Vice Admiral Sean Buck, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, made opening comments, followed by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, whose remarks included President Carter’s many accomplishments after he left office.
Remarks by Rear Admiral Sam Cox, U.S. Navy (Retired), USNA ’80, director Naval History and Heritage Command:
Good morning, Mr. Secretary, the Carter family, distinguished guests (all recognized twice previously), ladies and gentlemen. My assigned mission is to “sandwich” the video—I’m not sure exactly what that means, but here it goes.
It is an honor to have the opportunity to speak to you today. It is especially meaningful to me because as a senior in high school I cast my very first ballot in the 1976 Illinois Democratic primary, for the governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. I did so because in the post-Watergate morass, I assessed him to be a man of honor and integrity. And because he was from the Naval Academy and I had an appointment to the Naval Academy, so I had read his book, Why Not the Best? And I thought, why not? So I voted for him and accepted the appointment. So, I thank President Carter for all he has done for our nation—and for my career.
Some critics have said that Jimmy Carter marched to a different drummer. As a historian, I would agree, in a positive way, as it relates to his moral courage.
Regardless, joining the Navy was not the traditional thing to do in rural Georgia, especially when you lived not far down the road from a major Army base named after a Confederate general. Jimmy Carter would later somewhat modestly say that he went to the Naval Academy to get a college education. Actually, he already had two years of college, because he didn’t get in the first time—but, he persisted, as they say.
He also chose to go to the Naval Academy as a world war was raging. As he well knew, and anyone who has visited Memorial Hall knows, this institution is not just about an education. Just a few months before he entered, in one battle alone off Guadalcanal, 57 Naval Academy graduates, including two admirals, made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation. Midshipman Carter’s Midshipman Cruise was aboard the battleship New York, in the Atlantic, with the U-boats.
Toward the end of his second year of the accelerated wartime three-year program, he and his classmates were acutely aware of the U.S. ships being pummeled by kamikaze suicide planes off Okinawa, with every expectation that they would be involved in the subsequent invasion of Japan—during which, by our own estimates, we expected to suffer 100 ships sunk, 1,000 ships damaged, and 12,000 sailors killed. Had the war not ended when it did, Ensign Carter would have been involved in that. So, in my view, just staying the course at the academy, knowing what was likely ahead, took a certain degree of courage and commitment.
The Lucky Bag yearbook entry for Jimmy Carter, written as they are by another midshipman, is revealing. It says, “Studies never bothered Jimmy. In fact the only times he opened his books were when his classmates desired help on problems. This lack of study did not, however, prevent him from standing in the upper part of his class. Jimmy’s many friends will remember him for his cheerful disposition and his ability to see the humorous side of any situation.” He would need that disposition in all that followed. So with that, please roll the video.
(The four-minute video hits some of the high points of President Carter’s life and career.
- Born and raised in Plains, Georgia.
- Influenced, at a very young age, to join the Navy by an uncle (Tom Gordy), a U.S. Navy enlisted radioman.
- Entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1943 with the class of 1947; with accelerated graduation, graduated with distinction in 1946.
- Duty Stations:
- USS Wyoming (E-AG 17), June 1946–July 1947
- USS Mississippi (E-AG 128), July 1946–June 1948
- Navy Submarine School, June–December 1948
- USS Pomfret (SS-391), December 1948–February 1951
- USS K-1 (SSK-1), February 1951–October 1952
- Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Reactors, November 1952–March 1953, with discussion of his role in leading the clean-up of the partial meltdown of the Canadian NRX research reactor at Chalk River, Ontario
- USS Seawolf (SSN-575) Pre-commissioning crew, March–October 1953
- Resigned commission in October 1953, following the death of his father.
- USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) commissioned in 2005, christened in 2004 by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.)
So here are some things that weren’t in the video:
The uncle who influenced Jimmy Carter toward a Navy career was stationed on Guam at the start of the war when it was overrun by the Japanese, and he was subsequently declared dead. It turned out he survived the war in captivity, but his wife had remarried.
The video shows a really nice photo of Ensign Carter’s first ship, the former battleship USS Wyoming as she appeared when commissioned in 1912. She was turned into a training ship in 1930. So how did someone who graduated near the top of his class end up on this relic? At the time, all Naval Academy graduates went Surface Line for at least two years, and order of assignment was determined by drawing lots, and Midshipman Carter drew almost last.
Nevertheless, it turned out surprisingly well because the Wyoming was being used as the test platform for all the latest and greatest electronic equipment, incorporating all the lessons learned from the kamikaze attacks. As the radar and combat information center (CIC) officer, Ensign Carter was right in the thick of developing the CIC as we know it today.
When Wyoming’s engineering plant gave up the ghost and the ship was deemed “unsafe,” the crew crossed over the pier, literally, to the not-quite-so-old former battleship USS Mississippi to continue the high-tech work, including preparation for the first shipboard launch of a surface-to-air missile, which occurred shortly after Lieutenant (junior grade) Carter transferred to the submarine force.
