The best and worst navy presidents
September 28th, 2012
01:22 PM ET

The best and worst navy presidents

By James Holmes, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Last week, GPS heard from historians who they saw as the most and least successful U.S. presidents. But Naval War College Professor James Holmes has another take: the most and least successful naval presidents. Here’s what he had to say (the views expressed are his own):

My standards for naming a chief executive to either list were simple. Did he compile a sustained record of supporting a robust navy, or one of neglect? If not, did he do something brief but exceptional in the domain of maritime strategy, either for good or for ill?

Let’s start with the worst. It pains me that three of my favorite Americans, including two Founders and one of our greatest generals, were indifferent – at best – stewards of U.S. maritime strategy:

3. James Madison. Madison inherited a bad situation from Thomas Jefferson. To his credit, he acknowledged the importance of naval power for the fledgling republic. Still, Theodore Roosevelt issued a harsh verdict in his Naval War of 1812, adjudging Madison and his predecessor guilty of “criminal folly” for failing to field a battle fleet. One need not go that far to concede that Madison did next to nothing to bolster the U.S. Navy prior to the War of 1812. He thus left the United States ill-prepared to combat Great Britain’s Royal Navy on the high seas. Despite the navy’s early single-ship victories, the republic saw its ports blockaded and its commerce choked off during the conflict.

2. Thomas Jefferson. John Adams left the Jefferson administration in decent shape seapower-wise, having acquired adequate timber to construct a small but first class battle fleet. Such a navy, located astride sea lanes connecting Britain to important economic interests in the West Indies, would have granted U.S. leaders outsized leverage over Britain at a time when that nation was fighting for its life against Napoleon. But the timber went to waste, the ships-of-the-line for which it was meant were never built, and the leverage remained elusive.

1. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant presided over a dark age for the U.S. Navy. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, our second president at the Naval War College and a serving naval officer, pronounced the post-Civil War era one of “dead apathy” for the sea service in both material and intellectual terms. Having briefly stood at the forefront of naval technology, the navy dwindled to about fifty rickety wooden vessels by the time Grant left office. His bequest to American sea power was a fleet inferior to the Chilean Navy. That became a diplomatic problem when Washington demanded to mediate an end to war between Chile and its neighbors and Santiago invited Washington to butt out. The upside: so bleak was this dark age that it prompted a naval renaissance in the 1880s.

Now for my three best navy presidents:

3. John Adams. As the first U.S. minister to Great Britain, Adams was among the first to warn that the former mother country saw the new republic as an emerging maritime rival. He cautioned that Britain wanted to diminish American sea power even more than it wanted to enhance its own. Adams carried these convictions into the presidency, pushing for the construction of a vibrant fleet to defend U.S. commercial interests in a hazardous world. The famous “six frigates” were completed on his watch, along with plans for 74-gun ships-of-the-line. Alas, his dismal performance in the 1800 election foreshortened the naval project.

2. Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was another president whose interest in sea power predated his ascent to the presidency. Along with Mahan and Henry Cabot Lodge, he was among the coterie of enthusiasts who tried to cajole Americans into building a great navy and expanding U.S. interests overseas. While in the White House, he dispatched the Great White Fleet on its famous world cruise and took a personal hand in battleship design. As Walter Lippmann pointed out, Roosevelt was among the few chief executives who attempted to match expansive foreign commitments with adequate naval means.

1. Franklin Roosevelt. A naval proponent since reading Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History as a teenager, FDR served as Woodrow Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy and an architect of Wilson’s “navy second to none” during World War I. As president he helped shepherd several navy bills through Congress, culminating in the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940 – the law that in effect authorized the construction of a second complete navy. That let the U.S. Navy wage war in both the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. It also midwifed the two-ocean navy we know today. It’s hard to gainsay such a legacy.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of ‘Red Star over the Pacific’, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. The views voiced here are his alone.

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Topics: Military • United States

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    Pres. John Adams was right about the British. Long after the Revolutionary War(1776-1783) the British were hoping to regain control of the U.S. It wasn't until the War of 1812 before the British gave up that notion and that's why they wanted to keep American sea power at a weak level.

    September 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  2. Isaac

    Source?

    September 28, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Reply
    • 100 % ETHIO

      U don't deserve it. Bcs, U r J.

      September 29, 2012 at 6:16 am | Reply
      • Muhammad

        So your insult means you have no idea where your buddy got the info–most likely pulled from his hiney.
        Does it hurt to pull such crap out of it?

        September 29, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  3. 100 % ETHIO

    President Ulysses S Grant, has been pieced-off by Jewish Author who wrote book about him.
    The author kept criticized and dis-credited the American President, just because he is not Jewish.

