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When Victory Wasn't Assured

When Victory Wasn't Assured

In Victory at Sea, Paul Kennedy reveals the turbulent path to Allied naval dominance during the Second World War.

Daniel J. Samet

When Paul Kennedy’s magnificent The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers came out in 1987, the U.S. Navy looked much different than its current iteration. Its fleet was in line with Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship plan while its Soviet rival was marching toward obsolescence. No one was doubting that America ruled the waves.

Contrast that to the state of American sea power today. The fleet has shrunk to 298 ships, of which the Navy’s FY2023 budget would decommission a whopping twenty-four. This, while China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy massively ramps up its forces in a direct challenge to the United States’ might not only in the Indo-Pacific, but beyond. Few Americans are sanguine about the naval balance of power.

Such are the geopolitical circumstances which greet the arrival of Kennedy’s most recent book. One of the greatest living diplomatic historians, Kennedy has been an ardent student of sea power for decades. His first two books examined the Pacific War, while The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery is a classic in the field of sea power. Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II is a return to Kennedy’s maritime roots.
Victory at Sea looks at the six leading naval powers of the Second World War: Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, and Germany. One of its aims is to tell the remarkable story of how the war was won on the seas. Complementing Kennedy’s prose are over fifty handsome paintings by the late Ian Marshall. Both men are masters of their craft.

Kennedy’s narrative will disabuse anyone of the assumption that the Allied navies had an easy go of it. Facing them was threat after threat. The Allies eventually prevailed, but not without great cost. Victory at Sea subsequently illuminates the making of the postwar global order. After 1945, the United States dominated the great powers—no more so than in the realm of sea power.

Allied victory at sea was far from certain when the Second World War began. Menacing the Royal Navy in Europe was a two-headed monster. During the Battle of the Atlantic, the German Kriegsmarine boasted a fearsome array of U-boats and equally fearsome capital ships like the Bismarck and Graf Spee. Allied merchant vessels and warships had to tread carefully lest they be sunk by German torpedoes or artillery shells. In the Mediterranean Sea, things were not much better. There, Italy’s Regia Marina held its own against the Royal Navy.

Growing Allied weariness was not limited to the European theater. In the Pacific Ocean, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was a force that could not be ignored. The reckoning for the U.S. Navy came on December 7, 1941, when the IJN incapacitated much of the pride of the Pacific Fleet. Disaster came for Britannia three days later—the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse off the coast of Malaya. Anglo-Americans planners had small grounds for optimism.

Yet they fought on. Kennedy writes that by the end of 1942, the naval war “had become an affair of the big guys,” namely of Britain, the United States, and Japan. With just a handful of surface vessels in action, Germany’s fleet was no match for the Allied one. Meanwhile, the British and France’s own sailors had destroyed the French Navy. The Regia Marina had similarly withered.

The “critical year” for this changing of fortunes, as Kennedy sees it, was 1943. It was then that the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of the Mediterranean, and the Pacific War all turned in the Allies’ favor. Allied convoys beat back U-boat assaults over the course of a few months. Italy was out of the war by September of that year. The IJN was unambiguously on the defensive and rudderless, Pearl Harbor mastermind Isoroku Yamamoto having been killed by the Americans.

Besides victory in combat, there was victory in mass mobilization. Allied breakthroughs in weapons development and production accumulated. “These shifts in the productive balances,” Kennedy contends, “were going to be large enough to alter the strategic landscape of the twentieth century itself.”

Suddenly the United States leapt to international naval dominance. Second World War buffs will be intimately familiar with this story: America’s industrial machine churned out cruisers, destroyers, submarines, Higgins boats, battleships, and merchant marine vessels like nobody’s business. Aircraft carrier production accelerated as Uncle Sam built twenty-four top-of-the-line Essex class fleet carriers. From these could fly the fighters and bombers needed to defeat the Axis. Behind the U.S. Navy was America’s “sheer military-industrial muscle.” Neither friends nor foes had anything remotely comparable.

