Potomac Fever: A Memoir of Politics and Public Service by William Middendorf II. Published by Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland. 256 pages, 2011.
When studying U.S. Navy history and heritage we have a tendency to focus on John Paul Jones, Chester Nimitz, or William Halsey. However, the U.S. Navy is not only making history daily but its heritage is evolving into the 21st century.
This July, Navy Secretary William Middendorf published his memoirs which captures not only a life of public service but the inner mechanics of decisions made that impacted the U.S. Navy for decades to come.
The book opens with Middendorf’s rise to Navy Secretary. Starting with service as an officer in World War II, he recounts how his service aboard LCS-53, a floating rocket launcher, would shape his identity. This craft was commanded by a lieutenant junior grade, which provided Ensign Middeendorf with more responsibility than the average new officer within the Navy. He would take command of LCS-53 as a violent typhoon raged in the Pacific, as the lieutenant junior grade would be too ill to assume command. Many American warships would be lost and damaged in this storm, and Fleet commanders issued guidance urging common sense among commanding officers caught in a violent storm versus staying to orders.
Middendorf used the GI Bill to educate himself, and his interest in politics would be as a campaign organizer for republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Readers will get a perspective of a republican organizer taking on the campaign of Lyndon Johnson. Middendorf’s first political appointment would be in the Nixon Administration, when the President appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands. When the then Secretary of the Navy John Warner resigned to chair the Bicentennial Commission, Middendorf went from Undersecretary of the Navy to Navy Secretary in 1974 and served until 1977. He devotes three chapters to his time as Navy Secretary, where you will feel his days occupied with coordinating with the Chief of Naval Operations issues of policy, budgeting, personnel, and endless meetings with members of Congress and congressional staffers.
Middendorf describes how cultivating congressional staffers is vital as members of Congress do not have the time to read copious materials on an issue and often rely on staffers to help them make decisions. There are debates on the types of the future Navy, and dealing with the perception of the Soviet navy overtaking the United States in terms of deployed warships, with a discussion on Soviet quantity versus American quality. Readers will be treated to debates that were not easy, such as Soviet quantity swarming American quality weapons systems. Middendorf also had to cultivate labor represented by powerful unions like the AFL-CIO.
The book ends with his service as ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), a position that placed him in the middle of South American affairs. He discusses the challenges posed by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Cuba, and the need to give life to Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative designed to integrate economies.
Middendorf’s memoir is an excellent read for those wanting to understand a perspective of how to manage and lead within the federal bureaucracy; it is a memoir not only on developing policy, but rendering it into the practical. The title of the book “Potomac Fever,” comes from those who come to Washington D.C., serve in positions in which they shape policy, and remain in the nation’s capitol unable to tear themselves away from a life of public service.
Editor’s Note: Cmdr. Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010). He teaches part-time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Cmdr. Aboul-Enein served as Director of North Africa and Egypt and Middle East Advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2002 to 2006.