The Navy Made America a Superpower Once. Can It Again?

Paul Kennedy made his name bemoaning America’s decline. Now, he highlights a way to reverse it.

By , a journalist and former officer in the British Royal Navy.
A U.S. destroyer approaches an aircraft carrier during the Manila offensive in the Philippines during World War II
A U.S. destroyer approaches an aircraft carrier during the Manila offensive in the Philippines during World War II
A U.S. destroyer approaches an aircraft carrier during the Manila offensive in the Philippines during World War II on Nov. 10, 1944. Keystone/Getty Images

In 1987, with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy ignited a firestorm. His sin was forecasting the United States’ decline. The notoriety ensured that his book became a bestseller and that Kennedy would be consulted by U.S. presidential candidates; a copy even made its way onto al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf. But critics lashed out at Kennedy’s apparent defeatism; military strategist Edward Luttwak’s review of the book was titled “Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall.”

Victory at Sea is not The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—neither groundbreaking nor likely to be controversial. Instead, it hearkens back to his The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery in its theme of maritime superiority being intimately connected to economic power and industrial capacity. Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of history and director of international security studies at Yale University, is clear at the outset that the book began as brief text to accompany acclaimed maritime artist Ian Marshall’s paintings of warships, and it grew from there. (And the paintings are stunning: If you’re not stirred by a portrait of the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto at La Spezia, Italy, a marriage of painter Claude Monet and Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, this book may not be for you.) The result is part coffee-table book, part sweeping, single-volume narrative. The scope is most reminiscent of historian Craig Symonds’s 2018 World War II at Sea: A Global History.

In Victory at Sea, there’s nostalgia on two fronts. There’s Kennedy harkening back to his earliest days when he published works specializing in naval history. More broadly, there’s nostalgia for an America ascendant. In 1938, the U.S. Navy had 380 active ships. By the end of 1944, that number was 6,084. But Victory at Sea looks at more than just the United States’ steel-hulled rise to superpower status: It also explores the other five major naval powers of the war—Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan—starting in 1936 when rearmament began in earnest to the immediate postwar demobilization.

In 1987, with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy ignited a firestorm. His sin was forecasting the United States’ decline. The notoriety ensured that his book became a bestseller and that Kennedy would be consulted by U.S. presidential candidates; a copy even made its way onto al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf. But critics lashed out at Kennedy’s apparent defeatism; military strategist Edward Luttwak’s review of the book was titled “Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall.”

Victory at Sea is not The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—neither groundbreaking nor likely to be controversial. Instead, it hearkens back to his The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery in its theme of maritime superiority being intimately connected to economic power and industrial capacity. Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of history and director of international security studies at Yale University, is clear at the outset that the book began as brief text to accompany acclaimed maritime artist Ian Marshall’s paintings of warships, and it grew from there. (And the paintings are stunning: If you’re not stirred by a portrait of the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto at La Spezia, Italy, a marriage of painter Claude Monet and Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, this book may not be for you.) The result is part coffee-table book, part sweeping, single-volume narrative. The scope is most reminiscent of historian Craig Symonds’s 2018 World War II at Sea: A Global History.

Book cover of Paul Kennedy's Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II

Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II, Paul Kennedy, Yale University Press, 544 pp., $37.50, Apr. 26, 2022

In Victory at Sea, there’s nostalgia on two fronts. There’s Kennedy harkening back to his earliest days when he published works specializing in naval history. More broadly, there’s nostalgia for an America ascendant. In 1938, the U.S. Navy had 380 active ships. By the end of 1944, that number was 6,084. But Victory at Sea looks at more than just the United States’ steel-hulled rise to superpower status: It also explores the other five major naval powers of the war—Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan—starting in 1936 when rearmament began in earnest to the immediate postwar demobilization.

