October 6, 1884, Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler signed General Order 325, which began by simply stating: "A college is hereby established for an advanced course of professional study for naval officers, to be known as the Naval War College." The order went on to assign "the principal building on Coaster's Harbor Island, Newport, R.I."—the Newport Asylum for the Poor, built in 1820—to its use and "Commodore Stephen B. Luce . . . to duty as president of the college." Such were the humble beginnings of what is now the oldest continuing institution of its kind in the world.
The Naval War College owes its creation to the vision and persistence of one man: Stephen B. Luce. In 1861, young Lieutenant Luce was assigned to the faculty of the United States Naval Academy, which had been moved to Newport, Rhode Island during the American Civil War.
While on the faculty, he realized that the naval service was not providing adequate training or education in many key professional areas. The Naval Academy had no text for seamanship, so Luce wrote one that stood as the U.S. Navy’s standard for half a century. As he rose in rank and widened his experience through the command of seven different ships—in peace and in war, under sail and under steam—Stephen B. Luce saw other inadequacies in the Navy’s professional preparation for its officers and men.
As a commander of a fleet division, he saw that there was neither a procedure to exercise naval tactics nor a unit assigned to examine experimental tactical ideas, so he created both. At the same time, he saw that there was no preparatory training for enlisted recruits, and he established the U.S. Navy’s first recruit training station in Newport on Coasters Harbor Island in 1883. Then, when he rose to be rear admiral and commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, the U.S. Navy’s most senior active duty billet, Luce turned his attentions toward implementing a long-standing goal.
Since the time of his combat service in the 1860s, he had realized that there was no place in the Navy to study the most important and the central issue for a professional officer in the armed forces: war. His age, like ours, was a time of rapidly changing technology, periods that some are fond of labeling as a “revolution in military affairs.”
Then as now, the main focus of naval professional life was on technology and science: on metallurgy, on applications of electricity, on the chemistry and physics of weapons, and a host of related matters. Luce fully recognized and appreciated the importance of all these matters as fundamental to success in modern warfare, but he saw more clearly than many others that these were only the means for success in solving a broader problem that most officers ignored: the conduct of war itself.
As Luce repeatedly pointed out, war is the central issue around which the profession of arms exists and there was then no existing institution where a naval officer could study it. Thus, Admiral Luce persuaded a reluctant Navy Department to establish the Naval War College in October 1884, making the name of the institution into a constant daily reminder to students and faculty as to the purpose and focus of its work.
In creating the College’s first faculty and curriculum, Luce established the approach that has been renewed, refined, and reaffirmed over more than a century of seeking to understand war in its broadest dimensions. He understood that the study of war requires original research and scholarship to understand how wars begin, how wars are fought, how wars end, and how wars can be prevented.
The highest aspects of this professional subject involved understanding governmental management, finance, decision-making, logistics, campaign planning and tactics, international relations, and grand strategy. The analytical tools for such study lay in approaches with which most naval officers of Luce’s time were unfamiliar: the social sciences and politics, history, management, and international law, as well as an understanding of the roles of other services and their approaches to war.
To the study of these matters, Luce added a new tool for broad analysis: war-gaming. Luce foresaw that the College’s game boards could become the key tool that linked the broad analysis of political-military issues with the burgeoning developments in current and future naval technologies, so he empowered Lieutenant William McCarty Little to innovate and to develop this area.
Luce also sought to recruit for his early faculty military officers of demonstrated intellectual bent. Among those whom he brought to Newport was Army Second Lieutenant Tasker H. Bliss, who helped Luce to convene the first class of nine students at the Naval War College in 1885. Bliss’s participation established the precedent of having officers from other services on the faculty and among the students to broaden the perspective. Later, Bliss made use of his experience in Newport when he became the first Commandant of the Army War College in 1901, and in 1919, when he accompanied President Woodrow Wilson to the Versailles peace negotiations.
At the same time, Luce also established the precedent of having civilian academicians on the faculty—a practice continued today. With Luce’s concept for the College in place, the Naval War College began to make the contributions that established its reputation during the century and a quarter that has followed.
The student body gradually grew, and soon, the College had its first students from foreign navies. Officers from Sweden in 1894 and from Denmark in 1895 presaged by 60 years the more comprehensive international programs we have today.
Most famous of all the College’s contributions, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s lectures on the influence of sea power in the 1880s and early 1890s provided the basis that created an understanding of naval strategy. Mahan’s War College lectures, eventually published in book form as Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, influenced naval thinking around the globe and for decades to come.
