AS CHAIRMAN of the House Naval Affairs Committee prior to Pearl Harbor, former Rep. Carl Vinson, who died Monday, helped provide hundreds of millions of dollars for ship construction. Many in Congress and much of the public were in opposition. The Depression was in progress, and the prevailing American attitude toward the world incorporated a large measure of pacifism, isolationism and anti-militarism -- especially at budget times. But Mr. Vinson did what he could to prepare the nation for the coming war. For his policies he became known as "Admiral" and as "the father of the modern Navy," and for his legislative skills, the "Swamp Fox."

Throughout the 1930s and World War II, Mr. Vinson worked closely with another "Big Navy" man, former Navy undersecretary Franklin Roosevelt. Not that Carl Vinson was a brash New Dealer whom FDR brought to Washington. Hailing from Millidgeville, Georgia, he had come to Congress, where he served a record 50 continuous years, in 1914. He joined the weighty southern contingent in Washington and became, by the 1930s, possibly the most influential spokesman on military affairs in Congress. Rarely did the posturing of a beribboned witness ("What did you say your name was, admiral?") or the cajoling of a president deflect him from his chosen course.

Mr. Vinson, a Democrat, exemplified that long generation of politicians of both parties whose careers evolved from Woodrow Wilson's and Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Era. A workhorse legislator of the old school, he found it easier than many of his southern colleagues to remain a Democratic loyalist into the Kennedy-Johnson years, though he was no friend of civil rights legislation.

At the height of his power in 1964, Mr. Vinson retired. He went down to Union Station and carried his own suitcases on board the train back to Millidgeville. He wanted no maudlin tributes from his colleagues. "There wasn't going to be anything much doing next week," he told a reporter, "so I decided I might as well get on back to the farm."