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Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I

Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I by Jonathan Reed Winkler. Harvard University Press, 2008, 347 pp.

For military professionals seeking historical context relating to cyber warfare, this is an ideal monograph. Jonathan Reed Winkler, a Wright State University history professor with a doctorate from Yale, provides a unique and refreshing approach to military and political history. By focusing on how America sought information dominance over its enemies and allies alike during the Great War, Winkler uncovers the greater issues of how new technology—in this case, communications technology—affected strategy and how military, political, and commercial policies interrelated at the highest levels.

Two forms of instantaneous strategic communications existed during World War I: underwater cable and long-range radio. These systems were essential tools of government employed to direct operations overseas. The author explains the details of these technologies and the communications networks that employed them in clear language. Winkler reminds the reader that such networks existed not only for military use but also for diplomatic and commercial purposes, and were thus subject to great strain during the course of the Great War.

The start of the war witnessed the neutralization of the German underwater cable network, but Britain could not interdict long-range radio transmissions with regularity. British companies, and hence the British government, controlled most of the remaining underwater cables connecting Europe to the rest of the world. They also controlled the production of cable, the world’s only competent fleet of cable-laying ships, and the necessary support infrastructure to repair damaged cable. America’s declaration of war in April 1917 not only added a requirement for increased throughput but also affirmed a need for independent communications capabilities to manage US military operations and commercial relations. Radio offered a way for the United States to bypass British control of existing cable networks, and luckily for the newcomer, the US Navy was one of the world leaders in high-powered, long-range radio communications.

Winkler addresses questions of regulation, expansion, and commercial interests, especially in the Western Hemisphere, where the Germans took advantage of Latin American neutrality early in the war. He also highlights Anglo-American competition over communications networks, both cable and radio, during the war and immediately thereafter. The author concludes that strategic communications issues were vital to the American war effort and provided clear lessons for later twentieth-century conflicts.

Winkler backs up an engaging writing style with solid research. Historians of foreign relations, military operations, technology, and business will find this monograph fascinating. For the military professional, it provides data points directly relating to modern cyber warfare: Who controls communications networks? Is the United States at the center of today’s global communications? Is there adequate excess capacity for emergency use? What are the vulnerabilities, and are there redundancies to offset attacks? As a recent SSQ article by Maj Gen William T. Lord states, “if we cannot dominate in cyberspace, we place air and space dominance at risk.” For those with similar concerns, this book belongs on your reading list.

Lt Col John J. Abbatiello, USAF

US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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