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H-078-1: "The Revolt of the Admirals"

Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson (center)

Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson (center) attends a briefing with several naval officers in the hangar of an aircraft carrier, 1949 (NH 96303).

H-Gram 078, Attachment 1

Peter C. Luebke, PhD, NHHC History Advisory Group

March 2023


In 1949, a series of congressional hearings that were intended to investigate alleged irregularities in the procurement of the Air Force’s B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber became a referendum on the roles and missions of the Navy. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Louis Denfeld delivered testimony that diverged from the views of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Omar Bradley, Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews, and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, particularly on matters of naval aviation and the Navy’s role in executing national strategy. Following Denfeld’s testimony, Truman removed Denfeld as CNO. The public airing of Navy grievances in the hearings—and ouster of Denfeld—led the press to dub the affair the “Revolt of the Admirals.” Although the B-36 served as the proximate cause of the “revolt,” the entire matter reflected the contentious and unsettled configuration of national security and defense establishment following World War II.

The “Revolt”

Contextualizing the “Revolt of the Admirals” demonstrates the affair to have been a particularly public coda to arguments that had occurred largely out of sight among the services, the President, and the new Department of Defense. Disagreements about the roles and missions of the armed services in an era of austerity following World War II—predicated upon perceived lessons learned about how the U.S. had fought that war—created tension among the armed services.

The United States won a clear victory in World War II. Lessons other than that all the services had played a critical role in securing that victory remained less clear. The role and use of aviation in particular created friction between the services, as the Navy and Army Air Forces (AAF) drew diverging lessons from World War II.

During the interwar years, U.S. Navy leadership grasped that aviation would play a large role in the coming war. Navy leadership explored concepts of how precisely naval air power could be used with fleet problems and at the Naval War College prior to World War II. The campaigns in the Pacific validated the central role of naval aviation to the Navy. Aircraft carriers demonstrated themselves as key platforms for force projection and naval air power that could operate effectively against shore-based opposition and targets. Historian Jeffrey Barlow observed that, by the end of World War II, the Navy believed “its carrier would have to be capable of launching limited offensive strikes against selected land targets in the initial stages of a war.”[1] World War II had also shown the Navy the value of controlling its own air assets, so that they could be used with maximum efficiency to support operations.

The AAF, as well, thought that World War II had validated its concept of operations. AAF leadership assessed the strategic bombing campaign against the Axis powers as a great success that proved beyond a doubt the efficacy of strategic airpower. While some studies, such as that of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, found that the strategic air campaign had not been as effective as claimed, AAF leadership tended to write any shortfalls off to divided efforts. In other words, they thought diversion of AAF resources to provide tactical air support and other support for the Army and the Navy had hurt the strategic bombing campaign, which would have been more successful had it been conducted independently and free from other requirements.[2] The fact that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japanese surrender only strengthened AAF conviction that strategic bombardment had proven the centrality of strategic bombardment.

Thus, the Navy and the AAF held different views on lessons learned from World War II. Navy leadership, for its part, saw that the war had shown the importance of aviation for projecting naval power. Reflecting its experience in the Pacific, the Navy also saw the importance of tactical air power for success. The AAF examined the evidence and thought its strategic bombardment campaigns had been the real reason America won the war. These deeply held beliefs, drawn from the experience of World War II, would shape postwar debates over national security policy and defense unification. The Army Air Force believed World War II demonstrated it needed sole control over the air, while the Navy argued that the Pacific campaigns substantiated the need for its own air component.

World War II also made clear the need for some kind of unification of the armed forces. The scope, scale, and complexity of operations suggested that some unifying head—other than the chief executive—would need to synchronize joint efforts. The Navy feared that unification would undermine its independence and result in the lion’s share of postwar funding going to the Army or the AAF. The Marine Corps also feared for its existence under a unified structure, in which the Army might make it redundant. Eventually, President Harry S. Truman made clear that he supported unification efforts. Accordingly, in 1946 Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and Secretary of War Robert Patterson, with input from their service heads, agreed upon the form of a unified defense establishment. Among other changes, the Army and Navy would be placed under a secretary of defense, as would the newly created Air Force.[3]

The passage of the National Security Act of 1947 formally established the JCS as well as created the National Military Establishment (NME) and the position of Secretary of Defense. While unification had occurred on paper, it remained for the new Secretary of Defense and the services to thrash out the division of roles and responsibilities within the new structure. The National Security Act and Executive Order 9877, in which President Truman directed its implementation, assigned broad responsibilities to the services based on domain. Room remained for the services to debate their own primacy and roles, especially as concerned aviation. The Navy’s requests for large aircraft carriers—ones that might embark aircraft that could deliver atomic weapons—emerged as a topic of especial sensitivity, as it seemed to overlap with the newly created Air Force’s strategic mission. Questions also arose around the apparent overlap of the roles and missions of the Army and the Marine Corps.[4]

