Naval Base San Diego
The U.S. Navy’s primary mission was, and is, to ensure the command of the seas. Command of the seas allows unfettered U.S. commerce and military sea lines of communication. Thus, the U.S. economy can continue to operate, and U.S. forces can move across the sea to foreign soil. Conversely, the U.S. Navy’s command of the seas interdicts the maritime commerce and military activities by enemies of the United States. After Japan’s formal surrender on the deck of the U.S. battleship Missouri on 2 September 1945, the U.S. Navy’s mission to maintain command of the seas took many forms, from launching carrier strikes to diplomatic shows of force. During the Cold War, the navy fought in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf; enforced a quarantine of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and helped prevent a communist Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The navy’s submarines armed with nuclear missiles, which formed one leg of the U.S. strategic triad, also played a key role. Finally, if a president needed a show of muscle, he often sent a carrier task force to impress a foreign power or intimidate a potential adversary.
The U.S. Navy drastically downsized as part of the post–World War II general demobilization, shrinking from 3 million to 1 million sailors. It also ceased construction of more than 150 warships and several thousand small craft and decommissioned 2,600 others. Nevertheless, the navy’s commitments were still immense, and the American government called upon the navy frequently. A show of force to deter a possible communist coup during the Italian elections of 1948 was one of the first examples of the navy in action during the Cold War. Twenty-five percent of the aircraft that participated in the Berlin Airlift belonged to the navy. Furthermore, U.S. Navy units protected Taiwan from the threat of a communist Chinese invasion.
After World War II, many U.S. political leaders believed that a large navy was no longer necessary. Thus, the U.S. Navy continually had to fight for funding for operations and new equipment. For example, twenty-seven days after taking office, on 23 April 1949 Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson canceled the navy’s new 60,000-ton supercarrier United States without consulting either the secretary of the navy or the chief of naval operations. The navy argued that it needed the new supercarriers, as existing carriers were too small to handle multiengine jet aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Johnson, a former secretary of the air force, favored the B-36 bomber, but his decision precipitated a vicious battle over the roles of the services. The navy fought back against Johnson to the extent that some senior officers went to the press. The media referred to this fight as the Revolt of the Admirals.
Despite this temporary setback, the U.S. Navy was able to start construction of four frigates and three hunter-killer submarines. It also began development of new carrier aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons as well as development of nuclear ship propulsion. Especially important in the latter area was the work by Captain Hyman Rickover in developing nuclear power plants for submarines.
The U.S. Navy did not have a serious or prolonged fight to gain command of the seas during the Korean War, but it did play a vital role in the conflict. Naval air and gun support slowed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) drive to conquer the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) and assisted in maintaining United Nations Command (UNC) forces in the Pusan Perimeter. The navy transported X Corps in the Inchon amphibious assault and provided air and naval gunfire support. The navy also cleared mines from Korean harbors, including Wonsan, on the eastern coast of North Korea and it made possible the withdrawal of X Corps from Hungnam and other points on the north-eastern coast of Korea following Chinese entry into the war at the end of 1950. The navy continued to provide key air and naval gunfire support for ground operations until the armistice on 27 July 1953.
The performance of the U.S. Navy during the Korean War demonstrated its key role in U.S. global security operations and led to more political support and funding, including new programs under National Security Council Report NSC-68. This included Forrestal-class supercarriers, new naval aircraft, and destroyers and guided-missile cruisers. The submarine Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered warship, entered active service in early 1955. The navy began development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in 1959, and USS George Washington made the first operational patrol armed with SLBMs in November 1960. The navy’s nuclear submarines became one-third of the U.S. strategic triad, alongside intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers carrying nuclear bombs. During this period of rebuilding, the navy also supported the Marines in the Lebanon Intervention of 1958 and in the evacuation of U.S. civilians during the Dominican Intervention of 1965.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a signal event in the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to nuclear Armageddon. In October 1962, U.S. policymakers learned that Cuba, with Soviet assistance, was building medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) sites. After much deliberation, President John F. Kennedy ordered the navy to impose a blockade of Cuba and prevent the Soviet Union from bringing in additional supplies and missiles for the MRBM launch sites. The navy enforced the quarantine and was prepared to conduct combat operations if necessary. After Soviet leaders backed down, Second Fleet warships closely monitored the dismantling of the Cuban MRBM threat to the continental United States.
After the crisis, the Soviets began building a balanced navy due to their inability to challenge the U.S. Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the U.S. Navy tried to develop enhanced strategic capabilities in the form of an extended-range Polaris missile and an improved submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, another threat loomed on the horizon in the form of the Vietnam War.
