I Am the Monarch of the Sea

The 1949 Revolt of the Admirals and Victory at Sea

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In the summer and fall of 1949, hearings of the House Armed Services Committee crackled with tension as U.S. Navy admirals went before Congress to defy their civilian leadership. America and its allies stood transfixed as a parade of famous admirals demonstrated fierce opposition to service unification, displayed hostility and contempt for the civilian leaders of the Defense Department, and condemned cuts made to the Navy budget. Unsettling headlines such as “The Navy Boils Over” and “Bradley Accuses Admirals of Open Rebellion” drifted through the nation’s newspapers for weeks.[1] Known as The Revolt of the Admirals, this episode has been described as “the most flagrant challenge ever hurled by top-ranking American military men at the civilian leadership of the United States.”[2]

It is valuable to reflect on the postwar actions of Navy leaders. In a narrow sense, it provides insights for military strategists on topics such as inter-service cooperation, military culture, and civil-military relations. But in a larger, more general sense, this is the story of an organization that sought to harden itself against the winds of change. In the years after World War II, the U.S. Navy sought to build a strategic buffer to safeguard its independence in decision-making, and it eventually took two very different approaches towards this goal.

The U.S. Navy in 1949 perceived that threats to its strategy came from a much broader array of actors than its recent wartime enemies. The Navy saw the newly-created U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership as significant threats to its strategy, its budget, and its strategic mission.[3] Between 1949 and 1952, the Navy employed two completely different strategies to exert control over its strategic environment. Its first control strategy, known as the Revolt of the Admirals, played out in newspapers and the halls of Congress and was a catastrophic failure. Three years later, its second control strategy, known as Victory at Sea played out on every television set in America. It was remarkably sophisticated and highly successful.

The triumphant end of the Pacific War made the U.S. Navy justifiably proud of its wartime record but this pride was tinged with a palpable sense of being overshadowed by the other services. Despite the achievements of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific War, it was the atomic bombs delivered by Army Air Forces bombers that grabbed headlines when the Japanese surrendered.[4] In fact, on the very day that it announced victory in the Pacific, The New York Times carried an article saying American airpower, not seapower, provided the United States with a capability “unprecedented in the history of warfare.”[5] In another blow to Navy pride—and to the annoyance of Admiral Nimitz—President Truman selected Army General Douglas MacArthur to receive the formal Japanese surrender.[6]

The Enola Gay before the mission to bomb Hiroshima. (Military.com)

The Navy’s sense of unease was compounded when the United States drastically restructured its military establishment following the war. The National Security Act of 1947 abolished the Department of War and the Department of the Navy as independent departments with independent budgets.[7] It combined the Army and the Navy—and the newly-created U.S. Air Force—into a new Department of Defense. Instead of having its own budget, the Navy now had to compete for a share of a combined defense budget, which often put it at odds with both the Army and the Air Force.

In its original incarnation, the Air Force had been the Army Air Corps. Many of the new Air Force generals had gone to West Point.[8] The Army and the Air Force might not have agreed on everything, but their leaders shared similar experiences and values. As the Cold War developed, the reputation of the Air Force grew at the expense of the Navy because it was the only service versatile enough at that point to deliver atomic bombs or sustain the Berlin Airlift. In the eyes of the Truman Administration and many members of Congress, reliance on atomic airpower was a cheaper, and more effective, alternative to maintaining massive conventional forces.[9]

Artist's conception of the U.S. Navy supercarrier USS United States by Bruno Figallo, October 1948, showing the ship's approximate planned configuration as of that time. This carrier was laid down at Newport News, Virginia (USA), on 18 April 1949 and cancelled by the Secretary of Defense a few days later. (Wikimedia)

In the post-war years, Navy leaders planned to build a fleet dominated by supercarriers. These were the centerpieces of the Navy budget; a new class of gigantic aircraft carriers more than twice as large as their World War II predecessors, capable of launching strategic bombers armed with atomic weapons.[10] Air Force generals adamantly opposed the supercarrier project. The Air Force considered strategic bombing to be a primary mission assigned to the Air Force and a secondary mission, at best, of the Navy.[11]

Army and Air Force leaders also worried supercarriers would absorb a disproportionate amount of an ever-shrinking defense budget. By 1949, the U.S defense budget had been drastically reduced and was only one-tenth the size of the 1945 defense budget. Despite this, President Truman was dissatisfied because even a defense budget of $11 billion in 1949 represented almost thirty percent of the federal budget and left little room for domestic programs.[12] As a result, Defense Secretary Louis Johnson cancelled the supercarrier program in April 1949. In taking this action, he was solidly supported by President Truman, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Omar Bradley, and the leadership of the Army and the Air Force. With the leadership of the U.S. Navy now feeling outnumbered and threatened, Johnson’s action was the precipitating event for the Revolt of the Admirals.


In the wake of Secretary Johnson’s decision, Navy admirals literally veered out of civilian control. In documents that were written and surreptitiously given to the press by Navy personnel, Secretary Johnson and Air Force leaders were accused of corruption and malfeasance. In the congressional hearings that followed, top Navy admirals including the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Louis Denfeld, repeatedly accused their civilian leadership and the other Joint Chiefs of making uninformed decisions on national security and being “ignorant of the true nature of seapower.”[13]

The Navy emerged from these hearings with its image badly damaged by military and political broadsides. In a widely reported statement before Congress, General Omar Bradley called the Navy performance “utterly disgraceful” and flatly asserted that “on numerous occasions naval leaders had deliberately made false accusations against Louis Johnson and the Joint Chiefs simply because they did not get their way.”[14] In the end, the House Armed Services Committee concluded the Navy accusations had no merit. Admiral Denfeld was quickly fired and several other admirals were forced into retirement. The Revolt of the Admirals was over.

