William H. Thiesen

Policy, Technology, and Change: The ABCD Warship Program and the Transformation of American Naval Policy in the 1880s.

(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, July 1993.

The purpose of this thesis is to examine America's naval transformation of the 1880s, a decade of naval history largely neglected by historians. Using the ABCD warship program as a benchmark of changing American naval traditions, the author examines the various forces at work on naval policy after the Civil War. The struggle between political factions within and without the navy and competing philosophies over the role of technology caused American naval decline in the years immediately following the Civil War. By the 1890s, however, chaos had turned to consensus, as naval personnel and politicians agreed upon the new direction of a U.S. Navy preparing to enter the twentieth century.

The author discusses the complex forces influencing naval policy between the Civil War and 1880s and the transformation of these disparate elements into a unified movement behind the naval policy of the 1890s. To do this, he uses the ABCD warships as a metaphor for transformation of the Navy Department and navy-related industry. He employs various methodologies to present a framework for this transformation. These include the theories of historians Elting E. Morison as well as Robert L. Beisner, whose paradigm-based formula of American policy shift is based on the Thomas S. Kuhn's philosophy of "scientific revolution."

Whereas most authors and naval historians of the late-nineteenth century have lumped the ABCD ships and the 1880s into the "new navy" and the period of growth experienced by the navy in the 1890s, the author finds such conclusions too simplistic. The ABCDs and the 1880s represented a rapid transition between between America's old navy and the new navy. The author concludes that the 1880s was a pivotal decade in American naval development that cannot be categorized within the context of the old navy or the new, but deserves to stand alone as a transitional period for the U.S. Navy.