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal convened two separate conferences with the JCS to address the issue of air power and atomic weapons. The first of these took place at Key West in March 1948. There, the services agreed that the Navy would maintain its own air assets but the Air Force would bear sole responsibility for the strategic strike mission. Despite the apparent harmony, Air Force Chief of Staff Carl Spaatz indicated he still believed that the Air Force should control all air assets. A meeting at Newport, Rhode Island in July 1948 addressed questions regarding the control and use of nuclear weapons, with the Navy arguing that it required access and use to accomplish its mission. The Air Force, however, saw this position as encroachment upon its strategic role.[5] These debates prompted CNO Denfeld to establish the Organizational Research and Policy Division (OP-23) under the leadership of Captain Arleigh Burke. Scholars have assessed the role of OP-23 as “countering arguments favoring service unification.”[6]

Addressing questions of roles, missions, unification, and national defense strategy would have resulted in tension among the services regardless, but a desire to cut overall government spending intensified the sharpness of the debate. In an era of diminishing budgets and looming austerity, debates over roles and missions and the limits of armed services integration could appear as existential crises for leadership. Increasing tensions with the Soviet Union created concerns regarding national security policy, most acutely, whether foreign aid would provide the most prudent way of ensuring the national interest or whether military expenditures would give the best outcome. Priorities far outweighed the means available to address them. And Truman kept cutting the budget. As Melvyn P. Leffler, an eminent scholar of the Cold War, has written, Truman thought that “domestic priorities must not be compromised; that economic reconstruction abroad was more important than rearmament at home; that coopting and reconstructing former enemies abroad were more important than engaging the new adversary.”[7] Within the climate of constriction and budgetary pressure, interservice rivalry over big-ticket defense expenditures could quickly intensify, especially given the Navy’s resistance to unification and lingering distrust over whether the Air Force intended to abide by the Key West and Newport agreements.[8]

Photo #: 80-G-706108 USS United States (CVA-58)

Artist's conception of USS United States (CVA-58) from October 1948 showing the ship's approximate planned configuration as of that time. Many details, among them the location of smoke stacks, elevators, and the retractable bridge, were then still not finally decided. This carrier was laid down at Newport News, Virginia, on 18 April 1949 and cancelled by Secretary of Defense Johnson a few days later (80-G-706108). 

A flashpoint proved to be a dispute over whether or not the JCS had agreed to the Navy’s acquisition of United States (CV-58) dated from 1948, following the conference at Key West. In May of 1948, CNO Denfeld told Congress that the JCS had agreed to the carrier. Two weeks later, Carl Spaatz disputed Denfeld’s statements and claimed that the Air Force had not agreed to the carrier. Such public divergences of opinion and ongoing argument between the services led the JCS to consider the issue again at 26 May meeting, where the JCS—except the Air Force—agreed to approve construction of the carrier. Congress provided funding and the Navy laid the keel for United States in February 1949.[9]

There matters stood, apparently resolved, until the appointment of Louis Johnson as Secretary of Defense on 28 March 1949. Forrestal had also brokered the agreements at Key West and Newport that apparently settled questions of the Navy’s role. Sadly, the stress of the unification fights following his years of earlier service in the Navy Department had taken a toll on Forrestal, who had become increasingly unable to execute the responsibilities of his office.[10] Navy leadership felt no fondness at all for Johnson, who they perceived as an Air Force partisan. Events seemed to prove those fears right, as Johnson soon reopened discussion on whether or not the Navy truly needed United States. The JCS again discussed the carrier in April 1949, but this time the Army joined with the Air Force in opposing its construction. Aware of JCS draft memos, Johnson had already determined his response, so that when he received the final memos from JCS on 23 April, he immediately cancelled the carrier with the tacit approval of President Truman. A press release announced the decision.[11] Johnson’s decision and his announcement of it came without consultation with either the Secretary of the Navy or the CNO. “Absolutely infuriated,” Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan resigned.[12] Sullivan would be replaced by Francis P. Matthews, “a lawyer-businessman with no previous administrative experience in the federal government or military service.”[13] The actions of Johnson also telegraphed to the Navy that under the new configuration, the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense could act arbitrarily, without due consideration of the uniformed service’s opinions.

