The thirty years following the end of World War II in 1945 witnessed political, institutional, and technological changes that revolutionized the navy's role in diplomacy. In 1945 American naval officers had not yet devised a strategy geared to the atomic bomb, to a divided world in which the United States was for a time without a naval rival, and to the passing of battleship fleets as a measure of naval and national power. Insofar as they had speculated on the postwar world, they tended to assume a return to a division of responsibility in which the U.S. Navy would dominate the western Atlantic and the Pacific while the British navy would remain supreme in Eastern Hemisphere waters: the eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. The navy's one clear objective during the war was to secure the Pacific islands that Japan had held since World War I as League of Nations mandates. The navy was soon confronted, however, by the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Chinese communist victory on the Asian mainland in 1949, and the steady retreat by Britain to Europe that left the United States increasingly alone to deal with the supposed global menace of the Soviet Union and its allies. Moreover, whereas the navy had been the strong arm of American diplomacy through most of the nation's history, the air force emerged at the dawn of the atomic age to claim for the bombers of its Strategic Air Command the preponderant responsibility for deterring war.
The period from 1945 to 1950 was a critical one for the navy, during which the service sought meaningful roles in response to claims made by the air force in the course of the movement to organize a single Defense Department. The navy survived the unification struggle as one part of the new national security structure in which the State Department and the Defense Department were institutional equals. Under the National Defense Act of 1947 and amendments of 1949, the chief of naval operations became but one of five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman conveys the chiefs' collective advice to the president, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council. When the service secretaries lost their cabinet rank in 1949, the navy was denied separate representation on the National Security Council, the key institution responsible for integrating diplomacy and defense into national security policies. The civilian secretary of defense thereafter represented all the services in the council: the army, the navy, the air force, and, after 1978, the marines. Nevertheless, naval officers after 1945 served in unprecedented numbers in politico-military bodies concerned with foreign affairs.
While the navy thus lost its proud position as the leading force behind American diplomacy, it fought for programs of balanced defense against the claims by the air force that the threat of massive retaliation by the Strategic Air Command constituted the most effective deterrent to Soviet aggression. The navy's arguments for a variety of weapons were fully vindicated after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 demonstrated the effectiveness of carrier-based air and other capabilities in a limited war unsuited to massive retaliation with atomic bombs. This was a war provoked by an attack by communist North Korea on noncommunist South Korea. It was a war fought by Americans, Koreans, and allied forces under the auspices of the United Nations without a formal declaration of war. It also halted the spread of communism in Northeast Asia. The glamour of massive retaliation faded still more as the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic device in 1949, achieved a thermonuclear explosion five years later, fired the first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, and launched the first artificial satellite ( Sputnik ) two months later.
To support friends and allies as well as to deter the Soviet Union, naval planners developed a transoceanic naval strategy to project the navy's power over the land and to keep the sea-lanes open. The fleets of the transoceanic navy, like the task forces of World War II, were commonly mixed forces that included two or three carriers, an amphibious marine force, and antisubmarine units. Most spectacular for display were the supercarriers, numbering fifteen in the 1960s and ranging up to 100,000 tons, whose versatile weapons could deal with local outbreaks or convey nuclear destruction to the heart of the Eurasian landmass. Responding to the Soviet Union's missile capability, the navy after 1960 also completed forty-one nuclear-powered submarines armed with Polaris and improved long-range Poseidon and Trident missiles carrying atomic warheads. The navy claimed that its mobile, seaborne forces were far more secure against Soviet attack than the land-based bombers and missiles of the air force.
Together with the army and air force, the transoceanic navy provided the American commitment of force to the multilateral regional pacts, bilateral alliances, and other arrangements through which the United States sought to organize the nations of the free world. Since western Europe seemed the most vital area to save from Soviet domination, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed in 1949, assumed prime importance in American strategic planning. Through NATO the navy sought to expand its earlier "special relationship" with the British navy into a multilateral association in which the American navy provided important leadership and the largest commitment of naval force to retain control of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The NATO supreme commander for the Atlantic is the commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, based with his NATO staff at Norfolk, Virginia. The NATO powers preserve independent control of their most important naval forces, from which they contribute elements for NATO maneuvers and for a small standing force. In the Far East, when concluding peace with Japan in 1951, the United States also signed with Japan a mutual defense pact, which assured a base of operations in the western Pacific. Unlike the navies of Europe, however, the Japanese Defense Force was committed strictly to the defense of Japan.
