On 1 July 1970, Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr., was sworn in as the Navy’s 19th Chief of Naval Operations. At age 49, he was the youngest CNO in history, and his three decades of experience had taught him that traditional methods of change often led to the slow death of initiatives, that nontraditional ideas usually were swallowed up by a slow process of approval made slower by the reluctance of conservative senior commanders. 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 also had the corollary effect of creating vehement factions.
Most controversial of Zumwalt’s methods were his “Z-grams,” most of which were designed to counter personnel retention problems in the Navy. Responding to a mandate given him by the incumbent Secretaries of Defense and the Navy to “bring the Navy into the modern age,” Zumwalt kept to his philosophy that unconventional changes needed unconventional methods of implementation if they were to succeed. He announced new initiatives—some of them quite radical—by sending his Z-grams directly to all personnel in the Navy.
The personnel changes wrought by the Z-grams generally were popular among the younger officers and enlisted men, less so among more senior personnel. Some senior officers and petty officers lauded the changes but resented the use of so unconventional a method of bringing them about—seeing it as bypassing the chain of command. Another oft-repeated complaint was the rapidity with which the Z-grams appeared, making it difficult to keep up with the latest changes.
The results were indisputable, however. Never in the history of the Navy had such sweeping changes taken place. Gone were many of the “chicken regs” that had long been a point of contention among naval personnel. Suddenly the family and the individual had taken on a new significance, and in Zumwalt’s first year in office, first-term reenlistments rose from 10 to 17 percent. Changing the Navy’s image as a “humorless, tradition-bound, starchy institution” captured the attention of the national media, putting the CNO on the cover of Time magazine, landing him an interview in Playboy, and making him the most famous admiral since Halsey and Nimitz had captured the attention of the American public during World War II.
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 “countercultural revolution” were commonplace, when racial tensions and dissension 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 the personalized target that he had become. It is difficult to discern what the effects might have been had he not come along at a time when chicken regs and a countercultural 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.” Both views are certainly arguable, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
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.”