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Terms of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations

This position had its origin in an administrative reorganization ordered on 1 December 1909 by Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer.  This created four divisions within the Navy Department dealing with operations, personnel, material, and inspections.  Each division was headed by a senior officer with the title of Aide, who reported to, and advised, the Secretary.  Josephus Daniels, Secretary Meyer's successor, disliked the Aide system and allowed the positions to become vacant.  At this time Admiral George Dewey was chairman of the General Board, established by Secretary of the Navy John Long in 1900 to advise the Secretary and "to insure efficient preparation of the Fleet in case of war and for the naval defense of the coast."  The Board was of major importance in the Navy Department, and continued to play a significant role in the Navy's administration through World War II.  Dewey himself was accorded nationwide prestige as the victor of Manila Bay, and held the unique rank of Admiral of the Navy.  On Dewey's recommendation, Daniels kept Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske in office as Aide for Operations.  Fiske was a strong advocate of military command of the operations and support of the fleet, and lobbied Congress to give the operations billet statutory authority. 

On 3 March 1915 Congress passed the naval appropriation act for Fiscal Year 1916.  This provided that "...there shall be a Chief of Naval Operations, who shall be an officer on the active list of the Navy appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, 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...."  On 29 August 1916 Congress provided that the CNO should hold the four-star rank of admiral during his tour of duty. 

The earlier CNOs in the preceding list served for periods varying from two to four years.  Three of the first nine CNOs served for four years, while Admirals Leahy and Stark held office for 2.6 years.  The statutory tour of duty for a CNO remained at four years until 5 March 1948, when Congress rewrote the law to prescribe a tour "not more than four years."  Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz had stepped down as CNO after two years, and the next six CNOs were appointed to two-year terms.  Admiral Forrest Sherman died in office; Admiral Arleigh Burke was twice reappointed and confirmed, serving  for an unprecedented six years as CNO.  Several other CNOs, however, were not reappointed as a consequence of differences with various Secretaries of Defense. 

            Congress was aware of this and, on 2 May 1967, the House Armed Services Committee stated that "the Joint Chiefs of Staff system requires continuity and the assurance that an individual appointed as a member...will perform his duties...for a sufficient length of time to become familiar with his responsibilities.  Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must be free to express their independent judgments on all military matters.  They should not be unnecessarily concerned about whether or not they will be reappointed.  ...   Under the present appointment system no member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other than the Commandant of the Marine Corps [who had a statutory 4-year term], has that freedom of expression, for practical purposes, that each member...should possess.  A member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should serve long enough in his job so that he can leave his imprint upon the service he represents.  This is of particular significance in the budget process.  ...  The Congress cannot legislate wisely if members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff merely repeat back to the Congress that which they feel is agreeable to the administration in power."

On 5 June 1967 Congress provided that, as of 1 January 1969, CNO and the other members of the JCS would serve for "a term of four years," and could be reappointed for "not more than four years" in time of war or of an emergency declared by Congress.  Admiral Thomas Moorer was appointed before this legislation took effect, and stepped down after three years as CNO to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Beginning with Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, CNOs now served for a single 4-year term.  Admiral Frank Kelso left office two months before his four years were up, and Admiral Jeremy Boorda died in office after two years.  Most recently, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has nominated Admiral Vern Clark for an additional two years in pursuit of the global war on terrorism.  If he completes a full six-year term (21 July 2000 - 21 July 2006), his tour will have been 16 days longer than that of Admiral Burke (17 August 1955 - 1 August 1961).  


Albion, Robert G.  Makers of Naval Policy, 1798-1947.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980.

Cogar, William B.  Dictionary of Admirals of the U.S. Navy.  Volume 2, 1901-1918.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

Furer, RADM Julius A.  Administration of the Navy Department in World War II.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1959.

Hone, Thomas C.  Power and Change; The Administrative History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1946-1986 (Contributions to Naval History, No. 2).  Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1989.

Love, Robert W., ed.  The Chiefs of Naval Operations. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1980.

Paullin, Charles O.  Paullin's History of Naval Administration, 1775-1911; A Collection of Articles from the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1968.

Reynolds, Clark G.  Famous American Admirals.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1978.

30 October 2003

Published: Tue Sep 05 11:28:43 EDT 2023