The Revolt of the Admirals: The Perspective of the General Board

President Truman signing H.R. 5632, the National Security Act Amendments of 1949. (Photo: National Archives)

This article has been adapted from Chapter 9 of the author’s larger work on the General Board, America’s First General Staff (Naval Institute Press, 2017). Published with the author’s permission.

The passage of the 1947 National Security Act (NSA 1947) can be rightly identified as the causative agent of what became known to history as “The Revolt of the Admirals.”  At the same time, the organization that might have served as the nerve center for such a result, the General Board of the Navy (and where it had been the center for several low-level revolts in the past),  played a decidedly muted role in all that went on.  Instead, the newer and more powerful office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OpNav) served as the locus for what became a major civil-military relations crisis in 1949.[1]

The General Board, once mighty until World War II, and now rejuvenated by the appointment of the retired Admiral John Towers might easily have then faded again into insignificance once Towers retired for good and Forrestal “fleeted up” from Secretary of the Navy (SecNav) to the new post of Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) per the National Security Act of 1947.  That it did not is due to several factors:  the new CNO, the new SecNav, and the continuing service of Towers’ handpicked lieutenants (especially Admiral “Soc” McMorris and Captain Arleigh Burke). Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz retired nearly at the same time as Towers.  His replacement, Admiral Louis Denfield, had been serving as Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers).

Denfield might have reflected his position on the value of the General Board in a report in late 1945 for Forrestal delineating flag officer billets for the post-war Navy.  Denfield recommended retention of the General Board with a complement of seven admirals.   In another sign of his probable esteem and empathy for the Board, Denfield recommended upgrading the chairman’s rank from vice admiral to full admiral.  This was precisely what Forrestal did when he brought Towers in to serve as chairman.  The tone of the communications between the Board and the CNO became more cordial than it had been under Nimitz.   The Board was to do some of its most interesting work under Denfield until the fight over naval aviation in 1949 witnessed the departure of SecNav John Sullivan (formerly Assistant SecNav) and removal of Denfield.[2]   At the same time, the General Board decreased in size slightly, shrinking down to seven members (including only three admirals) with Towers’ departure.

A scan of the subjects assigned for the Board to study in 1948 reveals its new scope and charter.   Beginning in January, Sullivan referred to it several very important policy topics, including:  “Functions of the Navy in support of a National War Effort,”  “Composition and cost of Reserve Fleets,” and revision of the “Naval Policy.”[3]   Just as in 1922, the SecNav had turned to the General Board for an overall policy document under the new defense regime instituted by the NSA 1947.  The idea of potential war, too, was very much on the minds of naval leaders at the highest levels, although it was at odds with the continuing demobilization and costs for maintaining some of the ships of the huge World War II legacy fleet in various states of readiness.

By the summer SecNav ordered another naval policy review, but more importantly, Sullivan turned to the General Board for a long-range recommendation for the design of the navy for the next decade (1951-1960).   Arleigh Burke undertook the task of overseeing this study.   The process had actually started the previous November under Towers with a top-secret memorandum to the CNO that in turn had been stimulated by Joint Strategic Plans Committee (JSPC) seeking the Board’s “…views…as to the Naval Operating Forces which will be required in Fiscal Year 1955, particularly as such information pertains to naval aviation.”[4]   Thus the Board became involved in two of the most important naval issues of the day—the Navy of the future and the role of naval aviation in that future.  The initial report by Burke in November 1947 emphasized that “The only major war likely to occur between now and fiscal 1955 is a war instigated by the USSR against the United States.”

Burke went on to emphasize his (and presumably the other Board members’) view of what navy that threat should be designed for:  “The USSR will not intentionally risk such a war until she is fully prepared to fight with, in addition to her land forces, an air force, a submarine force, and possibly a guided missile force capable of delivering an effective surprise attack on industrial and military centers within the continental United States, our principal advance bases, and our lines of communications as the initial, hostile act.”   The report also emphasized that the Board should use “history as a guide,” especially recent history—thus the notion that a Pearl Harbor type attack using new modern missiles, possibly on submarines or other ships, must be considered in construction and building decisions.

