Revisiting Samuel Eliot Morison’s Landmark History

The famous historian’s eyewitness accounts of the Navy during World War II—now being reissued—won’t be surpassed

Samuel Eliot Morison said he wanted to capture "the feeling of desperate urgency." (PhotoQuest / Getty Images)
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Morison also had the nerve to use “we” or “you,” and to speak on behalf of the nation—sometimes in the same sentence. (“However you look at it, the Battle for Leyte Gulf should be an imperishable part of our national heritage.”) Embedded reporters today guard against such a stance for fear they will give the appearance of bias, but Morison identified with his subjects and sources. “Historians in years to come may shoot this book full of holes,” he wrote in the preface to Volume 1, “but they can never recapture the feeling of desperate urgency in our planning and preparations, of the excitement of battle, of exultation over a difficult operation successfully concluded, of sorrow for shipmates who did not live to enjoy the victory.”

Historians did take their shots. Some critics saw his treatment of the Japanese as narrow and xenophobic. According to H. P. Willmott, who wrote the introduction to Volume 3, Morison indeed viewed the Japanese as “little more than a vicious and unprincipled enemy.” (Similarly, Morison and Henry Steele Commager faced criticism for crudely stereotyping African- Americans in their textbook Growth of the American Republic.) Morison also avoided the controversy of the initial Pearl Harbor inquiry, infamous for scapegoating commanders in Hawaii, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen.Walter Short. And he reflected a bias in the argument over prewar naval policy by commissioning the former Navy senior historian Dudley Knox to write the introduction to the series; Knox had been sharply critical of the Harding administration’s consent to naval arms limitation treaties. In its new edition, the Naval Institute has replaced his piece with an essay by Naval Academy historian Robert W. Love Jr., who calls Knox’s introduction a “pejorative, factually inaccurate distortion of American foreign and naval policy.”

Ultimately none of these complaints would dislodge the series from its pedestal. Edmund Morgan called it “no mere adventure story, no mere working up of salty flavor to make dull facts more palatable. It is, instead, what all great history and indeed all great literature must be, a commentary on man.” “Commentary” is an apt word, for Morison’s authority came from his willingness to assert his judgment, which in turn earned him a connection with his readers. Richard B. Frank, an author and historian of the Pacific war, sees no diminution in the series’ value over time. “As long as World War II at sea is remembered,” he says, “Morison will remain the touchstone.”

Today, the odds seem remote that any publisher would assume the risk of commissioning a 15-volume series by a single author. “Publishers don’t like to commit to multiple volumes because they don’t think readers will commit to reading them,” says H. W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas. “The most successful multivolumes have occurred by accident, so to speak, and are typically biographical.” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for example, got “carried away,” Brands says, when he produced three volumes about FDR.) At the same time, market forces are not unkind to historical works: good narrative-driven history is published every season and has never been more popular; authors such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin are fixtures on the best-seller lists. So the state of the market only partially explains why Morison’s series remains singular. As a writer of naval history myself, and as a writers’ agent, I see another, and possibly more powerful, factor at work: an optimal convergence between writer and subject.

As surely as Morison had intellectual depth and literary talent, he also had luck. When he sailed on the Buck he was 55 years old—mature enough to be confident in his judgment but young enough to undertake so monumental an effort (unlike, say, William Manchester, whose failing health before his 2004 death at age 82 doomed his hope to complete a trilogy on Winston Churchill). His circumstances, with his talents and his access, allowed him to take full command of his subject.

And what a subject. As Hanson W. Baldwin, the former New York Times war correspondent and editor once put it, “World War II is one with man’s Homeric yesterdays—an epoch, like the Trojan wars, to be read about, studied, imagined.” With its vast geography and far-flung campaigns, it all but demanded the treatment Morison was allowed to give it. In epic scale, moral clarity and personal relevance to Americans, it may surpass even the American Revolution and the Civil War. Ultimately, that is why Morison’s masterwork seems destined to stand alone.

For more than two generations since, our wars have been less conclusive and more divisive. They tend to lack the large-scale set-piece dramas that characterized wars between similarly armed nations. They no longer conclude with treaties and victory parades. But the American experience in World War II still inspires readers. Several authoritative writers—including Richard Frank, Rick Atkinson and Ian W. Toll—are at work on trilogies about that war. But only Morison will ever be, in Baldwin’s words, “a modern Thu­cydides.” Like the great Greek historian who chronicled the Peloponnesian War from living witness, Morison explored the whole turning world at war and made it his own.

James D. Hornfischer is the author of a new World War II history, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.


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