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Adams, John A. If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War: An Analysis of World War II Naval Strategy.

Adams, John A. If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War: An Analysis of World War II Naval Strategy. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2008. 472pp. $34.95

It is said of Secretary of War Henry Stimson that in World War II he "frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy was the only true Church." Now we can judge the validity of that comment, thanks to John Adams's If Mahan Ran the Great Pacific War. Adams grades both the U.S. force and its opponent, the Imperial Japanese Navy (another service professing Mahanian orthodoxy), according to their respective adherence to the sacred text. The result is a lively, interesting exercise in counterfactual history, one that deals both with what occurred and what might have occurred had the high commands of both navies been more true to what one might call "the revealed Word."

Counterfactual history is suspect to many historians, who feel they have enough problems figuring out what actually happened, let alone considering what could have happened. However, the Strategy and Policy course at the Naval War College thinks differently, seeking a host of alternatives. Adams essentially agrees, possibly because he is a business executive and not a professional historian; he has written this excellent book as an avocation (more power to him). "War is too important to be left to the generals," said Clemenceau in World War I. History is too important to be left to historians, if they will not write about counterfactual contingencies.

My reservations about this book are slight but do exist. Excuse my sacrilege, but having taught for twenty years at the U.S. Army Staff College, I cannot help thinking that there might be occasions when Mahan's precepts could be insufficient. Take his well known injunction, "Don't divide the fleet."

Admiral William F. Halsey took this to heart when he was in command of the Third Fleet at the largest naval battle in human history--Leyte Gulf, in late October 1944. As all readers of this journal know, Halsey took his entire force with him to chase down a decoy rather than divide it and provide a blocking force of battleships and escort carriers to prevent a Japanese exit from the San Bernardino Strait. Since Mahan, presumably, cannot be wrong, the blame must fall to Halsey, for not realizing that his fleet was so powerful that he could divide it and still sustain local superiority. However, because Mahan never considered a situation such as this, one must judge him inadequate as a guide in the last year of the great Pacific War.

"No plan survives first major contact with the enemy," wrote Helmut von Moltke the Elder, chief of the German General Staff in the mid-nineteenth century. If this be true of plans, which are far less abstract than theories, should one expect that Mahan provides adequate direction through all the contingencies that a warrior might face?


U.S. Army Command and General Staff College


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Author:Pearlman, Michael
Publication:Naval War College Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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