NEWPORT, R.I. - Naval War College (NWC) professor John Hattendorf has an office on the third floor of Founders Hall, packed with books and files, used in research projects that recently earned him the Samuel Elliot Morison Award and the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Literary Achievement.
The Morison Award, given by the USS Constitution
Foundation in Boston, Mass., is presented for public service that echoes traits of Adm. Samuel E. Morison, the Harvard professor and official U.S. Navy historian during World War II. Those qualities include scholarship, patriotism, and i
nterest in maritime topics.
The Mahan award, administered by the Navy League of the United States, is given for literary achievements that advance understanding of naval warfare, strategy and policy.
“These are history awards, and it’s very meaningful to get them during the year we’re celebrating the 125th anniversary [of NWC],” Hattendorf said.
The awards cite Hattendorf for his scholarship and influence on the understanding of naval strategic thought and the country’s dependence on maritime strength.
Hattendorf’s page on Wikipedia tells that he has written, edited, and co-authored more than 40 books, including the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History, in 2007. He began his long-standing relationship with NWC forty years ago when he had only been in the Navy for five years.
“Since the time I was a junior officer, I got very interested in naval history, and realized there weren’t too many scholars in the field, and they needed researchers and writers,” he said. “I could fit my career in with my own interests.”
Though he grew up in suburban Chicago, his curiosity about the history of ships and the sea began during summer vacations at his family’s seasonal home in western Michigan; he taught sailing courses from the time he was 15 years old.
His entire office is surrounded by bookshelves, with titles about various political figures, along with hosts of naval history books, in addition to books in French, German, Swedish, and other languages. His enviable educational background took him from rural Ohio, at Kenyon College, to Rhode Island’s own Brown University, and he earned his doctorate from Pembroke College at Oxford University.
The educational background helps focus his research.
“I always have goals about what I’m looking for, there’s always some specific question I’m focused on,” Hattendorf said. “I want to find out what actually happened.”
But finding out what happened isn’t so easy. Hattendorf said challenges facing historical researchers today include the increasing tendency to keep records electronically.
“People don’t write things down the way they used to, we have to learn to capture things in e-mail,” he said. “This is a really big challenge now—how to capture these kinds of materials.”
Despite the differences electronic records pose to researchers, it has also made study less expensive, because researchers don’t need to spend as much time in travel or waiting for materials to arrive in the mail, because many resources are now available online.
After the research process, writing also challenges scholars, in part because authors always have a target audience. Whether professionals, congressional leaders, War College students, undergraduates, or civilian graduate students, each respective audience may need a different writing style or structure.
“There’s two sides to it, you have to do the research, the search is fun but writing is the hard one,” he said. “You try not to wander. Indicate the point you’re trying to get to your reader.”
Another face of naval history research is the constantly changing technology of the Navy. Though maritime weapons have evolved from wood ships and cannons to steel ships and modern missiles, Hattendorf said naval history is still alive and relevant today.
“It tells you how we’ve gotten to where we are now,” Hattendorf said. “There are many things that you can learn today from these old operations. The broad conceptual terms are the same, the principles are the same; it’s highly relevant and very important.”
Hattendorf is currently working on several projects, including updating the history of the Naval War College to commemorate 125 years, editing an 18th century admiral’s journal as well as 20th century strategic documents, and doing a series of historical case studies on naval force and peacetime coercion.
by Tyler Will, Naval War College Public Affairs