Berman’s Zumwalt: A Fascinating Biography of a Brilliant Leader

By Leah Lancione

President Harry S. Truman is quoted as saying, “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” That is precisely what Adm. Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. (Nov. 29, 1920-Jan. 2, 2000) did in his lifetime.  In Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr., author Larry Berman provides a detailed account of a man who not only rose to the highest pinnacle of a Naval career and reformed his institution in the process, but who was a devoted family man and humanitarian.

In chronicling Zumwalt’s journey — his days at the Naval Academy (he graduated Cum Laude in 1943), his ascent to chief naval officer (CNO) of the Navy from 1970-1974 and numerous instances of heroic service and post-retirement humanitarian work — Berman gives readers a glimpse into the mind and heart of an individual who sacrificed to serve his country and improve the military. At his funeral, President Bill Clinton called Zumwalt the “conscience of the Navy” because he always seemed to do what was right. He faced every obstacle, whether it was adverse combat situations, extended periods of duty at sea, racism and what he called “bureaucratic restraints” within the Navy, with courage and steadfast determination.

Even immense personal tragedies, including the death of his mother during his first year at the Naval Academy, a failed first marriage and the loss of his son (Elmo III) to cancer from exposure to Agent Orange in 1988, couldn’t deter him. Instead of following in his parents footsteps and becoming a doctor— the career path he initially envisioned for himself—Zumwalt realized he could be of service by not just commanding massive battleships and destroyers with his military skills but by reforming the Navy’s personnel problems from within. Nicknamed the “Sailor’s Admiral,” he continuously sought ways to modernize the Navy and improve the lives of its personnel.

In this biography of Adm. Zumwalt, Berman has taken an iconic military figure and exposed the complex layers that define the man behind all the medals and prestigious titles. Here is a Q&A with the author, who fought to make public many of the historical documents used to create an elaborate and honest character portrait:

  1. Why was it important to include so many letters, tributes and remarks by Bud’s former colleagues, sailors, military and political leaders and friends/family members? Was it that Zumwalt’s leadership roles were so intertwined with his ability to still connect with people on a personal level?

The letters, interviews and personal recollections allowed me to draw the character portrait I was seeking—the story of a man who experienced and understood leadership at all stages of his career, beloved by those who served under his command.  The Navy and all services value loyalty-up, but Zumwalt equally valued loyalty-down.  That is rare.

  1. What inspired you to write about Adm. Zumwalt? And, particularly now, i.e., are his then-radical reforms pertinent for today’s military? Are there lessons for our military leaders to learn from him?

I wrote about Z because I was interested in how a leader with a rather radical social reform/people-oriented equality agenda succeeded in an institution that is usually resistant to change. Indeed, parts of the institution tried to resist, but Zumwalt overcame that in redrafting the social contract of the Navy.  He was never going to turn back the clock.  The major lesson for all leaders is that when you believe something is right, believe it in your heart, as the leader you have the obligation to tackle it without considering your own career advancement or how it might affect you personally.

  1. How would Adm. Zumwalt feel about the war in Afghanistan and our military’s continued presence there now? How about the war on terrorism?

I am confidant that he would have been zealous in pursuit of the terrorists who perpetrated attacks on the U.S., but would have also raised questions about expanding the war geographically.  The drawdown in Afghanistan is quite similar to the ACTOV and Vietnamization process during his time.

  1. Do you think Zumwalt’s ability to be an “open book” and willing to share personal details about his life, and tragedies he faced, was one of his strengths as a leader?

Absolutely yes!

  1. Also, did you find it ironic that Zumwalt was so open and such a proponent of communication and yet you faced obstacles in getting documents for this book?

As I wrote in my author’s note, Z anticipated this and therefore took actions to allow historians access to some of his materials.  I believe he would have joined me as a supporter in my FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.

  1. Zumwalt is credited with shaping the future of the military. Would the admiral be proud of the military today?

He would be very proud of the men and women who serve today. He would have also been proud of his son and grandson, two recipients of the Bronze Star, just like he and his dad.  Four generations!

  1. 7.    How do you think Zumwalt would feel about the Navy’s largest destroyer, to be christened this year, being named after him considering it will require only half the crew thanks to automated systems? 

Since his family is so proud, I am certain he would be as well. It’s an incredible ship. I was in Bath for the keeling and can’t wait for the christening this Fall.

  1. How can Zumwalt’s passion to “get into the game,” i.e., remain involved in political, humanitarian and health-related causes, after retiring from the Navy serve as inspiration to newly retired folks?

I open the book with a quote I found in one of Z’s papers: “I have been called controversial.  I am glad that this is so because the requirement was to be as Robert Frost phrased it, ‘And I have miles to go before I sleep.’”  Z believed that a commander of men (and women) in battle had a lifetime responsibility for their welfare.

  1. Is Adm. Zumwalt applauding from heaven with reports the U.S. will lift the ban on women in front-line combat jobs?

A standing ovation!  When he authorized deploying women onboard noncombat ships, he said he lacked congressional approval to deploy them (as) onboard combatants. He would have supported it then. 

Adm. Zumwalt wasn’t just revered by high-ranking officials, he earned the respect of all the sailors, aviators, submariners, gunner’s mates, electricians and doctors, etc., who witnessed his “visionary leadership.” In addition, countless refugees, wounded warriors, veterans, many who even considered him a brother, as well as everyday civilians, were touched by his humanitarian acts.

Berman included a letter from Zumwalt to his father in which he confessed his gratitude saying, “the way you passed on as a faith, in my youth, of public service, devotion to country, love of family, courage to face the issues squarely and to dare to deal with them forthrightly, disinterest in wealth, dedication to the pursuit of excellence in leadership and in one’s profession, provided a guidepost which I have tried to use in my life.” Epitomizing his father’s noble character and pursuit of the “true values of life,” Zumwalt’s legacy is an example to readers that a “can-do spirit,” life of service and willingness to fight for what’s right can create a better world.

Leah, a freelance writer is the daughter of a retired Navy cryptologist who was on active duty during Admiral Zumwalt’s service. A Navy dependent, she has lived in bases around the world and can be reached at [email protected]



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