Adapted from Chapter 2 of the 24th edition of The Bluejacket’s Manual by Thomas J. Cutler
Even though the United States is the fourth largest nation in the world in terms of land area, it has always been a maritime nation, focusing on the sea as one of its most important assets. During the colonial period and in the early days of the Republic, it was much easier to travel from colony to colony or state to state by ship than by horse or on foot, and fishing, whaling, and overseas trade were among the fledgling nation’s earliest businesses. One of its earliest challenges was the War of 1812, which was partially decided by a series of stellar naval victories against the world’s foremost sea power at the time. A naval blockade and riverine warfare were essential elements in the Civil War, and the war against Spain at the end of nineteenth century was begun by a naval tragedy and decided largely by naval victories. American commerce would never have thrived without open sea lanes, two world wars could not have been won without the lifelines maintained across the world’s oceans, and United States control of the sea was an essential element in the victory over Communism in the Cold War. Throughout the nation’s history, the sea has played an important role in America’s economy, defense, and foreign policy. Today, the modern United States of America continues to look to the sea for these same things and relies upon its Navy to preserve and further the nation’s maritime interests.
Being a maritime nation means having a comfortable relationship with the sea, using it to national advantage and seeing it as a highway rather than as an obstacle. An illustration of this point can be seen in World War II. By 1941, Hitler had conquered much of the land of Europe, but because Germany was not a maritime power, he saw the English Channel (a mere twenty miles across at one point) as a barrier, and England remained outside his grasp. Yet the Americans and British were later able to strike across this same channel into Europe to eventually bring Nazi Germany to its knees. And in that same war, the United States attacked Hitler’s forces in North Africa from clear across the Atlantic Ocean—a distance of more than 3,000 nautical miles.
The navy of a maritime nation must be able to carry out a variety of strategic missions. Currently, the U.S. Navy has 6 important missions, all of which have been carried out effectively at various times in the nation’s history:
• Sea Control
• Forward presence
• Power projection
• Maritime Security
• Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response
Because navies are expensive, the newly created United States tried to do without one in the years immediately following the American Revolution. Within a year after the termination of hostilities with England, Congress ordered all naval vessels sold or destroyed. The men who had fought for independence as Sailors in the Continental Navy during the Revolution were left high and dry by the new government’s decision. John Paul Jones, the most famous American naval hero during the Revolution and later recognized as the “father of the U.S. Navy,” left America and served as an admiral in the Russian Navy. No money was allocated to the building of naval vessels in the first ten years, and George Washington, the general who had shown a keen understanding of the importance of naval power during the war, as president relied upon his Secretary of War to oversee both the Army and Navy, such as they were. Thomas Jefferson viewed a navy as not only expensive but provocative and, when he became the nation’s third President, oversaw the creation of an inexpensive fleet of defensive gunboats to guard the nation’s shores rather than invest in a sea-going fleet.
But these frugal measures did not last long. World events and human nature conspired to prove that a maritime nation cannot long endure without a navy. Almost immediately, the so-called Barbary pirates—the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, ruled by petty despots whose main source of income was derived from the seizure of ships or extorting protection money—began preying on defenseless American merchant shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, the ongoing struggle between France and England made American ships and their crews tempting targets, and both nations began taking advantage of the helplessness of the Americans by seizing merchant ships and sailors on flimsy pretexts. Under these provocations, the cost of not having a navy soon outweighed the cost of having one. Spurred to reluctant but unavoidable action by these costly and insulting blows to U.S. sovereignty, Congress approved the re-establishment of a navy and the building of several ships.
In a series of engagements on the high seas in the next two decades, the fledgling U.S. Navy successfully defended the nation’s right to use the world’s oceans. During the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800), the frigate Constellation defeated two French frigates in separate engagements, and other American ships, including the feisty little schooner Enterprise, managed to capture more than 80 French vessels of various sizes and descriptions. In the War with Tripoli (1801–5), a band of American Sailors and Marines led a daring raid into the enemy’s home harbor that earned them respect throughout much of the world. At the beginning of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy had only 17 ships while the British had over 600, yet the Americans won a number of ship-to-ship battles that contributed to the favorable outcome of the war. Considering the relative inexperience and small size of this new navy, American Sailors performed well, and the new nation secured its rights and proved its ability to use the oceans of the world. Never again would the United States be powerless to defend itself at sea.
