THIS PEOPLE'S NAVY The Making of American Sea Power

By Kenneth J. Hagan Free Press. 434 pp. $27.95

AS LITERATURE, the best history, from Thucydides to Tuchman, has been written from a partisan viewpoint and often around one controlling idea. Impartiality can really be achieved only by the driest of scholars, who are the drabbest of writers. As a case in point, I offer This People's Navy by Kenneth J. Hagan, easily the best one-volume history of the U.S. Navy yet written. His controlling idea -- that little ships are better than big ships -- is even wrong, but perhaps one can agree that a little book is sometimes better than a big book.

The U.S. Army has always been divided between partisans of direct main force using infantry and artillery, and partisans of countervailing maneuver using cavalry, special forces, etc. And the U.S. Navy has from the beginning had its cleavage between partisans of big ships for command of the sea, and partisans of small ships for a Navy of coastal and commerce-raiding -- ships-of-the-line versus sloops and frigates in the sailing days; dreadnoughts versus torpedo boats at the turn of the century; and aircraft carriers versus "sea-control ships" in the '70s. Hagan is a passionate small-ship man.

He uses the French term guerre de course for the strategy of the American navy beginning in the War of Independence: "to hit and run, to attack enemy merchant vessels and small warships and flee if faced with a stronger naval opponent." While some even then advocated building ships-of-the-line to take on the massive global battle fleet of the Royal Navy, it was never a possibility for the first 100 years. But the American colonists were among the world's finest mariners and possessed a vast commercial fleet. The actual guerre de course in the Revolution was carried out primarily by American privateers rather than by the navy. As Hagan points out, these privately owned and financed warships made an enormous impact on the success of the war effort. But Hagan gets the numbers wrong. He estimates that privateers captured 600 British merchantmen during the war, whereas the actual records in Lloyd's archives in London show they captured more than 2,600 or 12 percent of the British merchant fleet. The navy captured a small fraction of that number.

The activities of both Union and Confederate Navies in the Civil War were almost exclusively devoted to guerre de course. The Union blockade of Confederate ports, though very porous, gradually choked the Confederacy to death, while the river campaigns split the Confederacy in two. The Confederate Navy served mainly to protract the war and delay the effectiveness of the tightening naval noose, but its British-built commerce raiders, such as Alabama and Shenandoah, seriously disrupted Union seaborne commerce.

The development of enormously destructive naval guns and heavy armor and steam propulsion powerful enough to propel ships so equipped marked the emergence of a new American philosophy of seapower. The Influence of Seapower Upon History by Alfred Thayer Mahan, published in 1890, launched the navy on a strategy of what Hagan describes as guerre d'escadre centered on large capital ships able to achieve "command of the seas."

THE BOOK has many good sea yarns with parallels today. Consider the secretary of the navy in 1800, explaining why he was sending frigates to Tripoli: "It is conceived . . . that such a squadron cruising in view of the Barbary powers will have a tendency to prevent them from seizing on our commerce, whenever passion or a desire of plunder might incite them thereto." The Reagan administration could have used the verbatim text in 1986 when dealing with another Tripoli pirate.

One naval event of the last century having no parallel so far in this one was the American naval attack on Kuala Batu in Sumatra in 1832. The raid was ordered by the president after a U.S. senator demanded redress for seizure of a ship that he owned carrying a valuable cargo of opium. The Whig party in Congress passed a motion of censure against President Jackson "for waging war without a Congressional declaration."

Hagan makes clear that Mahan and his naval disciples were architects, not merely reporters, of the great imperial expansion of turn-of-the-century America. His ideas were instrumental in forming the policies of his good friend and boss Theodore Roosevelt, and he played a dominant role in the actual conduct of the naval war with Spain in 1898. With the acquisition of the Philippines, navy strategists became convinced that war between the United States and Japan was inevitable. By 1911 "Plan Orange," the first draft of the island-hopping naval strategy for war with Japan in the Pacific, was complete. Although it went through many modifications, it remained identifiable as the actual war plan carried out by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific in World War II.

The turn of the century saw the first call by the secretary of the navy for a navy "second to none," a policy explicitly adopted by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, in the first American bid for parity with Britannia's rule of the waves. The success of unrestricted submarine warfare in World War I brought home a new realization that, whatever the importance of capital ships, the ability to interdict and protect commerce remained a fundamentally important element in command of the seas.

Despite the isolationism and disarmament of the interwar period, the combination of a president devoted to the navy (Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been assistant secretary of the navy for eight years during the Wilson administration) and a strong chairman of the House Naval Committee (Carl Vinson) ensured that sufficient ships -- both large and small -- were built. The New Shipbuilding Acts of 1934 and 1938 were landmark laws that enabled successful prosecution of both guerre de course and guerre d'escadre in the Atlantic and the Pacific during World War II. Though Hagan won't admit it, Mahan and large capital ships were vindicated in the great sea battles of Midway, the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf, while the small-ship men were vindicated by the submarine and anti-submarine campaigns and dozens of amphibious assaults in both theaters. Hagan, however, strains to argue that the greatest naval war in history demonstrated the irrelevance of Mahan and of capital ships. Silly talk.

He sees the Korean and Vietnam wars as further vindication of the "small is beautiful" school of naval strategy. But Hagan carries his dichotomy theory too far. The tasks that the navy must be able to do in the modern world do not fit neatly into one or the other set of missions. The navy of the '80s had to be able to carry out the Mahanian mission of deterring Soviet attempts to dominate the seas around the world. But it also had to deal with state-sponsored terrorism, intercept Achille Lauro pirates, land marines, escort tankers in the Gulf and carry out strategic nuclear patrols underwater. And so the large capital ships today -- the aircraft carriers and the battleships with Tomahawks, Harpoons, strike aircraft, sub hunters, air superiority fighters and rescue helicopters -- are as important to guerre de course as to guerre d'escadre.

But, his editorializing aside, Hagan's book is unlike most recent naval histories in that it is really a history of the ideas and politics that built the ships, and the men who directed them to distant waters. And unlike most of the official histories, his gives full credit to the dominant contribution of civilian naval leaders in reforming, building and leading the navy -- Robert Morris, the Adams family, Bancroft, Toucey, Welles, Fox, the Roosevelts, Forrestal and Sullivan. Nor is the domestic political context of the events ignored. Like his depiction of the texture of world events, it is just enough to get the picture but not to distract from his story.

Towards the end of this excellent book, however, it is shocking to find that apparently some lunatic got hold of one of the manuscript pages and scribbled nonsense. The Forward Strategy established by the present reviewer, for instance, is described as "fundamentally archaic," because Gorbachev's revolution in the Soviet Union was already ending the Cold War. But of course Gorbachev didn't actually come to power until four years after the Forward Strategy was implemented and made official doctrine in the Norwegian Sea exercises of 1981. Aircraft carriers are derided on the same page because they supposedly cannot enter the Persian Gulf. As poor Saddam has learned, carriers and battleships operate quite effectively in the Gulf.

These howlers will no doubt be corrected in later printings, but I recommend not waiting. Just buy the book now and tear out page 387 as I did.

John Lehman, who was secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration, is the author of "Command of the Seas: A Personal Story."