A Cold War incident known as the "Revolt of the Admirals" involved a number of retired and active-duty United States Navy admirals who publicly disagreed with President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson in their emphasis on strategic nuclear bombing executed by the United States Air Force as the primary means by which the nation and its interests were defended. The episode occurred in 1949 during a time wherein the administration was attempting to severely reduce military expenditures.
During World War II, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) had achieved a degree of independence from the United States Army, but the wartime presidential authority to reorganize the armed forces was due to expire six months after the end of the war, so in April 1944, the United States Congress began considering legislation for post-war organization. In response, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided that it would need to prepare a submission. On 9 May 1944, it appointed a Special Committee for Reorganization of National Defense under the chairmanship of Admiral James O. Richardson, a former Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, consisting of Major General William F. Tompkins from the War Department General Staff, Major General Harold L. George from the USAAF, Rear Admiral Malcolm F. Schoeffel and Colonel F. Trubee Davison, a former Assistant Secretary of War for Air.
The committee reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 11 April 1945. It endorsed creation of a single department of armed forces headed by a civilian secretary, with three equal services through the creation of an independent air force. Richardson dissented, favoring the status quo over a new department, but accepted the proposal to perpetuate the wartime Joint Chiefs of Staff and its various advisory committees by statute. Along these lines came the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which created with the National Security Council (NSC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and an independent United States Air Force (USAF). It created the National Military Establishment, a unified command with a cabinet-level Secretary of Defense to oversee the three service departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he lacked the authority and resources to exercise effective control over service departments and their chiefs. The Act left the Navy with the autonomy it sought and the its enactment seemed to end the debate.
Following the end of World War II, the United States Government was concerned about the large deficit spending that had been necessary for the war effort, which reached 119 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1946. President Harry S. Truman and his economic advisors were concerned about the prospect of inflation, which rose to 14.4 percent in 1947 after wartime price controls were removed. To reduce expenditures, the services had to draw down their forces quickly and return to a peacetime military. Defense budgets declined from $81 billion to $9 billion (37.5 percent to 3.5 percent of GDP). The services were reduced from 95 army and marine divisions to 12, from 213 air groups to 11, and from 1,166 warships to 343. Meanwhile, $13 billion went into the Marshall Plan, which commenced in 1948.
War plans were drafted for a potential conflict with the Soviet Union. It was not considered at all likely that the Soviet Union wanted to start a war, but the plans were prepared for the possibility that one might break out as a result of a miscalculation. The Soviet Union had fifty divisions in Germany and Austria, enough to quickly overrun Europe east of the Rhine. This was a major barrier, but it was not considered that it could be held for long, forcing a retreat to the Pyrenees. In view of the Soviet Union's overwhelming superiority in conventional forces, the planners felt that the United States had no alternative means of striking back other than a strategic air offensive employing both conventional and nuclear weapons.
The discussion of the post-war military flowed from General of the Army George C. Marshall's call for unification of the War Department and the Navy Department. Marshall believed that the services needed a unified overall command to better coordinate their activities, to save lives, and to minimize waste and redundancy. The generals from the United States Army Air Forces in 1946 believed that with the increased destructive power of the nuclear age, the question arose as to the value of conventional military forces. The Air Force generals believed that much of the forces of the other services were obsolete. They held that the future of national defense would lay with a long-range bomber force carrying nuclear weapons. This view was accepted by the administration as being correct, and the meaningful contribution of the other services came into jeopardy.
The generals of the newly formed Air Force propounded a new doctrine in which strategic bombing, particularly with nuclear weapons, was the sole decisive element necessary to win a future war and was therefore the sole means necessary to deter an adversary from launching a Pearl Harbor-like surprise attack or war against the United States. To implement this doctrine, which the Air Force and its supporters regarded as the highest national priority, the Air Force proposed that it should be funded by the Congress to build a fleet of U.S.-based long-range strategic heavy bombers. Air Force generals argued that this project should receive large amounts of funding, beginning with an upgraded B-36 Peacemaker intercontinental bomber. Air Force insistence on their monopoly for this strategic role also helped kill the Martin P6M SeaMaster, with four times the payload of the B-29 and twice the range.
