US Naval History Articles

Apologies that I am not able to reproduce exactly as written. Footnote references are not super-scripted, I could not figure out how to copy the photos, and there are, likely, other minor mistakes. Simply read on and don’t let those issues distract you from these well-written pieces.

What Is a Navy For?
Strategic purpose is not the same thing as operational necessities.
By Nicholas A. Lambert
April 2021

US Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 147/4/1,418


Speaking to Congress, the Chief of Naval Operations recently argued that the purpose of the U.S. Navy hinged on the timeless missions of sea control and power projection.1 Perhaps so. But to most people, these phrases raise more questions than they answer. Control at what cost, and to what end? Power to do what, exactly? Projected where and how? Such declarations seem unlikely to induce taxpayers to fork over the enormous sums entailed, especially when so many think the money could be better spent fixing pressing domestic problems. But this is nothing new.
More than a century ago, the patron saint of the U.S. Navy grappled with similar difficulties. Alfred Thayer Mahan faced a U.S. public riven by deep internal disagreement and skeptical of the need to spend scarce public resources on the Navy. Looking back on his career, Mahan considered that one of his greatest achievements was providing “men in civil life” with a coherent answer to a simple but profound question: “Why do we need a Navy?” In his autobiography’s opening chapter, he observed:
Between the day of my entrance into the service, fifty years ago, and the present, nowhere is change more notable than in the matter of atmosphere; of the national attitude towards the navy and comprehension of its office. Then it was accepted without much question as part of the necessary lumber that every adequately organized maritime state carried, along with the rest of a national establishment. Of what use it was, or might be, few cared much to inquire. There was not sufficient interest even to dispute the necessity of its existence.2
The conventional understanding of Mahan is that he persuaded his countrymen through a crude argument about the primacy of the combat battlefleet. While Mahan did make arguments in his earliest work supporting such a characterization, he made others pointing in a very different direction—toward economic pressure, not battle, as the ultimate object of naval force. Over time, combat became ever less pronounced and economics ever more so in his explanation of sea power. Mahan became a pioneering thinker about the importance of naval power in a globalized world economy, as well as of public opinion in shaping national strategic policy. His understanding came to center on the role of naval power in facilitating—or deranging—international trade. Coming to grips with the sophistication of his thinking, especially in his later work, makes him more, not less, relevant for the task today: convincing taxpayers that the Navy performs so vital a mission they must fund it.

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Ships offload cargo in Shanghai, China. Winning battles is a means to a navy’s ends. The true end is what Alfred Thayer Mahan called the “derangement” of an adversary’s trade and, thereby, economy. Credit: Shutterstock


Mahan’s campaign began with the 1890 publication of The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783. He provided a novel, systematic, and coherent explanation of the purpose of a navy, covering the generation, employment, and mechanics of applying power at sea to attain national objectives. Peppering the historical narrative with allusions to contemporary issues, he argued that sea power had influenced the course of human history more than any other single factor. As future president Theodore Roosevelt remarked in a review of Mahan for Political Science Quarterly, “It seems almost incredible, when we think of the immense part played by naval power in history, that no historian should ever yet have treated it at length from the philosophic standpoint; yet this is literally the case.”3
Contrary to popular opinion, Influence was not primarily about the employment of naval forces in wartime; rather, it was about the importance of state coordination of national maritime (including naval) resources to achieve relative advantage in both peace and war. Furthermore, the book’s central proposition was fundamentally economic: “Both travel and traffic by water have always been easier and cheaper than by land.” State power, Mahan held, was a function of national wealth, and the generation of wealth derived from commerce. In modern times, the single most valuable font of commercially produced wealth was overseas trade. Following this logic, he reasoned that access to the sea (the “common”) was essential to national well-being; hence the need for a strong navy to guarantee access. Though Mahan spent a further 20 years refining precisely how sea power worked, the core thread of his overall theory remained unaltered. In identifying the interrelationships between trade, wealth, and power, Mahan was the first to articulate a coherent explanation for why states should invest in navies.
On his retirement in November 1896 after 40 years of service, Captain Mahan turned his attention to educating the public and its elected representatives. Having been impressed by the impact of public opinion on strategic decision-making during the Spanish-American War, he wrote:
The study of the Art and History of War is preeminently necessary to men of the profession, but there are reasons which commend it also, suitably presented, to all citizens of our country. Questions connected with war—when resort to war is justifiable, preparation for war, the conduct of war—are questions of national moment, in which each voter—nay, each talker—has an influence for intelligent and adequate action, by the formation of sound public opinion; and public opinion, in operation, constitutes national policy.4
This striking formulation—“public opinion, in operation, constitutes national policy”—concisely expressed Mahan’s understanding of its relationship to the Navy. He wanted his countrymen to better understand that the United States inhabited a dangerous world likely soon to become a good deal more dangerous; that events outside the continental United States impinged on the nation’s general economic security—and its long-term prosperity. Through education, Mahan hoped the electorate would more readily accept the necessity of a strong navy: He tried to show citizens how their navy was essential to protecting their interests. More than most naval officers of any generation, Mahan understood the paramount necessity for naval policy to command not just public assent but also public understanding to obtain the requisite levels of funding.
Mahan undertook his educational campaign at an inflection point in U.S. history. Naval reform remained a contentious political issue throughout the 1890s, provoking disagreement over the precise character and purpose of the force needed, and especially over the funds required. The dispute was so intense because it occurred during a period of social upheaval and economic depression—and against the background of a still more profound debate over the future shape of U.S. society. Simply put, there were competing fiscal demands. Some interests wanted the federal government to invest instead in national infrastructure (or the Panama Canal). Others demanded more generous pensions (especially for Union Civil War veterans). A large number thought the money would be better spent fixing societal problems at home—a down payment on a redistribution of wealth necessary to create a more equitable society. (Sound familiar?) It was an ongoing debate with clear parallels to today. Mahan’s skill was in relating seemingly narrow naval issues to politically important nonnaval ones. That was why he commanded a large audience.

