This is the standing ovation speech delivered by James Webb on April 25, 1996
at the Naval Institute's 122nd Annual Meeting and Sixth Annapolis Seminar.
Webb was Navy Secretary in the Reagan Administration and resigned over the
issue of fleet reductions. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Class of '68, Webb
served with distinction as a Marine in Vietnam.
Like so many graduates of this institution, I am flooded with memories each
time I drive through the Naval Academy gates and see the monuments and the
buildings that have by now become a constant in my life. The memories remain
incredibly vivid, filled with an emotion that has never passed, making it hard
to believe sometimes that it has now been a full generation since those first
days after I raised my hand and took the oath to defend my country, and at the
same moment forever abandoned what remained of my youth.
Some of them are happy, some are not. Some are personal, some are not. But
all of them are tied in some way to service, and more specifically to the
greatness of America's Navy and Marine Corps. And when I think of where the
country and the Navy and indeed I myself have journeyed, in my memory I always
return to the evening lecture series in the musty, hallowed darkness of Mahan
Hall. An integral part of our plebe summer training, the lectures were our
first formal introduction to the leaders and the history of our new and special
Packed into the dankness of Mahan Hall with our new classmates sitting all
around us, sweating and hacking and sneezing, exhausted from the day's
activities that had begun well before dawn, reeking of mildew from the
whiteworks uniforms that never seemed to get entirely dry, dozing now and then
from the constant, unrelenting pressure of our new calling, the pressure that
challenged us to be men at I8, to assume responsibility and accept the
consequences of our acts, the pressure that it seemed would never in the rest
of our young lives abate, never let up perhaps even until we were finally old
men nodding and hacking on different benches, bent and exhausted from our
journey, the journey that would take us off to sea or under it or above it or
into the jungles that bordered it, the journey that would find us, as that
magnificent song we all learned to sing so aptly puts it, by the service called
away, scattered far and wide.
They were giants, the men featured in those lectures, and we felt their
presence as we sat in the seats where some of them once sat and learned of the
battles they had fought and of the courage they had shown. Their words and,
most importantly, their example sank into me so deeply that for as long as I
shall live, I know they will never cease to bring shivers of pride and awe to
me when I remember them, those bold mirrors of an increasingly distant past.
The young lieutenant on Guadalcanal who asked his loved ones always to pray,
not that he came back, but that he would have the courage to do his duty. The
chaplain on a sinking ship who gave his life preserver to a young sailor,
telling him, take it. lad, you need it more than I do. The admirals of the
greatest sea battles in history who faced enormous decisions that had to be
made on gossamers of information, with thousands of lives and indeed a nation
in the balance. And above all, the inarguable first commandment of naval
leadership, shown time and again by leaders young and old when their defining
moment came: where principle is involved, be deaf
I resolved to prepare myself so that when my time came, I could honor this
heritage, show that I had the same physical and moral courage, the identical
dedication to my country and to the people whose lives were being entrusted to
me. I wanted more than anything to have the courage to do my duty, to take
care of my people, to speak the truth no matter how it hurt, no matter what the
consequences. And I was not alone. In the mess hall, on the parade field,
walking to class, I could look around me and see thousands who felt the way I
Some might say we were naive, that we aspired to some unreachable, romantic
standard that human nature in its tilt toward accommodation cannot consistently
maintain. My own journey tells me otherwise, that we were right, that for the
long-term good there is no substitute for an insistence on ethics, loyalty,
accountability, and moral courage. And yet today I must say I am sadly
astounded to see our Navy struggling for its soul, too often unanchored from
these simple yet demanding notions, many of whose leaders have advanced
themselves through a blatant repudiation of these very ideals.
There are still exceptional leaders in our Navy, some of whom are my
classmates, others whom I can see in this audience today. But too often the
best leaders are not being heard. Something almost unexplainable happened in
the decades since we sat in those seats in Mahan Hall. Some of it happened to
the country as a whole, but some of it did not. A great deal of it happened to
the Navy as an institution. It happened gradually, issue by issue, argument by
argument, compromise by compromise.
Over time, getting worse as the years went by, an increasing percentage of the
naval leaders who were promoted into the highest sanctums of government somehow
lost their way, until finally, in recent years, many whose very duty it was to
defend the hallowed traditions and the unique culture of their profession
declined to do so when their voices were most urgently needed. Some are guilty
of the ultimate disloyalty: to save or advance their careers, they abandoned
the very ideals of their profession in order to curry favor with politicians.
