The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America

by Christopher Bassford

Oxford University Press, 1994

Table of Contents

Mobile Compatible • 

Chapter 18. Clausewitz and the Americans

The post-Vietnam War American passion for Clausewitz has led many recent writers to project an appreciation for his work back onto the American soldiers of the interwar period, often with an eye toward explaining U.S. successes in World War Two. For example, Colonel (USA) Charles F. Brower IV argued in his 1987 Ph.D. dissertation, "The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy: American Strategy and the War with Japan, 1943-1945," that "well-schooled in their study of Mahan and Clausewitz, the Joint Chiefs of Staff understood clearly the political relationship of war and national policy and the pervasive and continuous influence of policy upon strategy."(*1)

Unfortunately, Brower never demonstrated how they came to be "well-schooled" on Clausewitz, nor did he ever cite any Clausewitzian argument other than the overworked and underanalyzed line that "war is the continuation of policy by other means." Although that particular phrasing is Clausewitz's, the idea in its most widely understood meaning could have come just as easily from Mahan, Jomini, or even Machiavelli. Also uncited are the most significant British and American transmitters of Clausewitz's ideas, Corbett, Meyers, and Wilkinson. Since all of Brower's quotations from Clausewitz come from a 1976 translation that differs in some noteworthy respects from any version that the 1943 Joint Chiefs of Staff might have perused, this particular part of his thesis remains to be substantiated.

Similarly, a paper recently written by a student at the U.S. Army's School for Advanced Military Studies states that at the end of the interwar period, "the officer education system had ingested Clausewitz."(*2) The paper's many references to a Clausewitzian influence on American doctrine fail, however, to demonstrate that he had been digested. Particularly puzzling is the remark that the U.S. Army doctrinal publication Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations "was remarkable for its synthesis of modern thought combining Clausewitz, the indirect approach, and modern technology."(*3)

In actuality, this 1936 manual shows the influence of Liddell Hart (the "indirect approach"), Fuller (the list of "principles of war"), and Jomini via Hamley ("strategic bases and lines"), but there is little evidence of Clausewitz. The definitions of strategy, tactics, and economy of force are not his; neither is the emphasis on taking the offensive under all circumstances. The discussion of "The Relationship of Politics to the Conduct of War" appears to be based on Jomini, Mahan, and Moltke and includes the lines "Politics and strategy are radically and fundamentally things apart. Strategy begins where politics end. All that soldiers ask is that once the policy is settled, strategy and command shall be regarded as being in a sphere apart from politics."(*4) Such "Clausewitzian" elements as are present are unattributed and appear to be derived from Goltz. Clausewitz himself is not mentioned at all, although Napoleon and Mahan are cited by name as influences.

It certainly can be demonstrated that Clausewitz was discussed by American military educators, journalists, and historians during the interwar period and World War Two, but it would be difficult to claim that his work had any great direct impact on military doctrine, organization, or the writing of military history. Clausewitz did receive mention in the writings of several important American generals of this period. In most cases, these references are not substantial enough to determine the philosopher's impact or even to suggest any particular interpretation. Still, they are worth mentioning as evidence that Clausewitz was actually a factor in shaping the views of some significant American military leaders.

George S. Patton (1885-1945) discovered and read On War in 1910, although he did not acquire a decent translation until 1926 (see Chapter 8). Aside from a complaint about On War's "abstruceness," there do not appear to be any direct references to Clausewitz in Patton's papers or writings, so any discussion of Clausewitz's influence on Patton would be inferential.(*5)

A somewhat similar case is that of General Albert Coady Wedemeyer (1896-1990). Wedemeyer was that rare commodity, an intellectual in American uniform during the interwar years. Among other points of interest, Wedemeyer actually attended the German Kriegsakademie in Berlin from 1936 to 1938. He was involved in war planning in Washington in 1941, and his staff paper "Ultimate Requirements Study: Estimate of Army Ground Forces," has been called the "Victory Plan" by which the United States won the war.(*6) He is generally associated with America's China policy; he was a great admirer of Chiang Kai-shek and succeeded Joseph Stilwell as Chiang's chief of staff and American commander of the China theater. He certainly was aware of Clausewitz and occasionally cited him.(*7) Wedemeyer's writings are full of references to war, policy, and politics, and it is easy to infer that he drew a lot from On War. As with Patton, the sources do not permit any solidly grounded discussion of his views on the Prussian military philosopher. Wedemeyer has, however, been cited as evidence that the Germans were paying no more attention to Clausewitz than the Americans were, as his voluminous notes on his experiences in the German war college made virtually no reference to Clausewitz.(*8)

Of greater interest are the comments of Generals John McAuley Palmer and Dwight Eisenhower. Palmer was a professional army officer who was suspicious of the officer corps as a class and a great believer in the concept of a "citizen army." He played a direct role in shaping Congress's attitude toward the army after World War One, and his arguments in favor of "universal military training" formed the basis for a major domestic debate on the subject at the end of World War Two. Palmer's understanding of Clausewitz was important to helping him understand and organize his own views on national military organization. Although Eisenhower read Clausewitz in the 1920s and subsequently rose to become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, it is difficult to identify a specifically "Clausewitzian" influence on his behavior as a general. Eisenhower was not, of course, a military theorist in any academic sense; a cynic might be tempted to speculate that this was why he was so successful. A strong case can be made, however, for a clear connection between his knowledge of On War and his behavior as president of the United States from 1953 to 1961.

The U.S. Army's Schools

It is true that immediately after World War One, Clausewitz's name did begin to show up with some frequency in the curricula of the U.S. Army's advanced schools. This was not an entirely new development, since Clausewitz had figured prominently in the translated German texts of writers like Goltz and Balck which had formed the basis of prewar teaching at Fort Leavenworth and at the Army War College.(*9)

There had been a long-standing demand by American officers for an American textbook, albeit one containing the lessons that Germany had to offer. In some of the homegrown texts produced after 1919, On War came to be quoted directly, and some minor aspects of Clausewitz's approach assumed a central place in the teaching of military history and doctrine. For example, the school year at the Army War College was divided into two parts based on a distinction made by Clausewitz, "Preparation for War" (September to February) and "Conduct of War" (February to June). The War College history attributes this to the direct influence of Clausewitz's book, but Clausewitz devoted little discussion to the preparation phase; he was interested in the art of the fencer, not that of the swordsmith.(*10) Clausewitzian-sounding terms abound in doctrinal writing (especially in discussions of "breaking the enemy's will"), but these were by then the common currency of military discussion and denote no direct influence by Clausewitz's own writings.

On War itself was not used as a textbook either at the War College or at Fort Leavenworth, possibly because of the short length of courses and the consequent need to stress practice over theory. More likely, however, its nonuse stemmed from a massive lack of interest. Clausewitz himself seems to have remained a rather shadowy character: One writer in the Command and General Staff School's quarterly Review of Military Literature apparently believed him to be a contemporary figure, noting in a book review that "Clausewitz illustrates his statements [on mountain warfare] by the historical experiences of Italians in the Alps in 1917."(*11)

One of the first American military textbooks to appear after the war was Principles of Strategy (1921), written by Colonel William Naylor, director of the General Staff School at Leavenworth. It is a supremely eclectic work that is not footnoted, so it is difficult to judge the source of any particular idea. Clausewitz was quoted several times, usually indirectly (apparently via Goltz or Bernhardi), but his terminology was conspicuously absent even though many of his concepts were undeniably present (e.g., the "culminating point of the offensive"). Much of this apparent influence seems to come via later writers' discussions of the American Civil War and South Africa.

Most of Naylor's book revolves around issues of attack and defense, and it made a balanced presentation of the advantages of each. Evidently, however, Naylor saw Clausewitz as a proponent of the defensive; at least, he failed to grasp the Prussian's subtle understanding of the dynamic relationship between the two forms: "Notwithstanding Clausewitz, we must contend that of the two, offensive or defensive, the former is to be preferred."(*12) On the matter of war and politics, Naylor largely avoided the issue but indicated support for Moltke's view that the political leadership had no role in the conduct of operations.(*13) Like most doctrinal works, Naylor's book has the flavor of a committee product, but it is difficult to believe that Naylor had read On War for himself.

