Samuel Eliot Morison: Admiral and Historian

S. L. A. MARSHALLis one of the country’s foremost military specialists. He was the youngest second lieutenant during World War I, became a combat historian with the rank of colonel in World War II, and as a brigadier general was infantry operations analyst in Korea. From his experience he is eminently qualified to give us his judgment of Samuel Eliot Morison, historian and fighting Navy man.


SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON is not just a historian turned sailor, or a sailor turned historian, but a fighting Navy man who has absorbed a great part of the wisdom of our own admiralty through osmosis. In The Two-Ocean War he brings to his summing-up of our naval history during World War II a ring of authority, a crispness of expression, and an acute critical faculty which make the narrative as new as tonight’s weather report.

Only yesterday, or thereabouts, he finished his real backbreaker, the monumental fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II begun in 1947 — fifteen books in fifteen years. The new volume is the recapitulation for those who have less space on their library shelves. They can have the Navy’s war in one package, a large handful. The scenes are revisited, the actions reappraised; leaders of men and their decisions are re-evaluated in the light of full and final knowledge.

Here would be more than a lifetime of labor for any normally diligent scholar. Yet the Morison list shows twenty-three other titles published and two more books in preparation.

How explain the man? By what magic is it made possible that The Two-Ocean War unrolls as zestfully as if he had tackled his subject afresh, like a novitiate enchanted all the way by original discovery? Rewriting oneself is the most enervating and frustrating of chores. He thrives on it. I venture that his devoted readers who started with Volume I of the long series (The Battle of the Atlantic) and felt bound to continue will relish the abridged work above all others. While its pace is swift, it is not too hurried for balance. Though all major episodes are included, none ever seems half-told. Pearl Harbor, Midway, the Coral Sea, and Leyte Gulf, as examples, become more vivid when described in the shorter form. The profiles of the main personalities are also sharpened. Furthermore, owing to the compaction, main lessons, along with Morison’s philosophical approach to an understanding of them, are more dramatically incised. Take one: his appreciation of the fact that command decisions are the product of an environment and, usually, of the sum total of the influences of a number of individuals on the person who must decide. In some cases, a chief of staff, arriving at his post at the right or wrong moment, may sway the commander toward resolution or retreat. Our military staff colleges have too little understanding of the nature of decision in war to support what Morison indicates. But he is offering nothing radically new. Napoleon said on St. Helena: “One man by himself is no good.” fie was reflecting on exactly the same fundamental truth. Any military reader will get that out of Morison’s new book.

The scope of Morison and his significance as a sea-power prophet, I will deal with later. For the present, I am speaking of his authentic genius and that boundless energy and dedication to task which set him above all other military field historians of his period and century. Many of us did his kind of labor, no less ploddingly and in a few cases possibly with even greater inspiration, while the fighting was on. There were hundreds who made the try. Who remembers them now? They long ago wearied of the grind and got out. Their turning to other pastures was almost inevitable. In my own case, I was so fed up with World War II after almost five years of it that I decided never to write another line about it. Seventeen years went by before I resumed work on a book already 95 percent complete before the Normandy breakout. Fighting operations do fray the nerves that way. War is boring enough. Why wallow in boredom by researching and writing what one has lived?

We had in the European Theater at least ten cracker jack combat historians who could have switched to the professional writing game after V-E Day. Among them were a former soap salesman, a radio repairman, and a nightclub operator. None cared to make the switch to do a volume of the official Army history. It was a typical reaction. The few pros in our division — men who had taught history before becoming officers — stayed on only long enough to write one or two books. Work standards were too demanding, and the writers had tired of their subject. In our day, the writing of military history and combat narrative attracts chiefly the individual who is fascinated by strategy and tactics though he has never been near a fire fight. This is not said disparagingly. At least ten first-class books about World War I have been published in the United States in the past year. As is the case with World War II and Korean War titles, most of the authors have had no military experience.

