Book review: ‘The Admirals’ explores military leadership qualities
In his superbly reported new book, “The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King — The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea,” historian Walter R. Borneman tackles the essential question of military leadership: What makes some men, but not others, able to motivate a fighting force into battle?
It’s a question as old as Hannibal and as fresh as Helmand province.
All four of the admirals were Annapolis graduates, but their personalities and styles were widely different. Yet, together, they were able to “transform Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet of their youth into his cousin Franklin’s ultimate weapon of global supremacy.”
Borneman provides the numbers of that amazing transformation: From Pearl Harbor to the surrender in Tokyo Bay, the Navy grew from 790 vessels to 6,768; the American fleet increased from 383,150 officers, sailors and Marines to 3,405,525.
Two of the admirals were destined to become virtual household names, the stuff of movies and hagiographies: Chester W. Nimitz and William F. Halsey Jr. The two others, rather to Borneman’s chagrin, are known mostly to scholars and buffs: William D. Leahy and Ernest J. King.
Leahy became a diplomat, an intimate of presidents, smooth and cordial and yet possessed of a keen tactical sense and the ability to hold together the clashing egos of lesser souls. King was a hard-nose, known for relentlessly driving subordinates, relieving officers of their commands without a moment’s hesitation. One historian says King seemed perpetually “angry or annoyed.”
Nimitz was the master strategist, able to anticipate where and when to strike and to size up an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. And Halsey led from the front, focusing on three things: close, engage and destroy the enemy.
Maybe because so much is known about Nimitz and Halsey, Borneman’s coverage of Leahy and King will seem more groundbreaking to readers. He shows us how both dealt with familiar constants of military life: inter-service rivalry and, particularly in World War II, disputes between allies. In King’s case, he clashed with Army generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower was able to see beyond their early feuds, MacArthur less so. Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about leadership, kept his eye on the objective even when dealing with the irascible King.
Eisenhower fumed, at one point, that it would help the war effort if someone would shoot King. Later, he reconciled to King’s brusque manner and decided, “I think he wants to fight, which is vastly encouraging. In a war such as this, when high command invariably involves a president, a prime minister, six chiefs of staff, and a horde of lesser planners, there has got to be patience — no one person can be a Napoleon or a Caesar.”
Leahy, who became chief of staff to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, knew how not to let personalities intrude on policy. Annoyed by “the strutting Charles de Gaulle,” Leahy strongly opposed including France among the “great powers” who would make postwar policy. When FDR decided otherwise, Leahy supported his boss without further objection.
If they shared one characteristic, the four admirals all knew how to adapt to changing conditions and challenges. They had gained rank when the battleship was still the pride of the Navy, but by the middle of the war, they knew that the age of carrier aviation and submarine warfare had arrived.
“The Admirals” is not only about staff meetings, high-level strategizing and gun-blazing battles. There’s the human element as well — for instance, the key role played by booze. Halsey, in particular, was a devotee of spirits, especially a certain brand of Scotch whiskey; efforts were made to keep him supplied.
“Alcohol was a cherished commodity in all commands and all theaters throughout the war,” Borneman explains, “and a much-sought-after form of unwinding after the stress of battle, whether in the cockpit of an F4F Wildcat or a sweltering office, nervously awaiting radiograms describing the action.”
In his classic study of military leadership, “The Mask of Command,” British historian John Keegan declined to provide a facile explanation or formula. So too with Borneman. Maybe it’s best to show examples of leadership rather than try a reduction to common principles. Nimitz could motivate with a grandfatherly pat on the back, King with a stiff boot to the backside. Leahy could persuade with erudition, Halsey through his pugnacious fighting spirit, which made him the epitome of charisma to officers and enlisted alike.
In different ways, and not always without opposition from their peers, each of the four displayed that ineffable quality called command presence and “engendered commitment and resolve toward a common purpose.” That, after all, is what wins wars.