Ever since those early days, the U.S. Navy has been on station, ensuring America’s right to use the sea for trade, for security, and for its growing role as a world power. As the nation grew stronger, the Navy also grew in size and capability. The early frigates that performed so well in battle with the French and British Navies during the Quasi War and the War of 1812 gave way to the ironclad monitors of the Civil War, and these were superseded by the big-gun, armored battleships and high-speed cruisers that won the Spanish American War in 1898.
In time, the United States emerged as a world power and the Navy’s mission of preserving freedom of the seas became more vital than ever. New technology led to the development of new kinds of ships, such as destroyers and submarines, and the invention of the airplane brought about naval aviation as a whole new component of the Navy. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy was called upon to fight the greatest sea war in history when Germany and Japan challenged America’s freedom of the seas, and maintaining that freedom was a major factor in the victory over Communism in the Cold War. Today the Navy continues its role of preserving our free use of the sea, a role that is not often thought of or talked about by the average citizen, but one that is absolutely vital to the nation’s well-being.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for a maritime nation to have a navy is to ensure that no other nation attacks it by sea. Even when President Jefferson was trying to avoid having a navy in order to save money, he recognized this elemental need and tried to use his gunboat fleet as a deterrent to attack. One of the reasons for the United States digging the Panama Canal in the early part of the 20th century was to permit U.S. warships to move rapidly from coast to coast and thereby deter a potential enemy from attacking our shores.
Improvements in technology—such as the development of high speed aircraft, powerful missiles, and long-range submarines—gradually increased our vulnerability to attack, and the Navy continued to play a vital role in protecting the nation by deterring our enemies, both real and potential. In 1962, the Soviet Union placed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy, a former Sailor himself, imposed a naval quarantine around the island and threatened nuclear retaliation as deterrent measures to keep the Soviets from using these missiles against the United States and other nations in the Western hemisphere and to ultimately force the Soviets to take the missiles out of Cuba.
All through the Cold War, the U.S. Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines patrolled the oceans of the world, armed with nuclear weapons ready to be launched on very short notice against an aggressor nation. This massive firepower, coupled with the striking power of U.S. aircraft carriers, land-based missiles, and the Air Force’s long-range aircraft, served as an effective deterrent to the Soviet Union. Without this deterrence, the U.S. would have been very vulnerable to attack and would not have been able to stand up to the extremely powerful Soviet Union in moments of crisis.
An example—little known among average Americans—of America’s ability to stand up to Soviet intimidation occurred during the Middle East War of 1973. Although neither the Soviet Union nor the United States was directly involved in that war between Israel and most of the Arab nations, the U.S. supported Israel while the USSR backed the Arab nations. When the Soviets began resupplying their clients by sending in massive quantities of weapons by airlift, the U.S. did the same for Israel. The U.S. Sixth Fleet took up station in the Mediterranean to provide protection for its aircraft flying into the war zone. When the war began going badly for the Arabs, the Soviets threatened to intervene. The United States responded by putting its forces on increased alert worldwide and by moving naval units into striking position. Faced with this deterrent, the Soviets thought better of their intervention and the war was ultimately ended and settled on equitable terms.
Several times—once as recently as the late 1990s—Communist China has threatened to attack the Nationalist Chinese on the island of Taiwan, and each time the U.S. Navy has moved into position to successfully deter the Communists from attacking.
There are many such examples when the Navy has been called upon to deter others from taking actions that were seen as dangerous to the U.S. or were not in the nation’s best interests. Just as an effective police patrol can deter criminals from committing crimes in a peaceful neighborhood, so the Navy preserves the peace and keeps our nation safe and prosperous by its mere existence and by its ability to patrol the waters of the world.
Another of the important missions of the Navy is based upon its ¬ability to go virtually anywhere in the world. This capability allows the United States to be in a position to reassure our allies in a time of crisis, to intimidate potential enemies (a form of deterrence), to deliver humanitarian aid when disaster strikes, to rescue Americans or our allies from dangerous situations, or to be able to carry out offensive military action in a timely manner.