Globalization I

In his later work (which is seldom read), Mahan refined his thinking about sea power. Belying his reputation as a crude apostle of the combat battlefleet, Mahan explored the workings of, and contemporary changes to, the global economic system. Indeed, it is fair to say Mahan was an early student of the late-19th-century economic transformation that today is called the first era of globalization, or Globalization I (the current era being Globalization II).
He made two key insights. First, he perceived that economic systems—old and modern—were intrinsically dynamic: The production of wealth was chiefly a function of the flow of international trade and spin-off commerce, not of raw productive capacity. Second, he saw that the growing interdependencies among national economies had myriad implications for the practical application of sea power. Consider: How can one apply naval pressure effectively if one does not understand the system one is trying to disrupt or control? What if economic pressure points—naval targets—shift as economic systems change?
In parallel, Mahan thought deeply on the changing character of war. As early as 1895, he displayed concern over the brittleness of modern societies—industrialized, urbanized, noisily democratic, and increasingly dependent on access to international trade—and voiced his fear that modern workers would be far less willing than their forebears to tolerate lower standards of living consequent to economic disruption caused by war. This growing brittleness, he realized, had strategic implications.
Although he consistently deprecated guerre de course as incapable of achieving decisive strategic results, he became more and more convinced that systematic commerce destruction, through blockade—economic warfare—was the primary object of sea power. Destruction of the enemy’s battlefleet might be a necessary means to this end, but only a means. Derangement of the enemy’s economy, so as to corrode the stability of its society, was the true end of naval force. In his own words: “The object of a blockade proper is to embarrass the finances of a country by shutting its ports to foreign commerce, thus deranging one main feature of its general markets, and thereby bring confusion into the whole [economy].”5
In 1910, Mahan wrote to The Times (of London) neatly summarizing his latest thinking on this point. Taking aim at a recent article that had argued “that ‘completely disorganizing the conditions of business’ constitutes ‘a pressure of comparatively small importance’ upon a nation at war,” Mahan responded:
I will venture the assertion that historically this is not so; that “complete disorganization of business,” which it is argued will result from the exercise of the right of maritime capture, has always constituted a “very important,” and often—if not always—a decisive “pressure.” To say that the greatness and intricacy of modern industrial and commercial development will cause the pressure hereafter to be greater is reasonably probable, and may safely be prophesized. To bring the pressure of war to bear upon the whole population, and not merely upon the armies in the field, is the very spirit of modern warfare.6
In short, Mahan predicted that major conflict between advanced industrial powers would imperil the highly optimized global economic system that underpinned industrial societies. What is more, in the future, sea power would become even more potent.
While Mahan discerned much on future maritime war, he never explained what would be necessary to make what we could term his “Sea Power 2.0” fully effective. The first to identify and assemble the remaining pieces of the puzzle was Admiral Jackie Fisher (who corresponded with Mahan). Under his leadership, the British Admiralty devised a strategy that married the Royal Navy to Britain’s effective monopoly over the transport, financial services, and communications infrastructure underpinning global trade.7 Information advantage was the key component. The effectiveness of the new strategy—or rather its potential, for very early on during World War I, Britain aborted full-on economic warfare because the resultant levels of collateral damage were too great—was quickly brought home to the Wilson administration after Britain started regulating U.S. trade (through neutrals) with Germany. Friction with Britain over trade provided the impetus for beginning a U.S. Navy “second to none” and the catalyst for the political cross-party pact necessary to introduce a progressive income tax to pay for it.8
Confusing Objectives with Objects
Why is Mahan not remembered this way? For one thing, Mahan’s work is difficult to read—perhaps he took too seriously the prophet’s charge to be mystical and inscrutable. He made most of his arguments implicitly, compelling readers to infer his point from the surrounding context. His earlier work is poorly structured and riddled with apparent contradictions. Even if, as Jon Sumida has shown, Mahan’s writing is a good deal more coherent and consistent than his critics have complained, fathoming his later work is complicated by the need to know a great deal of the history from his era.9 There are two other factors to consider.
First, most naval officers (including his mentor, Stephen Luce) displayed more interest in plundering Mahan’s books for operational precepts than for strategic insights. While this allowed them to skip over all the boring economics stuff, alas, it reversed his logic in the process. Mahan did indeed argue that the primary naval objective should be to obtain command of the sea (sea control) and that this could best be achieved by using battleships to win decisive sea battles. But the Navy interpreted this to mean that a battlefleet, command of the sea, and national power were functionally equivalent. In so doing, however, it conflated the conceptually distinct operational, strategic, and grand strategic levels of his analysis. Mahan in fact thought the principal goal of sea power was to create political leverage to bring an end to conflict on favorable terms by deranging the enemy’s economy and society. The (Navy’s) operational objective, the enemy fleet, was the subordinate means to the main political object.
Second, Mahan was writing not for posterity, but for a well-educated contemporary audience that recognized his allusions and references to the leading political issues of the day. In particular, Mahan’s writing was influenced by his perceptions of the first era of globalization—which World War I destroyed. International trade took nearly a century to recover. In the aftermath of the war, moreover, the future trended toward autarky and barter between trading blocks.
During World War II, the entire character of the conflict—as well as the nature and role of international trade—was very different from what it had been before. This is not to say trade interdiction became less important—on the contrary. While the Navy’s surface fleet hopped toward Japan, Admiral Charles Lockwood’s submarine force quietly annihilated Japan’s merchant marine, cutting off the Home Islands from oil and reducing its population to starvation. The regulation of neutral trade—normally a critical aspect of commerce destruction—was moot, because there was none. If it floated and was proceeding in the wrong direction, the Navy sank it.
When, therefore, Harold Sprout (incorrectly) remarked to a 1954 audience at the Naval War College that “Mahan never achieved much sophistication in the economic field and in consequence his economic thinking was a century behind the times,” he revealed far more about his own world than Mahan’s.10 By the 1950s, the international economy had changed out of all recognition, rendering much of Mahan’s analysis not merely irrelevant but incomprehensible. The term “globalization” had not even been invented. For many years thereafter, historians smushed together the effects of “globalization” with those of “industrialization.” During the late 1950s, international trade began to revive, but not until the 1980s can it be said that Globalization II had begun. Only since have Mahan’s thoughts become fully visible once again.