Kennedy spends several pages describing the sometimes-forgotten Japanese navy raid in the Indian Ocean in April 1942, which saw ships sunk, shore facilities in present day Sri Lanka bombed, and general terror sowed. He speculates what might have happened if Adm. Chuichi Nagumo had pressed farther west, threatening Aden, Yemen, and the Suez Canal—and how this might have affected Britain’s ground war in the Middle East and its ability to keep hold of Malta, a strategic linchpin and annoying rock in the Italian shoe. There are plenty of books about the naval fights of World War II that focus on Adm. William Halsey Jr.’s blunders, bad torpedoes, the virtues of wooden flight decks for aircraft carriers compared to armored ones, and stories that describe the chasing down of the German battleship Bismarck as if she were robber Clyde Barrow on the run from the G-men. What Kennedy does is masterfully integrate economics, technology, and strategic options to explain why the naval war went the way it did. He details networks of far-flung causes and connections—more about why things happened the way they did versus focusing on who sank what, which many other popular naval histories focus on. As an example, Kennedy cites how the raw material from a bauxite mountain in Suriname eventually became the aluminum critical to the construction, speed, and battle-sturdiness of the hugely successful U.S. Navy Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter.

The Anglosphere, for good and ill and notwithstanding the occasional serious challenge, has policed the world’s seas for more than 200 years. World War II was a showstopping duet when Britain and the United States teamed up, as few powers have ever done. The British Royal Navy, still mighty but showing cracks, leaned on U.S. help to protect Atlantic convoys. A reeling U.S. Navy would lean on Britain for help in its own darkest hour in the Pacific.

Victory at Sea derives its sense of pace and suspense from Kennedy’s conviction that the war was still touch and go until 1943. What tipped the scales, Kennedy maintains, was the arrival of a flood of massive, new Essexclass aircraft carriers beginning in mid-1943. Congress ordered 32 Essex-class carriers (24 were completed) but also converted nine cruisers into light fleet carriers and launched 122 escort carriers. By contrast the Japanese managed to build or convert only a half-dozen fleet carriers during the war itself—and most joined the fleet too late to make a difference to the outcome.

But it wasn’t just warships. Kennedy chronicles how each of the major naval powers managed to keep—even during the tight-pursed, treaty-limited times of the 1920s and 1930s—a large number of domestic shipyards in business. Much of that work was building merchant ships; retaining the yards and their skilled workforces through the lean years became the nucleus for the massively expanded wartime shipbuilding programs, resulting in the building of more than 2,700 Liberty ships.

This is where Kennedy’s exegesis of World War II, while perfectly enjoyable in its own right, takes on relevance. If the naval battles of that war resonate still today, it’s because the maritime fight in 1945 is a lot closer to 2022 than anything former French leader Napoleon Bonaparte or even former U.S. Gen. George Patton did to modern land warfare. The aircraft carrier is still the capital ship, and destroyers and cruisers are still the escorts. The United States still has, if not the biggest, the most powerful navy. The U.S. Navy’s cruising grounds—the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the western Pacific Ocean—are the same then as now.

The difference is where the shipyards are. China already has the world’s largest naval fleet, with an avalanche of increasingly advanced surface ships. It also underwrites a massive civilian shipbuilding program. Some 90 percent of the world’s merchant ships are built in China, Japan, and South Korea. The United States and Europe are AWOL.

Kennedy was labeled a “declinist” for his masterwork in the 1980s. He can’t be blamed for the same with his latest. But anybody reading Victory at Sea might feel that way when comparing maritime security prospects then and now. In the 1930s, the Allies reversed more than a decade of self-imposed defense caps to belatedly start building. Today, the U.S. Navy talks about growing while shrinking. The latest budget would see an already diminished fleet fall from 297 ships to 280 ships by 2027. There are a declining number of shipbuilders across the United States and a lack of shipyard capacity. Ships sit in dry dock for years before being repaired. Compare that to the near-catastrophic damage the carrier USS Yorktown sustained in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. Told it would take at least three months to repair, Adm. Chester Nimitz gave builders three days. The Yorktown fought—and won—at the Battle of Midway a few weeks later.

There’s a new generation of war veterans in Congress. But many of them were forged in the land wars of Iraq and Afghanistan; fewer are those with a naval bent. It’s quite a contrast to World War II, when both U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had salt in their blood. Both had overseen naval affairs in a previous life—Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy and Churchill as first lord of the admiralty—and both preferred to take their trips on capital ships. Churchill signed his wartime correspondence with the president: “Former Naval Person.”

There is no shortage of histories of naval warfare, not least on World War II. What Kennedy’s book brings is a broader perspective on the role—sometimes decisive, sometimes desultory—that naval power would play not just in breaking the power of imperial Japan, Italy, and Nazi Germany but in creating a world that would last.

Alexander Wooley is a journalist and former officer in the British Royal Navy.

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