Naval Intelligence History


Dorwart’s History of the Office of Naval Intelligence 1865-1945. By Jeffery M Dorwart. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

‘In 1930 the president of the United States authorized the burglary of private property for strictly personal reasons, and a United States Navy officer on active duty with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) carried out the criminal act. His presidency paralyzed by the worst economic depression in American history and reeling from vicious political attacks, Herbert Hoover had become overly excitable and sensitive to any opposition or criticism. Thus, when he received a confidential report alleging that the Democrats had accumulated a file of data so damaging that if made public, it would destroy both his reputation and his entire administration, Hoover determined to gain access the material’. 

So begins Chapter 17, ‘Intelligence Dilemma’, of this history of ONI. Intelligence Dilemma because ONI, by 1930, was torn between the collection, analysis and distribution of strategic, operational and technical assessments to naval commands and, to use a contemporary term of the times, ‘gumshoe’ detective escapades, spying and agent running for political, counter intelligence and security of naval assets. 

Jeffery Dorwart’s history exposes the internal struggle for relevancy, professional jealousies and the colourful characters that passed through ONI – both naval and hired agents of questionable morality and competence. It is a fascinating account. 

ONI was the first US agency designed specifically to collect foreign military intelligence when it was formed in 1882. With a small Washington-based staff and attachés posted in major foreign centres the organisation’s initial aim was to glean advanced naval science as a basis for the modernisation of the US Navy. ONI’s attachés were initially warmly received by the arms industry of the time as potentially lucrative customers. Over a 30-year period ONI enjoyed a reputation as a consistently reliable source of information for the US Government. However, the Office gradually moved away from traditional naval intelligence collection and by 1918 was a fully-fledged operational intelligence network covering domestic security and a network of hundreds of agents and informants throughout Europe, Latin America and East Asia.

ONI’s intelligence product influenced the construction of the modern US Navy which trounced the Spanish fleet in the 1898 Spanish-American war. In 1899 it joined with the Naval War College and the Naval Board to form an elementary office of naval operations and President Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed navalist, regularly consulted the Office. However, ONI languished in the early years of the new century with no war threatening. In the lacuna of strategic and technical naval intelligence ONI was progressively ignored, so it turned to influencing public opinion by raising awareness of foreign threats. By the US entry into World War One in 1917, ONI had become a small and largely ignored  organisation; however the maelstrom of war thrust it into a ‘murky world of secrecy, international espionage and counter-espionage, codebreaking, deception, surreptitious entry, eavesdropping and domestic surveillance’.  

ONI had much material to comb post war, not least being the ‘Bolshevik Menace’ and, more naval-related, the Japanese-mandated ‘Mysterious Islands’ in the Pacific. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, made himself prominent in navy society and facilitated the appointment of his patrician business and political confreres to enter ONI during World War One. As president from 1932 FDR’s enthusiasm for naval intelligence saw him making use of an informal group of influential and wealthy patriots gathered under the sobriquet of the ROOM. A prominent ROOMer, FDR’s close friend the industrialist Vincent Astor, sailed his yacht through some of the Japanese-mandated islands in the Pacific to collect intelligence. 

ONI staff were regular line officers posted to ONI and attaché duties as part of the naval posting cycle. The Directors of Naval Intelligence varied in competencies and their faults and strengths are starkly described in the book. DNIs fought constantly for ONI’s reputation and turf; the battle between DNI Alan Kirk and War Plans Director Admiral ‘Kelly’ Turner over control of naval intelligence product and policy in 1941 being just one of the ferocious internal US Navy feuds.

ONI’s culpability in the intelligence failure of Pearl Harbor is an example of internal communication deficiencies and the inadequacies of the then DNI, Admiral Theodore Wilkinson. Dorwart states that ‘No other office or official, including the State Department, held in their files or records more strategic and military data about Japan than Wilkinson and ONI. From 1904 on, nearly every intelligence officer in the navy had focussed on Japan – whether overseas, at the Naval War College, or in ONI headquarters – mostly to provide constant data for revisions of War Plan ORANGE’.  Wilkinson claimed that communications gaps had arisen during the previous DNI, Kirk’s, period to divert blame from him and ONI. There was no evidence given at the Pearl Harbor enquiries whether Wilkinson was involved in a Pearl Harbor coverup. Wilkinson was too honest and forthright to consciously resort to such tactics; however, he tragically took his own life in 1946 after subsequent distinguished service in the Pacific war.

ONI’s engagement with the Royal Navy intelligence apparatus, its operations of global agents and the on-going internal US Navy political infighting brings the narrative to 1945. From its founding in 1882 as a tiny naval bureau to collect information on foreign warship design, ONI became a complex and sometimes troubled domestic and worldwide intelligence agency.  This is a fascinating and intimate biography of an intelligence organisation which, although ending its coverage in 1945, has many lessons for today’s intelligence practitioners. Modern agencies still suffer from internal disputes, ‘stove-piping’ and having to prove their relevancy to their customers in government.

Dorwart’s History of the Office of Naval Intelligence is a tale of intrigue and adventure, laced with human frailties; it is highly recommended.     


  1. Hi Tim,
    I have really enjoyed all your book reviews – thank you.
    As an old dog myself, I feel I can ask: were you actually involved personally in any of the events described in Dorwart’s History of the Office of Naval Intelligence ?
    Please keep up your great work – it is much appreciated by me, and I believe your concise summaries provide a valuable context for the broader ANI community.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here