On War was "specially recommended" as the top priority reading on strategy at the Command and General Staff School by 1923; Jomini came sixth, listed after two books each by Foch and Goltz and just before Corbett.(*14) The reading list was compiled by Colonel Conrad H. Lanza, who in 1922 had put together a sourcebook on the Jena campaign including a lengthy (ninety-six-page) extract he had translated from Clausewitz's "Notes on Prussia during the Catastrophe of 1806" and the tale of "Prince August's Battalion in the Battle of Prenzlau."(*15) Lanza's interest in Clausewitz is thus self-evident, but there is no reason to believe that his recommendation was widely followed. Of the 785 officers who wrote Leavenworth papers in the seven year history of the two year course [1928-35], not a single one selected option #388, "Clausewitz—His influence on principles and doctrines of modern warfare." In fact, in the entire two year curriculum, Clausewitz was cited but once, with the admonition that his classic work, On War was "not required to be studied."(*16)

The first military textbook written by an American soldier that drew heavily and directly on Clausewitz's work was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Prescott Robinson's 1928 Fundamentals of Military Strategy.(*17) Robinson, who had been chief of staff for the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia, 1918-19, based his book on lectures he had given at the Command and General Staff School while stationed at Leavenworth from 1923 to 1927. Robinson was much less eclectic than Naylor. It is quite clear that he considered Clausewitz to be his guiding light, observing that

a little research, a little study and reflection brings out the fact that Clausewitz's book on war ... occupies about the same relation to the study of the military profession as does the Bible to all religious studies. Most books on strategy for the past one hundred years are in great part a compilation or an attempt to reduce to simpler form and to explain Clausewitz.... As far as known, there is not a single proposition relating to strategy which Clausewitz did not cover in a broad general way. This remarkable man treated his subject in such a way as to make his propositions as applicable today as they were one hundred years ago.(*18)

Robinson acknowledged accusations that Clausewitz did not properly understand Napoleon, but offered the somewhat half-baked excuse that no "methodically thinking German of that day [could] appreciate the boldness and rapidity with which Napoleon perfected his combinations, seemingly in violation of the fundamental ideas as to war."(*19) Still, his understanding of On War was not unsophisticated. Although he organized his book around the theme of "principles of war" (i.e., security, the objective, surprise, and so forth), he was skeptical of the term principles and challenged the cookbook approach to doctrine, arguing that every military decision required consideration of unique and specific factors. His discussion of the offense and defense was balanced and lacked the usual snickers at the latter, quoting Clausewitz on the superiority of the defense in pursuit of the negative goal without painting him as an "apostle" of either.(*20)

Responding to Clausewitz's ideas on moral forces in war, Robinson got a bit carried away with the role of public opinion and the balance of power, arguing (parallel to Wilkinson) that

no nation will use its air forces to bomb cities, just for the purpose of destroying the morale of the people by instilling them with fear, any more than it will gas women and children. Why? Because strategy knows that such action could only bring on that nation the active resentment of the rest of the civilized world, a thing that no nation can afford.(*21)

This view was rooted in the idea of maintaining a rational relationship between policy and strategy and in a perception of the balance-of-power system similar to that of Clausewitz. Events shortly thereafter in Europe would demonstrate that it was good advice but poor prophecy.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Robinson's treatment involved the role of battle in strategy. He based his definition of strategy on Clausewitz's but substituted "operations of war" for "battle," so that "Strategy is the use of the operations of war to gain the end of the war."(*22) Robinson's purpose was not to deemphasize battle but rather to stress Clausewitz's point that it is the possibility of battle rather than its actuality that drives military operations. This subtle perception of Clausewitz's meaning, frequently repeated in Robinson's book, is quite uncommon.

Robinson's discussion of the relationship of political and military leaders was confused, however, and ultimately he argued that "the soldier condemns, and resents as unwarranted and likely to lead to disastrous results, any attempt on the part of statesmen to interfere in the conduct of military operations." This is essentially the same view that appeared in Naylor's 1921 Principles of Strategy and in the 1936 Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations; it may represent the orthodoxy of Fort Leavenworth rather than Robinson's own considered opinion. The consistency with which this argument showed up in interwar American doctrinal writing is somewhat surprising, especially considering its relative rarity in British thinking. Frequently justified by reference to Lincoln's interference with McClellan and the free hand he later gave to Grant, these doctrinal statements presage the Truman-MacArthur contretemps in Korea.

It would be wrong to minimize the accomplishments of the U.S. Army school system during the interwar years. Although the army's performance in World War Two was not without its serious flaws, its officer corps performed remarkable feats of staff work and logistics at echelons that had never even existed before in American armies. It would simply be wrong to credit the institution's achievements (as opposed, perhaps, to those of individuals like Eisenhower) to an understanding of Clausewitz.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) was born to a poor Kansas family of German (Mennonite) descent. He graduated from West Point as an infantry lieutenant in 1915 (ranked 61 of 164) but was deprived of war service in Europe by troop-training assignments in the continental United States. He was promoted to major in 1920, but his career was nearly blighted by a positive article on tanks that he published that same year, deeply angering his Infantry Branch superiors.(*23) From 1919 to 1930 he had a number of assignments, the most important of which was a three-year tour under General Fox Conner in Panama. Eisenhower said that "in sheer ability and character, [Conner] was the outstanding soldier of my time... Outside of my own parents he had more influence on me than any other individual, especially in regard to the military profession."(*24) Through a clever bureaucratic subterfuge by Conner, Eisenhower got around Infantry Branch objections and entered the Command and General Staff School in August 1925.(*25) After some staff duty in Washington, he entered the Army War College (at that time located at Fort McNair), from which he graduated first of 275 in 1928.(*26)

Between 1930 and 1942, Eisenhower spent eleven years working as a staff officer directly for either Douglas MacArthur (either in Washington or in the Philippines) or George Marshall. Although his relationship with MacArthur was rather tempestuous, it was these contacts that led to his rapid rise during the next war. Had it not been for that war, however, he might well have finished his career as a lieutenant colonel and regimental executive officer, the position he held in 1940 after twenty-nine years in the army.

Marshall's sponsorship led to Eisenhower's assignment as U.S. commander, European Theater of Operations, in June 1942. He became Supreme Allied Commander in December 1943. In this job he was, of course, a tremendous success. Controversy nevertheless remains over some of his decisions, particularly the decision not to try to beat the Russians to Berlin, often held to be a sign of Eisenhower's political naiveté. He finished the war as a five-star general.

Eisenhower then spent two years as Army Chief of Staff. He left in 1948 to become president of Columbia University but was called upon by President Truman to become the top NATO commander in 1951. As the presidential election of 1952 neared, Eisenhower decided that he was a Republican, won that party's nomination, and was easily elected. Domestically, his administration was noted for its fiscal conservatism and its moderate expansion of welfare policies.

In terms of military policy, President Eisenhower had to deal with the Korean War, which he had promised to end, and with the Cold War's arms race against the Soviets. As a fiscal conservative very suspicious of the "military-industrial complex" (a term he coined), he presided over substantial military cutbacks and changes in national strategy generally described as the "New Look." These policies, which stressed air power, threatened to reduce to irrelevance the army in which he had so long served. One of the most controversial features of the Eisenhower administration was its reliance on nuclear weapons to deter communist aggression. At the strategic level this was known as the policy of "massive retaliation." At the tactical level, the emphasis was on battlefield nuclear weapons. These provided, in Eisenhower's words, "more bang for the buck."

The historiography on Eisenhower has undergone a rather sharp turn in the last decade or two.(*27) For a long time, Eisenhower was viewed as a rather limited character who happened to be in the right places at the right times, a man who could hardly put together a coherent English sentence. This view of Eisenhower acknowledged the interpersonal skills that had made him so successful as manager of the complex alliance of World War Two in Europe. His success, however, was said to be based more on the skills of a football coach (which Eisenhower had been) than on any deep military understanding. The attribution of any significant intellectual dimension to his leadership would have been dismissed as absurd. My own father (a liberal Democrat, to be sure) always characterized Ike as an "amiable dunce."

There were exceptions to this rule, of course, especially among those who knew Eisenhower well. Richard Nixon noted in 1962 that Ike "was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized." (Nixon went on to say, "and in the best sense of these words.")(*28) Other careful observers noted that the dominant interpretation was inconsistent with the immense success of Eisenhower's presidency, a success that grew more conspicuous with the comparative failures of each of his successors before Ronald Reagan. It was easy to dismiss these more positive assessments, given the impact of Ike's rather vague and unsophisticated (if homey and avuncular) public persona, his seeming lassitude and distance from events. That persona made it easy to assume that Eisenhower had been "managed" by his handlers, particularly his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles.

The unveiling of Eisenhower's personal papers in the mid-1970s shattered this impression.(*29) It is now clear that Ike had a far stronger personality and intellect—and that he controlled his administration and its policies to a far greater degree—than outsiders had realized. The explanation for this sharp contrast between appearances and reality lies in Eisenhower's leadership style. Eisenhower pursued a most unusual personal strategy, that recommended by Moltke to staff officers: "Always be more than you seem."

An example is the way Eisenhower handled questions about how, in 1955, the United States intended to defend the Nationalist Chinese-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the event of a Red Chinese attack. The problem was a fundamental flaw in the strategy of "massive retaliation," that is, how the United States could reconcile its threat to use nuclear weapons, with all the consequences thereof, with the limited nature of such an attack. In March 1955, the State Department was so concerned about the implications of this question that it asked Eisenhower to refuse to discuss it with the press. Eisenhower's response: "Don't worry, ... if that question comes up, I'll just confuse them."(*30)

In regard to Ike's "managers," Fred Greenstein characterized Ike's style as one of "pseudo-delegation." Pretending to be shuffled around by his staff, he allowed them to take the heat for unpopular decisions while he posed as "a benevolent national and international leader." In itself, that is hardly unusual, but he was also willing to provide a heat shield for his subordinates by allowing the blame for awkward but necessary moves to fall on his own "political inexperience." He regularly let credit for his own successes go to his subordinates in order to maintain his cover. Based as it was on the immense prestige and personal popularity with which Eisenhower entered office, it was a stupendously successful approach.