    Similarly, the Jew website and newspaper, http://www.hareetz.com, posted every negative words and pictures of President Obama.

    We all knew, the Jewish who have no Oil and Zero Natural resources got rich, by the expenses of poor people around the World and by Compensations, as well.

    Others has been criticized, when they comment about Holocaust, Nazism and Jewish betrayals others. So, why Jewish complained?

    If you don't stop it, who will?!?

    Since the last 20 years, more than Billion non-Jewish people died, due to Wars, Natural disasters, diseases,...But, Jewish stuck with the 1941 death and keep earning Trillion Dollars/Year from Worldwide.

    Jew came yesterday to North-America, after RUNAWAY from Hitler. What do Jew know about American history? Except having accesses into RBC (Radiological, Biological and Chemical) substances, that they administering against non-Jewish on flu Seasons.

    Why? Are the rest of the people not human-beings?

    September 29, 2012 at 6:08 am | Reply
    • Lynne Larson

      Why is this discussion here?

      October 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Since the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, the US has been expanding its airpower. The stealth technology and unmanned aircrafts will change the nature of warfare! So Obama would be the first president to claim the credit.

    September 30, 2012 at 4:07 am | Reply
  5. terrosist killers now in jordan from iraq he has uk passport

    بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم والصلاة والسلام على نبينا الكريم محمد صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم

    امانة في اعناقكم ان تنشروا هذه الرسالة كي تفضح كل من تتلطخ يديه بدماء العراقيين الابرياء من حملة الجنسيات المزدوجة الذين ياتون الى العراق بمهمات من اسيادهم بالخارج لقتل العالم والضابط والدكتور والمهندس بابشع الطرق من الكاتم الى الدريل ( ثاقب الحديد ) الى الكي بالتيزاب ومن داخل السجون وخارجها ورميهم بمكب النفايات وكانهم ليسوا بشرا اكرمهم الله . نرجو ان تكشفوا هؤلاء لانهم يشغلون وظائف داخل المجتمع ويتخفون تحتها وهم العن من ابليس وقتلة الابرياء وسنرد اسماءهم الواحد تلو الاخر ومن هؤلاء الخونة والقتلة :

    المدعو بشار مكتوف راضي من الجنسية العراقية للاسف ويحمل جواز سفر بريطاني ويدعي بانه يحمل رتبة عميد في جهاز المخابرات العراقية وهو يدعي الان يعمل متخفيا بوظيفة نائب مدير شركة زين العراق للاتصالات ليتسنى له التنصت على المكالمات للذين ينوي اغتيالهم هو وشبكته بكل سهولة فمن خلال التنصت يعرف تفاصيل المواعيد والاماكن التي يتواجدون فيها ليسهل اعتقالهم واغتيالهم .

    وهو بعلاقاته مع ضعفاء النفوس في المملكة الاردنية الهاشمية استخرج اقامة نظامية باسم شركات وهمية وقد دخل شريك في مطعم له سمعته كي يطور علاقاته مع جميع الشرائح بالاردن واسم المطعم هو الملح والزاد مقابل فندق الهولدي ان تقريبا .

    هذه المعلومات مؤكدة من شخص من ذات الشبكة ادلى بها لي وهو هارب منهم خوفا من تصفيته من قبل قائده المدعو بشار مكتوف راضي

    امانة باعناقكم الى يوم الدين ان تعمموا هذا الايميل انقاذا لارواح الابرياء

    September 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  6. شركة

    � ������� �������� + ����� ���

    October 12, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply
  7. IRAN=SYRIA=IRAQ=EVIL=HIZBOALLAH=TERRORISTS

    FK IRAQ FK IRAN FK THE SHIIA IN SYRIA AND THOSE EVIL COUNTRIES , FK HIZBOALLAH./////THOSE IDIOTS THUGS SHIIA WHO MARRIED THERE COUSINS AND MAKE MOTAA WITH FEMALE CHILDREN ARE EVIL. USA SHOULD BE A SHAMED SITTING SILENT AGANIST 70.000 CEVILAINS THAT WERE KILLED BY THOSE SHIIA......USA AND NATO SHOULD GET RED OF THE SHIIA ASAD SYRIAN EVIL GOVERNMENT WHO IS HELPED BY IRAN AND IRAQ WITH RUSSIAN WEAPONS AND MONEY FROM OIL...WHY IS THIS SILENT ATTACK IRAN NOW. ISRAEL CAN HANDEL HIZBOALLAH TURKEY SHOULD GO AFTER SYRIA AND U SA AFTER IRAN GET RED OF EVIL BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE

    November 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply

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