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SECNAVs AND SUBMARINES Part 1:  The Evolving: Role or the Secretary or the Navy

[Editor’s Note: This history of the role of the SECNAV in building and maintaining the submarine force breaks naturally into two parts. The first is a discussion of the evolving nature of the role and the relationship of the Secretary of the Navy to the President and Congress. The second part is an historical survey of views and actions of individual Secretaries concerning the Submarine Force. Commander Tangredi currently serves as Special Assistant and Speechwriter to Secretary Dalton. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Department of Defense.]

The Paradox

The role of the Secretary of the Navy in creating and sustaining America’s submarine force is, paradoxically, both historically obvious and historically underrated.

It is obvious because until the National Security Act of 1947, the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) was the President’s primary advisor and the principle decision-maker on all naval matters. Al-though plans for the acquisition and utilization of submarines were subject to Presidential discretion and Congressional politics, once taken they were-in effect-the sole province of their executive agent, the Secretary the Navy.

As appropriate to this position as executive agent, acquisition of the Navy’s first submarine was initiated by an advertisement signed by Secretary William C. Whitney on November 26, 1887 soliciting plans for a .. Submarine Torpedo Boat for the United States Navy. ,., Despite the lack of an acceptable response to the first advertisement, it was the persistent influence of subsequent SECNAVs that maintained Congressional support for future submarine construction.

This influence may be less apparent today due to the supervisory authority of the Secretary of Defense, and particularly in the light of recent legislation increasing the bureaucratic power of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition & Technology). Acquisi-tion decisions are clearly not the sole province of any Service Secretary. Likewise, the actual practical extent of SECNAV influence has always varied, dependent on the personalities and preferences of the individuals appointed as SECNA V and SEC-DEF.

However, in accordance with Title 10 U.S. Code-the legislation governing defense organization-the Secretary of the Navy is still the official directed to “conduct all the affairs of the Department of the Navy, including recruiting, organizing, supplying, equipping, training, mobilizing and demobilizing”.

The SECNAV is also responsible for “the construction, outfit-ting, and repair of naval ships, equipment and facilities” and the “formulation and implementation of policies and programs that are consistent with the national security policies and objectives established by the President and Secretary of Defense”. Decisions concerning the construction and manning of the Submarine Force fall under both categories.

That is the obvious part. The underrated part is the fact that most modem histories of submarine development pay relatively scant attention to the SECNA V’s actual role in fashioning the force.


There are several possible reasons for this oversight. First, naval historians have naturally concentrated on the actions of uniformed officers and sailors (quite reasonably, since they constitute the Navy) or on the evolution of maritime technology. In the case of recent submarine histories, most have concentrated on actual submarine design rather than the policy requirements that caused their construction.,

Secondly, interpretations of history are often influenced by contemporary issues and-quite frankly-the overall, historical power of the SECNAV is often interpreted in light of his present statutory role.

Third, the overwhelming personality of the late Admiral Rickover-and his effective history/publicity campaigns-tended to crowd out public attention to the SECNAVs’ role in the recent history of submarines.

Whatever the cause, the bottom line is that the Secretaries of the Navy are the forgotten figures in the history of an often silent Service. This oversight has prevented a thorough understanding of the continuing evolution of the United States Navy, and the purpose of this article is to prompt a greater discussion of the SECNAV’s past, current and future role in building the Submarine Force.

The Role

While the responsibilities of the Secretary of the Navy may have changed by statute, that does not mean that the role has lost its influence or desirability. The Secretary of the Navy, like his counterparts, operates at the edge of government where policy merges with politics, and where position and title does not always result in effectiveness and power. Independence does not appear to have been a sole prerequisite for a strong Navy, for there have been many SECNA Vs prior to 1947 who presided over a less-than-powerful fleet. On the other hand, commitment to jointness and centralization would seem no more likely a guarantee of stable force structure.

The truth seems to be that the statutory power as described in Title 10 does not quite cover the full spectrum of the SECNAV’s role, a spectrum that includes such alternating duties as translator, advocate, and shield.

