Georgia Democratic congressman Carl Vinson supported the Navy and the rest of the armed forces from the House of Representatives from 1914 to 1965. On the road to World War II, he pushed through the legislation that turned the U.S. Navy from a small, neglected force into a behemoth capable of fighting in two oceans at once.
Vinson took office in late 1914 and was named to the House Naval Affairs Committee soon after. He served there throughout World War I and became friendly with then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Rep. Carl Vinson as a young Democrat from Georgia. (Photo: Library of Congress)
After the end of World War I, a number of treaties sought to limit the size of navies maintained by the major powers. The U.S. was a signatory to these agreements and Vinson didn’t seek to outgrow them.
But when American naval might shrank too far below the treaty limits, he fought hard to grow it to its maximum allowed size.
He struggled for years against three presidents — including Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover — before being reunited with Roosevelt. When Roosevelt rose to the presidency, Vinson co-authored the Vinson-Trammell Act which passed in 1934 and allowed the Navy to grow to its fully allotted size.
Vinson spent the next few years continuing to advocate for increased air power, especially in the Navy. When the “war in Europe” showed signs of becoming a second World War, Vinson pushed for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold R. Stark to speak in front of the Naval Affairs Committee.
Stark called for 200 new combatant ships and 20 auxiliaries. The plan had been put together by Vinson and Stark and, luckily for those two, news of France’s surrender to Germany had reached American newspapers that very morning.
Congress, galvanized by the fall of France, pushed the bill through both houses and Roosevelt signed the “Two-Ocean Navy Bill” barely a month after Vinson had put it in front of the committee.
This allowed the U.S. Navy just over a year to prepare for World War II before it was hit at Pearl Harbor. The shipyards that churned out battleships, carriers and other vessels to attack the Japanese and defend against the Germans were stood up and manned before the war with ship orders that Vinson had lobbied for.
After the Axis surrender, Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz was asked what factors allowed America to win World War II. He replied, “I do not know where this country would have been after December 7, 1941, if it had not had the ships and the know-how to build more ships fast, for which one Vinson bill after another was responsible.”
Adm. William D. Leahy wrote in his book, I Was There, “In my opinion, the Georgia representative had, in the past decade, contributed more to the national defense than any other single person in the country except the president himself.”
At Vinson’s 90th birthday party, President Richard Nixon told the crowd, “As you know, we have just begun to develop nuclear carriers. The first one was named the Eisenhower, the second one was named the Nimitz, the great naval commander of World War II. The third is just beginning, and it will be named the Carl Vinson.”
Vinson was also honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Special Distinction, awarded by President Lyndon Johnson.
Vinson died in 1981, but the USS Carl Vinson still sails the waves. It is most often called to patrol the Pacific.