Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., 79, a retired admiral who commanded American naval river patrols in the Vietnam War and later became the Navy's top officer and a champion of equality for women and minorities, died yesterday at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. He had cancer.
Zumwalt was a charismatic, innovative and sometimes controversial leader whose service began in the great crusade of World War II and ended in the ambiguities and contradictions of Vietnam.
In the latter struggle, he ordered the use of the defoliant Agent Orange to reduce U.S. casualties. In 1988, his son and namesake, who had served in Vietnam and been exposed to the herbicide, died of cancer. Although he believed Agent Orange had caused his son's illness, Zumwalt never doubted the necessity of using it.
"It's the kind of tragic decision that has to be made in war," he said in an interview in 1994. "We used Agent Orange to save lives."
Zumwalt served aboard conventional surface vessels at a time when airmen and submariners were playing a dominant role in the Navy. In World War II, he was assigned to destroyers in the Pacific. In the Korean War, he was the navigator of the battleship Wisconsin. In the 1960s, he had a number of Pentagon jobs that introduced him to the highest levels of policymaking.
As a strategist, Zumwalt believed that the Soviet Union was the major threat to U.S. security and that the United States had no vital interests at stake in Vietnam. He urged that the war be turned over the South Vietnamese and that U.S. forces be withdrawn as soon as possible.
Partly because of these views, President Richard M. Nixon named him chief of naval operations in 1970. He was 49 years old and the youngest four-star admiral and the youngest CNO in history.
In the course of his four-year term, Zumwalt started a major shipbuilding program, including the Trident nuclear submarines, which carry ballistic missiles, and a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He also ordered a complete revision of the curriculum at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to reflect modern conditions.
The most serious challenge he faced was morale, which had plummeted to abysmal levels throughout the Navy.
This was partly due to the wear and tear on men and equipment of long overseas deployments in a service with worldwide commitments. But much of it could be traced to the refusal of naval leaders to ease regulations involving dress, hairstyles, overnight shore leave for junior enlisted men, discipline and similar matters.
The result was a drop in the reenlistment rate, normally about 35 percent, to 9.5 percent. The question of whether there would be enough trained personnel to run the fleet became critical.
Zumwalt set about changing this with a series of "Z-grams," as his directives were called. The purpose was to bring the Navy closer to norms of behavior accepted by the country at large. For example, sailors were permitted to wear work clothes to and from their jobs to cut down on needless changes of uniform. Inspections were scheduled so as not to interfere with weekend liberty. Opportunities to choose assignments were expanded. Pay was increased. Recruiting ads portrayed the service as "cool." The admiral himself wore sideburns.
Critics said he had undermined discipline and tradition. But the reenlistment rate jumped above 30 percent.
A related problem concerned the treatment of minorities and women in the Navy. Zumwalt described in a memoir how he had run into roadblocks at every turn when he helped a Filipino mess steward become an electrician's mate.
"The episode taught me a healthy contempt for the bureaucracy and for the institutional racism in the Navy," he wrote. Although President Harry S. Truman had ordered the armed services to integrate in 1947, Zumwalt said, "racism and sexism were still an integral part of the Navy tradition" when he became CNO.
"For years," he continued, "white men from the South in large measure ran the Navy while it lagged behind the other services, and the country, in its racial attitudes and policies. . . . When I became CNO there had yet to be a black admiral in the entire history of the Navy."
In December 1970, he issued a Z-gram called "Equal Opportunity in the Navy." It ordered an end to discrimination in housing for naval personnel and directed that officers be assigned to minority affairs at every level.
It also ordered that Navy exchanges stock food and other products for black personnel and that Navy libraries, clubs and wardrooms have books, magazines and records by and about blacks.
"There is no black Navy, no white Navy--just one Navy--the United States Navy," it concluded.
In autumn 1972, critics of Zumwalt's policies launched a counterattack. When racial fights and protests occurred on an aircraft carrier and two other ships, a number of retired admirals persuaded allies in Congress to investigate the state of discipline in the Navy. Zumwalt said Nixon was furious and considered firing him. He weathered the storm with the support of Melvin R. Laird, the secretary of defense, and of John Chafee, the secretary of the Navy.
"I firmly believe if I had not set the racial and personnel reforms in motion, the racial explosions in the Navy would have become far more severe," Zumwalt wrote. "I am very proud that the first of several black admirals were selected when I was CNO, and the Navy today is totally integrated."
Prior to taking the Navy's top post, Zumwalt spent two years in command of the "brown water Navy" in Vietnam. This was made up of small, fast, lightly armed craft, called swift boats, that plied rivers and remote waterways used as supply routes by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
To reduce American losses, he ordered the use of the herbicide Agent Orange to defoliate the riverbanks from which the enemy often attacked. U.S. officials assured him that the chemical was harmless to humans.
