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When leaders aren't in lockstep
San Francisco Chronicle


April 18, 2006

An embattled secretary of defense, accused of arrogance and incompetence, determined to carry forward his plans for cutting costs and embracing new technologies. Angry flag officers, some resigning in protest, going public with criticisms of the civilian leadership. The military future of the United States in the balance.

It was the summer of 1949, a contentious debate that came to be known as "The Revolt of the Admirals."

That battle is just one of many examples from American history in which struggles between the military and its civilian leadership spilled into the public sphere, historians say.

The current debate between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a growing list of retired generals is an extension of that age-old struggle. But some observers say it also contains several new and troubling elements.




"I don't think that what is happening is as unprecedented as it seems to be, except for the number of generals that are going after Rumsfeld," said Jack Cardoso, professor emeritus of history at the State University of New York, Buffalo State College.

Indeed, as far back as 1783, officers of the Continental Army were so angry with Congress over issues of back pay and pensions that some considered marching against the government, only to be stopped by Gen. George Washington.

During the Civil War, Gen. George McClellan disagreed privately with President Abraham Lincoln on issues of politics and strategy and, once relieved of command, ran against Lincoln in the 1864 presidential race - while the army he had recently commanded was still fighting the president's war.

The Revolt of the Admirals saw active officers testifying before Congress on matters of national security policy. The Navy wanted to build a new fleet of supercarriers, but the Air Force and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson argued for a new line of long-range bombers, believing that all future wars would be nuclear. Press leaks and fabricated documents exacerbated the tensions.

"It was vicious," said Malcolm Muir, professor of history at Virginia Military Institute. "The Navy was fighting for its institutional life. The secretary of defense was overbearing to a degree that makes Rumsfeld look like a modest man."

The Navy ultimately lost the debate, although long-range bombers did not hold their supremacy. But the manner of the debate was deeply troubling then - and now, to some historians.

"The Revolt of the Admirals was much more serious (than the current debate around Rumsfeld) because it was active-duty admirals that were doing this," said Kavel Sepp, assistant professor in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

"There is an established chain of command for discussing these issues. Uniformed military personnel do not have in that line a direct connection to the Congress - they work for the executive branch."

Even more disturbing, to some, was the spectacular insubordination of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who disagreed vociferously with the Truman administration's handling of the Korean War.

"He was making speeches. He was communicating his displeasure to members of the Congress," said Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. "It was somewhat indirect, but evident to all that he was both opposed to the president's policy and was in essence lobbying to overturn it. That's in essence what led to him being fired (in 1951)."

MacArthur is certainly the highest-profile example of an active flag officer criticizing civilian leadership. But retired officers had criticized presidents and policies in print for years - more or less until the Cuban missile crisis.

After that tense test of wills, several historians agreed, public criticism by the military of civilian leadership declined, although internal struggles continued - possibly, Bacevich said, because of a shared sense that a united front was an important component of Cold War strategy.

"We also had to make sure they believed we had the will ... that there was a team over here and orders would be given and orders would be executed, so they better not screw with us," he said.

The quiet continued through the Vietnam War, when - by and large - the top military brass did not grumble in public, despite their dislike for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

"McNamara was wildly unpopular among flag and general officers, who in later years wrote memoirs critical of him," said William O'Neill, professor of history at Rutgers University. "But my recollection is that retired officers held their tongues so long as he was in office, and for a time afterward. Part of this resulted from the tradition of accepting civilian control of the military, and part was because the peace movement wanted McNamara's head, and retired officers did not wish to seem to be abetting the cause."

Some later generations of military authors excoriated their Vietnam-era predecessors, accusing them of being more concerned about their careers and military tradition than the good of the troops. They also questioned why officers critical of Vietnam policies did not resign rather than carry out those policies.

"The argument in Vietnam was these guys were so hot for promotions, they went for a policy they knew wasn't working," said John Lynn, professor of history at the University of Illinois. "If you're going to become the agent of a flawed policy, it is really your responsibility to turn in your stars."

Criticizing civilian leadership has made something of a comeback in recent decades. Retired and some active-duty officers were comfortable criticizing - and in some cases openly mocking - President Bill Clinton. The 2004 presidential contest between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry had small armies of retired officers supporting one candidate or the other.

In that light, the furor around the 73-year-old Rumsfeld is unusual in two respects: in the number of retired officers who have called for the secretary's resignation and in the timing of the calls - while troops remain on the battlefield.

"It's unprecedented," SUNY's Cardoso said. "I think morale must be at a tremendously low ebb among troops, and these generals are feeling the heat, they're feeling guilt-ridden that they were part of this."



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