U.S. Navy ships were involved in intelligence gathering (DESOTO patrols) in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) when on 1 August 1964 North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer Maddox. A second alleged attack on 4 August on the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, almost certainly did not occur. President Lyndon B. Johnson nonetheless ordered retaliatory air raids against North Vietnamese coastal targets, and the U.S. Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing the president to use U.S. military resources as he deemed fit in Vietnam.
The U.S. Navy’s involvement in Vietnam took many forms. In Operation MARKET TIME, the navy executed offshore interdiction of North Vietnamese vessels seeking to infiltrate men and supplies into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) and, in Operation GAME WARDEN, it fought the communist Viet Cong for control of South Vietnam’s vital and extensive river systems. Navy aircraft provided key air support to ground troops in South Vietnam from carriers off the coast of South Vietnam (Dixie Station). The navy also provided important gunfire support to operations near the coast as well as shelled North Vietnam, and it supported amphibious operations by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
U.S. Navy aircraft participated in Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the air war against North Vietnam, from carriers stationed off the coast of North Vietnam (Yankee Station). Washington’s goals for ROLLING THUNDER were to halt the infiltration of men and supplies into South Vietnam and to force North Vietnamese leaders to abandon their support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam and come to the negotiating table. Although the operation exacted a considerable toll on North Vietnam, it failed to achieve its goals. The cost was also high due to the sophisticated and growing North Vietnamese air defense network. In thirty-seven months between 1965 and 1968, the navy lost 421 planes and 450 aviators. The navy also helped train personnel and then turned over substantial assets in vessels and equipment to the South Vietnamese Navy as part of the Vietnamization program.
Washington subsequently called upon the U.S. Navy to execute numerous other missions. The navy supported the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Cyprus in July 1974 and then from Cambodia and from South Vietnam in April 1975. The navy also assisted in operations to retake the Mayaguez and its crew when they were taken captive by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in May 1975.
The U.S. Navy struggled during Jimmy Carter’s presidency as a consequence of the standoff between the president and Congress. Despite being a former naval officer, President Carter did not wish to expend large sums on the navy, while Congress sought to increase its funding. The election of Ronald Reagan as president in November 1980 led to a massive military buildup that revitalized the navy and saw it come close to Reagan’s goal of 600 ships.
When President Reagan sent Marines into Lebanon in 1983, Arab attacks of Marine installations escalated, and the U.S. Navy provided naval gunfire support to thwart the attacks. Nevertheless, the suicide truck-bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut effectively ended U.S. involvement in Lebanon in February 1984. The navy also provided key assistance in the Grenada Invasion of October 1983 and in the invasion of Panama during December 1989–January 1990.
During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988, the belligerents began attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy executed freedom of navigation operations to ensure U.S. access to oil from the Persian Gulf, clearly maintaining command of the sea. However, unique operational difficulties existed in a confined area such as the Persian Gulf. Iranian mines and antiship missiles were significant threats. A missile attack on USS Stark on 17 March 1987 killed 37 American sailors. In another major incident in the area, on 3 July 1988 the U.S. cruiser Vincennes mistakenly fired on an Iranian civilian jetliner, killing 290 passengers.
When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, President George H. W. Bush ordered the U.S. Navy to protect Saudi Arabia from potential Iraqi aggression in Operation DESERT SHIELD. Naval aircraft and gunfire assisted UN Coalition forces in significantly deterring Iraqi attacks. Navy Harpoon precision-guided missiles played a vital role in attacking Iraqi targets. Furthermore, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft made up 30 percent of the sorties flown in the resultant coalition war with Iraq, Operation DESERT STORM, that ultimately liberated Kuwait and crushed Iraqi forces.
The U.S. Navy had proven its indispensable mettle during more than forty years of Cold War tension and in countless hot wars between 1945 and 1991, when the Cold War officially ended.
References Baer, George. One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996. Hagan, Kenneth J. In Peace and War: Interpretations of American Naval History, 1775– 1984. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. ———. This People’s Navy: The Making of American Sea Power. New York: Free Press, 1991. Hartmann, Frederick H. Naval Renaissance: The U.S. Navy in the 1980s. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990. Howarth, Stephen. To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775–1991. New York: Random House, 1991. Isenberg, Michael T. Shield of the Republic: The United States Navy in an Era of Cold War and Violent Peace, Vol. 1, 1945–1962. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.