Zumwalt by Larry Berman

Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr., is one of the transcending figures of the Vietnam War. An Annapolis graduate and a veteran of the fighting in the Pacific in World War II, he served as the U.S. Navy Commander in Vietnam during the height of the war, from 1968-70, directing the American river boats that patrolled the inland waterways and coastal areas of South Vietnam. Zumwalt took bold and innovative actions in that job, primarily planning and executing Operation Sealords, which cut riverine supplies to the VC.

Zumwalt went on to become Chief of Naval Operations from 1970-74. In that job he pushed through much-needed reforms and earned a reputation as a commander who cared about those who served under him. Zumwalt will be “remembered as a trailblazer who reformed the Navy and as a champion of the men and women who served in it,” the historian Larry Berman says in Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt (Harper, 508 pp., $29.99), a detailed, readable, and admiring biography of one of the few admirable American Vietnam War military leaders.

Zumwalt, who died in 2000, also will be remembered for having ordered the spraying of Agent Orange over the Mekong Delta. His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt III, served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as a swift boat commander. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1983 and died in 1988. Both father and son believed that the cancer was caused by the son’s exposure to the pesticide.

Admiral Zumwalt worked assiduously after his son’s death to investigate the relationship between exposure to Agent Orange and a myriad of serious health problems faced by Vietnam veterans. In 1989, at age 68, he became a special assistant VA secretary to look into Agent Orange. It was an unpaid position, Berman points out.

Larry Berman

Berman, a professor emeritus at the University of California–Davis, has specialized in the Vietnam War during his long academic career. His books include Planning a Tragedy: Lyndon Johnson’s War (1983) and No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam (2002).

In Zumwalt, Berman does a good job in the sections on his subject’s work in the late 1980s and early 1990s investigating the impact of exposure to Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans.  Zumwalt, Berman says, hoped he wouldn’t find a link between Agent Orange and serious health conditions, “sparing himself the agony of knowing he was responsible.” But after he did, Zumwalt—to his credit—doggedly pushed the VA to recognize a host of illnesses connected to exposure to Agent Orange.

The book’s website is zumwaltbook.com

—Marc Leepson