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Newport, Rhode Island, about 1884. Drawn by Loughlin. NH 70237

Luce’s Idea of the Naval War College is Today’s Reality

By Professor John B. Hattendorf, D.Phil, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History for U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and director, NWC Museum

150428-N-PX557-071 NEWPORT, R.I. (April 28, 2015) John Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History for U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and director, NWC Museum, speaks to students, staff, faculty and guests during an evening lecture, Recreating Our Maritime Heritage, at NWC in Newport, Rhode Island. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released)
NEWPORT, R.I. (April 28, 2015) John Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History for U.S. Naval War College (NWC) and director, NWC Museum, speaks to students, staff, faculty and guests during an evening lecture, Recreating Our Maritime Heritage, at NWC in Newport, Rhode Island. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released 150428-N-PX557-071)

 

Stephen Bleecker Luce experienced an epiphany while listening to General William T. Sherman describe the strategy by which he would gain the surrender of Charleston. Luce believed Sherman’s clear and concise thinking demonstrated that certain fundamental ideas underpinned operations and for the Navy to replicate such a level of thought, Luce knew the Navy needed for a War College.

On November 6, 1882 Commodore Luce put his idea into action when he wrote Secretary of the Navy W.E. Chandler and recommended the establishment of a naval school for the study of “the science of war, naval tactics, military and naval history, international law, military and naval law, modern languages, and such elective branches as might be found desirable.”[1] Luce set upon the path to reform how professional naval officers could be educated to think and study the art and practice of war. His analytical approach to professional development would not be without its critics as many senior officers were content with the emphasis on technology and mastering your profession through practice at sea. But, over the next year, Luce continued to build support for his idea. Finally, in early 1884, he was in a position to draft a General Order for the signature of Secretary Chandler. Still, it was not until October 6, 1884, that Secretary of the Navy Chandler signed General Order 325 that formally established the Naval War College.

Luce’s central and basic idea about the Naval War College is the belief that a naval officer does something more than just perform a job. He carries out his work as a highly educated, trained specialist who operates within a clearly defined area, with established procedures and ethical standards. Further, Luce believed officers should use a highly developed body of theoretical knowledge relating to his field, and have a strong feeling of group identity and shared knowledge with others who perform similar work.

In short, a naval officer is a professional, who, like a doctor, a lawyer, or an educator, should have both advanced education and recognized credentials which certify his achievement toward mastering the progressive levels of understanding for his chosen career.[2]

Commodore Stephen B. Luce, first president of the Naval War College.
Commodore Stephen B. Luce, first president of the Naval War College.

In developing this idea, Luce was aware, as we are today, that a navy requires many different types of expertise and many different specialists. Ordnance, astronomy, engineering, languages, oceanography, chemistry, and physics suggest the range of skills that are used. The Navy comprises a cross section of modern industry and shares these skills with the nation as a whole, while the universities and colleges of the land cater effectively for education in these shared fields.

The one single area that was missing in the range of education for a naval officer in Luce’s time was education in the elements that made the Navy a distinctive profession. There was no place where a naval officer could study a unique, highly developed body of theoretical knowledge that differentiated his occupation from others.[3]

Photograph of an order written by the War College President, Commodore Stephen B. Luce, USN, on 2 September 1885, establishing the institution's working and lecture schedule. (Photo Courtesy of NHHC Photo Archives)
Photograph of an order written by the War College President, Commodore Stephen B. Luce, USN, on 2 September 1885, establishing the institution’s working and lecture schedule. (Photo Courtesy of NHHC Photo Archives)

During the past 130 years, students of naval and military affairs have emphasized that there is a key relationship between armed force and statesmanship in times of peace, as well as in war. While the ultimate purpose of armed force is to be capable of successful operations in war, the relationship of armed force to the broadest aspects of national security cannot be ignored. Within the naval officer’s concern in the area of statesmanship lies the thought of armed force as peacetime deterrent and as an extension of national policy short of war. Moreover, such broad gauged thinking also requires an appreciation of the limitations of armed force as well as the stresses, liabilities, and dangers that accompany it.

Below the all-important study of statesmanship and its relationship to armed force, Luce placed strategy, the comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas to attain broad objectives; and tactics, the employment of specific forces and weapons to attain strategic objectives. These, in turn are followed logistics, the creation and sustained support of weapons and forces to be tactically employed to attain strategic objectives.[4]

These are the fundamental areas that together comprise the highest elements of professional naval thought. In order for naval officers to command effectively, all these areas need to be in harmony and to reflect even broader aspects of national interests, values, and economics. This, Luce believed, can be done only when a commander has first been given an education at a college dedicated to the broadest perspectives in professional thought.

The Naval War College was Luce’s answer to this need. He dedicated it to improving the quality of analysis among naval officers and to providing a sound basis for decisions in command, but its tangible product was designed to be a core of line officers who can function effectively in command and in staff management positions at the highest levels with a clear understanding of their profession.

The Naval War College was the heart of pre-war planning, 1890. (Photo Courtesy of NHHC Photo Archives)
The Naval War College was the heart of pre-war planning, 1890. (Photo Courtesy of NHHC Photo Archives)

References

[1] John D. Hayes, transcripts of S.B. Luce letter: Luce to Chandler, 6 Nov 1882.

[2] The idea is an assumption which runs throughout Luce’s thought from his earliest writings (see ibid, p. 162) and is particularly expanded upon in ibid, chapter III.

[3] “Report of the Board on a Post Graduate Course” in 48th Congress, 2d Session, Senate Executive Doc. No. 68. “Letter from the Secretary of the Navy reporting . . . the steps taken by him to establish an advanced course of instruction of naval officers at Coasters Harbor Island, Rhode Island.”

[4] Ibid. The modern and precise definitions of strategy, tactics and logistics are from Henry E. Eccles, Military Concepts and Philosophy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965), p. 69.