Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr. (born 1920) was a career Navy officer who became the youngest chief of naval operations in U.S. history. As commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, he ordered the use of the chemical Agent Orange to defoliate the Mekong Delta. His son, who patrolled Vietnamese rivers for the Navy, died from the apparent effects of Agent Orange in 1988.
Elmo Russell (Bud) Zumwalt, Jr., the son of two physicians, Elmo Russell and Frances Zumwalt, was born at Tulare, CA, in the San Joaquin Valley, on November 29, 1920. He had a brother and two sisters. Zumwalt was educated at Tulare High School, where he was a top student, played footbal, and graduated in 1938. He went to Rutherford Preparatory School (1938-1939), considered a career as an Army physician, then entered the United States Naval Academy. Academically, he was in the top five percent of his class and in the top two percent militarily. His disregard for meaningless regulations placed him near the bottom in conduct. His later reforms as chief of naval operations seemed to reflect his desire to see "common sense" prevail in the Navy.
War and Peacetime Service
Zumwalt graduated in 1942 and went to sea on the destroyer USS Phelps. He later served aboard the USS Robinson. He rose to full lieutenant, third in command. While on destroyer duty in the Pacific Ocean in World War II, Zumwalt engaged in the battles of Savo Island and Suriago Strait, and the landings on Attu and Kiska. He was awarded the Bronze Star.
At the close of the war Zumwalt took a gunboat seized from the Japanese, HIJMS Ataka, with a crew of 20, into Shanghai. They were among the first Americans to arrive. There he met Mouza Coutelais-du-Roche, a woman of Franco-Russian descent. They married and had two sons and a daughter.
After the war Zumwalt was accepted to both medical and law school, but chose a naval career, because he wanted to defend the United States against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. His career from 1945 to 1952 was built around sea service. He served as executive officer on the USS Saufley and the USS Zellars. Later, he was assistant professor of naval science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill from 1948 to 1950. He returned to the sea as commanding oficer of the destroyer escort USS Tills, 1950-1951, and then as navigator on the battleship USS Wisconsin, 1951-1952, in Korean waters during the Korean War.
Zumwalt served in the Navy Department from 1953 to 1955 and from 1957 to 1959, where he gained personnel experience. He commanded the USS Arnold J. Isbell, 1955-1957, and the USS Dewey, 1959-1961. He was promoted to captain in 1961 and attended the National War College (1961-1962). There, his lecture on Soviet leaders came to the attention of Paul Nitze, then assistant secretary of the Navy. After completing his War College studies, Zumwalt spent a year in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and then joined Nitze's staff, staying with him when Nitze became secretary of the Navy in 1963.
As executive assistant to Nitze, Zumwalt handled North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) affairs and details of the blockade of Cuba. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and promoted to rear admiral, then left the Pentagon in 1965 to command Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven. He earned a Gold Star, then returned to the Pentagon to set up the Division of Systems Analysis in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). He frequently went to Capitol Hill on behalf of the CNO, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for his work there.
Vietnam Naval Chief
In September 1968 Zumwalt assumed command of US Naval Forces in Vietnam and the duties of chief, Naval Advisory Group. In October 1968 he was promoted to vice admiral and led the river forces, the "brown-water navy," in which his son, Elmo Zumwalt 3rd, was a lieutenant. In order to allow better air surveillance of the Mekong Delta, Vice-Admiral Zumwalt ordered the widespread use of the chemical Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles around the delta.
Zumwalt remained as Navy leader in Vietnam until he was selected as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in July 1970. At the Pentagon, he became famous for his "Z-grams," directives for implementing reforms in living conditions, terms of leave, and the dress code. He developed grievance systems and ombudsmen for enlisted personel. He also encouraged the development of new vessels, such as surface effect craft and gas turbine gunboats.
Zumwalt soon became alienated from President Richard Nixon's administration. He opposed the administration's cuts in naval spending and its stance on the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) talks with the Soviets. In 1974, Zumwalt accepted an offer to appear on the television program "Meet the Press" to discuss his views on SALT. Nixon ordered James Schlesinger, the secretary of defense, to fire Zumwalt and to court-martial him if he appeared on the show. Schlesinger refused to carry out the order, and Zumwalt retired. Schlesinger spoke at the retirement ceremony and awarded Zumwalt a Gold Star, contrary to White House instructions, according to Zumwalt's memoirs.
Zumwalt's successors as chief of naval operations kept most of his reforms in place. After retirement Zumwalt published his memoirs, in 1976. That year, he ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator from Virginia, but lost. Zumwalt joined numerous corporate boards, continued to act as a spokesman for defense and the Navy, spent a year as a visiting professor at several colleges and universities, and in 1979 opened a consulting firm, Admiral Zumwalt and Associates, Inc.
Agent Orange Legacy
In the 1980s, the slow-acting effects of Agent Orange on thousands of American personnel began to be more noticed, and the controversy over its use became a public issue. Veterans said the highly toxic chemical dioxin in Agent Orange caused cancer and other illnesses, miscarriages and birth defects in their children. In 1983, Elmo Zumwalt 3rd, then a practicing lawyer, was diagnosed with cancer. In an article in the August 24, 1986, New York Times, Zumwalt 3d said he was convinced that Agent Orange "is the cause of all the medical problems—nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems—reported by Vietnam veterans" as well as their children's birth defects. Zumwalt's own son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt 4th, suffered from a birth defect that confused his senses. "I realize that what I am saying may imply that my father is responsible for my illness and Russell's disability," Zumwalt 3rd said. "I do not doubt that the saving of American lives was always his first priority. Certainly thousands, perhaps even myself, are alive today because of his decision to use Agent Orange." In the same article, Admiral Zumwalt said: "We checked with the Army and Air Force about the possible injurious effects on humans of Agent Orange, which had been used in other defoliation efforts. We were told there were none… . Knowing what I know now, I still would have ordered the defoliation to achieve the objectives it did, of reducing casualties. But that does not ease the sorrow I feel for Elmo, or the anguish his illness, and Russell's disability, give me." In 1986, the Zumwalts wrote a book, My Father, My Son, and it was made into a television movie with the same title.
On June 30, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a $240 million settlement between Vietnam veterans and the manufacturers of Agent Orange. On August 13, 1988, Elmo Zumwalt 3rd died of cancer at his home in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Further Reading on Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr
Zumwalt is listed in Roger J. Spiller, editor, Dictionary of American Military Biography (1984), Vol. 111. His memoirs, a controversial work, is the principal source for his views on his tour as chief of naval operations: Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., On Watch: A Memoir (1976). Also of interest is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., and Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt, III, with John Pekkanen, My Father, My Son (1986).