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Book review of Adm. Zumwalt's "The Man Who Modernized the Navy"

Seth Cropsey

In his life of Alexander the Great, Plutarch reminds his readers that he is as interested in character as he is in history. “The most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men,” he notes. “Sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations.” The lives of the famous, he shows, can provide lessons in prudence, as in the case of the Athenian naval hero Themistocles, or in consuming greed, as in the case of the Roman general Crassus.

Larry Berman’s “Zumwalt” parallels Plutarch’s theme, offering a chronicle of the life of Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt (1920-2000), whose naval career extended from World War II to the Vietnam War, culminating in his appointment as chief of naval operations in the early 1970s. Along the way, Mr. Berman draws the character portrait of a man who embodied the virtues of honorable leadership—and who, throughout his career, sought to nurture those virtues within the sometimes blinkered and hidebound structures of the American military.

Zumwalt began his career as a junior naval officer in mid-1943 and witnessed the Battle of Savo Island, in which the U.S. and Australia suffered heavy losses as the campaign to keep Guadalcanal from falling to Japan got under way. A year later, as an officer at Combat Information Center and an evaluator aboard the destroyer USS Robinson, Zumwalt was awarded a Bronze Star for his courage and leadership during the Battle of Surigao Strait, where the Japanese navy attempted unsuccessfully to concentrate its forces and became vulnerable to a trap set by the U.S. Navy.

After the war, Zumwalt commanded a destroyer escort, a destroyer and the Navy’s first guided-missile frigate. Following a year as a student at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., he was ordered to the Bureau of Naval Personnel—not usually considered part of an officer’s path to greater things. Yet he transformed the Navy’s noncommissioned officer assignment system, ending the disproportionate time at sea required of NCOs whose particular skills were in demand aboard the Navy’s ships.

Several years later Zumwalt was—this time at his own request—assigned again to the personnel bureau. He saw how African-American surface-warfare officers were routinely sent to dead-end jobs that virtually ended any serious prospect of promotion. He found this career-thwarting system repellent and worked against it. Similarly, he struggled to reverse the Navy’s reluctance to pay its doctors at a salary level commensurate with their civilian counterparts, a practice rooted in line officers’ notion that doctors’ lack of sea duty should be reflected in their pay.

Like many other sailors, Zumwalt saw the stifling results of overgrown staffs, encrusted with layers of paper-shufflers who got in the way of efficiency and decisive action. He was in no position to address this problem systemically but did quite well as a commander of a number of destroyer groups and as an “action officer” in the personnel bureau, learning which staff members mattered and which didn’t. The distinction is as important today as when Zumwalt observed, when he was helping implement medical-care programs for personnel and their families, that he had to find “someone who is a doer.”

After being promoted to rear admiral in 1965, Zumwalt commanded a cruiser-destroyer flotilla and rose quickly to become the youngest vice admiral in the Navy’s history and commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam. Upon arrival in Saigon in 1968, Zumwalt found a staff that, for the most part, required serious improvement if it was to serve the more aggressive policy of America’s new military commander in Vietnam, Gen. Creighton Abrams.

Zumwalt discovered—in the Navy, as in the other services, during the Vietnam War, as in other conflicts—that active-minded, energetic, savvy commanders are in constant friction with officers who have long since decided that the best course to further promotion is to avoid risk and keep their heads down. Then, as now, a surfeit of senior officers who have labored carefully to reach the military’s top ranks is both a discouragement to energetic junior officers and often stultifying proof that the rewards for caution far outweigh the benefits of risk.

In Vietnam, Zumwalt changed his staff by bringing in the hard-chargers he preferred. Even more important, he set about changing the Navy’s participation in the war: It would now emphasize irregular warfare conducted by small boats and often special-operations forces, operating within Vietnam’s vast system of rivers and canals. Instead of search-and-destroy missions that the enemy exploited by returning to the territory they had previously lost, the strategy became one of going after the Viet Cong, defeating them and then holding the territory from which they had been driven. Zumwalt was joined in this effort by Army Col. H.R. McMaster, who used the same tactics, as a general, 35 years later during the Iraq war.

The lessons of Zumwalt’s Vietnam tour, as Mr. Berman shows, echo constantly in the present day, when America is fighting new foreign wars and hoping to transfer military power to local troops. Early in his Vietnam service, Zumwalt participated in a staff meeting with the other major commanders of U.S. forces. Abrams found the Air Force’s eight-year plan for turning over combat and logistic responsibility to South Vietnam’s air force unrealistic and oblivious of U.S. domestic politics. He gave the Air Force briefers a hard time. Zumwalt described a much quicker plan that included enlarging Vietnam’s navy and handing over the U.S. brown-water fleet—made up of small but powerful boats that operate in rivers and other shallow waters—to the Vietnamese. Abrams beamed: He wanted to leave behind a powerful, capable, well-trained and well-equipped force that could assume responsibility for protecting Vietnam’s waterways. Zumwalt was giving it to him.

The two senior officers became friendly, professionally and personally. There is another lesson here. For the past couple of decades, the U.S. military has been obsessed with forcing cooperation between the services through a host of procedural requirements. The strong professional tie between Abrams and Zumwalt is eloquent testimony to what happens when active-minded officers—from whatever service—work alongside each other. “Jointness,” as cooperation between the military services is called in the Defense Department, benefits most when it is based on a meeting of intelligent minds and leaders of resolute character. Reforms that advance the careers of such officers are far more likely to produce powerful results than mere regulations that demand cooperation.

For his efforts, Zumwalt was rewarded with promotion, in 1970, to Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s most senior officer. In that position, he tangled with Henry Kissinger over détente and arms control, with the Nixon White House in general over its relentless deviousness in working with cabinet-level agencies, and ultimately with Richard Nixon himself over the size of the naval fleet. Mr. Berman mentions Zumwalt’s attention to modernizing an aging fleet that had a significant number of World War II ships still in service. Zumwalt calculated that ridding the Navy of a larger number of old vessels would improve the prospects for modernizing the fleet. Mr. Berman doesn’t spend much time on this rather momentous challenge, though Zumwalt himself did in his 1976 autobiography, “On Watch.”

Mr. Berman is more interested in Zumwalt’s “Z-grams“—that is, his memoranda-driven efforts to reform various Navy practices and procedures: The admiral worked to eliminate racial discrimination within the Navy, to reduce the time that sailors spent away from their families, to ease up on the multitude of regulations that governed sailors’ lives. Zumwalt, hardly a libertine, wanted the Navy to maintain good order and discipline but also to acknowledge the changes in society that had taken place since World War II. In none of these changes did Zumwalt have a greater effect than in changing the Navy’s racial policies. Zumwalt littered the naval landscape with directives, committees, programs, and Z-grams aimed at ending racial and gender discrimination. In this part of his story, Mr. Berman is most like Plutarch, describing the honorable actions of his subject. They may not measure up to what the ancients would have called “glorious exploits,” but they are noble enough for a modern democracy.

Zumwalt was certainly a noble man. I have heard civilians and officers who knew and worked with him over the years speak of his decency, resoluteness and ability to reshape an institution that had leaned toward stodginess and intolerance. As one officer who served under him said in a recent note: “He was extraordinary, kind, loyal to his subordinates, and I owe him a great deal. I would—and did—follow him anywhere.” Mr. Berman’s “Zumwalt” isn’t merely about a celebrated naval officer. It is an education in leadership.

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