Naval Aviation's Most Serious Crisis?

By Jeffrey G. Barlow

By early 1949, even President Harry S. Truman had begun to notice Forrestal’s faltering job performance. President Truman’s naval aide, Rear Admiral Robert L. Dennison, remembered a conversation. The president asked him if he knew who the secretary of Defense was. Playing along, Dennison said, “Yes, sir, Jim Forrestal.” In response, Truman replied: “You’re wrong, I’m the Secretary of Defense. . . . Jim calls me up several times a day asking me to make a decision on matters that are completely within his competence, but he passes them on to me.” 3

On 28 January Truman called the Defense secretary to the White House for an off-the-record meeting. The president informed Forrestal that Louis A. Johnson would be replacing him as secretary of Defense on 1 May 1949. 4 But Forrestal’s command of his job continued to slip, and he left his post a month early.

If Louis Johnson had come into the Defense job without particular preconceptions about the country’s security policies, Navy leaders might have hoped for a reasonable opportunity to convince the new secretary that the service’s aircraft carriers had a useful role to play in U.S. military security. Unfortunately for the Navy, Johnson came into office with a strong preference for the strategic airpower views espoused by the Air Force. Indeed, his earlier close association with the prewar Army Air Corps had begun in the late 1930s, during his turbulent years as assistant secretary of War. 5

Cancellation of the United States

The Navy’s first large flush-deck aircraft carrier—designed to have a standard displacement of 60,000 tons and capable of operating an air wing consisting of 18 ADR-42 attack aircraft (able to carry atomic weapons) and 80 XF2D-1 fighters—had been authorized by Congress in June 1948 and initially funded as part of the Fiscal Year 1949 Defense appropriation. 6 Nevertheless, on 15 April 1949, less than three weeks after taking over as Defense secretary, Johnson sent a letter to General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was serving temporarily as presiding officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating that he would like to have the Chiefs’ judgment on the proposed new aircraft carrier “tentatively designated USS UNITED STATES .” 7 Three days later the flush-deck carrier’s keel plate was officially laid during a brief ceremony at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.

Toward the end of the week of 17–23 April, the individual members of the JCS were informed that their views on the flush-deck carrier would have to be given to Secretary Johnson by that Friday afternoon, because he would be making his decision on the ship’s fate the following morning. The Joint Staff received the separate service papers on the issue late on Friday, and it was not until almost 1030 on Saturday that the package of materials was sent to Johnson’s office. Surprisingly, less than half an hour later Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfeld received a copy of a press release from the Defense secretary’s office that was being handed out to reporters. It announced that the carrier’s construction was being halted. 8

When Navy Secretary John Sullivan returned to Washington on Sunday from a speaking engagement in Corpus Christi, Texas, he was absolutely furious at Johnson for his action. Before leaving on his trip, Sullivan had been assured by Johnson that he would make no decision on the carrier until he had had a further chance to talk about it with the Navy secretary. 9 Sullivan quickly decided that if he was not even going to be consulted by the secretary of Defense about matters affecting the Navy, he had no other alternative than to resign. He submitted his letter of resignation on 26 April and left office almost a month later, following a short ceremony on the Mall side of the Pentagon.

During the 24 May ceremony, which Johnson briefly attended, Sullivan told the assembled crowd of supporters, “I have been privileged to serve with you men and women of the greatest Navy the world has ever known—a Navy that has never been defeated by a foreign foe .” 10 Amusingly, it was at this point in the speech that Secretary Johnson hurriedly left the gathering.

When Sullivan resigned, Under Secretary of the Navy W. John Kenney, in a gesture of solidarity, also left office. That, however, left the service’s civilian leadership open to the political whims of Louis Johnson. The Defense secretary decided to replace Sullivan, one of the Truman administration’s prominent Catholics, with another prominent Catholic, but one who would prove more malleable. 11 The individual eventually chosen for the job was Francis P. Matthews, an Omaha, Nebraska, lawyer and businessman who lacked both prior experience in either government or the military. He was sworn in as secretary of the Navy on 25 May. The choice of Matthews was to quickly prove a near-disaster for carrier aviation and the Navy as a whole.

