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On the eve of World War II, British historian Paul Kennedy writes in “Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II,” there were six naval powers: Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Italy and Germany. But by the war’s end, the U.S. Navy dominated the globe out of all proportion to the others. “At no other time in history did the naval balances of power change as much,” Kennedy writes. His narrative, illustrated with poignant and impressionistic full-color paintings by the late marine artist Ian Marshall, details exactly how this happened.

Kennedy, director of international security studies at Yale, quotes fellow British historian Correlli Barnett as calling great military conflicts the “auditors” of all things, since they test the strengths and weaknesses of entire societies. The key to that audit, he asserts, is naval expenditures, because modern navies are so monumental in size and cost compared with other elements of warmaking.

This book is packed with minutiae, such as how the U.S. Navy escaped from tonnage restrictions and shipbuilding freezes in the mid- and late 1930s, when the United States was still in a quasi-pacifistic phase, and then suddenly — after the “international house of cards swiftly collapsed” — began designing centerline turrets and 15-inch guns to harmonize with massive weight displacements. In the midst of explaining all this, Kennedy delivers virtual seminars on the different performances of cruisers and destroyers as the era of battleships drew to a close, giving way to the era of aircraft carriers. Daunting as these facts may be, the book makes for enjoyable reading, owing to the author’s easygoing style, as if he knows all this off the top of his head and is talking to you by a log fire. Kennedy is an academic who does not write like one; he writes a story, not a treatise. It is a story enhanced by Marshall’s exquisite artwork, in which the depiction of one gray warship after another never gets monotonous, retaining their fascination throughout.

That story holds chilling echoes of our own time and our own great-power struggles. “War was coming,” he writes about the 1930s, “because two revisionist and authoritarian regimes were no longer willing to tolerate existing borders.”

Geographical fate was paramount. France was “tied at the hip” to Germany and thus could not escape Hitler. Britain stood both astride and protected amid the northern European sea lanes, whereas Germany’s northern coastline was severely constricted. Control of those sea lanes would turn out to be a prerequisite for D-Day. As for the Pacific war theater, it was governed by the “tyranny of distance.” With aircraft at the time unable to cover vast distances, U.S. Navy planners were forced to conquer remote and well-defended islands, one after the other, from Hawaii westward, with great loss of life, to get within bombing range of Japan. The taking of the tiny island of Iwo Jima in February 1945 cost the Marines nearly 7,000 deaths in 36 days, roughly the same as all the Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during 20 years of fighting.

But it was the Axis powers that truly had the geographical odds stacked against them: Germany and Japan lacked many of the raw materials needed for modern industrialized warfare, and they watched over major sea lines of communications to a much lesser degree than the United States and Britain did. The fact that the United States was protected by two oceans meant that its shipbuilding yards, which churned out hundreds upon hundreds of gray hulls during the war years, were, unlike in every other combatant country, protected from aerial bombardment.

It was the very size and dimensions of U.S. naval outlays that doomed Japan and Germany, Kennedy explains. He produces one chart that essentially tells the whole history of World War II and thus, to a significant degree, of the 20th century: It measures warship tonnages from 1939 to 1945. While the lines of all the other powers go up or down slightly as the war progresses, the line for the United States climbs steeply, starting in 1941, in an almost vertical direction. The determinism of Karl Marx and the mid-20th-century French geographer Fernand Braudel, Kennedy says, was vindicated by the extent of the Allied (and particularly the American) industrial base, which made victory a foregone conclusion. Yet Kennedy, ever the sure-footed storyteller, is careful to include in his narrative not only the bravery but the plethora of technological fixes for ships and planes made by individual Americans and Britons, without which the war could not have been won.

The forces of geographical fate and individual initiative would fuse together during the greatest Homeric struggle of the war: the Battle of the Atlantic, in which German U-boats tried to hunt and kill as many Allied troop ships and materiel convoys as they could during the middle war years. In a somewhat sympathetic portrait of German Vice Adm. Karl Dönitz, Kennedy describes the pessimism and frustration that Dönitz began to register as the war progressed, aware that even with all the destruction his U-boats had brought about, there simply weren’t enough of them, as the Americans kept unleashing more ships and convoys.

It is impossible to read this book without thinking of the current struggle the United States faces with Russia and China. The U.S. Navy now controls the main sea lanes of the Earth, just as the British Empire did at the start of World War II. And while Britain won the war, its victory so depleted its economy that it became a second-rate power.

History is cruel. Look at how the Ukraine war has “audited” the flaws of Russia’s leadership and society. More to the point, Kennedy’s phrase about the swift collapse of the international house of cards should send a shudder through us all as we contemplate what the Ukraine war might eventually lead to. In an age of geographical compression wrought by globalization, one great crisis can chain-react with another in a different part of the globe: the Far East, for example. We could be at the beginning of a frightful adventure. As Kennedy wrote in his 1987 book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” the very strengths of dominant nations like ours, with all the pressures upon them, may contain the seeds of their demise.

Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His latest book is “Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age.”

Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II

By Paul Kennedy, with paintings by Ian Marshall



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