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Arleigh Burke: The Last CNO

By David Alan Rosenberg

No flag officer in the US Navy in the twentieth century spent more time contemplating and practicing strong, effective leadership than Arleigh Albert Burke. An outstanding World War II destroyer combat commander whose delegation of command and initiative to subordinates led to South Pacific victories, Burke was also an imaginative organizer and leader of combat staffs in Fast Carrier Task Force 58/38 in 1944-45, and in US naval forces in the Korean War. From 1955 to 1961, Burke’s actions in Cold War crises and his innovations in policy and programs as the last Chief of Naval Operations to actually command the fleets, shaped the service’s course for much of the rest of the century.

A Colorado boy imbued with integrity, self-discipline and strong principles by his farmer father and teacher mother, Burke graduated Annapolis in 1923, the very year the US Naval Academy faculty compiled the first textbook on naval leadership. That book listed the essential qualities of a naval officer as personal dignity, honor, courage, truthfulness, faith, justice, earnestness, assiduity, judgment, perseverance, tact, self-control, and simplicity. At the top of the list, however, was loyalty: to country and service, but especially “up and down” to one’s seniors and one’s juniors. Loyalty up and down was critical because of the natural independence and self-reliance of the American sailor, who came from a society with no established system of rank and caste. Naval officers had to earn the respect of their men through strong leadership. This philosophy became ingrained in Burke during five years in battleship Arizona, working jobs from inspecting and cleaning the battleship’s double bottoms, to leading a division that manned a fourteen-inch gun turret.

Even as a young officer, Arleigh Burke understood that technology was constantly transforming the navy, and that he needed in-depth knowledge, both technical and professional, to succeed. During three years as an ensign and lieutenant (j.g.), he completed the Naval War College correspondence course in strategy and tactics whose textbook, The Estimate of the Situation and the Order Form, provided a mental template for tactical and operational decision-making. He also pursued postgraduate specialization in ordnance, and spent three years at the “P.G.” School at Annapolis, visiting ordnance field activities and at the University of Michigan where in 1931 he received an MS in Chemical Engineering, becoming a design and production specialist in ordnance explosives. This background exposed Burke to the most advanced navy technologies of his time, and would prepare him as CNO to promote the development of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and guided and ballistic missiles. It would also lead him to support broader educational opportunities for naval officers, including the post graduate scholarships that came to bear his name.

While technical assignments with the Bureau of Ordnance dominated Burke’s early career, his abilities as a seagoing leader came to the fore in destroyers in 1937-1940. He led his first command, USS Mugford, to the destroyer gunnery trophy in 1939, by taking the initiative to make Mugford a gunnery “school ship” for training other destroyer crews. Rather than resent the extra work, his crew loved the challenge, especially when Captain Burke let them take the ship to sea out of San Diego with no officers directing them. As a C.O. Burke learned that “[I]f you’ve got power, use it and use it fast, and the time to make a decision is as soon as the problem presents itself.” He took that lesson into combat.

Kept in an ordnance assignment in Washington for a year after Pearl Harbor, Burke arrived in the Solomon Islands in March 1943, in command of a destroyer division. Within two months, he had completed a total reassessment of the surface warfare tactics employed in the night actions off Guadalcanal the previous year. The “doctrine of faith” he proposed to his cruiser task force commander, Rear Admiral A.S. “Tip” Merrill, called for the destroyer screen to engage the enemy force as soon as it was sighted without waiting for orders. Tested by others in combat that summer, these tactics were employed by Burke commanding Destroyer Squadron 23 in victories at Empress Augusta Bay and off Cape St. George in November. Burke’s physical courage, and a tactical genius that allowed him to carry the battle “plot” in his head and warn him of untoward enemy actions won him the Navy Cross and Distinguished Service Medal and gave DesRon 23 the only Presidential Unit Citation awarded a destroyer squadron.

Burke completed the war as Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s chief of staff in Task Force 58 in the campaigns for New Guinea, the Marianas, Palaus, Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In this job, he was one of the first surface officers to learn “the bird man’s lingo” and become trusted by the naval aviators that were now leading the war in the Central Pacific. He worked immensely hard to master the ability to understand and direct forces rather than platforms. This experience would stay with him for the rest of his career and lead him to believe that pride in one's naval warfare specialty, was “fine as long as the aim to make the specialty better is based on the larger desire to make the whole Navy stronger.” But when an officer became an admiral, he should be “a Flag Officer in the broadest sense of the term--one who can command forces.” While chafing at being away from his own combat command, he exhibited a knack for reducing staff paperwork, and for making plans and action reports clear and brief. He also developed an understanding of intelligence as key to achieving victory that served him well for the remainder of his career. When the war ended, Burke was assigned as director of research and development at the Bureau of Ordnance but Admiral Mitscher brought him back as his chief of staff in 1946 to organize America’s first Cold War striking fleet, and then to run the demobilizing Atlantic Fleet.

The next nine years saw Burke exercise his staff leadership much more than his proven talent for command at sea. Although he had a cruiser command in 1948 and cruiser division commands in 1951 and 1954, it was in the Navy Department in Washington and the headquarters of Naval Forces, Far East, in Tokyo that Burke’s abilities in organization and communication stood out. One other key leadership quality also emerged: his commitment to long range planning, manifested in his ability to envision the future navy and its requirements. While serving on the Secretary of the Navy’s senior advisory body, the General Board, in 1947-1948, he led the first effort to articulate the role of the navy in national security over the next decade. In 1949, he ran Op-23, the Organizational Research and Policy Division of the Office of the CNO, where he marshaled Navy arguments to fend off legislative proposals for reducing the Navy’s role in national defense and during congressional hearings over increased unification of the armed services. This assignment was followed by tours as deputy chief of staff for operations to the Commander of Naval Forces, Far East, during the first year of the Korean War, six months on the first United Nations Truce Negotiating Team, and two years as director of the Navy’s strategic plans in the Pentagon championing the importance of preparing for limited wars.

