4. William S. Sims and a New Curriculum: The Sea in the Classroom
David Kohnen, PhD
Maritime History Department
U.S. Naval War College
William S. Sims, Dudley Knox, and the U.S. Naval War College
U.S. Navy Admiral William S. Sims earned a reputation for challenging the norms of the service, inspiring junior officers and fellow commanding professionals to follow his lead. Among others, Sims directly influenced the strategic perspectives of the five-star admirals of the Second World War – William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr.
Throughout his career, Sims addressed problems of doctrine and technology to improve proficiency in naval gunnery, command structure, and education. As a student in the 1911 summer conference and the 1911-1912 "Long Course" with Dudley W. Knox, Sims recognized the important role the Naval War College could play for all U.S. Navy leaders. Sims and Knox learned from A.T. Mahan, Stephen B. Luce, and William McCarty Little absorbing lessons on naval strategy, tactics, the importance of war gaming, and analytical thinking.
By September 1916, four short months following the actual battle, the faculty and students of the Naval War College replicated the Battle of Jutland adapting the rules used when they reproduced the Battle of Trafalgar. Knox and Sims sought to build on the education provided at the College by adding in a stronger focus on analytical war gaming as a tool for improved naval action. The November 1916 document from Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Holloway H. Frost on the Battle of Jutland came from the work of Knox and Office of Naval Intelligence and went out directly to NWC students that fall.
Sims returned to the College in 1917 as President rejoining with his classmate Knox, who was attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence attachment in Newport, R.I. Knox focused on ensuring that Naval War College students had the best intelligence about German and British naval actions, including Jutland. After critical (and secret) service in Europe, Sims emerged as a key figure in building a successful joint relationship with the British. Sims believed that the Naval War College held higher strategic importance for the future of the U.S. Navy in peacetime than any seagoing command. In furtherance of his views, Sims took a demotion to 2-star rank (Admiral) and resumed the role of President, Naval War College arriving in Newport in 1919 to reopen the College after its war-time closure.
A Renewed Curriculum
Historical studies remain a basic foundation in the Naval War College curriculum. Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce and Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan guided students to understand the influence of history upon the American notion of “sea power.” In particular, Luce and Mahan encouraged students to employ “decision analysis” to examine and assess the actions of commanders like Royal Navy Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Nearly a century after Nelson’s great victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, Luce and Mahan challenged Naval War College students to use Nelson at Trafalgar as a lesson for contemporary strategic discussions.
From the Naval War College’s first classes, students, many of whom became NWC faculty and staff, continued to seek strategic perspectives by studying naval operations of the past. Although the United States officially remained neutral as the First World War exploded after 1914, the epic Battle of Jutland, inspired American naval professionals to use the battle as part of their decision analysis of the key British and German commanders, to experiment with alternative scenarios, to draw broader tactical lessons, and to reshape U.S. naval education.
Between 1919 and 1924, Sims expanded the Naval War College curriculum to emphasize historical studies to serve as the basis for educating a fresh generation of American naval thinkers to pursue a deeper understanding of "sea power" and the future military policy of the United States. Sims recruited many of his closest associates for service at the Naval War College to foster an intellectual revolution within the U.S. Navy, which ultimately enabled the U.S. Navy to develop strategic means for orchestrating global operations with intelligence. The 1920 Knox-King-Pye report on naval education, written by three NWC alumni, Knox, future NWC President William S. Pye, and future Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King set the stage for a rigorous, analytical, principled case-based curriculum. The strategic reforms introduced by Sims shaped an entire generation of naval leaders, many of whom were Naval War College graduates.
Naval War College Staff and Students, Classes of 1919, 1923, 1930, and 1936
During his tenure, Sims increased the number of faculty and worked to increase the number of naval officers who undertook the course. Sims established a separate Administrative Department and organized the College around four academic departments: Command, Strategy, Tactics, and the Correspondence Course. The staff size nearly doubled between 1923 and 1930 and continued to grow each year. Sims argued for, and in 1924 the year after he retired, saw the establishment of, the Junior Course that provided officers, earlier in their careers, with the opportunity to gain the practical and principled education he considered critical for effective and forward-thinking leaders.
Sims, Knox, and the NWC staff adapted the course to address the needs of the emerging modern navy. For every problem, paper or game assigned to the students, the faculty provided instructions on how to successfully complete the assignments, created an "ideal" answer called a staff solution, and provided critiques of the students' solutions.
The Command department, headed by Knox, taught the estimate of the situation, orders, war planning, doctrine, and the "art of command." The Strategy course focused on war gaming practical and potential real-world scenarios. New rules and problems considered the possibility of war with Great Britain (RED), Japan (ORANGE), and other geographic regions (Caribbean, Canada). Staff drew on the experiences of WWI taking in to account ships' increased speed and armament capability, aircraft, and submarines. Captain Luke McNamee, future President of the Naval War College, revised the tactics instructional pamphlets to address the addition of submarines, aircraft, and aircraft carriers to existing fleet orders. Tactical games did not have "solutions." The Tactics department staff critiqued the responses directly and made recommendations to improve the Fleet based on the answers. Historical examples including Trafalgar, Jutland, and the U.S. Civil War Mississippi River campaign added additional opportunity to discuss strategic and leadership questions.
The course curriculum for 1930 and 1935-1937, included in this exhibit, illustrate the focus Naval War College faculty put on historical studies, foreign policy, and pragmatic applications for tactical and operational problems. With time split between lectures, paper and problem writing, and completing the prescribed reading lists in the expanded library and archives, students received an intensive, practical, globally-focused education.
John B. Hattendorf, B. Mitchell Simpson III, and John R, Wadleigh, Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1984).
William Snowden Sims papers, MSS 53645, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
William Snowden Sims papers, MSC 168, Naval Historical Collection. U.S. Naval War College.
David Kohnen, Editor, 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History of the Modern Era (Washington, D.C.: Naval Institute Press, 2016).