The first great civilian-military dustup following World War II was not President Harry S. Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur in 1951. Rather, it came in 1949, when a small group of senior Navy officers took public their feuds with Department of Defense (DoD) civilian leaders, the Army, and the Air Force over the strategy to defeat a Soviet invasion of Europe and the allocation of scarce budget dollars. The incident was called “The Revolt of the Admirals.”
Anand Toprani has studied and written about the revolt. He joined me to discuss what transpired and why some of the underlying factors that caused the revolt may still be around today.
Commander Christopher Nelson:
Dr. Toprani, briefly, what was the “Revolt of the Admirals”?
Anand Toprani: The “revolt” was an effort by Navy officers—not just admirals, either, as then–Captain Arleigh Burke was deeply implicated—in 1949 to oust Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, whom they viewed as hostile to the Navy, particularly its carrier aviation capability. There were two stages to the revolt. In the first, a civilian employee of the Navy (and a naval reservist) fabricated and then leaked to a sympathetic congressman (a retired reservist) an “Anonymous Document” accusing Johnson and Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington of corruption for favoring the procurement of the B-36 heavy bomber. Navy officers were opposed to the Air Force and Army’s preferred wartime strategy of relying on strategic bombing to deter or halt a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and feared that resources for a strategic-bombing force would come at the expense of the Navy—specifically its carriers. The publication of the “Anonymous Document” inspired congressional hearings in August that vindicated Johnson and Symington, as well as embarrassed the Navy.
In the second stage, a Navy officer attached to the Joint Staff upped the ante by releasing internal Navy correspondence alleging that Johnson’s policies—including the cancellation of the first “supercarrier” [USS United States (CVA-58)] back in April—were harmful to the Navy’s morale and detrimental to national security. This exposé led to another round of hearings in October, in which senior Navy officers publicly broke with Secretary Johnson and Navy Secretary Francis Matthews and criticized the current fetish for strategic bombing as immoral and ineffective.
Nelson: Who were some of the most important personalities of the revolt?
Toprani: Among the key personalities were Secretary Johnson, who had served as Assistant Secretary of War in 1937–40 and believed strategic bombing was a cost-effective way of deterring or defeating a Soviet invasion of Western Europe; Admiral Arthur Radford (later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), the most high-profile of the aviators who dominated the postwar Navy; and Admiral Louis Denfeld, the Chief of Naval Operations in 1947–49, who waged a number of battles with the other services over joint war plans and tried to serve as mediator between Johnson and the Navy’s senior leaders, who despised the secretary as a political hack.
Nelson: Historically, what was the strategic document that led to the interservice rivalry over the defense budget that then led to the revolt?
Toprani: The cause of revolt will not be found in a single document. Rather, it arose from a mismatch between the United States’ expansive postwar conception of its national security and the demands for fiscal orthodoxy, which were widespread across Washington in the wake of World War II. Basically, senior officials wanted a global U.S. presence but did not want to pay for it either with taxes or through deficits. President Truman put his faith in universal military training (the nucleus for a wartime army) and foreign aid programs such as the Marshall Plan, but neither was politically popular.
The military services offered two competing military strategies to square the circle: The Air Force advocated strategic bombing launched from Great Britain using conventional and atomic weapons against Soviet population and industrial targets, while the Navy stressed sea control around Europe (especially the Mediterranean) to launch strikes against Soviet military forces. Both strategies were designed to buy time—that is, to bleed the Soviet Union until the United States could fully mobilize its economy for war.
Nelson: What is “differential accumulation”? Is this something endemic to the U.S. budget process—then and now?
Toprani: “Differential accumulation” is a concept I have borrowed from a couple of Marxist economists. They argue that firms are less interested in profit maximization than “to beat the average” rate of return within their sector of the economy. That is because power essentially is a relative proposition—a larger relative share of resources will allow one firm to exercise greater political control over its rivals.
The same logic applies to interservice rivalry. Feuding with civilians—whether in the executive or legislative branches—is politically toxic and antithetical to American civil-military norms. Power in this situation comes from control over the allocation of resources—today, through the programming portion of the budgetary process. If you control programming, you can lock in funding for projects that have lifespans in the decades and are too costly to cut.