My point is that for twenty-two years Admiral Morison has kept rolling along, never straying from the channel, completing the delta. The end has not yet been reached. There should be at least one more book: his personal account of his working methods, his plans, the obstacles put in his path and how he overcame them. The rest of us may only regard him and marvel. We are not astonished that in Italy this year some wise men decided that his contribution to historiography and human knowledge was worth $50,000 in special prize money. What is a little surprising is that his own nation has not more broadly acclaimed his achievement or acknowledged his stature, not simply as a historian but as a military thinker and exemplar.

Fidelity is the key word in every officer’s commission. Morison stands out like Mars at perihelion when it is mentioned. His task would never have been finished had he vanished from the earthly scene. There was no standby. He had to keep going, and heaven had to favor him. He did it despite the spirit of the times. “I put my hand to the plow and did not look back" is an old-fashioned sentiment. “O Lord God ... to endeavor any great matter, grant us to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of same until it is truly finished, which yieldeth the true glory” may be a prayer for sailors, but who now remembers that Drake said it to his men on the bowling green? No doubt Sam Morison would be among the few.

THE easy flow of his prose might suggest that all composition is for Sam a simple undertaking. He writes as he talks, man-to-man, eschewing technical terms which might confuse the average reader and making ready use of slang where it fits. Words such as “boo-boo” and “blooper” and such phrases as “dishing it out” and “started the ball rolling” spice the new book. Most editors foolishly try to steer serious military writers away from the light touch, thereby causing a chronic pain in the author’s neck. Another element of strength is the fact that Morison is always with his reader rather than talking past him. Artlessly, he drops in sentences such as this one: “If you care to go with me, keep one eye on our chart. If you do not, skip to read only the result.”

But if Sam has some special secret which makes the task of reconstructing a battle anything else but hard labor, he belongs in a museum. He would be as unusual as a three-headed calf. True enough, no war historian may keep his work in perspective unless he is pervaded with that zestful interest in tactical operations and their attendant staff problems which energizes the good leader of battle forces. Morison has this quality abundantly, and to the degree that it possessed him, he must have felt many times that the play, not the reporting of it, was the thing. There’s where the rub comes. In Christopher Columbus, Mariner, he said of himself, “My point of view is still that of a sailor,” making nothing of the professor and historian. His great love of the fighting Navy is obvious to everyone who, by reading his books, shares his excitement and enthusiasm. Anyone who came close to his powerful, yet sympathetic personality during World War II must have felt that he would make a great commander of fighting men and ships.

It was in those years that I knew him best. He always reminded me more of Admiral Chester Nimitz than of other fellows in his own writing vineyard. He had Nimitz’s salty manner, commanding eye, and oddly mixed presence, which is at the same time relaxed, yet somehow under total control. We crossed trails in the Central Pacific and later in Europe. We would sit on a fallen coconut palm or in a war room and swap stories about our two jobs, his of covering operations at sea and mine of following the land fighting. The main emotion at these conferences was our mutual astonishment. The factors in his business were almost nothing like mine. Our problems and our methods had as little resemblance as the fighting missions of the two most ancient services.

Navy history, like naval action, builds up around what happens to ships. So long as the warship, brought to battle, stays afloat, the pattern of human action which makes possible its survival becomes almost self-clarifying. In the land battle there is no warp and woof to the story. It is fractionalized from the beginning. Land battle is a freewheeling enterprise. Troops, even when they fight collectedly, do not know what happens to them or how their actions affect other units. There is no equivalent of the “Now hear this!” which keeps a ship’s company thinking as one body. The historian is confronted with the thousand parts of a jigsaw puzzle and must somehow reassemble them.

But there was one common denominator in our work which we both recognized — the sustaining effect on Army and Navy people alike of heroic action amid crisis. In our different ways we were both following a trail lighted by human courage. Nothing else established the pivots of our research undertakings. If at the end we knew more about the heart of man than at the start, there would be no reason to repine about what we had missed.

Both the deeply spiritual quality in Morison and his superior technical grasp of Navy function were needed in his post. They find full expression in the new book as in the long series. Let me illustrate by citing one memorable passage from Volume XII, The Liberation of the Philippines.