Sometimes the presence of a single destroyer visiting a foreign port is all that is needed to carry out this vital mission. On other occasions, a carrier battle group or an entire fleet moving into a region is needed to send a strong message of warning or support. If hostilities become necessary, having units already at or near enemy territory can be a major advantage.
In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry used forward presence as a means to open diplomatic relations and, ultimately, trade with Japan, a nation that, until Perry’s visit, had shunned contact with the outside world. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, American naval ships patrolled the waters of the Far East to provide protection for our economic interests and the many American missionaries in that part of the world. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, the U.S. fleet already present in the Far East was able to strike a quick and decisive blow against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. Navy kept the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea and the Seventh Fleet in the Far East to reassure our allies in those regions that we were nearby and ready to respond in the event of a crisis. Today the Fifth Fleet has been added to make our presence known in the Middle East and nearby regions.
Today’s modern American military forces have great striking power through powerful armies and long-range aircraft, and some of those forces are maintained for quick response in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. But that kind of forward presence can only exist at the invitation of other nations who are willing to give us bases on their territory. The Navy allows us to have a presence wherever there is water and to extend that reach far inland through air power. In times of increased tension, naval units can be moved to positions where American presence is needed, without having to negotiate any complicated diplomatic arrangements, without requiring much time. Today the United States is a world power, and an extremely important component of that power is the U.S. Navy with its ability to extend American influence to nearly all parts of the globe.
Forward presence allows the U.S. Navy to be on station the world over, but just being there is not always enough. Sometimes, despite a nation’s efforts to remain at peace, the use of force becomes necessary. When that occurs, the Navy has always been particularly effective in projecting American power where it is needed.
As early as the American Revolution, an American naval squadron sailed to the British-owned Bahamas to capture needed weapons, and John Paul Jones furthered the American cause by conducting a series of daring raids against the British Isles themselves.
In 1847, during the war with Mexico, the Navy transported a force of twelve thousand Army troops to Vera Cruz, and played a crucial role in the successful capture of that port city, ultimately leading to an American victory in that war.
Union ships not only carried out an effective blockade of Confederate ports during the Civil War, they also attacked key southern ports and opened up the Mississippi river to Union use, effectively driving a wedge right into the heart of the Confederacy.
By escorting convoys, U.S. destroyers projected American power across the Atlantic to aid in an Allied victory during World War I. In the Second World War, American aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, amphibious vessels, troop transports, oilers, ammunition ships, minesweepers, PT-boats, and a wide variety of other ships carried the fight to the far corners of the world, slugging it out with powerful Japanese fleets in the Pacific, dueling with German submarines in the Atlantic, safely transporting incredible amounts of supplies to the many theaters of war, and landing troops on distant islands and on the African, Asian, and European coasts.
During the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars, naval power guaranteed our ability to project our power ashore, and naval aircraft, guns, and missiles inflicted significant harm on our enemies.
When American embassies in Africa were bombed by terrorists in 1998, American cruisers, destroyers, and submarines took retaliatory action by launching a Tomahawk-missile barrage at terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. In the following year, naval electronic warfare and strike aircraft were vital components of the air war in Kosovo, and in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the Navy has already played key roles in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When power needs to be projected, American naval forces have always been ready, willing, and able to accomplish the mission. American Sailors are sometimes de-scribed as the “tip of the sword” with good reason.
Threats other than those posed by hostile nations can emerge, such as piracy, terrorism, weapons proliferation, and drug trafficking. Countering these irregular threats and enforcing domestic and international law at sea protects our homeland, enhances global stability, and secures freedom of navigation for the benefit of all nations.
In 1819, Congress declared the infamous slave trade to be piracy and, in response, the Navy established an African Slave Trade Patrol to search for these dealers in human misery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, USS Constitution, USS Constellation, and many other Navy ships relentlessly plied the waters off West Africa, South America, and the Cuban coast, capturing more than 100 suspected slavers.
In more modern times, the “War Eagles” of Patrol Squadron 16, flying out of Jacksonville, Florida, played a vital role in the capture of 41 tons of cocaine, and USS Crommelin, working with USS Ticonderoga, intercepted a drug shipment of 72 bales of cocaine with an estimated street value of $36 million.
