Thomas Moorer stands out as one of the few senior American military leaders who fought hard with the political establishment over the conduct of the Vietnam War. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1970 to July 1970, Moorer constantly pushed for the authority to strike targets in the Hanoi area with air power, and
mine Haiphong harbor. President Nixon finally agreed to Moorer’s proposals in the spring of 1972, and the war ended eight months later on terms acceptable to the United States. A hardliner and reactionary to some critics of the war, Moorer is seen as patriot and a hero by many veterans—someone who, in the words of Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, “always put his country’s interest before anything else.”
Born in Mount Willing Alabama in 1912, Moorer graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1933, completed aviator training in 1936, and then flew a variety of aircraft, including fighters, bombers, and patrol planes. He also served on the carriers Langley (AV 3), Lexington (CV 16), and Enterprise (CV 6).
Early in World War II, Japanese fighters attacked his PBY-5 patrol plane during a reconnaissance mission in the Southwest Pacific. Although wounded in the thigh, Moorer landed his aircraft in the water and got his crew of seven safely into a life raft. A Philippine merchant ship soon picked the group up but was attacked by Japanese aircraft that same day. One of Moorer’s crew died in that attack, but Moorer and the other survivors and many of the ship’s crew managed to escape from the vessel in a lifeboat and row to a nearby island. For his gallantry that day, the Navy awarded Moorer a Silver Star. He later received a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying supplies into and evacuating wounded from Timor Island in October 1942.
After the war, Commander Moorer continued to serve in both aviation and staff assignments and was promoted to rear admiral in 1957. As a junior flag officer, Moorer worked as a strategic planner for the Chief of Naval Operations. He commanded Carrier Division 6 for 17 months in 1959 and 1960. In 1962, Moorer received his third star and assumed command of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Two years later, the Navy promoted him to full admiral and appointed him Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet. In that position, he commanded U.S. Navy forces in the Pacific during the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident and subsequent retaliatory strikes against North Vietnam. Moorer took command of the Atlantic Fleet the following year, thus becoming the first officer in the Navy’s history to lead both fleets.
Vietnam once again became a major focus for Moorer when President Johnson appointed him as Chief of Naval Operations in June 1967. Privately, Moorer opposed the land war in Vietnam “for the simple reason that we cannot afford to trade a high school graduate” for a North Vietnamese peasant. Once committed to the endeavor, however, he argued that the United States should focus its efforts on the source of Communist aggression in the region: North Vietnam. Moorer advocated bombing Hanoi, the enemy’s center of gravity, and mining North Vietnam’s most important port facility, Haiphong Harbor. Moorer, in short, rejected the idea of limited war and containment, instead favoring a decisive application of force, and with it, the possibility of compelling North Vietnam to end its aggression in South Vietnam.
His arguments fell upon deaf ears in the White House, and over time, frustration set in. President Johnson’s bombing halt following the 1968 Communist Tet Offensive and then his failure to retaliate against North Korea following the seizure of the technical research ship Pueblo (AGER 2) greatly concerned Admiral Moorer, who was afraid that America was losing global credibility. He also worried about the Navy’s aging ships and infrastructure. In January 1969, he testified to Congress that 58 percent of the fleet was at least 20 years old, while only 1 percent of Soviet navy ships were the same age. Finally, he deeply disagreed with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s habit of “meddling” in the selection and assignment of flag officers, which, Moorer argued was the purview of the Chief of Naval Operations.
On 2 July 1970, President Nixon appointed Admiral Moorer as the seventh Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Moorer perceived Nixon as a kindred spirit, someone willing to make hard choices and take significant risks to extricate America from Vietnam. Other members of the administration, however, often blocked his efforts to liberalize the rules of engagement and resume the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. In an attempt to counter these opponents and gain an upper hand with the new president, Moorer encouraged Charles Radford, a young yeoman working for the National Security Council, to make copies of pertinent White House policy documents for him. When President Nixon found out about Radford’s “spying” in December 1971, he sent Attorney General John Mitchell over to the Pentagon to let Moorer know that “we had the goods” on him. Nixon, however, retained Moorer as chairman because he valued him as a fellow hardliner and a vital counterweight against administration doves, especially Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
The Communist Easter Offensive of 1972 finally gave Nixon the justification he needed to relax bombing restrictions and turn up the heat against North Vietnam. One of the first moves he made was to order the mining of Haiphong harbor, an idea that Moorer and others in the Navy had been advocating since the early 1960s. He also initiated the Linebacker bombing raids against North Vietnam. Both operations helped convince Hanoi to agree with a peace settlement acceptable to the United States.
In addition to helping settle the Vietnam conflict, Moorer oversaw the transition of the U.S. armed services from a conscript based military to an all-volunteer force. He also managed deep cuts in the defense budget. While he did not always prevail in Washington’s bureaucratic battles, Moorer managed the services with great strength and confidence during a deeply divided period in our nation’s history. Appointed to a second term as JCS Chairman by President Nixon, Admiral Moorer retired in July 1974. He died on 5 February 2004.