The Anonymous Document

While the Navy’s carrier community had been suffering from Johnson’s economic depredations, the Air Force’s new B-36 bomber program had been the recipient of increased Defense largesse, as several hundred million dollars previously authorized for other Air Force programs had been quickly reallocated for the procurement of more of the enormous bombers. 12 The disparity in treatment convinced certain naval aviators and their supporters that a way had to be found to bring carrier aviation’s drastically worsening plight to the attention of Congress.

Two men who secretly took up this challenge were Cedric R. Worth, special assistant to new Under Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball, and Commander Thomas D. Davies, special assistant to the assistant secretary of the Navy for Air. As Captain Frank A. Manson remembered, “Tom Davies used to come over to my office, and I . . . [can] see him now, standing with his . . . foot on the window [sill] there and his . . . hand on his chin . . . talk[ing] about this situation, you know. And he was [wondering] ‘How can we get a congressional hearing?’” 13

The genesis of what subsequently became known as “the Anonymous Document” occurred when Worth and Davies began collecting material on the B-36 bomber program, but the decision to write the paper was actually made during a 13 April meeting that the two men had with Glenn L. Martin, chairman of the Glenn Martin Aircraft Company, and Martin Company representative Harold G. Mosier. Worth told the pair that there was a lot of news material on the B-36 bomber that if put together would make a very interesting story, Martin responded that if that were done he would like to read it. Worth then said he’d see that Martin got a copy. 14

The initial version of the document was apparently completed within a week of the meeting. It consisted of a nine-page paper with 55 numbered sections detailing particular facts or rumors relating to the B-36 procurement program. Assembled from a combination of aeronautical industry gossip and wild suppositions, the document’s principal theme was that the B-36 was a “billion dollar blunder” whose procurement continued only because Secretary Johnson and Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington had personal financial stakes in its production and because they owed favors to Floyd Odlum, the head of Convair—the company manufacturing the plane. 15 Shortly after the Anonymous Document was completed, Worth handed a copy to Martin. Subsequent copies of the paper were given to certain members of Congress, including eventually Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-TX) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Carl Vinson (D-GA).

Rep. James E. Van Zandt (R-PA), who had received one of the first copies of the paper, was a longtime supporter of Navy interests and a member of the Armed Services Committee. When a number of weeks passed without any public mention of the allegations about the B-36 bomber put forth in the Anonymous Document, he decided to act on his own. On 25 May 1949, Van Zandt introduced a resolution in the House to establish a select committee to investigate the matter of aircraft contract awards and cancellations since 8 May. The following day he delivered a “fire-breathing” speech on the House floor in support of his resolution. In it he recounted many of the most damning rumors put forth in the Worth document about Convair’s B-36 contracts and the putative roles of Johnson and Symington in the process.

The flurry of press attention that arose from Van Zandt’s speech alarmed Vinson, who for weeks had been ignoring the rumors emanating from the Anonymous Document. Accordingly, on 1 June he submitted a resolution in the House requesting that his Armed Services Committee be authorized to conduct “thorough studies and investigations relating to matters involving the B-36 bomber.” The House agreed to an amended version of Vinson’s resolution on 8 June. The following day the committee adopted an eight-item agenda for its B-36 investigation. Interestingly, one of the items called for an examination of the role and missions of the Air Force and Navy to determine if the decision to cancel the construction of the carrier United States had been sound. 16

