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That time the admirals revolted in front of Congress because SecDef took their carriers


President Truman (second from left) sharing a laugh with Secretary of Defense Johnson (far right) (Photo: DoD Archives)

In the years immediately following World War II, based on the idea that the war was over and the world was a more peaceful place, Capitol Hill and the White House were putting pressure on the Pentagon by reducing the defense budget. President Truman believed the military could cut costs by taking redundant efforts across all the branches and combining them into unified commands. The most radical of these ideas was taking the Department of War and the Department of the Navy and placing them under a new command known as the Department of National Defense.

The Army had actually teed up the idea of the Department of National Defense, yielding to the fact that they were about to lose the Army Air Corps, which was morphing into the U.S. Air Force, a branch of its own. The Navy fought the notion of the Air Force having service branch status, pointing to the fact that they'd just won a world war and everything was just fine as it was. The Navy had no desire to be anything other than completely independent from the Army, and the idea of a new branch with cognizance over air power made the admirals paranoid that they'd lose control of their sea-based air power in time.

But military technology was changing fast, particularly that designed to conduct nuclear warfare, and Air Force leaders actively socialized an agenda that conventional assets -- like aircraft carriers and other surface combatants -- were increasingly irrelevant on the battlefields of the future.

For its part, the Navy's 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's signature platform for sea service relevance in wars to come was the USS United States (CVA 58), a new generation of aircraft carrier that could launch airplanes that weighed as much as 100,000 pounds, the kind that would be able to carry the nuclear payloads of the day.

The Navy had an ally in the form of the first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who had previously been Secretary of the Navy. He authorized production of the United States class of carriers with a run of five ships. But when Truman got elected in 1948 he immediately replaced Forrestal with Louis Johnson, who had previously been an assistant secretary of War and, more importantly, perhaps, had been a major fundraiser for the Truman campaign. 

Johnson did little to calm the ever-growing inter-service rivalries when he said this:

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.

Johnson canceled the construction of the United States class of carriers without any warning to the Navy or Congress. The blow to the morale of the Navy was substantial. The Secretary of the Navy, John Sullivan, and several high-ranking admirals resigned in protest. A few days later, Johnson shocked another branch of the military by announcing that Marine Corps aviation assets would be transferred to the brand-new U.S. Air Force. (The Marines flexed their own congressional muscles, and the measure was quietly reversed.)

Johnson continued to provoke the Navy, replacing Sullivan as SecNav with former USO director and fellow Truman fundraiser Francis P. Matthews, who admitted the closest thing he had to maritime experience was "rowing a boat on a lake."

One Navy leader took to the press. Rear Admiral Daniel Gallery wrote a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post, a popular weekly magazine, the last of which was titled "Don't Let Them Scuttle the Navy!" That article angered Johnson to the point he called for a court-martial for Gallery on the grounds of gross insubordination. The court-martial never happened, but Gallery was passed over for another star and retired.

B-36 on the ramp. (Photo: USAF archives)

Meanwhile, Congress decided they had had enough of the inter-service bickering. The House Armed Services Committee held hearings in an attempt to get to the bottom of the tension, but the lawmakers' attempt to settle the feud threatened to make it worse. During the hearings, the Navy admirals gathered accused Secretary of Defense Johnson of favoring the Air Force's procurement of the B-36 bomber over the new aircraft carriers because he had previously been on the board of directors of Convair, the manufacturer of the B-36.

The previously anonymous author of the original paper accusing Johnson of a conflict of interest was called to testify. That author, Cedric Worth, a retired commander and a staffer to an undersecretary of the Navy, provided uncompelling testimony against Johson and was ultimately fired from his position, which further embarrassed the Navy.

A second set of hearings focused on the cancellation of the United States class of aircraft carriers. The Army and Air Force commanders testified that naval aviation should be used to reinforce the Air Force, but could not be used for sustained actions against land targets.

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, they all testified that the Air Force reliance on the B-36 was inadequate and that the entire strategy of atomic bombing was misguided. The Navy leaders who came before the committee were basically a World War II all-star team: King, Halsey, Nimitz, and Spruance, along with a captain named Arleigh Burke, later the father of undersea ballistic missiles and other Navy-based nuclear deterrent capabilities.

Burke testified that the Navy had done successful tests that showed their F2H Banshee bomber could launch off of an aircraft carrier, reach 40,000 feet and destroy a bomber. He also assumed the Soviet Union had such an airplane, and therefore U.S. Air Force bombers like the B-36 would need Navy fighter escort since they didn't have an airplane that could perform like that.

The congressional committee disapproved of Johnson's "summary manner" of terminating the United States 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 Truman's plan for budget reduction by 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."

The Navy icons from World War II were bulletproof with respect to the ire of Secretary of the Navy Matthews, but some of the lower ranking admirals paid for their candid testimony with their careers. Matthews attempted to block the promotion of Burke, but his reputation as a fast-track innovator had made it all the way to the White House, and Truman himself stepped in and put him back on the list.

In spite of the keen inter-service rivalry at the time, the arguments were ultimately settled by history. The Soviet threat underwrote the funding of the Air Force's nuclear arsenal along with the requisite platforms to deliver it. At the same time, the Korean War demonstrated that the threat to the United States was not singular, as some Air Force leaders had asserted, and that carrier air power was still an important part of America's defense capability. The Navy moved on to the Forrestal class, the first line of supercarriers, and since that time the first question every Secretary of Defense has asked during a time of crisis is, "Where are the aircraft carriers?"

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