Photo by United States Navy on Wikimedia Commons

A Watershed Moment in Naval History

Paul Kennedy—

The soft, warm waters of the Mediterranean lapped gently against the sides of the two great warships anchored across from each other in Malta’s historic Grand Harbour in the summer of 1938. The fifteenth-century porticos of the Knights of St. John stood out behind the vessels. An Admiralty tug moved close by, and small boats occasionally went back and forth to the landings, but little else stirred. The world was quiet at that time, so it seemed, although not fully at peace. A keen-eyed observer might have noticed that across the top of the Hood’s and Barham’s giant gun-turrets lay several brilliant stripes; they had been painted on to indicate to aircraft flying above that both vessels, and all other British warships in the Mediterranean theater, were neutral in the Spanish Civil War still on at this time. The international arena was not entirely clear, then, of the clouds of war. That struggle for Spain was still being fought out, albeit only on land and in the air. The Italian war against Abyssinia had recently come to an end. Hitler’s Third Reich had moved without contest into Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938. In the Far East, Japan’s armies were advancing through great swathes of China. All of the Great Powers were now rearming, though some at a far slower pace than others. Still, probably only a few experts on foreign affairs at this time thought that they stood on the brink of a war that would be larger than that of 1914–18. And none of them conceived that they were only a few years away from a watershed, a near-complete break in the international system as a whole. How hard it is, given the usual blur of weekly events, to guess what comes next.

It was scenes like the one in Malta’s Grand Harbour that encouraged a broad sense of stability and security in Britain and the West, regardless of the fighting in Spain and distant China and despite the Fuehrer’s disquieting speeches. Indeed, there was such a long list of reasons to assume that things were unlikely to change very soon that it is intriguing to note them in bullet-point form, if only to enhance the starkness of the impending transformation.

  • A Eurocentric world order still prevailed, except in the Western Hemisphere.
  • The British Empire still appeared to be the number one world power in 1938.
  • Malta was just one very important fleet base in a global imperial network.
  • Sea power was still the main, and easiest, measure of world influence.
  • Battleships and battle fleets were still the way to measure that influence.
  • The Royal Navy was still the leading navy in the world.
  • Aircraft did not (yet) have the range and destructiveness to dominate.
  • The USSR was far away, and only Berlin and Tokyo really worried about it.
  • The United States’ interest was also far away, turned to the Pacific.
  • Japan was a threat, yet only in its region, not an existential danger to the West.
  • The League of Nations was finished, but European diplomacy would sort things out.

To put this in another way, it was still a world in which, say, a British Army officer, schoolteacher, missionary, or rubber planter could take berth on a British India passenger ship all the way from Southampton to Bombay (via Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, and Aden) and see only British ports, British ships, and British influence. It was a world that Disraeli might have known. A mere twenty years later, by 1958, that whole world would be evaporating; thirty years later, by 1968, it would be gone. Yet thirty years is such a small stretch in the sweep of human history.

From Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II by Paul Kennedy. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Paul Kennedy is J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers

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