Not Quite a Revolt

In the past month six high ranking Army and Marine Corps generals have called upon Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign, because of his mismanagement of the planning and execution of the war in Iraq. While some view these calls by retired military officers as a "revolt of the Generals" and a challenge to civilian control of the military, this episode pales in comparison to the 1949 revolt of the Admirals.

The conflict between the Navy and the Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson in 1949 concerned the construction of the supercarrier USS United States. Within one month of taking office, Johnson, who served as Assistant Secretary of War in the 1930s and as chief fundraiser for President Truman's successful 1948 campaign, canceled the carrier three days after the keel had been laid without consulting the military leadership, but with the support of President Truman.

The Navy, which planned to use this carrier to launch atomic bombs and thus gain a major role for itself in a potential war against the Soviet Union, viewed Johnson as a political hack with pro-Air Force leanings. Therefore, they decided not to take Johnson's decision lying down. The Secretary of the Navy resigned over Johnson's action. A special assistant to the undersecretary of the Navy began compiling negative information about Johnson and sent it to Capitol Hill and the press. When an active duty Navy captain, John Crommelin, called a press conference and accused Johnson of systematically and intentionally of nibbling the Navy to death, active and retired naval officers rallied to Crommelin's defense and his superiors tried to reward him with a favorable reassignment. Finally, the Chief of Naval Operations, Louis Denfeld, criticized Johnson before Congress for arbitrary decisions.

The current revolt of the Generals is much less serious. The complaints are coming from retired officers, who as private citizens have every right to make their opinions public= Many other generals have also served as cheerleaders for the war on cable news channels. And most importantly, these calls for Rumsfeld's resignation have not been supported by active duty Army and Marine officers.

Despite a great deal of press coverage and drawn-out Congressional hearings, the revolt of the admirals failed. Johnson remained in office, the Chief of Naval operations was fired, and the carrier was not built.

However, while President Bush might not want to cave in to pressure from these retired officers, there is one lesson he might learn from the tenure of Johnson. In September 1950, three months into the Korean War, Truman replaced Johnson with his former Secretary of State, General George Marshall. Among other reasons for relieving Johnson was the country's lack of preparedness for the Korean War and the low morale at the Pentagon. Given the challenges this country faces in Iraq and the low morale in the Pentagon because of Rumsfeld's management style, as well as his decisions, Bush might consider replacing Rumsfeld with his former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. This column was originally published in Time magazine on April 15, 2006.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow