Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in April 2010 announced the name of the future USS John P. Murtha as Murtha's widow Joyce Murtha looked on with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The choice of Marine veteran Murtha for a ship name annoyed those wrankled by the Pennsylvania congressman's opposition to the Iraq war. (MC2 Kevin O'Brien / U.S. Navy)
President George Washington agreed in 1794 that the first six frigates of the U.S. Navy be named for principles or symbols found in the U.S. Constitution. Drawing from a list of suggestions, he chose the first five names, Constitution, United States, President, Congress and Constellation (referring to the stars representing states on the American flag).
Funding for the sixth ship was delayed, and when it came time to select a name, Benjamin Stoddert, the first Navy secretary, chose Chesapeake — a distinct departure from the original group. To this day, no one knows why Stoddert made his choice.
What is clear, however, is that with his first choice for a ship name, the secretary corrupted an established naming policy.
“We all noticed that the first naming decision by Stoddert was to go completely away from the naming convention,” Navy Undersecretary Bob Work said. “To us, that said that making exceptions was what made this such a vibrant process.”
The fact that exceptions are the norm is a recurrent theme throughout a new Navy report on the policies and practices of naming ships. Congress ordered the report (PDF) after several members — mostly Republicans — criticized several ship name choices made by Democratic Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
The Navy secretary, since 1819, has had the authority to select and name the Navy’s ships, although Congress frequently advises on and sometimes mandates those choices, a practice followed with the last three aircraft carriers, all named for recent Republican presidents.
Mabus, since taking office in June 2009, has named 32 ships, and has also had a hand in ship-class naming conventions — the practice of naming ships of a certain class or type after similar things, such as naval heroes, states or cities. Mabus established the naming conventions for three new ship types, changed another and “clarified” the policies for two more ship types.
While many of the choices have been applauded, particularly those for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, certain others have drawn criticisms. The Navy report does not shy away from those complaints, and specifically lists protests about the use the names of Medgar Evers, Cesar Chavez, John P. Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords and Lyndon B. Johnson to adorn Navy ships.
In each of these cases, the report describes specific objections to the names and — not surprisingly — concludes that despite the complaints, Mabus’ choices in each case were right, proper and in accordance with prior practice.
“I think Congress had some questions,” Work said. “Why the Murtha? Why the Gabby Giffords? Why the Cesar Chavez?” Is what’s happening now any deviation?
“Our conclusion is that it’s right within the historical norms.”
The choices are “altogether consistent with naming conventions of the past,” said Capt. Jerry Hendrix, the director of Naval History and Heritage Command and one of four historians who compiled the report. “We can show through the historical record that there are numerous examples of divergence from the norm of the time.”
Work, who directed the effort, rejected claims that the current process has recently become politicized.
“Politics is an integral part of the process, as indicated by the president and the Congress making their recommendations known,” he said, and the report presents numerous examples of such cases.
Work and Hendrix said that, as far as they could tell, while ship-naming policies and practices were often issued in Navy instructions, this was the first time such a comprehensive document had been prepared on the topic.
“This is the first time in 236 years that we know of that Congress has said, please tell us what’s going on,” Work said. “And we did. That’s why we took it seriously.”
The report is filled with anecdotal stories and presents lengthy histories of the evolution of ship-naming practices. It also describes two schools of thought on the subject — those of “orthodox traditionalists” and “pragmatic traditionalists.”
The orthodox traditionalists, the report said, believe that fixed naming conventions should be used, with little or no deviation. Submarines, for example, must always be named for fish.
Pragmatic traditionalists, however, follow general conventions but also allow exceptions, and adapt schemes to fit with the times. So, submarines switched to cities for naming sources, while strategic missile submarines switched from famous Americans to states, and both undersea types also occasionally honored members of Congress or significant people.
Mabus, the report said, is — along with the vast majority of former secretaries — a pragmatic traditionalist.
“We did not expect this report to convince everyone who thinks the choice could have been better,” Work said. “This isn’t designed to change peoples’ minds on specific choices. It’s designed to make the argument that the process we have right now is vibrant, it connects the Navy-Marine Corps team with the American people. It evolves over time.”