Strategy and Compromise by Samuel Eliot Morison

A long time ago people cared about the books and articles written by this man. Now, hardly anyone would know who he was, let alone what he wrote or said or thought. Yes, it was a long, long time ago.

At first, this review was all about tribute. I wanted to honor someone whose writings I had first read in my days in graduate school. Samuel Eliot Morison was one of the three or four most recognizable historians in two generations before mine—he was popular in the 1940s and 1950s. He tended to write about naval history, the past of the oceans and seas, the earth’s great waters. Books on Christopher Columbus and on the various European exploreres were among Morison’s most popular.

(If college or graduate school played an important part in your education, you likely have versions of a Morison you recall in a particular field of study. As an aside, I had to view Morison through a distorting lens—political correctness had just taken hold in history and Morison was out of favor with the Marxists and radical leftists who were moving up the professorial ranks at Indiana University. I actually had to make an effort to read his materials on my own because the classroom Lefties disdained him.)

Morison taught some of the classes at Harvard that then-unknown presidents, senators, ambassadors, and congressmen-to-be’s wanted to attend. He helped fill the minds of statesmen. And yes, in Morison’s day, the noun of “statesmen” was literal and limited.
In formulating this review, however, I can already tell you that my words of honor are tilting in a different direction. Morison doesn’t need me to honor him. He doesn’t need me to help you know or remember who he was. He simply needs me to do what I always try to do—find the relevance of history.

Much is relevant here. Before I elaborate, let’s summarize this slim volume.

Morison explores the highest-level decisions and strategies involving the United States and Great Britain from 1941 to 1945. (If you don’t automatically know that this is American war-fighting period of World War II, I strongly recommend that you strengthen your grasp of 20th century history.) These points span both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. When I say highest-level, that’s exactly what I mean. Morison’s interest hones in on, respectively, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the handful of generals and admirals who directly worked with them.

Among the most important points covered by Morison was the “Europe First” decision. He writes that in early 1941 American and British military planners concluded that should the U.S. enter the war, the primary focus of effort would be in Europe. The Asian theater—or Japanese, or Pacific, theater, if you prefer—had to wait until Europe was re-taken, re-secured, and re-won from Hitler’s Germany. Everything flowed from that.

Despite the agreement, subsequent strategy and policy moved in different directions in Britain and America. In large part, this difference reflected the two national leaders, their personalities, and the divergent systems of decisions embedded in their national structures. These differences played out in how, when, or whether to attack enemy forces in North Africa and, later, the European continent.

The disagreements mattered less in the Pacific. There, the United States wielded extensive power in formulating, deciding, and implementing strategy. Britain’s role was nearly entirely supplemental, secondary, and supportive.

The summary concludes. Now, on to what I think you’ll find is surprisingly meaty stuff.

First, Morison’s book is, ironically, a tribute in its own right. Writing in 1957, he openly acknowledged that his ruminations on American and British strategic interactions in World War II—the heart and soul of this short, 120-page book—celebrated the unique Anglo-American bond underneath the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that Morison regarded as essential to world peace. His words are a song to what U.S. and U.K. national security specialists and analysts call the “Special Relationship.” Maybe in reading a tribute I subconsciously became oriented to penning mine for the author.

The relevance is today’s onslaught of news about European affairs and about British-American strategic relations. Morison would be nervous about the precarious position of relations within the European continent. He would say that, from the American perspective, strategy for the United States must begin through the portal of U.S-U.K. interaction. As a result, Morison might well have endorsed Britain’s decision to step back from recent decisions on propping up the euro and euro-zone. For Morison, the Special Relationship is the First Relationship for the United States on the European continent.

Morison would also be appalled by the current condition of Anglo-American relations. He would disapprove of the Obama Administration’s clear decision to “normalize” U.S.-U.K relations—thus diluting anything remotely special about how the two nations work or plan or decide together on major international issues. This decision is all the more stark in light of sixteen years of continued “special” status that marked the Clinton and Bush presidencies. In his grave, Morison likely rolled over twice when Obama boxed up the bust of Churchill that was sitting in the White House and shipped it back to England.

Morison’s description of the separate methods of Roosevelt and Churchill in dealing with key advisors also holds important lessons for us. Chief executives in every organization have a group, team, or body of advisors with extraordinary influence on daily decisions. For Roosevelt and Churchill, two wartime leaders, these entities were their respective military chiefs of staff. The two leaders approached these groups in strikingly opposite ways: Churchill worked closely with the British Chiefs of Staff, while Roosevelt was much more aloof and distant from his American version. This separation affected decisions because it affected decision-making processes.

The broader point about the Europe-First approach adopted in early 1941 has additional relevance for 21st century leadership. First, vision needs simple, clear, and brief language—Europe First. Second, the existence of a vision is just one part of how vision fits into leadership. Having a Europe-First vision did not—repeat, did not—translate into successful strategies by itself. Though the vision proved right, the strategies for getting there proved quite problematic. The difficulties around Operation Torch in North Africa are just one illustration. Third, the strategies of vision are often best expressed in two categories: your strategic strengths and your competitors’ strategic weaknesses. Imagine strategies from both perspectives, from both categories. Fourth, sequencing and timing are critical linkages between strategies and vision. Morison shows that American military planners debated which should come first, the seizure of the Philippines or the seizure of the Japanese islands. Both were important aspects of the Pacific Second vision, but each had a different look and feel within strategy depending on which of the two came first.

This brief overview of the vision-and-strategy relevance of Morison’s book compels me to assert that you and I can profit from reflecting further on leadership in World War II. There is no better set of content and material on the manifold pieces of strategy than World War II.
I suspect that some of you might fear the gap of the globe in using World War II in this way. I’m referring to the gigantic scale of World War II; you might ask, “How can my situation and organization compare to this?”

My response is partly predictable, if you know me at all. I’m quite comfortable in finding the links and hinges, doors and hatches, between you and these sorts of large historical examples. But more than that, you might also want to consider that more of your operations and activities are global or at least international in nature than you first think, or than were true ten or fifteen years ago. Your world has jumped the oceans just like the scope of strategy and leadership had to jump the oceans more than fifty years ago. World War II, the quintessential global and international historical event, could well be quite suitable as a teaching tool for your leadership.

We don’t write books like Morison’s anymore. He wrote simply and confidently about a world-wide event, using little more than one hundred pages, taking mountaintop views on monumental issues. It was a grand thing. It’s my honor to share it with you.