Burke’s comprehensive approach to leadership was articulated in a study of discipline and command he conducted for the Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel in early 1950. In his report he championed the continuing need for loyalty to and interest in subordinates, tightness in command, and stability in personnel assignments and operations. He also championed the widest dissemination of information about sailor’s jobs, their command and the service, to ensure that all hands understood what the service stood for and was doing. Burke believed that only in this way would “a dignified pride and self-respect” in the Navy and oneself and willingness to make personal sacrifices for the group good be achieved. When President Eisenhower promoted Rear Admiral Burke over 92 flag officers from Commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s Destroyer Force to become Chief of Naval Operations in August 1955, these views shaped the way that he ran the service. He started a monthly “flag officers’ dope” newsletter to spread the word, traveled widely throughout the fleet at home and overseas, and promoted the Navy’s story, including through the new medium of television. He argued that: "We have to maintain in ourselves, and imbue our juniors with an ardor to keep our Navy in front. We must pass along a willingness to think hard--to seek new answers --to chance mistakes--and to 'mix it up' freely in the forums and activities around us to promote knowledge. From that knowledge we can inspire our country to have faith in us--not because the organization of the military forces is the only place to put our national faith, but because we have discharged our responsibilities in such a manner that we have justified confidence in the effective manner in which we operate.”

Burke’s combat and Washington experience allowed him to meet multiple challenges as CNO, including crises over Suez in 1956, Lebanon, Indonesia and Taiwan in 1958, and Berlin in 1959, as well as to undertake the transformation of the fleet. He championed nuclear power in all future US submarines as well as in aircraft carriers and surface combatants, created the Fleet Ballistic Missile Program that brought Polaris submarines from drawing board to deployment in five years, backed missiles for air defense, and started communications and intelligence programs, particularly satellites, that transformed the way the Navy communicated and tracked potential adversaries. He also strongly emphasized the professional bonds among navies by establishing the Naval Command Course at the Naval War College that continues to bring senior foreign naval officers to Newport and expand allied and friendly links among naval officers.

As CNO, Burke understood that the United States Navy was an immense bureaucracy, and that it was very hard, if not impossible, to communicate his desires, much less make his commands felt. In order to get things accomplished in the Pentagon, he decided it was “not wise to give a direct order” because if he did he would have to check whether it was carried out. Instead, he called the action officers to his office and convinced them of the importance of what he wanted. If the officer was “alert and enthusiastic” he could be counted on to follow through and do the necessary checking. This was "the main reason why" Burke believed that as CNO he could "influence things but I must get things done by persuasion and sometimes things do not get done which I think should be done." One tool Burke invariably employed in convincing his subordinates was good humor. His communications downward to sailors and with his deputy CNOs and his fleet commanders and upward to the Secretary of Defense and even the President are filled with good natured, self-effacing humorous comments that did much to get the CNO’s points across.

An almost superhuman stamina, and a determination to persevere in doing all he could to advance the mission and fortunes of the US Navy at home and abroad, marked Burke’s six years as CNO and indeed his entire career. He was known to regularly work seven days a week, and to inspire his seniors and encourage his subordinates to do all they could to match him. Yet his service was marked with a personal humility that kept his ego in check. In fact, Burke’s letters and papers from 1945 on reveal that he was prepared for, and even looked forward to retirement, and in fact had decided by 1954 that he would prefer not to be named CNO. Nevertheless, each of the three times that President Eisenhower called upon Burke to serve as CNO, his sense of duty trumped his personal desires.

Burke’s ultimate conception of leadership in the Navy may best be summarized by a 1958 statement of philosophy that he put forward in arguing against increased unification of the armed forces. It highlights the special nature of leadership in a seagoing organization, where the environment demands large measures of self-reliance, flexibility and independence of thought and action: "We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have 'real' things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it--give him hell if he does not perform--but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. This builds that essential pride of service and sense of accomplishment. If it results in a certain amount of cockiness, I am for it. But this is the direction in which we should move."

Suggested Readings: The most recent full popular biography of Arleigh Burke is E.B. Potter, Admiral Arleigh Burke, A Biography (New York: Random House, 1989) but it is heavy on World War II and light on Burke's postwar career. A more complete treatment of Burke’s tour as CNO is provided in this author’s essay on Admiral Burke in The Chiefs of Naval Operations edited by Robert W.Love (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1980). See also this author’s more recent assessment of Burke’s World War II service in Men of War, Great Naval Leaders of World War II edited by Stephen Howarth (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), and this writer’s concise portrait “Arleigh Burke: The Last CNO” in Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two Centuries of American Naval Leadership edited by James C. Bradford (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institure Press, 1997). The first leadership textbook noted above is U.S. Naval Institute, Naval Leadership with Some Hints to Junior Officers and Others (Annapolis, Maryland: U.S. Naval Institute, 1924).

Note: David Alan Rosenberg is a Senior Professor at the U.S. Naval War College and ran Task Force History for the Vice Chief of Naval Operations compiling the Navy’s operational history in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and the Global War on Terror. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, and is a Captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve, commanding the naval reserve’s largest intelligence unit.

Source: Rosenberg, David Allen. “Arleigh Burke: Instinct” in Joseph J Thomas, Ed., Leadership Embodied: The Secrets to Success of the Most Effective Navy and Marine Corps Leaders (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005): 145-149.

Acknowledgement: The Navy Department Library gratefully acknowledges Davis Allen Rosenberg and the Naval Institute Press for giving permission to post this essay on the Naval History & Heritage Command (previously the Naval History Center) website. All rights are reserved by the author and publisher.

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