Burke, Arleigh Albert

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Burke, Arleigh Albert

(b. 19 October 1901 near Boulder, Colorado; d. 1 January 1996 in Bethesda, Maryland), four-star admiral and three-term chief of naval operations.

Burke was raised in a Swedish farming family, the oldest of six children of Oscar Burke and Clara Moklar. His father was born August Bjorkgren, but Americanized his name when he emigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1855. Disliking farming, Burke opted for a military career and in 1919 was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. At graduation he ranked an unremarkable seventy-first in a class of 412. On the afternoon of his commissioning as an ensign, 7 June 1923, he wed Roberta (“Bobbie”) Gorsuch; the marriage lasted until Burke’s death seventy-two years later. They had no children.

After serving for five years (1923–1928) on the battleship Arizona, in January 1929 Burke entered a postgraduate course in ordnance offered in Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1931 received an M.S.E. degree in chemical engineering and explosives from the University of Michigan. After serving for five years as the main battery officer of the heavy cruiser Chester, he worked as an analyst of fleet gunnery exercises for the Bureau of Ordnance. His request for destroyer duty, first made in 1934, was finally answered in June 1937, when he became the executive officer of the new Craven. On 5 June 1939 he assumed command of the destroyer Mugford, which excelled in gunnery under Burke.

In July 1940 Burke was assigned to inspect gun mounts built at the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C., although he hungered for sea duty in the Pacific. His repeated requests were finally approved, and after a promotion to captain he commanded several destroyer squadrons in the South Pacific from January to October 1943. He became known for his aggressive and innovative tactics and his preference for fighting at night. Transferred to the command of Destroyer Squadron 23, the “Little Beavers,” in October 1943, Burke garnered the nickname “Thirty-one-Knot Burke” when boiler trouble caused one of his destroyers to make only thirty-one rather than thirty-four or more knots. Destroyer Squadron 23 participated in twenty-two engagements in the next few months, including the nighttime Battle of Empress Augusta Bay in the Solomon Islands in early November and the destruction of three Japanese transports and two destroyer escorts off Cape Saint George, New Ireland, on 25 November.

Burke was initially angry when he was ordered to leave his destroyer command and report on 24 March 1944 as chief of staff to Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, who commanded Task Force 58, the fast carriers in the Pacific. But Burke ultimately served closely with Mitscher during the rest of World War II and, later, as Mitscher’s chief of staff while he commanded the Eighth—later Sixth—Fleet that would counter communism in the Mediterranean. Burke was also with Mitscher while he commanded the Atlantic Fleet, until Mitscher’s unexpected death from a heart attack early in 1947.

In July 1948 Burke assumed command of the light cruiser Huntington, but in October he was recalled to Washington to head Op-23, the organizational research and policy division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). His assignment was to advise about problems arising from the power struggle between the air force and the navy as the result of proposed unification of these branches of the service within a single Department of Defense. Burke supported the importance of naval aviation and thus fell out of favor with some members of the administration of Harry S. Truman, who wished to rely more heavily on the air force’s B-36 bombers. Burke’s garnering of opposition against air force supremacy prompted Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews to impound his files and have him arrested. No improprieties were found, and he was released, but Op-23 was disestablished. Burke’s name was also removed from the list of captains selected for promotion. This action aroused such a public outcry, however, that Truman overruled it. Burke became a rear admiral on 15 July 1950.

By 1950 Burke had been appointed navy secretary of the Defense Research and Development Board, and he was well versed in the latest information on guided missiles and nuclear weapons. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, he became deputy chief of staff to the commander of naval forces in the Far East, Admiral Turner C. Joy. After a short-lived cruiser division command during the spring of 1951 off the coast of Korea, Burke joined the United Nations delegation to the truce talks for six months. Among other accomplishments he defined the military demarcation line and demilitarized zone as a condition for the cessation of hostilities.

After a cease-fire line was established in November 1951, Burke returned to Washington and began a two-year tour as the director of the Strategic Plans Division in the Office of the CNO. He also helped the CNO, Admiral Robert B. Carney, prepare the navy’s criticism of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy, which was based on “massive retaliation” with nuclear weapons rather than conventional forces. In January 1955 Burke was named commander of the destroyer force of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, and on 17 August 1955, after Secretary of the Navy Charles S. Thomas declined to appoint Carney for a second term, Burke was chosen over nearly 100 more senior admirals to serve as Eisenhower’s naval operations chief.

