Peace Time: The Politics Of Warship Names


March 11, 2022: For over a decade the U.S. Navy has been trying to move away from partisan efforts to get warships named for anyone or anything politically divisive. Congress passes or modifies the rules for warship names. The latest change was a 2021 directive to establish a commission to remove ship names that honored American Civil War confederate (rebel) personalities or events. The navy and sailors taking these ships to sea are hope that this does not backfire, like so many earlier attempts to that resulted in politically correct names that were no help for crew morale.

Despite all the political influence the navy is generally allowed to follow traditions for choosing ship names that are more helpful than harmful. The large aircraft carriers are still named after major politicians but for the rest of the fleet more traditional naming conventions persist. Current official rules, or suggestions for ship names include using state names for nuclear submarines, although the first of the new Columbia class SSBNs (nuclear missile subs) is named after the District of Columbia (not a state) and the second one Wisconsin (is a state). The first of the new class of SSNs (attack subs) was called the Virginia (also a state) but now the navy is using the names of famous World War II diesel-electric submarines. The new FFG frigates are using names of the first frigates of the new U.S. Navy, back when frigates were sailing ships. The less successful LCS ships these frigates replace were named after American cities and communities. Amphibious ships are named after battles in which American marines participated. Support ships like are named after names or places important to U.S. Marines. Towing, salvage and rescue ships are named after pre-1492 tribes or members of those tribes. Oilers, that bring fuel to ships at sea, are being named after political activists.

A decade ago, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy 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 veteran groups and a lot 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. The U.S. Navy came under fire for reneging on that promise after naming a new ship after a politician (member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords) who survived being shot at a political event in 2010. Another ship was named after a labor organizer who, although he had served in the navy, was very vocal about how much he hated the experience.

This sort of pushback is not unique to the United States. In 2011 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. Prince Charles sought the name change at the behest of Royal Navy officers who pointed out that it would be good for morale. Such appeals have had no effect on American politicians.

All this goes back to the period right after World War II, when the American 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 from 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 theater 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 in the 21st century ten warships have been named after living Americans. These were USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), USS Nitze (DDG-94), USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23), USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108). Gerald Ford (CVN-78) John Warner (SSN-785, Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), John Lewis (TAO-205) and John Lehman (DDG 137).

Some of those with ships named after them made considerable contributions to the navy but achieved little public fame for it. Admiral Wayne Meyer was (who died in 2009), was, 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. 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. 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.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close