Speaking at the US Naval Academy


This week I was allowed to present my paper on Operation Scabbards : OP Plan 316-62, the Planned Invasion of Cuba October 1962, at the McMullen Naval History Symposium at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.  The paper was a highly condensed version of my upcoming book, The Fires of October, due out next month from Fonthill Media.

This symposium was a gathering of the top naval historians from around the globe.  In fairness, I felt a little intimidated.  As an independent scholar, I was outnumbered by professional historians who have dedicated their lives to the research of naval topics.  My topic, The Cuban Missile Crisis, was one that had I’m sure been covered heavily in previous sessions.  But I wanted to go.  One, it was a chance to vet my research with true professionals.  Two; I have always had a secret desire to present at one of the military academies.

When I graduated high school I applied at West Point.  Seriously.  I sent in my application but that was as far as it went.  I was told I needed appointment by a Senator or the Vice President.  I reached out to Michigan’s senators and was rather rudely told that such appointments were committed to years in advance, usually as political favor.  I never gave up on my dream of going to the military academy though – I just knew after that I would have to find another way.  This week I met that goal, just not the way I had planned when I was a kid.

It was beyond awesome.

The US Naval Academy is itself an icon of history.  There wasn’t a step you could take where you weren’t exposed to the illustrious history of the US Navy.  Not only was the campus stunningly beautiful, but the names I saw on monuments everywhere oozed history.  We had a reception at the museum after hours, which was incredible.  Outside of the room where I was presenting was a massive display on the wall about the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a subtle reminder of my role to tell part of that story.

This was a rough week for the Navy family – with the shootings at the Navy Yard.  The Navy is truly a family and reacts like any family when the suffer tragedy.

The format was daunting for me at first.  Not only did you present your paper but a commentator then critiqued it.  Some were a bit brutal.  Academics were used to this format.  As a mild-mannered civilian, I have to admit it was a level of scrutiny I wasn’t used to.

It was so neat having the midshipmen sit in on the sessions too.  I have to wonder if the words we shared will someday influence a key decision or action. It puts a lot of burden on you as a presenter.

I spoke in the last session of the day.  My opening was along the lines of “I’m here to talk about the Cuban Missile Crisis – specifically the plans to invade Cuba in 1962.  Yes, that’s right, I’m the guy that came to a history conference to present a paper on something that never happened.”  I did get a few chuckles at least.

My commentator was a man who had worked with Robert McNamara on his autobiography – who was also a professor at the Naval Academy.  I was quite nervous.  But his critique was pure praise.  I was quite pleased.  And the questions I got from the audience told me that the subject was going to be a success.  One person said, “You’ve managed to take something like the Missile Crisis and find a new angle that no other historian has explored.  This is ground breaking stuff!”  I have to admit I was surprised and delighted to hear this.  It gives me hope that the book is going to do well.

I met a lot of new contacts and friends this week.  I also learned a lot.  I sat in presentations on Royal Navy recruitment during the Napoleonic era, US Navy Cybersecurity, Pirating, Civil War Sabotage, a wonderful presentation on the sinking of the USS Cumberland, newspaper coverage of the War of 1812, the Hartford Convention, the role of the USS Essex in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and numerous other presentations.  My head was swimming with all of the new data I sucked in. I also saw some new ways to present information that I’ll be using at my day job.

In front of the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit in the museum. Yes, I’m that level of geek.

As an independent scholar I now understand how Howard Wolowitz feels on The Big Bang Theory.  “Doctor Phillips, Doctor Anderson, Doctor Turner, Mister Pardoe.”  After a while they started to refer to me as “Professor Pardoe” which helped.

There was a genuine fear that the symposium might be cut due to sequestration.  I was happy that it was not and I see a real value to the Navy to have a gathering of such scholars.

It’s going to be hard to return to my day job this week.  When I finish talking at one of these events, there’s applause.  You don’t get that during a meeting at work…but I think we should start.

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