Revolt of the Admirals
The Revolt of the Admirals refers to an episode where a number of retired and active duty United States Navy admirals publicly disagreed with the President and the Secretary of Defense in their emphasis on strategic nuclear bombing executed by the United States Air Force as the primary means by which the nation and its interests were defended. The episode occurred in 1949 during a series of congressional hearings in which the Congress asked Navy personnel to publicly disclose their frank opinion. In an effort to reduce military expenditures, the administration planned to markedly reduce the Navy and other service branches. The events occurred in the early post–World War II period, when the technologies of large jet aircraft and the nuclear bomb and its delivery were in a developmental stage.
Following the end of World War II, the Truman administration was concerned about the large deficit spending that had been necessary for the war effort. To reduce expenditures Truman instructed the services to draw-down their forces quickly and return to a peacetime military. The two main issues facing the services was the question of unification of the services under a single command, and the funding that each branch would have in the markedly reduced military budget. The discussion of the post-war military flowed from General of the Army George C. Marshall's call for unification of the Department of War and the Department of the Navy. Marshall believed that the services needed a unified overall command to better coordinate their activities and to minimize redundancy. He first advanced his general ideas on the subject in November 1943, and his proposals led to what became known as the "unification debates".
The Army made a proposal of command structure which would unite the U.S Army, the U.S. Navy and a soon-to-be-formed U.S. Air Force under a single Department of National Defense. The Army accepted as a foregone conclusion that the Army Air Corps/Army Air Forces would emerge as a separate service. The commanding general of the Air Corps, Henry H. Arnold, was one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, coequal with General Marshall and Admiral King. The Navy, however, was reluctant to accept these changes. The service did not want to lose its independence from the Army, and opposed both changes, arguing that what had worked well in winning the war did not need to be changed.
The generals from the Army Air Force believed that with the increased destructive power they could now apply against potential enemies, big changes in the manner in which the nation was defended were warranted. With the advent of the nuclear age, the question arose as to what need existed for conventional military forces. The Air Force generals believed that much of the forces of the other services were unnecessary and could be cut. They held that the future for national defense lay with a long-range bomber force carrying nuclear weapons. This limited and ultimately flawed view was accepted by the administration as being correct, and the meaningful existence of the other services came into jeopardy.
Said Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson:
There's no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me that 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 nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.
In this environment, each military branch believed their future depended on securing and defending a clear cut mission for themselves. However, the Truman administration saw these officers as answering to and serving the Truman administration, and believed that their attitude in public and in congressional testimony should be in support of the administration's position.
Along these lines came the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 which reorganized the military, creating a means by which the various commands were coordinated under a military establishment of three equal executive departments, the Army, Navy and Air Force. The unified command establishment was named the Department of Defense, and was created along with the National Security Council (NSC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and an independent United States Air Force. The Act left the Navy with the autonomy it had sought and the Act's passage seemed to end the debate, but soon after President Truman decided massive reductions in defense spending had to be made, and the nation's military budget was cut from $45 billion to $14.3 billion in a single year. This placed tremendous pressure on each service, and kept friction between the services at an edge. Soon, efforts were set in place by the Army and the Air Force to amend the Act.
The generals of the newly formed air force propounded a new doctrine: that strategic bombing, particularly with nuclear weapons, was the sole decisive element necessary to win any future war, and was therefore the sole means necessary to deter an adversary from launching a Pearl Harbor-like surprise attack or war against the United States. To implement this doctrine, which the air force and its supporters regarded as the highest national priority, the air force proposed that it should be funded by the Congress to build a seventy air-group fleet of U.S. based long-range strategic heavy bombers. The air force generals argued that this project should receive large amounts of funding, beginning with an upgraded B-36 Peacemaker intercontinental bomber. With four times the payload of the B-29 and twice the range, the Air Force planned to fly the B-36 on deep raids into enemy territory, using its ceiling altitude of 40,000 feet to protect it from interdiction.