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Convoy duty is unglamorous, dangerous, and hard, but it is one way to prevent an adversary from deranging your own trade, as well as that of allies and neutrals. Here, World War II Liberty ships are seen in convoy from an escort. Credit: Naval Institute Photo Archive

Stand Navy out to Sea, Trade Our Battle Cry!

The Navy’s primary purpose is to sustain friendly commerce by sea. Today, like it or not, globalization is again the order of business, and national supply chains stretch around the globe. The smooth operation of the international economy is critical to U.S. economic security, social stability, and national prosperity. All major commodities are traded globally, and the prices Americans pay (with occasional sharp changes that have a tremendous political impact at home) are set not by local factors of supply and demand, but in the global marketplace. Key sectors at the heart of the national economy—e.g., information management, steel, and aviation—are unavoidably intertwined. Yet, just as in the 1890s, politicians today seem loath to admit that the forces of globalization are beyond governments’ ability to control, at least for very long. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, Americans might not be interested in globalization, but globalization is interested in them. Spending on the Navy may thus be seen as an insurance premium for national prosperity.
A powerful navy also exists as a force for deterrence. In the event of a conflict, it becomes the principal instrument of commerce destruction. A modern blockade can be thought of as a massive, systematic “denial of access” to the global trading system—across, under, and over the sea. Possession of a large fleet does not automatically confer the ability to achieve effective blockade. Nor can the capability be improvised on the fly: Up-to-date comprehension of current business practices, for example, is vital.
Yet preparation is difficult, for it compels politicians and the public to face unpleasant truths. The greatest challenge always is stopping neutrals (and your own people) from trading with the enemy. (For many businessmen, “patriotism” assumes elastic properties in wartime.) The effective interdiction of enemy trade necessitates regulation of neutral trade, as it always has; it is delusional to think otherwise. This regulation inevitably leads to diplomatic friction (making a navy unpopular in other parts of the government) and compels the service to enter the quagmire that is the law of nations. The howls of protest and pleas for “special exceptions” from abroad and at home will become deafening. It is therefore doubly necessary to be prepared.
Today’s Navy requires two things above all else: clear vision and money. It knows how to fight, and it can undertake complex operations. But in the long calm lee of Midway, has it perhaps confined itself overmuch to addressing the single potential adversary that its history has taught it to expect, while at the same time losing sight of its raison d’être? Naval officers are in the business of sharpening the point of the spear, as they must be, but sea power and combat capability are not the same thing. Navies are chiefly about peace, preserving it and securing it for civilian purposes. If conflict comes, moreover, without clear strategic aim, naval action is mere combat in pursuit of what Mahan termed “the sterile glory of fighting battles merely to win them.” To qualify as “strategic,” an action must meet two requirements. First, it must aim directly at achieving an overarching political goal. Second, it must include a path to end hostilities on acceptable terms: There must be an “off-switch.” What worked in 1945 will not work now.

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Admiral Charles Lockwood’s Pacific submarine force annihilated Japan’s merchant marine, cutting off the Home Islands from oil and reducing its population to starvation. If a ship was proceeding in the wrong direction, the Navy sank it. Credit: Naval Institute Photo Archive

The world has changed, and the Navy must change with it—as Mahan did. If the Navy struggles to articulate what it is for and what it can do in the modern world, then what are the prospects of getting Congress and the electorate to pay for what it needs? In times of relative plenty, lack of clear vision may not matter so much; but when fiscal resources are scarce, and there is serious competition for funds, then convincing taxpayers becomes paramount. As Jackie Fisher was fond of quipping, “The recipe for Jugged Hare begins with, ‘First catch your hare.’”

1. ADM Michael Gilday, USN, Statement to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management, 2 December 2020.
2. RADM Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN (Ret.), From Sail to Steam: Recollections of a Naval Life (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907), 7–8.
3. Theodore Roosevelt, “Review of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” Political Science Quarterly 9, no. 1 (March 1894): 171–72.
4. CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN (Ret.), Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles (Boston, MA: Little Brown & Co., 1899), 10–11.
5. RADM Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN (Ret.), “The Submarine and Its Enemies,” Colliers Weekly (6 April 1907), 17–21.
6. Letter from A. T. Mahan, The Times (London), 4 November 1910, 15, col. a.
7. Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Camrbidge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
8. Katherine C. Epstein, “The Conundrum of American Power in the Age of World War I,” Modern American History, v.2 (2019) 345–65.
9. Jon Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

The Common Will Triumphant!
The Battle of Iwo Jima and the unforgettable photograph and sculpture of the flag-raising atop Mount Suribachi are of enduring significance to the Marine Corps and the American public.
By Mark Folse
February 2020