The Navy, seeing an opportunity for funding to avoid the drawdown, disagreed. Pointing to the impact the Navy's carrier arm had on the outcome of the war in the Pacific, it argued that tactical naval power and carrier aviation were essential to maintaining national defense. Admiral Marc Mitscher, the former commander of the Fast Carrier Task Force, was one such officer who publicly commented on the value of the U.S. Navy in winning the war and its value in the future defense of the nation. Navy leadership believed that wars could not be won by strategic bombing alone. The Navy also held a moral objection to relying upon the widespread use of nuclear weapons to destroy the major population centers of an enemy homeland. The Navy pointed out that with the "supercarrier" ships it hoped to build in the future, naval aviation would be able to continue in its tactical role of close air support using modern aircraft and in addition would, the Navy believed, also be able to take on the strategic role of nuclear deterrence. USS United States (CVA-58) was designed to handle aircraft up to 100,000 pounds which, the Navy believed, would be large enough to carry the nuclear weapons of the day. Plans for the United States-class carriers called for them to carry up to 14 heavy bombers each with enough aviation fuel for eight bombing raids per plane. With a capability to run 112 nuclear weapon drops before resupply became necessary, the United States-class carriers would be capable of performing the nuclear deterrence mission. The admirals requested funding for the building of eight United States-class carriers over a five-year period.
Fiscally the Navy request was four times larger than the Air Force's request for funding while providing only a tenth of the combat bomber aircraft.
The first Secretary of Defense, former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, supported the Navy position and on 28 July 1948 authorized construction of United States with a production run of five ships. Of special note is the timing of this announcement to the November 1948 presidential elections. The President at this time was focused on campaigning from the back of a Pullman train doing "whistle stop" appearances all across the United States, covering almost 22,000 miles in total.
Following President Truman's re-election in November 1948, he "reminded Forrestal about fiscal spending goals" not being met within his Defense Department. In late February 1949 President Truman asked Forrestal to resign. The President did not believe Forrestal had adequate control over the various services, and Forrestal appeared unwilling to demand the cuts in the Navy that the president wanted. The drawdown for the Navy was well behind schedule and causing budgetary embarrassment for the administration with Congress.
The now-common procedure of in flight refueling was demonstrated in a circumnavigation of the globe by an Air Force B-50 completed on 2 March 1949 which set a new world non-stop flying record of 23,452 miles. The public relations impact of this milestone event resonated positively with the public and at nearly every level of government. The main Air Force argument in support of the B-36, compared to the proposed carrier United States, was cost, both in lives and money. Through some convincing calculations published in Reader's Digest, Air Force advocates contended that the cost of one super carrier and its task force was equal to 500 B-36s and exposed 242 times as many men to danger. Public opinion supported a "more bang for the buck" move to a "peacetime" military.
Fiscal 1951 proposed budgets, made public, cut the Navy's total allocation by an additional two-thirds from the already lean 1949 budget. This proposed budget was threatening to literally mothball what was left of the Navy (including all or nearly all of the carriers) reducing the Navy to little more than escort and cargo ships, transfer the Marines to the Army and all aviation assets to the Air Force.
In late March 1949, Truman fired Forrestal and replaced him with Louis A. Johnson. A former Assistant Secretary of War, he had been the primary fundraiser for Truman's campaign for the White House in 1948. Johnson had no qualms over supporting Truman's military budget reductions and fiscally preferred the Air Force's argument. The Air Force disliked the Navy's aircraft carriers, as they were an expensive asset the Air Force planners considered obsolete in the age of long range aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. Johnson, who was a staunch proponent of the nuclear capable bomber force, consequently sought to limit as much as possible the Navy's procurement of the new large carriers to conserve funds in the markedly reduced post-war military budget.
Less than a month after taking office, and without consulting Congress, Johnson ordered cancellation of United States on 23 April 1949. This vessel was the symbol and hope for the Navy's future, and its cancellation greatly demoralized the service. Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan and a number of high-ranking admirals resigned in protest effective 24 May 1949. Johnson did not seem disturbed by the resignations. His decision to cancel United States provided him with economy in the military budget needed to meet his budgetary goals, while demonstrating that he was in firm control of the military and able to make difficult decisions.