These operations are not what first come to mind when one thinks about a navy, but they are becoming more and more typical as economic globalization and asymmetric threats emerge in the 21st century.
Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response
Evacuating U.S. citizens from dangerous areas or situations has been a long-standing mission of the Navy, and helping people survive the ravages of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, is an unpredictable but vital task the Navy is often called upon to carry out.
Because of a potato blight in Ireland and western Scotland between 1846 and 1849, two million people either died or emigrated. In 1847, USS Jamestown and USS Macedonian carried food that had been donated by Americans to the relief of thousands starving in Ireland and western Scotland. To show their gratitude for having been saved from starvation, some of the residents named their children after the two ships.
In 2005, Navy ships arrived off America’s Southern coast to assist Gulf Coast residents in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane named Katrina. USS Bataan and USS Iwo Jima, ships designed to conduct amphibious assault operations, took on a very different mission, using Sea Stallion and Sea Hawk helicopters to conduct search and rescue missions, while Navy hovercraft evacuated victims, and SeaBees cleared debris and helped in many rebuilding efforts.
While combat operations are a well-known aspect of the Navy’s history, there have been and will continue to be many occasions when the Navy’s resources are turned to saving lives and helping large numbers of people who are in distress. The Navy’s expeditionary character and its great mobility make it uniquely positioned to provide assistance.
Other Missions and Feats
The missions described above are the more traditional ones, but the U.S. Navy has also played an important role in other realms, such as exploration and scientific discovery. For example, a Navy exploration team led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes took a squadron of ships around the world, exploring Antarctica and vast areas of the Pacific Ocean in the years 1838–42. His charts of the Pacific not only served mariners for many decades to come but were used in the invasion of Tarawa in the early part of World War II. Navy men Robert E. Peary and Richard E. Byrd were pioneers in polar exploration: Peary was the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, and Byrd flew over the South Pole in 1929. When Captain Ned Beach and his crew took their nuclear submarine USS Triton around the world in 1960, it was not the first time anyone had circumnavigated the earth, but it was the first time anyone had done it submerged for the entire voyage of 41,500 miles in 83 days. In that same year, Lieutenant Don Walsh went deeper than any human being has ever been when he and Jacques Picard took the bathyscaphe Trieste to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, 35,800 feet down (more than six and a half miles beneath the sea). Alan Shepard was in the Navy when he became the first American in space, and Neil Armstrong had been in the Navy before he became the first man to walk on the moon.
The Navy has often led the way or played a crucial role in many realms of scientific and technological development, such as electricity, radio communications, radar technology, computer science, and nuclear engineering. Among her many achievements in computer science, Grace Hopper invented COBOL, one of the important computer languages that led the way in computer development, and today a ship bears her name. The world of nuclear engineering has been forever affected by the work of Hyman Rickover, and a Navy man known to his shipmates as “Swede” Momsen changed the deep sea diving world by his inventions and his pioneering work. Another Navy diver, Carl Brashear, worked his way up from cook to master diver, salvaging a nuclear weapon from the depths of the Atlantic and losing a leg in the process. His inspiring story was the basis for a major motion picture.
These are but a very few of the many accomplishments in the ongoing story that serves as the heritage of this vital Service.
For more than two centuries, Sailors of the United States Navy have been recording an impressive history of courage, resourcefulness, sacrifice, innovation, humanitarianism, combat skill, and dedication to duty as they carry out those missions vital to a maritime nation. Even in the best fiction, it is not easy to find a better story than the one that makes up the true story of the U.S. Navy in action, a story of harrowing moments and great challenges that is full of excitement, adventure, and heroism. As in all worthwhile dramas, there also have been times when those who served made mistakes or were not up to the challenges placed before them. But even the mistakes of the past can serve as powerful lessons learned, helping to ensure that we continue to employ sea power for the preservation and improvement of this great nation.
History can be the most boring thing in the world if it is merely a list of names and dates, but heritage is written in a special ink that is a blend of the blood of sacrifice, the sweat of hard work, and the tears of pride that Sailors feel when they realize the importance of what you they doing. On this 233rd birthday of the U.S. Navy, let us reflect on our heritage, be proud of it, learn from it, and preserve it. Our Navy and the nation will be the better for it.