America's First General Staff: A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the U.S. Navy, 1900-1950

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The General Board of the Navy, in existence from 1900 to 1950, was a uniquely American and unparalleled strategic planning organization. As John T. Kuehn shows, this was the United States’ first modern general staff in peacetime, as well as the nexus for naval thought and strategic thinking. The Board’s creation reflected the reformist spirit of the era that also gave birth to the Army War College, the Army General Staff, and the Chief of Naval Operations. As such, the General Board and its mission also reflected an attempt to reconcile the primacy of civilian control of the military with an increasing need for more formal military and naval planning establishments, processes, and methods. Thus the General Board’s very name reflected the idea shared by both corporate America and naval tradition that challenges and problems could be met with special, temporary organizational bodies.

By the 1920s the General Board had become a permanent feature of the Navy and was regarded as the premier strategic “think tank” for advice to the Secretary of the Navy. Evolving over the course of its existence, the Board developed into a bona fide institutional component atop the service’s hierarchy. Kuehn highlights how this small body, wielding immense influence over the span of its organizational life, was an innovative, progressive, and productive force for the security of the United States in peace and for naval success in war. The service of the men comprising the Board is little known, but their collaborative ethos should serve as a model for their modern counterparts. Kuehn’s organizational history of the General Board provides context on the complexities and turbulence involved in building the modern Navy that transitioned over time from coal and sail to nuclear-powered warships. America’s First General Staff offers the first single-volume history of the General Board of the Navy, as well as an analysis of the U.S. Navy during periods of great change in both peace and war.