Book Review: Selling Sea Power: Public Relations and the U.S. Navy, 1917-1941


by Ryan D. Wadle

Normal: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 300. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806162805

When the Navy Reached Out the Public

Prof. Wadle (Air University), opens his ground breaking account of the Navy’s first efforts at developing a systematic public relations program by aptly quoting Rear-Adm. William A. Moffett about naval officers viewing ‘publicity’ as anathema.

Wadle then looks at how the service came to learn how to reach out to the public, in World War I, when the effort was primarily to further recruiting, and at times rather clumsy. Then, during the post-war era, a time of cutbacks, arms reduction, and the rise of the extremist Mitchellite air power enthusiasts, the Navy increasingly came to use publicity to preserve its existence and that of its air arm, while at the same time trying to burnish its image.

Wadle demonstrates how the Navy learned to leverage fleet movements and maneuvers, even allowing reporters aboard ship, to keep the service in the public’s eye, while staging well-publicized port calls. Similarly, naval air activities, both airplane and airship, included frequent tours of cities deep inland.

The Navy became very aware of the value of motion pictures, and began assisting the production of many service-friendly films. This effort was aided by the fact that former naval aviator Frank "Spig" Wead had become a successful scriptwriter; perhaps his best effort was the 1930 Hell Divers, promoting carrier aviation within the framework of an “all arms” fleet. Wadle notes the Navy’s concerns about security, so that Hell Divers and other films were censored, to insure that no images of sensitive equipment were included.

Wadle also notes that the Navy’s concern for its image led it astray at times, as in 1934 when admirals’ outrage over Paul Cadmus’s painting The Fleet’s In, with its dissipated sailors out on the town, probably tarnished the Navy’s image more than the picture had.

Selling Sea Power is an outstanding contribution to the history of the Navy between the wars.


Note: Selling Sea Power is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close