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'Historical Sections' and 'Battle Studies’: The British Influence Upon American Visions of 'Sea Power' and History - 4 February 2021

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Speaker: David Kohnen, Hattendorf Historical Center, US Naval War College

Chair: Dr Alan James, War Studies Department


Historical studies by naval practitioners of the past remain a fundamental influence upon contemporary debates about the unwritten future of maritime strategy and the role of navies in both peace and war. Given broader questions concerning the role of history in contemporary discussions of future strategy, the past may provide useful context for the future debate. In the nineteenth century, for example, Professor Sir John Knox Laughton of King's College London greatly influenced the development of American maritime strategy through his close association with U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce.

The transatlantic relationship between Laughton and Luce ultimately inspired the visions of American "sea power," which radically transformed the military policy of the United States by the dawn of the twentieth century. As the founding President of the Naval War College, Luce used the historical teachings of Laughton as the basis for American concepts in professional naval education, global maritime strategy, and operations in the global maritime arena.

Coincident with the death of Luce during the First World War, Sir Julian Corbett also inspired Admiral William S. Sims to organize the "Historical Section" at the Naval War College, which later evolved into the "Battle Studies Group" in the Second World War. From the Trafalgar Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars to the Battle of Jutland of the First World War and beyond to the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Second World War, historical studies remained the fundamental element in educating American naval practitioners to consider the fundamental role of navies in both peace and war.

Yet, Cold War era trends in academia and among the armed services progressively eroded the influence of history in American war colleges and staff schools, which by extension has influenced problems in American maritime strategy into the twenty-first century. Placing deeper questions concerning the future application of history into the contemporary strategic context, naval service practitioners presently face innumerable challenges as popular myths dominate popular media, global alliances increasingly fall into disrepair, and interservice rivalries fuel greater uncertainty after more recent military misadventures at sea and ashore, in an increasingly disconnected wireless world, and beyond into uncharted maritime frontiers of space.



David Kohnen is director of the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the Naval War College. He received his PhD at King’s College London. Among his published works, Kohnen is the editor of 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, 2016). Previously, Kohnen focused on the transatlantic alliance between the British Empire and the United States in Commanders Winn and Knowles: Winning the U-boat War with Intelligence (Enigma, 1999). An upcoming book for the Naval Institute Press will be Two Kings and a Navy: The U.S. Navy of Admiral Ernest J. King and the Fifty Years War for Command at Sea, 1901–1946.

This seminar is part of the long-running ‘King’s Maritime History Seminars’ hosted by the Laughton Naval History Unit (on behalf of the British Commission for Maritime History and the Society for Nautical Research)

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Event details

4 February 2021

Online event