I was lounging recently at the estimable Deer Path Inn
in Lake Forest, Illinois, and happened to pick up a lounge-worn copy of Fletcher Pratt's The Navy, a History; the Story of a Service in Action
. As every schoolboy knows, Fletcher Pratt
was an American original, a prolific author
who, after writing a series comprehensive histories of the American military, went on to a career as one of the pioneer American science fiction
His history of the Navy, written in the late 30's, of course predates some of the greatest achievements in American naval arms. But not all - thanks to Patrick O'Brian we now have have some awareness to the whipping
U.S. frigates gave the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. Less well-remembered is the decisive engagement on Lake Erie
, which every schoolboy really did use to know about. Oliver Hazard Perry's first dispatch after the engagement:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
It gives you a sense of how Americans thought of themselves before World War II - self reliant, industrious, proudest of having passed those early tests of nationhood.
Pratt's book is one of those efforts in which it becomes obvious the author knows too much to commit to paper (he invented and often played an insanely elaborate naval war game). But he makes a particular point of emphasizing the skillful gunnery of U.S. warships of this period. He reports (unsourced) an overheard conversation between two British MPs, during a crisis in the years after 1812. We don't want to go back there in force, one says, for whenever we do "we are roughly handled."
According to Pratt, the senior men of this force had mostly served under one man - a fellow named Edward Preble
. He was commander of U.S. forces in the First Barbary War
, and masterminded the burning of the Philadelphia
(by the estimable Decatur
) off Tripoli Harbor.
Over the course of his career, Preble helped establish many of the modern Navy's rules and regulations. Described as a stern taskmaster, he kept high discipline upon the ships under his command. He also dictated that his ships be kept in a state of readiness for any action while under sail, something many US naval officers at the time did not insist upon. The men listed in the previous paragraph took his procedures to heart at a time when the US Navy was highly unregulated. Many of Preble’s procedures became doctrine after the establishment of an official US Navy. The officers serving under him during his career also went on to become most influential in the Navy Department after his death, and together they proudly wore the unofficial title of "Preble's Boys."
So, I felt a little more American than usual, sitting there in Illinois, reading Pratt about Preble.
Then I learned a little more about that magical Pre-WWII era. Pratt dedicated one of his books to a fellow named Bernard DeVoto, "who taught me to write." DeVoto
looks like another great guy - an excellent writer, a champion of national parks and the preservation of open spaces, a loyal and decent American.
A loyal and decent American who got an education of sorts from J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI in those days would drop by from time to time and ask questions about friends and acquaintances. He tried to be cooperative - after all, if the the country's being infiltrated by communists who wouldn't want to help root them out? But after a while, he got fed up:
How many are having their reading, their recreation, their personal associations secretly investigated?... I say it has gone too far. We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters.
Representatives of the FBI ... have questioned me, in the past, about a number of people and I have answered their questions. That's over. From now on any representative of the government, properly identified, can count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but non-Communist) Sox at my house. But if he wants information from me about anyone whatsoever, no soap.
I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California.
Hoover responded by investigating the enemy more closely, as described in this article
. Astonishingly, "even today , much remains untold. The FBI, in releasing 197 pages on DeVoto, has also censored portions of many documents - by blacking them out with a marking pen. One page is so sensitive the agency won't release it at all."
So I suppose Fletcher Pratt taught me more than I intended to learn. He reminded me of the things that made America different and great. But he also reminded me how close we have come, in our naivete, to becoming what we fear most.
"The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it."
- Adolf Hitler
Happy Flag Day