What the video didn’t mention about his time on diesel submarine Pomfret was that on his first trans-Pacific transit, at night in a severe storm, Carter was washed right off the bridge and only by sheer luck snagged the 5-inch gun aft of the conning tower. Had he lost his grip, he would have been lost at sea, and we would not be here today.
(Skipped for time: the video also describes Pomfret’s deployment as “simulated wartime.” Although technically true, much of her time was spent right off the coast of China during a pivotal time as the Nationalists collapsed and the Communists won the civil war. Pomfret was in effect doing what submarines have always done exceptionally well—collecting valuable intelligence.)
Jimmy Carter’s next tour was on the first U.S. submarine built since World War II, USS K-1 (later named Barracuda), specifically designed to hunt and kill submerged submarines while submerged herself, and as such had the cutting-edge sonar technology of the era. Of particular note, on this tour he qualified for command of a submarine—not bad for a lieutenant junior grade.
When he applied to be one of the very first officers in the Navy’s nuclear power program, his interview with then-Captain Rickover was a seminal moment in his career. After a long period of the typical and eccentric Rickover interview technique, Rickover finally got around to asking where Jimmy stood in his class at the academy. Carter responded with justifiable pride, “Fifty-ninth out of 820.” Rickover then responded, “Did you always do your best?” Harkening back to the Lucky Bag comment about lack of study, Carter honestly answered, “No.” At which point, Rickover turned his back, ending the interview but asking, “Why not?” It was Carter’s inability to provide a good answer that served as the drive and motivation to do his very best in everything that followed. Besides his family, Carter would credit Admiral Rickover as the most influential person in his life.
The video doesn’t quite capture just how dangerous the mission was for Lieutenant Carter to lead a 23-person team to clean up the NRX reactor partial meltdown. (This was a Canadian, not a U.S., research reactor.) Although radiation was known to be dangerous, we were still ignorant of just how dangerous. Lieutenant Carter’s cumulative exposure on this project gave him about 1,000 times more radiation than is considered safe today. Although, given President Carter’s longevity, perhaps we could all use a dose [audience laughs].
Lieutenant Carter was then assigned to lead the pre-commissioning crew working on the reactor for what would be the nuclear attack submarine USS Seawolf. This was a unique liquid metal (sodium) cooled, beryllium-moderated nuclear reactor, the only one of its kind installed aboard a U.S. submarine. Had Carter stayed in the Navy, he would have been the engineering officer, and quite likely the executive officer, of only the second nuclear submarine ever put in service in the world. In fact there is every reason to believe that had he stayed in the Navy, he would have had a stellar career.
So fast forward to Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States. The Secretary [Del Toro] already described the profound impact of the Carter Doctrine on U.S. Navy operations and force structure for the last forty-plus years. I won’t go into detail on all President Carter’s diplomatic successes, but the Camp David Accords and subsequent Egypt-Israel peace treaty rank among the most difficult and significant diplomatic achievements since the end of World War II. From a practical Navy standpoint, those agreements have resulted in the Suez Canal remaining open (it had been closed for 15 years before 1974), enabling the strategic mobility of our Navy.
(The Carter Doctrine, enunciated in the 1980 State of the Union Address: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf Region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”)
Other diplomatic successes include the following:
- Starting formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, while finessing a continuing “informal” relationship with Taiwan.
- Pushing the Panama Canal treaties to conclusion, which possibly forestalled a war in Central America.
- Successfully negotiating the Strategic Armed Limitation Talks (SALT II) with the Soviets, which, although not ratified, was adhered to by both sides.
- Lastly, getting NATO to agree to stationing nuclear Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 mobile medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles.
As with any president, Carter came in for extreme criticism from political opponents. A frequent charge was, “Jimmy Carter is weak on defense.” Well, for those who like metrics, here are some metrics.
The annual Navy budget that President Carter inherited from the previous administration was $36.5 billion (B). This was raised to $39.5B in 1978 and 41.6B in 1979. However, since these increases did not keep pace with inflation the headline was, “Jimmy Carter slashes Navy budget.” However, the 1980 Navy budget was increased to $47B, and the 1981 budget (which the Reagan administration inherited) was $57B, with a building program for a 550-ship Navy by the 1990s.
During the Carter administration, military pay was increased each year by 6.2 percent, 5.5 percent, 7.0 percent, 11.7 percent, and although the 1982 increase of 14.3 percent was signed by President Reagan, that is what was in the Carter administration’s budget submission. The 1980, 1981, and 1982 cumulative increase represent the largest increase in military pay in U.S. history. This came in real handy when I was an ensign. No military pay raise since has even come close (6.6 percent in 2002).