To replace Sullivan, Johnson recommended Francis P. Matthews for the position of Secretary of the Navy. A lawyer from Omaha, Nebraska, during the Second World War he had served as a director of the USO, a service organization that entertained the troops. He came to the attention of Johnson by assisting him with political fund raising for the 1948 Truman campaign. Upon being considered for the position, Matthews admitted the nearest he had come to naval experience was rowing a boat on a lake. On 24 May 1949 Truman made the appointment.
Said Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson:
There's no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We'll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.
On or about 17 May 1949, Secretary Johnson announced his intent to transfer the United States Marine Corps aviation assets to the Air Force. At this time his decisions were met with an uproar from Congress, in June, to "cease and desist" as investigative hearings were being called for. Any new or additional force changes had to be withdrawn and quietly dropped, as Congress announced hearings on matter related to "unification and strategy". With an initial focus on recent anonymous documents that inferred fraud and collusion on the part of the B-36 manufacturer Convair and Secretary of Defense Johnson.
A research group, Op-23, a naval intelligence unit formed in early 1948 by order of Admiral Louis E. Denfeld to advise the CNO on unification and later headed by Captain Arleigh A. Burke, had been gathering information to help defend the Navy's position, including material critical of the B-36's performance and capabilities. In late May 1949 an anonymous document which came to be known as the "Worth Paper" appeared. The document pointed out that prior to his posting as Secretary of Defense Johnson had been on the board of directors of Convair, the manufacturer of the B-36 bomber. It pointed out he had an apparent conflict of interest in representing the government with this manufacturer. It went on to claim that the B-36 was a "billion-dollar blunder" and alleged "fraud" on the part of B-36 contractors regarding: costs, capabilities and test results.
Secretary Johnson's idea of an executive was someone who gave orders, and those orders were to be carried out immediately and without question. When the naval officers had the audacity to question his decisions on weapons and strategy (such as the cancellation of the super carrier), he took that as a sign of unparalleled insubordination. When attacks appeared against his character, he wanted those responsible to be severely punished. This could explain the animosity he felt for the Navy at the time of the admirals' revolt.
The situation was exacerbated by a series of articles written for the public by Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. The final article in the series, "Don't Let Them Scuttle the Navy!", so angered Johnson that he wanted Admiral Gallery court-martialed for gross insubordination. Gallery was not made to sit before a court-martial, but he was passed over for promotion to vice admiral, effectively ending his career.
The first phase of the House Armed Services Committee hearing and investigation on "Unification and Strategy" was held 9–25 August 1949. The focus was on the allegations of fraud and corruption emanating from the "Worth Paper". The author of the "anonymous document" was determined to be Cedric R. Worth, a former Navy commander serving as a civilian assistant to Under Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball. Worth was called as a witness and testified before the House Investigating Committee. The committee found no substance to charges of improper interest relating to the roles of Johnson and Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington in aircraft procurement.The Air Force was exonerated of all charges of wrongdoing. At the conclusion, the committee recommended that Worth be fired. Following a naval court of inquiry, Worth was dismissed. The apparent vindication for Secretary Johnson and inappropriate work by Worth was an embarrassment to the Navy.
A second hearing convened in October focused upon the proposed reduction in the Navy and the cancellation of the USS United States project and the soundness of the proposed expansion of the strategic bomber forces. The Army and Air Force command testified that naval aviation should be used to reinforce the Air Force, but could not be used for sustained actions against long-range inland targets. Regarding the USS United States, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg commented: "I accept the military capability of this ship as stated by the Chief of Naval Operations. My opposition to building it comes from the fact that I can see no necessity for a ship with those capabilities in any strategic plan against the one possible enemy." The new Secretary of the Navy, Francis Matthews, announced that no Navy man would be censored or penalized for the testimony he offered at the hearing. The naval officers called to testify were expected to support Secretary Matthews, but instead officer after officer arose to testify that the Air Force reliance on the B-36 was inadequate for national defense, and that the entire strategy of atomic bombing was misguided.