The most visible American naval contribution to European security was the Sixth Fleet, established in the Mediterranean since 1948. In addition to its earlier role as a major segment in the maritime artery between Europe and Asia, the Mediterranean gained significance after 1945 as a deep inlet into which the United States could move naval power 2,000 miles eastward from the Atlantic, to within striking distance of the Russian homeland. It was also a sea from which the navy could support friends and allies on NATO's southern flank and in the Middle East, as well as a moat separating Europe from Africa. The United States first restored a naval presence in the Mediterranean in 1946–1947, when the Soviet Union pressed Turkey to open the Dardanelles to free movement by Soviet ships and when President Harry Truman extended assistance to Greece under the Truman Doctrine. The Sixth Fleet has commonly numbered more than fifty ships, including two supercarriers organized to meet the needs of a transoceanic navy. Its position in the Mediterranean became increasingly lonely, however, with the withdrawal of British naval power after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the spectacular buildup of Soviet naval forces in the 1960s, and the growing hostility among the Arab states that looked for Soviet aid to counter American support of Israel. In 1958, the Sixth Fleet, in response to a request from the president of Lebanon, landed a force in Beirut, which seemed to be threatened by domestic insurgency and foreign invasion.
The Seventh Fleet became the navy's Far East counterpart to the Sixth Fleet. At the close of World War II, the navy and the marines helped the Chinese Nationalists receive the Japanese surrender in eastern China, but U.S. forces withdrew from the Chinese mainland in advance of the communist victory in 1949. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, voicing recommendations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined an American defense perimeter in the western Pacific, extending from Alaska through Japan, for whose defense the Seventh Fleet would assume major responsibility. Acheson's omission of Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia suggested that the United States was disengaging from the Asian mainland. American participation in the Korean War in 1950, however, demonstrated that the U.S. government would employ its naval and other forces to counter aggression on the mainland that threatened a key area on the American defense perimeter such as Japan, which after 1949 replaced China as the most important U.S. partner in East Asia.
The Korean War also brought the first public American commitment to the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan, when President Truman in 1950 ordered the Seventh Fleet to interpose its power between Taiwan and the mainland, to neutralize the Taiwan Strait, and to prevent the Chinese communists and the nationalists from attacking each other across the strait. After the United States and the Chinese Nationalists signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954, the Seventh Fleet provided massive cover in 1954 for the Nationalist evacuation from the Tachen Islands and again in 1958 for Nationalist logistic operations to sustain their garrisons defending the islands of Quemoy and Matsu against Chinese communist bombardments. During the relatively placid year of 1961, the Seventh Fleet included some 125 ships and 650 aircraft based at Subic Bay, Okinawa, and Japan. When formal relations were established with the communist government in Peking in 1979, relations between Taiwan and the United States were maintained quietly on an extradiplomatic basis. The United States provided Taiwan with arms and ships, and the Seventh Fleet remained an important presence in the western Pacific. South of Taiwan lay a former colony and ally, the Philippine Islands, where the United States retained its important naval base at Subic Bay until all American naval and military facilities were returned to the Philippines in 1992.
Although the Seventh Fleet's commitments to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization under the Manila Treaty of 1954 were unclear, the United States in 1962 landed marines in Thailand to deter communist infiltration from neighboring Laos. The fleet also fought in the Vietnam War after Congress, in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964), authorized the president to employ American armed forces in defense of freedom in southeast Asia. With the winding down of the war after 1969, the Seventh Fleet resumed its station in defense of a western Pacific perimeter.
Between the normal cruising ranges of the Sixth Fleet and the Seventh Fleet, the Indian Ocean area, including the oil-rich Persian Gulf, remained free of a significant American naval presence after 1945. Responding to growing Soviet naval forces in the ocean during the 1960s, however, the navy occasionally dispatched units from the Seventh Fleet to show the flag and to participate in Central Treaty Organization maneuvers. After 1966 the navy also joined with Britain to construct a communications station, landing fields, and other amenities on the British island of Diego Garcia.