It made sense that naval aviation figured prominently as one means to keep this threat as far as possible from vital targets overseas as well as in the continental heartland.   Just as important, however, were US submarines, both in the attack and as radar pickets.  This view of future warfare helps understand better the selection of Denfield, a submariner, as CNO and the alignment of Burke and the Board in this matter.[5]   At the same time, the Board was receiving updates from JCS staff papers (presumably those of the Joint Strategic Plans Committee) “each Friday.”[6]

By June 1948 the analysis had expanded and included political and economic factors as well as military—each area getting its own enclosure.  The study’s scope reminds one of George Kennan’s work.  Possibly Burke or other members had read Kennan’s famous 1947 article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs.[7]  The study emphasized the ongoing concern over defense unification as a means to highlight the need to resolve these disputes to better formulate strategy:  “The controversy which accompanied the attempts to merge the armed forces has not died out.  The paramount interests of national security demand an atmosphere of harmony and unanimity of purpose in the military establishment and allow no room for unhealthy service jealousies and for bickering and jockeying for favored position.”  The authors found that Europe and the “Middle East” were the two most “critical points of contact in a war with Russia.”[8]

Enclosure D of the study discussed the Navy’s “contribution” inside a “harmonious” military establishment.  The study made several predictions, including an estimate that the USSR would have atomic bombs by no later than 1952 ready for use in war and that the US would not initiate a “preventative war.”[9] In a later section it discussed the most urgent threats to aircraft carrier-centered forces as aircraft and submarines.  It also emphasized the need for a large flush deck carrier to allow for the operation of larger aircraft to carry atomic bombs as well as to intercept attacking aircraft at better stand-off ranges (presumably due to atomic bomb-equipped aircraft from the USSR).   Other “lessons learned” from World War II appeared in the form of an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare to counter a Soviet unrestricted submarine war similar to that of the Germans as well as the seizure of advanced bases on the periphery of the USSR to project power against the Soviet industrial base.[10]

The completed top-secret report was then forwarded to Secretary Sullivan with the recommendation to provide copies to the secretaries of Defense (Forrestal), the Army, and the Air Force.  At the same time, it included a withering critique of the readiness of all US military forces to engage in a war with the USSR, focusing in particular on the poor readiness as a result of budget economies that had left the US Navy bereft of ASW craft, submarines, aircraft, and with only eleven attack aircraft carriers.   It also emphasized the delineation of “roles and missions” at Key West the year before had done little to solve the problem of inter-service rivalries and dis-unity of command.[11]  Forrestal undoubtedly agreed with almost everything in the report, but one can see how these positions, especially the Board’s assessment of abysmal military readiness (among other things), might rub members of the Truman administration the wrong way.

Forrestal’s demise—and his protection as SECDEF of the General Board—was not long in coming.   During the 1948 presidential campaign, it leaked out that he was willing to serve in a subsequent democratic administration.  His principled opposition to further cuts and subordination of the Navy to a centralized, Army-Air Force controlled defense establishment further alienated him with those services and the President.  In March 1949, after his unexpected re-election, Truman replaced Forrestal with Louis Johnson as SECDEF.[12]  Johnson believed in economizing via reliance on air power to justify cuts. With Forrestal out of the way and an election mandate from the American people for Truman, Johnson adopted the attitude of the Army and Air Force vis-à-vis naval aviation and the Marine Corps.  During the civil-military conflict known to history as “The Revolt of the Admirals” Johnson informed Admiral Richard Connolly:

“Admiral, the Navy is on its way out.  Now, take amphibious operations.  There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps.  General Bradley…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 nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”[13]