The Navy disagreed. Pointing to the impact the Navy's carrier arm had on the outcome of the war in the Pacific, they argued that naval power and carrier aviation were essential to maintaining national defense. Admiral Marc Mitscher, the former commander of the Fast Carrier Task Force, was one such officer who publicly commented on the value of the US Navy in winning the war, and its value in the future defense of the nation. The Navy leadership believed that wars could not be won by strategic bombing alone, with or without the use of nuclear weapons. The Navy also held a moral objection to relying upon the widespread use of nuclear weapons to destroy the major population centers of an enemy homeland. The Navy pointed out that with the ships they hoped to build in the future naval aviation would be able to continue in its tactical role of close air support using modern aircraft, and in addition would also be able to take on the role of nuclear deterrence. The USS United States (CVA-58) was designed to handle aircraft up to 100,000 pounds, which were large enough to carry the nuclear weapons of the day. Plans for the United States-class carriers called for them carrying up to 14 heavy bombers each, with enough aviation fuel for eight bombing raids per plane. With a capability to run 112 nuclear weapon drops before resupply became necessary, the United States-class carriers would be capable of performing the nuclear deterrence mission. The admirals requested funding for the building of eight United States-class carriers over a five-year period.
Cancellation of USS United States
The first Secretary of Defense, former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, supported the Navy position and authorized construction of United States with a production run of five ships. Following the 1948 election President Truman asked Forrestal to resign. The President did not believe Forrestal had adequate control over the various services, and he appeared unwilling to command the cuts in the Navy that the president wanted.
On March 28, 1949, President Truman replaced Forrestal with Louis A. Johnson. Johnson was a political appointment. A former Assistant to the Secretary of War, he had been the primary fundraiser for Truman's campaign for the White House in 1948. Johnson had no qualms over supporting Truman's military budget reductions and accepted the Air Force's argument. The Air Force disliked the Navy's aircraft carriers, as they were an aviation asset which the Air Force could not control and which the Air Force planners considered obsolete in the age of nuclear weapons. Johnson, who was a staunch proponent of the new nuclear bomber force, consequently sought to limit as much as possible the Navy's procurement of the new large carriers to conserve funds in the markedly reduced post-war military budget.
Less than a month after taking office, and without consulting Congress, Johnson ordered cancellation of United States. This vessel was the symbol and hope for the Navy's future, and its cancellation greatly demoralized the service.  Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan and a number of high-ranking admirals resigned in protest. Johnson did not seem disturbed by the resignations. His decision to cancel United States provided him with significant economy in the military budget, while demonstrating that he was in firm control of the military and able to make difficult decisions. A few days later, Johnson announced another cost saving measure. The United States Marine Corps aviation assets would be transferred to the Air Force. This time, his decision was met with such an uproar from Congress that this plan had to be quietly dropped.
To replace Sullivan, Johnson recommended Francis P. Matthews for the position of Secretary of the Navy. A lawyer from Omaha, Nebraska, during the Second World War he had served as a director of the USO, a service organization that entertained the troops. He came to the attention of Johnson by assisting him with political fund raising for the 1948 Truman campaign. Upon being considered for the position, Matthews admitted the nearest he had come to naval experience was rowing a boat on a lake. In May 1949 Truman made the appointment.
A research group, Op-23, a naval intelligence unit formed by order of Admiral Louis E. Denfeld to advise the CNO on unification and headed by Captain Arleigh A. Burke, began gathering information to help defend the Navy's position, including material critical of the B-36's performance and capabilities. About this time an anonymous document which came to be known as the "Worth Paper" appeared. The document pointed out that prior to his posting as Secretary of Defense Johnson had been on the board of directors of Convair, the manufacturer of the B-36 bomber. It pointed out he had an apparent conflict of interest in representing the government with this manufacturer. It went on to claim that the B-36 was a "billion-dollar blunder" and alleged fraud on the part of B-36 contractors.
The situation was exacerbated by a series of articles written for the public by Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery which appeared in the The Saturday Evening Post. The final article in the series, "Don't Let Them Scuttle the Navy!", so angered Johnson that he wanted Admiral Gallery court-martialed for gross insubordination. Gallery was not made to sit before a court-martial, but he was passed over for promotion to vice admiral, and was retired from the Navy.
