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What’s in a Name?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our naval ships should recall two centuries of American sea power and naval heroism, not battles on Capitol Hill.

The USS Enterprise steamed out of Norfolk earlier this month on what is to be her last mission. She is scheduled to be deactivated in December. After 51 years, she has had the longest career of any carrier in naval history. Indeed, she is the second-oldest commissioned ship in the navy, behind only the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides.”

The Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered warship, is the eighth ship to bear the name. The first, a 70-ton sloop on Lake Champlain, had been named by Benedict Arnold after he captured her from the British. The third Enterprise on the navy list, a 135-ton schooner, fought in the War of 1812 in an epic battle against the brig HMS Boxer off the coast of Maine. The first broadsides killed the British captain, Samuel Blyth, and fatally wounded the American captain, Lieutenant William Burrows. (Burrows, as it happens, was the brother of my great-great-great grandmother.)

After 30 minutes of furious action, the badly mauled Boxer surrendered and was taken into Portland, Maine. Two days later, the two captains were buried side by side, where they remain to this day, a touching monument to a long-forgotten family quarrel among the English-speaking peoples.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a native of Portland, wrote of the battle in his famous poem "My Lost Youth":

I remember the sea-fight far away
How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains, as they lay
In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay,
Where they in battle died.
And the sound of the mournful song
Goes through me with a thrill:
A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

The seventh USS Enterprise was the most decorated ship of World War II, with 20 battle stars. She provided air cover for the USS Hornet during the Doolittle Raid in April, 1942, and played a crucial role in the Battle of Midway six weeks later, the greatest naval victory in American history.

USS Enterprise is the second-oldest commissioned ship in the navy, behind only the USS Constitution, ‘Old Ironsides.’

The replacement for the USS Enterprise is to be the navy’s latest carrier, scheduled to be commissioned in 2015: the USS Gerald R. Ford, CVN-78 (“CVN” is a U.S. Navy acronym for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; the number is in order of commissioning). The USS John F. Kennedy, CVN-79, is also under construction, as is CVN-80, as yet unnamed.

Until the Nimitz-class carriers, American aircraft carriers had almost always been named either for battles (such as the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown of World War II fame) or for earlier ships, such as the USS Enterprise and the USS Boxer, CV-21, the fifth U.S. Navy ship named in honor of HMS Boxer. But since the Nimitz-class carriers began to launch in 1975, they have been named for people.

It’s hard to argue with naming a carrier after Admiral Chester Nimitz, the architect of naval victory in the Pacific in World War II, or even for naming them after George Washington (CVN-73), Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). But others have been named for less well-known figures, such as Senator John C. Stennis (CVN-74), who served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate in the 1970s, and Carl Vinson, long a powerful champion of naval strength in the House.

There is a movement to go back to the practice of naming aircraft carriers for battles and great warships of the past, rather than modern politicians.

Even more troublesome is the fact that some of these mighty symbols of American power (a single Nimitz-class aircraft carrier has more air power than 70 percent of the world’s air forces) have been named for people who were alive when they were honored. These include Carl Vinson, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. George H. W. Bush, for whom CVN-77 is named, is still very much alive.

Perhaps that’s why there is a movement to go back to the practice of naming aircraft carriers for battles and great warships of the past, rather than modern politicians who may or may not command a major place in American history a few decades hence. With all due respect for Senator Stennis (died 1995) and Representative Vinson (died 1981), few Americans today could identify them.

There is a petition being circulated on the Internet to have the new carrier be the ninth USS Enterprise in the fleet. It is a worthy name, recalling over 200 years of American sea power and American naval heroism. It is a better name than for someone who fought his battles on Capitol Hill.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “‘A Sympathiser with the Poor’: Charles Dickens at 200,” “Long Live the Queen!” “Snapshot of a Creative Destruction,” and “Good as Gold?” Mackenzie Eaglen says “Obama's Shift-to-Asia Budget Is a Hollow Shell Game.” Michael Auslin contributes “No Rest for China's Military Masters.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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