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Richard J. Evans
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The politics of building a fleet

Congress Buys a Navy: Politics, Economics, and the Rise of American Naval Power, 1881-1921 - Paul E. Pedisich

Despite a long and storied naval tradition, for the first century of its existence the United States maintained only a small fleet of ships. It was only during the Civil War that the government built up a force capable of dominating an enemy. After the war the nation coasted on its wartime stock, with more naval expenditures devoted to maintaining the existing ships than on building new ones.. All this changed in the 1880s, as successive Congresses and presidential administrations built up a larger standing force, one capable of defending America's growing interests abroad.


As the title of this book indicates, Paul Pedisich sees Congress as playing the dominant role in shaping naval policy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with both presidents and their secretaries of the Navy acting in response to their decisions. It is an interesting thesis, one in harmony with the standard view of Congress as the dominant branch of the federal government during the Gilded Age, and Pedisich cites some convincing evidence (such as the resistance to efforts to reform the organization of naval administration and the power the existing bureau system gave to members of Congress to shape policy) in support of his view.


Yet Pedisich's arguments are diluted by a text that dwells too much on context rather than his arguments. Instead of providing a detailed analysis of Congressional efforts to debate policy he instead supplies a broader political history of the era based around potted biographies of the successive presidents and naval secretaries. Even when he reaches the Spanish-American War Pedisich spends more pages discussing the land campaign in Cuba than on the naval operations that are more relevant to his focus, as he seems to believe that more insight on naval policy is to be gained from devoting space to recounting Teddy Roosevelt's service in Cuba than to the battle of Santiago de Cuba (which merits only a solitary sentence). The result is a disappointment, as Pedisich's book might be a useful introduction for readers who are seeking to learn about the political background to the American naval history of the era but otherwise represents a failed effort to achieve the author's stated goal.