The debate climaxed during the House Armed Services Committee investigation into the inter-service rivalry. The first phase of the hearing was held August 9 to August 25, 1949, and focused on the allegations of fraud and corruption emanating from the "Worth Paper". The author of the "anonymous document" was determined to be Cedric R. Worth, a former Navy commander serving as a civilian assistant to Under Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball. Worth was called as a witness and testified before the House Investigating Committee. The committee found no substance to charges of improper interest relating to the roles of Johnson and Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington in aircraft procurement. At the conclusion, the committee recommended that Worth be fired. Following a naval court of inquiry, Worth was dismissed. The apparent vindication for Secretary Johnson and inappropriate work by Worth was an embarrassment to the Navy.
A second hearing convened in October focused upon the proposed reduction in the Navy and the cancellation of the USS United States project. The Army and Air Force command testified that naval aviation should be used to reinforce the Air Force, but could not be used for sustained actions against land targets. Regarding the USS United States, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg commented: "I accept the military capability of this ship as stated by the Chief of Naval Operations. My opposition to building it comes from the fact that I can see no necessity for a ship with those capabilities in any strategic plan against the one possible enemy." The new Secretary of the Navy, Francis Matthews, announced that no Navy man would be censored or penalized for the testimony he offered at the hearing. The naval officers called to testify were expected to support Secretary Matthews, but instead officer after officer arose to testify that the Air Force reliance on the B-36 was inadequate for national defense, and that the entire strategy of atomic bombing was misguided. Among the officers testifying were the naval leaders of World War II: Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, Thomas Kinkaid, Richard Conolly, Robert Carney and Captain Arleigh Burke. Captain Burke had tests run which showed the Navy was already in possession of a fighter aircraft, the McDonnell F2H Banshee, that could reach 40,000 feet and destroy a bomber, and he knew it would be unreasonable to assume that an opposing major world power would not also have such an aircraft. In that case, the B-36 would need to be accompanied with fighter escorts with the requisite range and ceiling to complete its mission, and the Air Force had no such fighter available in their inventory.
The House Armed Services Committee found a number of actions taken by the administration and by the services involved to be overstepping. It held that evaluation of the B-36's worth was the responsibility of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, and that the services jointly should not pass judgment on weapons proposed by one service. On cancellation of the supercarrier, the committee questioned the qualifications of the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff, who had testified in support of Johnson's decision, to determine vessels appropriate for the Navy. In disapproving of Johnson's "summary manner" of terminating the carrier and his failure to consult congressional committees before acting, the committee stated that "national defense is not strictly an executive department undertaking; it involves not only the Congress but the American people as a whole speaking through their Congress. The committee can in no way condone this manner of deciding public questions."
The committee expressed solid support for effective unification, but stated that "there is such a thing as seeking too much unification too fast" and observed that "there has been a navy reluctance in the inter-service marriage, an over-ardent army, a somewhat exuberant air force... It may well be stated that the committee finds no unification Puritans in the Pentagon."
After the hearings, Secretary Matthews set about punishing those officers who had testified and were still actively serving in the Navy, in defiance of his own public promise not to do so. Admiral Denfeld was first to go, fired on Navy Day, October 27, 1949. Denfeld learned of his termination through the newspapers, an oversight that Matthews stated could not be helped. He explained that he and Denfeld disagreed widely on strategic policy and unification. Matthews then had Vice admirals William H. P. Blandy and Gerald F. Bogan reassigned to Rear admiral postings, assignments below the standing of their rank. Both subsequently resigned. In December, an attempt was made by Matthews and Johnson to block the promotion of Captain Burke by lining out his name from the promotion list, but this was seen and reversed by the direct intervention of President Truman.
The House Armed Services Committee condemned the dismissal of Admiral Denfeld by Secretary Matthews, concluding that Denfeld's removal was a reprisal because of his testimony to Congress. The Committee asserted that such actions taken by the executive branch posed a challenge to effective representative government.