June and July 1949 were difficult months for the Navy, as it was forced to respond to substantial budget cuts proposed for the FY 51 budget. On 5 July Defense Secretary Johnson sent a memorandum to the Army, Navy, and Air Force secretaries and the JCS that laid out forces and ceilings for the services in FY 51. Under this new proposal, the Navy was tentatively allowed to maintain only four attack aircraft carriers—half the number that had been appropriated for FY 50. 17 From the perspective of many naval aviators, it appeared that senior Navy surface officers and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) as a whole were willing to accept this downgrading of carrier aviation if it kept Louis Johnson from battering the Navy with further cuts. 18

The B-36 Hearings

During the committee’s 9–25 August hearings on the B-36 program, Air Force witnesses presented well-organized testimony that thoroughly destroyed the charges put forth in the Anonymous Document. On the final day of hearings, Carl Vinson declared, “Not one scintilla of evidence” offered during the proceedings supported charges that corruption or influence had played any part in the B-36 bomber’s procurement. 19 He then recessed the committee until 5 October.

By early September rumors were circulating around Washington that the committee would not resume the hearings to examine the other items on the agenda, including the matter of the United States ’ cancellation. One naval aviator who was determined not to let that occur was Captain John G. Crommelin, an officer then serving on the Joint Staff. Accordingly, on 10 September he assembled a group of wire-service reporters at his home and gave a formal statement that castigated the “General Staff concept” then dominating the Pentagon for causing the B-36 controversy and the cancellation of the flush-deck carrier. 20 The Crommelin statement garnered substantial press attention and led to public comments by other naval officers, including Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey.

Angered by this publicity, which he thought was indicative of a general anti-unification viewpoint held by many naval aviators, Navy Secretary Matthews sent out a classified message on 14 September to all major Navy commanders directing that those who wished to express views on the matter should transmit them to him through the appropriate channels. 21 One senior officer who responded to the secretary’s request was Vice Admiral Gerald F. Bogan, commander, First Task Fleet.

In a classified memo that he sent up the chain of command, Admiral Bogan stressed that “The morale of the Navy is lower today than at any time since I entered the commissioned ranks in 1916. . . . In my opinion this descent, almost to despondency, stems from complete confusion as to the future role of the Navy and its advantages and disadvantages as a permanent career.” 22 In their endorsements of Bogan’s memo, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, commander-in-chief, Pacific Fleet, and CNO Louis Denfeld agreed that substantial numbers of naval officers concurred with Crommelin’s and Bogan’s views.

During the final days of September, staff members from the House Armed Services Committee made several attempts to persuade Secretary Matthews and Navy senior uniformed officers to support ending the hearings without presenting the Navy’s side of the issues. Although Matthews was inclined to go along with this scheme, Admiral Radford—during a 3 October meeting that he and other senior Navy leaders had with Vinson—persuaded the committee chairman to at least hold off on announcing a delay in the hearings. 23

Later that day, in an action completely unrelated to the earlier meeting, Captain Crommelin secretly handed over to an Associated Press reporter sanitized copies of the Bogan memo and Radford’s and Denfeld’s endorsements that he had inappropriately received from an officer in OPNAV. 24 The resulting story made huge headlines and most likely forced Chairman Vinson to reopen the hearings.

The Unification and Strategy Hearings

The hearings that allowed the Navy to present its views before the House Armed Services Committee began on 6 October, with Secretary Matthews being the first witness. He proclaimed that Navy morale was good and asserted that naval aviators who felt otherwise were demonstrating their anti-unification biases. Not surprisingly, his views were not enthusiastically received by some of the people present in the committee room. Admiral Radford was the next to speak, and he gave a well-prepared presentation that decried the morality of an atomic blitz directed against the civilian populations of major enemy cities and questioned the purported operational effectiveness of the B-36 bomber. Other witnesses in the days that followed discussed issues such as the technical aspects of strategic bombing and the need to procure smaller and faster bombers for the strategic air mission.

