Command of the Seas

Command of the Seas

by The Honorable John Lehman


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This infectiously readable memoir by the most colorful and controversial Navy Secretary in memory provides the inside story of the origins and battles at home and abroad in building a 600-ship Navy. Young, bright, and ambitious, John Lehman came to office refusing to be just another figurehead. For the six years he served in the Reagan administration, he helped forge an aggressive strategy for achieving maritime supremacy and for rebuilding the U.S. Navy. In this bestselling personal account of those years between 1981 and 1987, he speaks with candor and authority about the ills of the military establishment and the struggles and frustrations he encountered.

Lehman reveals instances of political intrigue, including his dramatic Oval Office confrontation with Admiral Rickover at the time of the admiral's firing in 1982 and battles within the Pentagon and Congress. His explanation of the administration's new naval strategy has been called the most comprehensive and lucid ever written, and his descriptions of the Navy in combat over Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada are packed with fascinating details that only an insider could know. The bold insights he presents of a critical turning point in the Cold War will continue to inform and, with the addition of new material to this paperback edition, promise to renewed discussion of the role of the U.S. Navy then and into the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557505347
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 11/28/2001
Series: Bluejacket Books Series
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My Early Life

One of the 317,000 naval officers who won the war in the Pacific was John F. Lehman, Sr. A "ninety-day wonder," my father was given command of a new LCS right out of Officer Candidate School, where he was commissioned lieutenant (junior grade). LCS-18 was a very heavily armed amphibious assault ship with a crew of 120 officers and men. My father and his crew put it in commission where it was built, in Boston, and took it through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. They were with the first wave in the Okinawa invasion and saw a great deal of combat from then until the end of the war. Though my father never considered making the navy a career, leaving active duty for the reserves as soon as the war was over, he loved the navy and what it stands for.

    Dad's admiration for the navy was infectious. Although he was not really a strict disciplinarian, my sister, my three brothers, and I grew up in a "tight ship." We had to "hit the deck" every morning for school, "muster on the fantail" for Saturday chores. If we didn't behave well, we were told to "shape up or ship out."

    Like so many World War II reserve officers, my father had a kind of affectionate condescension toward officers in the regular navy, the Naval Academy "ring-knockers." The World War II ratio of reserve to regular officers was seventy to one. He was a great admirer, however, of Admiral Arleigh "Thirty-one-Knot" Burke for his courage in combat and in Washington. A career in the military was something that noone in my father's family had ever considered. From their arrival with William Penn, there is no record of any member of my father's family ever having served as a careerist in the military, though a great many of them served on active duty during every war.

    A good example was my father's grandfather Dr. Joseph V. Kelly. In a fit of patriotic fervor he joined the 114th Zouave Regiment of Volunteers in 1862. After a serious dose of infantry combat in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where the colorfully uniformed Zouaves made a bayonet charge that saved the day for the Union Army, he was taken seriously ill and spent a month in Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia recuperating. Upon recovery he traveled to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York and passed the examination for surgeon's steward. He was assigned to the Union gunboat Commodore Jones and was soon in active combat supporting McClellan's Army in the Peninsula Campaign. After nearly a year of active combat in the Virginia Tidewater area, Commodore Jones was blown up by a mine in the James River at Deep Bottom. Kelly was one of a very few survivors and spent a month recuperating in Portsmouth Naval Hospital. He spent the remainder of the war as an assistant ship's surgeon on the Shokoken and other ships. At the end of the war he resigned from the navy and returned to Philadelphia where he completed medical school at Jefferson Medical College. After graduating he spent a long career as a practicing physician and professor of medicine at Jefferson.

    The first Lehman to arrive in Philadelphia was Philip Theodore Lehman who was secretary to William Penn. Lehman remained in Philadelphia working for Penn after the latter returned to England, despite the fact that Penn once described his secretary's fees as "lewd and extravagant." In 1733 Lehman's younger brother Godfryd joined him in Philadelphia along with his son Christian. Christian had a son named George born in 1753. As a young physician George joined the Continental Army and served with George Washington at Valley Forge at the Yellow Springs hospital and stayed with him for the next four years. With fighting at an end in the north, in 1780 George Lehman shipped out with Stephen Decatur, Sr., as ship's surgeon on the most famous privateer of the Revolution. Fair American took a great many prizes between 1780-82 and made all of her officers and owners rich men including Lehman. Unfortunately, in 1782 Fair American was captured by the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Garland and Lehman found himself first in the infamous Jersey prison hulk in New York, and eventually in the Old Mill Prison in Portsmouth, England. Lehman was able to bribe his way to freedom and return to Philadelphia where he became a prominent physician. He married and produced five children one of whom was William. William had a son George, and George had a son James who had a son Joseph who became a physician and professor of medicine. Joseph had a son named John and John was my father.

