COMMAND OF THE SEAS by John F. Lehman Jr., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 464 pp. $21.95Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
DURING the six years he served as secretary of the Navy, John F. Lehman Jr. was the phenomenon of the Pentagon. Young, blunt, and ambitious, he refused to be the usual service secretary, handing out plaques and standing in the background at change-of-command ceremonies. Lehman wanted to run the Navy his way, and run it he did - acquiring a 600-ship fleet and probably 1,200 enemies.
Much attention has been focused on his budgetary success. In Capitol Hill appearances Lehman loved to play a thin Teddy Roosevelt, badgering congressmen about the Soviet threat and employing phrases such as ``armchair strategist'' and (my favorite) ``parlor-room Pershing.''
But by any standard, his record of accomplishments in laying down hulls was impressive. He won funding for 15 aircraft carriers and 600 deployable combat ships. The early 1980s political consensus on increasing defense spending helped here. But this was not Lehman's most far-reaching achievement. What he really did was rip the Navy's culture apart and attempt to remold it in his own image.
Before anything else the Navy is a bureaucracy, and Lehman is a bureaucrat. Undoubtedly he would hate being called that, as ``bloated bureaucracies'' are one of his favorite targets, along with State Department Pollyannas and ``TV commentators and other naysayers.''
But Lehman spent his professional Wonder Years as a staffer to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council. There he learned all the tricks from the master: Access to higher authority is everything. Keep all the levers of power in your own hands. Make sure your deputies are loyal, etc., etc. So when Lehman walked into the Navy secretary's office in the Pentagon's outside ``E'' corridor for the first time, he was ready to grab the service by its blue-suit lapels. Many admirals came to hate him for his attempts to impose his will.
Lehman's Navy memoirs are fascinating for their exposition of this bureaucratic interplay. When recounting the inside story of outside events, such as the invasion of Grenada, Lehman is often curiously flat. But when he talks about the wars inside the Pentagon and their long-standing bureaucratic roots, ``Command of the Seas'' comes to life. It might better be titled ``Command of the `E' Ring'' (the geographic center of the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world).
The late Adm. Hyman Rickover was the first enemy Lehman encountered. As father of the US nuclear navy, Admiral Rickover set high standards for safety and personnel, and over the years he dug himself in so deep that when Lehman tried to uproot him, it became a monumental task.
The struggle to force Rickover's retirement finally ended in an uproar in front of President Reagan, with the crusty admiral calling the young secretary 10 kinds of creep and the President looking confused. As drama this is the best scene in Lehman's book, but again its deeper lessons are bureaucratic. Lehman understood that the secret of Rickover's power was his connections in Congress, and the loyalty of his many submariner disciples who had risen to flag rank and influence. Indeed, Rickover's legacy lives - the top levels of the Navy today are still filled with admirals who rose through the submarine ranks.