the attack gained momentum which carried it up the slope and through several enemy emplacements before the surprised North Vietnamese force was able to muster determined resistance. Delivering a heavy volume of fire, the enemy temporarily pinned down the friendly unit. First Lieutenant Marlantes, completely disregarding his own safety, charged across the fire-swept terrain to storm four bunkers in succession, completely destroying them. While thus engaged, he was seriously wounded, but steadfastly refusing medical attention, continued to lead his men until the objective was secured, a perimeter defense established, and all other casualties medically evacuated.”
Years later, he wrote Matterhorn — a fictional account of his experiences as a platoon leader in Vietnam. I read his second book, What It Is Like to Go To War, while deployed in 2011. After reading it, I handed my copy to our senior chaplain. As a chaplain that spent considerable time with Marines in Iraq, and seeing some of the worst combat of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I thought he would get something out of it. Two days later he came up to me and asked me if he could keep my copy. He ended up buying me a replacement copy when we pulled into Singapore. It not only spoke to the power of his book, but it was a reminder that books can make an incredible gift.
Recently, Marlantes came to the US Naval War College to speak to the students about war, ethics, his work, and many other topics. He was funny, insightful, and refreshingly honest. One of my friends, when leaving the auditorium, said, “That was one of the best Q&A’s I’ve heard this year.” Marlantes touches on some pertinent yet divisive topics that many of us are debating today: Should there be a draft? How do veterans assimilate back into society? Is it too easy for policy makers to use the military? And many others.
Take some time — watch it.
The American flags whip in the wind as the sun creeps over the grassy horizon. The charcoal sits in reused plastic grocery bags at the end of the driveway. The grass beneath them is soft with early-morning dew.
In parallel, across the country this morning, American flags fly, too. Flowers placed on hallowed graves flutter slightly in the breeze. Mementos of the lives of brave American servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price are still in place on headstones, surrounding the heroes, keeping them company.
Yesterday, as it does by law every year, enacted in the last century, on the last Monday in May, America celebrated Memorial Day. This recognition stems from the Civil War, when compassionate groups of citizens would decorate the graves of soldiers who had died fighting for their cause. It has grown into an annual recognition of all our honored war dead, and a federal holiday that gives many a reprieve from the workweek.
Many use the day for celebration of the freedoms we enjoy, especially as the holiday coincides with long-awaited warm weather in much of America’s broad latitude. They use it as a day to reflect on family and friends, to fill their lives with familiarity and warmth.
Few of us can comprehend, though, the silent heartbreak of those whose loved ones have felt the pain of ultimate sacrifice. Their experience on Memorial Day is markedly different, but it is right and genuine and pure. To love a warrior is the sweetest tragedy; to live their memory the highest privilege.
Yet the great, silent measure of a nation is its remembrance of its heroes on all the other days of the year; not as a boastful measure of bellicose pride, but as an eternal example of highest achievement. Selfless service has long been idealized in words and opinion polls, now manifest in Facebook posts and Instagram memes, but we must do the hard work of living that notion and encouraging our children to live it through our own actions.
To honor and to serve; both are active verbs.
The Institute is pleased to have the guidance of a select panel of Navy Officers who believe this destination can continue to host the most important lines of thought concerning naval policy and the nation’s defense. LTJG Chris O’Keefe and a network of junior naval officers have agreed to assemble content for the USNI Blog, focusing specifically on key issues that they describe below in their inaugural post.
They are not strangers to the forum, and already have an impressive resume of posts and articles. They continue a fine tradition of important discussions on the USNI Blog led by a strong network of key Navy figures including guest bloggers from the naval blogging community, who were responsible for guiding the USNI Blog to three consecutive years of being named “Best Navy Blog” sponsored by Military.com and USAA. Our founding guest bloggers will continue to contribute as they desire.
Mary D. Ripley | Director of Digital Content
Bill Miller | Publisher
Since 2008, the Naval Institute’s blog has served as a key forum for thinkers and naval leaders to collaborate, argue, think, and write. The blog, with its essentially unlimited audience and condensed production timeline, helps ensure the Institute continues to play a vital role in shaping the dialogues that will shape the Navy of the 21st century and beyond. It is important therefore to periodically step back and ensure that the blog’s content sufficiently captures the critical discussions taking place throughout the Fleet. A small group of junior naval thinkers is working to facilitate this, and we would like you to join our ranks through thinking and writing.
