By Richard L. Wright, Xlibris (2022)
Reviewed By: Michael Romero, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Following the end of the American Revolution, the fledgling United States immediately found itself in dire financial straits. With no funds available to maintain them, the handful of surviving Continental Navy vessels were sold, and the service disbanded. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 empowered Congress “To provide and maintain a Navy,” but what exactly does that process entail? Captain Richard Wright’s To Provide and Maintain a Navy: 1775-1945 shows how that question has been answered from the time of the U.S. Navy’s founding through the end of World War II. It was written as a practical guide for understanding how the Navy has been authorized, funded, designed, and built through its history. Captain Wright’s book is not a traditional history of naval battles and grand strategy; he correctly states that major events such as the Tripolitan War or World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic have been covered repeatedly elsewhere. To Provide and Maintain a Navy takes the unique approach of describing how these events have affected American naval policy.
The author is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds an M.A. from the Naval Postgraduate School. His naval career consisted of a variety of assignments ashore and afloat, including command of a destroyer squadron and time on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. Following his retirement from active service, Captain Wright became a general associate at Strategic Insight, Ltd. In the 1790s, with American commerce facing depredations from Barbary corsairs and European powers alike, acquisition and/or construction of six frigates was authorize that were hopefully sufficient to protect U.S. merchant shipping without unduly provoking other powers. In the decades before the Civil War, there was little public support for expanding the navy until the U.S. had a significant presence along the Pacific coast that required protection by sea. In the 1880s, the domestic steel industry in the United States wasn’t advanced enough to meet the navy’s construction needs, requiring the adaptation of foreign techniques. As World War II loomed, naval architects hurried to design warships capable of countering the Japanese in the Pacific Ocean while operating far from friendly bases. All these issues required new legislation to authorize construction and then separate appropriations to fund it. Changes in presidential administrations and the dominant party in Congress frequently stymied the consistent development of the U.S. Navy. Over the course of ten chapters, Captain Wright skillfully presents a narrative of how the U.S. Navy came to be in a manner easily understood regardless of the reader’s area of expertise.
One of the most interesting aspects of To Provide and Maintain a Navy is that it shares how the U.S. Navy and Congress debated many of the same points time and time again. While technology and tactics have changed steadily since the eighteenth century, the need to protect American interests by sea has not. From the very moment the first American warship was launched, debates raged as to what kinds of vessels were needed and how to organize the growing fleet. President George Washington knew that the United States would potentially face a variety of maritime adversaries and that the six frigates authorized in 1794 could face threats far beyond the Barbary States. As the navy continued to develop, there was a constant flirtation with special-purpose vessels that suited a specific need despite the alternative of more adaptable ships. From the Jeffersonian-era gunboats that never fulfilled their intended potential to the USS Monitor that proved good for nothing beyond countering the Confederate ironclad Virginia to the PT boats beached and abandoned in the Pacific after World War II, Captain Wright relates how most special-purpose ships launched by the U.S. Navy were discarded after temporary needs were met, often at great expense to the country. Only those ships that could adapt to multiple roles were kept in service each time the U.S. government inevitably reduced the navy in peacetime.
The book is not without its flaws, however. Astute historians will notice a handful of inaccuracies like references to the Treaty of Ghent ending the American Revolution (it should be the Treaty of Paris) and the frigate President not seeing action after Commodore John Rodgers’s successful cruise at the beginning of the War of 1812 (President was, in fact, captured by the British in one of the final naval actions of the war). Captain Wright also occasionally contradicts himself; in Chapter Six, he references Secretary of the Navy William Chandler worrying in the late 1880s that the U.S. Navy was losing primacy in the western hemisphere only a few passages after pointing out that there were no American warships capable of responding to Spanish aggression after the 1873 Virginius Affair. No mention is ever made of when the U.S. Navy achieved the primacy that Secretary Chandler fretted over losing. With this said, such flaws are forgivable, as they do not detract from Captain Wright’s description of the navy’s growth from a
half dozen frigates to the world-spanning force it is today.
In his conclusion, Captain Wright reiterates the Constitution’s empowerment of Congress “to provide and maintain a Navy,” and asserts that “It is the primary duty of the civilian officials and professional officers of the United States Navy to ensure the success of that charge.” (p.256). After reading To Provide and Maintain a Navy: 1775-1945, any such leader will be better able to understand and implement the lessons of our navy’s past and this more efficiently prepare it to face the challenges of the future.
Michael Romero is a historical interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and has published numerous articles online and in print for Colonial Williamsburg, the U.S. Naval Institute, and the
National Association for Interpretation as well as presenting at the 2021 McMullen Naval History
“Captain Richard L. Wright, USN (Ret.) is a 1973 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and holds an MA in Naval Intelligence and International Security Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. In a twenty-eight-year naval career, Captain Wright served in numerous command and staff billets ashore and afloat. At sea, he commanded an anti-submarine warfare frigate, a strike destroyer, and a destroyer squadron. Ashore, he served on the staffs of secretary of the navy, the chief of naval operations, and commander in chief, U.S. Atlantic Command. Retiring in 2001, Captain Wright became a general associate at Strategic Insight Ltd., a technical consulting firm headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.”
To Provide and Maintain a Navy: 1775-1945. By Richard L. Wright (Bloomington, Indiana: 2022)