February 27, 2012: The U.S. Secretary of the Navy recently announced that names for warships would in the future be "more traditional." That means ships would be named after war heroes, battles, states, and cities. This came after an uproar from veterans groups and lots of people in general when the navy was ordered to name warships after political activists and politicians. That, in itself, was part of a decades old trend. But the sudden reversal was not unique to the United States.
Last year Prince Charles of Great Britain interceded to change the name of a new aircraft carrier from Prince of Wales (his current title) to Ark Royal (used as the name of five aircraft carriers over the last century and of the flagship of the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1547). Charles did this at the behest of Royal Navy officers who pointed out that it would be good for morale.
This resonated with many in the United States. All this goes back to the period right after World War II when the military procurement system became more corrupt, largely the result of so much more being spent on defense. One aspect of that corruption was the growing custom of naming major warships after influential politicians. This was a way for the navy, and warship builders, to curry more favor and money in Congress.
The worst example of this was the Nimitz class carriers, which could also be called the "Politician Class." All but one of the ten carriers was named after political figures that helped the navy. The sole exception was the lead ship which was named after the World War II Pacific commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz. The successor to the Nimitz class continues the tradition being named after president Gerald Ford. But at least Ford served, with distinction, on a carrier (the USS Monterey) during World War II.
Some of these namesakes were contemporary politicians and some of those were still living. Naming ships after living persons is rare but not uncommon. George Washington had four warships named after him before he died. In fact, over a dozen U.S. warships were named after notable revolutionary period leaders. Up through the U.S. Civil War about one American warship a decade was named after a living person (usually a politician). In 1900, the first modern U.S. submarine was named after the fellow who developed it (John Philip Holland). Throughout the 20th century, but especially after World War II, warships were named after living people, mainly politicians who were helpful to the navy. So far this century five warships have been named after living Americans. These were USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in 2001, USS Nitze (DDG-94) in 2004, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) in 2004, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2006 and USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) in 2008. The last one is interesting, as admiral Meyer was (he died in 2009), well, a geek, and the man most responsible for development of the Aegis air defense system. American carriers go to war surrounded by Aegis equipped ships for protection against enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.
The most debased example of using warship names to attract political favor, and defense dollars, was the recent 2010 U.S. Navy decision to name a smaller carrier (actually, an amphibious ship, LPD 26) after a recently deceased member of Congress, John Murtha. This really angered the troops, especially marines. That was ironic, as Murtha had spent 37 years in the marines (33 of them in the reserves). He served a year in Vietnam as a staff officer. He parlayed that military experience into a political career, first at the state level then in Washington. Murtha was known as a particularly easy guy to do business with and a supreme opportunist. He was nicknamed the "King of Pork" for his ability to get projects (often useless but lucrative ones) approved for his district. What made Murtha especially unpopular with the marines was his willingness to join the chorus of accusers condemning seven marines accused of murdering Iraqis in 2005. All but one of the accused eventually had the charges dismissed or were acquitted. It was a witch hunt and marines saw Murtha as one of the more eager hunters. Murtha had also been in trouble before on ethics issues and was known to play dirty when it suited his purposes. But guys like Murtha loved to spend federal money, especially for the navy and marines. So while most sailors and marines loathed the man the brass were more respectful and held firm on the decision to name an amphibious ship after him.
The navy does still name ships after their combat heroes, when it has a chance. Last year, two new destroyers were named after SEAL commandoes, including one who was awarded a Medal of Honor. But the largest ships are still named after the people who expose themselves to paper bullets, not the real ones. Now the navy promises to cut back on using ship names to honor corruption, rather than valor.