    When my father left the navy, he returned to a career as an industrial engineer but kept a very active and lively interest in world affairs and politics. Our dinner table conversations were always active on the issues of the day. Both my mother and my father were strong supporters of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. They never participated in party politics, but their views and interests no doubt provided me with my basic frame of political reference. To this day I find my father's insights and salty commentary on foreign policy and politics much more valuable than those of most of the professional pundits. And from my mother's unflagging compassion for the underdog, I take my only strain of liberalism.

    On September 14, 1942, I was born in Philadelphia in my grandfather's hospital, the second child after my sister, Patricia. We and my three younger brothers grew up in a stable, happy home in a suburb called Glenside. I did all the usual things—Cub Scouts, baseball, and a paper route—while attending St. Luke's parochial school. While there I was occasionally addressed by some of the good sisters of St. Joseph as "a bold, brazen article." I went from there to an excellent private school run by the Christian Brothers, LaSalle College High School. At LaSalle I took up rowing, a sport I have loved ever since.

    I went on to my father's alma mater, St. Joseph's College in Overbrook, where the Jesuits were able to find my intellectual light switch and turn it on. In philosophy and political and economic theory I found subjects as exciting as rowing and beer. I was put in the honors program in international relations, and by the end of my freshman year I knew I wanted a career in government and foreign policy, though I never was able, even at graduation, to answer my father's question: "That's nice, but how are you going to make a living?" (After fourteen years of government salaries, I still didn't have an answer for him.)

    My director of studies then and good friend now is Jim Dougherty. He introduced me to the classical tradition of political theory: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Cicero and Seneca; Ambrose; John of Salisbury; Marsilio of Padua; Aquinas; Machiavelli; Hobbes; Locke; Hume; and Burke. Captivating Jesuits like the late Ed Gannon used the heavy requirement in philosophy to build a devotion to rigorous logic. Immersion in classical theory and philosophy gradually built a method of disciplined conceptual thinking and integration of disparate bodies of knowledge that has been the most valuable acquisition of my entire education. It left me with a lifelong satisfaction in logic and disciplined intellectual debate and rhetoric and with a contempt for those politicians and commentators who disregard and debase the rules of logic. (My criticism of the Rickover educational philosophy and its effect on the navy was its treating of the quantifiable disciplines of math, physics, chemistry, etc., as the only true legitimate education, while the nonquantifiable disciplines of history, jurisprudence, philosophy, and political theory were mere luxuries to dabble in, in one's spare time. At the Naval Academy they were called "bull courses." The true value of a balanced liberal arts education is to learn the humane virtues of Western civilization, to conceptualize the unquantifiables of human nature, and to integrate in rational thought both quantifiable and unquantifiable knowledge.)

    It left me also with an impatience for one of the great heresies of our time, of which Rickover and former secretary of defense Robert McNamara were disciples—the heresy of bureaucratic empiricism. The rise of computers in the 1950s gave a new life to an old bad idea—that the only reality was the quantifiable. It gave rise under McNamara to the cult of system analysis, to the practice of decision-making by computer modeling and statistical analysis, to body counts and cost-based, sole-source procurement.

    When the empirical doctrine was grafted upon a navy already obsessed with engineering thanks to Rickover, it created a generation of officers comfortable in thermodynamics but illiterate and tongue-tied in conceptual and policy debate.

    Through Jim Dougherty I was introduced to the great Robert Strausz-Hupé and his "school" of realist foreign policy scholars at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) at the University of Pennsylvania. The Viennese-born author of Geopolitics had gathered a group of brilliant intellectuals at Penn. More than any other think tank of the 1950s and 1960s, the FPRI provided the intellectual foundations of the foreign policy of Jackson Democrats and conservative Republicans. Strausz-Hupé's elegant writing and riveting lecture style utterly charmed me. I dropped plans to go to law school and sought to join his "school." Though I was accepted into Strausz-Hupés Ph.D. program at Penn, my entry was delayed until January 1965 so I could work in Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign.