The “Holy Grail” in the 1940s was control over the delivery of nuclear weapons. If the Air Force monopolized their use by sole ownership of strategic bombing, it would preserve its independence and perhaps absorb some of the Navy’s aviation assets. Many within the Navy were skeptical of strategic bombing, but it was clear that the Navy could not allow the Air Force to monopolize it. Accordingly, it designed its first “supercarrier” to launch planes with a sufficient wingspan to fly long-range bombing missions.
Because the military is not a monolithic entity but rather represents a variety of institutions with unique, sometimes even competing, values, competition over resource allocation is bound to be cutthroat. For one side to lose would not merely be analogous to a firm going out of business; an entire subculture of warfighting might vanish. That is simply unacceptable to the men and women raised within those subcultures, who see it as their mission as senior leaders to preserve the institutions that shaped them.
Nelson: So, did the revolt of the admirals then have a cathartic effect that inspired greater cooperation among the services over the years?
Toprani: That is the conventional view of most historians who have looked at the revolt—but I think it’s mistaken. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and the adoption of National Security Council Paper 68 (NSC-68) later that year temporarily solved the budgetary issue by locking in large postwar defense budgets as a permanent fixture of U.S. national security. But interservice rivalry remained bitter in the decade that followed, even if it stayed out of the public limelight. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretaries of Defense trusted the services to develop budgets under the “topline” the Treasury had established, but this proved impossible. Because services still could not agree on a division of labor (what we call “roles and missions” today), they simply developed their requests individually and totaled them up before submitting them to the Secretary.
Not surprisingly, their requests were well in excess of the “topline”—usually as a result of supporting duplicative weapon systems so that no one service could claim a particular function for itself. The President and his secretaries were not happy, but there was not much they could do about it. On more than one occasion, the service chiefs refused to make the necessary cuts and simply challenged Ike and his secretaries to make them themselves. This usually meant an across-the-board cut rather than one that fell disproportionately on one service.
Who really had a cathartic effect was Robert McNamara. He was determined to impose real civilian control over resource allocation through the application of a planning, programming, and budgeting system coordinated by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. McNamara initially made tremendous strides in two ways: He forced the services to justify their spending priorities through quantitative measures of effectiveness, as opposed to only “military” (i.e., subjective) judgment; and he played a form of “divide and rule” to isolate opposition to his priorities.
To cut a long story short, the services got wise to McNamara’s game and reacted in two ways. First, they agreed to manage their feuds among themselves and present a unified front before the executive and legislative branches. Second, they appropriated McNamara’s analytical tools and subsumed them within the services, and they today generate the Program Objective Memorandum that serves as the cornerstone of the defense budget.
Nelson: Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Gilday recently said the Navy needs more money if it wants to get to a 355-ship navy. And he said, “A one-third, one-third, one-third cut does not reflect the strategy.” Money needs to shift. Are we entering a similar budget showdown with the other services?
Toprani: Wait and see. Admiral Gilday is making two pretty bold claims. First, that there is consensus about the direction of future U.S. strategy, and second, that the Navy is best prepared to implement that strategy. The other services naturally disagree, and on its face, the current situation has some similarities to that of the 1940s.
But the argument Gilday and his detractors are having is somewhat disingenuous. For one thing, there is no “one-third” split—rather, the defense budget is divided among the services and a host of DoD agencies whose relative share has been rising since McNamara’s time. The Navy has been trying to offload some of its spending priorities on those same DoD agencies so its relative share does not increase—this was a game the Navy tried with Polaris [the first submarine-launched ballistic missile], and it appears to be doing the same with Columbia [an upcoming class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines designed to replace the Ohio class].
The big problem I have is making bets about the future. Let’s leave aside the fact that conventional warfare with a nuclear-armed rival may be impossible. Are we focused on the right sorts of emergencies? The chiefs of the 1940s focused on a mythical Soviet steamroller that never came. The Cold War was not fought in Europe, but rather in colonial or Third World countries, starting with Korea. No one really foresaw where the fight would take place or put much thought into waging “limited” wars—i.e., conflicts that would not end with the enemy’s overthrow and therefore obviate the need for restraint when applying force.