I frequently find myself wondering how this possibly could have happened. To
be fair, these have been uniquely difficult times for military leaders. Our
generation's complex and volatile political debates resulted in unprecedented
intrusions into command relationships because of new concepts of limited
warfare, increased judicial oversight, and a variety of programs mandated under
the rubric of equal opportunity. The all-volunteer system, with its emphasis
on targeted bonuses and specialty pay, fostered greater rewards for individual
skills than for group values. But the other services faced these same issues
with far less chaos. The inescapable difference has been the approach of the
Navy's top leadership, particularly during this decade.
And so I go back to those dank, sweltering teenage evenings in Mahan Hall, and
I ask myself, what would Nimitz have said and done in these situations? Or
King? Or Admiral McCain'? Or, dare I be presumptuous, Tom Moorer, one of the
great living admirals of our time? Indeed, what should any true leader who
believes in the system that advanced him and in the people who serve that
system feel compelled to do'? And why has it not been done'?
Perhaps over time moral courage became less important as a promotional
criterion than political correctness, so that many of the most capable simply
did not get promoted in the first place, couldn't make the cut in an
environment where politicians more and more frequently played favorites.
Perhaps some kept their courage but became confused regarding their
jurisdiction in this ever-widening grey area where military and political
control overlap. Perhaps, some chose to hide behind the notion of civilian
control as a way to duck the hardest issues facing them, issues they feared
might be dangerous to their personal advancement, issues that might even affect
their ability to get a good corporate job when they retired.
Perhaps for some, loyalty became personal rather than institutional, directed
at saving the boss rather than the service itself, and along the way getting
one's self a fine fitness report. Or, just maybe, all of the above, in varying
amounts, depending on the individual and the crisis of the moment.
Allow me a reflection. I resigned as Secretary of the Navy after repeated
arguments over force structure reductions that I believed were strategically
unwise. I had presented the new Secretary of Defense three alternative ways of
meeting an eleven billion dollar budget reduction without taking apart the
Navy's shipbuilding program. I made a series of presentations and speeches,
including one at the National Press Club, where I indicated that it was time
for the United States to return to its traditional strategic role as a maritime
power by reducing its overly large Army and Air Force commitment to NATO.
At that time, we were fielding 60,000 more Army soldiers alone in
Germany than Britain had in its entire army worldwide, and almost as many Air
Force personnel in Germany and the U.K. as Britain had in its entire Air Force.
Repeatedly I made the point that the static defensive bases overseas were an
historical anomaly that were due to be reduced, but it was vital for our
country to maintain a vigorous and sizeable fleet in order to meet continuing
geopolitical demands around the world, particularly in Asia, the Indian Ocean,
and the Persian Gulf.
Instead of offering or responding to a strategic vision, the new Secretary of
Defense ordered each department to offer up force structure reductions in
approximately equal shares, largely to avoid political fights inside the JCS
and the Congress. I could not agree with this. The stakes for the Navy were
similar to those in 1949 when Louis Johnson, within weeks after becoming
Secretary of Defense, abruptly canceled the Navy's aircraft carrier program,
prompting the immediate resignation of Navy Secretary John Sullivan and his
undersecretary, and after that the famous Revolt of the Admirals. The revolt
cost Admiral Denfield his position as CNO, but in the process it saved
carrier-based naval aviation, to the benefit of the Navy and certainly of the
I lost my debate, and I regrettably resigned from the best job in the world.
There was no second revolt of the admirals, nor did I expect one, but the lack
of vigorous argument on behalf of their Navy, frankly, amazed me. And where
are we now? The troop levels in Europe were going to be reduced in time,
anyway. Failing to advance a vigorous strategic vision simply allowed the Navy
to shrink as well. And today in the Congress, the think tanks, and the
professional journals, the media, so-called military experts argue almost
without rebuttal that navies exist simply to fight other navies, as if the
geographical makeup, national security needs, and lanes of commerce of all
nations are the same.
The bases in Subic are gone, with no visible movement to replace them
elsewhere. The bases in Japan and Okinawa are in jeopardy. The Korean
peninsula is a tinderbox, on the verge of war. China is mocking American power
as it builds its economy with the help of American business at the same time
developing a strategic axis with the Muslim world, intimidating its neighbors,
proliferating nuclear weapons, and aggressively growing its own fleet. Libya
is building a massive poison gas facility. Pakistan and Iran are increasing
their military and even nuclear aspirations, bidding to become major powers.