Concerning Eisenhower and Clausewitz, there can be no question that Eisenhower was familiar with On War. The young Ike had had some interest in military history, but this was nearly extinguished by the pedanticism with which the subject was taught at West Point: "If this was military history, I wanted no part of it."(*31) When he expressed his resulting ignorance to Fox Conner in 1922, Conner began gently to reintroduce him to the subject. He started by lending Eisenhower a few historical novels, soon upped the ante to actual campaign studies, and then made him read On War "at least three times."(*32) It is uncertain which version he read.(*33) Eisenhower did not read German, and it is hard to imagine anyone going through the complete Graham version three times, even given the rather leisurely life-style of the interwar U.S. Army officer corps. Eisenhower, Patton, and Conner were close, and it is possible that he had the same version Patton did: T.M. Maguire's. The Maguire condensation does have the saving grace of discussing the American Civil War, in which Ike had a great interest. In any case, Conner questioned Eisenhower relentlessly on the meaning and implications of what he had read.

In 1928, Eisenhower's group at the War College included the Clausewitz enthusiast Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Prescott Robinson. Major Eisenhower's own input is impossible to distinguish, but the group's report, "War and Its Principles, Methods and Doctrines" drew directly and heavily on Clausewitz.(*34) It included prominent discussions of the philosopher's views on attack and defense and the diminishing power of the offensive. Its summary of military history also appears to have been drawn from On War. The very first line in the report is a Clausewitzian definition of war: "War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will." Interestingly, however, this definition left out the political aspect of war, and the report as a whole made almost no mention of political factors. This was consistent with the usual reception of Clausewitz by the U.S. Army as an institution.

Ike did not go on at any length about Clausewitz in his memoirs, but he noted in 1955 that the German writer "was often quoted in military staff colleges and classes and some few officers studied his books thoroughly." Eisenhower stated that he himself had been "one of the latter."(*35) When asked in 1966 what book other than the Bible had had the greatest effect on his life, he answered

My immediate reaction is that I have had two definitely different lives, one military, the other political. From the military side, if I had to select one book, I think it would be ON WAR by Clausewitz. On the Civil government side, I think the most significant publication would be THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by George Bancroft."(*36)

His presidential warnings to American warmongers are reminiscent of Clausewitz's discussion of the nature of war: "Remember this: when you resort to force as the arbiter of human difficulty, you don't know where you are going; but generally speaking, if you get deeper and deeper, there is just no limit except what is imposed by the limitations of force itself."(*37)

Unfortunately, there is little in the record to show how Eisenhower the general interpreted Clausewitz or what relationship, if any, the philosopher's teachings had to his conduct of the war in Europe. Although a number of his biographers have mentioned Clausewitz in connection with this or that operation, there is no evidence that these references are anything more than interjections or inferences.(*38)

On the other hand, the prominent American diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis has offered an intriguing argument concerning Clausewitz's influence on Eisenhower's policies as president, particularly regarding the "New Look."(*39) Gaddis's 1982 Strategies of Containment is an authoritative critique of American national security policy from the beginnings of the Russo-American alliance in World War Two through the era of Henry Kissinger. His entire analysis is based on the ways in which the various administrations adjusted means to ends and vice versa, an approach Gaddis himself regards as Clausewitzian.(*40) Gaddis sees the permutations in American Cold War strategy from one administration to another as a cyclical variation between "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical" approaches to containment.

Gaddis defines an asymmetrical strategy as applying one's own strengths against an adversary's weaknesses, of adjusting one's ends to suit one's means.(*41) The Eisenhower administration's reliance on its nuclear superiority to deter Soviet expansionism clearly fits this definition. It economized on defense expenditures (thus preserving America's greatest strength, its economic superiority and stability), while hoping to deter aggression by threatening a terrible retribution that the Soviet Union could not—at first—match. This strategy gambled that the Soviets would refrain from doing what we did not want them to do out of a fear that we might do something that we did not want to do either.

A symmetrical strategy, conversely, requires that one match the enemy strength for strength; it requires adjusting one's means to fit one's ends. The Kennedy administration's policy of "flexible response" was such a strategy. It gambled that we could meet and contain Soviet aggression at a level that did not require us to draw the nuclear sword, at the risk of destroying the economic system that was both the source of our strength and a key reason for resisting in the first place.

Fundamental to [his strong convictions ... on the proper relationship of ends and means] was Eisenhower's understanding of Clausewitz....

The major premise Eisenhower retained from reading the Prussian strategist was that in politics as well as in war, means had to be subordinated to ends; effort expended without purpose served no purpose, other than its own perpetuation.... [His strategy was] based not just on fiscal conservatism or secret intelligence, but as well on the proposition, derived ultimately from Clausewitz, that one must have ends for all means. To maintain weapons irrelevant to the threat at hand—and Eisenhower put excess missile capacity in this category ... was to expend limited resources carelessly, with the result that the nation in the end would be unable to afford what really was necessary.... "The important thing ... was to remain true to our own beliefs and convictions." This Eisenhower largely did, in the face of much opposition—and there is little evidence that national security suffered as a result.(*42)

Aside from issues of means and ends, the line about remaining true to convictions might well have come straight from Clausewitz's discussion on the nature of military genius and his definition of "strength of character." The idea was most succinctly articulated in the "Instruction for the Crown Prince": "The great difficulty is to adhere steadfastly in execution to the principles which we have adopted."(*43)

A major determinant underlying the choice of strategies may be economic philosophy. Certainly Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism reflected a very different attitude toward means than did Kennedy's Keynesianism. Ike saw no point in buying security at the price of bankrupting the nation; Kennedy saw no purpose in keeping expenditures down if the upshot was a nuclear holocaust. At a more basic level, the choice also reflects an attitude toward rationality in human affairs: Eisenhower's strategy was to make the irrational seem credible. Kennedy's approach was self-consciously logical and rational but, if consistently followed, predictable. One's intellectual tastes, rather than the relative success of Ike's policies, are likely to determine one's judgment on the merits of these two approaches. It is doubtful that Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism and his views on the nature of American society, which were fundamental to his approach to national security policy, were derived from Clausewitz. It was, of course, his own experience and predispositions that led him into this approach. Nonetheless, the case clearly can be made that the intellectual components of Ike's approach to policymaking were significantly shaped by the arguments of On War.

The U.S. Navy

The Naval War College at Newport was not the thriving source of military intellectual activity during the interwar period that it had been before the First World War. Nonetheless, Clausewitz continued to receive some attention there, and a better case can be made for a Clausewitzian influence on the navy than on the army. For the most part this influence was indirect, coming via Wilkinson, Corbett, and—less distinctly—other British writers like G.F.R. Henderson and F.B. Maurice. Except for the work of Captain (USN) George J. Meyers (discussed later), there does not seem to have been much original writing on Clausewitz by U.S. naval personnel.(*44) On the other hand, one does not find in the navy the same resistance to the political direction of war that was so prominent in the army; on this point, Mahan's and Clausewitz's teachings were in fundamental harmony.

The works of Wilkinson were used extensively at Newport, especially in the 1920s, under the influence of commandant Admiral William S. Sims (1858-1936). Sims and Wilkinson shared a tendency toward reformism. Naval historian Ronald Spector calls Sims a "decidedly odd duck.... While at Newport he had been observed at Women's Suffrage meetings and it was rumored that he had even made a speech at one." While commanding U.S. naval forces operating in European waters, Sims had met Wilkinson in England during the war, discussed naval education with him at some length, attended his lectures (taking along his staff), and corresponded with him afterward. Sims wrote Wilkinson several times in order to procure thirty, then one hundred copies of Wilkinson's Brain of the Navy.(*45)

Julian Corbett's book Some Principles of Maritime Strategy also appears to have been encouraged reading at the Naval War College, along with his earlier historical works. It was required reading through much of the 1930s, and sufficient time was allowed in the course syllabi actually to digest it.(*46)

Aside from an occasional lecture by visiting scholars like Herbert Rosinski, however, On War itself does not appear to have received much attention at Newport. Although it was included on various reading lists, only relatively small excerpts were required reading.(*47) In 1894, in contrast, it had been the first book on the reading list.(*48) As with the army schools, one reason may have been the short time allotted to courses, and Stewart Murray's excellent condensation The Reality of War was occasionally included in reading lists. Still, there is little indication that time limitations were the deciding factor. Neither Clausewitz nor Corbett is mentioned with any frequency or in any meaningful manner in the American naval literature of the interwar period.(*49)

One rather startling exception to that observation was Captain (USN) George J. Meyers's 1928 Strategy.(*50) Meyers (1881-1939) was the son of a German immigrant who had served with the Union during the Civil War. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1901 with a strong background in engineering and was promoted to captain in 1924 and rear admiral in 1935. He was sent to the Naval War College in 1921 and the Army War College in 1922 and then taught at the latter institution in 1923/24. He was assigned to the Army War College again from 1926 to 1929, not as an instructor but as naval liaison. Thus he was there while Eisenhower and Robinson were students, although there is no evidence of any cross-fertilization. He died suddenly at age fifty-eight aboard his own flagship in December of 1939, ironically poor timing for such an ambitious strategist.