The climax of the Navy’s testimony occurred on 13 October, when CNO Louis Denfeld presented his views. Although he had long attempted to avoid confrontations with Secretary Matthews over policy, in his appearance before the committee Denfeld had decided to support his Navy. To the shock of Matthews and Johnson, the CNO testified in support of Radford and the naval aviators. He detailed his concerns about the effect of budget cuts on the Navy’s strength, the role of the JCS in agreeing to additional money for B-36 procurement while advocating the cancellation of the flush-deck carrier, and the need to give predominant weight to service views in determining the forces needed for that service. And he stressed to the committee: “Fleets never in history met opposing fleets for any other purpose than to gain control of the sea—not as an end in itself, but that national power could be exerted against an enemy .” 25

Denfeld’s strong testimony proved to be a bombshell both to the committee members and, even more so, to the Johnson Defense Department. Although his forthright presentation subsequently cost the CNO his job, it undoubtedly helped carrier aviation’s cause.

Consequences of the ‘Revolt’

The short-term repercussions of the Navy’s testimony during the Unification and Strategy Hearings appeared minimal, at least on the surface. Yes, the strong testimony presented by senior naval aviators had convinced many influential committee members that carrier aviation had not been rendered inconsequential by intercontinental strategic bombing. But on the other hand, Admiral Denfeld’s successor as CNO, Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, was not inclined to openly oppose the budget cutbacks Johnson imposed on the Navy. Several weeks before the Unification and Strategy hearings, the Defense secretary had set the number of FY 51 active attack carriers at six—an increase of two from his earlier proposal but still a drop of five from the FY 49 budget.

The longer-term repercussions were substantial. The committee’s report on the hearings, which was released on 1 March 1950, expressed a solidly pro-naval-aviation viewpoint in certain important ways. It noted that U.S. airpower consisted of Air Force, Navy, and Marine airpower and that strategic bombing was only one aspect of it. The report also stated that differences between the Air Force and Navy were primarily due to “fundamental professional disagreements on the art of warfare.” 26 Moreover, the changed attitude of many influential members of the committee toward carrier aviation was demonstrated as early as April 1950, when important congressmen began lobbying the Navy behind the scenes to construct a new flush-deck carrier. 27

The Navy sailed treacherous seas in 1949, but obviously survived—and even thrived. The start of the Korean War in 1950 simultaneously demonstrated the value and versatility of carrier-based aviation and the limitations inherent in relying solely on a land-based U.S. Air Force. More than six decades later, with fiscal belt-tightening being the order of the day, the size of the Navy’s carrier force again is under evaluation. This time not only the size of the force is being scrutinized, the size of the carriers themselves has become a contentious debate. It is important, then, for Navy and civilian leaders and the American public to reflect on the lessons of the “Revolt of the Admirals” and understand that crucial national security issues almost always have long-term ramifications. Their successful resolution requires extraordinary effort and must look well beyond that which is merely expedient.

1. The sources cited in this article are those originally consulted during the writing of my book Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945–1950 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1994).

2. John L. Sullivan, Interviews by Jerry N. Hess, 27 March and 13 April 1972, Interview 138, Transcript, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO, p. 55.

3. Emphasis in original. Admiral Robert L. Dennison, Interviews by Jerry N. Hess, 10 September, 6 October, and 2 November 1971, Interview 105, Transcript, Truman Library, pp. 22–23.

4. Walter Millis, with the collaboration of E. S. Duffield, The Forrestal Diaries (New York: Viking Press, 1951), pp. 548–49.

5. For information on Johnson’s professional background, see Anna Rothe, ed., Current Biography. Who’s News and Why 1949 (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1950), p. 299.

6. For detailed information regarding the 6A carrier United States, see Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , pp. 131–45; and Norman Friedman, U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), pp. 225–53.

7. Letter, Johnson to Eisenhower, 15 April 1949, 1; Box 62, Principal File, Eisenhower Pre-Presidential Papers, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, KS.

8. See “Memorandum to the Press No. M-17-49, 23 April 1949”; “A7-1/10-1 SECDEF M Series” Folder, Op-23 Records, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command (hereafter cited as OA).