The tactic worked. Before Agent Orange, sailors assigned to the river patrols stood a 75 percent chance of being killed or wounded in the course of a normal year's tour of duty. After Agent Orange, the casualty rate dropped to less than one-sixth of what it had been.
In 1983, the unforeseen consequences of this act struck the Zumwalt family. Elmo R. Zumwalt III, who had commanded a swift boat on the Ca Mau peninsula in Vietnam, was found to have cancer. The admiral blamed his illness and subsequent death on Agent Orange that had been contaminated with dioxin, a carcinogen. He also blamed it for severe learning disabilities that became apparent in Elmo R. Zumwalt III's son.
"There is no question in my mind that, indirectly at least, I was responsible for Elmo's heavy exposure to Agent Orange," the admiral said in "My Father, My Son," a memoir they wrote together.
"I also realize that had I not used Agent Orange, many more lives would have been lost in combat, perhaps even Elmo's. And knowing what I now know, I still would have ordered the defoliation to achieve the objectives it did."
Zumwalt spent his later years trying to redress the human damage caused by Agent Orange. Partly as a result of his work, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed to pay compensation to veterans afflicted with cancer if it is "more likely than not" that they got it from Agent Orange. In 1994, he visited Vietnam and suggested studies to assess the effects of the herbicide in that country.
In 1974, Zumwalt retired from the Navy and became a director of several corporations. In 1976, he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Virginia. He was defeated by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., the scion of a Virginia political dynasty who ran for reelection as an independent.
Zumwalt's military decorations included three awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star with combat V. In 1998, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Elmo Russell Zumwalt Jr. was born in San Francisco and grew up in Tulare, Calif., where both of his parents were physicians. The future admiral said he was the kind of youth who broke windows on Halloween and played touch with other cars at 80 mph. His father thought he would benefit from the military. The boy originally planned go to the U.S. Military Academy, but when a family friend told him about adventures at sea, his interest switched to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated in 1942, a year ahead of schedule because of World War II. He ranked seventh in his class.
He spent most of the war on destroyers. When hostilities ended, his then-destroyer, the Robinson, was part of a task force that captured several Japanese ships.
Zumwalt, then a lieutenant, was given command of a Japanese gunboat and sailed up the Yangtze River to lead the occupation of Shanghai.
While there, he met Mouza Coutelais-de-Roche, the daughter of a Russian mother and a French father. They were married five weeks later.
In the late 1940s, Zumwalt considered leaving the Navy and becoming a physician. While teaching in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the University of North Carolina, he had a chance to meet General of the Army George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff in World War II who later was secretary of state and secretary of defense. The general persuaded him to make the military his career.
Following his service in the Korean War, Zumwalt had assignments in Washington, at the Naval War College and at sea, where he commanded a destroyer and then a guided missile frigate. By 1961, he had risen to the rank of captain and began a year's study at the National War College.
This proved a turning point in his career. While at the War College, he delivered a paper called "The Problem of the Next Succession in the USSR." The paper was widely hailed within the military, and it came to the attention of Paul R. Nitze, the author of the famous National Security Council Memorandum No. 68, which became the blueprint for U.S. rearmament in 1950.
Nitze, who had become assistant secretary of defense in 1961, took Zumwalt on his staff and kept him when he became secretary of the Navy in 1963. The admiral thus was close to the center of decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He also wrote position papers on topics ranging from strategic arms limitation to NATO. As Nitze's chief aide, he also gained a detailed knowledge of the Navy's inner workings.
In 1965, Zumwalt went to sea as commander of a cruiser-destroyer flotilla. In 1966, he returned to the Pentagon to establish the division of systems analysis in the office of the chief of naval operations and to serve as the personal representative of the CNO within the Defense Department and in Congress.
He was ordered to Vietnam in 1968.
Zumwalt was a member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and chairman of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was a founder of the Marrow Foundation and a director of the National Marrow Donor Program. He also was a director of the Vietnam Assistance to the Handicapped Foundation, which set up a facility to manufacture prostheses for people in Vietnam. He served on the International Consortium for Research on the Health Effects of Radiation, which studied people exposed to radiation in the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union.
Zumwalt was a resident of Arlington.
In addition to his wife, Zumwalt is survived by three children, James G. Zumwalt of Reston, Ann F. Coppola of Longmeadow, Mass., and Mouza C. Zumwalt-Weathers of Cary, N.C.; a brother, James G. Zumwalt of El Cajon, Calif.; a sister, Saralee Crowe of Bakersfield, Calif.; and six grandchildren.
CAPTION: Retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. received the Medal of Freedom.