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  • Navies in Modern World History
  • Christopher M. Bell
Navies in Modern World History. By Lawrence Sondhaus. London: Reaktion Books, 2004. ISBN 1-86189-202-0. Illustrations. References. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 336. $39.00.

Surveys of modern naval history seldom stray very far beyond the competition between dominant naval powers (Great Britain, the United States) and their competitors (principally France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). This book adopts a somewhat different approach. To highlight the variety of roles that navies have played in the modern world, Lawrence Sondhaus employs a series of case studies covering both great and minor [End Page 285] powers since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Each chapter examines a single navy over a period ranging from a decade to nearly a century. The focus throughout the book is on the evolution of naval policy and matériel in peacetime, but the author also examines how each of these services recruited, trained, and educated their personnel, and how well they met the challenges of war.

The book begins with overviews of the British and French navies during the nineteenth century, a period characterized by unprecedented technological advances. As the leading naval and industrial power of this period, Britain had little incentive to force the pace of naval innovation: its superior resources enabled it to meet all of the qualitative and quantitative challenges that emerged in these years. The French navy, on the other hand, embraced technology as a means to undermine Britain's predominant position at sea. During the 1840s-1890s, France repeatedly took the lead in applying new technologies to warship construction, forcing the British to respond with new designs of their own. The book next turns to the western hemisphere, with chapters on the United States and Confederate navies in the American Civil War, the Brazilian navy in the years 1822-31, and the Chilean navy from 1879 to 1892. The Latin American case studies are a welcome diversion into a region often neglected by naval historians. Fleets in these waters were small by European standards, but Sondhaus shows that they were nonetheless critical in shaping the region's history. Brazil's navy played a decisive role in its struggle for independence from Portugal and in the preservation of national unity in the years following. Chile's victory in the War of the Pacific (1879-84) brought significant territorial expansion and catapulted it to the front ranks of South American states. Its emergence as the leading naval power in the region in the early 1880s also raised serious concerns in the United States, which responded with its own naval buildup.

The twentieth century receives slightly less attention, but the focus here is more conventional. Sondhaus begins with Wilhelmine Germany's unsuccessful challenge to British naval supremacy from the turn of the century to the end of the First World War. This is followed by a survey of the Japanese navy from its victory over China in 1894 to its crushing defeat by the United States in the Second World War. The Cold War era is examined from the perspective of another challenger, the Soviet Union. Under the direction of Admiral Gorschkov, the Soviet navy assumed a prominent place in Soviet strategy and effectively contested the United States's command of the sea. The book concludes with a chapter on the United States Navy since 1991. Sondhaus is skeptical about this service's commitment to "transformation," noting that most technological breakthroughs in recent years were produced in European shipyards. In the absence of a peer competitor, he maintains that the United States has adopted a leisurely approach to warship construction and innovation, much like a previous hegemon, the British navy, during parts of the nineteenth century.

Each of these case studies offers a solid introduction to the navies under consideration, demonstrating the complex forces that guided their development, [End Page 286] the range of activities they engaged in, and their ability to shape the fate of nations and empires. Taken together, they also provide a good overview of broad trends in naval technology, personnel and combat in the modern era. The case-study approach inevitably means, however, that some important topics are either...


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pp. 285-287
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2010
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