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During the Memorial Day holiday, the World War II Memorial in the nation's capital was dedicated, commemorating the men and women who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice defending the nation. One man who didn't fight on the battlefield, but deserves recognition for his war efforts is Carl Vinson (pictured from top to bottom with: Sam Nunn, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson).
A Milledgeville, Ga., native who graduated from Mercer's Law School in 1902, Vinson is, according to biographer James F. Cook, "the patriarch of the armed forces." Without his efforts toward strengthening U.S. naval forces in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when America was more committed to disarmament and isolationism, World War II may have resulted in a much different scenario.
Cook and Mercer University Press teamed up to tell the life story of this one individual who played such an important role in our nation's history in the recently published Carl Vinson: Patriarch of the Armed Forces. Surprisingly, Cook's work is the first full-length biography of this master legislator responsible for transforming the Armed Forces through Congress.
Vinson's great nephew, Georgia's longtime U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, is one of several of Vinson's family members that have been vocal about the book being written. Having followed in Vinson's footsteps by chairing the Armed Services Committee, Nunn knows as well as anyone the significance of Vinson's achievements.
"Carl Vinson dedicated his life to America's strength, security and freedom," wrote Nunn in a statement regarding the book. "He also inspired me, and I am sure many others, to serve our nation in the U.S. Congress. Carl Vinson's story is, in large part the story of America's national security in the twentieth century. The lessons of his leadership should be learned by the young leaders who must protect America in the twenty-first century."
Starting in 1914, Vinson spent 50 years in the United States House of Representatives. During that time, he chaired the House Naval Affairs Committee, as well as its successor, the Armed Services Committee. By the 1930s, his folksy wit, strong work ethic, intense patriotism and what Cook calls "an ability to be domineering without offending people" gained him the trust and respect of everyone in the U.S. government.
Armed with credos like "The paramount duty of government is self-preservation" and "enemy capabilities—not dollars—must determine our defenses," Vinson used his stature among fellow politicians to swiftly pass legislature of real consequence and build up the nation's defense. Many feel that he is the principal architect of our nation's modern defense system.
"In the 13 January 2002 issue of Parade Magazine," writes Cook in the preface, "a reader from West Virginia noting the prominent role the USS Carl Vinson was playing in fighting terrorism in the Middle East, asked: Who was Carl Vinson? It was a valid question, for a whole generation now has grown up with no memory of Carl Vinson."
The answer to why Carl Vinson has drifted into relative anonymity lies in the essence of the man's character.
"Vinson never sought out much publicity," explains Cook. "He also had no children to carry on his legacy," and more importantly, he never aspired to any other position. "Everyone in Georgia knows the name Richard Russell," said Cook, "but not many know Carl Vinson, and yet his contributions were on par with Russell's." Vinson was in the House, while Russell was in the Senate and, at one time, in the running for the presidency.
"From time to time," Cook continued, "Vinson was recommended for higher positions, such as a seat in the Senate or Secretary of the Navy, but he always turned them down." Vinson's standard response to those who questioned his choice to remain in the House was "I'd rather run the Navy from here."
After he established seniority status, he exerted tremendous influence over the Navy and later all of the military. Believing his role to be important, Vinson maintained his post out of a sense of duty and patriotism. "He developed a reputation of confidence and patriotism," said Cook. "No one questioned his integrity. When he made a statement about a program or project, his argument carried weight."
It was about four years ago when Cook was approached by Emmett Hall, a family member of Vinson's, to write the biography. As Hall put it, "If a man has done enough to have a nuclear carrier named after him, he ought to have his biography written."
Vinson kept no journal, so Cook relied heavily on interviews, letters, newspaper articles and the Congressional record. Cook found conversations with friends of Vinson, such as Lou and Neta Stockstill, to whom the book is dedicated, particularly informative and inspiring. Lou was a Washington journalist during much of Vinson's career, while Neta was a staff member of the Armed Services Committee during Vinson's active political years.
The result of Cook's efforts is, according to Willard B. Gatewood, professor emeritus of history at the University of Arkansas, "a superb piece of historical scholarship on a subject of great historical significance." It provides not only keen insight into the prolific career of a great Congressman, but a heartfelt portrayal of a man who lived an exemplary life.
When asked what he would like people to take from this biography, Cook replied, "I would like for people to understand that Vinson was a real American patriot that devoted his life to public service, that he considered it a noble calling, and that his efforts paid off in the results he achieved in improving our military and national security."
When Vinson joined the House of Representatives in 1914, he was the youngest ever to do so. When he retired in 1964 after 50 years of service, it was, at the time, the longest anyone had ever served in the House. Though still quite capable at 80 years of age, he felt his duty had been served.
At the last of several retirement ceremonies held on his honor, Vinson rose and said, "I have received my award, and you have made my day in this Congress of the United States a complete fulfillment of what I have sought in life."
Always reluctant of fanfare, Vinson quietly went to Union Station and boarded a train and returned to Milledgeville, Ga., where he lived out the rest of his years on his 600-acre farm.
Carl Vinson: Patriarch of the Armed Forces and other titles published by Mercer University Press are available online at mupress.org. To order a book catalog or complete list of books published by Mercer University Press, visit the Web site or call (478) 301-2880 (Macon) or (800) 342-0841, 2880 (in Ga.).