Admiring biography of Elmo Russell Zumwalt (1920–2000), who transformed the U.S. Navy and went on to an equally commendable career after retirement.
Berman (History Emeritus/Univ. of California, Davis; Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, 2007, etc.) emphasizes how quickly Zumwalt impressed commanders after graduating from Annapolis in 1942 and taking part in naval engagements against Japan. Rising to admiral during the Vietnam War, he commanded the “brown water” navy that patrolled rivers and coasts and suffered heavy casualties from snipers. He approved spraying Agent Orange to defoliate the heavily forested banks, which dramatically reduced casualties but came back to haunt him when its toxicity became known and his son, who served under him, died of cancer from exposure to the chemical. In 1970, President Nixon appointed him Chief of Naval Operations, and he energized the transition away from World War II technology and hidebound personnel policies. The Navy had been integrated for 20 years, but blacks and Filipinos were deliberately given dead-end assignments. Zumwalt changed that, and he allowed beards and longer hair among enlisted men and began permitting women to serve aboard ships. Dealing with major issues, he clashed with leaders such as Adm. Hyman Rickover, who demanded nuclear power in all new ships, and Henry Kissinger over Zumwalt’s opposition to détente. He remained active after retiring in 1974 but—rare among former military men—not in right-wing politics. He led the fight for victims of Agent Orange and served many humanitarian causes.
Readers who tolerate Berman’s frequent pauses to quote praise from letters, speeches and articles, as well as tributes during award, change-of-command, retirement and funeral ceremonies, will agree that he makes a good case that Zumwalt was an outstanding naval leader.