Admiral Elmo Russell Zumwalt, the charismatic Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and “the Navy’s most popular leader since WWII” (Time) was a man who embodied honor, courage, and commitment to those under his command. In a naval career spanning forty years, he rose to the top echelon of the US Navy, as a commander of all Navy forces in Vietnam and then as CNO (1970-1974). His tenure came at a time of scandal and tumult, from the Soviet’s challenge to U.S. naval supremacy and a duplicitous endgame in Vietnam to Watergate and an admirals’ spy ring.
Unlike many other senior naval officers, Zumwalt successfully enacted radical change, including the integration of the most racist branch of the military—an achievement that made him the target of bitter personal recriminations. His fight to modernize a technologically obsolete fleet pitted him against such formidable adversaries as Henry Kissinger and Hyman Rickover. Ultimately, Zumwalt created a more egalitarian Navy as well as a smaller and modernized fleet better prepared to cope with a changing world—a policy that has helped keep the navy a modern and relevant fighting force.
But Zumwalt’s professional success was marred by personal loss, including the unwitting role he played in his son’s death from Agent Orange. Retiring from the service in 1974, Zumwalt spearheaded a citizen education and mobilization effort to successfully help others in securing reparations for thousands of Vietnam veterans and their children. That activism earned him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by Bill Clinton in 1998. Today, his tombstone at the U.S. Naval Academy is inscribed with one word: Reformer. Admiring yet even-handed, Larry Berman’s moving biography reminds us what leadership is and pays tribute to a man whose life reflected the best of America itself.