Meyers's book on strategy was evidently written during his stint as naval liaison at the Army War College. It is rather dry reading, containing no historical illustrations of its argument. But it is also quite sophisticated and full of Clausewitz, and it may well have influenced (or been influenced by) army thinkers like Oliver Prescott Robinson. Meyers's approach was, in essence, to merge Mahan and Clausewitz, with an emphasis on the latter. He drew his understanding of Clausewitz's "economy of force" from R.M. Johnston.(*51) Meyers also referred frequently to Corbett's naval histories, but he seems to have rejected Corbett's theoretical works, particularly Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, perhaps because of Wilkinson's obvious influence.(*52)

As with Corbett's theoretical work, Meyers's incorporation of Clausewitz is too broad, deep, and thorough to be summarized here. His major concerns were the integration of land and sea operations, the need to pursue strategic designs in peace as well as in war ("strategy is continuous"), and the need to educate both military personnel and statesmen on each other's problems and functions. Meyers's definition of strategy was not an operational one like Clausewitz's but, rather, one based on overall state policy in peace and in war—in other words, "grand" or "national" strategy. He was in fact very critical of Clausewitz's definition, arguing that it applied only in wartime and excluded diplomacy as a weapon.(*53)

Meyers produced a very detailed "reading course" clearly designed for use at both the Naval War College and Fort Leavenworth. Sophisticated as his book was, however, it seems to have been a dead end in American Clausewitz studies. Its publication appears to have been a private venture by Meyers. Although it was listed as supplementary reading for the Naval War College senior class of 1931 (where it is given as the alternative to On War), it was gone from the list by 1934. Aside from a couple of contemporary reviews, it has very seldom been cited.(*54)

One reviewer noted that "the recent multilateral renunciation of war as an instrument of policy [the Kellogg-Briand Pact] may necessitate reformulation of [Meyers's] definition of war." This concern may have been one reason that Meyers's book was not adopted as a text, but that is speculation.(*55)

Hoffman Nickerson

Another noteworthy American writer on military affairs was Hoffman Nickerson (1888-1965), the independently wealthy scion of a venerable American family.(*56) His ancestor William Nickerson had bought Cape Cod from the Indians in 1637. Hoffman Nickerson did his best to uphold his inherited aristocratic ideals: One of his domestic goals was the creation of an American "landed gentry" to offset the noxious influence of the nation's philistine business class and its "servant or parasite—the lawyer politician." He was nonetheless active in the Republican party. A student of R.M.

Johnston, he became a disciple of Fuller (Nickerson's The Armed Horde was dedicated to Fuller, "Master-analyst of War"), but he grew increasingly critical of Liddell Hart, particularly over the issue of the latter's treatment of Clausewitz. He shared Fuller's suspicions of mass democracy:

We must conflict with those who use Democracy as a slogan or substitute for religion... Less hasty readers, let us hope, will remember that Democracy and Despotism have not always been divorced. What tyrant is so despotic as a tyrannous majority?... No dictator, aristocracy, or admitted oligarchy, but the United States, recently tried throughout fourteen years of peace to control the diet of its citizens through the Prohibition Amendment.(*57)

In his contempt for mass politics, Nickerson was especially opposed to mass armies. His primary military goal was, as the titles of his books suggest, to limit war, principally by professionalizing it.

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1911 and a master's in 1913, both at Harvard (where Johnston was then a professor). Excited by the prospect of American participation in the war in Europe, he obtained a commission in the New York National Guard in 1916. He served under Pershing during the pursuit of Pancho Villa and, after the American declaration of war on Germany, with the general staff of the American Expeditionary Force as an intelligence officer. Nickerson stayed on in Europe after the war as a staffer with the Interallied Armistice Commission. Afterward, he made his way primarily as a writer on history and on military affairs, although he returned to the army as a major during World War Two.

Nickerson evidently drew his very positive views on Clausewitz from Johnston, although it was apparently his contrasting of the two writers' views on mass armies and on the efficacy of tactical surprise that led Russell Weigley and Hans Rothfels to see Johnston as anti-Clausewitzian.(*58) In the 1930s, Nickerson was very interested in both Fuller and Liddell Hart, largely because their theories tended toward the professionalization of war and the elimination of the mass armies he detested. Even in 1942, Nickerson was arguing that mass armies and popular warfare were on the decline, although he acknowledged that contemporary events "might tend superficially" to contradict that thesis. He had a point—popular participation in these wars had lost the exuberance of 1914—but the relevance of his theory to practical policymaking was dubious at best.

Despite certain similarities in their approaches, Nickerson grew increasingly unhappy with Liddell Hart, especially his "Douhetism," that is, his advocacy of war from the air against defenseless populations. When Liddell Hart's prestige plunged dramatically after May 1940, Nickerson was positively gleeful about it.

Few military writers have wielded more influence than he in the years just before '39, or have theorized more boldly, and few have seen their theories so promptly demolished. He might indeed point to certain qualifications and saving clauses in his writings, but he himself, when sharply criticizing the great Clausewitz ... has insisted that writers should be judged not on qualifying clauses but on the general drift of their work and the chief impressions of that work upon their readers.(*59)

It is curious (and instructive) that Nickerson, with his opposition to mass armies, should have been so positive in his treatment of Clausewitz. He took the long view and generally saw Clausewitz's theories as applicable in all periods; the mass participation in the wars in which Clausewitz himself had fought and from which he had drawn most of his examples was merely a transitory phenomenon. Nickerson nonetheless thought at times that On War could use some updating. His 1940 article on Clausewitz (published in July but obviously written before the collapse of France in May and June) attempted to update Clausewitz's discussion of three key military objectives: (1) to conquer and destroy the enemy's armed force, (2) to seize his material resources, and (3) to gain public opinion.(*60) He felt that Clausewitz's ideas were wholly inapplicable to naval warfare, but then, Nickerson's grasp of sea power was weak: He rarely mentioned Mahan and appears to have been unaware of Corbett. He further argued that even on land his priorities would have to be reversed: It was the propaganda war that was now most important, and the actual destruction of the enemy's forces was to a large extent a mere adjunct to the effort to gain public opinion. As evidence that decisive battle was on its way out, partially as a result of the immense superiority of the defense, Nickerson pointed out that "neither Germany nor the Anglo-French Alliance has even attempted to gain a decision by battle during the first phase of the present war."(*61) He also argued that Clausewitz had undervalued the effects of blockade, although he noted that those effects could be subsumed under the heading "seizure of material resources."(*62)

Perhaps it was the events that intervened between the writing of this article and its publication that led Nickerson to stop trying to update Clausewitz. Although he later reprinted sections of this article, his appraisals of the relevance of On War to modern warfare (like Fuller's) grew steadily more enthusiastic.

Nickerson was never entirely uncritical. He occasionally threw out a phrase from Fuller's critique and referred to Clausewitz as Napoleon's "high priest."(*63) He failed to recognize the balance-of-power elements in Clausewitz's thought, arguing that the Prussian writer had "indulge[d] in romantic hero-worship, calling Bonaparte the `God of War,'" and had failed to learn the lesson of Napoleon's fall.(*64) He also complained about some ambiguities in Clausewitz's use of the term destruction and argued that this had led to a lack of subtlety in his approach to strategy. "He did not see that the Eighteenth Century idea of skillfully minimizing losses, weighing carefully in Jomini's fashion the chances of the profit from an offensive against the probable loss to be endured, might be more than mere humanitarianism, might indeed be mere self-interest enlightened by common sense."(*65) This is nonsense, of course. The conservation of one's own forces is an important aspect of Clausewitz's discussion of the defense: "We have now to consider the opposite of the destruction of the enemy's armed force, that is to say, the preservation of our own."(*66) This criticism by Nickerson appears to be Fuller's influence at work, but Nickerson stopped well short of endorsing the Liddell Hart position.

Only when we turn from his admirable definition of war and his equally admirable classification of its different forms to his analysis of military objectives and methods does controversy become possible. Even here his thought is so powerful, lucid, and orderly that those who differ with him can hardly do so more effectively than by commenting on his work. Even those who deplore his influence must study him because of his enormous effect upon warfare of this day.(*67)

Although Nickerson's works were cited by many later writers on military affairs, his practical influence is—even more than that of most writers—hard to judge.(*68) His patrician attitudes and prejudices removed him from the American mainstream, and some of his reviewers dismissed him as a harmless crank.