Looking forward, we’ve identified conversations in the naval sphere that we believe are not getting enough attention, and that are ripe for dynamic debate. The four identified areas are:
-The navy and cyber
-Future war fighting
-Revitalizing practical professional notes
One of the flagship platforms for naval discourse is Proceedings. However, the capacity of the magazine is finite, and there are many discussions that simply may not meet the threshold for publication in a particular issue. The blog team is coordinating with the Proceedings editorial staff to develop a framework for two-way content flow between the magazine and the blog. A rising tide raises all ships, and just because an article doesn’t find the right home in the magazine does not mean that it is not a valid discussion piece meriting dissemination. Therefore, beginning shortly, authors who submit to Proceedings whose articles are not accepted for publication will be invited to submit to the blog team for editorial assistance and publication. At the same time, blog authors whose pieces are well received will be invited to contribute a larger, more comprehensive piece to Proceedings Magazine. Our essay contest winners will also begin to have entries published on the blog, and we will eventually sponsor online-only essay contests. Combined with other events, we hope broaden naval discussion by encouraging more people to write, speak out, and be heard.
The online blogging forum presents unique technological affordances compared to traditional mediums. In thinking about the implications of the blog’s digital existence, we were forced to reflect on how the digital has altered the form and practice of naval discourse more broadly. By extension, we were prompted to contemplate how the digital space has fundamentally altered naval disciplines. Therefore, as our first effort, we will be launching a conversation starting May 3rd about the Navy and cyber, and how this discussion should be framed and shaped.
Why May 3rd? On that date in 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue began a 6 game re-match with chess champion Garry Kasparov. Although Kasparov won this match, an apparent bug in Deep Blue caused it to make a move that puzzled Kasparov. American statistician Nate Silver believes that “Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.” His confidence shaken, Kasparov would go on to lose the series, marking the first time under tournament conditions a computer had defeated a reigning world chess champion.
Deep Blue’s name is particularly appropriate for conversation about the Navy’s cyber domain, and this comes on the heels of the launch of the concept of all-domain access within the new maritime strategy. We already have a few articles ready in rough draft form, and have been in conversations with leaders at all levels in the naval cyber realm. We invite you to submit an article between 800 and 1000 words that would help shape the conversation on how we integrate the navy and the cyber domain.
In the next week we will announcing our revised blog submission policies and instructions on how to submit posts for publication. Whether you are a member of the nation’s Naval service, or an armchair admiral, the groundswell of naval thought is palpable, and we hope you will put pen to paper or open your laptop to join it.
Chris O’Keefe is an active duty naval officer who spends much of his spare time working to foster professional naval discourse by helping and encouraging current and future thinkers and writers.
By Mark Tempest
Please join us at 5pm EDT on 19 April 2015 as we return live, after a two week hiatus, for Midrats Episode 276: “21st Century Ellis”
The next book from USNI’s 21st Century Foundations series is 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era, edited by Capt. B.A. Friedman, USMC.
This book covers the work of Lt. Col. “Pete” Ellis, USMC who in 1921 predicted the coming war with Japan.
Included in this collection are some of his articles on counterinsurgency and conventional war based on his experiences in WWI and the Philippines.
Capt. Friedman will be with us for the full hour to discuss this and more.
Capt. B.A. Friedman is a field artillery officer in the United States Marine Corps currently stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. He is pursuing a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies through the Naval War College.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read and review historian Charles N. Edel’s excellent new book about John Quincy Adams, titled, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.
The review will soon be published at the Center for International Maritime Security. Intrigued, however, I wanted to learn more. Last week, we had the opportunity to talk about his book, JQA’s life, the US Navy, and grand strategy in the 19th century. It turned out to be a wide-ranging and interesting discussion.
Why John Quincy Adams?
When I was working at the Council of Foreign Relations many years ago, my boss, Walter Russell Mead, talked incessantly about framing contemporary policy choices in terms of historical evolution. That is something that always resonated with me: that you need to understand the present in terms of the past. While I was working there, Walter handed me a short little book by John Lewis Gaddis called Surprise, Security, and the American Experience; it’s a terrific book, it’s a provocative book, and it makes the argument that at moments of profound insecurity Americans seek to come up with ways of exerting their influence and securing their environment. And in fact, moments of profound insecurity often lead to the conception of new grand strategies.