The Secretary of the Navy is foremost the representative of the President and the Secretary of Defense to the Navy and the Marine Corps. As an appointed official, the Secretary interprets and translates the policy objectives of the presidential administration as they affect the Naval Service, and ensures that the Navy and Marine Corps are so organized as to carry them out.

Prior to World War Two, this duty included giving actual orders to the commanders of operational forces on behalf of the President. Today it is confined to the organization, acquisition and training of forces that are employment by other officials, namely the unified military CINCs. Yet, arguably, modern warfare is a come as you are affair; decisions involving organization have the greatest influence on potential employment. The role of the SECNAV is to ensure that naval forces are organized in a way that suits the President’s conception of how they should be employed.

Depending on the personalities involved, the SECNA V’s involvement in the actual formulation of national security policies can expand or contract. It is difficult, however, for the President and SECDEF to set out policies affecting naval forces without at least nominal participation by the official bearing the title of Secretary or the Navy; for public appearance if nothing more.

This allows the SECNAV to carry out his duty as advocate, as representative for the Naval Service to SECDEF, President, and perhaps even more importantly, Congress. As civilian leader of the Naval Service, the SECNA V has a clear incentive to ensure that his organization remains strong and effective and that the President is continually reminded of its importance. He also has a clear incentive to ensure that the Naval Service has strategies, plans and doctrines suitable to its effective employment and integration with other tools of national policy. To maintain an effective organization, he must continual educate the President and SECDEF concerning the status, capabilities and potential of naval forces. Likewise, the SECNAV is expected to carry the weight of Congressional relations concerning naval matters. In this role, he becomes a prime salesman of both presidential policies and Service priorities. But like many quality salesmen, he also becomes a transmission belt for the demands of his customers, i.e., Congress and the American people. In matters concerning budget and organization, the Secretary of the Navy has great potential to become a tool of Congress in encouraging presidential administra-tions to reconsider their policies. This is one of the prime reason why Congress has not, thus far, made a concerted effort to eliminate Service Secretaries. Service Secretaries have been too valuable as a feedback loop between President, Congress and the Naval Service.

Finally, if policies are deemed to be in disarray, the Naval Service appears ineffective, or Congressional relations demand placating actions, the Secretary has the duty to be a shield for President, SECDEF, or the Naval Service. In extreme cases, this may result in his firing or resignation.


Identifying causes that lead historians to underrate the role of the Secretary of the Navy would seem merely an academic enterprise if it were not for the fact that history is our prime tool in judging the organizational effectiveness of the Navy and Marine Corps. To ignore the historical role of the SECNAV because today’s statutory position is more confining than in the past misses the point that effectiveness in the above described duties may have little to do with strictly delineated roles and missions.

This misinterpretation of the historic powers of the SECNA V is a bit like comparing the effect of newspapers on public opinion in today’s era of television (and other electronic media) with the power of newspapers in the years before radio, and concluding that newspapers and magazines are no longer important. Clearly newspapers can no longer launch wars as they could in the 1890s (whether television has that power today-as in the case of Somalia, for example-can be debated). However, as those who work within the Capitol Beltway will attest, print media still retains considerable influence over policy makers. The President may not begin a new policy initiative just because of support by a Washington Post editorial. But he does gage the cumulative effect of such editorials on public support when deciding to continue to pursue a controversial policy.

In analogous fashion, a modern Secretary of the Navy may no longer have the exclusive power to initiate the development of a new weapons system … to launch a newly designed submarine class, for example. But, on the other hand, it is unlikely that a newly designed submarine class would ever be approved by the Secretary of Defense, the President, or Congress if the Secretary of the Navy was dead set against it. And it is unlikely that support for such a program would be generated within the Office of the Secretary of Defense without considerable SECNAV encouragement and personal involvement in the competition for funds. To ignore this aspect of the Secretary’s evolving role misses the considerable power that office retains.