Among the officers testifying from 6–17 October, were the naval leaders of World War II: Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, Raymond Spruance, Thomas Kinkaid, Richard Conolly, Robert Carney and Captain Arleigh Burke. Captain Burke had run tests which showed the Navy was already in possession of a fighter aircraft, the McDonnell F2H Banshee, that could reach high enough altitudes to intercept bombers like the B-36, and he knew it would be unreasonable to assume that an opposing major world power would not also have developed such an aircraft. In that case, the B-36 would need to be accompanied with long-range fighter escorts with the requisite range and ceiling to complete its mission, and the Air Force had no such fighter available in their inventory. The Air Force rebutted all previous testimony, point by point, with only Secretary of the Air Force Symington and Air Force General Vandenberg on 18–19 October. The remainder of the testimony before the House Armed Services Committee further weakened the already faltering Navy position. Of particular note were the arguments of General of the Army Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He stated that there would be no need in the future for an island-hopping campaign or large amphibious capabilities, and more importantly, strategic bombing was "our first-priority retaliatory weapon." Bradley made no attempt to hide his contempt for the Navy's methods during the case, and he directly accused senior naval officers of poor leadership, disloyalty, and being "completely against unity of command and planning".
The House Armed Services Committee found a number of actions taken by the administration and by the services involved to be overstepping. It held that evaluation of the B-36's worth was the responsibility of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, and that the services jointly should not pass judgment on weapons proposed by one service. On cancellation of the supercarrier, the committee questioned the qualifications of the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff, who had testified in support of Johnson's decision, to determine vessels appropriate for the Navy. In disapproving of Johnson's "summary manner" of terminating the carrier and his failure to consult congressional committees before acting, the committee stated that "national defense is not strictly an executive department undertaking; it involves not only the Congress but the American people as a whole speaking through their Congress. The committee can in no way condone this manner of deciding public questions." The committee expressed solid support for effective unification, but stated that "there is such a thing as seeking too much unification too fast" and observed that "there has been a navy reluctance in the inter-service marriage, an over-ardent army, a somewhat exuberant air force ... It may well be stated that the committee finds no unification Puritans in the Pentagon."
Representative Clarence Cannon, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, when justifying the cancellation of the carrier United States and the need for more strategic bombers, stated, "We must hit within one week after the war starts and it can be done only by land-based planes such as we now have."
During the hearings public opinion shifted strongly against the Navy. The Navy's tendency to favor covert approaches to public relations resulted in efforts during the revolt being perceived as deceitful and underhanded. Op-23's use of questionable documents that made use of false capability limitations regarding "strategic bombing myths" damaged the Navy's credibility before the House Armed Services Committee during the October 1949 testimonies. Throughout 1949 the Air Force public relations machine had been extremely effective, using aviation magazines and other widely circulated press organizations to publish informative articles, garnering support both in Congress and directly with the American people. "What drives a distinguished group of admirals to denounce strategic bombing while pleading for the means with which to conduct it, to find the A-bomb immoral in the hands of the Air Force but quite moral in the hands of the Navy?" (Time Magazine) The Philadelphia Inquirer captured the mood, as reported by the popular press, best. "The Navy brass can contribute to national safety by dropping their guerilla warfare against the other services and endeavor by forthright, constructive criticism to improve on defense strategy." The Washington Post added: "A real meeting of minds can not be achieved until both sides are willing to play on the same team, and right now the burden of proof is on the Navy." A Gallup poll conducted on 15 October showed an overwhelming 74% of voters favoring the Air Force role in any future war, with only 4% favoring the Navy.