One of President Carter’s best moves was selecting Admiral Tom Hayward to be the Chief of Naval Operations. When Carter and Hayward assumed their jobs, all the metrics were heading in the wrong direction—recruitment, retention, readiness, morale, you-name-it. These metrics bottomed out during the Carter administration, and when the oiler USS Canisteo was unable to get underway for lack of crew, it was headline news. What didn’t make the headlines was that by the end of the Carter administration these indicators were already on the upswing.
It was well known that President Carter wasn’t especially fond of enormously expensive big-ticket items like aircraft carriers. Nevertheless, Ike [USS Eisenhower] was commissioned, Vinson was launched, and Theodore Roosevelt ordered during his administration. The F/A-18 Hornet made its first flight.
He was fonder of submarines—nine of the first ten Los Angeles–class nuclear fast attack submarines were commissioned on his watch, seven of them in the last two years. The first three Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines were launched or laid down during his administration.
The Carter budget invested heavily in the Aegis radar/weapon systems. The first cruiser equipped with Aegis, USS Ticonderoga, was ordered, and design work commenced for what would be the Arleigh Burke–class destroyers. He also agreed to finish, rather than scrap, the four Kidd-class (upgraded Spruance) destroyers that were being built for the Iranian navy when the revolution occurred.
A number of advances were not public at the time, such as a move toward a countervailing nuclear deterrent strategy to give more options besides Mutual Assured Destruction, where both sides just incinerated each other’s cities. The purpose of the strategy was to hold at risk, with precise targeting, Soviet military installations, and to show that even if the Soviets attempted a precision nuclear strike it would still be a loser—for both sides. To execute this strategy required precision targeting of our own, which led to acceleration of deployment and backfitting of the Trident missile system and acceleration of the development of the Trident D-5 that would have the necessary accuracy.
Also, within the Carter defense budget were significant investments in stealth technology, for aircraft and ships, as well as for modern digital technology and precision-guided weapons—the first Tomahawk cruise missile prototype tests occurred during this administration, a weapon system we have used many times in the years since.
And, when was the last time a president mentioned the importance of seapower in a State of the Union address, let along prominently? I actually don’t know, but President Carter did that in that same 1980 address, going on at length about the importance of his 550-ship Navy plan.
(Exact words in the 1980 address: “Seapower is indispensable to our global position—in peace and war. Our shipbuilding program will sustain a 550-ship navy in the 1990s, and we will continue to build the most capable ships afloat. The program I have proposed will assure the ability of our Navy to operate in high threat areas, to maintain control of the seas and protect vital lines of communication—both military and economic—and to provide the strong maritime component of our rapid deployment forces. This is essential for operation in remote areas of the world, where we cannot predict far in advance the precise location of trouble, or preposition equipment on land.”)
Finally, I believe an example of President Carter’s character can be seen in how he handled the failure of Operation Eagle Claw—the attempt to rescue 53 American diplomats held hostage in Iran. President Carter came under a barrage of intense criticism for this failure—which Admiral Hayward said was completely unjustified—but as commander in chief, Carter took responsibility. However, while most politicians would run away from failure, President Carter made a point of flying out to USS Nimitz, which had launched the eight helicopters on the mission, as she was returning to port. He deliberately timed it so it would not interfere with the homecoming with loved ones at Pier 12 in Norfolk. He told the crew of Nimitz, “I am absolutely convinced that your presence there . . . has been a major factor in protecting the lives of the 53 American hostages who are still held, because the clear knowledge of American military strength is the surest guarantee that when your presence was felt, stability prevailed and the hostages were indeed protected in their lives.”
So Mr. Secretary, I think you made a great decision. Thank you all.
Note: Building 105, now Carter Hall, was formerly Maury Hall, named in 1907 (or thereabouts) after Navy officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose world-renowned scientific achievements led to him being known as the father of modern oceanography. The former bronze plaque on the building identified Maury as the “Superintendent of the Naval Observatory” and as “Commander, CSA,” i.e., “Confederate States of America.” Although Maury was a vociferous opponent of secession, when his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy and sided with the Confederacy. His significant enhancements to electrically command-detonated mines (known as “torpedoes” then, as in Admiral Farragut’s “Damn the . . . ”) directly resulted in the loss of many Union ships and Union sailors’ lives.
In 2022, the congressionally mandated Renaming Commission recommended to the Secretary of Defense that Navy “assets” (including buildings) named for people who served in the Confederacy be renamed. As a result, a working group was formed at the Naval Academy to propose alternative names. President Carter was at the top of the list, and as recommended by the superintendent of the Naval Academy, Vice Admiral Sean Buck, and the director of Naval History and Heritage Command (me), Secretary of the Navy Del Toro chose President Carter.
As with any change at the Naval Academy, a lot of the alumni will think this is a great idea and a lot of the alumni will think it’s a bad idea. I will only suggest that Maury had his day (actually more than a century) in the sun, and he still has a crater on the moon and a river in Virginia named for him.