Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., and Changing OPNAV

Thomas C. Hone
Professor of Operations Planning, Ret., US Naval War College


Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., was Chief of Naval Operations from 1 July 1970 to 1 July 1974. In his 1997 oral history, Admiral Harry D. Train II, who served as Executive Assistant and Senior Aide to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Admiral Zumwalts predecessor, described Elmo Zumwalt as one of the most creative people I have ever known in my life. Above all, he is, hands down, the best manager Ive ever known, bar none.” 1  Not every senior officer shared that view. Admiral Harold E. Shear, in 1969, a Vice Admiral and Director of Submarine Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), told historian Paul Stillwell in 1997 that probably the most important thing I did in 42 years of active duty was to get the Navy pulled together and back to battery after Zumwalt.” 2   

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. (DoD Photo)

Why these very different assessments of Admiral Zumwalts performance as Chief of Naval Operations? The answer is that Admiral Zumwalt was an aggressive, reformist CNO, and he took decisive action in a variety of areas simultaneously—and not all those actions were successful. For example, Admiral Train felt that some of the social things” that Zumwalt did were terrible,” especially the change to Navy uniforms, which Train regarded as an absolute disaster.” 3  Admiral Shear observed that he worked closely with Zumwalt, liked his chief, and supported him. But as Vice Chief of Naval Operations under Zumwalts successor, Admiral James L. Holloway III, Shear dropped the uniform and personal grooming changes instituted by Zumwalt. 4   

Why did CNO Zumwalt try to make so many changes to the Navy in general and to OPNAV in particular? The answer is that Zumwalt felt he had to alter the Navys organizational culture because it badly needed immediate and drastic transformation.” 5  As he put it in his memoir, On Watch, Where I was virtually alone, among those being considered [as CNO], was in viewing existing policies and practices in the field of personnel administration as an even greater danger to the Navys capability… than its obsolescing physical plant,” much of which consisted of ships and weapons that had been built during World War II. 6  

There was widespread agreement among senior Navy officers that the older ships needed to be retired and newer ones built to replace them. However, there was much less agreement that Navy personnel policies—particularly regarding promotion, training, and the status of women and African-Americans—needed to be thoroughly overhauled. Indeed, as Zumwalt noted in On Watch, bringing Navy norms and practices into closer conformity with those of the rest of American society” was one thing. Of a far higher order of difficulty and importance was bringing the Navys treatment of… blacks into conformity with stated national policy and the law of the land, not to say common fairness and decency.” 7  


Two experiences were critical to Zumwalts approach to his responsibilities as Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV). The first was his experience as the executive assistant and senior aide to then-Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze in 1963-64. As Zumwalt recalled in On Watch: 

 …under the tutelage of Paul Nitze I earned what I think of as a Ph.D. in political-military affairs. When I first worked for him I was one of a number of efficient and rising young officers with a keen interest in the worlds power relationships and a bent for strategic analysis. When I left him I had firsthand experience of how political-military affairs were managed, conceptually and tactically, at the top level of government. 8  

Under Nitze, Zumwalt had also acquired an insatiable appetite for work,” which served him well when he became CNO. Indeed, Nitze was so impressed with Zumwalt that he persuaded the Navy flag selection board to promote Zumwalt to rear admiral in 1965—two years before Zumwalt was technically eligible for promotion to flag rank.” 9  Then, in the summer of 1966, Nitze and CNO David L. McDonald called Zumwalt back from command of a cruiser-destroyer flotilla to head the new Systems Analysis Division in OPNAV. 10  As systems analysis became the intellectual backbone of the new Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS), Zumwalt was well prepared to use it.