John McAuley Palmer

Photograph of BGen John McAuley PalmerIn many ways the opposite of Nickerson was John McAuley Palmer (1870-1955). Palmer was the grandson of a volunteer Union general (and professional politician) of the same name. He graduated from West Point in 1892, in his own words "trained but scarcely educated."(*69) He served briefly with the occupation forces in Cuba, and soon after went to China as part of the international expedition against the Boxers. Palmer saw no combat, however. He was a chemistry instructor at West Point from 1901 to 1906, served as governor of Lanao in the Philippines in 1906 and 1907, and graduated from the General Staff College in 1910.

In 1911, Palmer served Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on a commission assigned to figure out how to integrate the militia system into the regular army. This was a question on which Palmer had been cogitating since his first assignment in the regular army. He told Stimson that the problem was not merely a technical one: "What we needed was nothing less than a comprehensive military policy for the United States."

Palmer's attitude toward this matter was, to say the least, unusual for a professional officer. It was based on his observation that historically, the United States had relied on a small professional army in peacetime and on large citizen armies for war. In his initial ruminations on the problem, he had accepted the "expansible army" ideas of John C. Calhoun and Emory Upton. When he sat down to work out a detailed plan, however, he ran into a problem. He came from a political family, and it was clear to him that the Congress would never authorize a professional army cadre large enough to provide a genuine foundation for the kind of army that the nation would field in a great war. If instead he tried to work out how a more realistically scaled professional army might be expanded for war, he found that either the resulting force would be much too small or the professional soldiers would simply be overwhelmed by masses of raw recruits. He settled instead on a scheme for fielding a small but fully ready professional army in peacetime, to provide garrisons and expeditionary forces, while training masses of civilians as soldiers and officers for use in large-scale wars. His model was the Swiss army.(*70)

Palmer's ideas formed the basis for a military reorganization scheme actually put forward by Stimson in 1912. Unfortunately, and much to Palmer's regret, the proposal went nowhere with either Congress or Woodrow Wilson's new Democratic administration.

Had the reorganization ... gone into effect, we should have had at least four Regular Army divisions and at least twelve National Guard divisions fully organized when we entered the war in 1917. In addition to this, we should have had approved plans all ready for the prompt formation of a first wave of at least twelve National Army divisions of citizen soldiers. In the event ... the nation blundered toward war woefully unready.

In 1912, Palmer was an observer at the French and German armies' autumn maneuvers and then spent the next several years in garrison duties in China and the Philippines. In 1916, he returned to Washington to head a committee on the problems of sending an army to Europe. The committee proposed a plan for universal military training. Once the nation had entered the war, Palmer went to France as a lieutenant colonel, assistant chief of staff for the AEF. There he established a reputation that might have carried him to a high position in the army but, like R.M. Johnston, he nearly worked himself to death. His health broke, and he was sent home for a long convalescence. He recovered in time to return to France in 1918 as a frontline brigade commander (Fifty-eighth Brigade, Twentieth National Guard Infantry Division), with which he participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

In October 1919, Palmer was called to testify before the Senate Military Affairs Committee concerning postwar military organization. Despite his assignment to the War Department, Palmer electrified the committee by his statement that the army's official proposals were "not in harmony with the genius of American institutions."(*71) Although the army hierarchy was highly displeased, the Senate committee requested that Palmer be assigned to it as military adviser. His ideas were incorporated into the National Defense Act of 1920. Palmer's insistence on peacetime conscription was rejected, but he proved flexible enough to argue for the next twenty years that volunteer forces would be sufficient. A regular army of 280,000 would garrison vulnerable territories and act as an expeditionary force. The real war-fighting force, however, would be based on the National Guard and the "organized reserves." This was Palmer's "citizen army," which would be trained by professionals but would provide its own officers upon mobilization.

The 1920 act's practical impact was greatly reduced by Congress's failure to fund the forces it had designed. Unable to recruit more than half the troops originally authorized, the army insisted on retaining all of the original divisions, thus creating a hollow, "expansible" army in spite of Palmer's success in putting across his contrary ideas to civilian leaders. The professional officers needed to train Palmer's citizen army were withdrawn to serve the regular formations. The 1920 scheme quickly collapsed.(*72) Palmer himself retired in 1926 as a brigadier general.

Always a prolific writer, Palmer continued to popularize his organizational ideas in books and magazine articles. In 1941, he was recalled to active duty in the War Department's Special Planning Division to work on plans for postwar military organization. His was the mind behind George Marshall's campaign for universal military training after World War Two.(*73) Palmer himself retired (again) in 1946 and died in 1955.

The process by which Palmer arrived at his organizational ideas is interesting in the context of this book. As a new second lieutenant assigned to an infantry unit at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, he had decided on his own to design a new scheme for organizing the army.

How it would have affected the cavalry I do not recall, but it would have promoted every second lieutenant of infantry to the grade of captain. When I submitted my plan to Captain Cornish [Palmer's commander] he was most enthusiastic. It would have made him a lieutenant-colonel at once. He advised me to polish it up and show it to my grandfather Palmer who was then a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.

While working on this organizational plan, a project that would evolve into his lifework, Palmer made his great discovery. In his memoirs, Palmer recalled his introduction to On War.

While polishing up my plan, I found an unanswerable argument for national military organization in one of Cornish's books. This was an English translation of Karl von Clausewitz's famous treatise on war. In browsing through it I found the striking statement that "war is not a separate thing in itself but is merely a special violent phase of human politics." This truth was so startlingly simple that I could not grasp it at first. But it gradually dawned upon me that here was a fundamental military concept which I had never heard about in my four years at West Point. I had read and studied about war, but none of my professors or textbooks had ever told me what war really is. There had been no trace of this fundamental thought in the whole curriculum. We had thought of peaceful international intercourse as one separate entity and of war as another separate entity. We had never been told that they are simply transitory aspects of the same thing, international politics—both governed by the same fundamental laws and neither of them understandable without an understanding of the other.

Here was indeed new food for thought. If war is a phase of politics, then every complete political system should include machinery for dealing with this specific phase of political action. My grandfather would grasp this at once and would agree with me that the American political system had been incomplete in this essential respect since the founding of our government. I would submit this to him at our next meeting. It would prepare him to welcome my plan. I would thus enable him to round out his long career with constructive legislation of the highest national importance. He would be very grateful to his grandson.(*74)

It did not, of course, work out that way, and Palmer remained a second lieutenant for quite some time.

Palmer's subsequent interest in Clausewitz usually centered on the phrase "War is merely a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means," an idea he called the "tap-root of war." It sparked virtually every explicit discussion of Clausewitz that he ever published.(*75) He sometimes used the phrase in discussions of international policy, as in his 1921 report on the Far Eastern question (a staff study done in preparation for the Washington Conference of 1921/1922). After citing Clausewitz, he observed:

In an intelligent nation like Japan, national policies and the wars necessary to maintain them are studied and planned together. She plans wars merely to carry out policies and she does not adopt policies that she does not believe she can maintain in war. It is practically certain that the statesmen who represent Japan in the [upcoming Washington naval] conference will each of them thoroughly understand the inter-relation of national policies and the military preparations necessary to enforce them. They will each be experts upon policy and upon the military and naval consequences of that policy. With us, there is the possibility at least that our representatives will continue to regard policy and war as entirely distinct and separate things.(*76)

Palmer did occasionally draw on some other aspect of On War. For example, in his 1919 testimony to the Senate he noted that the "very first requirement of strategy is superior numbers," a misrepresentation of Clausewitz's argument but quite likely derived directly from On War.(*77) Most often, however, Palmer's discussions of Clausewitz, war, and politics were oriented toward domestic affairs, and more specifically toward the domestic political implications of the various possible forms of national military organization.(*78) His literary raison d'être was to argue for his concept of a citizen army on the Swiss model. Except insofar as he regarded preparation for war as an integral part of war strategy, Palmer was largely unconcerned with operational military problems. He might well have paraphrased Clausewitz to say that "organization for war is a continuation of organization for politics." (This is my formulation, however, not Palmer's.) He argued that "the American genius" demanded a native model for military organization and that the Prussian model, beloved of professional American officers, was the product of an alien feudal tradition and a recipe for the domination of society by a narrow military caste bent on aggressive war in pursuit of its own class interests.(*79) Much of Palmer's suspicion of the professional army derived from his grandfather's Civil War experience and bitterness over what he had seen as the favoritism of West Point graduates to one another over volunteer officers like himself.

Although he called expansible army thinkers (including himself as a young officer) "cryptomilitarists," Palmer did not fear the development of such a situation in America. He did argue, however, that the disjunction between "the American genius" and its alien military system was a source of great military weakness and inefficiency.

Palmer's ideas on military organization were, of course, in direct opposition to those of certain other American Clausewitz enthusiasts, most notably R.M. Johnston and Hoffman Nickerson. In 1941 when Palmer published a new book setting forth his citizen army ideas, Nickerson "was so anxious to attack Palmer's thesis that he wrote to several editors begging for an opportunity to review it."(*80) (Curiously, Palmer made none of his usual references to Clausewitz in this book. Quoting German generals in a positive manner was probably not good politics in 1941.) It was not these writers' understanding of Clausewitz himself but, rather, their views of the "spirit of the age" and of the nature of American society that were in conflict.