In this book Gaddis compares three such moments: The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the aftermath of the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814. The argument is that the grand strategy that follows these moments and the men who craft it (John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and G.W Bush) are in response to their environments. And the argument in this book is that John Quincy Adams conceptualizes the grand tragedy for America in the 19th century.
I was intrigued by this argument and, as Gaddis argues that Adams’s legacy influenced both Roosevelt and Bush, I wanted to find out if it was true. The more I started reading about Adams, the more it seemed that every historian of American history talked about John Quincy Adams as the central figure for American foreign policy in the 19th century. But they couldn’t agree why he was the central figure. What’s more his personality and character seem shrouded in a dense fog. His son and his grandson had no clue who he was – his son talked about him wearing an iron mask that was impenetrable. On the other hand, he left just about the largest written record of anyone in American history, as he kept a daily diary that spanned his entire life—and, indeed, almost all the critical events in antebellum America. So I thought: what an intriguing project. First, to understand if John Quincy Adams was a grand strategist, second, what was his grand strategy, and then third, how did it matter today?
Why does his father seem to overshadow him?
Nothing intrigues Americans quite so much as our founding. John Quincy is not critical to the founding moments in American history—he’s only a small boy at the time—whereas it would be hard to argue that anyone did as much for the cause of American independence as John Adams.
I also think John Adams mellowed in his old age to a certain degree: he resumes his correspondence with Jefferson; he has wonderful correspondence with his wife, Abigail Adams. John Quincy Adams doesn’t have a Jefferson, and the humanity is not there in the same extent it was with his father. The second thing is that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are very conscious that they are writing about their legacy, and for the future of the United States. While both Adams and Jefferson believe they are correct, they still acknowledge that each has something interesting to say. John Quincy goes in the opposite direction as he ages. He is not in a reconcilable mood. He becomes more partisan the older he gets. But he is also a different figure; not a warm and fuzzy figure as his father was, (though, to be fair, none of his contemporaries would ever accuse John Adams of being warm and fuzzy). John Quincy doesn’t mellow in age; he sharpens distinctly.
John Quincy himself discusses his own life as a failure. He doesn’t see the policies he set up as success, whereas John Adams is able to take some satisfaction from seeing some of his policies mature. Throughout his life, John Quincy Adams would feel that he did not accomplish as much as his father did.
Do you think he was satisfied with his life?
There seemed to be some moments of satisfaction. But at many points in his life he refers to himself as a Job like figure. In many ways, he sees his job as one of persistence and endurance. If he thinks about his policies, how his plans have gone awry, how others have distorted his policies, then he is rather less pleased with the result. But he’s not really someone who is satisfied – ever. Maybe that is the Puritan in him. At his state funeral they read a passage from the book of Job and a letter from his mother that was written when he was a young boy. And there was this wonderful quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Choose wisely and accordingly to his constitution, when, on leaving the presidency he went into Congress. He’s no literary old gentleman, but a bruiser and loves the melee. When they talk about his age and his venerableness and nearness to the grave, he knows better, he is like one of those old cardinals, who, as quick as he has chosen Pope, throws away his crutches and crookedness and is straight as a boy. He’s an old roué who cannot live on slops, but must have sulfuric acid in his tea.” Another great insight comes from a British foreign minister who said that, in diplomatic circles, Adams was like a bulldog among cocker spaniels. In other words, he was there to advocated tenaciously for the country’s national interests, not to express diplomatic niceties.
How does John Quincy Adams view the role of the US Navy during his Presidency?
He imbibes many of the ideas about the importance of a Navy from his father, who is credited with being the founder of the US Navy. John Quincy is taken as a young boy to Europe, where if they are captured on the high seas in the middle of the American Revolution, things aren’t going to end well for his father – and perhaps not well for him either. One could argue that such experiences imprint themselves on the young boy, causing Adams to understand from a very early age the importance of a Navy for the young Republic’s security.
The significance of a navy is further reinforced to John Quincy through his diplomatic career. He is dealing with a world, with an international system, dominated by an Anglo-French colonial and maritime rivalry. If America wanted to maintain its neutral commerce in the seas and be able to ignore both Britain and France’s objections, it would need the means to do so. Which, specifically, meant having a powerful Navy. John Quincy, of course, recognized that this was no easy task for the United States. He knew that his fellow citizens hated taxing themselves and would not, absenting a national emergency, do so at a level sufficient for defense of the nation. Adams asserted that America’s independence of action came not from its unique “representative democracy,” but rather from the “real power” of its “armed force.”
