A scholarly and well written article in National Review Online (“The Naval War of 1812: TR’s Forgotten Masterpiece,” April 28, 2018) by a neophyte writer Moshe Wander addresses Theodore Roosevelt’s seminal work The Naval War of 1812 and the effect it had on American thinking about naval rearmament at the end of the 19th century.
The parallels with today are obvious and explicit. “During the Quasi-War fought between the United States and France in the late 1790s,” writes Wander, “President John Adams had ordered the construction of six frigates and created the Department of the Navy to oversee their construction. However, under the succeeding administrations of Jefferson and Madison, those ships fell into disrepair, and naval construction lost the importance it had once had in Washington.” President Trump’s welcome desire to restore the U.S. Navy to the size and power it had as recently as under President Reagan in the late 1980s mirrors Teddy Roosevelt’s ambitions for it in the first years of the 20th century.
“One can read the particular indignation Roosevelt has for Jefferson and Madison in the opening chapters of The Naval War of 1812,” explains Wander, “as he castigates their strategy for prioritizing small gunboats designed for coastal defense over larger frigates, and how this left the United States vulnerable to the much larger and more dangerous Royal Navy. While Roosevelt admires the quality of America’s sailors a great deal, he repeats vigorously that they were dealt a bad hand by inattentive politicians.” President Obama was worse than inattentive when it came to the U.S. Navy, which shrank alarmingly in terms of manpower, ship numbers, and firepower on his watch, but is now pleasingly being built up in the face of clear dangers posed by potential enemies, primarily in the South China Sea.
Last December, President Trump signed the FY2018 “National Defense Authorization Act,” which included a provision sponsored by Senate Subcommittee on Seapower Chairman Roger Wicker and his colleague on the House Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Rep. Robert Wittman, which specifically mentioned a buildup of the U.S. Navy to 355 ships “as soon as practicable.” Of course the wording is frustratingly unspecific, but nonetheless a welcome departure from the cheeseparing days of the Obama Administration. “With his signature,” stated Wicker, “President Trump has confirmed the United States’ resolve to meet the growing needs of our U.S. Navy. Building up our nation’s fleet is essential to protecting our national security and projecting American power around the globe.”
Moshe Wander’s article points out how, “Roosevelt wanted his history not just to tell a story from the past but to raise an alarm in his own time.” That might almost be the motto of Strategika.
Andrew Roberts is an honorary senior scholar at and has a PhD from Caius College, Cambridge. He is a Visiting Professor at the War Studies Department of King’s College, London, and the Lehrman Distinguished Fellow at the New York Historical Society. His thirteen books include Salisbury: Victorian Titan (1999), which won the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award; Masters and Commanders (2010), which won the Emery Reves Prize; and The Storm of War (2012), which won the British Army Military Book of the Year Award. His latest book, Napoleon: A Life (Penguin), appeared in October 2014 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a director of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, where he is presently chairman of the judging panel for its Military Book of the Year Prize. His website is at www.andrew-roberts.net.