The second experience that shaped Zumwalts thinking about the role of the CNO was his tour as commander of naval forces in Vietnam and head of the Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), from September 1968 to May 1970. Under the overall command of General Creighton Abrams, Zumwalt—promoted to Vice Admiral in October 1968—led Navy and joint task forces that patrolled the coastal waters and rivers of South Vietnam and fought a long string of sharp engagements with Viet Cong forces. 11  

Captain Howard J. Kerr, Jr., who served as Zumwalts flag secretary and aide, recalled in 1982 that the impact that the Admiral had on the Saigon staff was not too unlike the impact that he had on the Navy when he became CNO. He literally shook it right to its marrow and did it in a very short period of time.” 12  As Kerr noted, Zumwalts bias was always to go with the people that would get the job done, whom he could relate to and [who] understood what he wanted to do, supported what he wanted to do. Supported in the sense of not just genuflecting to everything he said, but argued with him, gave him their thoughts, their objections, et. cetera.” 13  According to Kerr, Zumwalts more creative subordinates responded magnificently” to Zumwalts leadership. Zumwalt also soon became a very trusted and essential advisor to General Abrams and also a component commander whom the general looked to, not only for help in executing the admirals mission, but also in supporting the general in executing his mission.” 14   

In his memoir, Zumwalt noted that his Vietnam service enabled him:

…to become personally acquainted with hundreds, if not thousands, of fighting sailors… The profound and indelible feelings of fellowship, admiration, and respect the performance and sacrifices of those men inspired in me had much to do with the Mod NavyI strove for as CNO. I often thought of my efforts to improve the Navys relationship with its people as a testimonial to these courageous men and women.  15 

Captain Kerr agreed: 

[W]hen he became CNO, he basically saw [the younger officers and sailors] as his constituency, as his natural constituency, and that the future of the Navy rested more with these young people, what they had learned and brought with them out of that Vietnam experience than with a lot of traditions and regulations that long since should have been removed from the system.” 16      

Reorganizing OPNAV

When Zumwalt was promoted to admiral and confirmed as CNO at the beginning of July 1970, he inherited a staff that had been modified piecemeal by his predecessors as they acted to deal with major Cold War issues. For example, there were assistant chiefs of naval operations for intelligence (OP-092) and communications and cryptology (OP-094), plus directors of anti-submarine warfare programs (OP-095) and Navy strategic systems (OP-097). These offices were directly under the control of the CNO and the Vice CNO. There were also deputy CNOs for manpower and reserve affairs (OP-01), fleet operations and readiness (OP-03), logistics (OP-04), aviation (OP-05), plans and policy (OP-06), and development (OP-07). The Navys system analysts and long-range planners worked directly for the Director of Navy program planning (OP-090). 

Zumwalts task was to mold this organization into a staff that could help him achieve his two major goals: first, to make the Navy truly modern in terms of the way it recruited, trained, and then developed its personnel, and second, to allow him to have a significant influence on national strategic decision-making. According to Admiral Worth H. Bagley, whom Zumwalt appointed as Director of OP-090, he and Zumwalt had the same intellectual approach and the same thoughts” about the Navys future and the nations overall strategy. 17  In changing the structure and processes within OPNAV, according to Bagley, Zumwalt wanted to create the mental atmosphere, the social atmosphere, and the professional atmosphere that would enhance motivation to get the professional job done in the most effective way.” 18  At the same time, both admirals understood that the OPNAV bureaucracy” was large, strangely immutable, and no single and repeated order would assure that a rudder change would be made.” 19  

The details of OPNAVs restructuring can be found in the Navy History and Heritage Commands History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 and in the organization charts in the Center for Naval Analyses Organizing OPNAV (1970-2009).   20  By 1973, Zumwalt had created two new deputy chiefs of naval operations: OP-02, the DCNO for submarines, and OP-03, the DCNO for surface ships. These two joined four DCNOs that already existed—OP-01 (manpower), OP-04 (logistics), OP-05 (aviation), and OP-06 (plans and policy). 21  There were also directors for tactical electronic programs, research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E), anti-submarine warfare, and education and training. However, Zumwalts key deputy was OP-090, the Director of Navy Program Planning. The divisions of OP-090 were the homes of Navy program planners, budget specialists, systems analysts, long-range planners, and officers who conducted net assessments.” 