I should also add one other factor: he’s from New England. Fisheries, commerce, and maritime trade matter immensely. Now, he often doesn’t line up with where New England lines up – that is, he doesn’t defer always to the British when it conflicts with business interests of the New England states. But he thinks the United States not only needs to be a commercial state but also have the ability to defend its commercial interests. In his presidential address to Congress in 1825 he purposes the idea of a naval academy. While Annapolis was not founded until 1845, John Quincy Adams called for the establishment of a Naval Academy on par with West Point, the “formation of scientific and accomplished officers,” and a massive shipbuilding program two decades earlier.
As a historian what was one of the more interesting things you found out about the man?
It’s his diary. It is probably the greatest and most comprehensive diary in 19th century America. He starts it at the age of 12 and keeps it every day until he drops dead on the floor of congress in 1848. It’s in 51 manuscript volumes. He has a stroke in the last year of his life, and until that point his handwriting is immaculate. There are more than 14,000 pages that make up this diary. Every day he is recording who he met and what they talked about and what he thought about the meeting. It is a remarkable record of what Adams was thinking about and what he thought he was trying to accomplish. As a historian you always wonder if he was writing with me in mind – does he want me to discover this? And, of course, the answer is sometimes yes—as he seems to be writing as much for posterity as he is for himself. Which, of course, means one has to treat his words critically.
There are two passages I found most compelling. One I quote in the final pages of the book. In 1822 he is struggling with this question: Is morality the same for an individual as it is for a State? He has been raised to believe that it is. But he understands that these might not be the same things. What might be virtuous for a person might be too pure for the dealings of a state. He is neither the first nor the last American statesman to struggle with this question.
The second passage is the one I use to begin chapter five. The longest and most anguished entries in his entire diary all come between Jan-Nov 1820, when he is secretary of state, and everyone is talking about and debating slavery. And it is because the Missouri question has been brought up—a political question about whether or not the expansion of slavery into new territories can be regulated by the federal government. This is a remarkable debate; and, for most American politicians it is a terrifying debate: Jefferson himself in his old age thought this was an alarm bell that woke him up in the middle of the night and had him fearing for the future of his country. This question was brought up inside the cabinet. The President asks for feedback on the slavery question. Adams is opposed to slavery’s extension, but his is a minority position in the cabinet. He is the only person on the cabinet that is not a southerner. And while he is willing to advocate for his position in private, he does not take up this argument in public. He does, however, take some long walks around Washington with John Calhoun – and these are 5, 10, 15 page entries – in which Calhoun, a Southerner, tries to educate him about slavery. Adams captures all these discussions in his diary. These conversations blow his mind on how southerners think about this issue.
Did you relate to him when you were researching your book?
He is a model in so many ways. A deeply brilliant man. It’s hard not to be taken in by his words and also by his long term views and insights to the country. But, in his dealings with other people—his political enemies, but also his supporters, and often even his own family, he is not the most pleasant person to be around. Still, I think he is pretty great…not perfect, though, and I wouldn’t put him on a pedestal. But, yes, he is a magnificently interesting figure, and a compelling one.
You have a great quote in the book that refers to Adams inability to come up with practical results.
Was Adams a bad politician?
He’s not a bad politician. You can’t say that someone who ends up as President is a bad politician. He does tack, he does shift, and he is not a dummy about it. And yet on the other hand I think he suffers from what I call the “Adams syndrome.” If you are an Adams, you are the smartest person in the room, you have the longest term vision of anyone in the room, and you are so annoying about those two things that you alienate almost everyone, almost immediately, and lose control of your own policies. Adams’s ability to make compromises, particularly when he is President, is very low. He seems to be happier when he is in opposition.
One of the interesting anecdotes you have in the book, is Adams’s frustration with the piles of paperwork that he is drowning in during his time as Secretary of State. It sure seems that things never change. Could you elaborate on this?
I think it is an interesting anecdote. But what is more interesting is what he decides to do about it. He’s always pressed for time; there are always officer seekers, and the State Department seems to regularly lose important treaties—which often leaves him in rather awkward diplomatic predicaments. He begins to think about bureaucratic structures to reduce this chaos. He starts assigning different people different functions; setting out clear guidelines for how diplomatic correspondence is done; how instructions from Washington D.C. are set up. They really are the guidelines that are set out for the state department for the next 100 years.