From the professional historian's point of view, Palmer had an unfortunate habit of ascribing an understanding of "Clausewitz's dicta" to other people—for example, Bismarck and Lincoln—on the basis of their actions, even to people he knew quite well had never heard of him, such as George Washington and Frederick the Great. Such anachronisms grate on the ears, but Palmer certainly recognized them as anachronisms. His point was that great military and political leaders are naturally aware of the relationship between war and politics, regardless of whether they had actually read Clausewitz. In Lincoln's case, however, Palmer went to great lengths in arguing that the Union president actually was aware of Clausewitz's ideas (an argument discussed in Chapter 4). But he was honest enough to acknowledge that the evidence, however strong in his own view, was circumstantial at best.(*81)

Palmer was thus the first native-born American soldier who is known to have actually examined On War. His personal interpretation of the meaning of Clausewitz's discussion of war and politics played an important role in his development and advocacy of plans for an American "citizen army." These plans did gain considerable influence even if, in the end, they were never truly adopted. Whether his insight into the relationship of the American "national genius" to military organization really was sparked by Clausewitz or stemmed from his own family's practical politics is, of course, unknowable, but he certainly used Clausewitz in his attempts to promulgate his own ideas.

Other American Writers

During the later part of the interwar period, Clausewitz's name appeared with some frequency in U.S. Army branch publications like the Infantry Journal (now ARMY). Its editors, Major John H. Burns (editor, 1936-40) and Colonel Joseph Ingham Greene (editor, 1940-53), were strong proponents of the study of On War. Joe Greene (1898-1953) was the more significant figure.(*82) He had enlisted in the army in May 1918, entered West Point a year later, and graduated with the class of 1923. He later graduated from the Infantry School and the General Staff College. Although Greene saw no war service, he did serve overseas in China and the Philippines. He joined the editorial staff of the Infantry Journal in 1938, assuming the editorship upon Burns's sudden death. He served as president of the American Military Institute for several years and was instrumental in founding the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA), a project he undertook in hopes of breaking down the army's crippling branch parochialism.

Medically disqualified from war service, Greene threw himself into military journalism. Under the pseudonym "G.V." ("Guiseppe Verdi"), he wrote literally hundreds of pieces, a great many of them quickie book reviews, but he also found time to dabble in poetry and wrote at least one short story. His articles often appeared outside the military press; it was not unusual to find his byline on pieces in the Saturday Review of Literature or the New York Times. He was interested in psychology, which may have been one source of his interest in Clausewitz.(*83) His self-defined primary mission as editor of the Infantry Journal, however, was to stimulate officers to read and write about their profession.

Greene did much to bring the ideas of Clausewitz to the attention of soldiers in the United States. He published a number of important articles and reviews by his friend Herbert Rosinski.(*84)

The Jolles translation of On War (originally published by Random House in 1943) was reprinted by Greene's Infantry Journal Press in 1950. He wrote the foreword—greatly influenced by Rosinski—which heavily stressed the idea of specificity that characterizes Clausewitz's approach to war and strategy. During the war, Greene's Infantry Association made it available to soldiers for the princely sum of $1.45.

He also contributed a longer and very thoughtful introduction to a condensation of On War (based, oddly enough, on the old Graham translation) which was published in both the United States and Great Britain as The Living Thoughts of Clausewitz. Greene's sixteen-page introduction was clearly influenced by Rosinski and possibly by Rothfels. It stressed Clausewitz's personal qualities and the historical circumstances in which he had developed his theories and sought to overcome propaganda images of the philosopher as a "proto-Nazi" and the "father of total war and the Blitzkrieg." Greene also greatly exaggerated Clausewitz's influence, indicating that he had been praised in books by, among others, Stonewall Jackson (probably referring to G.F.R. Henderson's Stonewall Jackson) and Emory Upton.(*85) A paper-bound edition of The Living Thoughts was distributed for twenty-five cents a copy.

Dallas D. Irvine (1904-), an archivist for the National Archives and for the most part a Civil War historian, for some reason produced an interesting piece on Clausewitz and the French.(*86) His point was that the French had ignored the German Clausewitz and had also lost track of the essence of their own hero Napoleon until the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War awoke them to their own military backwardness.

Although what Irvine had to say about the French is interesting, his stated view of Clausewitz leads one to believe that he had read the "Instruction for the Crown Prince" but not On War.

One need merely say that [Clausewitz] inducted his theories from peculiar conditions of war existing in his own time.... For the most part, his work was based upon an intensive study of the campaigns of Napoleon. In selecting so narrow a field on which to base his theories, he fell into the egregious error of neglecting the effect of the evolution of the conditions of war as set by changes in civilization."

Irvine stressed Clausewitz's "doctrine that absolute war is the form to be approximated as closely as possible." Nonetheless, he added, "The work was far sounder than the use made of it," especially by French thinkers. He felt that Clausewitz's greatest positive contribution had been his condemnation of formal systematization, but this attitude was "absolutely counter to the French mentality."

The American who probably did the most to stimulate an American interest in Clausewitz never wrote anything significant on the subject. Edward Mead Earle (1894-1954) graduated from Columbia University in 1917, receiving a master's degree there in 1918 and a doctorate in 1923. Somehow in the course of that academic effort he managed to enlist as a private, attend Officer Training School, obtain a commission as a second lieutenant in the field artillery, transfer to the Air Service, and emerge as a first lieutenant by 1919. He then left the army to work in banking but was soon back at Columbia as a lecturer and, after 1923, as a professor of history. He also managed to travel widely in Europe and the Middle East, soon becoming known as an expert in international affairs and American diplomatic history. His 1923 Turkey, the Great Powers, and the Bagdad Railway was particularly well received. From 1934 on he was associated with the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, as a professor in both the School of Economics and Politics and the School of Historical Studies. He maintained a close relationship with the army, however, lecturing at the War College between 1924 and 1927 and again in 1939/40. During World War Two Earle had numerous military connections as a lecturer, analyst, and consultant. After the war he spent considerable time in England, teaching at the Joint Service Staff College from 1948 to 1950. In the latter year he taught at the Royal Naval War College and also served as Chichele lecturer at Oxford.

Earle's own work makes no significant reference to Clausewitz, and he probably never made any particular study of him.(*87) Rather, his contribution to Clausewitz studies lies in the seminar on military strategy at the Institute for Advanced Study that he organized in 1940, motivated by his concern about the abysmal American ignorance of things military. This seminar laid much of the groundwork for the later dissemination of Clausewitz's thought among American military intellectuals. Other participants included Harvey DeWeerd,(*88) Harold Sprout, Bernard Brodie, Stefan T. Possony,(*89) Felix Gilbert, Herbert Rosinski, and Alfred Vagts. This wartime meeting of American and German historians and military intellectuals on American soil was almost bound to focus on Vom Kriege; as Felix Gilbert (another expatriate) points out, "It was quite impossible to study modern history in Germany without becoming familiar with Clausewitz."(*90) There was some tension between the expatriates and the Americans, however, based on the perception of some of the former that some of the latter were not terribly sophisticated. One source who prefers to remain anonymous recalls hearing that one of the German refugee scholars had referred to Bernard Brodie as "dieser Auswurf des Chicagoer gettos" (this scum of the Chicago ghetto).

One of the most important results of the seminar (or at least of the informal relationships it spawned) was the publication of the original Makers of Modern Strategy, which Earle edited in 1943. The idea originated with Vagts and Earle's assistant Gilbert, who agreed that "it might be a good idea to have a collection of essays which showed the development of the ideas of modern strategy from the beginning of modern times on."(*91) Earle jumped at the idea. Hans Rothfels's chapter on Clausewitz and Gordon Craig's on Delbrück are discussed later; both have been heavily cited in later military studies. For Craig, working on Makers of Modern Strategy provided his introduction to Clausewitz, and the same was no doubt true of other American participants.(*92) Rosinski also participated in shaping this book, although his own contribution was rejected.(*93)

In all, ten of the twenty-one chapters in the 1943 version of Makers of Modern Strategy made some reference to Clausewitz (as compared with seventeen out of twenty-eight chapters in the 1986 version). Virtually all of the comment was positive.(*94) The publication of Earle's book was an epochal event in the development of American military studies as an academic field and surely significant in the more narrow terms of Clausewitz's reception in America. It could have had little impact on the conduct of the war, however.(*95) As John McAuley Palmer wrote to Rosinski concerning the latter's search for government funding for his highly Clausewitzian theoretical writings,

While I am sure that you have a highly important contribution to strategic science ... I do not see how it can be given immediate practical application in the conduct of the war. Our military and Naval leaders are already engaged in a war and they must wage it with such doctrine as they have. If there is any defect in their education, it is too late to educate them now.(*96)


Although it is clear that On War was known and occasionally read within the U.S. Army's educational system during the interwar years and that bits and pieces of its author's thought were adapted into class lectures and textbooks, many of Clausewitz's basic concepts that did surface were rejected, distorted, or altered almost beyond recognition. On the relationship of the offense and defense, the dynamic relationship that Clausewitz described was usually either misunderstood or not ascribed to him; abstract discussions of the offensive usually described it as inherently superior regardless of circumstances. On the critical issue of the relationship between the military and the political leadership during wartime, it was Moltke's rather than Clausewitz's view that prevailed. Although the German model was clearly dominant, and Robinson appears to have drawn a lot directly from On War, Clausewitz cannot be said to have achieved a significant role in the army's school system.