Naval History Magazine

Seventy-five years ago, U.S. naval and Japanese forces locked horns over a remote volcanic island in the western Pacific Ocean. The importance to both sides of Iwo Jima, which is about 800 miles south of Tokyo, was vastly out of proportion to the island’s size—only eight square miles. Strategically, the battle for Iwo Jima was part of the Allies’ global offensive against the Axis powers. In Europe, the Soviet Union and the Western Allies were poised to close in on Berlin from the east and west. In January 1945, General Douglas MacArthur continued a vengeful return to the Philippines by launching a massive amphibious invasion of Luzon. And Iwo Jima lay in the path of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz’s central Pacific drive toward Japan.
In October 1944, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered Nimitz to mount invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima within the first four months of 1945. In what was code-named Operation Detachment, Nimitz ordered Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet to seize Iwo Jima to deny the enemy use of its airfields, which instead would be put into service for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ B-29 Superfortresses.1 Iwo Jima would serve the dual purpose of allowing fighter escorts to join B-29s flying from the Marianas toward Japanese Home Island targets, while also providing airstrips for emergency bomber landings on the return trip.
Enter the U.S. Marines of V Amphibious Corps, commanded by Major General Harry Schmidt, whose 3d, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions were tasked with seizing the island. Lieutenant General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander of Task Force 56, was in overall command of the operation’s Marine force.
After only a two-day bombardment, the 4th and 5th Marine divisions landed on 19 February. The 5th Division shot across the narrow southwestern portion of the island, isolating Mount Suribachi by the end of the first day. The following day, the two divisions turned north, minus the 28th Marines of the 5th Division, which assaulted Suribachi and secured it by 23 February. On that day, Marines raised a small U.S. flag at the summit of the volcano, which elicited a chorus of bells, horns, whistles, and cheers from ships offshore. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal missed this moment, but he did photograph the second raising of a much larger ensign. Rosenthal’s iconic image would become the most famous and widely recognized wartime photograph in U.S. history.
But the battle was far from over. On D+2, units of the 3d Marine Division, which had been held in reserve, began coming ashore to join the main drive to seize the rest of the island. From 21 February to 26 March, the three divisions shot, scorched, blasted, and demolished their way across the island. The Marines paid dearly for every inch of ground. Japanese troops had constructed countless mutually supporting defensive positions connected by miles of tunnels that they defended to the death. Navy and Marine Corps planners had forecasted Iwo would fall in a week; the Japanese made sure it took the Marines more than a month. Only 900 of the 23,000 defenders survived.2
High Cost of Victory
The battle cost 5,000 American lives, including that of Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism on Guadalcanal, and three of the six flag-raisers. The Japanese defenders wounded or incapacitated 20,000 others. However, the numbers do not capture the full extent of the sacrifice. Even physical evidence, such as the 4th Marine Division’s burial records—a particularly sobering stack of documents—can only scratch the surface. The burial list goes on and on for 1,631 entries, with each Marine’s name accompanied by a cause of death.3 Calculating the true cost of Iwo Jima becomes simply impossible when one considers the suffering both sides endured and the families who lost loved ones there. Marines casualty numbers on Iwo Jima were shocking. Below: Battle-hardened men of G Company, 24th Marines, pause to allow tanks to move ahead on D+4. By this time the company already had suffered 40 percent casualties, and the unit would be in another bitter fight the next day, for “Charlie-Dog Ridge.”

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The U.S. casualty figures caused many to question the necessity of the battle. Shortly after Iwo Jima was secured, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commander of the operation’s Joint Expeditionary Force, considered the economy of losses on the island near perfect, while Holland Smith pointed out that those in charge of winning the war deemed the battle necessary.4
But others, such as retired Rear Admiral Charles Adair, a former amphibious operations planner for the Seventh Fleet during World War II, thought the island not worth the cost, and recent scholarship has come around to his thinking.5 This debate continues, but Marines did not get to choose where or when they fought in the Pacific war. Their superiors tasked them with taking the island, so they did.

Fulfilling a Mission

Necessary or not, the battle is still significant to the Marine Corps and to Americans. To the Corps, Iwo Jima is important in terms of mission, tradition, and public opinion. Regarding mission, the victory represented the fulfillment of a long-sought role for the Corps. In 1900, the Navy’s General Board assigned to the Marine Corps the mission of seizing advanced bases, but manpower shortages, force structure, and frequent expeditionary duty to the Caribbean and even to France during World War I kept this task largely theoretical until the 1930s.
With the issuance of General Order 241 in 1933, however, the Marine Corps became an offensive weapon of the U.S. fleet. Around the same time, Marines at Quantico produced the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations, which the Army and Navy would adopt. By early 1941, the Corps’ force structure, organized as a Fleet Marine Force, had grown to include 2 permanent divisions, 13 defense battalions, and 2 air wings.
Marine officers had been calling for these changes since before World War I. Colonel John A. Lejeune argued in 1916 that the advanced-base mission would enhance the Marine Corps’ importance and prestige, and many Marine officers agreed.6 Iwo Jima, along with other landings in World War II, validated the foresight of advanced-base proponents. Iwo Jima has been described as the “classical amphibious assault of recorded history,” and the Marine Corps’ “Supreme Test.”7 Marines proved once again that amphibious assaults could succeed if surrounding sea and air domains were secured.
Present-day Marines would do well to remember the words of scholars Jeter Isely and Philip Crowl, who wrote shortly after the war: “The nation that could take Iwo can, by keeping abreast of technological improvements favorable to the attacker, always seize overseas objectives held by hostile powers.”8
Success at Iwo seemed to ensure the Marine Corps’ continued survival. As Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal watched the first U.S. flag rise on Suribachi as he came ashore with General Smith, he stated that this “means there will be a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.”9 Forrestal spoke prematurely, because the Corps faced the fight of its life after the war. According to some scholars, whether the battle was necessary or not, victory at Iwo Jima helped save the Marine Corps during the defense unification fights of the late 1940s.10
Regarding tradition, Marines at Iwo Jima continued and added to traditions of courage, sacrifice, and combat prowess established at other battles in Marine Corps history. Twenty-two Marines earned Medals of Honor for actions on Iwo Jima, the only all-Marine island campaign of the entire war. Nimitz asserted, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” among the Marines who fought there.11 “Never in their 168 years’ history has their motto Semper Fidelis been tried or challenged so greatly as in the capture of Iwo Jima,” said Holland Smith shortly after the battle.12 Every Marine, whether in or out of uniform, has heard of the Battle of Iwo Jima and knows that when put to the test, he or she must rise to that level of effort and sacrifice if called on.

