Monday, April 17, 2006

A Principled Stand

I haven't done a Google search, but out there somewhere, a liberal pundit has probably praised those retired generals for their "principled" stand against defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The obvious retort to that argument is that principles--and criticism--are easy, once you've retired and your pension is intact.

Of course, a few military officers have taken a stand while still in uniform--and many have paid the price. The legendary Lt Col David Hackworth took his critique of the Vietnam War on ABC-TV in 1970, and his Army career ended a short time later. Even in retirement, "Hack" remained a major influence on NCOs and junior officers, some of whom eventually reached the flag ranks. Today, the organization he founded (Soldiers for the Truth) helps perpetuate Hackworth's vision of a military that is properly focused on the right training, readiness and equipment for the men and women we send in harm's way.

Before Hackworth, there other officers went public with their convictions. Before World War II, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was court-martialed, largely for saying that the U.S. needed an independent air arm, and proving that aircraft would make battleships obsolete. In the early 1950s, Douglas MacArthur's tour as Allied commander in Korea came to an end after he clashed with President Harry Truman over the proposed bombing of targets in China, which had entered the war on the North Korean side.

But one of the most principled stands by a military officer has been largely forgotten. Had his advice been followed, one of the greatest disasters in American history could have been prevented, and thousands of lives saved.

In 1940, Admiral J.O. Richardson reached the apex of his Navy career, with appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. But Richardson soon ran afoul of his superiors, namely the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold "Betty" Stark and President Franklin Roosevelt. The President wanted to keep the Pacific Fleet--normally based on the U.S. West Coast--at Pearl Harbor. Richardson refused, noting that his ships were short of trained personnel, the waters around Hawaii ill-suited for training, and, in its forward location, the fleet was vulnerable to a potential suprise attack by Japanese forces. Richardson liked Pearl Harbor to a "g--d---ed mousetrap."

Throughout 1940, tensions escalated between Richardson, Admiral Stark and FDR. The Pacific commander was summoned to Washington for meetings on at least two occasions, to discuss a more permanent basing of the fleet in Hawaii. Richardson remained adamant; the move to Pearl Harbor was too risky and as long as he was CINCPAC, he would not support it. An on-line manuscript from the University of North Texas History Department recounts Admiral Richardson's battles with his superiors:

"...Richardson continued to warn the president and the Navy leaders about the tenuous situation at Pearl Harbor. He explained again that the battleships would have to return to the west coast Navy yards to weld up their port holes, take up the fire hazardous teakwood decks, load their wartime ammunition allowance and accomplish other war preparational duties needed to fight. Possibly unknown to him and others, dispatches and decoded messages were in Washington being studied. Richardson was especially disturbed when he was forced by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. “Betty” Stark, to cease daily long-range reconnaissance patrols.

However, Richardson’s brash and to-the-point discussion with Roosevelt in October led to his release as fleet commander on Sunday, January 19, 1941. He did not expect it. Admiral Stark had told him the duty would last another year. Richardson’s flag secretary Dyer brought the message to the golf course. Richardson simply commented after reading the orders, “My God. They can’t do that to me.”

FDR had neatly solved the "Richardson problem" by removing the admiral from command. For a successor, the President reached far down the list of eligible naval officers and selected Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, who took command of the Pacific Fleet on February 1, 1941. Ironically, Kimmel shared Richardson's misgivings about Pearl Harbor, but as the newly-appointed CINCPAC, he was less inclined to press the issue with Admiral Stark and the President. Just over 10 months after Kimmel assumed command, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Richardson's warnings about a surprise attack--and potential disaster--were proven correct.

Today (ironically), Admiral Richardson is little more than a footnote to history. He published a slim volume of memoirs (On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor) in 1958, but said little publicly about his battles with FDR, and his refusal to compromise the security of the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Richardson passed away in 1974, at the age of 95.

Richardson did the right thing--offering sage advice and counsel to his superiors, without regard for how it might affect his career. Admiral Richardson put his position on the line, and paid for the courage of his convictions. He lost the job that every U.S. Navy officer aspires to, but was vindicated by the judgment of history. Long after we forget the second-guessing of General Zinni and the other retired flag officers, we should remember the example of Admiral Richardson, who was willing to stand for his principles (and pay the price) while still in uniform.


skipper said...


My book on Admiral J.O. Richardson will be published by next summer through Pelican Press.

It is not short, so he will no longer be a blip on the story.

Skipper Steely
Paris, Texas

Paul Ellis said...

I was aware of Richardson's stance when doing a major work on Pacific War causes at Manchester University UKin 1960s.

NSA's deliberate suppression of pre Pearl JN-25 intercepts & existence of Mcollum Memo not then apparent.

Paul Ellis

Luth said...

And don't forget John Kerry, who stood on his principles before and after leaving the Navy. He didn't give up his retirement, but rumors about his principled stand that were inconsistent with the public record of his service cost him an election.

John K. said...

He is referenced in Lowry & Wellham book: "The Attack on Taranto" which discusses the British carrier - air attack which destroyed the Italian Navy at anchor in Nov. 1940.