However, the General Board was not the lightning rod at the center of this major policy dispute in peacetime in the Navy—even though it supported Denfield and a strong role for naval aviation in the current defense structure.  Shortly after helping write the “Ten Year” study, Burke left the Board for command of the cruiser Huntington.  McMorris left as chairman the month prior.  The Board was now under the leadership of the two-star admiral, although his heir apparent RADM Allan McCann could be categorized as an “up and comer.”[14]   Because of the perceived shortcomings in the original “Ten Year” study, another was commissioned for the Board shortly after Burke’s departure in an effort to come up with a compromise.  The resulting study had no more effect outside the Navy than its predecessor and might be regarded as the last national policy study the Board performed.[15]

Burke’s work for the General Board attracted high-level attention and in late 1948 Denfield decided to use his policy expertise inside CNO, moving him from command and making him head of a new organization, OP-23, devoted exclusively to unification policy issues.[16]   Burke’s OP-23 became the lightning rod instead of the General Board during the Revolt of the Admirals in the summer and fall of 1949.   This episode in naval history has been dealt with at length elsewhere, but its impact on the existence of the General Board, which was not heavily involved, was significant.  For SECDEF Johnson, the Navy’s resistance to a strategy that relied almost entirely on airpower for power projection in a possible nuclear war with the USSR had created a deep rift.   Additionally, conflict overuse of the B-36 bomber versus a “supercarrier,” or both, also underlay the conflict.[17]

The series of events characterized as “revolt” started not long after Johnson took over from Forrestal. Johnson initiated a series of actions that caused an eventual house-cleaning of the top leadership of the Navy—both civilian and senior officers—although it is unlikely that this is exactly what Johnson intended. The first to go was Secretary John Sullivan, who resigned shortly after Johnson canceled the contract to finish building the supercarrier United States –capable of launching nuclear-armed Navy bombers—in April 1949.[18]  Sullivan’s replacement, Francis P. Matthews, was a political appointee with no experience with the Navy.  He shared Johnson’s policy views on defense and the Navy’s subordinate role to the Air Force in strategy.[19]   Matthews took charge during a period when Congressional opinion of the Navy had been damaged by the perception of official Navy misbehavior, if not misconduct, in a series of hearings on the B-36 before Congress.   Burke and Vice CNO Arthur Radford worried about this perception and organized a series of hearings that fall (1949) to try to redeem the situation.  At the same time, Burke worked under increasingly difficult conditions when McCann was pulled from the General Board in June and assigned as Navy Inspector General, his charter being to investigate Burke, among others.[20]

The crisis came to a head when Radford and others began testifying to Congress early in October.  Their reasoned testimony, supported by Burke’s office despite the seizure of its files, impressed Congressional observers and did much to retrieve the Navy’s reputation with the branch of government that could hurt it most.  The climax came on 13 October—ironically the day celebrated as the US Navy’s birthday—with Denfield’s testimony.  The CNO made an impassioned appeal for a robust defense policy not based solely on the “self-sufficiency of air power….”[21]   Johnson and Matthews interpreted this as disloyalty and removed Denfield as CNO not long after, although Denfield remained on active service.  Forrest Sherman, who had stayed in the background on the unification debates, became the CNO.  It has been argued by some historians that Radford’s, Burke’s, and finally Denfield’s actions saved naval aviation (and possibly the Marine Corps as well).   However, at the time this was far from certain.   By June 1950 the Navy’s component of aircraft carriers was on the blocks to go as low as six on active duty with only one on station in the Western Pacific when the forces of North Korea invaded South Korea.   This war—which confirmed predictions made in the Board’s 1948 study—had as big a role in saving naval aviation and the Marine Corps, and a large conventional Navy for sea control, as did the actions of Navy officers during the “revolt.”[22]

The General Board might be regarded as collateral damage due to the “revolt.”  However, it is not completely clear if the revolt was anything more than a contributing factor rather than the proximate cause of the Board’s disestablishment at the beginning of 1951, more than a year later.  Little in the minutes and hearings of its activities references the momentous events in Congress, Burke’s OP-23 and with the CNO.   During August 1949 the Board did look at two potentially controversial topics—one on the Army’s “General Staff System Applicability to the Navy.”   Army Colonel Kilbourne Johnston of the Office of the Army Comptroller and “leading expert” on the Army system testified to the Board on 9 August.  In his opening comments he said of the Board:

