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NEWPORT, R.I. - The Naval War College (NWC) celebrated its 125th anniversary on Oct. 6, marking the transformation from a "new kind of college" envisioned by former Secretary of the Navy William Chandler, to a premiere military academic institution, known worldwide for its academic excellence.

When Secretary Chandler signed General Order 325 on Oct. 6, 1884—the first step toward the establishment of the United States Naval War College—he probably had no idea that the college would evolve into a modern intellectual center.

The commemoration included readings of the general order, a proclamation by the Governor of Rhode Island, Donald Carcieri, and a message from Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation.  Dr. John Hattendorf, the Ernest J. King Chair of Maritime History, spoke on the origins of the college, and an actor portraying Commodore Stephen B. Luce, the college’s first president, read a speech that Luce gave at a graduation in 1903.

Other activities commemorating the 125th anniversary include a special exhibit at the NWC museum, running until Dec. 4, called “Faces of the Naval War College” with busts and portraits of former presidents and faculty. Two books will be published: one an illustrated history of NWC and the other a scholarly history of the college.

According to tradition, Commodore Luce was rowed from a ship anchored off Coasters Harbor Island. Once on the island, he approached the stone building that would serve as NWC and said, “Poor little poorhouse, I christen thee United States Naval War College.”

Today, NWC has intermediate- and senior-level colleges for U.S. military officers, distance courses, and a program for international students which has attracted officers from more than 126 countries.  Of these international students, about half will become flag-level officers, and a portion of them will become heads of their respective navy or defense organizations.

"This place is about the future,” said Rear Adm. Phil Wisecup, NWC president. “It's about looking ahead, developing ideas for what the Navy and our military should be doing in response to threats or problems we don't even know exist yet. It's about developing our people, producing leaders with a broad education, habits of thought, and the ability to critically analyze ambiguous problems and recommend what should be done. It's about listening to our friends, who often have great ideas about how to solve problems we might not think of."

Though the stone building Commodore Luce christened now houses the NWC museum, the college campus expanded over the years with additional buildings occupying several acres. The campus has become a landmark in Newport, not to mention a beacon for academics and U.S. military and international naval officers alike. 

“It’s still as it has been from the very beginning,” said Hattendorf. “The home of original thought on theater-strategic and operational level of thinking. The whole idea of naval strategy was really invented here.”

Hattendorf said the greatest period of growth for NWC was in the 1980s, when additional colleges were added and NWC began attracting faculty from prestigious universities. The Center for Naval Warfare Studies was also a development from the ‘70s.

NWC professor John Jackson, chairman of the 125th Anniversary Committee, pointed out that notable NWC graduates have walked on the moon, won international wars, and international students have become presidents of their nation.

“When you look back at the contributions of our alumni, faculty, and staff, this institution has contributed to the national security of the nation at a level unsurpassed at any other institution,” Jackson said.

Its accomplished students aside, NWC’s development of the Navy’s Professional Military Education (PME) continuum and aligning with the Senior Enlisted Academy are also achievements the college is proud of. Through NWC’s College of Distance Education, nearly 38,000 officer and enlisted students world-wide have enrolled in the NWC Online PME courses since initial deployment in May of 2006. 

More recently, Hattendorf said, were the accomplishments of the College of Strategic and Operational Leadership, which started in fall 2007, and the increasing study of Irregular Warfare have made important contributions to contemporary campaigns.

“We’re always looking at the changing nature of warfare, as well as looking at the continuities of warfare,” Hattendorf said. “I think the college is consistently following the idea that there are certain basic characteristics of understanding warfare.”

NWC Archivist Evelyn Cherpak, who has managed NWC’s archives and historical document collections for 35 years, said the curriculum changes, the increase in historical collections and accreditation were highlights of her career.

“It was very important to do so, and to have a master’s degree,” Cherpak said of accreditation. “It showed that the curriculum and the education they received here was worthy of a degree, and it met all the requirements of a degree.”

She recalled the days when retired Adm. James Stockdale was president of NWC, from 1977 through 1979, and described him as a visible president and was very personal with the staff. Historical collections and oral history have greatly helped students of naval history, she said.

But the growth of international programs has educated both American and international officers alike, an important part of military culture.

“I think building ties of friendship and cooperation is very important,” Cherpak said. “The growth of the international programs is important for establishing good relations between the navies of the world in these perilous times we live in.”

While NWC started 125 years ago as a small institution with mostly summer courses, it has evolved into a one-year, resident program that graduates about 600 students a year, and a robust distance program that graduates about 1,000 students a year.   Students earn Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) credit and either a diploma or a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.

“It’s fitting that we pause in our busy schedule to pay our respects to those who came before us and to consider the bright future we have for the next 125 years,” said Jackson.

by Tyler Will, Naval War College public affairs