Air University Review, January-February 1977

Zumwalt, An Intellectual Admiral

Dr. Paolo E. Coletta

If there s one thing I can't stand its an intellectual admiral.


THE FIRST thought that Hashed into my mind on receiving Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt's On Watch* was that it contained the author's platform for his campaign for the U.S. Senate. In view of the election results, perhaps I was wrong. Next question: Did the author seek to immortalize himself in an autobiography highlighting his strengths and accomplishments and hiding his weaknesses and failures? Answer: Yes and no; for although he stresses his successes, he also honestly acknowledges where he failed to change "the system" either in the Navy or in the foreign policy decision-making process. What we find, then, are the memoirs of a sailor who rose to the top leadership post in the Navy and who is not afraid to name names.

*Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., USN (Ret), On Watch: A Memoir (New York: Quadrangle, 1976, $12.50), xv and 511 pages, chronology, appendixes, maps, charts, glossary, index.

The story concentrates on the years 1970-74, while the Admiral was on watch as Chief of Naval Operations. It tells how he tried to reform the Navy and bring it "up to speed" in various ways. In addition it details his relations with many agencies at the highest levels of government: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, the White House Office, the Presidency itself.

Following his graduation from the Naval Academy in 1943, Zumwalt continued his education in billets both at sea and ashore. At sea he realized that the demand for very expensive and relatively defenseless nuclear-powered surface warships emanating from the politically powerful potentate Admiral Hyman G. Rickover precluded the acquisition of less expensive yet vitally necessary ships that could exercise sea control, that is, protect America's overseas lines of communication. Second, he saw that the Navy suffered from Mickey Mouse, traditions outmoded by social change. Third, such were the defense budgets of the Nixon administration and the comparative growth of the Soviet Navy that the U.S. Navy verged on becoming second rate and thus unable to support American interests worldwide, as the Nixon Doctrine posited. Fourth, he noted that the administration would accept a secondary position in strategic arms limitations merely in order to reach an agreement with the Soviets. Last, he saw that administration decisions and the lack of correctly placed American naval power, as in the Indian Ocean, enabled the Soviets to further their interests at the expense of American objectives.

In three delightful opening chapters, Zumwalt traces the history of his World War II service in the Western Pacific; how he met the girl he then married and who bore him four children; and how he would have preferred to become a physician like both his parents yet remained in the Navy because of the Soviet threat to the United States, a threat emphasized to him by General George C. Marshall and by the lowering of America's defense posture by Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson. For three years, 196265, he learned much, as an assistant in the billet of Director of the Arms Control Division, International Security Affairs, from that great public servant, Paul H. Nitze. He acquired what he says was the equivalent of a Ph.D. in politico-military affairs that later stood him in good stead when he became Chief of Naval Operations, thus a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal naval adviser to the President. As Commander U.S. Naval Forces Vietnam, he faced not only "the fire of the enemy in the field but the indifference or even the contempt of an all too large segment of the public at home." (p. 34) He decried the massive American involvement in Vietnam because it consumed resources better used to support American interests elsewhere. Thus, he applauded the Vietnamization program and then cheered America's withdrawal. It was from what appeared to be a dead-end tour with the "brown water" (riverine) navy that he was called to be CNO-a surface sailor following nine years in that billet of naval aviators-and began his battles with such administration favorites as Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig and the redoubtable leaders of the congressional armed services and appropriations committees.

The remaining almost 500 pages of On Watch deal with high-low, or the mix of nuclear-powered and conventional ships, aircraft, and weapons the Navy should have, including a penetrating description of the political machinations of Rickover (chapters 5-6); the drive to open the Navy to minorities (not without such problems as the flareups on the Constellation, Hassayampa, and Kitty Hawk); the various Z-grams that eradicated Mickey Mouse regulations (chapters 7-10); and almost 200 pages (chapters 12-20) mostly on failure to convince the administration to adopt courses of action that would make and keep America strong in face of the Soviet threat. Extremely useful are the chronology and the appendixes, the latter of which deal with comparative U.S.-U.S.S.R. naval and mercantile capabilities.

How does Zumwalt appear in historical perspective? He is like the Perrys and Isherwoods who wanted steam-powered rather than sailing ships; like Stephen B. Luce and Alfred Thayer Mahan who would teach the meaning of sea power; and most like Bradley A. Fiske, who served as the. equivalent of CNO during the early years of Woodrow Wilson's administration and who was not listened to when he demanded that America prepare for a war he saw coming.

Specifically, how can a CNO influence administration policy? Zumwalt found that his recommendations for the kind of Navy he thought the nation should have were not generally accepted by the administration, especially by Rickover and such Congressmen as William Proxmire and Les Aspin Nor were these three much concerned about maintaining parity with the Russians. Rather they seemed to accept Kissinger's fatalistic belief that the U.S. is a decadent power and would be well-advised to grasp any agreement on the limitation of strategic arms offered by the Russians. He found that the unification of the armed forces provided for in the National Security Act of 1947 as amended still has not eradicated single service viewpoints and that the administration did not furnish him necessary information.

Zumwalt's watch, of course, occurred during the Watergate mess, when governmental matters were largely handled by either Kissinger or Haig. As CNO he found much opposition within his service when he changed the Navy's social order to match that of society as a whole. When he wanted to say unpleasant things to the administration, he was threatened by Kissinger and others that his budget would be cut or that he would be fired. Paranoia and duplicity rather than candor and honesty prevailed. He, therefore, decided not to accept the cushy job offered him as head of the Veterans Administration and, after his watch ended, to appeal to the people. He has done so, with verve and the best instincts of a patriot who knows that the United States will only be as militarily strong as the people want it to be.

While the full story cannot appear until Nixon, Rickover, Kissinger, Haig, and former Secretary of the Navy John W. Warner, among others, tell their side of it--if they ever do--On Watch remains a terrifying tale of an administration so involved in escaping from the moral morass it had created and so dependent on a Lone Ranger to decide its foreign policies that the primary rule of national life, security, was neglected.

U.S. Naval Academy


Dr. Paolo E. Coletta (PH.D., University of Missouri) is in the History Department, United States naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. He served with a Naval Reserve surface division from 1951 to 1955 and then taught strategy and tactics at Naval Reserve Officers School. His publications include a three-volume biography of W.J. Bryan, a book of essays on the foreign policies of William McKinley (editor), The Presidency of William Howard Taft, and forthcoming, The U.S. Navy and Defense Unification, 1947-1953. Dr. Coletta spent three wartime year in the Navy and retired after 30 years of Naval Reserve service.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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