Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I (review)
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Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I. By Jonathan Reed Winkler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. vii+347. $55.

In the run-up to the First World War, the United States repositioned itself from a continental perspective to a global perspective, commissioning a powerful navy and implementing a geostrategy that expanded American power throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean. This repositioning required naval command-and-control telecommunications conducted through the new technology of wireless, in which navies pioneered, and it required commercial and diplomatic telecommunications conducted by means of submarine cables. To its chagrin, the United States discovered that it depended for its commercial and diplomatic telecommunications on a global network of submarine telegraph cables that was British.

In Nexus Jonathan Winkler weaves the stories of these two modes of communication together in a valuable work, based on his dissertation at Yale, that draws heavily on primary diplomatic sources and the national archives of Britain and America.

Although the United States was a great pioneer in land-based telegraphy, the success of the British transatlantic cable in 1866 led America to abandon an attempt to reach Europe via the Bering Straits and Eurasia. The United States left submarine cables to the British, who developed an effective technology and manufacturing capability and built a fleet of long-range cable-laying ships. For the United States, there were several manufacturing bottlenecks, mainly the availability of what was then the only effective insulator, gutta percha. Britain effectively controlled the global supply of gutta percha through Singapore, the tree being native to Southeast Asia. Moreover, the United States had no long-range cable ships.

The First World War seriously strained cable communications. Britain, which had cut and appropriated the German cables immediately after the war started, censored all messages openly and read them clandestinely. Commercial messages, the volume of which increased dramatically during [End Page 949] the war, had to be sent in clear language, not code, which brought the system to the verge of overload. Even important diplomatic messages were delayed and sometimes lost. Enemy attacks, deferred maintenance, breaks caused by undersea geophysical events, and accidents also disrupted cable communications, and the situation became increasingly fraught after the United States entered the war. But the long lead times, lack of access to supplies of gutta percha, and need to invest huge amounts of money in cable-laying ships stymied proposals for creating a U.S. cable communications capability, and when the war was over the political will evaporated.

Winkler rightly criticizes the secondary literature in the history of communications technology as failing to “effectively explain . . . the military and security perspective that framed the problems associated with international communications” (p. 290, n. 13). He then assumes that these secondary sources plus the diplomatic correspondence adequately describe the nature of the technologies. This works reasonably well when the topic is submarine cables, where the technologies were stable, but lets him down when it comes to wireless, which from 1900 on evolved at a furious rate. Diplomats were unable to comprehend the technologies. Naval officers had better technical education but blind spots too, and they passed their blind spots on to the diplomats they sought to inform.

Once invested in arc technology to generate continuous waves, the U.S. Navy became committed to it, and a technical problem that Winkler covers well is the inability of very broadband transmissions using spark technology to coexist with more tunable transmissions from continuous-wave stations. The navy’s solution was to drive out and close down the spark transmitters; hence its obsession with controlling American Marconi. There were other ways to generate continuous waves, alternators and vacuum tubes. The navy pretty much ignored the former, and, while it did work on the latter, its obsession with long-range transmission often led to failure. Tubes found their natural home in short-range radio-telephony with the new air forces.

Absent from Winkler’s references are important primary sources for electrical communications such as the British trade weekly The Electrician, which covered all this technological ferment closely. He virtually ignores alternator technology, all-important for continuous-wave wireless because it...