Creation of the office of Chief of Naval Operations marked the culmination of a well-defined and long-recognized need in the Navy Department. As early as 1798, the year the Department of the Navy was founded, Commodore John Barry of Revolutionary War fame proposed that a board of naval officers be named to assist the Secretary of the Navy. Growth of the Navy during the War of 1812, with deployment on oceans and lakes, placed increased demands on the Secretary and gave substance to Barry’s earlier recommendations. Accordingly, a law was passed on February 7, 1815, forming a Board of Navy Commissioners comprised of three naval captains appointed by the President. The act specified that “the board, so constituted, shall lie attached to the office of the Secretary of the Navy, and, under his superintendence, shall discharge all the ministerial duties of said office, relative to the procurement of naval stores and materials, and the construction, armament equipment and employment, of vessels of war, as well as all other matters connected with the naval establishment of the United States.”
The commissioner system suffered from assignment of responsibility to a board rather than to individuals. The board’s ability to carry out its duties varied with the extent to which the respective Secretaries of the Navy delegated authority, and the board’s willingness to exercise authority, as well as the board president’s strength of leadership.
Actions against the Seminole Indians and West Indian pirates, suppression of the African slave trade, and protection of expanding worldwide commerce highlighted U.S. Navy operations during the 27 years of the board’s tenure. As a result of the secretaries’ frequent exercise of direct control over the relatively low-intensity naval operations during this period, the board tended to be purely advisory in areas of supply, building, equipping, and repairing ships.
Toward the end of the Board of Navy Commissioners’ span, it was charged that the board was slow to act and was criticized for a lack of individual responsibility. In 1842 the board was abandoned in favor of a bureau structure of administration. Five functional bureaus were created: Navy Yards and Docks; Construction, Equipment, and Repairs; Provisions and Clothing; Ordnance and Hydrography; and Medicine and Surgery.
Bureau chiefs were individually responsible to the Secretary of the Navy and no formal means of coordination was provided. From time to time, secretaries would convene special purpose boards (strategy, personnel, etc.) as a need arose. Some secretaries relied heavily on individual bureau chiefs or one or more prominent officers for assistance and advice in conducting the affairs of the Navy. It was the stress of wartime requirements—the Civil and Spanish-American Wars—and the needs of operational direction, coupled with revolutionary technological advances, which brought into focus the serious shortcomings of departmental organization.
For the Navy, the period from the end of the war with Spain in 1898 to the beginning of American participation in World War I in 1917 was a time of change and uncertainty. The U.S. Government was committed to building a world-class navy, but getting that navy would require a transformation in how it was managed, directed, financed, trained, and supported.
In 1900, the Navy recognized the need for a general staff. Navy officers wanted a modern navy—one capable of deterring or fighting other modern navies, navies equipped with the latest naval technology and directed by formally trained officers.
At the same time, civilian secretaries of the Navy were often frustrated by the fragmented naval administration. In April 1904 Navy Secretary William H. Moody told the members of the Naval Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives that the Secretary of the Navy needed a senior uniformed adviser. Though his insight would not be realized at that time, it set the stage for the advent of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
At the turn of the twentieth century, then-Secretary of the Navy John D. Long created the General Board. Unlike the temporary boards of earlier eras, the General Board was to be a permanent body for the purpose of ensuring “efficient preparation of the fleet in case of war and for the naval defense of the coast.” Although the General Board, which remained in existence until 1951, had no statutory status and was merely advisory, it did exercise considerable influence, particularly under the presidency of Admiral of the Navy George Dewey from 1900 to 1917.
Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer initiated the naval aide system in 1909. To assist him in the efficient administration of the department and improve coordination of the work of the bureaus, Meyer named four officers as aides for operations, personnel, material, and inspection.
The aide for operations was the most important assignment and was the direct forerunner of the Chief of Naval Operations. However, like the numerous boards before them and the navy commissioners of the early nineteenth century, the aides lacked executive authority. Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske, the last officer to be assigned as aide for operations was a prime mover in the establishment of a Chief of Naval Operations.
When Josephus Daniels took office as navy secretary in 1913, he inherited Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske as his aide for operations. Fiske, along with the upper officers of the Navy, realized that, while the Navy was in good condition for times of peace, it was not organized for war.
Fiske developed the basis of legislation that would establish the “Chief of Naval Operations.” He planned with Captains Harry S. Knapp, John Hood, James H. Oliver, and Lieutenant Commanders William P. Cronan, Zachariah H. Madison, and Dudley W. Knox to prepare the legislation for this position.
Two months later, a congressional enactment signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 3, 1915 provided for a Chief of Naval Operations “who shall be an officer on the active list of the Navy appointed by the President . . . from among the officers of the line of the Navy not below the grade of captain for a period of four years, who shall, under the direction of the secretary of the Navy, be charged with the operations of the fleet, and with the preparation and readiness of plans for its use in war.”
In August of the following year, Congress authorized the rank of admiral for the Chief of Naval Operations and strengthened the office by adding that “All orders issued by the Chief of Naval Operations . . . shall be considered as emanating from the Secretary, and shall have full force and effect as such.”
With the enactment of the 1915 law, with the nation soon to be embroiled in World War I, the U.S. Navy for the first time had a professional naval officer, the Chief of Naval Operations, who, under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy, had statutory authority and responsibility for war plans, preparation for combat, and operations of the fleet.