“In my organization studies extending over a period of seventeen years, the Navy General Board has always appeared to me to be the epitome of the pure general staff theory.  I think you will see as I develop my subject that in my own mind at least there is a grave doubt whether or not the Navy does not have a General Staff much closer to that conceived of by the Germans in the early part of the nineteenth century [than the Army]…” [23]

Unfortunately, Secretary Matthews was not present to hear this rather astonishing judgment by an Army officer on the value of the General Board.  The Board recommended that a specialized and centralized general staff corps not be adopted and that the current OpNav organization be retained without major changes “…until the full impact of the implementation of the National Security Act Amendments of 1949…on the Department of the Navy is known….”  It also emphasized that this system resulted in “a high degree of civilian participation” but neglected its own significant role in assisting that participation.[24]  Better reflecting Matthews’ concerns was another hearing two days later on “Organization of the Navy Department” with testimony by two “management engineers”—although it was clear that this hearing was closely related to whatever findings might emerge from the general staff discussions.   Most of this discussion centered on how general staff functions and operations of the fleet had been concentrated under Admiral Ernest King as an expedient measure in wartime.[25]

However, as the crisis of the revolt came to a head in September the General Board record was silent.   It turned in its report on the General Staff on 19 August and the next set of minutes does not appear until 19 September 1949, after Denfield’s testimony was complete.  The record simply picks up at the point with “business as usual,” announcing that VADM Harry W. Hill had reported as chairman.   Hill had extensive combat experience in command of amphibious operations in World War II from Tarawa to Okinawa and had recently formed the National War College in Washington as its first commandant.  His first order of business was to have the Board consider questions submitted to it by the Secretary of the Navy, although the record is silent about what these questions were.  Perhaps they involved the recent unpleasantness with CNO.[26]   These questions might be the reason that at the same time the Board began to plan for various field trips to naval bases and facilities from Key West to the West Coast in October.  The record never specifies what its answers were, or even if they were forwarded to the Secretary—but if they were about recent events they did not cause Matthews to dissolve the Board.  The hearings reflect no perturbations in routine either; on 4 October a secret hearing was held about integrating guided missiles onto surface ships and then much of the remainder of the month was spent on the aforementioned field trip.[27]   In mid-November the Board picked up its routine again, looking at the “Relationship of the importance of the various budgetary programs to maintain the most effective Navy.”  It would work this project until March of the following year.  At this time the Board consisted of VADM Hill, two rear admirals, two captains (one as secretary), and one Marine colonel.[28]

The demise of the General Board came not long after, quietly and without fanfare, much in the same way, the General Board had been created in 1900.  At first, things seemed back to “ops normal,” but before long the Board’s old enemies inside the OpNav organization again made an issue of fleet design oversight, claiming that the Ships’Characteristics Board (SCB) inside OpNav obviated the Board’s historic role in prioritizing and reviewing ship designs.  RADM G.H. Fort recommended that the current way of doing business, as ironed out by Towers nearly two years before, be retained.[29]  This may have proved the proximate cause for both CNO and SecNav to reexamine the necessity for the Board.  Its policy work could be done by RADM Burke’s Strategic Plans Division inside OpNav (OP-30), the SCB could handle its ships’ characteristics function, and the reconciliation of materiel ends, ways and means was now the province of a new Material Review Board created in December 1950.[30]  The “Revolt” had removed any powerful partisans like Denfield and Sullivan who may have protected the General Board, to say nothing of Forrestal (who may have committed suicide).  It simply had too many enemies in OpNav, which now controlled the Navy absolutely.

