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Book Review, NRJ 64.3

August 15, 2019 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters, 1919-1924

William N. Still, Jr.

Victory Without Peace is the final volume of William N. Still’s groundbreaking study of the United States Navy’s operations in European waters. By 1919, when this book begins, the “war to end all wars” was over, the United States and its allies were the victors, the country was eagerly awaiting the return of its troops, and there were expectations of an economic “peace dividend” not least from the drawing down of the nation’s armed services.

For the Navy, hopes for a rapid return to the routines of peacetime operations were quickly dashed. Allied leaders were determined to prevent the re-emergence of strong states in what had been the Central Powers (Imperial Germany, Austria Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). During the conflict and in its aftermath in the peace negotiations, prominent politicians, most notably Woodrow Wilson, deliberately (and, most probably, quite cynically) played the card of national self-determination to break up the states of the old Central Powers, encouraging the creation of a string of nation-states from the separate nationalities of these empires.

What none of these politicians envisaged were the full ramifications of this ploy. They quickly learned that these various nationalities were not willing to be coerced into forming tidy nation-states that would fulfill the expectations of the Allied powers by containing the rumps of the defeated empires. Instead, national self-determination became the rallying cry for a plethora of ethnic, racial, or cultural groups seeking independence. The consequences were instability, regional conflicts, ethnic cleansings, and genocides.

Allied leaders needed to bring this situation under control if their grand plan for European peace were to come to fruition. Military operations were necessary. Naval forces were particularly attractive for these missions because it was much easier to disengage them from situations than to extract ground troops. Thus the United States Navy found itself thrust into “operations short of war” in the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Adriatic, and even in the Baltic. The numbers were quite small and most vessels were light craft, such as destroyers, but operations were relentless and potentially dangerous.

The Navy also took on two other major missions during the period immediately after the war. Much of the organization and administration for shipping home millions of troops fell to it. The massive mining campaigns undertaken mainly in the North Sea, the English Channel, and the mouth of the Adriatic to obstruct the passage of U-boats during wartime now had to be cleared to make these waters safe for merchant shipping. Almost all of this hazardous task was undertaken by the United States and Royal navies, both of which suffered quite noticeable casualties for peacetime in the process.

Still’s study of this often-overlooked period of United States naval operations is best described as magisterial. It is a comprehensive, deeply researched, brilliantly expounded, and lucidly presented story whose resonance with the Navy’s missions in the early twenty-first century is unmistakable. Victory Without Peace is a fitting conclusion to Still’s trilogy.

  •  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018
  • 7-1/2” x 10-1/2”, hardcover, xi + 368 pages
  • Photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $68.00
  • ISBN: 9781682470145

Reviewed by Edward Hamilton, University of Chicago

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