The ascendancy of the Air Force, exemplified by Johnson’s cancellation of United States and a particularly active Air Force public affairs campaign, led to drastic, and unofficial, action by Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of the Navy Cedric R. Worth. Assisted by Commander Thomas D. Davies, a naval aviator who served as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air and also wore a hat as a staff officer in OP-23, Worth penned what became known as the “Anonymous document” that attacked the Air Force’s B-36 strategic bomber program. One historian has assessed that document as “cobbled together from aeronautical industry gossip and wild suppositions;” that lobbed “highly negative aspersions on the reputations of senior officials in the National Military Establishment.” Among other things, it alleged that the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Air Force had pushed for the B-36 because of undue influence and corruption.[14] The B-36 had become linked to United States because the two programs competed for the same limited resources and the apparent duplication of the strategic strike role with the large-scale bomber and the carrier capable of embarking aircraft that could carry strategic weapons. In mid-late April, Worth passed copies to Glenn Martin, an aerospace magnate and competitor of B-36 manufacturer Boeing. Martin made several copies and gave them to some influential contacts. Worth passed additional copies to others, including members of Congress. Little happened at first.[15]

Initially, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Carl A. Vinson (D-GA) attempted to sidestep the issue of the Anonymous document, given its self-evident questionable nature. But, as copies of it circulated and discussion spread, it became impossible to avoid a formal response. Congressman James E. Van Zandt (R-PA) forced the issue. An opponent of the B-36, Van Zandt introduced a resolution calling for an investigation into the B-36 program and delivered a speech on the floor of Congress based on the Anonymous document. Vinson could not ignore the resolution and submitted his own resolution to Congress. Vinson’s resolution passed, setting hearings on the B-36 program to start in August. Beyond the B-36, the committee would also consider questions on the roles and responsibilities of the services. Signs of trouble between OPNAV and the civilian leadership of the Navy Department appeared as the service prepared draft position papers; the uniformed officers’ position papers evidenced a strong anti-Air Force agenda, which ran afoul of the wishes of Under Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball.[16]

The first round of hearings on the B-36, which began on 9 August 1949, demonstrated the scurrilous nature of Worth’s document. No witnesses nor evidence emerged that could show that either Secretary of Defense Johnson nor Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington had received kickbacks for the B-36. Vinson invited Navy representatives to sit in on the testimony of Air Force officials before the HASC so that they understood the gravity of the situation. Captain Arleigh Burke, for one, observed that “this thing is no longer an investigation of the B-36. It may turn, at any time, into an investigation of the Navy.”[17] Most damagingly for the Navy, at the end of August, Worth claimed authorship of the Anonymous document. As historian Jeffrey Barlow has noted, “the Worth revelation was a major blow to the Navy’s credibility, since many in the press looked upon Worth’s action as part of an orchestrated effort by the Navy hierarchy.”[18]

After the first rounds of testimony concluded, the Navy began preparation for the next round of questioning October. Uniformed leadership understood how Worth’s unmasking had hurt their cause. Secretary of the Navy Matthews also took a deeper interest in the Navy’s position and instructed Navy leadership that it should moderate its public criticisms of the Air Force and the B-36. During the interim period, Captain John Crommelin, a prominent naval aviator and an officer with personal association to Burke (and thus privy to the material that OP-23 had developed against the Air Force) gave an unofficial press conference where he spoke out against unification. Other naval officers announced their support of the position, which in turn led Matthews to direct that views would have to be expressed through “official channels.” Reverberations of these events continued throughout the summer, as Navy leadership and OP-23 prepared for the hearings. Admiral John Dale Price, for instance, leaked to the Washington Post that Secretary of the Navy Matthews had ordered Navy leadership not to testify against the B-36 and also unduly limited the number of Navy witnesses. This story in the press—an incorrect one, in fact—provoked an investigation into the leak and an inspector general raid on the offices of OP-23. By the end of the summer, Secretary Matthews held the opinion that the Navy should wrap up the hearings as quickly as possible, while uniformed leadership wanted to make its case to Congress. Captain Crommelin once again convened an unauthorized press conference where he criticized defense unification. The hearings would go on, while the Secretary of the Navy ordered Crommelin suspended from duty.[19] As with Worth, the public perceived a coordinated Navy effort to undermine civilian leadership so that it could present its own views to Congress.

