Promotion in the Navy


FOR reasons given in this article, I believe that the morale of the Navy is not what it should be, that it is continuously declining, and that this is chiefly because of a fundamental defect in the method of selecting officers for promotion. Before 1900, all promotions were by seniority. This stifled initiative, produced mental stagnation, made progress difficult, and resulted in naval inefficiency in design, marksmanship, and training to a now almost unbelievable degree. Indignant public criticism forced a reform in the method, but the first bungling attempt was a failure. In 1916 the system was changed to that now in operation, and, though much good resulted, it has become apparent that many inevitable injustices are inflicted and the morale of the service is being injured. This is a very serious matter.

It is perhaps not generally understood how the rank of officers is established in the Navy. Officers enter the Navy in the order determined by the marks attained in their studies at the Naval Academy, and are numbered in succession from the highest officer down. Before 1900, as I have said, all promotions from grade to grade were solely by seniority — that is, the officers continued to move up regularly in the order in which they left the Naval Academy. This was the most comfortable method possible for the officers in general because it gave each officer a feeling of security. It assured all officers promotion through all grades from midshipman to rear admiral. The only requirements were a reasonably good digestion and ability to pass the prescribed examinations from grade to grade. These examinations were of such an elementary nature and so little varied, and the questions became so well known, that they were no real test of an officer’s qualifications. The examining boards could not, or would not, reject even the notoriously intemperate or the physically incompetent unless so designated in official reports. In my experience of fifty years, I can recall the name of only one officer, physically and mentally sound, who was rejected for professional reasons: he was so disagreeable that neither seniors nor juniors could do any business with him.

The deadening effect of promotion by seniority can hardly be realized by those not old enough actually to have witnessed its results. All but the very worst reached the highest grade. Obviously such a system put no premium on initiative and study, for the loafer or dullard was as sure of promotion as the really superior officer. There was no incentive to attain excellence. In fact, the Navy believed that it had somehow been endowed with superexcellence. An invincible smug conceit was the general atmosphere; ours was the ‘finest commissioned personnel in the world’; every one of our then fearful ships was the ‘highest expression of naval architecture,’ and the rest of it. The result was nearly complete mental stagnation. Moreover, this system necessarily restricted officers to not more than four years’ service as rear admiral in most cases, while some were retired within a week after being promoted, according to whether they had entered the Naval Academy at the youngest or the oldest limit of age. It required a long and bitter press campaign to break down the pernicious system of promotion by seniority.

As something had to be done to increase the rate of promotion and supply admirals with a longer term to serve, a yearly board, the notorious ‘Plucking Board,’ was constituted in 1900 to relegate to the retired list the poorer candidates who reached the upper end of the grades. Those not thus eliminated were promoted by seniority. This plucking out did much good, as it placed some premium on merit, or at least on absence of unfitness. But as it pilloried before the public those selected out, and later began to cut into good timber, it was abandoned in 1916 in favor of a system of selecting up instead of selecting out. With certain minor changes this is our present system.


The Navy Department appoints each year a board of nine admirals to select—from near the top of the upper grades — those officers whom the Board believes best qualified for promotion. For making selections in the lower grades a board of officers of less rank is appointed. This is, of course, a great step forward from the method previously in operation, as it is a genuine attempt to select really superior officers for the higher grades.

There can be no doubt of the integrity and conscientiousness of the officers of these boards, but the admirals on any one board are only nine of the sixty admirals on the active list; before them come the names of the officers eligible for promotion to the two highest grades, rear admiral and captain, and with so many officers now in the Navy it is obviously impossible for all of the admirals on the Board to know personally all the candidates to be considered. Thus it may happen that a candidate is not actually known by any member of the Board. In such a case, upon what information do the admirals base their decisions?

In the first place, they have the reports of fitness of the various officers, reports written by the senior officers under whom the candidates have served, and compiled at the end of each half year. Major faults of officers are shown by these reports, — extreme intemperance, inefficiency, courts-martial, and so forth,— but for the most part the reports are uniformly good and furnish insufficient information to the Board. It may be pointed out, for instance, that 80 per cent of them state that the officer in question is above the average, which is of course a mathematical impossibility. Moreover, there are so many of these documents to be considered by each board that it is impracticable for each member to examine all of them; the Navy Department, recognizing this, has officially stated (Navigation Bulletin No. 172) that each member need examine only one ninth of the fitness reports. This having been done, each member gives the other members of the board his opinion of the candidates for whose records he has been responsible, and each admiral very naturally favors in his comments those whom he knows. It requires six votes to promote an officer, and under these conditions the conclusion is inevitable that if a candidate is unknown to many of the Board he has little chance of selection, while if he is known to none of them he has practically no chance.

Let me repeat that the naval service believes that the selection boards do the best they can under present conditions; that they act, as they necessarily must, upon the information with which they are supplied; that they must vote for the candidates whom they happen to know and believe to be good men. The service likewise believes, however, that they do not have sufficient information for a just estimate of those officers whom they do not know even by reputation.

Though practically all agree that the principle of selection has greatly increased the efficiency of the service, still it is generally believed that the present method has certain defects and limitations which render inevitable many very regrettable injustices — that it results too often in the rejection of officers very highly regarded by their contemporaries and the service in general, and in the promotion of much less able ones.

Ever since the present system has been in operation these criticisms have been increasing. If the service does believe that injustices result from the system as at present administered, it is apparent that the responsible authorities should do something about it, for it is, of course, recognized that if the system of selection does not have the confidence of the service, the morale of the personnel must necessarily decline.