    To be a conservative Republican during those times was to enjoy the pleasures of a distinct minority. Like all 1960s campuses, St. Joe's was overwhelmingly liberal Democrat, and it was loaded with the sons of Irish and Italian politicians. After joining the Conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I found intellectual succor for my minority views. The college paper, The Hawk, gave me space for a political column, which I wrote in the style of H. L. Mencken, to whose books I was addicted and to whom I still repair regularly for cynical refreshment.

    Perhaps the strongest influence on the direction of my intellectual interests was my great-uncle George Kelly. He never married, and my mother and his other nieces were his only family. He was a major family presence. He was at once the most intellectually provocative and the funniest man I have ever known, and from the time I was about ten he held me spellbound until he died in 1971. He had achieved great fame as a Broadway actor (his first hit was as the lead in The Virginian), director, and playwright. He had received many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for Craig's Wife, and had traveled the world and knew it well. Every visit by Uncle George was a performance. Before, during, and after dinner he would alternate mimicking old Philadelphia neighborhood characters, Irish maids, thugs, cops, and movie stars like his one great romantic partner, Tallullah Bankhead. (She once said on The Jack Paar Show that George Kelly was the only man with whom she had ever been in love.) He would have to stop after a while because we had tears and cramps from unremitting laughter. I still remember almost wetting my pants as he recounted in lilting brogue about a great-aunt who ran a hotel in Atlantic City in the 1880s. One day this stern matriarch was disturbed by a fourth-floor guest playing lively Irish reels on his fiddle. She sent one servant after another up to tell the old Irishman to stop playing and disturbing the peace of the neighborhood. He took the part of each of the different maids and waiters, and of Aunt Mary, dispatching each with stern warnings. None returned, and finally there was none left to send—and still the fiddling continued. Furious, she climbed the four sets of stairs to deliver terrible justice. As she entered, there was the fiddler (Uncle George now looking just like a leprechaun sawing the imaginary fiddle), and there were all the servants all dancing jigs, "And saints preserve us if the divil himself didn't take hold of me feet and set them to dancin', and off I went even as I was shouting at the girls, and them with their skirts in their hands!"

    When his audience truly couldn't continue from too much laughter, he would make a point and illustrate it with a scene from Shakespeare in which he would take every role from memory. His entire person was transformed with every character. And the force of his Lear or Macbeth still makes my hair stand. (He refused to do The Tempest, which he called "Shakespeare's only mistake.")

    Through my college years I visited with him frequently. I would tell him over lunch about some moral or political issue we were studying and then he would talk and I would listen for hours and hours, spellbound. He would start on the issue and explore it with a combination of detachment and passion. Religion and philosophy, mysticism, the New Deal, existentialism, all were alive to him. To illustrate a point he would say, "In such-and-such a play [often one of his own] the character X is caught in just such a dilemma." He would then proceed to act out the entire play, taking every part. I have never experienced anything like it since. He was hypnotic. I was absolutely carried by him into the life of the play, the issues, the personalities. He took on twenty different personalities and intellects in a day, and every one complete. It was almost as if he were a medium through which other real people spoke.

    More than any other person, he introduced me to the life of the intellect, and as a side effect moved me steadily to a foundation of conservative politics. He abhorred politicians as a class, but he had special contempt for leftwing ideologues. His political principles came from Burke, Santayana, and William James, and his prejudices from the famous "roundtable" at the Algonquin Hotel, where he was a welcome member for thirty years.

    Uncle George was one of the ten remarkable children of John and Mary Costello Kelly, two Irish immigrants from County Mayo.

    The oldest son, Patrick Henry ("P. H."), succeeded at a young age, founding a general contracting company that built many of the elegant buildings lining Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Simultaneously, his younger brother Walter, who had started as a draftsman at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company (which, along with the Commodore Jones episode, gave me a good line for all my ship-launching speeches there), became a huge success in vaudeville and later in Hollywood as "the Virginia Judge." He was a good friend of Theodore Roosevelt and went with him on his year-long African safari in 1911. P. H. and Walter's financial success eased the way for the younger children.

