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Twenty Six US Navy Ship Naming Controversies

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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the U.S. Navy had no formal procedure for naming ships. It wasn’t until 1819 that Congress passed an act stating “all of the ships, of the Navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy.” The secretary has fulfilled this role ever since, even though the passage expressly assigning authority for designating ship names was omitted when the U.S. Code was revised in 1925.

In addition to recommendations from Congress and the president, the secretary traditionally has been guided by a rather loose set of naming conventions—cruisers were to be named for battles, attack submarines for U.S. cities, destroyers for Navy and Marine heroes, and so forth. Controversy has erupted whenever the choice of a name strayed too far from those conventions, was seemingly swayed by politics, or deemed inappropriate for various reasons.

Ship-name controversies date to the early days of the Republic, but have become more prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st.

USS Chesapeake. US Naval Historical Center Photo

USS Chesapeake. US Naval Historical Center Photo

USS Chesapeake —George Washington asked that the names of the first six ships in the newly formed Navy be inspired by the U.S. Constitution. It did not take long for a naming convention to be broken for the first time. After the USS Constitution, United States, President, Congress, and Constellation, Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert arbitrarily decided to name the sixth ship the USS Chesapeake.

Russian Alaska

Ships named for Alaska—In a 1958 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Capt. William F. Calkins revealed that several ships that were to honor locations in Alaska had to have their names burnished off their hulls at great expense. When the names initially had been chosen, it had not occurred to anyone that many places in Alaska were named by early settlers from Russia. The U.S. Navy simply could not have Russian names on its ships during the Cold War.

USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) underway in 2013. US NAvy Photo

USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) underway in 2013. US Navy Photo

USS Carl Vinson—In 1973, it was announced that Georgia congressman and longtime chairman of the Armed Forces Committee Carl Vinson would be honored with a namesake carrier. Even though Vinson had been one the U.S. Navy’s greatest champions, some critics did not think he merited becoming one of the few living people to be honored with a ship since Thomas Jefferson in 1814.

USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705) in 2010. US Navy Photo

USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705) in 2010. US Navy Photo

USS Corpus Christi—Los Angeles-class attack submarines are named after U.S. cities, but religious groups protested the selection of Corpus Christi because it meant that an instrument of war would bear the Latin phrase “body of Christ.” The Navy rectified the problem by modifying the sub’s name to City of Corpus Christi.

Emblem of the USS Henry M Jackson

Emblem of the USS Henry M Jackson

USS Henry M Jackson—When U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson died unexpectedly in 1983, President Ronald Reagan quickly moved to have the latest ballistic-missile submarine named in his honor. The residents of Rhode Island were not pleased, for the sub already had been named for their state. To appease the Rhode Islanders, an attack submarine was named the Providence.

USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720) underway. US Navy

USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720) underway. US Navy Photo

USS Pittsburgh—In 1984, Rep. William J. Coyne (D-PA) blasted the Reagan administration for naming an attack submarine for Pittsburgh, claiming that it was a shameless attempt to placate the residents of the area without having to address the city’s high rate of unemployment.

USNS Tenacious. US Navy Photo

USNS Tenacious. US Navy Photo

USS Intrepid—The carrier known as the “Fighting I” has a storied history that includes battling in the Pacific and recovering astronauts before becoming a popular museum in New York City. When the Navy announced in 1987 that a small (and some said ugly) ocean-surveillance ship would be the USNS Intrepid, veterans of the mighty carrier were insulted that the name of their beloved ship would be bestowed on a far less fearsome vessel. The name was changed to Tenacious.

USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) transits the Pacific Ocean in April. US Navy Photo

USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) transits the Pacific Ocean in April. US Navy Photo

USS John C. Stennis—Like Vinson, Congressman John Stennis had been a tireless advocate of a strong modern Navy. And also like Vinson, Stennis had a poor record for advancing civil rights. Both were fervent segregationists, a point that many thought should have precluded them from being honored with a namesake carrier.

WInston Churchill onboard a Royal Navy Ship.

WInston Churchill onboard a Royal Navy Ship.

USS Winston S. ChurchillChurchill was not the first foreigner to have a U.S. Navy ship named in his honor, but it still upset a number of individuals who thought ships should only be named for Americans. They overlooked the fact that Winston Churchill’s mother was American and he had been made an honorary U.S. citizen in 1963. However, the timing of the choice led some to question whether the administration of President Bill Clinton was trying to curry favor with British Parliament when the president was involved with the Irish peace process.

