To the Officers and Members of the U.S. Naval Institute:
When notified, some weeks ago, of my election as President of the U. S. Naval Institute, my time was so much engrossed with other matters as to admit of a brief letter of acceptance only. But now, with more leisure, it seems proper that I should address you somewhat at length, more with a view to testifying my appreciation of the compliment implied by my election, than with the hope of contributing anything of value to the long list of essays which enrich the pages of the Quarterly.
On the establishment of the Newport Branch of the Institute, April 3, 1883, I took occasion to review the work of the Institute and to congratulate its officers, and the editors of the Quarterly, on the marked success of the enterprise. And now, looking back over the intervening years and noting the continued success which has marked its career, I find every reason for renewing those congratulations. But the Institute is of too recent growth to warrant much indulgence in retrospection. Let us look ahead.
The fundamental idea in the establishment of the Institute is "the advancement of professional and scientific knowledge in the Navy," and that purpose is being accomplished year by year in a praiseworthy manner. Hence, the efforts of those who originated the Naval Institute have been marked with success, and much credit is due to them and to their successors for the management of its affairs. Established now on a firm basis and with a paying subscription list, its future, in a literary point of view at least, has long ceased to be doubtful.
It is to be noted that the success of the Board of Control is due to individual exertion—exertion carried on oftentimes against great odds, bringing the authors of the enterprise to the very verge of despair. They have succeeded, nevertheless.
Opposition sometimes proves a wholesome stimulant. It seems to confirm men of character in their opinions when those opinions are founded in reason, and renders them more determined in the prosecution of their plans. At the same time it causes them to be more circumspect in the prosecution of those plans, and to elaborate them more maturely and on broader and deeper foundations, where otherwise they might have been superficial and ephemeral. Hence, it may, and often does, occur that an open and an outspoken opponent proves in the end to be no small factor in the successful development of an enterprise. It is true, the value of this opposition is not always apparent—like those blessings so thoroughly disguised as to be wholly indiscernible by ordinary methods of examination—while there are occasions when opposition may easily prove fatal to the best laid schemes, let their merit be what it may.
The history of the Institute only adds one more to the many proofs that if the germs of the plan are endued with vitality, the plan itself may be pushed through the most formidable opposition to ultimate success. The Naval Academy itself is a marked example of this passing through a "sea of troubles" only to emerge with the crown of victory. These are lessons to be taken to heart.
But opposition is not always necessary to a healthy development. Indeed, it may retard or stifle growth, or even destroy the living germ. The Navy can furnish abundant illustrations of this. And this suggests the pertinent question. Are we not, as a body, wanting in discipline—that discipline which subordinates the individual to the body corporate, the part to the whole, and closes the mouth of opposition to lawfully constituted authority?
If a few undertake to build up, there are never wanting those who are ready to pull down—apparently from a sheer love of pulling down. The personal element, moreover, is such a strong feature of the work of destruction, that it is sufficient to know that A is endeavoring to achieve something for his profession, in order to incite B to oppose him. Both the principle on which A is working and the manifest advantage of his work are lost sight of in the naked fact that A is the active agent. That one fact is enough to arouse the most determined hostility of B. Like blind Samson he will pull down the pillars of the house though it involve his own destruction. This introduction of the personal element in our official relations, whether it has its origin in "envy, hatred, malice, and all un-charitableness," or is born of a conscientious sense of right regarded with a strabismic sense of sight, it yet exists; and in
England, if not in our own country, its evil influence has been so far conceded, that the popular judgment would exclude a naval officer from presiding over the destinies of the Navy, and this notwithstanding the history of such great naval administrators as Admirals Lord Anson, Lord Hawk, the Earl of St. Vincent, and Lord Barham.
But the jealousies which prevent our officers from working in harmony for the common good, however inimical to progress, are not the evidences of a want of discipline such as has been hinted of. It is rather the interference of irresponsible parties with the measures of the Government. It is not wholly unknown to the annals of our history that an officer has on his own responsibility procured the introduction of a bill in Congress which, if passed, would affect the entire personnel of the service. It matters not how the provisions of the bill may interfere with others or with the policy of the Government—in this case the Navy Department; and though the great mass of such bills are predestined to those great catacombs of dead hopes, the document rooms of the Capitol, yet the mere fact of its introduction is evidence of an interested party working on independent lines, and not in concert with, indeed often in defiance of, the Department. This is in itself bad enough as an exhibition of lax discipline, but the worst phase is when officers set themselves to work avowedly to defeat the measures of the administration before Congress when those measures do not happen to be in accord with their individual opinions. Certainly no profession, as a whole, can hope to achieve an enviable distinction under such disturbing influences as these. It is like the house divided against itself, or an organism carrying within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
In justice let it be said as a class we are not responsible for this state of affairs. It is due entirely to the peculiar system under which we exist, or, in plain terms, to the absence of a proper form of naval administration by which the Navy may be held together and its policy shaped. There being no directive force to guide the affairs of the Navy—no head, no leader, every one is, in a measure, compelled to act for himself. As there is "no fraternity without a common father," so there can be no following without leadership. The absence of headship loosens the ties of membership and forces into existence independent action. This leads to self assertion and individualism, and individualism leads to anarchy. I do not say we have reached the ultimate stage; I say we are on the road which leads to it. This may not have a pleasing sound, but it is true.