U.S. Secretary of Defense and South Vietnamese President Thieu exchange greeting in Saigon, 11 January 1971. (DoD Photo #71-0029)

In November 1971, President Richard M. Nixon had authorized the creation of a net assessment office within the National Security Council staff. A month later, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, Jr., established the position of director of net assessment” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in order to prevent Dr. Henry Kissinger, President Nixons national security advisor, from monopolizing the net assessment function—the systematic and comparative evaluation of the actual strategic capabilities of the armed forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. 22  This office was small but very important, and Zumwalt created a version of it inside OPNAV to work in parallel with the office in OSD.

This was part of Zumwalts establishment of a staff within a staff,” the creation of a set of offices containing very bright officers and civilians who could steer the rest of OPNAV and the whole Navy in the direction Zumwalt wanted the Navy to go. As Admiral Bagley noted, There wasnt one single policy paper” that he could remember, in the three and a half years he was OP-090, which didnt support Zumwalts policy and strategic goals. 23  But there was more to the staff within a staff” than OP-090 and OP-06. Zumwalt also created the CNO Executive Panel (CEP), a small group of experts from outside and inside the Navy” to develop supporters in a wide variety of ever-changing government and non-government” positions who could be conversant with naval issues” and who might hold key positions long after” Zumwalt himself had retired. 24  

Why had Zumwalt embarked on his effort to restructure OPNAV in the first place? In September 1970, a memo from OP-03G (Fleet Operations) to OP-090 noted that practically the entire OPNAV organization is tuned, like a tuning fork, to the vibrations of the budgetary process.” The memo went on to say that there was a vast preoccupation with budgetary matters at the expense of considering planning, or readiness or requirements, or operational characteristics or any of the other elements contributing to the ability of the Fleets to fight.” 25  This memo expressed Zumwalts own thinking—that OPNAV was too preoccupied with the need to develop and review Navys the annual program budget at the expense of the Navys contribution to national strategy.  

CNO Zumwalt faced a problem that had dogged all reformers. What happens after the reformer leaves? The next CNO—or the CNO after next—could change OPNAVs structure or set aside the goals that Zumwalt had set for the Navy. Zumwalt tackled this problem in several ways. First, he embedded a strong analytical capability in OPNAV—in OP-090. He hoped that making programmatic analysis routine and useful would convince his successors to sustain that capability. Second, he attracted talent to the two OPNAV offices that were most important to his reforms—OP-090 and OP-06. If OP-090 could be linked to OP-06, then the program analysts would work in tandem with the strategic analysts and the Navy could defend its programs at the OSD level by showing how they supported the nations overall strategy. All he could do was attract the smartest officers to his reorganized OPNAV and hope his successors would continue that the practice of staffing OP-090 and OP-06 with such outstanding individuals.


Was CNO Zumwalt successful in his effort to change OPNAV and thereby also change the Navy and perhaps even national security policy? If you read Zumwalts memoir, youll see how he hoped his successes in adapting the Navy to social and strategic changes would give him leverage with the White House. Unfortunately for the Admiral, his efforts to combat race prejudice in the Navy, his advocacy of a stronger role for women in the Navy, and the way he bypassed the chain of command with his Z-grams” cost him influence in both Congress and the White House. 26  Making matters worse for Zumwalt was his growing antipathy for the methods of Henry Kissinger. The CNO admitted as much in Part IV of his autobiography. Did that mean Zumwalts effort to strengthen OPNAV was not a success?

Here is where scholarship and personal experience come together. In 1981-82, I was a consultant to OP-965, the office charged with assessing alternative naval force structures. I met then-commanders and later admirals Dennis C. Blair and Donald L. Pilling. I also began a lasting correspondence with Captain Wayne P. Hughes, who had served in OP-96 in the Zumwalt years and who was teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School. In 1986, the US Naval Institute published Hughess seminal Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. During 1981-82, I also met officers in OP-603 who were instrumental in developing what came to be known as The Maritime Strategy”: Captain Roger W. Barnett, Commander (later Admiral) James R. Stark, Captain Elizabeth G. Wylie, Captain Peter M. Swartz, and Lieutenant Commander (and PhD) Stanley B. Weeks. At the time, I didnt know what I later learned—that the presence of these individuals was at least partly due to Zumwalt.  