Former US president Jimmy Carter onboard USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) in 2005. US Navy Photo

Former US president Jimmy Carter onboard USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) in 2005. US Navy Photo

USS Jimmy Carter—By designating a Seawolf-class submarine USS Jimmy Carter, the Navy perhaps dodged the conundrum of having to name an aircraft carrier in honor of a former president who had not been a supporter of the carrier program. Fortunately for the Navy, the fact that Carter (the only president to have graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy) had served as a submariner, made the naming-decision an ostensibly appropriate honor.

Former First Lady, Nancy Reagan christens USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in 2001. US Army Photo

Former First Lady, Nancy Reagan christens USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in 2001. US Army Photo

USS Ronald ReaganIt took a bit of horse-trading to get CVN-76 named for Reagan, who was still living at the time of the announcement. The Clinton administration agreed to appease Reagan’s supporters by naming a carrier for the Republican president, but only after another carrier was named for Democrat Harry S. Truman.

President Harry Truman onboard USS Renshaw during the Navy Day Fleet Review in New York Harbor, 27 October 1945. National Archives Photo

President Harry Truman onboard USS Renshaw during the Navy Day Fleet Review in New York Harbor, 27 October 1945. National Archives Photo

USS Harry S. Truman—While still under construction, the USS United States was renamed Harry S. Truman as part of the compromise to name a carrier for Reagan. Truman was a curious choice to be honored with a carrier since he had canceled the first supercarrier in 1949 just a few days after the keel was laid down. The name of that ship? The United States. Truman thus managed to cancel the name “United States” twice.

Artists concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). Northrop Grumman Photo

Artists concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78). Northrop Grumman Photo

USS Gerald R. Ford—When the Navy announced the new class of carrier entering service in 2015 would be named for former president and WWII Navy officer Gerald Ford, it angered veterans of the decommissioned USS America. The vets argued that Ford was not much more than an adequate president, so it was more fitting for the carrier-class to be known as America since the name has been part of Navy tradition dating to the War of Independence.

George H.W. Bush, during the construction of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2006. US Navy Photo

George H.W. Bush, during the construction of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2006. US Navy Photo

USS George H.W. Bush—Unsurprisingly, cynics took issue with a carrier being named for Bush at a time when his son was president, questioning the amount of influence the White House had on the decision. Others feared that the name would make the ship a constant target for nations and groups that resented the policies of the younger Bush. Defenders noted that in addition to being a former commander in chief, the elder Bush had served in WWII as a naval aviator.

USS John Warner
USS John Warner—The Navy had stuck with convention by naming the first 11 Virginia-class submarines after states before changing course and announcing that the 12th sub would honor U.S. Senator John Warner. Traditionalist griped that another type of vessel could have been named for Warner instead of breaking convention.

Navy announcement in 2009 of the naming of USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13). US Navy Photo

Navy announcement in 2009 of the naming of USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13). US Navy Photo

USNS Medgar Evers—Critics accused the President Barack Obama’s administration of ignoring Navy tradition and blatantly politicizing ship names by honoring slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers with a dry cargo vessel. Although the critics said that political activists had never before been given namesake ships, there had been several, including a destroyer tender named for labor leader Samuel Gompers and a cargo ship named for Amelia Earhart to recognize her role as a pioneering aviator and advocate for women’s rights.

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USS John P. Murtha—The 2010 decision to name an amphibious transport vessel for the late Pennsylvania congressmen and former Marine was met with immediate condemnation from critics who maintained that Murtha was unworthy since he had accused a group of Marines of murdering Iraqi civilians “in cold blood” without knowing the facts.

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USNS Cesar Chavez—Cesar Chavez was a dedicated champion of civil rights who strove to improve labor conditions, but many observers thought the 2011 decision to name a Lewis and Clark-class cargo ship after him was misguided. In addition to describing his service in the Navy as “the two worst years of my life,” Chavez believed strongly in nonviolence and probably would not have wanted his name on a warship.

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USS Gabrielle Giffords—While noting that Congresswoman Giffords recovery from injuries suffered during a 2011 shooting was admirable, critics believed she had done little in support of the Navy during her short tenure to merit the namesake Independence-class littoral combat ship announced in 2012. It was argued that it would have been more suitable to name the vessel for any of the thousands of Marines and sailors who died defending the country.

uss lyndon b johnson

USS Lyndon B. Johnson—Following the 2012 announcement that a Zumwalt-class destroyer would be named the Lyndon B. Johnson, many Democrats felt slighted because LBJ was not being honored with a carrier, as several Republican presidents had been. Observers believed that LBJ may have been downgraded because the Navy had suffered a series of indignities during LBJ’s presidency, such as the capture of the USS Pueblo and the attack on the USS Liberty.

