by Craig L. Symonds
Oxford and & New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. xviii, 480.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio. index. . $24.95. ISBN: 0190062363
Recipient of the NYMAS Arthur Goodzeit Award Best New Work in Military History in 2022
Commanding the Pacific War
The year 2022, for those interested in US naval history, will long be remembered as the year in which not just one, but two, memorable books about Admiral Chester Nimitz and his role in World War II made their appearance. The second, Mastering the Art of Command: Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and Victory in the Pacific, by noted historian Trent Hone, was published in September by the Naval Institute Press to well-deserved praise. And while there is much to be gained by reading both books, Hone’s Nimitz takes nothing away from renowned naval historian, Craig Symonds’s earlier book, Nimitz at War.
Symonds’ book was the first full-length portrait of Nimitz to appear in over fifty years although in his introduction Symonds makes clear that this is not a biography. Instead, its focus is on the three and a half years during which Nimitz directed the war in the Pacific Theater. As the subtitle – Command Leadership from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay - suggests, Symonds goes into sometimes minute detail to help understand how it was that this man, previously often taken for a ‘desk admiral’, came to lead the US Navy to its final victory over the Japanese. Symonds sets the stage by describing the disaster at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 with its huge blow to US morale, particularly for the navy, and the subsequent search for a leader who could restore confidence and reignite a sense of optimism about the road ahead. Nimitz’ boss, Admiral Ernest King, had his doubts about Nimitz’ suitability for the task, but President Franklin Roosevelt, in one of his most inspired moves, picked Nimitz for the job even though he was not the most senior admiral available.
Arriving in Pearl Harbor on Christmas Day, 1941, Nimitz was immediately faced with formidable challenges. Right away he was under intense pressure from Washington to take action to reverse the debilitating loss of confidence among the thousands of sailors, Marines and soldiers who served under him, and he understood that that would mean carving out a victory against the formidable Japanese navy that at that point dominated the Pacific. Symonds examines how Nimitz achieved this by centering his account on the admiral’s headquarters and how he operated from there from day to day. Covering all the major campaigns in the Pacific from the Battle of Midway to Okinawa, Symonds uses them to paint a picture of Nimitz’ leadership personality, style, habits, and abilities.
Examining a wide range of source, primary and secondary, archival, institutional, and personal, Symonds shows that a large part of Nimitz’ strength lay in how successful he was in dealing with many levels and kinds of relationships. He kept on the right side of his famously demanding boss, Admiral King, by careful diplomacy and by agreeing with him whenever possible while avoiding openly disagreeing with him except when he thought it critical. He used his trips to the West Coast to meet with King in person to best advantage in this. Similarly, in his dealings with his peer General MacArthur, well-known for his prickly self-regard, Nimitz avoided confrontation. He was willing to cede position somewhat on the scope of their competing control over the southern and the central Pacific and on the role of the army and of the navy, while yet asserting himself where it mattered. He was also able to carefully control his fractious and independent-minded subordinates like Admiral “Bull” Halsey and General “Howling Mad” Smith, and he was an attentive listener to his staff and to those who reported to him. Together, these qualities of leadership enabled Nimitz to forge extraordinary triumphs in the struggle against the Japanese.
Unlike many other successful military leaders of the time, Nimitz was unusual in leading not with aggressiveness and self-assertion but with thoughtfulness, humility, and patience. He had no need for dramatic gestures, and he did not draw attention to himself. Instead, he was surrounded by an aura of imperturbable calm, seeking always to solicit input from those around him rather than imposing his own opinions. Yet he had a clear grasp of when it was time for caution and when it was time to take a chance and Nimitz did not hesitate to make bold decisions when required. After carefully evaluating all foreseeable risks with his staff, and once a battle plan was decided upon, Nimitz time and again took the kind of gamble necessary in war by initiating audacious action. Having set things in motion he then stood back and let his commanders in the field make their own decisions, supplying all support when he could, but without trying to micromanage from a distance. This was evident in the Battle of Midway, Nimitz’ very first opportunity to strike a blow that could reverse the slump and uplift morale both overseas and at home. Symonds uses this and subsequent naval battles in the Pacific to illustrate Nimitz’ incomparable leadership style.
But Symonds goes even further by digging deeply into Nimitz’ personal life to show what helped to sustain him and to cope with his extraordinarily heavy responsibilities during these turbulent war years. First among these, perhaps, was his almost daily letters to and from his wife, Catherine. Symonds makes frequent use of quotes from these, noting how much they meant to each, and how important it was for Nimitz to have such an outlet and such constant support. Another significant source of support, as well as relief from the burdens of command, were Nimitz’ friendships, particularly with Sandy and Una Walker who owned an estate on Oahu and with whom Nimitz spent many happy hours. Nimitz was also a dedicated outdoorsman and took long walks daily, whenever he could, often in the company of his friends or staff members. Setting apart his view of Nimitz from that of most other accounts, Symonds weaves these personal anecdotes throughout his book, showing how important they were to Nimitz’ effectiveness as a leader and giving the reader a close and nuanced picture of the sources of his success.
Nimitz at War is a chance to reflect not only on core principles of leadership as demonstrated by Nimitz but also on the nature of the man who was so largely responsible for the US victory in the Pacific.
Our Reviewer: Prof Williams, a military historian, former visiting professor at Annapolis, and sometime Executive Director of The New York Military Affairs Symposium, is the author of several books on naval history and technology, including Secret Weapon: U.S. High-Frequency Direction Finding in the Battle of the Atlantic, Grace Hopper: Admiral of the Cyber Sea, The Measure of a Man: My Father, the Marine Corps, and Saipan, and most recently Painting War: George Plante's Combat Art in World War II. Prof Williams’ previous reviews include The Trident Deception, Battleship Commander: The Life of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr., Churchill, Master and Commander, Admiral Hyman Rickover, and Allied Air Operations, 1939-1940.
Note: Nimitz at War is also available in audio- and e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium