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

20 March 2023

James Forrestal swearing in ceremony

James Forrestal is sworn in as the first Secretary of Defense by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson in the office of the Secretary of the Navy, 17 September 1947. Also present are (left to right): unidentified; Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall; General Dwight D. Eisenhower; Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan; Fleet Admiral C.W. Nimitz; Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington; and General Carl Spaatz (80-G-704442).


Download a PDF of H-Gram 078 (4 MB).

This H-gram discusses the 1949 “Revolt of the Admirals” and provides background information for the renaming decisions for USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) to USS Robert Smalls and USNS Maury (T-AGS 66) to USNS Marie Tharp

80th Anniversary of World War II 

A historic “something to think about”: By the end of October 1942, after 11 months of war, the U.S. Navy had lost four fleet carriers and the Japanese had lost four fleet carriers. Each side had one carrier undergoing extensive battle-damage repair, and each side had one fleet carrier operating in significantly degraded mode (Zuikaku due to loss of so many aircraft at the Battle of Santa Cruz and USS Enterprise [CV-6] from damage in the same battle). By the end of 1943, the Japanese had yet to replace any of their carrier losses, while the United States had seven Essex-class fleet carriers and nine Independence-class light carriers (built on light cruiser hulls). All of the new carriers had been authorized and funded, and all but one Essex and five Independence hulls were laid down before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in anticipation of war. (Moreover, all 10 new fast battleships plus 4 heavy cruisers and 20 light cruisers were laid down before the war started.) Had it not been for this foresight of Democrat Congressman Carl Vinson (the “father of the two-ocean Navy") and the Roosevelt administration, it would have been early 1945 before the much greater industrial capacity of the United States would have made a difference against the Japanese. 

"The Revolt of the Admirals" 

At the recent Navy Flag Officer and Senior Executive Service (NFOSES) symposium, reference was made in one presentation to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” I thought I would save you some reading time (although David Halberstam’s book The Coldest Winter is worth a read). 

For the U.S. Navy, 1949 was a really bad year. On 22 May, the recently fired Secretary of Defense (and previous Secretary of the Navy) James V. Forrestal committed suicide at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Two days later, the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, resigned in protest over the arbitrary cancellation by the new Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, of the supercarrier USS United States (CVA-58) after the ship had been laid down (Johnson gave no notice to the Navy or Congress). The new Secretary of the Navy was Francis P. “Rowboat” Matthews, whose “military” experience consisted of being the 8th Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and, by his own admission, once having rowed a boat (hence the pejorative nickname). There followed a series of incredibly contentious congressional hearings on service roles and missions, in which Navy admirals publicly defied the guidance of Johnson (who was blatantly partisan in favor of the newly independent U.S. Air Force) and Matthews. The Navy lost the public relations battle to the Air Force, CNO Admiral Louis Denfeld was fired, and a number of other Navy flag officers and captains had their careers prematurely ended. 

The root of evil was, unsurprisingly, the budget, compounded by radical ideas for unification and termination of missions pushed by mostly the Air Force, but also by the U.S. Army. By 1949, the entire U.S. defense establishment, but especially the Navy, was reeling under the effects of draconian post–World War II budget cuts by the Truman administration. The Navy budget went from $24 billion in 1946 to $4.6 billion in 1947, and to $3.7 billion in 1948 and 1949 (equivalent to about $33 billion today). This resulted in all but one battleship and all but about five aircraft carriers going into mothballs. Roles-and-missions arguments being vigorously pursued by other services included complete elimination of the Marine Corps and control of all air assets by the Air Force (who saw no need for aircraft carriers or naval aviation, since strategic bombers with atomic weapons would be all that was required). 

As the last Secretary of the Navy to hold cabinet rank, and the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal was able to keep some of the most radical proposals at bay, but fought a gradually losing battle against the budget cuts sought by President Truman. The fight eventually cost Forrestal his sanity, literally. A muckraking journalist “outed” Forrestal’s discussions with the campaign of Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey (widely expected to win the 1948 presidential election) to continue as SECDEF in a Dewey administration. After Truman unexpectedly won reelection, he asked Forrestal to resign. 

Forrestal’s replacement, Louis Johnson, gained the job of Secretary of Defense by virtue of being Truman’s chief campaign fund-raiser. Politically ambitious, Johnson viewed even more drastic cuts to the defense budget as his own ticket to the presidency. He bought the Air Force argument that strategic bombers—by themselves—could win any future wars faster and at far less expense than the other services.

Johnson’s attitude can be summed up by this quote: “The Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley [then Chairman of the JCS] tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.” He meant it—and showed it by one of his first actions, which canceled the carrier United States in favor of the Air Force’s B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber program. 

Viewing the coming budget battle as existential in nature, an office in OPNAV (OP-23), headed by then-Captain Arleigh Burke, was tasked with digging up as much information to oppose the B-36 program as well as further service unification efforts. Although not officially part of the OP-23 effort, a Navy officer prepared what become known as the “Anonymous Letter” that, based on rumor, accused Secretary Johnson and the Secretary of the Air Force of corrupt conflicts of interest related to the B-36 program. When it became public, the letter backfired badly on the Navy. The result was a series of hearings, led by Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Carl Vinson (who was sympathetic to the Navy) that devolved into arguably the most ugly spectacle of inter-service “rivalry” in U.S. history—and the Navy lost. 

The American public (and their representatives) were largely swayed by the Air Force’s public relations campaign for waging strategic nuclear warfare on the cheap—a strategy that the VCNO, Admiral Arthur Radford, called “morally reprehensible” in public testimony. The parade of active duty and retired admirals (including King, Nimitz, and Halsey) were viewed as recalcitrant, interested only in protecting Navy equities, while defying the concept of civilian control of the military. This was deemed by the press as the “Revolt of the Admirals.”

In the end, CNO Denfeld publicly testified in support of the admirals’ opposition to the Truman budget, in defiance of Secretary Matthew’s direction. As a result, on 27 October 1949, Matthews fired Denfeld, an action that Vinson said was purely vindictive. Matthews replaced Denfeld with Admiral Forrest Sherman, the youngest-ever CNO at the time (who died in office of a heart attack in 1951), who immediately disbanded OP-23. Other senior admirals then retired early. 

As all this was going on, China fell to the Communists and the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. And then, in June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, launching a war in which aircraft carriers played a key role and the B-36 absolutely none. History showed that Johnson and Matthews (and the Air Force) were wrong. Two Navy officers who somewhat amazingly survived the fallout were Arthur Radford, who became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Arleigh Burke, who became CNO, both in the Eisenhower administration. 

The “Revolt of the Admirals” is an extreme case study in tension that exists to this day in civil-military relations. It is viewed by some as disloyalty to the concept of civilian control of the military, in that the admirals publicly voiced opposition to the President’s budget and policies (that they truly believed were not in the best interest in the nation). At the same time, Congress (a co-equal branch of government) demanded forthright and honest testimony from the admirals. So, damned if they did, damned if they didn’t, but the admirals chose honesty. 

For more, please see the attached paper (H-078-1) by NHHC historian Peter Luebke, PhD. 

USS Chancellorsville to USS Robert Smalls

Text of the “5030” directive signed 10 February by Secretary of the Navy Del Toro and announced 28 February 2023:

USS ROBERT SMALLS “honors Robert Smalls (1839–1915), a skilled Sailor and statesman born into slavery in South Carolina. An expert navigator of southern coasts, Smalls was conscripted in 1862 to serve as a pilot of the Confederate steamer PLANTER at Charleston. On 13 May 1862, he executed a daring escape out of the heavily fortified Charleston harbor with his family, other enslaved people, and valuable military cargo aboard, and successfully surrendered PLANTER to the U.S. Navy. Smalls continued as pilot of the ship, but also piloted ironclad KEOKUK and other vessels. He ultimately became captain of PLANTER. An ardent advocate for African Americans, Smalls led one of the first boycotts of segregated transportation in 1864. This movement led to the city of Philadelphia integrating street cars in 1867. After the Civil War, Smalls was appointed a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia, and from 1868–1874 he served in the South Carolina legislature. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for five terms, advocating for greater integration. After his time in Congress, Smalls was twice appointed collector of the Port of Beaufort, South Carolina. He died at Beaufort in 1915.

For more detail and the rationale on the renaming of USS Chancellorsville, please see attachment H-078-2

USNS Maury to USNS Marie Tharp

Text of the “5030” directive signed 10 February by Secretary Del Toro and announced 8 March 2023:

Marie Tharp (1920–2006) was a pioneering geologist and oceanographic cartographer who created the first scientific maps of the Atlantic Ocean floor and shaped our understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift. Between 1946 and 1952, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s research vessel ATLANTIS used sonar to obtain depth measurements of the North Atlantic Ocean, which Tharp, in collaboration with her colleague, Bruce C. Heezen (namesake of T-AGS 64) used to create highly detailed seafloor profiles and maps. While examining these profiles, Tharp noticed a cleft in the ocean floor that she deduced to be a rift valley that ran along the ridge crest and continued along the length of its axis, evidence of continental drift. At the time, the consensus of the U.S. scientific community held continental drift to be impossible, but later examination bore out Tharp’s hypothesis. Her work thus proved instrumental to the development of Plate Tectonic Theory, a revolutionary idea in the field of geology at the time. Owing to this and other innovative mapping efforts (some of which the Navy funded), the National Geographic Society awarded Tharp and Heezen (posthumously) its highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, placing them among the ranks of other pioneering researchers and explorers such as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Charles Lindbergh, and Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd.

For more background and the rationale for renaming USNS Maury, please see attachment H-078-2.

As always, you are welcome to share H-grams as desired. Previous H-grams may be found here.

Published: Wed Apr 19 16:44:20 EDT 2023