USS Liberty. US Navy Photo

USS Liberty. US Navy Photo

USS Liberty—The 1967 Israeli attack on the Liberty remains a hotly debated topic that involves conspiracy theories and accusations of cover-ups. In an unusual case of the name of the ship being more controversial than that of which it is intended to honor, a proposal to name a library in Wisconsin in memory of the Liberty met fierce resistance from the Jewish community which believed that the name was being sponsored by a group wishing to promote anti-Semitism.

USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601) ship patch.

USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN-601) ship patch.

USS Robert E. Lee, USS Stonewall Jackson, USS Dixon, and USS Hunley—In the 1960s, the U.S. Navy seemed to have forgiven their Civil War adversaries and named several ships after Confederates (including George Dixon who sank a U.S. Navy ship while commanding the submarine H.L. Hunley). With the issue of honoring Confederates having grown more contentious in recent years, the Navy has avoided controversy by not reusing the names of such ships after they were decommissioned.

Portrait of then Ensign Harvey Milk

Portrait of then Ensign Harvey Milk

USS Harvey Milk ?—In 2012, there was grumbling from conservative commentators over Congressman Bob Filner’s petition to have a ship named after San Francisco activist Harvey Milk. Milk, who had served as an officer in the Navy, was assassinated soon after becoming one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office in California. The Navy has not announced any plans to meet Filner’s request.

  • SCOTTtheBADGER

    It is to sigh, isn’t it?

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.hanson.355 Scott Hanson

      ’tis to weep.. as Lex would say.

    • http://www.thegantry.net/blog Casey

      Scott, Reagan was a great man, but I would be perfectly happy with renaming that ship the America, for example. Or maybe even Constitution. :) Rename all the others appropriately.

      • Steve

        USS Constitution is still active on the Charles River in Charlestown. Oldest still-commissioned ship in the country.

        • sardiverdave

          And oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

          • Vanguard

            I think you will find that’s HMS Victory. Laid down in 1759 and still fleet flagship

          • Steve

            Victory, while older, is no longer afloat, she is encased in concrete.

          • 1twothree4

            Launched in 1737.

      • Brian

        hahaha Reagan was a great man…..horrendous president though

        • TXranger55

          BS, Reagan was one of the best there was in rallying the American people. Barack Obama isn’t fit to lick his shoes.

          • Brian

            Reagan funded Terrorists –

            The attacks on 9/11 by al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden brought new attention to international terrorism. All of a sudden, Americans coast to coast wore their American flag pins, ate their freedom fries and couldn’t wait to go to war with anyone who looked like a Muslim. What Americans didn’t realize was that the same group that attacked the United States on 9/11 was funded by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Prepping for a possible war with the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan spent billions of dollars funding the Islamist mujahidin Freedom Fighters in Afghanistan. With billions of American dollars, weapons and training coming their way, the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden took everything they were given and gave it back to the United States over a decade later in the worst possible way imaginable.

  • Worldwalker

    Simple solution: Stop naming anything but destroyers after people. Not presidents, not Congressmen, not bureaucrats, not anyone. Continue naming destroyers after genuine heroes — ones who died in the line of duty, perhaps — but not politicians. Problem solved.

  • gunnergoz

    No mention of the USS Glenard P. Lipscomb (SSN-685). Melvin Laird probably is breathing a sigh of relief.

    • DSteve

      What’s in a name?
      “Sitting Bull” was not his name, but a truncated form of the English translation of his Lakota name. Ship crews usually rename their ships in lesser flattering terms – they would have fun with that one. If true and proper respect is the goal, his Lakota name should be used – if anyone could pronounce it. I can hear the Bos’n on the 1MC announcing the skipper boarding now “Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake” arriving”.

  • JohnSto

    Imagine a carrier called USS Sitting Bull

    • SineWaveII

      I wouldn’t have a problem with that. He was a great Native American during a difficult time in our history (just like Robert E Lee) . I wouldn’t mind seeing ships named after the great American chiefs but I’m not sure how the Native American community would feel about it. I would be ok with renaming the Gabby Giffords the Sitting Bull.

      • SteveCT9

        Using Gabby Gifford’s’ name on a warship – well… whether the LCS is a warship is a different discussion :) – is inappropriate. Forgetting the she is a liberal or conservative, I never knew of her as a serious supporter of our military or involved in military affairs. She is to be commended for her recovery from that bastard shooting her in the face and I wish her nothing but a full recovery and a long, healthy life but a United States warship should not be named after her.

        It would have been a cool thing if all the littoral ships were named after the great names like Independence, Freedom, Constellation, Essex, Wasp, etc. Enterprise, of course is a special case. I would have named the first “Ford” class carrier Enterprise. He was a caretaker president and undeserving of such an honor, as were Stennis and MURTHA – my God who thought that was a good idea?