An Indelible Image

Public opinion, shaped largely by one iconic photograph, is where Iwo Jima’s lasting significance lies. Ten civilian and 16 Marine combat correspondents landed on the island with the infantry. The Marine correspondents produced 600 articles and 86 film packs during the battle.13 Of all these stories, photographs, and films, Rosenthal’s photograph of Marines raising the second flag on Mount Suribachi is the most important. Back in the United States, the image provided the symbol for the largest war bond drive of the conflict.14 It later precipitated the creation of Felix de Weldon’s sculpture depicting the flag-raising, versions of which stand at Arlington and Quantico, Virginia, and Parris Island, South Carolina.

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Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal’s evocative photograph of the second Mount Suribachi flag-raising on 23 February soon appeared on newspaper front pages across America. Only two months after it was taken, the image earned Rosenthal (inset) the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for photography.

The image appeared on stamps, recruiting posters, and billboards, and it inspired movies such as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), starring John Wayne, and more recently, Flags of Our Fathers (2006), directed by Clint Eastwood. It earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize and went on to become the most famous image of the war.15 Though impromptu, the photograph was a triumphant image that took on positive meanings for the Corps and the U.S. public. The photograph is an overt glorification of the Marine Corps, and every reproduction of it memorializes the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima. Each rendition of the image also is a de facto advertisement for the Corps, one that conveys who the Marines are, what they do, and what they expect of the young men and women who join.
The image also stands for American unity, triumph, and heroism in a much broader sense. Weldon claimed that the Marines in his sculpture represent the United States helping rid the world of fascism. The three flag-raisers who died on Iwo represent all the U.S. servicemen who paid the ultimate price; the other three embody the ones who made it home.16 Not every American subscribed to these interpretations. Dwight Eisenhower and several of the Marines who raised the first flag on Iwo Jima saw only what they considered to be a staged moment that was of little value to winning the battle.17 But even historian Paul Fussell, who cynically compared Weldon’s sculpture to the propaganda found in “Soviet art” and “Italian fascist sculpture,” wrote that the image itself “seems right because it is so successful an emblem of the common will triumphant.”18

A Marine Corps Touchstone

On 17 October 2019, former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine General James Mattis delivered the keynote address at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City. Toward the end of his speech, he spoke of when Marine infantry battalions in April 2004 stood ready to assault into Fallujah, Iraq. “When one Marine thought I was out of ear shot,” Mattis said, “I heard him ask his squad leader ‘Do you think it’s going to be tough?’ And the squad leader replied in a corporal’s vernacular . . . ‘Hush and get some rest, we took Iwo Jima. Fallujah won’t be nothing.”19

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During a 9 June 1945 parade in Los Angeles, General George Patton passes a sign promoting the Seventh War Bond Drive, whose theme was the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo. The image, embodying American unity and Marine Corps triumph over adversity, was well on its way to becoming an icon.

Faced as we are with deep political divisions, vitriolic public discourse, and emerging threats from across the oceans, Mattis aimed to remind his audience that Americans have overcome greater adversities than the ones we currently face. He did so in Marine fashion by referencing Iwo Jima the same way Marines have done for generations: as a reminder of what is expected of them and as a measure for their resolve and faithfulness. If the Marines, and by extension, the American people, can achieve victory at Iwo Jima and in World War II, they can do anything. Therefore, the enduring significance of Iwo Jima is how it reminds us what American unity can accomplish.

1. George W. Garand and Truman R. Strobridge, Western Pacific Operations, vol. 4, History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II (Washington, DC: Historical Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1971), 443–44; Jeter A. Isely and Philip A. Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War: Its Theory, and Its Practice in the Pacific (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 432–33; Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, 3rd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 426–27.
2. Millett, Semper Fidelis, 427–31; Garand and Strobridge, Western Pacific Operations, 726–27; Mark Grimsley, “. . . The Marines Had Bypassed Iwo Jima,” World War II, 1 December 2007,
3. 4th Marine Division Burial Records, Box 89, RG 127, Iwo Jima, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
4. “4,000 Marine Dead on Iwo Indicated: Admiral Turner Says Loss Was Less than Fifth of Japanese Killed—Operation Praised,” The New York Times, 16 March 1945.
5. Robert S. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), xvii.
6. COL John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The Mobile Defense of Advance Bases by the Marine Corps” Marine Corps Gazette, June 1916, 1.
7. Isely and Crowl, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War, 432.
8. Isely and Crowl, 530.
9. Quoted in Victor Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 15.
10. Burrell, The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, xvii; Grimsley, “. . . The Marines Had Bypassed Iwo Jima.”
11. Quoted in Millett, Semper Fidelis, 432.
12. “4,000 Marine Dead,” The New York Times.