    After working for P. H., younger brother Jack (Princess Grace's father) launched his own brick contracting firm while winning three Olympic gold medals in sculling in his spare time. Younger brother George and sister Grace gained entrée into the world of the theater through Walter. George was an immediate success as an actor in high comedy but Grate's very promising talent was cut short when she died of pneumonia at age twenty-two.

    Younger sister Mary went to work as bookkeeper for P. H.'s company and soon became chief financial officer—a highly precocious position for a woman in those days (1912). She married Joseph Cruice and reluctantly gave up her career after their second child, Grace Constance, my mother, arrived. Mary Kelly Cruice was a formidable woman in the Irish matriarchal tradition. She ruled benevolently but with an iron hand. We grandchildren knew well, because we lived under her suzerainty every summer until she died. She raised her four daughters in comfortable circumstances with live-in help. Every summer was spent at Ocean City, New Jersey, Philadelphia's longtime seaside resort for upscale lace-curtain Irish.

    When my mother and her sisters married and began families of their own, Uncle Jack bought a large Victorian house of seven bedrooms on the beach at Ocean City so that my grandmother could house all her daughters, sons-in-law, and eventually thirteen grandchildren together for summer vacations.

    In our family my father wore the pants (as they used to say) and was used to command at sea. But when he and my uncles-in-law joined us on weekends, we kids took due note that the men were definitely second in command when "Ma" Cruice was on the bridge. But we also knew what a soft touch she was for ice cream or money for the boardwalk.

    She was also wise enough to know that teenage boys would not fit well into the Victorian order of her summer household. As the first of us ten boys approached adolescence, a western-style bunkhouse was built away from the main house, and all boys over ten were exiled. Over there the regime of "the big house" rested lightly upon us, we soon learned, as long as we didn't become too outrageous. As one of the oldest, I assumed responsibility for establishing a new political order in our microcosm, and we soon had a functioning executive and judicial system that remained intact for a decade until the whole establishment was swept away by the great storm of 1962. As it happened, that occurred one month after my grandmother's death, and none of us questioned that the one was a natural consequence of the other.

    The bunkhouse bums, as we soon came to be called, were a very talented bunch of lads. We reflected the contending interest of the older Kelly generation. The jocks idolized Uncle Jack, the Olympic gold medalist, and the intellectuals Uncle George, the Pulitzer Prize winner. Both men were heroes to us, tall, handsome figures who had conquered the world and who dispensed $20 bills to each of us when they visited. The senior jock, Bob Smith, later an outstanding end on the Boston College football team and a Marine Corps officer, had us all competing fiercely on the beach in football, stickball, surfing, running, and wrestling. It was no place for sissies. Everyone had to compete, and every single day. But the intellectuals ruled on rainy days and after dinner, and here again there was no option of dropping out and losing face. Learned debates on sex, books, politics, and religion (half of us were Catholic and half Episcopalian) went long into the night. The quick riposte, the bon mot, the verbal thrust were as essential for survival on rainy days as a strong arm and a good eye were on sunny days.

    Later in our high school and college years, we all had summer jobs usually, like me, as a hod carrier for the Kelly Construction Company, and we joined the bunkhouse only on weekends. Despite its Irish heritage, Ocean City was and remains today a dry island. But just across the causeway on the mainland was a place called Somer's Point, which was a kind of rock 'n' roll Dodge City, made up of three blocks of bars, each with rock 'n' roll bands or jukeboxes. The crowd was college, and it went from dusk till dawn. What a fun place it was. All of the early rock 'n' roll greats played at the three main joints, Bayshores, Tony Mart's, and Steel's. Bill Haley, Bo Diddley, the Isley Brothers, etc.

    Some of us rowed competitively for the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, so we never broke training until the season ended, usually in mid-July. The bunkhouse competition changed a bit in those days, and we often crept in as the sun crept up.

    The bunkhouse was a part of a family culture that created lasting bonds. Of the eight cousins who formed the bunkhouse bums, all finished college, and then seven took advanced degrees, two served in the marines, three in the navy, and one in the army. Four served in Vietnam. One, Tony Goit, died tragically of an LSD-induced suicide at Dartmouth College. The rest of ns are all happily married (two for the second time) and have, as of this writing, fathered nineteen children. We all have a reunion every year at my parent's beach house at Ocean City, and this year my son, John III, asked me when he and his cousins Brian, Robbie, Jody, Chris, Derek, and Kent could move out of "the big house."


