The responsibility for naming U.S. warships has traditionally been left to the secretary of the Navy. That needs to change. President Obama’s Navy secretary, Ray Mabus, has politicized the christening process to the point where some form of oversight is needed.
The Senate version of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act includes an amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, to “require a report on the policies and practices … for naming the vessels of the Navy.” The measure would require the secretary of defense to submit a report to Congress detailing current Navy policies for ship naming, the extent to which they vary from historical practices, and an assessment of the feasibility of establishing fixed policies for naming ships.
The catalyst for the amendment was the announcement last spring that the newest supply ship in the Navy’s inventory would be named after labor leader Cesar Chavez. This radical served briefly in the Navy after World War II but did not accomplish anything noteworthy while in uniform. His claim to fame was solely from organizing migrant laborers and agitating for the rights of illegal immigrants. Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said at the time that naming a ship after Chavez appeared to be “more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy’s history and tradition.”
The Lewis and Clark class of dry cargo/ammunition ships are named for explorers and pioneers, such as Richard E. Byrd, Amelia Earhart, or the namesakes of the class. On Mr. Mabus’ watch, the namings have taken a decidedly political turn. In 2009, the Navy announced the naming of the USNS Medgar Evars after the civil-rights leader. Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, defended the practice as part of the Navy’s “rich tradition,” but naming ships after political activists began with the Obama administration.
Mr. Mabus was also wrong to name the amphibious ship LPD-26 after the late Rep. John P. Murtha, breaking with the tradition of naming San Antonio class ships after U.S. cities. Although Murtha was a Marine, he was criticized by veterans groups for calling the U.S. Marines facing charges for killing 24 Iraqis in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005 “cold blooded killers.” Almost all the charges were later dropped. When Murtha died in 2010, an extensive federal corruption investigation was underway against him. His name is not fit to carry our heroes to war.
Mr. Blunt questions whether such ship namings were “an appropriate thing to do or even related much to the military” and it would be useful for the secretary of the Navy to “go beyond his own desk” to justify them. Responsible officials need to “think more carefully about who we are going to name our Navy vessels after,” he said. America and our sea services deserve better. This measure is a useful first step to return balance to a process that has been sullied by politics.