After the hearings, Secretary Matthews set about punishing those officers who had testified and were still actively serving in the Navy, in defiance of his own public promise not to do so. Admiral Denfeld (Op-23's creator) was first to go; he was summarily relieved on Navy Day, October 27, 1949. Matthews explained that he and Denfeld disagreed widely on strategic policy and unification. Matthews then had Vice Admiral William H. P. Blandy reassigned to a rear admiral posting, an assignment below the standing of his rank; he subsequently retired. Vice Admiral Gerald F. Bogan also chose to retire rather than face assignment to a position of lesser authority. Secretary Matthews ordered him to a posting in a rear admiral's billet the week before he retired, preventing the "tombstone" promotion to four stars he would have otherwise received. Op-23 was disbanded but not before the Inspector General's office seized all documents. Captain John G. Crommelin, an outspoken antagonist, continued to openly speak out against the system and the "trend toward military dictatorship;" he was sent home to Alabama on 15 March 1950 on "extended furlough" with half pay. In December, an attempt was made by Matthews and Johnson to block the promotion of Captain Burke by lining out his name from the promotion list, but this was seen and reversed by the direct intervention of President Truman.
The House Armed Services Committee condemned the dismissal of Admiral Denfeld by Secretary Matthews, concluding that Denfeld's removal was a reprisal because of his testimony to Congress. The Committee asserted that such actions taken by the executive branch posed a challenge to effective representative government.
The Truman administration essentially won the conflict with the Navy, and civilian control over the military was reaffirmed. Military budgets following the hearings prioritized the development of Air Force heavy bomber designs, accumulating a combat ready force of over 1,000 long-range strategic bombers capable of supporting nuclear mission scenarios. These were deployed across the country and at dozens of overseas bases. The Air Force portion of the total defense budget significantly grew, while the Navy's and Army's portion of the total defense budget was reduced.
The Korean War decisively saved the postwar Navy and Army. Within six months, on 25 June 1950, the Korean War broke out and the U.S. was forced to confront an invading army with the forces it had on hand. The Truman administration immediately decided not to use the nuclear arsenal, and sought to check North Korean aggression with conventional forces.
As an initial response, Truman called for a naval blockade of North Korea, and was shocked to learn that such a blockade could only be imposed "on paper", since the U.S. Navy no longer had the warships with which to carry out his request. In fact, due to the extensive defense cuts and the emphasis placed on building a nuclear bomber force, none of the services was in a position to make a robust response with conventional military strength.
Shortly after the North Korean attacks began, Defense Secretary Johnson made requests for an increase in defense appropriations and promised the Navy would soon get approval for a new "supercarrier" project. The secretary hastily proposed a supplemental appropriation request of $10.5 billion (an increase of 79%), bringing the total requested to $23.8 billion. In making the additional request, Johnson informed a House appropriations subcommittee that "in light of the actual fighting that is now in progress, we have reached the point where the military considerations clearly outweigh the fiscal considerations."
Preoccupied with public criticism of his handling of the Korean War, and wishing to deflect attention from the peacetime defense economy measures he had previously espoused, Truman decided to ask for Johnson's resignation. The president realized he now needed a Secretary that had the confidence of all three services, preferably one with significant military experience. Within three months of the start of the conflict Johnson was dismissed from his position as Secretary of Defense. He was replaced by the soldier and statesman George Marshall, one of the original architects for the unification of the defense branches. Marshall deferred "overall unification" issues until after the fighting stopped, but did insist on "regional unification" to "optimize combat" efforts and operations.
The Korean War made it clear that aircraft carriers were still a primary means of projecting conventional force and enforcing U.S. foreign policy. The B-36 had little place in the conflict, as the Air Force was not willing to risk the aircraft in combat in Korea, though it did find some use as a high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
The Navy, after two years of delays, did get a new "supercarrier" design. Launched in October 1955, Forrestal  at 60,000 tons was 1.5 times the size of World War II Midway-class carriers. She featured an armoured flight deck just large enough and sturdy enough to land a heavy bomber carrying a small nuclear bomb. The ship was also equipped with steam catapult launchers to assist the heavier nuclear bombers in getting airborne. The flight deck was angled, allowing the new carrier to launch and recover aircraft at the same time. Development of thermonuclear weapons yield and enrichment significantly increased the weight of the nuclear bomb load well beyond original expectations. The AJ Savage and Skywarrior are two examples of nuclear bombers which operated from US Navy land-based airfields but not aircraft carriers, in the early and mid 1950s. After nuclear weapon size reduction occurred the Skywarrior may have accomplished a nuclear mission while operating off carriers after 1957. These bombers were then converted to support photo reconnaissance and refueling tanker roles, respectively.