A colleague on Twitter, @ICComLib, pointed me to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service about the naming of US Naval ships. This is actually a pretty interesting issue, and can get quite controversial quite quickly.
Ever since the founding of the US Navy, there have been conflicts about how names are assigned. Aircraft carriers are now nearly always named after former US Presidents. So was it a slight to Jimmy Carter to have his name assigned to a submarine, rather than an aircraft carrier?
Not really, since Carter was a USNA graduate, joined the submarine service where he sailed on and commanded submarines, and worked directly under Admiral Rickover to develop the new nuclear Navy.
On the other hand, the Seawolf class of attack submarines are named Seawolf (SSN-21), Connecticut (SSN-22), and Jimmy Carter (SSN-23); as the report states, “which were named for a fish, a state, and a President, respectively, reflecting no apparent class naming rule” (pg 4). There’s not a lot of continuity there.
From the launch of the brig Jefferson in April 1814, to the naming of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in 1970, apparently only one Naval ship had been named after a living person – in that case, John Holland, creator of the Navy’s first submarine (USS Holland (SS1)), which they bought from him, and then named after him, in 1900. Since 1970, however, this has happened every couple of years; three ships in 2012 alone were named after living people (John Glenn (MLP-2), Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), and Thomas Hudner (DDG-116)).
One interesting point in the report is that, while one might say that there is no regularity to how ships are named in the US Navy, at the same time the right of the Secretary of the Navy to make exceptions in naming conventions is one of the oldest ship-naming traditions.
Another highlight is the role that Congress plays in suggesting or influencing vessel names and clarifications: one interesting example was that of a message to the Navy from Maine’s two Senators in 2013, seeking clarification of the forthcoming amphibious dock ship, to be named USS Portland. Senators Collins and King were concerned because the Navy had indicated that the ship was being named after Portland, Oregon, and not Portland, Maine. As the Senators pointed out, not only were previous Portlands named after Portland, Maine (for instance, USS Portland (CA-33)), or both cities (LSD-37), but Portland, Oregon, itself, was named after Portland, Maine.
This report is a followup to a report submitted to Congress from the Navy three years ago (though this report was written by staff at Congressional Research Service, not the Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command, which put together the previous report). It seems clear that the Navy will continue to create guidelines for how ships should be named, and also continue to ignore them, when they see fit to do so.