Impact through a sea of words U.S. Naval Institute celebrates 125 years as watchdog, conscience

October 09, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The story goes: John F. Lehman Jr., President Reagan's Navy secretary, after reading an article about cars that kept swerving as they approached the guard posts at Navy air bases, slapped the magazine down on his aide's desk and asked, "Is this all true?"

The article was about Navy pilots removing their leather flight jackets -- which weren't supposed to be worn off base -- while driving toward the base exit. Assured it was true, Lehman said, "Not anymore," and eliminated the jacket restriction.

The magazine was Proceedings, which in ways large and small has exerted powerful influence over the Navy, becoming its watchdog, its think tank, its conscience.

Such influence began 125 years ago today, when 15 officers met in a classroom at the Naval Academy to discuss restoring strength to a navy that had become depleted and demoralized after the Civil War. Those officers created the United States Naval Institute, based at the academy, which primarily through the pages of Proceedings has inspired, nettled, embarrassed and enlightened the leaders of the Navy.

Said retired Adm. Frank B.Kelso II, chief of naval operations from 1990 to 1994: "I paid a lot of attention to the magazine when I was CNO. Sometimes we didn't like what they printed, but it gave us a good understanding of what the young people felt about the Navy."

In this month's issue is an article about a retired rear admiral who surveyed 688 naval officers and found them disgruntled and losing interest in their jobs. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, struggling to retain enough officers to be prepared for war, discussed those same issues last week.

The rear admiral who co-wrote the piece has met with the chiefs to share his findings.

"And it seems to have had an impact," said Fred H. Rainbow, a former naval officer and editor of Proceedings for 10 years.

"A real disconnect between senior leadership and those being led is something that's been bubbling up from the ranks," Rainbow said. "So, with a story like this, you feel like you're having a real impact on national defense."

Over the years, the institute nudged the Navy toward some of its notable leaps forward.

In 1873, when the institute was formed, it encouraged the struggling Navy to stop recruiting officers from port cities, where many uneducated and foreign sailors were found, and to begin recruiting from the heartland.

The Navy eventually did.

Before and during World War II, when aviation was a stepchild to the Navy's ships, the institute urged the Navy to embrace air power.

It did.

"So the institute has been part of the Navy's intellectual heritage since the beginning," said Paul Stilwell, the institute's history director and former editor of Naval History, an 11-year-old sister magazine to Proceedings.

"Many of the innovations have been written about, called for, advocated in the pages of Proceedings," he said.

Proceedings is also notable for its authors. Except for Tom Clancy -- the institute published his book "Hunt for Red October" -- the writers are mostly active or retired Navy and Marine Corps officers.

"They're the doers, not necessarily professional writers," Stilwell said. "They're professional warriors, and they talk about what they're doing."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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