In the navy, a Clausewitzian influence on education is easier to substantiate. Many of Clausewitz's concepts were transmitted faithfully by Wilkinson and Corbett, although both of those authors were creative and had agendas of their own. The navy seems to have accepted more easily than the army the subordination of strategy to politics, most likely because that element of Clausewitz's teaching was so compatible with Mahan's. Meyers's sophisticated study, however, appears to have had few readers. On War itself (except for tiny pieces) was never assigned reading at Newport, nor was it frequently cited in U.S. naval literature.

Clausewitz does not, therefore, appear to have had a significant direct influence on formal military education or doctrine in the United States before World War Two, and indirect influences—particularly in the army—were often distorted and incoherent. Further suggestions that Clausewitz was in fact a major factor in American institutional military thinking will have to be better substantiated than heretofore.

Aside from professional military educators and journalists like Oliver Prescott Robinson, John Burns, Joe Greene, and George Meyers, there were very few American-born commentators on Clausewitz, and almost all of them spent some considerable time in uniform. Clausewitz remained almost exclusively the property of soldiers like Eisenhower, of military historians like Robert M. Johnston, and of would-be shapers of military policy like Hoffman Nickerson and John McAuley Palmer. Despite the importance of his book in the promulgation of a more positive view of On War in America, the editor of the original Makers of Modern Strategy, Edward Mead Earle, made no comment of his own on its author. The political scientist Quincy Wright, perhaps the most prominent civilian student of war in the interwar United States, gave no sign of ever having read On War for himself.

NOTES to Chapter 18

1. (Phd. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1987), iv. Brower is now a professor at West Point.

2. Major Michael R. Matheny, "The Development of the Theory and Doctrine of Operational Art in the American Army, 1920-1940" (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, School for Advanced Military Studies, 22 March 1988), 31.

3. Matheny, "Theory and Doctrine," 26; Command and General Staff School, Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff School Press, 1936).

4. Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army, 19.

5. Martin Blumenson is aware of no other references by Patton to Clausewitz (Letter, Blumenson to Bassford, 25 June 1990), but said "a good case, I believe, can be made for Patton's having digested Clausewitzian thought in his methods of training and operational execution." Probably true, but such inferences are outside the scope of this study.

6. Excerpts appear in Keith E. Eiler, ed., Wedemeyer on War and Peace (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 10-26.

7. Albert C. Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer Reports (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958), 51, 60, 80, 81, 90. None of these references are revealing.

8. Williamson Murray, "Clausewitz: Some Thoughts on What the Germans Got Right," in Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, 267-268, citing Wedemeyer, "German General Staff School," Report 15,999 dated 7-11-38 from the Military Attaché, Berlin, 1kb 6/23/39, National Archives.

9. Foch, who used Clausewitz, became a major icon after the war. See Ferdinand Foch, The Principles of War (New York, 1918; reprinted New York: AMS Press, 1970). The required military history textbook at both West Point and the Command and General Staff school, from 1909 to the outbreak of World War Two, was Matthew Steele's American Campaigns (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Infantry Association, 1909). Steele's book, hastily concocted from lectures he had put together at Leavenworth, contained no meaningful references to theory or Clausewitz, and few to Jomini.

10. Harry P. Ball, Of Responsible Command: A History of the U.S. Army War College (Carlisle Barracks: Alumni Association of the United States Army War College, 1983), 212-14; cf., On War, Book Two, Chapter 2.

11. Unsigned review of Captain Kübler, Clausewitz und der Gebirgskrieg, Review of Military Literature, v.XVI, no.60 (March, 1936), 105-106.

12. Colonel William K. Naylor, Principles of Strategy: With Historical Illustrations (Fort Leavenworth: General Service Schools Press, 1921), 296. Clausewitz's "remarkable sympathy for the defensive" was discussed by Colonel René Altmayer, Revue Militaire Française, trans. Major J.S. Wood, "The German Military Doctrine," Field Artillery Journal, March-April 1935, 181-191, comparing the theories of Frederick the Great, Clausewitz, and Moltke.

13. Naylor, Principles, 58.

14. General Service Schools [Colonel Conrad H. Lanza, FA, compiler], List of Books on Military History and Related Subjects (Fort Leavenworth: General Service Schools Press, 1923), Combined Arms Research Library, Fort Leavenworth, Special Collections 016.3550 09 L297L 1923, p7.

15. General Service Schools [Colonel Conrad H. Lanza, FA], The Jena Campaign: Source Book (Fort Leavenworth: General Service Schools Press, 1922), 515-611.

16. D.K.R. Crosswell, "Aides, Adjutants, and Asses: The United States Army's Advanced Schools in the Inter-war Years," a paper presented to the American Military Institute conference on military education, April 1989, 20.

17. Oliver Prescott Robinson, The Fundamentals of Military Strategy (Washington, D.C.: United States Infantry Association, 1928).

18. Robinson, Fundamentals, viii-ix.

19. Robinson, Fundamentals, viii-ix.

20. Robinson, Fundamentals, 76.

21. Robinson, Fundamentals, 4.

22. Robinson, Fundamentals, 1-2.

23. D.D. Eisenhower, "A Tank Discussion," Infantry Journal, November 1920.

24. Charles H. Brown, draft article on Fox Conner, 27 May 1964, Composite File, p1, Eisenhower Papers.

25. Brown, Conner draft, 15-16.

26. Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: v.1, Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983). See also Eisenhower Public Papers (EPP) in Public Papers of the Presidents and Eisenhower Papers, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene KS.

27. This discussion of the historiography on Eisenhower is derived largely from Fred I. Greenstein, "Eisenhower as an Activist President: A Look at New Evidence," Political Science Quarterly, v.94, no.4 (Winter 1979-80), and from lectures by John Lewis Gaddis at Ohio University, 1979-81.

28. Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), 161, cited by Greenstein.

29. Which does not prevent its occasional reappearance. See the treatment of Eisenhower in John M. Taylor, General Maxwell Taylor: The Sword and the Pen (New York: Doubleday, 1989).

30. Cited by Greenstein.

31. Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 185.

32. Brown, Conner draft, 12.

33. None of the various Eisenhower collections includes a copy of On War in any version.

34. Course at the Army War College, 1927-28: Command Course No.14, "Report of Committee No.1, Subject: War and Its Principles, Methods and Doctrines," 27 February 1928. File 347-1, AWC Curricular Archives, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks.

35. Interview, Dr. Milton Eisenhower on behalf of Dr. Bela Kornitzer with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 17 Mar 1955. Whitman Diary Box 4, Ann C. Whitman Papers, March 1955 (4), Eisenhower Papers.

36. Letter, Dwight D. Eisenhower to Olive Ann Tambourelle, 2 March 1966. Eisenhower Post-presidential Papers, Special Name, Box 8.

37. Public Papers of the Presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1955, news conference of 12 January 1955, p57.

38. See, for example, David Eisenhower, Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945 (New York: Random House, 1986), 216, 438. William B. Pickett, "Eisenhower as a Student of Clausewitz," Military Review, July 1985, is a very interesting article on Eisenhower that attempts to divine the impact of Clausewitz from his relationship with Conner and Marshall, but I think it goes beyond the evidence. It describes both Marshall and Eisenhower as "disciples of Clausewitz" (largely in terms of their ideas describing the perfect military commander), but neither Marshall's published papers nor Eisenhower's published correspondence with him make any reference to the philosopher.

39. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 127-197.

40. Based on Clausewitz's discussion in On War, "Ends [Purpose] and Means in War," Book One, Chapter 2.

41. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 61, 355-356.

42. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 135, 188. Gaddis (n.17, 135) cites as examples of Clausewitzian influence Eisenhower's remarks (Public Papers of the Presidents) to USIA staff, November 10, 1953, p.74; Eisenhower press conference, January 12, 1955, p.57; Eisenhower press conferences, March 7 and May 23, 1956, pp.292-93, 525.

43. On War, Book One, Chapter 3, "The Genius for War"; "Instruction for the Crown Prince," p222 in the Graham/Maude translation.

44. Commander (USN) A.G. Zimmerman's 1935 partial translation of Moltke's Military Works: Precepts of war contained significant discussions of Clausewitz as filtered through Moltke's organizational biases.

45. Correspondence with Sims, Wilkinson Papers 13/43.

46. The entire month of August in both the Junior and Senior Class syllabi of 1931. NWC Archives, RG4, 1805, 1805-a.

47. The Logistics course of 1928 suggested the reading of 37 pages of On War. Two of Corbett's books were suggested for the Naval War College junior class of 1931. On War was not listed. Corbett's major work was the first required reading for the senior class of 1934, but only the first two chapters of Book One and 11 pages of Book Eight of On War were on the syllabus. Naval War College archives, RG4/1356; RG4/1616; RG4/1805, 1805-A.