9. See Sullivan Oral History, Truman Library, p. 59.

10. Emphasis added. Typed carbon entitled “Remarks by Secretary John L. Sullivan at departure ceremony today: 24 May 1949,” 1; Box 25, Arthur W. Radford Papers, OA.

11. John Sullivan later recalled, “Secretary Johnson phoned around to his old American Legion friends and specifically requested that they recommend a prominent Catholic to take my place.” Sullivan Oral History, Truman Library, p. 73.

12. See the discussion of this issue in Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , pp. 177–82.

13. Author’s interview with CAPT Frank A. Manson, USN (Ret.), 28 January 1989, Annapolis, MD, tape recording.

14. Testimony of Harold Mosier, Fourth Day, 8 September 1949; transcript of Court of Inquiry “to inquire into circumstances surrounding preparation of anonymous document furnished members of Congress concerning contracts for B-36 aircraft and other matters,” 108; “H-1 B-36 Naval Court of Inquiry Top Secret ” Folder, Series III, Op-23 Records, OA.

15. See the mimeograph copy of the untitled paper, n.d. [April 1949], attached to a memo from COL Glenn W. Martin, USAF, executive to the secretary of the Air Force, to Clark M. Clifford, White House, 22 July 1949; Box 11, Clark M. Clifford Papers, Truman Library.

16. Copy of “Agenda of B-36 Investigation,” 9 June 1949, attached to copy of letter from Vinson to the secretary of the Navy, same date; Box 21, Radford Papers, OA.

17. Memo from Johnson to the secretary of the Army et al., 5 July 1949; Box 25, Radford Papers, OA.

18. See the discussion in Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , pp. 223–25.

19. Vinson comments; House Armed Services Committee, Investigation of the B-36 Bomber Program: Hearings , pp. 654–55.

20. “Statement of Captain John G. Crommelin, U.S. Navy on the B-36 Investigation,” 10 September 1949, enclosed with a memo from CAPT Arleigh A. Burke to ADM Radford, 12 September 1949; Box 4, Ralph A. Ofstie Papers, OA.

21. Message from SECNAV to CINCPAC et al., 14 September 1949, 142122Z; Box 9, Double Zero Files 1950, OA.

22. Memo from Bogan to the secretary of the Navy, [20 September 1949]; Box 4 Denfeld Double Zero Files, OA.

23. For a discussion of this bargaining effort see Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , pp. 237–44.

24. See Edward P. Stafford, “Saving Carrier Aviation—1949 Style,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 116 (January 1990): pp. 44, 50.

25. Emphasis added. Statement of Admiral Louis E. Denfeld; House Armed Services Committee, Unification and Strategy: Hearings , p. 353.

26. House Armed Services Committee, Unification and Strategy: A Report , 1 March 1950, p. 54.

27. On this issue see Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals , pp. 287–88.

The SecNav’s Side of the Story

The “Revolt of the Admirals’” most dramatic moment came when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis Denfeld testified before the House Armed Services Committee, contradicting Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews’ earlier testimony and voicing his concerns on topics such as Navy morale, cancellation of the supercarrier United States, and the effects of budget cuts on the service’s fighting strength. The coda to most accounts of the revolt is that the SecNav then fired the CNO in reprisal for his testimony. Admiral Denfeld was “made to walk the plank” for stating his views to Congress, is how committee chairman Rep. Carl Vinson (D-GA) bluntly put it.

But Secretary Matthews presented a different picture when he met with representatives of the Navy League of the United States in his office on 11 January 1950. What follows are excerpts from the unpublished notes of the meeting in which, after being pressed by league members, the Navy secretary gave his off-the-record version of “the Denfeld story.” According to the Matthews, his decision to replace the CNO was made before Admiral Denfeld testified. The notes were in the possession of the Matthews family until recently donated to the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, Missouri ( ).