Bad as this is in times of profound peace, it would be simply intolerable in time of war. Indeed, it would be an impossible condition in war. We present to the world, then, the extraordinary spectacle of having a war marine under an organization confessedly unfit for war; and yet we are called a practical people! How this utter disregard of business principles entails enormous expenditures and make-shift expedients is well known. Says Mr. Secretary Welles, writing of the condition of the Navy in March, 1861: "There were no men to man our ships, nor were the few ships at our yards in a condition to be put into immediate service."
The Virginius affair threw us into a panic and cost the country five millions of dollars. Mr. Welles attributed the low condition in which he found the Navy at the breaking out of the Rebellion, to the "disunion element" which had for previous years shaped public policy. It is only at a comparatively recent date that we have come to discover that the "disunion element" is in the Navy Department, though not in the sense in which he used the words. In a recent official document it was shown that since 1868 about seventy millions of dollars has been thrown away upon the Navy. But it is not a waste of public funds alone that is chargeable to our present defective system. The evil at the head permeates the entire body, relaxing, as already shown, the restraints of discipline and leading to a prodigal waste of vital forces.
Now the corner stone of the Institute is the "advancement of professional knowledge in the Navy," but what is the use of knowledge if it cannot be applied? It is the application of knowledge that makes it valuable. We may go on ad infinitum publishing admirable essays, and much important information may be disseminated throughout the service, and many excellent and thoroughly practical suggestions may be spread over the pages of our Quarterly, but what substantial good do they do to the profession? How do they contribute to the progress of the Navy as a body? Let us take any one of the prize essays, for example, and consider for a moment its practical utility in affecting the Navy.
Outside its own special sphere, there is no subject of such vital importance to the Navy as our merchant service. The prize essay for 1882 was entitled "Our Merchant Marine; the Cause of Its
Decline and the Means to be Taken for Its Revival." Let us now suppose that from the eleven essays presented to the judges of award there had been deduced a sound and practicable solution of the question, what should have been done with the paper? To whom should it have been presented with any hope of its receiving consideration? There is no one. You have fired your gun, but the shell has burst harmlessly in the air.
For a simpler illustration let us take the prize essay of 1886, "What Changes in Organization and Drill are Necessary to Sail and Fight Most Effectively our War Ships of the Latest Type?" and suppose, moreover, that the essay receiving the prize is a complete solution of the question—what comes of it? Nothing.
The question for the Institute to ask of itself, then, is: Can we continue forever to disseminate useful knowledge without a hope of substantial benefits to result there from? If we are to be known by our fruits, we must be able to show them. It is idle to go on sowing with never a hope of reaping. There must come a time when, in answer to the question, "What has the Institute accomplished?" we can point to reforms and progressive steps which will keep the profession abreast, if not in advance, of the nautical world in the great march of events. Hence there must be some power with which the Institute can feel itself in sympathy—a power that will have the eye to see, the ear to hear, and the understanding to act, and that power must be a controlling power. It must be at the head and must dominate the members. Then may we look for steady progress according to some recognized system. For no one at all familiar with our history will be deceived for one moment by an occasional spasmodic effort at rehabilitation under present conditions. How are we to attain this end?
Says the highest official authority, in regard to our need of naval administrators to shape our naval policy, "At the top of the system there should be wise general direction." With regard to the office of Secretary of the Navy: "The Secretary may at once be eliminated from the problem: a civilian, not skilled in the art of war, nor having any technical knowledge with reference to its implements, having no personal staff, his separate office consisting of but one stenographer, one clerk, and three messengers, all the other force having general clerical work." Of the Chiefs of Bureaus: "The inevitable result of throwing large executive duties upon any man is to disqualify him for council. At the present time this function is not performed at all." "Thus it happens, as it has happened for the last twenty years, that the Department drifts along, doing without consideration whatever is done and with no intelligent guidance in any direction."