48. Naval War College, "Books Recommended for a Course of Reading," Naval War College archives, RG8/UNT 1894.

49. Bernard Brodie's A Layman's Guide to Naval Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942) mentions Clausewitz and Corbett in the preface (viii-x) but not in the text. Brodie's manuscript had been closely critiqued by Herbert Rosinski; these references are probably a bow in his direction. Brodie's Seapower in the Machine Age (1941) had drawn frequently on Corbett, which was itself unusual, but his serious interest in Clausewitz probably dates from the 1950s.

50. George Julian Meyers, Strategy (Washington, D.C.: Byron S. Adams, 1928).

51. Meyers, Strategy, 157-158.

52. On Corbett's Some Principles, see Meyers, Strategy, 98.

53. Meyers, Strategy, 21-22.

54. One exception: Russell Weigley discussed Meyers's work in American Way of War (1973), 206, 210, 532, and in "Military Strategy and Civilian Leadership" (1976).

55. Review of Meyers's Strategy, Rear Admiral (ret.) Reginald R. Belknap, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, v.55, no.4 (April 1929), 357-60, which went on for four double-columned pages without noting Clausewitz's dominating influence in the book. Also reviewed by Major Kenna Eastham (U.S. Cavalry), Cavalry Journal, v.38 (1929), 297-298, who saw Meyers's treatment as "entirely new and original," because it did not depend on the "well known `immutable' principles of war" of the "familiar authorities ... Napoleon, Clausewitz, Moltke, and Foch."

56. See Nickerson's obituary, New York Times, 25 March 1965, 37.

57. Nickerson, Armed Horde, xvii; for Nickerson's treatment of Clausewitz, see esp. 139-145.

58. Armed Horde, 338-339.

59. Nickerson, Arms and Policy, 1939-1944 (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1945), 54. See also Armed Horde, 344.

60. Cf., Clausewitz, trans. Hans Gatzke, Principles of War (Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing Company, 1942), 45-46.

61. Nickerson frequently drew on Clausewitz's analysis of the offense and defense to illustrate his theories. Despite Liddell Hart's humiliation over the same issue, he later argued that the events of 1940 had not disproved that analysis, and that the Battle of Britain had confirmed it. See Arms and Policy, 135.

62. Nickerson, "Clausewitz: A Hundred Years After," Army Quarterly, July 1940, 274-284.

63. Can We Limit War? (London: Arrowsmith, 1933), 124.

64. Nickerson, "Clausewitz: A Hundred Years After."

65. Armed Horde, 142.

66. On War, Book One, Chapter 2.

67. Armed Horde, 140-141.

68. Political scientist Quincy Wright, A Study of War, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), 279, 905, 1215, makes a number of references to Clausewitz. None of these shows any comprehension and most appear to derive from Nickerson's work. Wright did not pick up on Nickerson's positive tone, however, and Nickerson also transmitted Fuller's early, negative views on Clausewitz's contribution to "democratic" wars. Wright also appears to have mistaken F.N. Maude's social Darwinist editorial comments for Clausewitz's own expressed views. He called Clausewitz an expounder of international violence. Wright himself was no pacifist, however. He would be a prominent signer of a petition demanding immediate U.S. entry into the war against Nazi Germany. Chicago Daily Post, 16 August 1941.

69. Holley, Palmer, 1.

70. Palmer's argument for the Swiss model is best developed in Statesmanship or War (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1927).

71. Cited in Weigley, Towards An American Army, 227.

72. Palmer's ideas are rather summarily dismissed as "silliness" in Allan R. Millett's and Peter Maslowski's widely used textbook, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1984), 366.

73. See Michael S. Sherry, Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar Defense, 1941-45 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), passim; Weigley, Towards An American Army, Ch.XIII, "John McAuley Palmer and George C. Marshall: Universal Military Training."

74. Holley, Palmer, 66. Holley, of Duke University, worked closely with his subject in turning Palmer's partially written manuscript into a comprehensive biography. "Unfortunately ... the general died before I reached that part of my research where the question arose, so I never queried him directly on Clausewitz...." Letter, Holley to Bassford, 27 November 1989.

75. For such discussions see esp. Statesmanship or War, 24-26; Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, 224-239.

76. Palmer Papers: "Memorandum for General Harbord, Subject: Mr. Millard's Papers on the Far Eastern Question," 13 October 1921.

77. [Sixty-fifth Congress, First Session, U.S. Senate, Reorganization of the Army: Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs, S.2715, II, 1174-75.]

78. In this focus, Palmer was taking a cue from Clausewitz very similar to that taken by German historian Otto Hintze. See Otto Hintze, ed. Felix Gilbert, The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), esp. "Military Organization and the Organization of the State"; Felix Gilbert, "From Clausewitz to Delbrück and Hintze: Achievements and Failures of Military History," Journal of Strategic Studies, v.3, no.3 (1980), 11-20.

79. Holley, Palmer, 89.

80. Holley, Palmer, 617. The book was America in Arms: The Experience of the United States with Military Organization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941).

81. Palmer, Statesmanship or War, 239; Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, 245-248. His Lincoln-related correspondence with Colin Ballard and F.N. Maude touched on some organizational observations Clausewitz had made concerning the optimum number of divisions in a corps. See Palmer Papers: Palmer to General Colin R. Ballard, November 4, 1928; Reply, Ballard to Palmer, January 26, 1929; Palmer to Colonel F.N. Maude, November 4, 1928; Reply, Maude to Palmer, November 18, 1928; Maude to Palmer, December 10, 1928.

82. Biographical information extracted from Greene's own editorial comments in Infantry Journal or elsewhere; obituaries, Combat Forces Journal, August 1953, 12-15, and New York Times, 27 June 1953, 15; letter, L. James Binder (ed., ARMY) to Bassford, 12 July 1990.

83. Greene was involved in the quest for a textbook on the psychology of men in combat: National Research Council, Edwin G. Boring, ed., Psychology for the Armed Services (Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1945, 1948). Greene wrote the foreword and published a version for the common soldier: National Research Council, Psychology for the Fighting Man (1943).

84. Correspondence in Rosinski Papers Series II, Box 2, Folder 21.

85. Greene's understanding of Clausewitz is criticized by Brodie in "A Guide to the Reading of On War," in Howard/Paret, eds., On War, 646.

86. Dallas Irvine, "The French Discovery of Clausewitz and Napoleon," Journal of the American Military Institute, IV, 1940, 143-161. Irvine cited mostly French and German thinkers (and Wilkinson), and mentioned neither Fuller nor Liddell Hart.

87. Letter, Gilbert to Bassford, 25 July 1990.

88. Felix Gilbert remembers DeWeerd (1902-1979) as one American scholar who came to the seminars with a ready knowledge of Clausewitz. Gilbert to Bassford, 25 July 1990. DeWeerd was editor of Military Affairs from 1937 to 1942, and associate editor of Joe Greene's Infantry Journal from 1942 to 1945. After the war, like Bernard Brodie, he would become an important member of the RAND Corporation. His published references to Clausewitz are all ambiguous.

89. Possony (born in Vienna, 1913, emigrated in 1940) became closely associated with the USAF. Karl von Clausewitz, ed./trans. Colonel [USAF] Edward M. Collins, War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1962), was published by one of his students.

90. Gilbert to Bassford, 13 July 1990.

91. Gilbert to Bassford, 13 July 1990.

92. Craig was drafted into the project by Gilbert and first became interested in Clausewitz at that time. Gilbert to Bassford, 27 May 1990; 10 September 1990.

93. Rosinski's contribution was late and violated all of Earle's editorial guidance. Rosinski partially redeemed himself with an enthusiastic review of Earle's book in Infantry Journal, December 1943, 57-59, but criticized Earle's failure to include a discussion of the British school of sea power (Corbett went almost unmentioned). Earle accepted this criticism as valid. Earle to Rosinski, 26 November 1943, Rosinski Papers Series II, Box 2, Folder 12.

94. Rothfels was critical of Liddell Hart's treatment of Clausewitz in his article. "Irving M. Gibson" [pseud.], "Maginot and Liddell Hart: The Doctrine of Defense" (which also discussed Fuller) made no mention of the topic.

95. Earle sent Eisenhower a copy of Makers of Modern Strategy, but it appears that Ike never read it. Letter, John Eisenhower to Robert E. Davison (acting superintendent, Gettysburg National Park), 14 April 1990.

96. Cited in Stebbins, Rosinski, 60. Palmer's letters to Rosinski, 1941-1946, appear in Rosinski Papers Series II, Box 3, Folder 5.

Return to the top of this page

Go to next section

Go to Clausewitz in English Table of Contents


Visit the
Clausewitz Bookstores!
Clausewitz BuchhandlungUS UK France Germany

Return to top