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United States Naval Institute: Proceedings

On Condition Of Anonymity

By Bill Hamblet

December 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001
ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2001
United States Naval Institute Dec 2001. All Rights Reserved.

What are sailors and junior officers learning from flag officers' off-the-- record criticisms of the Vieques decision? Anonymous expressions of outrage to the press send a message that it is not safe to disagree openly and that it is acceptable to talk behind the boss's back.

Fear of retribution for disagreeing with senior leaders is real in the military. We are serving in dangerous times when military personnel perceive "that one is likely to get crushed for anything other than parroting the party line."' During the spring and summer of 2001, there were numerous occasions when, behind the veil of anonymity, military officers expressed disagreement with Pentagon or White House decisions to members of the press corps. What are we to make of these off-- the-record comments?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's review of national military strategy and force structure yielded countless article reprints in the Early Bird in which high-- ranking military officers, speaking off the record, voiced displeasure or disagreement with the review process or with a lack of access to the Secretary. On 14 June 2001, The Washington Post reported on the President's decision to close the military training ranges on Vieques , Puerto Rico : "Senior Navy and Marine officers complained that they had not been consulted and used such terms as `outrage,' `sold out,' and 'betrayal' in describing their reactions. Speaking with the understanding they would not be identified [emphasis added], flag rank officers accused the White House of acting out of political expediency regardless of the cost to military readiness." Other media stories cited similar anonymous comments by military officers.

In leadership training at the Naval Academy, the lesson on the decision-making process within the chain of command is fairly simple. Before a decision maker gives an order or sets a policy, his or her subordinates owe their boss their best ideas, including why they disagree. Once the order is given, though, military officers obey and follow through as if the order were their own.

But what is an officer to do when the feedback process breaks down and a senior officer does not ask for input from the people who will have to live with the decision? Or when a senior officer makes a decision that a junior officer thinks is wrong, harmful, or potentially disastrous? This is not a theoretical arena; bad decisions have been made so often in recent history that a high level of cynicism exists within the military around this issue. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara insisted on pushing ahead with the Vietnam War while at the same time hamstringing the military in ways that made defeat unavoidable. The Iran-Contra scandal involved military officers and political appointees who defied Congress and lied about it. The manner in which the Navy investigated the 1991 Tailhook scandal deeply shook naval aviators' trust in senior leadership, a problem that still reverberates throughout the fleet. The anonymous flag officers who commented to The Washington Post in June feel strongly that the Vieques closure is a bad decision.

What are sailors and junior officers learning from the anonymous flag officers and their off-the-record criticisms of the Vieques decision? Is it okay to express outrage at the President through the media under veil of anonymity? Is speaking to the press in this way a valid tool to influence national security decisions? If it is, how does an officer know where to draw the line? Does the squadron commander owe the air wing commander tight-lipped adherence to an order he or she disagrees with, while the admiral can publicly (but anonymously) disagree with what he or she thinks is a bad decision by the President or Secretary of Defense?

If the Vieques decision was so bad that flag officers felt the need to speak out against it, why not do so on the record? Of course, publicly denouncing a presidential decision could have serious repercussions for the individuals, their careers, and perhaps the nation. In all likelihood, the President would have to back down and change his decision or fire the people who questioned it. President Harry S. Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War over a public disagreement about U.S. strategy and goals. There is no denying the career risks that accompany public disagreement.

Looking back 52 years, one can find an administration's decision that was at least as unpopular with the Navy as the recent Vieques decision. In April 1949, Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan resigned in protest over Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson's hasty decision to cancel construction of the aircraft carrier United States (CVA-58). Johnson canceled the big-deck carrier without consulting the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) or Sullivan. In the fall of that year, during congressional hearings on the Air Force B-36 bomber program, senior Navy officers found themselves at odds with new Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Johnson over Department of Defense unification and naval versus land-based air power. The Navy's activities around those hearings and the Navy's senior officer testimony came to be known as "the revolt of the admirals."