The (R)Evolutionary Tenure of Commandant Lejeune
Well known for shifting the Marine Corps’ focus to advanced base warfare, John A. Lejeune deserves credit for elevating the service’s prestige
among the American public.
By Mark R. Folse
August 2020

Naval History Magazine

Volume 34, Number 4

A century ago, on 30 June 1920, Major General John Archer Lejeune was appointed the 13th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He would become one of the most iconic Commandants in Marine Corps history, celebrated for reorienting the service toward operating with the Navy for its advanced base mission after the Great War. He crafted a Marine Corps birthday message in 1921 that is still read each year by Marines around the world on 10 November. There is Camp Lejeune, a major Marine Corps base and the home of II Marine Expeditionary Force, in North Carolina and Lejeune Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Major General Lejeune’s prominence in Marine Corps memory shows no sign of receding. The challenges that the Corps faces today, namely educational reforms and shifting focus back to naval operations, are remarkably similar to the ones Lejeune tackled a century ago, which makes his Commandancy more relevant than ever.
Much has been written about Lejeune’s military career and his impact on the combat readiness of the Marine Corps while he served as Commandant.1 Much less, however, has been written about how he also worked hard to endear the Marine Corps to the American people.2 It is important to remember that Lejeune considered the Marine Corps a warfighting establishment and an institution that elevated Americans’ lives through healthy living, education, and the inculcation of military virtues. Without this side of his history, Lejeune’s real significance cannot be fully understood or appreciated.

A Marine Leader

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels picked Lejeune to be the Corps’ highest ranking officer because his record as a leader and combat commander was second to none. A class of 1888 graduate of the Naval Academy, Lejeune was part of the first generation of Marine officers to be commissioned from Annapolis. He led Marines on board the USS Cincinnati (C-7) during the Spanish-American War, commanded a battalion of Marines in Panama in 1904, and led a regiment at Vera Cruz in 1914, with recruiting duty and various staff and fleet assignments in between.3
His 1909–10 stint at the Army War College proved to be a crucial turning point in his career. While there, he developed professionally and intellectually and earned the respect of Army officers, which eventually led to his most prestigious command: the U.S Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in the Great War.4 Lejeune led the division, composed of soldiers and Marines, through the major U.S. Western Front offensives of 1918, including St. Mihiel, Blanc Mont, and the Meuse-Argonne.
Some Marine officers had more medals (Brigadier General Smedley Butler earned two Medals of Honor) and more expeditionary experience (Brigadier General Eli K. Cole served in the Philippines, Panama, and Haiti). But Lejeune’s command of the 2nd Division in World War I put him above the rest in combat leadership and command prestige. Congressman Thomas Butler, Brigadier General Butler’s father and a prominent member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, wrote to Lejeune: “We are going to have a Marine Corps and it is to be commanded by a real soldier. . . . I am pleased with your appointment.”5

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Enlistments and Education

One of Lejeune’s primary long-term goals as Commandant was to organize and train Marine expeditionary forces to join the U.S. fleet in its annual maneuvers.6 Under his tenure the Marines would hone their advanced-base seizure and defense capabilities, which is what Lejeune and other officers had been advocating since before the U.S. entry into World War I.7 But when Lejeune took office, the Marine Corps faced significant postwar manpower cuts that risked rendering it incapable of performing its various duties. By 1920, the Corps had shrunk to just over 16,000 Marines, even though it was authorized by Congress to have 25,000.8 Six days after his appointment as Commandant, Lejeune wrote, “I am anxious to see the Corps brought up to its full permanent strength at as early a date as possible.”9

Because military readiness for expeditionary duty and operations with the fleet were his long-term goals for the Marine Corps, recruiting to fulfill those roles became his immediate concern. The Marines of the recently formed East and West Coast Expeditionary forces would need to be highly trained to work in concert with the fleet. Therefore, recruiters placed higher premiums on physical, mental, and intellectual abilities among potential recruits. To attract those recruits in peacetime, however, required a nuanced approach, for which Lejeune was prepared.

The Commandant promoted the Corps as an institution that uplifted young men’s lives mentally, physically, and morally. While commander of Marine Barracks, Quantico, he had established a vocational training program for Marines stationed there. Now, as Commandant, he created the Marine Corps Institute (MCI), a correspondence school with educational and vocational courses for enlisted Marines. According to one advertisement, the idea “is not to build up a class of men merely for work while in the Marine Corps, but to really educate them so that when their terms of enlistment have expired they can go back to civil life benefited by the broad education they have received while in the service.”10

Brigadier General Butler at Quantico and the Marine Corps Publicity Bureau in New York City promoted this aspect of the service’s mission throughout the early 1920s. Advertising educational benefits to young men allowed Marine recruiters to get off street corners and into major public events such as the 1923 Chicago Vocational and Trade School Exposition.11

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In 1919–20, as commanding general of Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, Lejeune began an educational program based on correspondence courses to sharpen the minds and improve the lives of enlisted Marines. Once he became Commandant, the program was enlarged and named the Marine Corps Institute. Above: Institute student-Marines hit the books during a study hall at Quantico in 1920. U.S. Marine Corps

Lejeune consolidated Marine Corps officer schools at Quantico, as well. His decision to locate the company and field grade officers schools there is one of the more significant of Lejeune’s reforms because it turned Quantico into an intellectual hub that would produce the influential Tentative Manual for Landing Operations and Small Wars Manual in the mid-1930s. He valued enlisted and officer education as essential to military readiness and combat efficiency. But he also saw its having a deeper purpose for the nation. Namely, it showed that “the Corps is a great school for the training of American citizens, in which men have the finest kind of opportunity to serve our country with efficiency and fidelity in peace and in war.”12

The idea of educating its force became a staple of the 20th-century Marine Corps and beyond. Lejeune defined the relationship between officers and their men as “that of teacher and scholar” and made enlisted Marines’ mental, physical, and moral development the responsibility of their commanders.13 The fostering and continuation of this relationship remain key tenets of Marine Corps University schools at Quantico to this day.