The Truman administration essentially won the conflict with the Navy, and civilian control over the military was reaffirmed. Military budgets following the hearings prioritized the development of Air Force heavy bomber designs, accumulating a combat ready force of over 1,000 long-range strategic bombers capable of supporting nuclear mission scenarios. These were deployed across the country and at overseas bases. The Air Force portion of the total defense budget grew, while the Navy's portion of the defense budget was reduced.
The wisdom of the Air Force position and the Truman administration's national doctrine was soon put to the test. Within six months, 25 June 1950, the Korean War broke out and the U.S. was forced to confront an invading army with the forces it had on hand. The Truman administration declined to use the nuclear arsenal, and sought to check North Korean aggression with conventional forces. As an initial response, Truman called for a naval blockade of North Korea, and was shocked to learn that such a blockade could only be imposed "on paper", since the U.S. Navy no longer had the warships with which to carry out his request. In fact, due to the extensive defense cuts and the emphasis placed on building a nuclear bomber force, none of the services were in a position to make a robust response with conventional military strength.
Shortly after the North Korean attacks began Defense Secretary Johnson made requests for an increase in defense appropriations and promised the Navy would soon get approval for a new "supercarrier" project. This did not repair the damage Johnson had done to himself with the Navy, the service that was now carrying the burden of prosecuting an overseas war with markedly limited resources. The president realized he needed a Secretary that had the confidence of all three services, and within three months of the start of the conflict Johnson was dismissed from his position as Secretary of Defense. He was replaced by George Marshall. Matthews served as Secretary of the Navy through July 1951. Following a year of the Korean conflict he resigned his position and was sent to Ireland as Ambassador. He died there a year later.
The Korean War made it clear that aircraft carriers were still a primary means of projecting force and enforcing U.S. foreign policy. The B-36 had little place in the conflict. A B-29 had been taken by the Soviets at the end of World War II when it forced-landed in Soviet territory, giving the Soviets an opportunity to study the bomber and create a countermeasure. The MiG-15 was the Soviet answer. Armed with a 37 mm cannon and two 23 mm cannons, it had the hitting power to destroy heavy aircraft. Fast, and with a ceiling of nearly 50,000 feet, it could fly above the bomber formations and then attack down through, slipping past the fighter escort. Operating out of airfields in China, its bases were not subject to the constant attention that German airfields had received when they were operating the Messerschmitt Me 262. Presence of the MiG 15 meant daylight precision bombing had to be suspended. Essential supply targets were attacked at night instead. As to the B-36, the Air Force was not willing to risk the aircraft in combat, though it did find some use as a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Plagued by frequent engine fires and high maintenance, it never played a significant role.
The Navy did get its new carriers, the first of which was the Forrestal. At 80,000 tons it was twice the size of World War II carriers. It featured an armoured flight deck large enough and sturdy enough to land the heavy, high powered aircraft of the jet age. The ship was also equipped with steam catapult launchers to assist the heavier jet aircraft in getting airborne. The flight deck was angled, allowing the new carrier to launch and recover aircraft at the same time. The design of the "supercarrier" has evolved through the Enterprise, to the Nimitz-class, to the Ford-class aircraft carriers.
Proponents of the Air Force doctrine saw the Korean War as an anomalous event, the demands of which were not relevant to dealing with the primary question of the threat of the Soviet Union. However the conflict in Korea was followed ten years later by the Vietnam War, which in turn was followed by several smaller conflicts. Ultimately Soviet aggression was never made manifest through a massive nuclear attack, but was pressed through a series of proxy conflicts. The interests of the United States extended beyond protecting the nation from a hostile invader. Though the idea of defeating an enemy by the use of overwhelming destructive force was appealing, it did not fit the reality the nation was confronted with.
As of 2014[update], the US Navy has the ten supercarriers of the Nimitz class in active service. Two Gerald R. Ford-class carriers are currently under construction, with eight more planned to follow through 2040 to replace the Nimitz-class carriers.
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