These events are occurring against a backdrop where the fleet is moving toward
300 ships, a third the size of the Navy when I was commissioned and half of the
nearly 600 we were able to rebuild it to during the Reagan era. Not
surprisingly, over the past seven years our national presence in Pacific Asia
has become ever more tenuous. Our allies are wondering whether and for how
long we will be dependable. Our competitors and potential enemies have begun
to discount us, both politically and militarily.
Few in Asia missed the significance of China's recent warning that American
naval vessels not sail through the international waters of the Taiwan Strait,
and the Clinton administration's compliance with that warning.
These issues play along the most vital sea lanes of our country and its key
allies. Who is willing to bet his reputation and his career on the need to
preserve Navy force structure?
Or consider another example, less personal, more specific.
Whenever a crisis erupts that threatens our country's security interests, most
of us know the first question usually asked by the President's national
security advisers: where are the carriers? And the answer is always the same.
They are either on station or proceeding with all due speed into harrn's way.
I was in Asia during the tensions that flared just before the Taiwanese
elections. Whether the Administration used them property or not, the carriers
were there, ready to strike, just as they have been in or near every other hot
spot in the last 50 years.
To be more specific, the officers and sailors were there, showing once again
why the carrier battle group is the most potent and formidable tactical
assemblage in history. As always, the finest combat pilots in the world were
in their ready rooms or on the catapults, prepared to do whatever it took to
defend the national security interests of the United States. They have never
failed our nation, not once. They are smart. They are tough, they are
dedicated, they are loyal, they are truly the best we have.
So when the Tailhook investigation began, and certain political elements used
the incident to bring discredit on naval aviation as a whole, and then on the
Navy writ large, one is entitled to ask, on behalf of
these magnificent performers who have never failed their leaders, where were
When the acting Secretary of the Navy, who had never spent a day in uniform,
called a press conference and announced that the antics of one group of
aviators at Tailhook was an indication that the Navy as a whole had cultural
problems-cultural, as in ethos, as in the overall body of traits that
constitutes an institution's history and traditions--how could the CNO stand
next to him and fail to defend the way of life he had spent a career helping to
When Paula Coughlin's commanding officer, who had previously received dual
honors as the Navy's outstanding fighter pilot and as commander of its
outstanding fighter squadron, was relieved of his command based on a letter she
wrote, without being given so much as five minutes to explain his own actions
in her case to the admiral who summarily dismissed him, who risked his career
by taking Jack Snyder's side?
When one of the finest candidates for Commander in Chief of the Pacific in
recent times, a man who flew more than 500 combat missions in Vietnam and then
in the Gulf War commanded the largest naval armada since World War II, is
ordered into early retirement by the Chief of Naval Operations because one
Senator asked on behalf of a constituent why Stan Arthur as Vice Chief of Naval
Operations had simply approved a report upholding a decision to wash out a
female officer from flight school, who expressed their outrage? Who fought
this? Who condemned it?
When a whole generation of officers is asked to accept the flawed wisdom of
a permanent stigma and the destruction of the careers of some of the finest
aviators in the Navy based on hearsay, unsubstantiated allegations, in some
cases after a full repudiation of anonymous charges that resemble the worst
elements of McCarthyism, in effect, turning over the time-honored, even sacred,
promotional process which lies at the very core of military leadership to a
group of Senate staffers, what admiral has had the courage to risk his own
career by putting his stars on the table and defending the integrity of the
process and of his people?
When the captain of a ship that experienced a significant pregnancy rate
while deployed overseas stands in front of the entire world and announces that
none of these incidents happened at sea, is there a sailor in the Navy who
honestly believes him? Indeed, what would have happened to the captain's career
had he said otherwise? How does that reality affect loyalties and even one's
own belief in a code of ethics?
It should surprise no one that this type of conduct has the result of
killing morale down the chain of command and building up resentment, not
onlyagainst the leadership but also against politically protected sub-groups.
Top leaders who seek to minimize or reverse problems in this way simply cause
them to become more severe, even among those who otherwise might support the
One wonders whether these admirals really believe that political staffers
in the Senate possess more wisdom and judgment than their own officers on
matters relating to discipline and qualifications for promotion. If they do,
they should resign immediately. If they don't, then they should fight back,
not with a memo here and there but by being willing to bet their careers on the
soundness of the institution that gave them a career in the first place. Or is
there an insinuation here, that their own careers are more important than the
dozens that are being ruined, and the thousands that are either deciding to
become civilians or are waiting in the balance to see whether leadership can
survive in the U.S. Navy?