Gilday wants more money essentially for legacy platforms to wage a particular kind of state-on-state conflict. (Leaving aside the question of manned vs. unmanned ships, I note here that the Navy has put little thought into acquiring the human capital and infrastructure required to build and maintain these ships.) But what really concerns me is that all of these leaders are not taking into account a threat that the services long ago realized was existential—climate change. Do we really want to upend the budgetary truce to invest in assets that are not resistant to climate change or capable of dealing with the resulting challenges? Are the Columbia-class submarines, for instance, really going to do much to stem the tide of refugees that will be on the move because of rising sea levels and surface temperatures?
Nelson: What do we fix? Are we locked in the terminal cycle of personalities weighing in on who and what services deserve the most money in the budget?
Toprani: The problem is the same since before unification of the War and Navy Departments in 1947. We have competing institutions that are resistant to external control and are able to take advantage of the diffuse distribution of power within the U.S. government to defend their prerogatives. The easy answer would be centralization, either under an all-powerful Secretary of Defense or a true military chief of staff, but aside from the fact that such centralization may not be compatible with liberal democratic values, there is always a risk when relying on one person or institution’s judgment concerning the nation’s long-term priorities. The best argument the Navy made against unification in the 1940s was that centralization would stifle creativity and create a military that was too inflexible to deal with unexpected contingencies. A larger Navy, the admirals of the 1940s argued, would be more supple than an Air Force designed to fulfill only a single role—strategic bombing.
Alas, the Navy today does not appear to want a balanced force capable of meeting a diverse set of challenges. It has a specific enemy in mind and is devising various ways of overcoming the operational challenges while ignoring the overall strategic problem—how does the Navy use force to accomplish political aims? But perhaps I am being unfair to the services, because there is a profound lack of agreement nationwide as to what the wider aims should be.
What I fear is that we are a victim of our own success. Institutions rarely reform themselves in the wake of success—losing is usually the prerequisite. How many sports teams fire their coaches or trade their star players after winning championships? “Rebuilding” takes place once it is clear the existing asset portfolio is yielding diminishing returns. The U.S. military, to an extent, is coasting on its achievements during World War II. Its track record since 1945 has been decidedly mixed, but the scale of the defeats or setbacks has not been large enough to encourage wholescale reform. I fear we will not rethink our modus operandi without either some sort of catastrophic military defeat or the rise of new threats (e.g., climate change, additional pandemics, etc.) that make a mockery of our prior assumptions.
Nelson: Last question: What books or articles should we read to understand more about the revolt?
Toprani: My first suggestion is Demetrios James Caraley’s classic work, The Politics of Military Unification. Unification was one of the greatest transformations in the history of the U.S. military, but it is remarkably under-studied, and Caraley’s book has remained the gold standard since it was published in 1966.
The second source is the work of David Alan Rosenberg, which is scattered among a number of articles, book chapters, and government reports. Because he was a naval reservist and a government employee or contractor, Rosenberg had access to classified or recently declassified sources on the history of the U.S. Navy at the start of the Cold War. The Navy’s records are a nightmare for historians because of their disorganization. Rosenberg, however, got a hold of his sources during processing at what is today the Naval History and Heritage Command. He then used these sources to structure interviews with many of the men who had served as midlevel officers tasked with devising and implementing naval strategy in the 1940s and later became the Navy’s senior leaders—Arleigh Burke, George Anderson, etc. Other historians built on Rosenberg’s work—I am thinking here of Jeffrey G. Barlow, who wrote the most detailed history of the revolt—but none have surpassed it.
The final source is Melvyn P. Leffler’s Preponderance of Power (Stanford University Press, 1993), which is the definitive study of national security policy and strategy during the Truman administration. At the start of a new great power rivalry, it feels oddly relevant. Leffler shows how unanimity over the aims of policy and even the broad outlines of national strategy could nonetheless produce bureaucratic dysfunction. Most important, he demonstrates the importance of reassessment. The U.S. government put a remarkable amount of thought into postwar planning—it started the process before it even entered World War II. But by 1947–48, it was clear that many of the strategies it hoped would accomplish its political ends had to be replaced. It is a credit to the “wise men” of the 1940s that they made the necessary adjustments.