Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Military leaders often catch the public’s attention for all the wrong reasons. World War II’s best known Allied battlefield commanders—like George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, and Douglas MacArthur—were flamboyant egomaniacs. Undeniably talented, they divided their efforts between defeating the enemy and promoting themselves. The media loved them for their entertainment value. Put bluntly, they sold newspapers. But behind the scenes, their activities wasted political and physical resources–and sometimes cost lives.
In the Pacific Theater, where American and allied forces battled the Japanese Empire from 1941-1945, MacArthur was by far the best-known public figure. Profoundly intelligent and capable of important insights and innovations, MacArthur also believed in his own genius to the point of believing that he rightly should command all military operations in the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps in Europe and the Atlantic as well. He even flirted with the idea of overturning Franklin D. Roosevelt to become President of the United States.
But to his intense frustration, MacArthur was relegated to commanding American forces in the Southwest Pacific, around Australia. Roosevelt, and Admiral Ernest J. King, who commanded all U.S. naval forces around the globe, kept MacArthur in check, although it required constant effort to do so against his constant efforts to achieve the power that he believed he rightly deserved. Fortunately for King and the president, they had a perfect foil for MacArthur in the form of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who commanded all U.S. Navy forces in the Pacific outside MacArthur’s territory.
As portrayed in this superb command study by Craig L. Symonds, Nimitz embodied all the character qualities that MacArthur lacked, while giving away nothing in terms of sheer military ability. Taking the reins after the Pearl Harbor debacle in December 1941, carefully assessed the assets available to him and struck a careful balance between conserving his resources and taking calculated risks in obedience to King’s demands for aggressive action. Measured, patient, and unflappable, Nimitz masterfully negotiated tensions between hotheaded subordinates and superiors; Army and Navy; soldiers and civilians; sailors and pilots—and MacArthur.
One of Nimitz’s greatest strengths was his ability to identify the best men for each position, and then to trust his subordinates to do their jobs without micromanagement. In the vast Pacific, which was difficult at best, although it didn’t stop King and Roosevelt trying to dictate Nimitz’s decision-making from faraway Washington, D.C. Nimitz, by contrast, gave his subordinates full information and clear instructions and recommendations before setting them free to manage maneuvers and battles as circumstances dictated.
The lightness of Nimitz’s touch allowed his best admirals—men like Raymond Spruance and William “Bull” Halsey, Jr.—to achieve astonishing victories. The most decisive was Spruance’s decisive triumph over the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. On the other side, though, Nimitz supported his subordinates when they ran into trouble or made mistakes—not blindly, but with a keen understanding that even the best commanders could make misjudgments or fail under pressure. Halsey, who demonstrated tremendous skill in the war’s first years, then committed significant errors in the 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea, and during two typhoons that severely damaged his fleet. Recognizing Halsey’s fundamental courage and ability—but also understanding the devastating ramifications that would have resulted from dismissing the popular Halsey at the height of the war—stood by his man. It’s no wonder, then, that Nimitz’s subordinates rewarded him with their loyalty.
Nimitz at War is not a standard biography, but a command study. Replete with excellent maps, it offers valuable information and inspiration for young leaders, and should be required reading at all military academies. But its lessons extend outside the military. Nimitz’s refusal to promote himself, and his true humility—based not on self-deprecation, but on clear understanding—ensured that he would remain in MacArthur’s shadow during and after World War II. Arguably, Nimitz accomplished far more than MacArthur, for he was, with King, the true architect of American victory over Japan in the Pacific. The same character qualities that ensured Nimitz’s success are applicable in all aspects of human endeavor—not just in business and politics, but in families, too.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.