Likewise to ignore the potential for SECNAV influence on submarine development because there are a number of other powerful personalities involved misses the Secretary’s position as both ultimate arbitrator and final bottleneck for the naval bureau-cratic establishment. Although Admiral Rickover proved a genius at overcoming such constraints in making his lasting imprint on the modern submarine force, the kindly old gentleman was simply not the sole player in the political process of submarine develop-ment. Congressional support for a Nuclear Navy was routinely buttressed by the testimony of SECNAVs and CNOs. And it was a SECNAV-after acquiring considerable Presidential influence–who caused Admiral Rickover’s final retirement.3

The Realities

As important as it is to recognize that the Secretary of the Navy has had and still has an critical role, it is likewise important to recognize the realities of his position. The Secretary of the Navy is a political appointee who serves solely at the pleasure of the President without statutory safeguards concerning the permanence of his appointment. If a President wants to fire a SECNAV for telling him the harsh truth, he certainly can-and instantaneously, truth notwithstanding.

Likewise, no set of qualifications are mandated for the job; there is no PQS  for SECNA V .4 The sole requirement is that Congress votes to confirm the President’s appointment. The fact that our current Secretary, John H. Dalton is a Naval Academy grad, former active-duty and reserve Naval officer, and a subma-rine veteran may have played a role in gaining Senate confirmation, and is the source of considerable pride for members of the Naval Service. But none of these qualification are mandated by law, and most previous Secretaries have not been as initially familiar with the Navy or Marine Corps.

On occasion-but less so in modern days-the President has acted as his own Secretary of the Navy, relegating his appointees to figureheads . Both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy prior to becoming President; both tended to think of the Navy as their department even while in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt, with six SECNAVs in eight years, made the most detailed administrative decisions. This prompted even the great strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan to quip “that he should think the Presidency enough of a full-time job without trying to be Secretary of the Navy as well. “5 But, in fighting a major war, FOR perfected the President’s “commander-in-chief’ role.6 Both even preempted the SECNAV’s privilege of selecting names for new ships.

Recent President’s may have taken a less direct role, but this slack has certainly been taken up by the Secretary of Defense. Whether or not SECNAVs become figureheads of the Secretary of the Defense appears dependent on a variety of factors. Historical-ly, Secretaries of Defense have attempted to influence the Presi-dent’s choice of candidate for SECNAV, yet rarely are they obviously successful .

The final reality is that the impact of SECNAV on the actual running of the Navy and Marine Corps can be as much or as little as he may choose. President Nixon is said to have remarked about one candidate for SECNAV, “It’s a job anyone can do, and he can’t do any harm over there.”7 Former Secretary Lehman writes that he was frequently asked, “The Chief of Naval Operations really runs the Navy. Why do you want to be the Secretary of the Navy?”‘ But as history indicates, both of these statements are far from the complete truth.

[To be continued …]


  1. A copy of this advertisement, with additional specifications, appears in Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy For the Year 1887 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1887), pp. 273-276. The author recognizes that earlier submarines may have performed wartime service for the United States (and Confederate States), however none of them could be considered U.S. Navy submarines.
  1. Exceptions to this oversight in acknowledging that SECNAVs may have been involved are Gary E. Weir’s Building American Submarines. 1914-1940(Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1991) and Forged in War: The Naval Industrial Complex and American Submarine Construction, 1940-1961 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1993), and Norman Friedman’s forthcoming two-volume U.S. Submarines: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995). However, neither of these authors focus extensively on the SECNAV.
  1. The best description of this event is by its instigator; see John F. Lehman, Command of the Seas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), pp. 1-38. For description of a previous unsuccessful attempt by Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze in 1967, see Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover: Controversy and Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 17-18.
  1. Outside of the nuclear power program, Personnel Qualification Standards (PQS) are the Navy’s standardized method of qualifying watch-slanders for duty on ships and in selected shore duties.
  1. Robert Albion, Makers of Naval Policy 1798-1947 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), p. 212. 
  1. Ibid.
  1. Quoted in Lehman, pg.
  1. Ibid.

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