In order to determine whether or not the present method of selection had the confidence of the service, I published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings of June 1934 an article on Promotion by Selection, discussing the alleged defects of the present system and suggesting certain measures designed to eliminate them. Reprints of this article were sent to one thousand officers of the four upper grades and their opinions were asked. Replies were received from 36.7 per cent of the officers addressed, an unusually large percentage from any questionnaire, and particularly so from officers, who are always reluctant to express their personal views on important official questions. Fifty-three flag officers (admirals), 103 captains, 126 commanders, and 85 lieutenant-commanders replied. Of these 367 officers, over 76 per cent approved my suggested changes and many others criticized the present method of selection.

Briefly, the change I have suggested is that each officer of the grade above the candidates for selection be required to submit to the Navy Department a list of those who he believes should be promoted. For example, if ten captains were to be selected for promotion to the grade of rear admiral, each of the fifty admirals not on the Board would recommend the ten captains whom he considered the best qualified to be rear admirals. Thus no outstanding officer could fail to be brought to the attention of the Board. These data would be tabulated for the Board, who would then have the consensus of opinion of alt the admirals to supplement the facts contained in the official records and their personal opinions, together with all the other official information available—the medical record, commendatory letters, records of courtsmartial, and so forth.

It is not claimed that the change I have suggested, although it apparently has the general approval of the service, would remedy all the defects that have grown up since selection for promotion was adopted. Far from it. But, as evidenced by the replies received, the service apparently believes that it would avoid the injustices inevitable under the present system and restore the confidence which is so wholly essential. There are many other more or less complicated features of selection that will require the attention of technical experts when the subject comes to be considered by the Navy Department and the Congress. Certain of these complications were set forth in a letter from one of our younger officers; they concern the present policy of retiring 40 to 60 per cent of whole classes, the loss by retirement of expensively trained and able-bodied officers while at the same time the Congress is asked for additional midshipmen for an expanding Navy, and the consequent great expansion of the retired list, which now numbers about 1500. At present, naval officers have not the reasonable security of position necessary to efficiency; the naval career has ceased to be a life profession and become only a temporary job. As a consequence I suspect that less desirable boys will apply for admission to the Naval Academy.

The yearly selection boards have no standard requirements for promotion. Each year, when the list of selections is published, the service is profoundly stirred by the advancement of officers with indifferent service reputation and the passing over of distinguished men. As one captain wrote me: ‘The selections made in the last three or four years have certainly mystified and amazed the Navy. The service believes that the present system makes injustice inevitable, and this belief is unquestionably very detrimental to morale all down the line. It is beyond a reasonable doubt undermining morale and reducing confidence in our highranking officers.’ One of our senior admirals on the active list is reported to have said: ‘Our morale is declining; we should adopt the Japanese system and have two promotion lists to flag rank — one for service afloat and the other for the retirement of deserving captains who are in excess of the number of flag officers required in the service.’ Incidentally, this suggestion is frequently made in the letters — that captains who are not promoted should be retired as rear admirals, but without increase of retired pay. This should be done in the interests of morale. It is probably almost impossible for the civilian to realize what service rank means to a commissioned officer. When an officer enters the service he is obliged to subordinate to a large extent his individuality, his family life, and his possibility of financial gain to the requirements of the service, and in a sense his military title expresses the government’s appreciation.

It is really distressing to read the comments of some of the officers who are passed over. One captain writes: ‘As captain I served under sixteen admirals; all gave fine reports, but none could vote for me as none served on selection boards, and fourteen of the sixteen had retired by the time I came up for promotion.’ Another captain reports that he had served with only one member of his selection board, three were total strangers, and three casual acquaintances. Another reports: ‘Unfortunately, I did not have an admiral with whom I had served and who knew me thoroughly on the Board.’ Still another: ‘I had not been at sea with any member of that selection board. All the flag officers under whom I had served had been retired.’ And another: ‘Out of eighteen admirals on my two boards, there were only two with whom I had been shipmates. One was a lieutenant, junior grade, at the time and I an ensign. The other was with me only twelve days.’ Similar cases came under my personal observation.


The principle I have recommended is simply a means of determining the best officers to be promoted by soliciting the consensus of opinion from the grade directly above them. A similar consensus taken of all the flag officers on the active list would enumerate the men best fitted to train the Navy in peace and to lead it in war. It is doubtful if the country is aware of the importance of this subject, although every citizen will agree that the service must have confidence in its leaders and respect for the fairness of the method by which they are selected.

This applies not only to selections in the ordinary course of promotion, but also to the vitally important selections for the key positions in the fleet and in the Navy Department. At times the officers assigned to these positions have been notoriously inefficient — officers who had neglected their education for high command, who had never been to the Naval War College, who were appointed through political or social influence or through personal influence with the Secretary of the Navy. Upon two occasions when such officers were appointed the cases were such flagrant flouting of service opinion that I characterized these appointments in the press as a crime against the people of the United States. A fleet that is not ready for war is of no use, and one that is under a commander known to the whole service as incompetent is a positive danger. There is no use in building a fleet up to treaty strength unless measures are taken to ensure that it is in the hands of officers in whom the service has confidence.

It is enough to make one’s hair stand on end to contemplate the results of an unexpected outbreak of war at a time when the fleet and the Navy Department happened to be in the hands of officers who lacked (he essential confidence of the service. If the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Navy should initiate the practice of calling upon all the active admirals of the navy to indicate the officers whom they would like to see in chief command in time of war, and should assign these officers to train our fleet in time of peace, the Navy would be much better prepared for any emergency. And the feeling of confidence in the leaders thus chosen would do more for the morale of the service than any other measure possible.

In effect, this whole question is not simply one of justice or injustice to a few officers each year. It involves the basic principle without which efficiency is impossible. I submit that the whole subject should be studied, criticisms and constructive proposals weighed in the balance, and, if a revision be indicated, it should be prepared for the necessary legislation in Congress.