Is this a man that needs to stay busy to keep his demons at bay?
Yes, absolutely. I think it is true and he himself said it was true. He said something to the effect of “regularity is what regulated him.” When you read Adams you realize this is someone who falls into the “blue devils” – as the 19th century term was used – more than one time in his life. He had a debilitating depression when he is just out of college and he is studying law. He has to withdraw from reading law and just go home and sit for a couple of months until he can function in a normal way again. And this depression returns when he is President. This is certainly not a good time to be depressed, as he himself recognizes. So I think that being active, super-hyper active, is something that helps him control his inner-self.
How do people misuse his famous line “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Adams was not warning future administrations away from helping aspiring democrats, but rather giving his successors a lesson in the necessary trade-offs foreign policy demands. This statement, however, is often invoked to advocate a position that the United States ought not to intervene in a particular situation. At the extreme end, it is used as an argument that America should always take an isolationist, aloof position in international affairs. Where I think we need to be more circumspect is that Adams himself did not say that America should never go abroad. He made this statement at a particular time and place in response to a unique set of circumstances.
Adams was trying to ensure the United States focused its resources at home and not offer European powers a pretext for intervening in the western hemisphere. Adams himself would be the first to note that changing circumstances, changing contexts, must necessarily mean changing policies. In multiple instances, Adams talks about how precedent should not become a policy straight-jacket; the nation needs to keep in mind the changing nature of American power and the shifting international environment. What made sense when the nation was a small power on the edge of the world, might not make as much sense to the nation’s ambitions when it has grown in size and security. Adams would demand that we assess rationally the foreign policy aims we seek and that we carefully consider the best use of the precious resources of the republic.
Adams was never shy about promoting American values, nor using military power when doing so would advance American interests. But, he was keenly aware of the relationship between America’s capabilities and its ambitious aims. That is, Americans, in Adams’s estimate wanted to support democratic revolutions abroad before they had even finished establishing their own. Adams saw the danger of U.S. missionary zeal outstripping American capabilities and thought this would leave the nation highly vulnerable.
Adams wanted to build American power at home before trying to wield American influence abroad. Those who quote Adams as advocating isolation in foreign affairs often miss the domestic corollary of his pronouncement. As America grew to power, Adams advocated using the nation’s resources for the good of its own citizens—making the nation a positive model of what republican government can do for its own citizens. Abstention in distant conflicts was intimately linked to a progressive vision of state power in the domestic context. Adams advocated for improvements in infrastructure, investments in higher education, funding for scientific research, and innovations in manufacturing and agriculture. The best way that America could spread its values would be by working to perfect the American experiment at home.
What other books on John Quincy Adams would you recommend?
There are different ways to approach John Quincy Adams. You can read his life as biography. Paul Nagel’s book, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life, focuses on his internal-self and is quite good, though it has less to say on his public career. Then, there are really good books on the various stages of his career. Mary Hargreaves has a great book on his presidency, and Leonard Richards’ book on his congressional career is also quite good. A short book that is pretty remarkable is called Policy Maker for the Union by James Lewis. If you are interested in the period and Adams’s effect on US policies, then I recommend Gaddis’s Surprise, Security and the American Experience; a great, really short book. I also highly recommend Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation, which is a history of US international relations in the world from the founding until 1898. The other book that I find fascinating is Walter McDougal’s Promised Land, Crusader State, which looks at all US foreign policy in some 200 pages and poses John Quincy Adams as a central figure. Finally, Samuel Flagg Bemis is someone I have to mention. Bemis was the dean of American diplomatic historians, mid-century. He had a two volume history on John Quincy Adams, the first of which won the Pulitzer back in 1947. One more…Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. It’s a truly great book.
Thanks for your time.
Thank you, and thanks for the terrific questions. I enjoyed it.
Charles Edel serves an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, American political history, and the connections between foreign policy and domestic politics. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Yale University, and received a B.A. in Classical Civilization from Yale College. He worked at Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies as a Henry A. Luce Scholar. Previously, he served in various roles in the U.S. government as a political and counterterrorism analyst, worked as a research associate at the Council of Foreign Relations, and taught high school history in New York. A native of New York, and an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves, he is the author of Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. Currently, he is working on a project about the role of foreign revolutions in American history.
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