        JMO, God Bless America!

        • Capt Woody Sanford

          Gabrielle Giffords is married to a Navy Captain/ Astronaut. He may have had something to do with the naming. Whatever the reason for it, I fully support it. She served the United States and was severely wounded ” in the line of duty.” Put her name on that strange-looking ship.

          • Ray Rittenhouse

            There was nothing Great about Gifford’s to warrant a naming anything??She didn’t see a Need for a Great Navy or how are Military defends our Rights everyday.This was just a Political Correctness thing People thought should have been made..I think more people would have been Happier with a Mall named after her,NOT a Navy Vessel….

          • Capt Woody Sanford

            I certainly honor your opinion, Ray, but I won’t change mine. How was the original ship-naming directive published or announced?– Navy Instruction, SECNAV order, OPNAV publication, Congressional legislation, Presidential order, etc?
            Woody Sanford

          • Ray Rittenhouse

            Thank you and as I respect yours..I haven’t changed mine either..The Presidential Order’s and Congressional Order’s are all swayed by Political Motive in one way or the other..I would in my opinion leave it to the Navy to decide and choose the Name of any Ship Commissioned…

  • sardiverdave

    I believe Churchill was half American. Sort of a foreigner, but worthy of the naming.

    • hwy505

      The a article refers to his mother being American.

      • sardiverdave

        The article was updated two days after originally published, too. Now, since this is almost a full year after the article was published, I can’t say for certain that his mother’s citizenship being mentioned was one of the updates, but it’s certainly possible.

        I recall reading the part about his “honorary” citizenship and thinking to myself that wasn’t necessary, since he effectively already had it.

  • Dave Carothers

    With great ship names like Intrepid, Ticonderoga, Oriskany, Saratoga, Midway, Coral Sea
    (the list goes on) please stop naming your/our ships after congress-critters, ex-presidents etc. They all may be great men (and women) in one way or another but it
    opens way too many doors to silly and not so silly controversy. If you have to name ships
    after people, name them after people who pay the ultimate price in war. No one
    can argue they didn’t deserve the honor.

  • jack anderson

    As I recall, cruisers were named for cities and submarines for fish, until Hyman Rickover realized fish don’t vote. That being said, this new practice of DC naming ships for the flavor of the hour seems inappropriate. While Ford was heroic on the USS Monterey during the hurricane, his heroism appears insignificant when compared to a Waldron or O’hare. And what Jimmy Carter did for the Navy is at best, poorly documented, I am fairly well read and I am not aware of him performing any heroic acts. Best to get back to stringent guidelines for ship naming, and for what it is worth, I feel that 13 Billion dollar carriers should be explicitly named, while many may argue Gerald Ford’s worthiness, few could argue against Enterprise, Constellation, or Kitty Hawk

  • Harry Dexter White.

    Look name one after my names sake ok complete the cycle. What cycle, you may ask?

  • Berzrkr50

    Harvey Milk openly advocated man-boy relationships! One can only hope that the Navy wouldn’t name a ship after a man with pedophile tenancies!

  • Berzrkr50

    How about naming a “Honey-Boat” the USS Obama? They smell the same…

  • Jeff Brown

    How about these for names since we have no dignity left: USS Mr. Limpet, USS Susan Rice, USS Hillary, USS Eric Holder, USS Jeremiah Wright, USS Rahm Emanuel, USS Beyonce,

  • 1twothree4

    Thanks God I was on a ship named after Bull Halsey (CG-23), and thank God I will be dead soon. Harvey Milk? Gabrielle Giffords? What next, USS Oprah?? USS Jarrett??

  • Vivian Lee

    Harvey Milk? That name will strike terror in the hearts of America’s enemies!

    • Mastro63

      Well- “In The Navy” could be played at commissioning!

  • Secundius

    Ship’s Naming Convention?
    Why doesn’t the U.S. Navy use the names of captured ship’s in past wars into today’s
    modern Navy. Example, the MACEDONIAN served both the Royal and Continental Navies with distinction. Honor the name and battles it fought with distinction. If the modern Royal Navy won’t use the name, then why won’t we!!!

  • Eyeroller

    There were several ships named after foreigners, including a few SSBN’s or that attack subs were originally named after fish all the way up until the 70’s. That was when names became more about politics then tradition

    • Mastro63

      When they changed someone said “Fish don’t vote”

  • Mastro63

    They should name ships after Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman- at least they were Marines who could shoot!

  • TXranger55

    If they ever named a ship after Obama, no one would serve on it … Transfer time!

    Even if they forced sailors to serve on it, moral would be low at all times.