To those of us fortunate enough to witness it, nothing else so well expressed the power and majesty of the United States as the great horizon-to-horizon spread of our convoys during the Pacific war. On the other hand, nothing else grew so monotonously dull so swiftly as the massive offshore bombardment which opened the battle. When the Navy went against the Luzon shore at Lingayen Gulf, the Japanese had ceased to defend at the waterline, there was no mighty shelling from offshore, and the landing was mild and undramatic. What was worth saying about it? Now hear this from Morison: “American bluejackets approached the landing beaches as men doing a job their country had called them to perform. Most of them were fundamentally religious and sentimental. All they now asked of God was to let them return home alive and unharmed. They were conscious of being part of a vast machine in the Pacific. But they also lived in a dream world of an idyllic future.

The basic motivation of Americans in war has never been more simply and tenderly stated than in these lines. But every senior military historian I know, except Morison, would shy from writing them. Though he has never been described as a naturalist, the word fits. His superb quality as a chronicler of human experience is that all of life charms him, and he responds by letting himself go in his writing. Amid battle, he will pause to devote a page to the heavenly glory of a sunset over troubled waters. This is as it should be. Man in his hour of supreme trial still remains sensitive to the whole of his environment, and any unusual instance of older in nature may redeem him and stay imperishably in his memory. Troop courage is easily lost when the gray clouds lower, and men’s hearts do leap up when they behold the rainbow in the sky.

This sentimentalist, who can so deftly employ a bosun’s phrases when it pleases him, and who writes so gently and admiringly of Navy people as a whole, becomes the harshest of all critics when skinning a higher commander whom he deems gravely at fault. Here he speaks of Rear Admiral Robert A. Theobald, Commander of the North Pacific Force: “Fuzzy Theobald, as usual, thought he knew better. . . . This bad guess lost him all opportunity to fight. . . . The Japanese could have landed at Dutch Harbor, for all the protection it had from Theobald.”

THROUGHOUT The Two-Ocean War, the vinegar and caustic are applied no less generously than the oil. All heroes are extolled for their inspired intuitions and bold strokes, even if they wore the enemy uniform. The boobs are called stupid when the word fits, whether they be friend or enemy: “Crutchley neither conferred with, nor issued a battle plan; and his disposition was faulty.” Here he is talking about a British V.C., “a gallant and jovial figure,” in the battle of Savo Island. Of Admiral Kelly Turner, that valiant American sea dog, who figured in the same fight, he says: “Dogmatically deciding what the enemy would do, instead of considering what he could or might do, was not his only mistake on that fatal night.” The story of the action is rife with these personal details and harsh judgments. “Captain Riekohl of Vincennes, who had made about as many mistakes as a commander could make, was broken in spirit by the loss of his ship. He used to go about, like Kipling’s ‘Matun the Old Blind Beggar,’ telling over and over the story to anyone who would listen, of how his ship had prevented Mikawa from attacking the transports. . . . Captain Bode of Chicago, whose stupidity was largely responsible for that cruiser’s inglorious part in the battle, committed suicide.” Reading these indictments, one might at first agree with what John Haverstick wrote of their author: “He has gone to unfashionable lengths unfamiliar to whole generations of historians. ” But then, five ships went down, 1270 souls were lost, and 709 sailormen were wounded in a horribly mismanaged action. Is it better to drown the mistakes along with the dead?

The traditional argument among scholars and within the military as to whether the historian at arms should exercise critical judgment does not grow more sensible with the years. It persists because the majority of individuals who are drawn to this field lack the experience, training, and understanding of human nature (the sine qua non of generalship) which might qualify them for the postgraduate task of criticism. The historian who is steeped in tactics, strategy, logistics, and other staff subjects must feel compelled to undertake the larger task, knowing that it will never be done comprehensively otherwise. The schools and departments do not have time for it. Rotation is too certain; the tenure of the few truly gifted individuals is much too brief.

