#Reviewing Congress Buys a Navy

Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921. Paul E. Pedisich. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Paul Pedisich’s Congress Buys a Navy is a solution in search of a problem. It’s a well-written and researched book that offers a detailed account of the role that Congress played in the rise of the New Navy throughout four decades spanning the turn of the century. It is also, however, a book without a clear purpose. Although it explains in depth the political machinations surrounding the development of U.S. naval power during the country’s rise to international supremacy, it does not clearly explain the importance of this account for historians or other readers. Despite being replete with detail, it often lacks an overarching motivation or explanation as to why its interpretation of U.S. naval history is original and important.

The main thesis of the book is that from 1881 to 1921 Congress controlled the development of the Navy more than U.S. presidents, who tended to have other priorities.[1] Two themes stand out throughout this period of the Navy’s history: repeated failures to convince Congress to reform the Navy’s organizational structure, and annual legislative appeals regarding the authorization and funding for new ships. One or both of these issues is mentioned on almost every page of this book.

To explore them, Pedisich catalogues a large number of connections between major players in government and the Navy, and delves into the personal and political negotiations that shaped national naval policy. As he explains, doing this kind of history mainly means presenting the “nitty-gritty” of naval affairs, such as the “individual rationales, voting blocs, and agendas” of the legislative branch that drove naval policy decisions throughout the era.[2]

These discussions are where the book shines: Pedisich doggedly analyzes several decades worth of source material from the Congressional record, public press, and biographical literature. He takes great pains to explore how various secretaries of the Navy, presidents, members of Congress, and other opinion leaders clashed over naval matters, as well as the practical implications of each legislative session for the Navy’s growth and internal development. In particular, he surveys numerous “rent-seeking” relationships between Congress and the Navy that played a large role in funding decisions and other aspects of the “spoils system” of the political process.

Unfortunately, this approach leaves little room for a rich historical account that engages with other writing or debates. As a result, most of the volume is limited to recitations of the findings of various committee reports, followed by summaries of presidential addresses and recommendations. In other words, the attention to individuals and relationships sometimes detracts from the bigger picture of political change and naval history. In particular, while the book’s subtitle mentions politics and economics, the former strongly dominates the latter.  The book leaves one with the impression that the author could have made better use of economic research to bolster its analysis. Pedisich’s treatment lacks an economic framework that could be used to provide the missing narrative mentioned above. Literature on public choice theory, bureaucracy, economic calculation problems, etc., could have provided excellent foundations for Pedisich’s historical inquiries. As it stands though, the book passes up most of its opportunities to use economics to shed light on political events.

John Davis Long, United States Secretary of the Navy from 1987-1902. (William Taylor/Wikimedia)

The absence of a theory or conceptual framework also obscures some otherwise thorough analysis. To take one example, Pedisich describes in detail several decades’ worth of failures to reorganize the management of the Navy, including in the decades leading up to 1899, when some early efforts were begun by Congress. Yet it’s not clear how these changes became possible after such a long period of institutional inertia in the legislature, especially given that, according to Pedisich, reforms were “neither swift nor inevitable."[3] What then explains this early shift in Congressional attitudes toward the Navy? Was it the decline of the political relations of the post-Civil War government? Or did the experience of the Spanish-American War and the promise of U.S. imperialism provide new motivations to expand and improve the Navy? Or was there some other reason for the surge of Congressional interest in naval matters at the turn of the century?

Economics would also be useful for analyzing changes in the patronage schemes that existed between Congress and the Navy. Pedisich doesn’t spend much time explaining how and why the older system of patronage, where individuals received Navy jobs in exchange for supporting a particular political candidate, was replaced by a more conventional civil service bureaucracy amenable to regional rent-seeking.[4] It seems there is a larger story that could be told here, but the reader doesn’t really get a sense of what it is; Pedisich repeatedly mentions the different spoils systems that motivated Navy business affairs, but he refrains from dissecting them as extensively as he does the annual reports of the Navy to Congress. The former would make for more interesting reading, but the latter receive the lion’s share of attention.

Another problem that undermines the book’s impact is that Pedisich is so focused on reporting the plain facts that he rarely expresses an opinion about them. Instead, he seems to assume that readers will interpret events for themselves. This leads to difficulties whenever the historical facts involve conflicting views, especially differences of opinion about economic affairs. For instance, Pedisich discusses many events and ideas that influenced popular and political opinions from 1881-1921, and that also affected naval policy. These include disputes between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, and government and private industry. Some involve justifications for war or extensive regulation of the economy, and represent watershed moments in U.S. history. Yet Pedisich rarely sides in favor of either side in these struggles. This makes for thorough and unbiased reporting, but a weak narrative. The book contains accounts of dozens of conflicts between Congressional factions, and between Congress and the President, but no real weighting of the arguments on either side, or counterfactual reasoning about how things might have been different.

Even the underlying topic of the book—how the U.S. Navy developed from a small, defensive fleet into one of the most powerful seagoing forces in the world—is often unclear. Pedisich seldom provides a clear picture as to exactly what U.S. naval strength looked like at any particular point in time. It would have been helpful to give intermittent overviews of the ships currently in use in a given period, along with mentions of active docks and shipyard facilities, and timelines for vessels under construction. Without attention to the bigger picture, the book founders on interminable discussions of annual appropriations bills. As a specific example, Pedisich periodically mentions increases of U.S. naval power relative to other nations up to 1921, by which time the U.S. Navy was “second to none.” But it’s uncertain how such comparisons are made, and if they are hyperbolic. The only criterion of power suggested is the number of ships each country possessed. But this is at best a weak estimate of superiority, as Germany learned to its misfortune during the First World War.

A 1920 watercolor depicting the sinking of USS San Diego in 1918 by Francis Christian Muller. It depicts the ship sinking off Fire Island, New York, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-156, 19 July 1918. (Wikimedia)

The lack of narrative is driven home at the end of the book, which ends without a true conclusion. Instead, the history simply stops in 1921. Only four pages are devoted to the last five years of the timeline, which includes the entire U.S. involvement in the First World War. There is no summary of the book’s analysis or review of its discoveries, and there are apparently no lessons to be learned from it or counsel that it can provide for the future. In the end, it’s simply a concise, accessible, and detailed account of Congressional involvement with the Navy throughout a vital period of its development. But there is no indication of the audience the book is intended for, or how its findings can be used by readers.

Although I have focused on its shortcomings, I should emphasize that this book does contain a wealth of specific information about Congressional influence on the Navy. In my opinion, it will be especially useful for readers who are already familiar with the era in question, and are simply looking for reference material to support other research. Yet while general students of U.S. naval politics will find much to mull over in this book, only a specialist would take it on a long voyage.

Matthew McCaffrey is an economist and assistant professor of enterprise in the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. He is also editor of the scholarly journal Libertarian Papers. His research explores the economics of entrepreneurship and innovation in business, political, and military contexts.

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Header Image: USS Connecticut leads the Great White Fleet out of Hampton Roads, Virginia, on its world tour in 1907. (Naval Historical Center/Wikimedia)


[1] Paul E. Pedisich, Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 124-125.

[4] Ibid., 142-143.