I had had many, many talks with Admiral Denfeld. We had discussed the affairs of the Navy, we had discussed Unification. He told me he believed in Unification, felt it was functioning all right. He told me he had his troubles: that he was accused of selling the Navy down the river to the Air Force; that his attitude on the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been criticized; that he was not “hard-boiled” enough but that things were working out satisfactorily to him on the JCS, and that the Navy got its share of decisions; that he had the utmost confidence in [Secretary of Defense Louis] Johnson; that the only time Mr. Johnson had seen fit to overrule the JCS, it was in favor of the Navy (on the question of the conversion of the Essex type carrier). We had talked about the cancellation of the big carrier United States . I asked Admiral Denfeld his opinion, and he told me he thought the decision was right. . . .
I mention these things to show my relationship with Admiral Denfeld, and my convictions as to what his attitude was [on] these very vital and important controversial matters of policy. . . .

I did not know much about Unification than the average lawyer would. I did not know its fundamentals. I began to prepare myself. I secured copies of the hearings and began to study. We were working along, with more rumblings being heard—nasty things were being said about the procurement of the B-36, dishonesty of the Secretary of Defense, and of Mr. [Stuart] Symington as Secretary of the Air Force. All this culminated in a resolution being passed by Congress . . . To investigate the rumors of dishonesty in the procurement of the B-36; and to ascertain the authorship of the notorious anonymous document which was charged to the Navy. Mr. Vinson, however, added six additional items to the agenda, not germane to the original resolution.

We were very much astonished when we got the letter from the House [Armed Services] Committee, asking us to comment in writing on each of the items of the agenda. As a lawyer, I appreciated the significance of what could develop in what had transpired. I prepared an answer. Admiral Denfeld prepared an answer. They were practically identical answers.

We were fearful as to what might happen from an investigation of the B-36, strategic bombing, etc.

Then things marked time. They went ahead with the hearings, and in the beginning centered on the rumors about Johnson collecting huge campaign funds because of his recent connection with airplanes and for that reason he had been appointed Secretary of Defense. They investigated the rumors that Symington was to head a “General Motors of the Air” industry. They investigated the merits of the B-36.

With dramatic suddenness, they went into the authorship of the cowardly anonymous attack, and it developed that it was written by Cedric Worth, a top ranking civilian employee in the office of the Under Secretary of the Navy, right next door. . . .

[Several weeks later, Armed Services Committee staffers told Secretary Matthews that the panel was inclined to wind up its investigation without hearing from the Navy. When Congress reconvened in January, the Navy would be allowed to testify on unification. After discussing the proposal for several days, the secretary and top Navy commanders met with Chairman Vinson on 3 October, without a decision on the matter being made.]

That night the [Vice Admiral Gerald F.] Bogan letter was surreptitiously released to the press, and the Committee was accused of trying to gag the Navy. The Committee had no choice but to go ahead with the hearings. . . .

The letter had come into this office on Thursday of the week before. . . . I did not really read the letter until after it was released [to the press]. . . .

I immediately sent for Admiral Denfeld. I said, “Admiral Denfeld, I suppose you read the papers this morning?” He said, “Yes.” “Admiral, did you write the endorsement on the Bogan letter which was published this morning?” “Did you dictate it?” He replied, “No, Mr. Secretary, I did not.” I said, “Admiral, one more question: Did you read the endorsement before you signed it?” He said, “No, Mr. Secretary, I did not.”

I said, “Admiral Denfeld, see what you have done to me. I am Secretary of the Navy. You, as Chief of Naval Operations, have gotten me in this predicament. It seems to me your usefulness as Chief of Naval Operations so far as I am concerned is terminated. I do not know what to tell you. I do not know what the attitude of the Secretary of Defense will be, but I will have to report the matter to him for such action as is appropriate. . . .”
He was as depressed as I was. I said, “Now, I think you should make an appropriate statement.” He said he would. He prepared a statement which during the day was signed by him, and released, and which denounced the proceeding as violating one of the cardinal regulations of the Navy.
I went to see the Secretary of Defense, and with him went to the President, and reported to the President what had happened, and told him that I thought the CNO should be changed. He said, “Let’s go slow. Let’s not be precipitate.”