Three decades after World War II, the navy was again adjusting to major world changes as the Cold War confrontations gave way to bitter rivalry between the Soviet and Chinese communist camps, détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, and accommodations between Washington and Peking. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union moved to limit their atomic arsenals, including their seaborne missile forces, through accords at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, however, American naval men watched the emergence of the Soviet navy as a contender on the high seas and the spread of Soviet and Chinese influence in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. The modest easing of tensions between the United States and the communist world, therefore, was followed by no lowering of the American naval guard. Indeed, the thaw in the Cold War was overshadowed in many areas of the world by the emergence of strong regional sentiment hostile to the United States and to any American naval presence. While the navy still strove to provide global force sufficient to honor security arrangements negotiated two decades earlier, when conditions were very different, it was increasingly regarded in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even Europe as an agent of outside interference rather than as a protection.
The navy's responsibility during the Cold War, however, was not confined to the Old World. In the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro, after winning power in Cuba, threatened to export communism to his Latin American neighbors. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 inherited from the Eisenhower administration a Central Intelligence Agency project to support an invasion of Cuba by Cuban refugees. The consequence was the socalled Bay of Pigs incident, which was a humiliating failure, at least in part because the administration was unwilling to provide the refugees with necessary naval and air support. This was followed the next year by discovery that the Soviet Union had built in Cuba some forty-two launching pads for intermediate ballistic missiles with striking range of more than 1,000 miles. President Kennedy immediately responded by ordering the navy to establish a blockade of Cuba, described as a "quarantine," to halt arms shipments to Cuba and demanding that the Russians withdraw all missiles from the island. It seemed that nuclear war was at hand, but the Russians bowed to the president's demand in return for a promise to withdraw American missiles from Turkey.
Close on the heels of the Cuban missile crisis came war in Vietnam. There, following the withdrawal of the French from their former colony, the Americans became increasingly concerned that noncommunist South Vietnam would fall to communist North Vietnam. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, U.S. "military advisers" numbered 16,700. Large-scale U.S. intervention was sparked the following year by a clash between the American destroyer Maddox and several North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. The U.S. Congress forthwith adopted the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized President Lyndon Johnson to take "all necessary measures to repel armed attacks against the armed forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The Vietnam War was an undeclared war fought without United Nations support and subject to increasing public criticism in the United States and abroad. It was also a war limited by American unwillingness to provoke serious intervention by China or the Soviet Union. Task Force 77, composed of carrier forces attached to Yankee Station in the Tonkin Gulf and Dixie Station off South Vietnam, sent strikes against North Vietnam and supported ground forces in the south. Search patrols along the southern coast sought to interrupt movement of supplies from the north to insurgent Vietcong in the south, and numerous small boats of a "brown water" patrol moved through the Mekong Delta and along other inland waters to apprehend the Vietcong. The Vietcong Tet Offensive in 1968, although itself a failure, was followed a year later by President Richard Nixon's decision to "Vietnamize" the war. The last Americans and numerous Vietnamese refugees were airlifted out of Saigon in 1975, thereby ending perhaps the most humiliating war in American history.
In 1970, when Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., was called from Vietnam to Washington to serve as the youngest chief of naval operations in history, the navy was in poor shape to meet the possible challenges ahead. The nation's resources had been expended on the Vietnam War, while the Soviet navy, under the leadership of Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov, had been expanded to establish awesome capacity to operate in multiple seas. Moreover, three years earlier, Britain had abandoned its imperial responsibilities east of Suez. To meet this situation, Zumwalt proposed a "highlow mix" by which the navy would build large numbers of less expensive "low" ships to assure "sea control" of areas where expensive "high" ships were unnecessary or would be in danger. For instance, he proposed to build a patrol frigate, half the cost and size of a destroyer, and a 17,000-ton sea control ship that would be far less expensive than the 100,000-ton supercarriers. His proposals were vigorously opposed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the promoter of nuclear submarines and other high-tech ships, and Zumwalt's sea control ship was eventually rejected by Congress. The navy may also have suffered from the diversions that attended the resignation of President Nixon following the Watergate scandal. The decade ended with the embarrassing capture of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, by Islamic radicals and the Soviet naval ships operating out of Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam.