Saturday, April 16, 2005

Naval Nomenclature

Submarine U.S.S. Jimmy Carter (SSN 23) has recently joined the U.S. Navy. Although it is gratifying to see the Navy receive an augmentation of strength in this splendid new vessel (a modified SSN 21 Seawolf class boat), El Jefe confesses that he is less then pleased at the now well-established trend of naming US warships for politicians, some of whom are still living.

El Jefe admits that he finds Jimmy Carter a ludicrous name for a warship, considering that President’s attitude towards the military, but Democratic presidents who view foreign policy as another form of social work are not the only beneficiaries of the Navy’s misbegotten nomenclature policy. The ship list of Nimitz class carriers commissioned since 1975 includes, not only U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, (CVN 69), U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72), U.S.S. George Washington (CVN 73), but also carriers named for Presidents Harry Truman (CVN 75) and Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) – as well as ships named for two friends of the Navy from Congress – John Stennis (CVN 74), and Carl Vinson (CVN 70). The pattern is continuing: U.S.S. George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), named for the first President Bush, is even now building at Newport News.

I can see naming ships for Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Washington. I can even see Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan as justifiable names. But Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- living ex-presidents ? Two Congressmen (however credible their service ) ? That’s a bit much.

If you look carefully at the names of the vessels and the funding and commissioning dates, you can see the political compromises that went into naming these ships – the ships occur in pairs Washington and Lincoln; Truman and Reagan, Bush and Carter. Naming a ship for Harry Truman meant that the original name intended for CVN 75 – U.S.S. United States, could not be used.

The name change for U.S.S. Harry S. Truman illustrates one of the more unfortunate aspects of this contest in political puffing. An earlier U.S.S. United States, a sister ship of the famous frigate U.S.S. Constitution, won one of the most celebrated naval victories of the young U.S. Navy, capturing British frigate H.M.S. Macedonian in 1812. The U.S. Navy, like its parent the British Royal Navy – reuses famous names, or at least it did -- Hornet¸ Lexington, Yorktown, Enterprise, Essex, Boxer, Wasp, Constellation, Texas, Virginia and on and on. For a time, the U.S. Navy even borrowed the fine old British tradition of commerating victories over enemy warships by using the names of defeated enemy vessels -- the U.S. Navy for years had vessels named Macedonian, Java, and Guerriere -- all named for prizes taken from the British.
Modern naming practices slight over two centuries of naval history by passing over such names, or wasting them on less significant vessels. Given the Navy’s need to replace its warships, and to obtain political approval for same, it’s clear why this has occurred, but it’s still rather sad.

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