Looking Back - Thresher and the CNO

By Paul Stillwell

In his oral history, he recalled: “I got up to leave, and I got wild applause. Then I went up to the office, and pretty soon the word came back that the members of the press had said it was the first decent press conference that the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD] had had since that administration had been in.” He added dryly that the experience did not enhance his relationship with OSD.

That was an understatement, because the advent of McNamara’s tenure in 1961 had marked a dramatic change in the relationship between the civilian leadership of the Defense Department and the officers in uniform. During the Republicans’ time in office in the 1950s, the atmosphere was generally one of cooperation. Now it was a condescending attitude from OSD, in which systems analysts believed that their approach of numbers and probabilities trumped the knowledge that the admirals had acquired during years at sea.

One flash point in the struggle came over McNamara’s attempt to create a new joint-service fighter plane. The shorthand name for the new aircraft was TFX. McNamara believed that the services could achieve cost savings from commonality in having a single fighter, the F-111, for both the Air Force and Navy. The Navy contended that the plane was not fit for aircraft-carrier duty, and the struggle went on for several years before the Navy version of the F-111 was eventually scrapped.

Another source of friction had been in the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. In one widely reported dispute, McNamara and Anderson had a flare-up in the Pentagon flag plot, with McNamara raising questions about ship placement (see “‘Mr. President, The Navy Will Not Let You Down,’” October 2012, pp. 16–23). Anderson declined to answer because, he contended, the information was highly classified, and not everyone in the room was cleared. So Anderson said he rebuffed McNamara before telling him in private. In essence, the CNO told the secretary that the Navy knew how to run its business, which rankled McNamara.

In the aftermath of the loss of the Thresher , the Navy instituted the SUBSAFE program comprising a series of rigorous tests to ensure the soundness of submarine hulls and increased precautions to prevent flooding. But the fixes wound up on the agenda of Anderson’s successor. Anderson got word from several sources that Secretary Korth had been having conversations with Admiral David McDonald about taking over as CNO. So Anderson knew his days were numbered, but Korth did not know that Anderson knew.

One Sunday afternoon the SecNav and Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric showed up at the CNO’s quarters at the Naval Observatory in Washington. Anderson greeted them by saying, “I understand that you’ve come to tell me I’m fired.” As Anderson recalled in his oral history, “Korth almost passed out.” Gilpatric was smoother, explaining that the administration wanted him to become ambassador to Portugal. On 1 August, three and a half months after the Thresher press conference, the Navy got a new chief of Naval Operations.

 

 
 

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