With the war over and the inevitable decline of the Navy at hand, Lieutenant Zumwalt wanted to leave the service to become a doctor, as both his parents had. An auspicious meeting with General George C. Marshall changed his mind. The former Secretary of State and soon-to-be Secretary of Defense told him that there might soon be another war "and when the time comes, your country will need dedicated career men like you." Heeding Marshall's advice, Zumwalt abandoned his dreams of going into medicine and remained in the Navy for the next 25 years.
As Marshall had predicted, another war did come, where Zumwalt saw action as the navigator in the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64). In the years following the Korean War, Zumwalt enjoyed the reputation of a "front-runner," in Navy argot. Many saw him as a future admiral while he commanded several ships (including the U.S. Navy's first guided-missile frigate, Dewey [DLG-14]), attended both the Naval and National War Colleges, and served two tours in Washington. There in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, he encountered an unofficial but real policy that he found "most upsetting." During his orientation briefing, "the officer I was relieving told me that the routine for assigning minority officers was to send them to dead-end billets so that their promotion beyond middle rank would be unlikely." Zumwalt "did not follow that prescription," but admitted that beyond that covert response he could not "think of a way that a junior commander could alter a policy that — evil as it was — was clearly winked at or even encouraged by the captains and admirals he worked for." Years later, as CNO, he would think of a way.
In July 1965, Rear Admiral Zumwalt returned to sea as Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven. But the creation of the Navy's new Division of Systems Analysis brought him back to Washington to head the new organization — cutting Zumwalt's sea tour short by nearly two years.
In 1968, Zumwalt was ordered to Vietnam to command the in-country naval forces there. All previous Vietnam naval commanders had been rear admirals, but this time the assignment was being offered with a third star.
Arriving in Saigon, Vice Admiral Zumwalt found that the Navy's role in Vietnam had stagnated. Earlier coastal surveillance, river patrol, and combined riverine operations had driven the enemy off the major rivers and minimized his littoral operations, but now supplies were coming in from the Cambodian sanctuary and traveling uninhibited along a network of tributary waterways deep inside the strategically vital Mekong Delta. To counter this, Zumwalt called together his senior commanders and staff members to work out a new strategic concept called SEALORDS — for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy. The new strategy consolidated the Navy's in-country forces and redeployed them to interdict the flow of enemy supplies, placing the naval forces in harm's way and taking the fight to the enemy. This redeployment put new pressure on the enemy, and had the added effect of injecting new life into the brown-water forces, whose relegation to mere holding operations had demoralized them. Casualties went up but so did morale.
It was Zumwalt's fate to preside over the extrication of U.S. forces from Vietnam. By the time Zumwalt got to Vietnam, the U.S. had been actively fighting there for nearly four years, and it was clear that the patience of the American people was wearing thin.
Zumwalt long had advocated turning the war over to the South Vietnamese — a process called "Vietnamization." He believed that this advocacy was a primary reason why he had been selected to command U.S. naval forces there. Zumwalt's plan, which he called ACTOV (for "accelerated turnover to Vietnam"), was well thought out and earned him the respect of General Creighton Abrams, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam.
While he was commanding naval forces in Vietnam, Zumwalt made a decision that later would bring tragedy to his life. Viet Cong forces had long relied on the heavy foliage along the waterways of the Mekong Delta for camouflage. To counter that advantage, the admiral ordered the employment of chemical defoliants while his son, Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt, III, was serving in Vietnam as part of the brown-water navy. Evidence would later suggest that those chemicals had been carcinogenic and, when the younger Elmo succumbed to cancer, the admiral was faced with the terrible possibility that he might have contributed to the death of his own son.
In February 1969, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird had visited Vietnam and was favorably impressed by his meeting with Zumwalt — so much so that, a year later, when it was decided that Admiral Moorer should vacate the job of Chief of Naval Operations to move up to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Laird nominated the young vice admiral for the Navy's top post. Laird and Secretary of the Navy John Chafee wanted a non-aviator as CNO for the first time in nine years, and they wanted someone younger to "bring the Navy into the modern age."
As he prepared to take the helm of the U.S. Navy, Zumwalt was headed for uncertain waters. Although he brought youthfulness and a more dashing image to the office, he also brought a lesser degree of experience. Because of his accelerated promotions and unconventional duty assignments, Zumwalt had left his cruiser-destroyer flotilla assignment early and had never held a major fleet command. His critics would say this left him unqualified to head the Navy. Nevertheless, on 1 July 1970 in a ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., was sworn in as the 19th Chief of Naval Operations. At age 49, he was the youngest CNO in history.
Zumwalt's three decades of experience with the U.S. Navy had taught him that traditional methods of change often led to the slow death of an initiative; that non-traditional ideas were usually swallowed up by a slow process of approval, made even slower by the foot-dragging of conservative senior commanders. While executive assistant to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, Zumwalt had played a role in producing a set of dramatic recommendations to enhance personnel retention but was disappointed to find that once those recommendations were entrusted to the "system" for implementation, few of them were put into effect. He came to believe that ideas that went against the grain of tradition could survive only if they were suddenly brought into the open, where they could not be ignored. This philosophy soon brought unprecedented changes to the Navy but had the unintended effect of creating factions.