Kennedy doesn’t think the “natural consequence of the country’s entry into total, modern war” is the only explanation for the United States’ rise to global preeminence. Putting on a similar hat to what he wore when writing his earlier book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he offers this other explanation: “The explosion of US power,” Kennedy writes, was the “natural culmination, though delayed by almost half a century, of the huge shifts in the world’s balances once the American continent industrialized.” The American lion, in other words, had been roused from its slumber—and that made a decisive difference. ‌

Coinciding with the U.S. Navy’s rise, however, was the crumbling of its peers. Here Kennedy highlights just how abruptly the checks on American maritime superiority disintegrated. Despite commendable performances on the seas, by 1945 Britain was a spent player. Thereafter, the Royal Navy could not hold a candle to the U.S. Navy, and it was relegated to distant second-place status among Western fleets. The IJN’s decline was more visible. Soundly defeated by American sea power, Japan lost nearly all its major ships. It would maintain only a marginal navy throughout the Cold War. The United States simply had no challengers left. America’s ships sailed unrivaled.

Illuminating tidbits abound throughout Kennedy’s narrative that might surprise sea power novices and experts alike. The Soviet Union was an “insignificant force on the high seas” Kennedy argues, and thus appears scantly in this book. Similarly intriguing is his contention that what sounded the death knell of French sea power was not only the Royal Navy’s tragic assault on Mers-el-Kébir in 1940 but also Vichy France’s scuttling of its fleet at Toulon two years later.

Though not a young scholar any longer, Kennedy is not chary of using new methods. “One source claims that ‘for the British, the Battle of Crete was the costliest naval engagement of the entire war,’” he writes. An endnote discloses that source was “a fine Wikipedia piece.” Kennedy’s periodic citing of that site won’t please the traditionalists.

Such will also blanch at the book’s exclamation points. Take this instance: American battle cruisers Lexington and Saratoga “could reach 33 knots and had an operating range of ten thousand miles, and they kept the guns of an 8-inch heavy cruiser!” Kennedy may overdo it stylistically at times. But the enthusiasm of a man wholly enthralled by his subject is more than understandable.

Detractors might accuse Kennedy of determinism, which has become a no-no in the historical profession. Does Victory at Sea imply a teleological view of the world? In fact, the reverse is true. The book does a fantastic job of showing that U.S. maritime dominance was not guaranteed. To see Allied victory as inevitable is to misread the past.

Midway could have gone much differently. Allied convoys were not bound to bring Hitler’s U-boats to heel in the Battle of the Atlantic. Just because the Allies built a lot of ships and developed cutting-edge naval technology didn’t mean that they were destined to win. Getting the world’s largest economy to make armaments was one thing. But harnessing them for invasions of the German and Japanese homelands was another thing entirely.

Victory at Sea is a tour de force. It is a sweeping naval history of the Second World War, delightful in its relating of facts and lucid in its presentation of arguments. Readers will be transported to a bygone world of periscopes and propeller planes.

If there’s much to like in a book like this, then why has it become such a rare breed? The academy no longer does naval history. In contrast to its preoccupation with airpower, what remains of academic military history is uninterested in sea power. Oceans make up over 70 percent of the planet’s surface, and yet the ships that roam them do not interest historians.

Kennedy’s book may—and hopefully will—arrest that trend. Victory at Sea is capable of inspiring a new generation of military historians to study sea power in the tradition of their forerunners. Kennedy rightly argues that navies mattered tremendously in the Second World War, which made Uncle Sam master of the high seas. What came next? The field is in desperate need of a comprehensive naval history of the Cold War, as it was during this time that the U.S. Navy exerted control over the world’s oceans while fending off the occasional challenge from Soviet ships. There’s a sequel to Victory at Sea just waiting to be written.

Kennedy very well might be the one to take up that task. Or perhaps he’ll leave it to another scholar. If this is indeed his last hurrah, Kennedy should be content to sail off into the sunset like the ships of old he so lovingly brings to life.

Daniel J. Samet is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security.

Source: Hollem, Howard R, photographer. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

EuropeUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyBook Reviews