Another person who influenced me enormously over the years was another devoted disciple of George Kelly, Princess Grace. Grace's father was John B. Kelly, George's younger brother by two years. Jack had saved George's life when they were both soldiers in France during World War I, but their careers went in opposite directions and they had little sympathy for each other's pursuits. Grace, however, adored George and from her earliest years wanted to pursue a career in the theater. Although Jack put no obstacles in Grate's path, it was George whom she looked to for encouragement and help. It was he who provided the initial introductions in the theater world just as his brother Walter had done for him. As "George Kelly's niece" she was looked at carefully by those who counted in New York. George was very proud of Grace and of the role he had played in getting her started, though he never spoke of it. Her first acclaim in the press came from her performance in George's play, The Torchbearers. They were always very close, sharing especially a unique sense of humor and a great sense of theater with a small "t." George was an immediate favorite of Prince Rainier and his father, Prince Pierre, after Grace's marriage, and was a frequent visitor to the palace.

    When Grace was growing up, my mother lived only a few blocks away, in East Falls, Philadelphia, and was the favorite baby-sitter of Grace's mother, Margaret. Grace was the flower girl for my mother when she married, and later she was occasionally my mother's baby-sitter at Ocean City. When I was growing up, I saw her at funerals and weddings. When she first hit the big time in New York (in Lux Video Theater), I remember all of the bunkhouse bums walking down the beach to the Kelly house to receive autographed photos from her during a weekend visit. We came back and told the "grownies" at the big house that we had met some smarmy guy named "Ollie" Cassini, who was chasing her. We gave him a big thumbs-down.

    In 1995 my brothers and sister and I were polished up and taken to the Kelly house on Henry Avenue for a family party to meet Prince Rainier. I came away awed that the first and only monarch I had met actually knew more about American baseball than I did. When I came to know him in later years, I found that in addition to baseball he understood American politics and government better than most of my professors. His grasp of world economic and political affairs remains today quite extraordinary.

    After Grace married I saw her about once a year at Ocean City, where she always returned for a summer visit. While there in August 1965 I told her I was leaving soon to go to England to attend Cambridge University (where I eventually received B.A. and M.A. degrees), and she invited me to stay at the palace in Monaco for the Christmas holidays. During my first term at Cambridge, I read up on royal protocol and court routine and arrived on schedule a week before Christmas. It was quite a holiday. I was lodged in apartments in the newer seventeenth-century courtyard and had some awkwardness adjusting to the ever-present footmen, valets, and household officials, but otherwise was made to feel right at home. Following Grace's schedule every day was a challenge filled with many events. I was surprised to find that everything at court revolved around the children: Caroline, then eight years old; Albert, her younger brother; and newly arrived Stephanie. While Rainier had government meetings and ceremonials, he rarely let them interfere with events in the children's lives. Around the children's schedules there was for Grace a constant round of charity events, hospital visits, state lunches and dinners, formal balls, and glamorous galas. The business of being a prince and a princess, I found, could be very hard work indeed. But she clearly loved it, and she knew how to make it fun. There was a social event at the palace or the opera house or the sporting club nearly every night during the holidays.


Excerpted from Command of the Seas by John F. Lehman, Jr.. Copyright © 1988 by John Lehman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

List of Figuresix
Preface to Bluejacket Editionxi
Introduction: Rickover and the Navy Soul1
Part I: A Naval Vocation
1 My Early Life39
2 Kissinger, Vietnam, and the Uses of Naval Power62
3 Why I Wanted the Job and How I Got It91
Part II: A Navy Reformed
4 Setting the Course: Rebuilding a Naval Strategy115
5 The Six-Hundred-Ship Navy148
6 Electric Boat and the Reform of Shipbuilding191
7 The Hornet and the Reform of the Navy Department219
Part III: The Navy in Action
8 The Falklands War263
9 Grenada: What Price Jointness?284
10 Operations in and over Lebanon299
11 Naval Aviation332
12 Dealing with Qaddafi350
13 ThePacific Frontier361

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