The secretive maneuvering came mostly in the form of an anonymous document, "the brainchild of two men who apparently were convinced that something drastic had to be done to bring the dramatically worsening plight of naval aviation to the attention of Congress."2 The men were Cedric R. Worth, special assistant to the Under Secretary of the Navy, and Commander Thomas R. Davies, a distinguished naval aviator serving as the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air. Commander Davies reported through Worth and was assigned additional duty to Captain Arleigh Burke's Organizational Research and Policy Office (OP-23). The paper, nine pages of facts and rumors relating to the B-36 procurement program, came to be known as the "Anonymous Document" as it found its way into the hands of members of Congress who were sympathetic to the Navy. Much of the paper was unfounded rumor that challenged many of the tactical and strategic assumptions on which the B-36 program was based, but it also cast doubt on the scruples of the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force. The document alleged that both men stood to gain financially from the continuation of the B-36 program.3

Despite its dubious nature and the fact that its authors hid in anonymity, the Anonymous Document did the trick. On 1 June 1949, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Carl Vinson, requested that his committee be authorized to conduct a full investigation of the B-36 procurement program, including testimony from Navy officers. As the B-36 hearings progressed, a cadre of naval officers spoke out clearly and vociferously, despite pressure to keep quiet. They decried the Air Force's strategic bombing campaign plans and championed the importance of naval tactical aviation and aircraft carriers to the nation's defense. Navy Secretary Matthews said in his opening statement that "any impairment in (Navy) morale was to be found among the minority of naval aviation personnel who refused to support [DoD] unification." Despite this shot across the bow, Admiral Arthur W. Radford (Commander-in-Chief Pacific), Admiral Louis E. Denfeld (CNO), and several others laid out a clear case against the B-36, against "atomic blitz" warfare, and for a strong naval aviation arm. Admiral Denfeld's testimony directly conflicted with the guidance and desires of Navy Secretary Matthews and Defense Secretary Johnson. For his public testimony, the CNO was fired.

In its immediate aftermath, the "revolt" appeared to have been for naught because B-36 procurement continued, the CNO was fired, and the decision to cancel the big-deck carrier United States stood. Over the 1950s and 1960s, however, the health and strength of naval aviation depended on the congressional support gained by the admirals and the convincing arguments they had made.

There are different rules for voicing disagreement in the tactical realm and the strategic realm. Captains and their subordinates operate in a different arena from flag officers engaged in strategic decision making. The "silence of the wardroom" problem varies from ship to ship and squadron to squadron. It can be fixed pretty quickly by a commanding officer who actively seeks the inputs of his or her subordinates. National security decisions, however, are much more complicated. The Vieques decision involved domestic politics, pressure from Hispanic voters, congressional leadership, the White House, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy, Navy and Marine Corps flag officers, and media coverage. There may have been quiet trade-offs involved, such as giving up Vieques to get more shipbuilding money in future defense budgets. The variables were many, and the battles and tactics are fraught with danger to individual careers and institutions.

The fleet's perception of how flag officers deal with things such as the Vieques decision shapes morale and influences the tactics for wardroom battles. Anonymous expressions to the press of anger and outrage send a message that it is not safe to disagree openly. They also indicate that it is acceptable to talk behind the boss's back. Could flag officers have accomplished the same thing by telling the press-on the record-"We fought hard for keeping Vieques , but we lost this decision"? If military officers, particularly flag officers, disagree with an administration's decision on a military issue, is it acceptable to voice that disagreement by talking off the record to the press? If this is a valid tactic, how do we teach our junior officers the difference between what they see in the flag officer arena and what they apply in the wardroom?

By Lieutenant Commander Bill Hamblet, U.S. Navy

Lieutenant Commander Hamblet is an intelligence officer assigned to the Joint Staff Intelligence Directorate (J-2) in the Pentagon.


1 Lt. Neil A. Wilson, USCG, "End the Silence of the Wardroom," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2001, p. 65.

2 Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945-1950 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1994), p. 207.

3Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals, p. 208.

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