* * *

On 16 January 1951 CNO Admiral Forrest Sherman informed Fort of the “dissolution” of the Board by “appropriate changes to U.S. Navy Regulations, 1948.”  No reason was provided.   SecNav Matthews apparently did not even tell the Board directly of his decision, although perhaps he had delegated the CNO to make this decision in the previous August.   Too, the Korean War might have saved naval aviation and the Marines, but wartime had never served to highlight the utility of the Board while at the same time highlight the importance of OpNav.[31]  The Board passed quietly into the mists of history, like a ship cutting through an empty patch of ocean.

[1] For a complete history of the General Board, and especially its civil-military relations with various administrations, see the author’s  America’s First General Staff:  A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the General Board of the Navy, 1900-1950 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). This article comes from research for that work, especially chapter 9.

[2] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group (RG 80), CNO Correspondence, BuPers (Denfeld) to CNO (Nimitz), 27 March 1946, “Flag Billets Proposal for in the Post War Navy.”

[3] NARA, RG-80, Proceedings and Hearings of the General Board (PHGB) serial list 1948, these encompassed, respectively, serials 315, 316, and 317.

[4] General Board (GB) serial list 1948, serial (321); Arleigh Burke papers, Naval Historical and Heritage Center (NHHC) 21 November 1947, “Naval Operating Forces – Fiscal 1955,” 1.

[5] Burke papers, 21 November 1947, “Naval Operating Forces – Fiscal 1955,” 1-2, 4-5.

[6] From 20 Sept 47 General Board Procedures, Burke Papers, Division III, page 5.

[7] George F. Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” by X. Foreign Affairs (July 1947): 566–82.

[8] GB 425, 25 June 1948, “National Security and Navy Contributions Thereto for the Next Ten Years:  A Study by the General Board,” from the Burke Papers, Enclosure C (Military), 1-3.  This study was also known as serial 315.

[9] Ibid., 1-3, and Enclosure D, “Concepts of War and Navy Contributions,” from the Burke Papers, 1-2.

[10] Ibid., Enclosure D, “Concepts of War and Navy Contributions,” from the Burke Papers, 7, 56.

[11] Ibid., Enclosure C, “Conclusions,” 1-9.

[12] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 174-175.

[13] Cited in Baer, One Hundred Years, 313.

[14] GB ML 1948; Barlow, 165; Carl LaVO, Pushing the Limits:  The Remarkable Life and Times of Vice Admiral Allan Rockwell McCann(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 200-202.  McCann became Inspector General of the Navy during the “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1949.

[15] GB 325, “Navy Contributions to National Security, revision of 315 and continuous study,” 6 October 1948.

[16] Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, 164-169.

[17] Barlow, The Revolt of the Admirals, chapter 9.

[18] Barlow, 186-191.

[19] Barlow, 206.

[20] GB ML 1949; McCann was reassigned by Matthews on 20 June; see also LaVO, Pushing the Limits, 206-211.

[21] Barlow, 247-254.

[22] Barlow, 269-273; Baer, 318-320.

[23] PHGB 9 August 1949, “Organization of U.S. Army General Staff.,” 1.

[24] GB 142EN2 (7-49), 19 August 1949, “Applicability of the General Staff System to the Navy, Study of,” 1-2.

[25] PHGB 11 August 1949, “Organization of the Navy Department.”

[26] GB minutes 19 August 1949; for Hill see (accessed 8/30/2016).

[27] PHGB 4 October 1949, “Guided Missles;” GB minutes September and October 1949.

[28] GB minutes November 1949 through March 1950.

[29] GB 155EN2, G.H. Fort to VCNO 11 October 1950, “Establishment of Shipbuilding and Conversion Programs and Ship Characteristics therefor,” 1-3.

[30] Baer, 301; SecNav Correspondence, SecNav to  CNO and Chief of Material, 28 December 1950, “Material Review Board.”

[31] See Kuehn, America’s First General Staff, especially chapters 5 and 9.

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John Kuehn

John T. Kuehn, PhD, is a retired naval aviator. He teaches military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and is also the author of Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy.

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