Former Rep. Carl Vinson, 97, the major congressional force in developing the armed forces of the United States from the isolationism of the 1930s through World Was II and into the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, died yesterday at the Baldwin County Hospital in Milledgeville, Ga.
The cause of death was no announced, but Mr. Vinson was hospitalized two weeks ago with heart ailments. He had a heart attack a year ago.
Mr. Vinson served in the House of Representatives for 50 years and one month -- from 1914 until his retirement in 1965 -- or longer than anyone in history. Except for 1953 and 1954, when the Republicans controlled Congress, he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee from 1949 until his retirement. From 1931 until 1947, he was chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee.
In these posts, the soft-spoken, tobacco-chewing Mr. Vinson became one of the most powerful men in government. In 1950, when he was mentioned as a possible secretary of Defense, the House rose to give him an ovation. Mr. Vinson dismissed all suggestions that he take the post, saying, "Shucks, I'd rather go on running the Pentagon from up here."
It was Mr. Vinson's boast that no bill he ever had sponsored in behalf of the armed services had been defeated. It was his enduring conviction that no business should take higher priority than defense. In 1964, when he announced that he would not seek reelection, he did so with the knowledge that he had done his life's work well, and so he spoke with a note of optimism.
"I don't go along with the prophets of doom," he declared. "We will continue to be the world's leading nation."
In recognition of Mr. Vinson's accomplishments, President Nixon named the nation's fourth nuclear carrier after him. The ship was launched in March 1980.
The launching was attended by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga), a grandnephew of Mr. Vinson. Nunn said on that occasion: "Behind me is the mightiest naval warship ever constructed -- the USS Carl Vinson. Beside me is a mightly and powerful figure in the history of our republic -- Congressman Carl Vinson. It is fitting that this great vessel bear the name Carl Vinson, a name synonymous with military preparedness in the 20th century."
Among Mr. Vinson's ambitions was to live to be 100 and to see the Vinson join the Navy as an active part of the fleet. The fitting-out of the ship is still under way.
Mr. Vinson began to make his mark on defense policies in the early 1930s when he backed a $616 million construction program for the Navy. Its purpose was to create a "two-ocean" fleet within 10 years. With the advent of World War II, his role became even more important. He was an early and strong advocate of air power. Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King, the formidable chief of naval operations during the war, had such respect for the Georgia Democrat that he relied on him to put through programs that lacked sufficient support elsewhere in the government.
In 1947, when the Defense Department was established to coordinate policies among the military services, the House Armed Services Committee came into being to perform a parallel function in Congress. Two years later, when the Democrats regained control of the House from the Republicans, Mr. Vinson became its chairman. He was known as "Mr. Defense."
Less formally, colleagues called him "Uncle Carl" and "the Swamp Fox" for his mastery of parliamentary procedure and the firm grip he kept on his committee. It is said that he could chill generals and admirals merely by letting his spectacles slide toward the tip of his nose as he stared at them.
But conscious as he was of his own power and prerogatives, he was more concerned that the military remember that it served entirely under the direction of a government of civilians.
One of his fellow-Georgians in the Senate, the late Richard Russell, was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both men were beneficiaries of the old congressional seniority system. Aside from the advantages conferred by that system, Mr. Vinson brought to his work an unusual degree of character and dedication that left its mark on numerous younger men in the government.
President Johnson, who first came to Washington as a Texas congressman and served on the Naval Affairs Committee, was among those who described themselves as graduates of the "Vinson College" of how to get things done on Capitol Hill.
Yet there remained about Mr. Vinson a certain degree of parochialism. During his 50 years of government service, he never traveled outside the United States.
Carl Vinson was born in Baldwin County, Ga., on Nov. 18, 1883. His parents were Edward S. and Annie Morris Vinson. He attended Middle Georgia Academy and Agricultural College, now the Georgia Military Academy, in Milledgeville, and in 1902 earned a law degree from Mercer University in Macon, Ga. He was admitted to the bar in the same year and went into practice in Milledgeville.
He soon was elected Baldwin County solicitor. In 1910, he was elected to the Georgia legislature. Two years later, he was elected to a four-year term as the Baldwin County judge. In 1914 -- the year World War I began and when Woodrow Wilson was midway through his first term in the presidency -- he ran for Congress to fill an unexpired term. He was reelected to 25 successive terms.
At that time, Mr. Vinson had never even seen a battleship. Yet he got a seat on the Naval Affairs Committee when he first went to Capitol Hill. In 1925, he served on the Morrow Board, which was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to assess the state of U.S. air power. He became chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee after the Democrats gained control of the House in the 1930 elections.
When he decided to leave the House, Mr. Vinson did so quietly. He slipped out of his home in Chevy Chase at Christmas 1964, rather than wait for the new session to open in January 1965.
"I'll keep-busy," he said. "My policy is to wear out, not rust out."
In retirement,he divided his time between his 600-acre farm near Milledgeville and his house in the town itself. He often called on the Milledgeville office of his successor, Rep. W.S. (Bill) Stuckey, who retired in 1976, just to stay in touch.
In 1926, Mr. Vinson married the former Mary Green. She died 1950. They had no children.