Paul E. Pedisich. Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016. 304 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-077-0.
Reviewed by James Risk (University of South Carolina)
Published on H-War (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
When America’s founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they privileged the legislative branch over the executive because they feared the power of a despotic ruler. Political histories, on the other hand, often favor the executive branch “because of the largeness and immediacy of events” (p. 1). Paul E. Pedisich’s narrative on the United States Navy seeks to correct that trend and tell the story of Congress’s control over naval expansion between the end of Reconstruction and the end of World War I. Congress Buys a Navy reminds us that Congress is the real power in Washington with its ability to legislate and fund policy.
Pedisich begins his narrative with a brief six-page history of the United States Navy’s first one hundred years. The summary is sufficient for naval historians and other subject matter experts, but those less knowledgeable may find it lacking. Luckily, the brevity of detail does not continue. For the remainder of the book, Pedisich provides a meticulously researched and richly detailed micro history of naval politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that is heavily grounded in primary sources. Each chapter examines a two-to-four-year span chronicling the navy’s expansion from a neglected defense-oriented military force to world-class armada based on congressional records, personal correspondence, presidential addresses, and private papers.
In chronicling the rise of American naval power, Congress Buys a Navy does an excellent job putting the navy’s expansion in the broader context of domestic events, such as the Pullman strike and the Populist fight for a silver standard, and international events, including the annexation of Hawaii, the Cuban War of Independence, the building of the Panama Canal, and the Russo-Japanese War. The book also shows how idled officers on shore duty were a significant concern for Congress and greatly influenced the decisions on naval appropriations and legislation. Pedisich’s research introduces readers to a vast array of individuals who made important contributions to the history of the United States Navy. Many of these individuals remain lesser known to the larger history of the United States, such as William Chandler and Benjamin F. Tracy, secretaries of the navy under Presidents Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison respectively, and Congressmen John Rixley (D-VA) and Ernest Roberts (R-MA).
The strength of Pedisich’s argument comes in chapters 6 and 11. Chapter 6 illustrates how a report by the Navy Policy Board and the efforts of Tracy influenced congressional appropriations. In the end, however, Congress acted on its own accord and authorized much less than Tracy and other advocates for the navy desired. Similarly, chapter 11 shows that Congress enacted and financed naval policy according to its own agenda rather than the wishes of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite its meticulous research and rich details, Congress Buys a Navy is not without issue. First, Pedisich’s thesis that Congress “dominated naval vitalization” is too simplistic (p. 2). Congress does not operate in a vacuum. Its actions may deviate from the wishes of the president or secretary of the navy, but those actions are often reactive to outside forces. For instance, chapter 8 demonstrates how the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana resulted in the largest congressional naval appropriations up to that time (p. 114). That Pedisich discusses these influences in great depth undermines his thesis. Congress may have the final decision through its legislative and funding powers, but it does not act on its own accord. Someone, or something, must first prompt Congress to act.
Pedisich argues against the tendency to privilege the executive branch, but he fails to provide examples of opposing arguments. John Lehrman’s On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (2001) and Russell Parkin and David Lee’s Great White Fleet to the Coral Sea (2008) both celebrate the executive to offer a contrasting interpretation, but these works are notably absent from Pedisich’s bibliography. In fact, few of Pedisich’s sources are more recent than the 1990s. Many of his sources are biographies or biographical dictionaries. Pedisich’s heavy focus on biographical sources and the myriad of individuals who influenced Congress makes many parts of the book read like a Who’s Who.
Despite these issues, Congress Buys a Navy is a must read for any historian interested in the United States Navy’s rise into a world-class fighting force prior to the end of World War I. Pedisich provides an important new interpretation of the navy in a period that often highlights Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. As the institution responsible for legislating and funding policy, Congress should be the focus of more political histories.
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James Risk. Review of Pedisich, Paul E., Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921.
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