Admiral Sam was qualified before he started. Because he knew what he knew, and FDR and Admiral King adored his writings, by order of the White House the post was created which gave him an unparalleled opportunity. But astonishing as it may seem, no directive from on high automatically opens all high-command doors. Such a paper is merely a license to proceed and win full cooperation as best one can. There is no open sesame except mutual confidence, and that flourishes only from professional respect for the invader’s competence. All services are alike in this; the inquiring reporter from outside is regarded as a spy until he is accepted as a member of the fraternity, having demonstrated that he knows its secrets.

Morison’s orders, cut by the Bureau of Navigation at the order of Secretary Knox, sent him out to the fleet “to go anywhere and see anything.” He did not comply by going everywhere and seeing everything, but no military historian ever came closer to doing the impossible. By the end of 1942, Sam had rolled and pitched in destroyers across the North Atlantic in convoy and escort duty, had served on board the Brooklyn at the pre-invasion bombardment of Casablanca. Leaving Washington again early in 1943, he arranged his place with another seagoing stall aboard the cruiser Honolulu, charging up and down the Slot in the Solomons in the South Pacific. He kept at it.

No other sailor saw so much of the fighting Navy in World War II. No other naval figure ever has been privy to the making of command decisions in as many varied critical situations in war at sea. None was better equipped to receive what he saw and heard and to interpret the ultimate meaning.

How he persevered is best seen through the eyes of an old shipmate. The Navy was asked for an official appreciation of Sam Morison. The task was delegated to a companion of his labors, himself a distinguished scholar, Rear Admiral John W. McElroy, USNR (Ret.). He writes:

Sam was in the midst of it. In flag quarters afloat, or on the bridge, when on deck or down below, he was seeing much, saying little and jotting down voluminous notes in pocket-sized memo books. These hundreds of first-hand items spliced out official action reports or war diaries and are the stuff that make his fifteen volumes a joy to read and re-read. Afloat and ashore new friends and shipmates passed the word that here was an officer who knew his job — the highest compliment in the Navy. By the close of World War II most of the Navy’s better known flag officers had come to know of Sam Morison’s tremendous project and to respect him as a scholarly seaman and a fine mess mate with an inexhaustible source of topical knowledge. Not one top commander ever suggested he change so much as even a punctuation mark in anything written about his campaigns. He accepted suggestions and corrections of his text based on careful research or even irate letters, whenever facts were indisputably clear and unequivocal. But he was adamant and firmly declined to alter one word for the sake of vanity or to soften criticism when he considered his original conclusions were a matter of record or of sound professional judgment.

How do the Navy’s flag officers look today upon Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison USNR (Ret.)? They appreciate that he earned his keep under difficulty and his promotions under fire; that whatever he wrote was from the point of view of a seaman; that he was an incorruptible scholar and a damned good shipmate.

To Admiral McElroy’s bouquet, I would add my personal view that Morison’s great strength as a war historian is that he aims straight at the mark, never hedging or ducking as he writes. His critics make much of that fact when they catch him in some marginal error or chance upon something which he has overlooked. But Morison has to write that way because he is that kind of man. He believes that others have a right to know how he feels and what he thinks; any day, he would rather be proved wrong than be guilty of ambiguity. As Justice Holmes said, it is not enough to be an idealist; one must also have courage.

Because he towers as a historian, less attention has been paid to his other role as a profound seapower theorist. That is a pity. A devotee of Admiral A. T. Mahan, Morison has updated the major prophet, extending and applying his ideas to this fantastically complex present. Morison’s Navy has come through the air age, into the atomic age, and helped blaze the trail into the space age. Morison was aboard through the dramatic four years when the amphibious method developed more phenomenally than in all prior centuries. The battleship went out and the supercarrier and Polaris submarine came in as decisive weapons during his time. Since he retired from the Navy, the fresh major menace to the fleet has risen in the form of land-based weapons — the ICBM and the strategic bomber. All of these changes have but fortified Morison’s original faith and added to his influence as Mahan’s most persuasive disciple. Appropriately, he closes his latest book with a reaffirmation: “If the deadly missiles with their apocalyptic warheads are ever launched at America . . . the nation or alliance that survives will be the one that retains command of the oceans.”