A Biography

By E.B. Potter

Random House. 494 pp. $24.95

If other cultures believed too much in warrior legends, ours today, perhaps, values them too little. How else to explain the curious inattention of biographers heretofore to the life of Adm. Arleigh "31-Knot" Burke?

While journalists and historians have scribbled and scratched around such dimmer military lights as Gens. William Westmoreland and Curtis LeMay, the lessons of Burke, the flamboyant World War II destroyer ace who, as the nation's first and only three-time naval chief, harried his service into the modern age, have remained largely unexplored for the general public. Now comes Annapolis historian E.B. Potter, biographer of Adms. Chester Nimitz and William F. "Bull" Halsey, with what he candidly acknowledges is but "a selective, one-volume" study of one of the watershed figures in U.S. naval history.

It's high time. Burke himself, of course, remains very much alive and alert at 88 in Fairfax County, still a master of wit and wisdom sought out for counsel by foreign diplomats, service secretaries and the Navy brass. Had he produced nothing in his life but the Polaris missile (he launched its development in one of his first acts as CNO and had it operational in five years) he would rank among the top service chiefs of this century. What's more sobering to realize is how much the number and extent of the achievements in his 42-year Naval career overshadow those of such better known but only briefly shining military names as George S. Patton, Raymond Spruance and "Jimmy" Doolittle.

Educated for a world of gunnery and battleships, Burke won tactical fame in the World War II South Pacific with torpedoes and destroyers (his Battle of Cape St. George is still looked upon as an almost perfect surface action). Thrown against his will into aircraft carriers, about which he protested he knew nothing, he showed almost immediate genius, planning such mammoth and complex carrier fleet operations as the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the assault on the Marianas islands. Ultimately, as Cold War chief of naval operations, he transformed the tradition-bound Navy from steam to atomic power, from guns to missiles, and from prop planes to jets almost overnight, while simultaneously moving it to the forefront of a national defense posture based on missiles, nuclear weapons and submarines.

Though other military leaders in this century have blazed as brightly on the battlefield (Patton) or in Washington (Marshall), almost the only ones comparable to Burke in mastering both the operational and the administrative side of war are Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. In the Navy, there has been no one remotely comparable in American history.

Drawn almost entirely from the oral histories he mined for his earlier books, Potter's biography of Burke is an engaging anecdotal introduction to the "31-Knot" admiral of life and legend. Here is Burke, the impulsive man of action, leading his famed "Little Beaver" destroyer squadron into battle with cowboy war whoops and, as CNO, leaping to his feet to holler taurine expletives at a Pentagon briefing. Here is Burke, the samurai, holding a brief memorial service for a valiant Japanese captain who had died fighting against overwhelming odds. (The warriors of Japan still honor him for that act.) Here is Burke the strategist engineering the rebuilding of the Japanese navy and helping negotiate the Korean truce. Here is Burke the man of thought giving the Walter E. Ledge lectures at Princeton University and serving as the founding director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University.

As might be expected, given Potter's era of specialty, his book is far heavier on Burke's World War II years (13 chapters) than on his CNO years (three). Happily for Burkeologists, David Alan Rosenberg has been laboring for years on a more comprehensive -- and complementary -- Burke biography, portions of which have already appeared in various publications. His book will be keyed to the political fights of Burke's Pentagon years, which may ultimately prove the greatest measure of the man.

The political right wing, which used MacArthur as a cat's-paw in 1952 and LeMay in the same role in 1968, wooed Burke in the same way in the early 1960s. Burke, however, turned aside the temptations of politics. Called as a star witness in the "Muzzling of the Military" hearings in 1961, he acknowledged frustration with the new and sometimes woolly headed defense policies of the Kennedy administration, but deflated Kennedy's critics by reaffirming his own belief in civilian control of the military and refusing to spark a revolt from the right.

Kennedy himself, mindful of the narrowness of his own recent presidential victory, the vituperative nature of his conservative opposition and Burke's stainless record of public service, remained highly respectful of the admiral both as a military leader and a potential political foe. Repeatedly he tried to coax Burke into the Kennedy administration, first in a fourth term as chief of naval operations and then as ambassador to Australia. When that failed he presented Burke a third Distinguished Service Medal. Years later, a freedom-of-information request turned up unmistakable evidence of a Kennedy administration intelligence break-in at Burke's post-retirement office. The burglars were obviously seeking clues to nonexistent Burke political plans for 1964.

None of this is in Potter's book, and that's a pity. But the Arleigh Burke that is has much to say to generations raised on telepolished imagery and hungry for examples of genuine leadership. Between the covers of "Admiral Arleigh Burke" lies the real thing. The reviewer is a staff writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.