Playing War: Wargaming and US Navy Preparations for World War II

John Lillard

Advisor: Christopher H. Hamner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Martin Sherwin, A. Trevor Thrall

Johnson Center, G
October 01, 2013, 03:00 PM to 01:00 PM


This dissertation describes how, despite severe political and economic pressures, the U.S. Navy of the Interwar Period tested new doctrines, experimented with advanced technology, and projected itself into the future through simulated conflicts at the Naval War College. These wargames served as virtual laboratories for experiments in strategy and tactics, experiments that would have been far too costly to carry out in live exercises. The records of the College and the personal papers of the game participants reflect a steady evolution of strategic and tactical thought that was eventually illustrated in actual combat. These records serve to help recast the reputation of the Naval War College as an agent of preparation and innovation, and the wargames and the instruments of that agency. The games were not innovations in themselves or even particularly innovative. Instead, they were a great common playing field, a shared experience, and a palimpsest that both enabled and recorded the Navy’s path of wartime readiness. The games were transformative due in large part to their sheer persistence, ubiquity and flexibility.