HASC hearings resumed on 6 October 1949. Secretary of the Navy Matthews opened with his testimony, sometimes to the outright laughter of Navy officers in the room. Testimony after that came from a number of serving and former officers who spoke against the overall merits of the B-36 and in favor of the Navy’s viewpoint that carriers and aviation were essential for sea control. The general tenor of the testimony was such that Time magazine labeled it “the revolt of the admirals.” On 13 October, CNO Denfeld testified as the last witness for the Navy, providing a full-throated defense of the Navy’s role in national defense. He decried budgetary austerity and the cancellation of United States. His testimony flew in the face of what Secretary of the Navy Matthews and Secretary of Defense Johnson had wanted. Rebuttal witnesses from the Army and the Air Force spoke out against the Navy as did Chairman of the JCS Omar Bradley, who delivered harshly critical testimony that accused Navy leadership of subverting civilian control of the military. Testimony concluded on 21 October 1949. Secretary of the Navy Matthews and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson obtained from Truman on 27 October the transfer of CNO Denfeld, who went on leave. Admiral Forrest Sherman received appointment as CNO, and he disestablished OP-23 as one of his first actions.[20]


The revolt had occurred because Navy leadership saw in unification the threat of concentrating decision making in the hands of a few leaders, leaving the services unable to present their own arguments without drawing the ire of the Secretary of Defense. Other than Denfeld’s exit as CNO, the outcome of the Revolt of the Admirals remains uncertain. Historians differ on the importance and meaning of the revolt. Some point to the affair as defending the principle of civilian control of the military. Others see the revolt as an affirmation of Air Force’s preference for a strategy reliant upon strategic bombing, even though Navy leadership had neither denied that role nor sought it for themselves. Historian Jeffrey Barlow pointed out that even though the Navy lost the revolt, it retained naval aviation, despite the fact that the place of naval aviation had been secured at the Key West Agreement and the Newport Agreement.

Events of 1950 rendered the revolt moot. Approved in April 1950, NSC 68 laid out a strategy of containment and provided broad policy guidance. In June 1950, the outbreak of the Korean War demonstrated the importance of a robust defense establishment. The war itself showed the validity of the Navy’s arguments for aircraft carriers, as in the early days of the war, naval aviation provided most of the ground support. Later in the war, the mobility of aircraft carrier proved its value. Finally, and perhaps not the least, both of these developments led to increasing budgets. The size of the armed forces doubled while their budgets tripled, thereby easing somewhat the underservice competition over scarce funds. There was both room and money for the Air Force and the Navy.[21]



[1] Quotation from Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945–1950 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994), 21. See more generally Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 4–8.

[2] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 13–21. See also Walton S. Moody, Building a Strategic Air Force (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996), 13–26.

[3] Jeffrey G. Barlow, From Hot War to Cold: The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945–1955 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 57–95.

[4] Kenneth W. Condit, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy: Volume II: 1947–1949 (Washington, DC: Office of Joint History, 1996), 87–95.

[5] Condit, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 87–98; see also Thomas C. Hone and Curtis A. Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2020), 200–201.

[6] Hone and Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 201.

[7] Melvyn P. Leffler, “Austerity and U.S. Strategy: Lessons of the Past,” in Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920–2015 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 310. More broadly, see Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992).

[8] Hone and Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 193–96. See also Steven L. Rearden, The Formative Years 1947–1950, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Washington, DC: Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1974), 393–422.

[9] Condit, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 173.

[10] Historian Melvyn P. Leffler writes that Forrestal’s eventual suicide stemmed from the defense unification controversies: “Forrestal’s depression emanated from his inability to control the raging controversies among the military services over missions, roles, and budgets; his sense of failure stemmed from his belief that he had designed recipes for military unification and for the defense establishment that were failing.” Melvyn P. Leffler, “Austerity and U.S. Strategy,” 306. For more on Forrestal’s career, service as Undersecretary of the Navy, and then Secretary of the Navy, see Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Robert Howe Connery, Forrestal and the Navy (New York: Columbia University Press), 1962.

[11] Condit, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 173–75.

[12] Admiral Dennison, cited in Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 189.

[13] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 205–6.

[14] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 208.

[15] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 209. See also Condit, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy, 176–77.

[16] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 216–20.

[17] Burke to Rear Admiral Briscoe, 15 August 1949, quoted in Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 231.

[18] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 232.

[19] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 233–43

[20] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 238–39, 247–78.

[21] Leffler, “Austerity and U.S. Strategy,” 311. See also Paul H. Nitze and S. Nelson Drew, eds., NSC–68: Forging the Strategy of Containment (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1994).

Published: Tue Mar 21 09:07:55 EDT 2023