The vicious system which has so long usurped the place of a naval administration was so forcibly presented in the Report of '85 as to draw from the Chief Executive the remark that "the conviction is forced upon us with the certainty of mathematical demonstration that before we proceed further in the restoration of a Navy we need a thoroughly reorganized Navy Department." This was in 1885.
What has been done since? A bill was drawn up containing the leading features of such a form of naval government as was shown to be consistent with the principles laid down. The Report of 1886 says of it, "A bill embodying the substantial points awaits action upon the House calendar," and there it remains. Now it is not susceptible of proof, but the probabilities are that the bill was killed by influences not entirely foreign to the Navy itself I would not be understood as saying that the bill would have been favorably considered by the House even had it received the approval of the Navy at large. Far from it. The Navy might have been unanimous for the bill and still it might not have reached a second reading. But naval officers, like members of other professions, have friends in both houses of Congress, and they can make their own personal representations to those friends; and whereas it is difficult to procure the passage of any bill, it is comparatively easy to defeat one, whatsoever merit it may possess.
Here then is a forcible illustration—one which would be startling but for its being so common—of the measures of the administration being opposed, and as we believe successfully, by those whose loyalty it should be able to claim. But here again comes in the excuse, that the individuals are not so much to blame as the system under which they hold their official existence. Each one sets himself up for a judge of what is right and proper, without reflecting that allegiance is due to constituted authority, whether the acts of that authority are in accordance with their own views or not.
Moreover, views on the subject of naval administration are sometimes expressed in such an off-hand manner as to suggest much caution in accepting them. While some officers have made a careful study of the subject, others have given it but a passing thought. And yet the latter class will have no hesitation in the wholesale condemnation of the "bureau system," and bureaucracy in general, of a Board of Admiralty, or any other kind of board; an autocracy, or "one man power" in any form. Yet they do not hesitate to express their views, crude as they may be, to members of Congress. There are very few indeed who, without previous study, can draw up a sound, comprehensive form of naval government that will suit our condition, meet our present wants, and at the same time be unassailable on any just grounds.
It is just here that the Institute might render important service to the profession by enlightening the public mind of the Navy on this subject, through the medium of essays and frequent discussions. I am aware that there has already appeared in the pages of the Proceedings a paper touching on reorganization. But the discussion which ensued embraced the entire personnel of the Navy, leaving little time or room for a critical examination of any one of the integral parts. If we limit the essay and discussion to one particular branch, and select at the outset the most important, we shall probably obtain a consensus of opinion as to what is really needed. Beginning at the top, therefore, it is believed that if an essay on the subject of "The Best Form of Naval Administration" was called for, the Institute would have the opportunity of disseminating throughout the service some useful information on the most important question which now concerns our profession. That such a discussion may lead to the first and most important step in the process of the rehabilitation of the U.S. Navy (the reorganization of our Navy Department), is not such a remote possibility as might at first glance be supposed. If the efforts of naval officers could bring about a reorganization in 1842, there seems to be no good reason why they should not accomplish the same in 1888.
In both instances the initiative has been taken by the Department itself, with the great advantage, in favor of the present generation, of having such a medium of communication as the Institute's Quarterly. But while it is true that the Department took the initiative in 1840 in bringing about a reorganization, and that naval officers were largely instrumental in influencing action by which the bureau system was introduced, yet it should be distinctly understood that the Department was not remodeled wholly in accordance with the views of those who had been most active in bringing it about; and forty years of sad experience has shown that they were right.
The question then is: Shall the Institute endeavor, through its pages, so to influence and guide opinion in the Navy that we may, as a body, second the efforts of the Navy Department, and exert ourselves to bring about a correction of the error committed in 1842? It would be "a consummation devoutly to be wished," and if the Institute will take the lead and carry us on to victory, it will accomplish a reform of which its members may well feel proud.
It is scarcely necessary to add that even an ideal form of naval administration is not a sovereign cure of all ills. In the palmy days of the Board of Commissioners, four fine ships of the line rotted away upon the stocks simply because Congress would not give the money to finish them, and of the twelve laid down in 1815-18 only four ever got to sea. The settled policy of our national legislature, covered by a period of over a century, shows that war must be imminent and immediate before preparations to meet it are undertaken. But under the old regime, naval affairs were administered with wisdom and economy, the military character of the profession was maintained and discipline kept up; and that is all we can hope to regain.
The question I submit to the Board of Control is, Shall this great work be undertaken?
UPDATE: SJS has a post you should read.