So, we went along with that development. I worked with Admiral Denfeld, trying to get the matter of our presentation of the Navy’s side to the Committee ready. . . .

[Once the committee hearing got underway] I gave my own statement. Afterwards, I was cross examined until about one o’clock. . . . All this time Admiral Denfeld was working along with me. We talked about the statement he was to give. They called Radford next. Admiral Denfeld told me Mr. Vinson had decided to hold him (Denfeld) to sum up the whole thing. I told Admiral Denfeld again that, as a lawyer of 35 years of experience, I had been paid to prepare things like this for clients, and that I would be glad to help him with his statement. He was very grateful, said we would talk about it. . . .

I heard no more about Admiral Denfeld’s statement, and never saw it until it was printed and distributed to the press. I was not surprised, because I had seen things develop, and when the matter was presented [that is, Denfeld read his statement to the committee], I followed the reading of it, and at its conclusion, I left.

I did not hear any more about it or from Admiral Denfeld.

The next day, we had a regular Top Policy meeting, and at the conclusion of the meeting they all left. I called Admiral Denfeld back from the door. Without my opening a conversation, he said: “Mr. Secretary, I am sorry that I could not keep my promise to show you my statement, but I was going to give it anyway, no matter what you thought. I thought you would be in a better position if you could tell Mr. Johnson you had not seen it before I delivered it.”

With that, he left.

I had decided before that time that I could not stay here with Admiral Denfeld as CNO; that I could not administer the office with a CNO I could not trust. There are not two policies in the Navy: there is only one policy. The man responsible for the military side and the man responsible for the administrative side have to work in harmony. I made up my mind I was going to present the matter to the President. . . .

I have been criticized because Denfeld learned of this through the press. I could not talk to Admiral Denfeld until I had official documentary evidence from the President that he was going to approve my recommendation, authorize [Admiral Denfeld’s] transfer and name his successor. . . . .The minute I got it, I called for Admiral Denfeld. He came into my office, sat down, and I told him I regretted the transpiring developments. He said: “Mr. Secretary, I want you to know that I have no ill will whatever for you for the action you have taken. I must confess that had I been in your position, I would have had to do the same thing.” I said to Admiral Denfeld, “I do not think you could handle that situation which has developed.” He said, “I know it.” I went on to then tell him of the position I proposed to offer him in London. . . .

If there was any reprisal involved, all I would have had to do would be to ask the President to remove Admiral Denfeld. I meticulously endeavored to protect him from anything like that. I did not want to hurt him.

I did not tell Admiral Denfeld about this request for his transfer before the President had approved it, because, if the President had not approved it, there would have been only one thing for me to tell Admiral Denfeld, and that would be “goodbye” as I packed and left for Omaha. I would not stay here. I could not.

Did you even stop to think: There are a lot more men involved in this hearing than Admiral Denfeld, and not a single one of them has been disturbed. That does not mean some of them will not be changed because some of them are due for change. I will be just as zealous as you are in safeguarding a man’s right to testify in Congress, or to answer any questions put to him by Congress, but that does not mean he will not be held accountable for what he says. If he reveals his thinking is biased or in opposition or diametrically opposed to that of his superiors, his superiors can not be expected to keep him in a job where he is opposed to the policies he is attempting to effectuate. He will be removed only from the position where it would be utterly illogical to keep him if you hope to have discipline or authority.

Full Transcript [PDF]


Dr. Barlow has been a historian with the Naval Historical Center's Contemporary History Branch since 1987. In addition to the award-winning history Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945-1950 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994), he has authored more than a dozen chapters in books dealing with World War II and the Cold War.

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