Focus on Physical Fitness

While the MCI and the officers’ courses sharpened Marines’ minds, Lejeune and Butler made sure to promote physical fitness within the Corps. They believed Marine physical training toughened and hardened men’s bodies and improved their athleticism. And nothing advertised Marine athleticism quite like the Quantico Marines football team. Manned by former college football players such as Frank Geottge, Harry Liversedge, and John W. Beckett, the Devil Dogs racked up significant wins against Georgetown University, the Virginia Military Institute, and the Third Army Corps in the early 1920s in front of large civilian and military crowds and journalists.
Major Joseph Fegan wrote, “Publicity of this character cannot be purchased—it is not on the market.”14 Football also encouraged esprit de corps and teamwork among the men. “Last, and most important,” Fegan argued, “it develops physically the young man; it makes him a better citizen; it makes him more able to combat hardship, but does it all in a less irksome way than if it were done in a military fashion.”15
The Corps’ recruiting and public relations efforts under Lejeune yielded positive results. When he took office, the Marine Corps increased from 16,061 men to more than 22,000.16 In fact, recruiters had to turn away many more applicants than they accepted. In 1920, the Corps took only 12,588 enlistees out of 51,359 total applicants. Two years later it was 9,499 out of 52,986, and 8,964 out of 48,597 for the fiscal year ending in June 1923.17

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Underlying the gridiron exploits of the Quantico Marines Devil Dogs football team was Lejeune’s emphasis on physical fitness as a way to toughen Marines’ bodies and improve their athleticism. U.S. Marine Corps

Promoting and Defending the Corps

The education and physical fitness initiatives were not simply recruiting ploys. Lejeune saw a direct link between them and combat efficiency. He believed that the smarter, tougher, and more courageous and dependable the Marine, the more efficient he was on the battlefield. Lejeune worked to demonstrate this to the American people in a variety of ways. After a series of mail robberies, the Commandant oversaw the tasking of Marines to guard the U.S. Mail from November 1921 to March 1922. The effort put thousands of sharply dressed and heavily armed Marines in public view. The four Civil War reenactments conducted by the East Coast Expeditionary Force between 1921 and 1924 cast Marines as efficient, ready, and reliable to throngs of civilians, politicians, and journalists. The Culebra, Puerto Rico, landing exercise conducted with the Navy in the winter of 1923–24 did much the same. It appeared that young American men who became Marines were working hard to become efficient sea-soldiers.18

Reports of Marine misconduct on Hispaniola plagued his early years, however. When newspaper reports of Marines “indiscriminately” killing natives in Haiti surfaced, Lejeune investigated.19 He and Butler claimed to find only a few isolated incidents of Marine wrongdoing. Lejeune publicly defended his Marines to the press and before the subsequent Senate investigation. He stated that some Marines made mistakes and courts-martial had been doled out, but “it has been and is the duty and aim of the Marine Corps authorities here and in Haiti to work solely for the interests and advancement of Haiti and the Haitian people.”20 Allegations of murder, rape, and torture of Haitians and Dominicans constituted the most significant public relations disaster in the Corps’ history up to that point. Lejeune consistently claimed, however, that the great majority of Marines behaved honorably on the island.

Under Lejeune’s watch, the Marines would survive the controversy and investigations. Much credit for doing so should go to the Corps’ simultaneous recruiting and publicity efforts. Guarding the mail, reenacting Civil War battles, and promoting educational opportunities presented the American public with a prominent counternarrative. President Warren G. Harding, who had criticized the Woodrow Wilson administration and the Marines during the 1920 presidential election over conduct during the Hispaniola occupation, now sang their praises. “I shall not exaggerate a single word,” the President reportedly said to the Marines. “No commander-in-chief in the world could have a greater pride in, or a greater affection for, an arm of national defense, than I have come to have for you in this more intimate contact.”21

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Commandant Lejeune increased Marine Corps visibility and training in part through reenactments and maneuvers on Civil War battlefields. Right: During a break in the October 1921 Marine reenactment of the Battle of the Wilderness, a Union vet directs Lejeune’s attention to a portion of the battlefield. Above: Leathernecks portraying Confederates close with their Union Marine foes at the Battle of Gettysburg’s Bloody Angle in a 1 July 1922 reenactment of Pickett’s Charge. Three days later, 50,000 spectators saw a modern Marine “battle” on the same ground where the Blue and Gray fought. U.S. Marine Corps

Lejeune’s many speaking engagements during his Commandancy also did much to shape public opinion of the Marine Corps. He believed that good strong character mattered most in life and that one could not be successful without it.22 “Our Corps is admired and beloved because of this constant fidelity to its trust, its unshakable loyalty to the Government, its unselfish service to the nation, its dauntless courage in battle, and its unwavering esprit de corps,” he said on the Corps’ 151st birthday in 1926.23

Fidelity, loyalty, unselfishness, and courage were virtues that made Marines men of strong character, and men of strong character were needed not only to defend the country but also to be productive citizens. These “military virtues constitute the very foundation of character building and are essential to right living whether our careers be within or without military service,” Lejeune asserted.24
The Corps would face more cuts in 1928 that Lejeune would have to accept.25 But his efforts to secure the goodwill of Congress and the American people helped keep the Corps manned enough to serve the nation’s needs. After more than eight years of working to secure that goodwill, Lejeune stepped down as Commandant and retired from the Corps in 1929.

