The Near Death of the US Navy

Source: Wikipedia

The Navy reached a peak in 1945, but a series of events led to a near insurrection called Revolt of the Admirals.

In August 1945, the United States Navy was indisputably the strongest navy afloat. Having just defeated the twin threats of Nazi Germany, with its dreaded U-Boats, and the surface fleet of Imperial Japan, the Navy was arguably also the premier branch of the US military. In those heady days, the challenges the Navy would experience would have been unimaginable. Yet, these were not challenges posed by a new threat, such as the Soviet navy. Rather, the enemy from not only within the US, but within the military establishment itself.

This enemy almost succeeded in doing what the Japanese and Germans had failed to do, destroy the Navy's ability to wage warfare. This organization was, of course, the newly formed US Air Force. Their battles were not in the air or in the surf, but in the committee rooms of Congress and in the halls of the Whitehouse. But these battles were no less important or dangerous because, as one Army office cheekily put it at the time, as an enemy, "Russias come and go. But the Navy is forever."

Military Reforms Go Astray

Following World War II Harry Truman attempted to reform the US military system to incorporate the lessons of the 1930s and early-1940s. This reform, which culminated in the 1947 National Security Act, established the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. It also emancipated the Air Force from the US Army and established it as a separate, co-equal branch of the military.

At the same time, the military was experiencing the twin horrors of demobilization, where millions of experienced drafted soldiers were discharged from service, and of a suddenly fiscally conservative Congress. This Congress was already deeply suspicious of the military establishment it had just created and was fixated on the idea of obtaining the most amount of “security” possible for the least amount of money.

B-36 Peacekeeper next to her predacessor, the B-29. Source: Wikipedia
B-36 Peacekeeper next to her predacessor, the B-29. Source: Wikipedia

Naturally, each service had its own thoughts on the matter. Here, the Army was quickly silenced as too large, too expensive, and too land bound to be any use. This decision would look quite different after June 1950 when Northern tanks crossed the border in South Korea. Between the other two institutions, the Navy naturally advocated for a stronger surface fleet. Recognizing the massive changes ushered in by World War II, the Navy was increasingly interested in new carriers and especially larger carriers capable of launching and recovering jet fighters.

Its leading design was the USS United States, a supercarrier larger and more advanced than any other warship ever built. In 1948 the Navy allocated the funds for five such carriers, and work began on laying the United States' keel. In 1948 the Air Force was also allocated money for its own vision of the future, the B-36 bomber. Bigger, faster, and better than any other bomber, the B-36 was designed to penetrate enemy air defenses at high altitude and accurately drop atomic weapons on enemy targets. It represented a future vision of warfare based on strategic bombing and atomic warfare.

1948 was also an election year, and one might expect, the Congressmen elected that year were even more fiscally conservative than those who had come before them. They saw in these two programs as a wasteful duplication of resources and efforts. Determined to cut one of the two programs, Congressmen were generally swayed by the Air Force's argument that strategic atomic bombing was the future of warfare and that to accomplish this mission the Air Force needed high tech bombers and more deliverable bombs. They persuaded Congress, in 1949, to cancel the United States project and reallocate that money to the B-36 program. Even worse, at nearly the same time famed Army general Omar Bradley proposed a plan to unify the disparate branches into one unified fighting organization. Under this plan, the existing bureaucracy, then dominated by the Army and the Air Force, would take over running all the branches of the military. Critically, as the first stage in this plan, the Navy's aircraft would be transferred from to the Air Force, relegating the Navy's carriers to simple taxis for Air Force missions. While this proposal ultimately failed to gain much traction, the only service pleased by it was the Air Force, at the time the Navy saw it as a grave threat to their independence and existence.

Unification and Strategy

Victor H. Krulak. Source: Wikipedia
Victor H. Krulak. Source: Wikipedia

Many in the Navy learned two things from these events. The first was that the other services were willing to destroy the Navy to enlarge their own budgets. And the second was that the Navy had failed miserably in waging its own PR battle on Capitol Hill. In response to the second, Captain Arleigh Burke established OP-23, an intelligence unit aimed at evening the score between the Air Force and the Navy. Headed up by World War II veteran Victor Krulak, OP-23 spent much 1949 engaged in covert operations across Washington. While records are sparse on the details of its operations, which included break-ins, wiretaps, and opposition research, OP-23 was key in providing anonymous documents to Navy brass containing insider information on Air Force and Department of Defense officials. This information was then leaked to newspapers and leading Congressmen, who complained about corruption in the Air Force, kickbacks provided by contractors, and technical faults with the B-36.

By August 1949, these stories led to a series of Congressional hearings on Unification and Strategy. In reality, these hearings were to sort out Navy complaints against the B-36 program and the cancellation of the United States program. To seal its point, the Navy hoped to call on many of its venerated  World War II veterans, including Chester Nimitz, Ernst King, William 'Bull' Halsey, and OP-23's organizer, Arleigh Burke. To head this testimony off, and to support its generally pro-Air Force position, Truman ordered the Admirals not to testify in front of Congress. When word of this leaked to the press, Truman was forced to publically deny any such order and his Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson declared the hearings open to any of the brass who wished to testify. However, the message from the Commander-in-Chief was clear; the administration's policy was in favor of strategic bombing and unification.

Revolt of the Admirals

Their testimony would be remembered as the “Revolt of the Admirals.” One by one the biggest names in the US Navy came before Congress. They pleaded the Navy's case, begged for funds to restart the United States program, and viciously attacked both the Air Force and the President. These hearings did much to tar the credibility of the B-36 program, but in the days after Hiroshima, the Berlin Blockade, and the victory of the Chinese Communists, the Navy's antics were publically seen as narrow-minded, provincial, and contrary to the Nation's best interests. Instead of building support for the Navy, the hearings were seen as a circus with Navy's top minds as ringmaster. Worse yet, Secretary Johnson would see to it that those who had defied his and the President's orders would be punished.

While the heroes of  World War II were immune to such retaliation, many of the junior admirals and officers had their careers cut short, lost prized position, and were generally sidelined in the future. And for all this, the Navy won nothing. The United States program remained dead and while the flaws of the B-36 were exposed publically, the program continued through the 1950s. Unification too was ultimately a dead issue as neither the Navy nor the Army had much of an interest in ceding more authority to the overbearing Air Force. Thus, in many ways, Truman “won” the battle on Capitol Hill.

But the Revolt of the Admirals loomed large in the mind of Navy Admirals for much of the rest of the Cold War. They analyzed the failures and worked tirelessly to build support for their programs with the American people and Congress. Furthermore, they learned that high technology, sleek silver-skinned weapons, and atomic power would dominate Cold War politics. The solution to their problems was not to thwart the progress of the Air Force and atomic warfare, but to demonstrate how the Navy could best accomplish a similar task. The Revolt of the Admirals also offers an interesting, and perhaps disturbing examination of the relationship between the military and the civilian government. The Admirals, all experts in their field, felt that civilian leaders were not sensitive enough to their needs. As a result, they used subterfuge and covert operations to override the decisions of popularly elected politicians. For this, the Navy seemed to be slated for the garbage pile. But the unique demands of the Korean War would give the Navy new life, and provide it the justification it needed to stay relevant in the Atomic Age.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.