By Bill Doughty
Fleet Admiral Chester M. Nimitz died 50 years go on Feb. 20, 1966.
Nimitz was born exactly 70 years after the end of the War of 1812, just twenty years after the American Civil War. In 1901, at the beginning of a new century, he was a young midshipman in the U.S. Navy.
Nimitz served in World War I, was on station in China, distinguished himself academically in the 1920s and 30s, and was selected by Commander in Chief President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the U.S. Navy in the Pacific War after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Nimitz had considered the likelihood of war with Japan – and the possibility of war with the United Kingdom – in a thesis, "Naval Tactics," written as a commander studying at the Naval War College in 1923, using easy-to-figure code to distinguish nations in question.
His fascinating paper is part of the FADM Chester Nimitz collection available online. Here is the opening of his paper:
by Cmdr. C. W. Nimitz
War has as its ultimate objective the destruction of the enemy's military and naval strength which can be accomplished only thru battle. Strategy dictates when and where battles are to be fought, while Tactics employs the available forces in battle. "There is no sharp dividing line between Strategy and Tactics and they merge one into the other, the main difference being that the strategist sees with the eye of the mind while the tactician sees with the eye of the body. The elementary principles governing them are the same" (Fiske). Strategy assembles the utmost force at the right time and place. Tactics, still governed by the same elementary principles, culminates the efforts set in motion when Policy, failing to secure its objective through Diplomacy, resorts to War.
At no time in our history has the BLUE naval tactician been confronted with a problem so difficult of solution as that imposed by the restrictions of the Treaties limiting naval armament and the use of submarines. Although the Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armament permits BLUE to have a navy equal to that of RED and 1.67 times that of ORANGE, based on capital ship strength, BLUE statesmen have deemed it wise further to limit our naval strength by withholding the funds and authorization of the numbers and types of subsidiary craft so essential to a well balanced fleet, and so necessary to maintain a status of equality with and the permitted superiority over ORANGE.
The Washington Conference, as successful as it was in composing the problems of the Pacific, did not entirely remove the possibility of war between BLUE and ORANGE. It did effectually bar BLUE as a naval power in the Western Pacific without, however, making her secure from Orange aggression in the Philippines. On the other hand, ORANGE, not having important interests in waters under BLUE's control, is made fairly safe from BLUE aggression.
Although RED and BLUE are now on the best of terms and are bound together by racial, sentimental, and economic ties, our naval tacticians cannot on that account ignore the possibility of a meeting of the RED and BLUE fleets in a general action in the future. RED's existence as a great nation is dependent upon her maritime commercial supremacy. Should BLUE in the future threaten that supremacy it is not unreasonable to predict that the present amicable relations will give place to a state of tension and possibly war.
It is because RED snd ORANGE are the only two nations that have navies capable of opposing BLUE that the possibilities of war with those countries is referred to in this paper. It is beyond the province of our naval tacticians to speculate on the likelihood of war with this or that nation. It is their duty to plan the employment of available forces in battle against any possible opponent, and to ensure that the utmost strength is developed at the crucial time and at the decisive point.
To accomplish this task the tactician has available not only such experience as he can bring to bear on the problem, but in addition, he can draw on the lessons to be learned from the innumerable examples of failure and the comparatively few instances of decisive victory recorded in history. A study of the mistakes of the past will usually yield a better harvest than a study of the successes. In most instances, it has been the errors of the vanquished rather than the brilliant tactics of the victor that brought success to the latter.
History is a continuous record of battles, which, though fought at widely different times and with a wide variation in the types of weapons, were governed by one unchanging factor – HUMAN NATURE. From the successes and failures of the past it has been possible to deduce general principles of warfare which like human nature, are unchangeable. Changes and advance in technique of weapons has brought about changes in minor tactics, or tactics of types, and has confirmed rather than altered general principles. While a knowledge and application of general principles will not necessarily insure victory, their disregard will almost certainly tend to disaster.
The main and unchanging principles of warfare are:
FIRST: To employ all the forces which can be made available with the utmost energy. (This does not necessarily imply the offensive with its attendant advantages.)
SECOND: To concentrate superior forces against the enemy at the point of contact or where the decisive blow is to be struck.
THIRD: To avoid loss of time.
FOURTH: To follow up every advantage gained with utmost energy.
Nimitz used strategy and tactics and his principles of warfare to respond quickly to the attacks by Imperial Japan that brought the United States into World War II. He outwitted the enemy at the Battle of Midway and achieved victory at Guadalcanal and across the island chains of the South Pacific – "at the crucial time and at the decisive point."
The possibility of war with the United Kingdom seems quaint now, as does future conflict now with another former empire turned Ally, Japan, but not if you consider history: 1776, 1812, 1941. Was Nimitz right that "human nature" is as unchangeable as history? Does war have to be inevitable? Can "A study of the mistakes of the past ... yield a better harvest"?