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2015) The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The multimission ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces, and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released)

In 1986, I worked for retired Navy Captain George E. Thibault at Booz-Allen and Hamilton, and Captain Thibault introduced me to Admiral Stansfield Turner, who had retired as CIA director in 1981. 27  Admiral Turner, who, as a newly promoted rear admiral had first briefed the Navy flag officers in Washington on CNO Zumwalts Project 60” in 1970, had a sparkling inquisitive mind. He had much in common with Admiral Zumwalt—an understanding of the role of systems analysis in the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System, for example, and an eagerness to take on causes. 28  In my talks with him, I could see why he respected Admiral Zumwalt, and I could also see how he could inspire loyalty from subordinates in much the same way as Zumwalt had done. 

CNO Zumwalt changed OPNAVs structure, and he attracted talent to OPNAV. The most important part of the changed structure that lasted was the place of systems analysis in the programming process. I can testify to that from personal experience. The talent that flowed into OP-090 (especially OP-965) and OP-06 (especially OP-603) showed that younger officers could make a difference in the large OPNAV staff, and that sense of making a contribution lasted into the 1980s. My personal opinion is that this aggregation of talent contributed significantly to the development and promulgation of The Maritime Strategy.            


(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harry D. Train II, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 145.
  2. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harold Edson Shear, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 312.
  3. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harry D. Train II, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), pp. 169-170.
  4. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harold Edson Shear, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 315.
  5. Thomas C. Hone and Curtis A. Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 (Washington, DC: Navy History and Heritage Command, 2020), p. 286.
  6. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. On Watch: A Memoir (Arlington, VA: Admiral Zumwalt & Associates, 1976), p. 167.
  7. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 197.
  8. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 29. Zumwalt first worked for Nitze in 1962, when Nitze was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. When Nitze was confirmed as Secretary of the Navy at the end of November 1963, he selected Zumwalt to serve as his assistant and senior aide.
  9. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 34. Secretary Nitze’s final fitness report on Zumwalt “persuaded” (according to Zumwalt) the selection board to give him a promotion to flag. The same was done for two other officers. 
  10. Zumwalt, On Watch, pp. 33-34. Also see Norman Friedman, “Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr.,” in Robert William Love, Jr. (ed), The Chiefs of Naval Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980).
  11. President Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird, Jr., had visited VADM Zumwalt in South Vietnam and was impressed with him and with Zumwalt’s plans for “Vietnamization.” See Dale Van Atta, With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2008).
  12. Howard J. Kerr, Jr., Reminiscences by Staff Officers of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., USN, Vol. I, Interview Number 1, 22 September 1982, by Paul Stillwell (U.S. Naval Institute Oral History, 1989), pp. 38-39.
  13. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 40.
  14. Kerr, Reminiscences p. 87.
  15. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 34.
  16. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 123.
  17. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 239.
  18. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 238.
  19. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 258.
  20. Thomas C. Hone and Curtis A. Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 (Washington, DC: Navy History and Heritage Command website, 2020); and Peter M. Swartz with Michael C. Markowitz, Organizing OPNAV (1970-2009) (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 2010).
  21. At that time, Congress limited the CNO to six deputy chiefs of naval operations.
  22. See Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 86-87.
  23. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 241.
  24. Jeffrey L. Sands, CRM 93-22, On His Watch: Admiral Zumwalt’s Efforts to Institutionalize Strategic Change (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1993).
  25. Thomas C. Hone, Power and Change, The Administrative History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1946-1986 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1989), p. 86.
  26. See Larry Berman, Zumwalt, The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2012). See also Edward J. Marolda, Admirals Under Fire, The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2021), esp. pages 282-304.
  27. LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.) wrote a tribute to CAPT Thibault in the “Lest We Forget” section of the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 138/11/1317 (November 2012). CAPT Thibault was an extraordinarily erudite officer—artist, musician, linguist, intellectual, and teacher. He and Turner were a natural “fit.”
  28. John T. Mason, Jr., The Reminiscences of Admiral Stansfield Turner, USN (Ret.) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 2011), p. 371.

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