As CNO, Burke upheld the navy’s role in the military establishment and acquired new weapons to counter the Soviets, including intermediate-range and long-range guided missiles, strategic aircraft, and nuclear-powered submarines fitted with atom-tipped missiles. Burke also ordered nuclear-powered submarines to operate under the Arctic ice, which dominated 3,000 miles of the Russian coastline. However, between 1957 and 1961 the number of American warships dropped from 409 to 386. Burke adamantly disagreed with Eisenhower’s Defense Reorganization Act of 1958; he maintained that concentrating power in the secretary of defense served to deny the CNO effective control of the navy, making him merely a military adviser to civilians.

With liquid fuel too dangerous to use in ships, Burke asked the army to cooperate in improving a solid-fueled missile with greater range. However, in September 1955 he made the most important decision he made in his six years as CNO: he created a Special Projects Office and directed Rear Admiral William Francis (“Red”) Raborn to produce a nuclear-powered guided missile submarine by 1963. In 1957 he stopped cooperating with the army. Raborn’s work resulted in the first Polaris missile submarine, commissioned on 1 January 1960.

As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Burke participated in solving various international crises in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Taiwan. Burke was willing to initiate the use of tactical nuclear weapons in addressing communist aggression, but in each case the situations were resolved without major incident. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, when U.S. Air Force General Thomas L. Power requested that Polaris submarines be placed under his command, Burke fought with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in Congress, and made his case in the press for retaining navy control, but ultimately a compromise was enforced. A Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff was created with the commander of the Strategic Air Command as its director and a vice admiral as his deputy, despite Burke’s vociferous protests.

With John F. Kennedy as president, Burke observed that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara did not understand the military well but made himself in effect the chief of staff of the U.S. armed forces. In Burke’s view, McNamara undercut the services by having a group of young “whiz kids” determine the defense budget, which would be allotted on the basis of “function” rather than service. McNamara approved increasing the Polaris program by ten units in 1962, for a total of forty-one, but Burke had to pay for them by taking funds from other programs. Burke also disapproved of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion planned by the Central Intelligence Agency. After the failure of the Cuban invasion, in part due to the lack of American aerial support, Kennedy had Burke represent the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a study group that reviewed the operation and recommended how to avoid similar mistakes. The June 1961 report stressed that the secrecy attending the planning for the operation prevented adequate staffing, good communications, and written plans. That same year, Burke refused Kennedy’s request that he continue as CNO. He also declined Kennedy’s offer to name him ambassador to Australia. Kennedy awarded him a Gold Star in lieu of a third Distinguished Service Medal on 23 July 1961, and on 1 August, Burke vacated his office after forty-two years of service to the navy.

After his military retirement Burke sat on the boards of directors of a number of prominent corporations, a defense policy institute, and numerous patriotic and veterans’ organizations. In 1989 he and his wife were at the Bath Iron Works in Maine for the launching of the Aegis guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke, the first of an entire class.

Burke excelled at commanding destroyers and served memorably as Admiral Mitscher’s chief of staff. His knowledge of technology brought the navy into the nuclear age, and he made tremendous contributions to post—World War II strategic planning and policymaking. Upon news of Burke’s death—from complications of pneumonia, in 1996 at the age of ninety-four—one admiral remembered him as “relentless in combat, resourceful in command, and revered by his crews. He was the sailor’s sailor.” Burke was buried at Annapolis Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.

See the biography by E. B. Potter, Admiral Arleigh Burke (1990). John Kenneth Jones, Destroyer Squadron 23: Combat Exploits of Arleigh Burke’s Gallant Force (1959), and Ken Jones and Hubert Kelley, Jr., Admiral Arleigh (31-Knot) Burke: The Story of a Fighting Sailor (1962), cover Burke’s service in World War II and as CNO. Also see David Alan Rosenberg, “Officer Development in the Interwar Navy: The Making of a Naval Professional, 1919–1940,” Pacific Historical Review 44 (Nov. 1975): 503-26, and David Alan Rosenberg, “Arleigh A. Burke,” in Robert W. Love, Jr., ed., The Chiefs of Naval Operations (1980). Paolo E. Coletta, Admiral Marc A. Mitscher and U.S. Naval Aviation (1997), includes Burke’s wartime and postwar service with Admiral Mitscher to February 1947. Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals: The Fight for Naval Aviation, 1945–1950 (1994), and Paolo E. Coletta, The United States Navy and Defense Unification, 1947–1953 (1981), cover Burke’s role as head of Op-23. An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Jan. 1996).

Paolo E. Coletta