Learning from the Revolt of the Admirals

An attempt to buffer itself from civilians and the other services was at the bottom of the Revolt of the Admirals, because the Navy wanted decisions about its strategy, force structure, and budget to be made by admirals. Of course, one unfortunate and inevitable consequence of this mindset was the rejection of civilian control.

In the wake of their failure in 1949, the Navy embarked on a different buffering strategy: this one focused on enhancing its prestige in the eyes of the American people. The results of this initiative blazed on every television set in America in 1952 and was titled Victory at Sea. The series was conceived by a research assistant to Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and Navy admiral who wrote a fifteen-volume history of U.S. Navy operations in World War II. Victory at Sea turned out to be a highly acclaimed, twenty-six-episode television series that won virtually every award available, including an Emmy. Even the evocative soundtrack, composed by Richard Rodgers of Broadway musical fame, became a best-selling album for RCA Records. Critics raved that it was “television’s most prodigious achievement” and, forty years later, it was shown in its entirety on Public Broadcasting Service to commemorate World War II.[15]

Victory at Sea is a series about World War II unprecedented in its scope and unmatched in its impact. Yet, it is not really a history of the war. Watching the series leaves viewers with two conclusions: first, that World War II was primarily a naval war, and second, that the U.S. Navy won the war. Episode 25, “Suicide for Glory,” reporting on the Battle of Okinawa and the conduct of the Japanese in the wider war from the Navy’s perspective, is a representative case in point.

Lieutenant Simon Bolivar Buckner was killed during the Battle of Okinawa. (Wikimedia)
If we look at history, the Battle of Okinawa was a titanic struggle for the island of Okinawa. The American invasion of Okinawa was similar in size and complexity to the D-Day invasion. A garrison of more than 100,000 disciplined, courageous and heavily fortified Japanese resisted the American invasion force almost to the last man. Across eighty-three days of unrelenting combat—fighting so intense that the three-star American general commanding the invasion was killed—the Americans struggled to seize the island.[16] American leaders, shocked by the carnage over an island that was more than one thousand miles from Tokyo, began to dread the consequences of invading the home islands of Japan itself.

If we look at Victory at Sea, however, we see a very different event. In the episode, “Suicide for Glory,” the Battle of Okinawa is portrayed as a titanic struggle for the waters surrounding the island. During the twenty-six-minute episode, less than one minute is devoted to the fighting on the island itself. The balance of the episode is singularly focused on the U.S. Navy fleet as it defended itself against the relentless Japanese kamikaze attacks that occurred during the Okinawa campaign.

Conclusion

There are lessons to be learned from the Revolt of the Admirals. We learn that organizational change is hard and it is especially hard when it threatens one’s professional identity. We learn that organizations that are set adrift in a sea of uncertainty and complexity will go to great lengths to assert a degree of control in order to protect their interests. In this case, the Navy concluded that the creation of the Air Force and the establishment of the Department of Defense had the potential to threaten Navy interests. The Navy’s first reaction was to aggressively assert the autonomy of Navy admirals. When this failed, the Navy turned to the more benign tactic of building a shield of popular support.

This episode is relevant today. The Revolt of the Admirals was a reaction to a perceived threat to Navy funding and missions. The Trump Administration now seeks to create yet another military service—the U.S. Space Force. In an era of declining defense budgets and falling enlistment rates, a Space Force will be seen as a threat to the resources of the existing military services. There are lessons to be learned by reflecting on what happened the last time America traveled down this road.


Dr. Mike Hennelly served in the U.S. Army for twenty-one years, taught at West Point for twelve years, and now provides seminars on strategic leadership to executives from some of the world’s largest companies.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] The first headline appeared in the 5 October 1949 issue of the New York Times and the second headline appeared in the 20 October 1949 issue of the New York Times.

[2] McFarland, Keith D. and Roll, David L., 2005. Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. P. 168.

[3] Meilinger, Phillip S. 1989. “The Admirals Revolt of 1949: Lessons for Today.” Parameters, Carlisle: U.S. Army War College, September, 1989, p. 82.

[4] See Freedman, Lawrence, 1986. “The First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists” in Makers of Modern Strategy (ed. Peter Paret) Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 736.

[5] Lawrence, W.H., “Air Might Clinched the Battle of Japan” New York Times, 15 August 1945, p.11.

[6] Potter, E.B., 1976. Nimitz. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, p. 473.

[7] Both the Senate vote (July 9, 1947) and the House vote (July 25, 1947) were voice votes, which are only used when support is considered overwhelming. This is especially interesting when we consider that it was a Republican Congress that, in many ways, was antagonistic to Truman (i.e. the Senate override of the Truman veto of Taft-Harley in June of 1947).

[8] In fact, the first three Air Force Chiefs of Staff, Generals Spaatz, Vandenberg, and Twining were all graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

[9] McFarland & Roll. p.173

[10] Barlow, Jeffrey G., 2001. Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945-1950. Washington, DC; Government Reprints Press, 131-145.

[11] Ibid., 121-130.

[12] See “U.S. Military Spending, 1945-1996” compiled by Center for Defense Information, July 1996 and President Truman’s “Annual Budget Message to Congress, fiscal year 1949” located on presidency.ucsb.edu.

[13] See “Strategic Bombing is Ruthless, Futile, Admiral Declares,” New York Times, 12 October 1949, p.35 and “Denfeld Sees Navy Gravely Imperiled by Chiefs” New York Times, 14 October 1949, p.1

[14] McFarland and Roll, p. 184.

[15] For extended discussion of Victory at Sea, see: Rollins, Peter C. 2001. “Victory at Sea: Cold War Epic” in Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age. (eds. Gary R. Edgerton, Peter C. Rollins), Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.

[16] “Battle of Okinawa.” History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-okinawa



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