Book Review: America's Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution, 1919-1923


by Robert Shenk

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 370. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1612510531

A vivid tale of a forgotten and very grim chapter in the history of the U.S. Navy and of the world in general

Literary scholar and retired naval officer Shenk gives us an account of the long forgotten U.S. Navy presence in the Black Sea and the Aegean in the aftermath of the First World War.  Following the Armistice of November 11, 1918, a small U.S. Navy squadron was sent to the region to protect American interests, and undertake diplomatic and humanitarian missions. Commanded by Adm. Mark Bristol, one of the pioneers of naval aviation, the squadron rarely had more than an old cruiser or two and half-dozen or so destroyers.   The region was beset by extreme turmoil resulting from foreign intervention, internal disorder, war, civil war, and revolution in Turkey and Russia, emerging states like Armenia and Georgia struggling to sustain their fragile independence, and all with their consequent humanitarian disasters, such as mass starvation, genocide, and massacres that are still “hot” issues in the countries involved today. 

This necessarily requires that Shenk strays from a focus on the operations of the U.S. Navy to take a wider view, if only to explain why American personnel ended up doing what they did.  So he looks into a proposal that the U.S. assume a mandate over Armenia, one of the most interesting “what ifs” of the twentieth century, as well as the Graeco-Turkish War that led to the burning of Smyrna and the expulsion of the Greek from Asia Minor, the Russian famine, and more. 

Shenk doesn’t neglect the officers and men of the little squadron.  We get a look at their encounters with “The East,” tourism and binges, relations with other allied servicemen, and the more.

Along the way Shenk gives us a look at many of the notables of the time, including Mustafa Kemal, several obscure officers who would win fame in a later war, and some heroic men and women who tried to stand up to the horrors. 

A good book for students of naval history or military assistance in humanitarian disasters, and those interested in the history and politics of the greater Black Sea region

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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