I was recently shown a very disturbing statistic. Last year, 53% of the
post-command commanders in naval aviation left the Navy rather than continue
their careers. In no other year, in peace and war, has that number reached
even 25%. These were the cream, the very future of the Navy, officers who had
performed for two decades in a manner that marked them as potential admirals.
They took their commands, they saw how the Navy's being led, and they walked.
And who is willing to accept responsibility?
The aftermath of Tailhook was never about inappropriate conduct
so much as it was about the lack of wisdom among the Navy's top lead-
ership. Tailhook should have been a three- or maybe a five-day story.
Those who were to blame for outrageous conduct should have been dis-
ciplined, and those who were not to blame should have been vigorously
defended, along with the culture and the mores of the naval service. In-
stead, we are now at four years and counting, and its casualty list reads like
a Who's Who of naval aviation.
These kinds of problems are fixable. It's not difficult to identify them,
which is one reason morale has sunk in the fleet. What is difficult is finding
people who will insist that they be fixed.
Our system still produces such leaders. In 1987 my predecessor as Secretary of
the Navy tried to order Admiral Bruce DeMars to change the results of a
promotion board on which he had sat as president. In the weeks just before my
confirmation hearing, I watched Admiral DeMars put his career at great risk by
refusing to do so, on the grounds that civilian control ended with the precepts
given to the board. I not only supported that position, I admired it.
On a more recent note, Admiral Chuck Larson has been faced with a panorama of
difficult decisions right here at the Naval Academy, having inherited the
results of years of politically oriented leadership that threatened the very
fabric of this institution. National media attention has been intense. He and
the senior officers he put into place here including one of my classmates,
Captain Randy Bogle, a man that I have known as a midshipman on the Brigade
Honor Committee together and have admired for years have truly begun to bring
the Academy back to its rightful place as the heart of naval leadership, the
cradle of its values.
I'd like to say just one quick thing about the recent events that have
attracted so much media attention. I have never been shy about offering
criticism of Academy policy when warranted. But we are not seeing a cheating
scandal. We are not seeing a drug scandal. We are not seeing the failure of
discipline. We are seeing leadership at work, taking the grist that society
offered it, openly dealing with a variety of offenses by people who-if you add
them up-make up less than I % of the Brigade.
As one example, when three midshipmen were arrested for sale and distribution
of LSD, Admiral Larson immediately ordered the entire Brigade of Midshipmen to
take a urinalysis. All at once. The media was flabbergasted, but never more
so than when no drug users turned up. None. Admiral Larson had no way of
knowing that in advance, but he believed in his people, and they did not let
It's fair to say that with this decision Admiral Larson bet the Brigade-and bet
on the Brigade-and won. At Tailhook, a long succession of high-rankers bet
against the traditions and the respect of the naval service-and everyone has
If the Navy is to regain its soul and its respect, the answer lies not in some
additional program but in the right kind of leaders, at every level of command.
Leaders who understand that the seemingly arcane concepts of tradition,
loyalty, discipline, and moral courage have carried the Navy through cyclical
turbulence in peace and war. Leaders who are imbued with a solemn duty to
preserve sacrosanct ideals and pass them on to succeeding generations, leaders
who know that this obligation transcends their own importance and must outlast
their individual careers. Leaders with the courage to articulate the
inviolability of these ideals to the political process. Leaders who will never
allow a weakening of these ideals in exchange for selfpreservation.
It's time to give the Navy back to such leaders. There can be no more
important task over the next few years. Without officers who will defend the
Navy's culture and take decisive action when it is needed, there will be
nothing but continuing chaos. With them, as they have shown throughout the
Navy's history, no challenge is too great; anything is possible.
*EDITOR's NOTE: This transcription of former Secretary Webb's remarks that he delivered at the Naval Institute's 122nd Annual Meeting & Sixth
Annapolis Seminar on 25 April 1996 is published by Proceedings as the
publication record of the Sea Services. The June Proceedings (Iiages 4- 10)
carries additional coverage of the 122nd Annual Meeting & Sixth Annapolis
Seminar. Audio tapes of all the original addresses and panel sessions are
available through A.V.E.R. Assosiates - 6974 Ducketts Lane - Elkridge, MD 21227
- (410) 796-8940 - FAX (410) 796-8962.