Another groundbreaking thinker was Captain Charles H. Stockton, who published in 1900 the first code of international law for naval operations; within a decade it became the focus for international discussions and a basis for the modern law of naval warfare. Officers at the Naval War College played a key part in creating the country’s first contingency plans for war, some of which were used in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Naval War College was the principal engine behind the creation of operational naval doctrine and the innovation of an operational staff to support flag officers at sea.In addition, the College was the wellspring for the long-term movement that led to the creation in 1915 of a Chief of Naval Operations, with his shore-based naval staff, to advise government leaders in Washington and to give the Navy the professional uniformed leadership it had not previously had.
Following the First World War, under the leadership of Admiral William S. Sims (who had commanded U.S. Naval Forces in Europe), the Naval War College staff, students, and faculty looked critically at recent naval operations and began to think innovatively about future operational uses for submarines, aircraft, and amphibious forces. Continuing through the 1930s, the College made significant contributions to the development of War Plan Orange and the Rainbow plan that were used in World War Two. As Fleet Admiral Nimitz later recalled from his own experience as a student, the Naval War College had examined so many different possible scenarios and possible courses of action for a war in the Pacific that he and his colleagues were surprised only by Japan’s employment of kamikaze aircraft.
In 1946, Admiral Raymond Spruance, the victor at the battle of Midway, returned to the Naval War College for his fourth tour of duty and established the College’s direction as it entered the Cold War era. During that period, much thought was devoted to the issues of nuclear weapons and multinational cooperation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the College led the Navy with innovative ideas for cooperative operations with other navies through the establishment of the Naval Command Course for senior international officers in 1956, the Naval Staff College for intermediate-level international officers in the 1970s, and the convening of regular biennial meetings of the world’s chiefs of navies in the International Sea Power Symposia from 1969 onward.
During the 1950s, the Naval War College curriculum adapted to meet the circumstances of the post–World War II and post–Korean War period. Chairs were established to emphasize the attention given to international relations, maritime strategy, military and diplomatic history, international law, and economics. The influence of rapidly changing technology was further recognized in the establishment of Military Chairs, occupied by senior officers especially qualified in such areas as submarine warfare, electronic warfare, air warfare, amphibious warfare, and surface warfare. The student body was enlarged to include more officers from other services, so that today we have substantial student representation from the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, and many mid-career professionals from civilian agencies.
This representation is also reflected in our faculty.
In 1972, under the leadership of Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, a number of significant changes were instituted at the College. The curriculum was more sharply focused on three academic areas. Over time, the names of the courses have changed slightly, but Turner’s general concept has remained over thirty-five years with concentration on Strategy and Policy, National Security and Decision-Making, and Joint Military Operations. A full-time, highly qualified teaching civilian and military faculty was established. The case study methodology was adopted and the academic program made more rigorous. The reliance on outside visiting lecturers was reduced and more individual student effort was required. Concurrently, with the full support of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Naval Personnel, student selection criteria became more stringent.
In 1981, nearly a century after Stephen B. Luce founded the Naval War College as “a place of original research on all questions relating to war and the statesmanship connected with war, or the prevention of war,” the Center for Naval Warfare Studies was established within the College for broadly based, advanced research on the naval contributions to national strategy. For more than a quarter century, the Center has complemented the curriculum at the Naval War College by providing a place for dedicated research on important national security issues. The Center’s work informs and stimulates the faculty and students in the classroom as well as helping to link the College to the fleet and policy makers in Washington.
The College contributed substantially to the thinking behind the “Maritime Strategy” of the 1980s and the conduct of the Gulf War in 1990–91. In 1990 the Naval War College became the first of the nation’s staff and war colleges to reach academic standards that allowed for formal academic accreditation, leading to the authority to award its students a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies.
In the first years of the 21st century, the Naval War College’s responsibilities were expanded from its traditional focus on intermediate and senior-level officer professional military education, to responsibility for all professional military education for all enlisted personnel and all officers within the U.S. Navy. In October 2006, the College began to serve as executive agent for the Chief of Naval Operations’ Navy Professional Reading Program, which established lending libraries of significant books at over 1,200 ships, squadrons, and commands around the world. The broadened span of PME responsibilities resulted in developing and delivering advanced courses for selected groups of flag and general officers. These new developments led to the College’s decision to establish a College of Operational and Strategic Leadership in 2007.
The College played a major role in creating the recent Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which was first unveiled in Newport by the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandants of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard at the International Sea Power Symposium (ISS) on October 17, 2007. Implementation of this strategy among allied navies was a primary focus of the largest ISS in history, which took place in October 2009.
Throughout the past century and a quarter, the Naval War College has been profoundly concerned with change. Today, with the increasing pace of change, the College is relevant and critical for the Navy and our national security. We are fully attuned to the fact that today’s concepts, strategies, and tactics may be rendered obsolete by the advance of new technology on the world scene and by ever-changing and evolving political, military, economic, and social conditions. The College’s primary mission continues to be the preparation of future leaders to deal with this level of uncertainty.