There is nothing wrong with hagiographies, if they are well researched and written — and if the praise is deserved; we need more of them. “Zumwalt” is a fine example, an engaging book about an extraordinary sailor and human being who had an inspirational faith in the strengths of America, its people and its Navy.

Elmo “Bud” Zumwalt was commissioned into a U.S. Navy fighting hard in a world war. He served courageously in that war, just after which — in a charming Shanghai love story — he married a White Russian beauty who became “his strength” from then on. His Navy career was fast-paced and exciting, both at sea and in Washington, and his arrival in Vietnam in 1968 as commander of U.S. Naval Forces there revolutionized the in-country naval campaign.

Zumwalt’s innovative and effective tactics in Vietnam earned him a promotion to chief of naval operations in 1970, an announcement that brought many retired admirals close to cardiac infarction. Their worst fears were realized at once, when a barrage of directives called “Z-Grams” poured from Zumwalt’s office changing everything in the Navy great and small. He intended to reform the Navy completely, to restore a sense of mission and a sense of excitement, and instill a sense of real racial equality. Guerrilla warfare against him began immediately from the old guard in Congress and the retired admirals, especially those from the old South. But Zumwalt, who would have been at home at the Medici court, could maneuver and scheme with the best of them.

For those who like high drama and bitter conflict, veteran historian Larry Berman provides plenty: Zumwalt vs. Adm. Tom Moorer; Zumwalt vs. his second secretary of the Navy, John Warner; Zumwalt vs. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon; Zumwalt vs. Adm. Hyman Rickover. His reformist ideas and his strong opposition to Nixon’s policy of detente with the Soviets put him at odds with many, and his four-year tour as CNO was tumultuous. But those looking for the texture of these disputes will be disappointed. Zumwalt’s opponents — each a great public servant — are painted as without merit and he as an infallible leader. Those who want to read about service, leadership, patriotism and real humanity, though, will be much pleased. Zumwalt’s passion for his country and his implacable enmity toward its adversaries, his loyalty toward those who mentored him, his fierce support for those who assisted him, and above all his enormous compassion for the young Americans serving in his Navy — enlisted and officers, black and white, men and women — defined him.

And they returned the ardor. Here’s former Vietnam swift-boat sailor Joe Muharsky: “He gave us something [that] may not have meant much to others but to us it meant the world. There’s a simple word for it, it’s called respect.”

’Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell "Bud" Zumwalt, Jr.’ by Larry Berman (Harper)

Zumwalt’s obsession with merit comes through clearly, as he drove himself to ever greater accomplishments and endlessly searched for others whose diligence and insight he could harness. Berman highlights Zumwalt’s commitment to equality and especially his deeply felt — and strongly acted-upon — belief that minorities in his Navy must be given the opportunity to succeed. His hostility to discrimination was as great as his hostility to the Soviets.

Conscious of his place in history, the admiral wanted his story told. He created and stored piles of records, notes and tapes. He used them to write a lengthy autobiography and later to embellish a book co-authored with his son, Elmo III. (The son was a Vietnam War hero who later succumbed to cancer, probably induced by exposure to the very herbicide his father had ordered sprayed along Vietnam’s rivers, to uncover Viet Cong firing positions and protect U.S. and Vietnamese sailors.) Berman has made extensive use of the massive Zumwalt archive, as well as numerous interviews with those who interacted with the admiral.

But there’s still much in that archive that remains to be mined. Berman’s recounting of Zumwalt’s early life is fascinating, and his chapters on the admiral’s strategy and operations in Vietnam and his anti-discrimination crusade are gripping. But those in search of details and insights on Zumwalt’s performance in the core duties of a modern chief of naval operations — organizing, training and equipping the Navy for the future, and rendering advice on operations — will be disappointed. Berman tells us about Zumwalt’s ambitious and contentious master plan for the Navy. But how this plan fared is mostly relegated to an endnote, and only a few other details are scattered around the book to tell us how and why some of his many innovative programs endured while others crashed and burned. Nor is there much on the Navy’s operations during Zumwalt’s tenure as CNO. So there’s still a whole other book waiting to be written about his life and times.

Many of the naval leaders of the past 30 years, including me, decided to stay with the institution because of the new spirit Zumwalt sparked. The Navy benefited greatly from his legacy, and he continued to provide valued advice to his successors and to me. He was a true American hero, and Berman has done him justice.

John Lehman was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission.


The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr.

By Larry Berman

Harper. 508 pp. $29.99