Most controversial of Zumwalt's methods were his so-called "Z-grams," most of which were designed to counter personnel retention problems in the Navy. Keeping to his philosophy that unconventional changes needed unconventional methods of implementation if they were to succeed, Zumwalt used the Z-gram method as a means of simultaneously communicating his changes directly to all personnel in the Navy.
The personnel changes wrought by the Z-grams were generally popular among the younger officers and enlisted men, less so among more senior personnel. Some senior officers and petty officers felt that the method and the content of the Z-grams had undermined their authority. Others lauded the changes but resented the use of so unconventional a method of bringing them about.
The results were indisputable, however. Never before in the history of the Navy had such sweeping changes taken place. Gone were many of the so-called "chicken regs." Suddenly, the family and the individual had taken on a new significance, and in his first year in office, first-term reenlistments rose from 10% to 17%.
Zumwalt had succeeded in transforming the Navy from its image of a "humorless, tradition-bound, starchy institution. In fact, he was so successful that his efforts captured the attention of the national media, making him the most famous admiral since Halsey and Nimitz captured the attention of the American public during World War II.
Remembering — and abhorring — the prevailing attitudes with regard to minority officers that he had encountered in the Bureau of Personnel years earlier, and recognizing that the U.S. Navy was still something less than an equal-opportunity employer, Admiral Zumwalt took aim at the problem with Z-gram number 66, entitled "Equal Opportunity in the Navy." Z-66 began by acknowledging that the Navy did indeed have problems in this area and went on to establish a number of measures to alleviate the situation. This ground-breaking Z-gram concluded with the words, "there is no black Navy, no white Navy — just one Navy — the United States Navy."
It is difficult to assess the significance of Admiral Zumwalt's personnel policies. He was CNO at a time when all of American society was in turmoil, when terms such as "counter-cultural revolution" were commonplace, when racial tensions and dissent over the Vietnam war had skewed perceptions and erected barriers to reasoned debate. In truth, much of what he was attempting to achieve in the Navy was mirrored in the other armed services, but with much less flourish and without a personalized target such as the one he had become. It also is difficult to discern what the effects might have been if he had not come along at a time when "chicken regs" and a "counter-cultural" society were on a collision course. His opponents see him as the instigator of permissiveness and the destroyer of discipline within the Navy, while his advocates see him as the man of the hour and the savior of the Navy.
His personnel policies were not the only lightning rods of his tenure. His high-low mix of fleet units encountered significant opposition from various factions, including Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the Navy's nuclear power program. In a time of tight budgetary constraints, Zumwalt called for the building of fewer high-end ships (attack carriers and ballistic missile submarines) and using the available funds to build moderate-cost, moderate-performance ships and systems that could be turned out in relatively large numbers for the sea-control mission. Zumwalt envisioned that "in most cases seven or five or even three ships of moderate capability would contribute far more to the success of this mission than one supership." To attain this force mix, he proposed the prerequisite move of decommissioning many of the older ships to free up funds, and allowing the fleet to function for a time with less than the optimum number of units. This was a calculated risk deemed necessary for the ultimate achievement of his long-term goals — and not without its opponents.
On 29 June 1974, the tumultuous tenure of the Navy's 19th Chief of Naval Operations came to a close in ceremonies held at the U.S. Naval Academy, where his naval career had begun.
In an interview some years later, former Secretary of the Navy and then Senator John Warner described Zumwalt as having the courage to "raise his head above the ground" even at the risk of getting it "shot off." Zumwalt was clearly an innovative thinker and a risk-taker. His methods unquestionably were radical and provocative, but they also accomplished things that had not been done before. Zumwalt's contention that the traditional methods were prone to failure when revolutionary changes were needed makes sense when viewed historically. An evaluation proffered in retrospect by the Center for Naval Analyses that "the Zumwalt strategic revolution would have achieved greater success had Admiral Zumwalt not believed it necessary to carry out the personnel revolution simultaneously" is intriguing. Yet, Zumwalt did believe that his personnel revolution was necessary, even to the detriment of his strategic initiatives. Looking back, he later wrote:
I was certain to turn over to my successor a navy in which all kinds of important business was unfinished: strategic analysis, ship construction, weapons development, relations with other parts of the government, and so forth, ad infinitum. But if it was within my power, I was determined to turn over to him a Navy that had learned to treat its men and women, enlisted and commissioned, in a manner that recognized that, regardless of the peculiar demands military life made upon them, they were citizens of a free country in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
In hindsight it appears that Zumwalt's vision was properly aimed. The strategic situation he and the U.S. Navy faced in the early 1970s has changed enormously, but the single most important element of the Navy remains its people.
Bud Zumwalt may well have written his own epitaph when he told his audience at a lecture at the Institute of International Studies in Berkeley, California, "I have a wonderful list of friends and a wonderful list of enemies, and am very proud of both lists."
He belongs to history now.
Commander Cutler is the editor of The Bluejacket's Manual , author of The Battle of Leyte Gulf , Brown Water, Black Berets , and The U.S. Naval Academy . He also is the Senior Acquisitions Editor for the Naval Institute Press.