“The explosion of the battleship Maine, the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania and the air attack on the gunboat Panay all generated major crises that threatened U.S. relations with a significant foreign power.”
By Douglas Peifer
U.S. NAVAL AND air forces are engaged in a dangerous dialogue with their Russian and Chinese counterparts in the Baltic, Black, Barents, and South and East China Seas.
Historically, when states use ships to send forceful signals, it can lead to unexpected incidents and even armed engagements, often with fatal consequences.
In fact, such confrontations occurred with such frequency one might expect to be able anticipate future potential crises or incidents by drawing upon “scientific,” quantitative studies of past clashes.
British diplomat and scholar James Cable spent decades researching naval diplomacy, compiling a list of naval confrontations short of war that stretched to fifty-three pages. David Winkler, analyzing the Cold War on the high seas, assembled a 33-page chronology of more than 450 incidents at sea, ranging from low level overflights of warships to collisions at sea. Naval historians can rattle off dozens of naval incidents that had the potential to lead to military hostilities or war. Yet despite a wealth of data, international relations scholars employing quantitative approaches have tended to reach conclusions that are bland, banal and unhelpful in understanding how U.S. presidents respond to naval incidents. Quantitative approaches fail to provide a textured understanding of the interplay of foreign and domestic concerns, and factor out the importance of chance, personalities, and the specifics of particular crises.
A better approach is to understanding naval incidents is to study them using an historical mindset. What does this mean? All too often, one encounters references to George Santayana’s riff that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Used carelessly, this admonition suggests that one can derive historical “lessons learned” that should guide contemporary decision-making on issues of war and peace, diplomacy and coercion. Unfortunately, however, a “lessons-learned” approach often manifests itself as cherry picking analogies from the past to support a contemporary agenda. Eliot Cohen, describing what he meant when he advised strategists to adopt an historical mindset, explained that this meant studying an issue in all its richness in order to understand the “essential elements of context and detail that make up a complex political-military situation.” A historical mindset embraces similarities and dissimilarities, intended actions and the accidental, patterns and the unique. It trains the mind to ask disciplined, critical questions. It provokes a degree of skepticism about overdependence on theoretical models and “lessons learned.”
Those concerned about the risks and benefits of contemporary U.S. naval diplomacy in the East and South China Sea and in the Baltic and Black Seas would benefit from assessing how previous U.S. presidents responded to major naval incidents they did not anticipate and wished had not occurred.
The explosion of the battleship Maine, the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania and the air attack on the gunboat Panay all generated major crises that threatened U.S. relations with a significant foreign power. Those who experienced the three crises drew mental connections between them, fearing that history was about to repeat itself. This was most apparent with the isolationists of the 1930s who established committees and devised neutrality laws with the express purposes of preventing the missteps, diplomatic redlines and tone deaf insistence on legal rights they perceived in Wilson’s handling of German and British economic warfare in the First World War. Yet one detects a similar tendency on the part of presidential advisors who wished that President Roosevelt had responded more assertively to the attack on the Panay.
Yet while the images of the Maine and Lusitania lingered in the background, many participants in the public and behind-the-scenes debates of the 1930s realized that the issues, adversaries and domestic context of 1898, 1915 and 1937 were quite different. They cautioned against drawing direct parallels, and pointed out that the dissimilarities of the crises outweighed the similarities. With the passage of time, these differences have become even more apparent, as we perceive these crises with an awareness of how they played out. Hindsight gives us a precise knowledge of how diplomatic signals were interpreted, how Congress reacted, and how public opinion responded. McKinley, Wilson and Roosevelt acted without this hindsight certainty. They only knew how earlier crises had played out. Each responded quite differently to the calamity they confronted as the adversaries, issues and international environment were different.
Context, in short, remains the most important component to understanding how presidents respond to naval incidents that threaten to veer into major international crises. Context is all about particularities and specifics, about the constellation of domestic politics, public opinion, press commentary and presidential leadership. Furthermore, context means that all states do not react in the same manner to similar crises, and that specific foreign powers will react differently based on their domestic politics, public opinions, press commentaries and perceptions of the antagonist.
The primacy of context means that theories, models and approaches that seek to provide general insights and law-like propositions are of limited value for understanding past and future naval incidents. It mattered that Congress had been urging McKinley for months to do something about Cuba when a coal bunker explosion blew the USS Maine sky high during the course of a port visit. It mattered that Wilson had staked out a maximalist position on American rights and a minimalist position on American responsibilities months before the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat. And it very much mattered that Congress had tied Roosevelt’s hands with various Neutrality Acts when Roosevelt pondered how to respond to the Panay incident.
The Maine, Lusitania and Panay incidents had one thing in common. Each incident was wrapped in uncertainty and suspense, with elements of the unknown lingering into the present. In each case, the president could pause for a brief period while awaiting official findings, allowing him to consider various options and assess the domestic and international environments. Yet while the official findings provided some answers, they did not close the book on speculations about culpability and intent. If there is one generalization that seems to hold true, it is that presidents dealing with naval incidents must reach decisions in an environment where the facts are not yet fully established. This administration and its successor should think clearly about what it will do if Russia, China, or another state accidentally or deliberately sinks, captures, or detains an American ship upholding international rights and principles. Should things go astray, the precise nature of the incident will probably be unclear and contested, pressure will build quickly for a response, and the options available may be unpalatable. History provides no blueprint about how to respond to future events, but a careful analysis of the past can give policy makers the mental agility to ask the right questions when naval diplomacy veers in directions unanticipated and unwelcome.
Douglas Peifer is a professor of history and strategy at the U.S. Air War College. His forthcoming Choosing War: Presidential Decisions in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (NY: Oxford U. Press, 2016) explores the interaction between naval diplomacy and presidential crisis decision making. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Air War College, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.