When Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations 41 years ago today, the 49-year old admiral was the youngest man ever to hold the office. Deep selected over the heads of 33 more senior admirals, this young officer was an unlikely choice to lead the nation’s most traditional service, but a man the Navy sorely needed during the turbulent early 1970s. To President Richard Nixon, Admiral Zumwalt appeared to offer revolutionary solutions to seemingly intractable problems. These issues ranged from severe personnel problems to challenges involved in modernizing an aging fleet.
Zumwalt graduated from the Naval Academy in 1942 and then served in a series of destroyer assignments in World War II. During the Korean War, he again saw combat as a navigator on the battleship Wisconsin. A turning point in Zumwalt’s career came in June 1962, when he began working for Paul Nitze, a leading Cold War defense intellectual. In September 1968, Zumwalt became the commander of the Navy’s coastal and riverine forces in South Vietnam and lead these forces during several highly successful operations.
As CNO, Zumwalt is best remembered for improving the plight of black and female sailors through equal opportunity and affirmative action programs. He also relaxed regulations for the entire enlisted force that were out of sync with the cultural norms of American society. With the fleet, he retired many aging World War II era ships and pushed for a “high-low” mix of new warships. From his Vietnam experience, Zumwalt understood the utility of limited war forces while at the same time recognizing that the Soviet Navy could not be defeated without capital ships such as the nuclear carrier. While some of his concept ships never got developed, his ideas still resonate in the Global War on Terrorism. His belief that the sailor is the Navy’s biggest asset also continues to hold currency in the modern Navy.