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On watch: A memoir by Elmo R Zumwalt
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On watch: A memoir

by Elmo R Zumwalt

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On Watch is Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt's memoir of his tenure as Chief Naval Officer, and thereby member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Nixon Administration. The book is very detailed, checking in at over 500 pages long. Zumwalt offers his insight into the hazardous labyrinth of naval appropriations, the ways he believed that Henry Kissinger was sabotaging American interests by giving away the farm to the Soviets during the SALT talks on nuclear missile control and Zumwalt's battles with Admiral Rickover about the type of navy America needed (Rickover, who wielded much influence in Congress, demanded a high end Navy, with only expensive nuclear powered ships, while Zumwalt believed in a "High/Low" approach, with a mix of nuclear ships complimented by a greater number of less expensive conventionally powered ships). Zumwalt describes the very real fears among military leaders at the time that the American public's distaste for all things military on the heals of the disasterously unpopular Vietnam War was crippling the country's ability to defend itself and its allies in the face of growing Soviet strength, as Congress had been drained of the political will to appropriate sufficient funds for the country's many defense needs. At any rate, that was Zumwalt's perspective. The memoir was written soon after Zumwalt's tenure concluded, and he did not have the hindsight we now have: however right or wrong he, and his colleagues, might have been on those issues, the Soviets' strength, even superiority, in these areas did not lead to a disasterous war. So maybe the budget cutters were right all along, or maybe we just got lucky. I don't have the perspective or knowledge myself to know.

The two most fascinating components of this memoir I have left for last to describe. The first is Zumwalt's insistence and persistence efforts to drag the Navy into the modern day in terms of its treatment of minorities and women. Truman had ordered full integration of American armed forces, but the Navy, foremost among the service branches, had remained a bastion of segregation and prejudice. Zumwalt took forceful steps to reverse those conditions, and his descriptions of how he went about that and the resistance he faced make quite interesting reading. The second is Zumwalt's description of what conditions were like within the Nixon Administration as the president and Kissinger became ever more focused on saving Nixon's presidency and denying access to Nixon's "enemies" in the face of the growing Watergate scandal. In particular, Zumwalt describes how he had begun as an admirer of Kissinger, taken in by Kissinger's personal charm and charisma. Gradually, he begins to see Kissinger as a rather bizarre, paranoid figure whose ego-driven policies and refusal to brook any dissenting opinions was doing great harm to the country.

There is a lot to wade through in this memoir, but the writing is clear and accessible, which helps a lot. In a way, Zumwalt's book serves best as a fascinating time capsule to what it was like being inside the U.S. military hierarchy looking out (and within) during a fascinating and pivotal time in our history. ( )
  rocketjk | Sep 29, 2018 |
To Peter Von Pavel
with respect
E M Zumwalt
Admiral USN Ret

11/23/94
  chestergap | Aug 7, 2017 |
"In his memoir, Zumwalt relates a story of a conversation he had had with Kissinger while on the train from Washington to Philadelphia to see the Army-Navy game. Before the conversation, Zumwalt says that he had admired Kissinger. In the conversation on the train, Kissinger told Zumwalt that, in his, Kissinger's opinion, the United States is "Athens to the Soviets' Sparta," and that in the long run, the U.S. is going to lose to the Russians just as Athens lost to Sparta. It is therefore his, Kissinger's job, to negotiate the best possible second-place finish with the russians, recognizing that in the long run, we are going to lose. This greatly unsettled Zumwalt, and turned him into a Kissiger opponent." Comment on Slate to a Hitchens diatribe about Kissinger.
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
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The man who is just and firm of purpose can be shaken from his stern resolve neither by the rage of the people who urge him to crime nor by the countenance of the threatening tyrant. Horace, Odes, III, 1 1-4
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Herewith most of a letter I wrote my father thirty years ago on the way home from war.
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