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Admiral Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr., the charismatic chief of naval operations (CNO) and "the navy's most popular leader since WWII" (Time), was a man who embodied honor, courage, and commitment. In a career spanning forty years, he rose to the top echelon of the U.S. Navy as a commander of all navy forces in Vietnam and then as CNO from 1970 to 1974. His tenure came at a time of scandal and tumult, from the Soviets' challenge to the U.S. for naval supremacy and a duplicitous endgame in Vietnam to Watergate and an admirals' spy ring.
Unlike many other senior naval officers, Zumwalt successfully enacted radical change, including the integration of the most racist branch of the military—an achievement that made him the target of bitter personal recriminations. His fight to modernize a technologically obsolete fleet pitted him against such formidable adversaries as Henry Kissinger and Hyman Rickover. Ultimately, Zumwalt created a more egalitarian navy as well as a smaller modernized fleet better prepared to cope with a changing world.
But Zumwalt's professional success was marred by personal loss, including the unwitting role he played in his son's death from Agent Orange. Retiring from the service in 1974, Zumwalt spearheaded a citizen education and mobilization effort that helped thousands of Vietnam veterans secure reparations. That activism earned him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today Zumwalt's tombstone at the U.S. Naval Academy is inscribed with one word: "Reformer." Admiring yet evenhanded, Larry Berman's moving biography reminds us what leadership is and pays tribute to a man whose life reflected the best of America itself.
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