Blueprint for the Future

The Marine Corps of 1920 faced challenges similar to the ones Marines face in 2020. Shifting away from protracted land campaigns with the Army and refocusing on becoming a striking force for the Navy with potential threats looming across the oceans is a set of problems Marines of both generations share. Lejeune’s work to reorient Marines toward operating with the Navy, his efforts to better educate the force, and his firm belief that the Corps should develop people mentally, physically, and morally provide a blueprint for today’s generation to follow.
But Marines never lose sight of what Lejeune understood all too well: The Marine Corps’ tomorrow is never truly ensured. Lejeune’s Corps was homogenous in terms of race and gender. It now is much more diverse, which will be a strength if Marines keep faith and spirit with each other. Lejeune believed this mattered in peace and in war. “There is no substitute for the spiritual in war,” he wrote. Marine hearts must “be afire with self-sacrificing love for each other, for their units, for their division, and for their country.”26
To keep this faith among themselves and with the nation they serve requires striving to be a bastion of not just military readiness but of honor, courage, integrity, fidelity, and loyalty. Lejeune believed these to be foundational elements of the ideal Marine’s identity, character, and value. He envisioned the Corps as an institution that should reflect the best values of society and produce good U.S. citizens. That, in part, is what endeared the Marine Corps to the American people a century ago. It will continue to be important going forward.

1. Joseph Arthur Simon, The Greatest of All Leathernecks: John Archer Lejeune and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2019), 64–145; Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1991), 322–25; Merrill L. Bartlett, “George Barnett, 1914–1920,” in Commandants of the Marine Corps, eds. Allan R. Millett and Jack Shulimson (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), 195–213.
2. Colin Colburn, “Esprit de Marine Corps: Making the Modern Marine Corps through Public Relations 1898–1945” (Ph.D. diss., The University of Southern Mississippi, 2018), 195–213.
3. Glenn M. Harned, Marine Corps Generals, 1899–1936, 2d ed. (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 87–90.
4. Simon, The Greatest of All Leathernecks, 79.
5. Senator Thomas Butler to Lejeune, 6 July 1920, Papers of John A. Lejeune, Container 14, Reel 12, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. (hereafter Lejeune Papers).
6. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Paper prepared by Major General John A. Lejeune, and read by him to the Naval War College, April 3, 1925,” Lejeune Papers, Speeches and Writings File.
7. COL John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The Mobile Defense of Advance Bases by the Marine Corps,” Marine Corps Gazette 1, no. 1 (March 1916): 1–18; MAJ John H. Russell, USMC, “A Plea for a Mission and Doctrine,” Marine Corps Gazette 1, no. 2 (June 1916): 109–22.
8. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Report of the Major General Commandant of the United States Marine Corps,” Annual Reports of the Navy Department (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), 1055–56.
9. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, to LCOL Earl H. Ellis, USMC, 7 July 1920, Lejeune Papers.
10. Anonymous, “Marine Corps Institute Attains Magnitude of a University,” Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner, 4 July 1920.
11. O. C. Lightner to MGEN Wendell C. Neville, USMC, 24 March 1923, Office of the Commandant, General Correspondence 1913–38, RG 127, Entry 18, National Archives, Washington, DC.
12. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The U.S. Marine Corps, Present and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 54, no. 10 (October 1928): 861.
13. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Relations between Officers and Men,” 14 August 1920,
14. MAJ Joseph C. Fegan, USMC, “Athletics as Publicity,” Marine Corps Gazette 8, no. 1, (March 1923): 16.
15. Fegan, “Athletics,” 17.
16. “Extracts from Testimony of the Major General Commandant Before the Subcommittee on Appropriations on the Naval Appropriation Bill, 1922,” Marine Corps Gazette 6, no. 1, (March 1921): 88.
17. Marine Recruiting Bureau, Yearly Statement of Recruiting by Divisions, Districts and Stations (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, fiscal years 1920, 1922, and 1923). Copies of these reports found in Recruiting Subject Files, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
18. Anonymous, “Impressive Ceremony,” The Sioux City Sunday Journal, 23 March 1924.
19. Confidential letter from MGEN George Barnett, USMC, to COL John H. Russell, USMC, 2 October 1919, Barnett Papers, Marine Corps Archives, Quantico, VA; “What Other Papers Say . . . Gen. Barnett’s Revelations as to Haiti Held Not an Understatement. Blot on the Administration . . .” The Washington Post, 16 October 1920.
20. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “To the Editor of The Nation,” The Nation, 24 July 1920, 101
21. “Harding Reviews Force of Marines,” The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY, 3 October 1921.
22. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Address Delivered to the Boy Scouts of Washington, D.C., at Central Highschool, on the Evening of February 14, 1925,” see also “Address to Midshipmen at the Naval Academy” (no date recorded), Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1924–25, Lejeune Papers.
23. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Address Delivered by Major General John A. Lejeune, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, at Philadelphia, PA., on the 151st Birthday of the Corps,” 10 November 1926, Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1926–29, Lejeune Papers.
24. “Address Delivered by Major General John A. Lejeune, Major General Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, at the Commencement Exercises of Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont, June 16, 1927,” Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1926–29, Lejeune Papers.
25. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC (Ret.), The Reminiscences of a Marine (Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance and Company, 1930), 476–77.
26. Lejeune, Reminiscences, 307.