Review of William Leeman's Naval Academy history, "The Long Road to Annapolis"

By John Lehman
Sunday, August 8, 2010


The Founding of the Naval Academy and the Emerging American Republic

By William P. Leeman

Univ. of North Carolina. 292 pp. $39.95

After American independence, patriots believed that standing armies and professional navies were instruments of royal tyranny and had no place in the new republic. George Washington, "Cincinnatus of the West," set the model, taking up arms to defend his country and then returning to the plow when the threat was past. Militias were to suffice for the new republic's defense.

Barbary pirates, conflict with France and the War of 1812 brought the realization that, indeed, an army and navy were needed, but Thomas Jefferson did not trust their officer corps because they were largely in sympathy with his political enemy Alexander Hamilton. This fear helped motivate Jefferson to establish the military academy at West Point in 1802 to inculcate republican values. Naval officers, while equally pro-federalist, did not present as great a threat as their Army counterparts for they were usually away at sea. Thus, he saw much less need for a naval academy.

So for the first half-century of the Navy's existence, its officers studied their profession in "the school of the ship." Captains took responsibility for the professional and moral training of young midshipmen, requiring them to take classroom instruction at sea from chaplains or civilian schoolmasters, who assigned extensive reading in the classics, science, philosophy and history.

There were always advocates for a naval academy, beginning with the greatest naval hero of the revolution, John Paul Jones, but political support came only after a major scandal. In 1842, midshipman Philip Spencer, who happened to be the son of the secretary of war, was hanged aboard the training brig Somers by his captain on suspicion of conspiracy to mutiny. In 1845, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft seized on the Somers affair as a reason finally to establish a naval academy at Annapolis.

William Leeman has given us an excellent history of the politics and personalities animating the long debate over whether to establish a naval academy, with many interesting anecdotes along the way. He chronicles President Theodore Roosevelt's effort to establish Annapolis as the professional and cultural heart of the Navy. In 1906, Roosevelt made the discovery in Paris of John Paul Jones's body the occasion for a publicity event. In order to draw world, and especially congressional, attention to his plans for building a world-class Navy, Roosevelt sent a squadron of cruisers to France to bring Jones's body back to Annapolis for interment in a crypt under the Naval Academy chapel, patterned on Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides.

Like West Point, the Naval Academy rapidly became an important institution in the American ruling establishment. While merit certainly had an important role in the selection of cadets and midshipmen, appointments went disproportionately to the sons of influential and wealthy supporters of members of Congress. Between 1845 and 1945 only 2 percent of midshipmen came from working-class backgrounds. Whereas the Army consistently commissioned officers from the enlisted ranks, only 2 percent of naval officers in World War II had prior enlisted service. The ratio of officers from the better civilian universities to Annapolis grads in World War II was 70 to 1, with Annapolis alums usually found on the big prestigious ships and the grads from Officer Candidate School (OCS) relegated to the lesser craft. The saying was: "It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ring."

If one were starting from scratch without historical anxieties and political pressures, it is unlikely that the current Naval Academy would be the outcome. There is an inherent conflict between a liberal education based on skeptical inquiry and military indoctrination requiring unquestioning obedience. Combining the two educational cultures tends to create a pressure chamber with too much to do and no time to think and absorb.

European military training has evolved in very different ways. In the United Kingdom, the naval academy at Dartmouth and the military academy at Sandhurst are based on an 18-month military-only curriculum by which military science and leadership are taught to the exclusion of purely academic subjects. Those who wish to get a university degree normally do so at a civilian university before or after they graduate from the academy. Officers thus gain a better understanding of civilian culture and intellectual freedom, while also getting an undiluted indoctrination in military professionalism. This form of military education is also a lot less expensive.

Some argue that relying on civilian university programs such as ROTC would not produce officers who stay for a full career. Yet less than 50 percent of academy graduates make the Navy or Marine Corps a career, which is about the same as ROTC and OCS members. The cost to the taxpayer for a commissioned officer from a service academy is much higher than from ROTC. OCS is by far the best bargain of all.

Critics have suggested that an institution led by people who all went to the same school will resist outside ideas and innovations. That has certainly not been my experience with the senior naval officer corps. Innovation has originated much more from naval officers than from outside critics. Submarines, aircraft carriers and, in my day, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and ultra-high-tech communication all were introduced by creative naval officers working with like-minded civilians.

Leeman has told a fine tale of how the Naval Academy came to be. His next book should take on the even more tumultuous story of how it became what it is today.

John Lehman was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission, and is a member of the National Defense Commission.

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