Victory Without Peace

Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters 1919-1924.By William N. Still Jr. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2018

Reviewed by David Hobbs

‘VICTORY WITHOUT PEACE’ is the third volume of a series by William Still.  It describes US Naval activity in the European Theatre from the armistice that ended the First World War until 1924; the earlier volumes having covered the period from the end of the American Civil War to 1917 and the period from 1917 to 1919.  ‘Victory Without Peace’ describes American participation in the Paris Peace Conference, the removal of the North Sea mine barrage, demobilisation and the continued presence of US warships in a number of areas. 

 The Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas together with the waters off northern Russia and the eastern Mediterranean all had American warships, ranging from battleships and cruisers, through destroyers and their depot ships to minesweepers, small submarine chasers, and requisitioned yachts on station.  Some of them, especially the destroyers, remained for considerable periods.  Throughout the period in question, however, Europe was given a low priority in Washington and their deployment often ran counter to Navy Department attempts to reduce force levels whilst concentrating the battle force in the Pacific.

The author gives interesting insight into American attitudes, both at the Peace Conference and in subsequent peace-keeping and humanitarian operations. Admiral Benson, the US Chief of Naval Operations, is described as being critical of British naval supremacy both during and after the war and apparently held the view that the Germans should be allowed to keep a powerful fleet after the Peace Treaty ‘which could counter British naval superiority’.  Also of interest, the US Government never described itself as joining Great Britain and France as an Ally but described itself instead as an associated power.  The United States never declared war on Turkey, a fact which complicated its relationship with both the Allies and Turkish nationalists as the Ottoman Empire dissolved after 1919 and made for a complicated relationship with both.

Throughout the period in question destroyers proved to be valuable as guard, or station-ships, in ports.  In many instances these offered the only means of long-range communication to American diplomats, relief agencies and trade representatives and often provided them with their only means of safe transport between ports.  Inevitably, they found themselves working alongside British, French, Greek and Italian warships on similar missions but were not always instructed to act in coalition with them, indeed in some instances relations with Italian forces came close to the use of force off the Dalmatian coast in the Adriatic.  Junior naval officers with no specific training for the role found themselves having to interact with a wide range of forces from collapsed regimes, displaced people and non-state revolutionaries who sought to take control of nations that were emerging from the chaos of war.  Although working relationships had to be established with Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist Turkish forces, White Russians, Bolsheviks and others who were not recognised by Washington, there were surprisingly few instances where force had to be used to defend American interests.  This achievement is all the more remarkable as the author makes clear that those interests were not always well defined or even agreed by different government departments.

Although the actions described by the author took place a century ago, many of the situations described seem very familiar to a modern reader with failed nation states, revolutionary nationalist movements, humanitarian aid, disaster relief operations and the ethnic cleansing of huge areas, notably at Smyrna.  The period in question saw the first use, in peacetime, of coalition naval forces because no one navy had the forces in theatre to act alone and at a working level far removed from politics American and British personnel often achieved their aims in friendly co-operation..  The number of warships available to the USN in Europe was limited by a background of budgetary restraint and other political factors including international disagreements over  the development of trade.  Permanent deployments to the European Theatre ended in 1924.  

In summary, this is an good book that describes an era of naval history that still affects us in many different ways today but which has received surprisingly little attention from historians.  It reminds us that armed conflict is only one element of the much wider naval mission and if we are to be on top of our game we must understand every aspect of sea power. I thoroughly recommend it.

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