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Inside Reagan's Navy: The Pentagon Journals

Inside Reagan's Navy: The Pentagon Journals

by Chase Untermeyer

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While serving as an assistant to Vice Pres. George H. W. Bush, Chase Untermeyer concluded that the only way to learn how the US government really works was to leave the silken cocoon of the White House and seek a position in one of the departments or agencies.

In March 1983, when offered an appointment as a deputy assistant secretary of the navy, he jumped at


While serving as an assistant to Vice Pres. George H. W. Bush, Chase Untermeyer concluded that the only way to learn how the US government really works was to leave the silken cocoon of the White House and seek a position in one of the departments or agencies.

In March 1983, when offered an appointment as a deputy assistant secretary of the navy, he jumped at the opportunity. After only a year as a “DASN,” he was named by Pres. Ronald Reagan as assistant secretary for Manpower & Reserve Affairs, in charge of all personnel issues affecting nearly one million sailors and Marines and a third of a million civilian workers.

Inside Reagan’s Navy offers an engaging, up-close narrative of Untermeyer’s experiences in the Pentagon, interwoven with descriptions of events and people, humorous anecdotes, and telling quotations.

As in his earlier book, When Things Went Right: The Dawn of the Reagan-Bush Administration, Inside Reagan’s Navy paints a portrait of official Washington during the Reagan years, with its politics, parties, and personalities.

Editorial Reviews

Max Boot

“Chase Untermeyer is a prolific diarist whose back-room view of the early days of the Reagan Administration, When Things Went Right, will long be a vital resource for casual readers and historians alike. Now, with Inside Reagan's Navy, he has extended the narrative to provide an invaluable look, from his perch as a deputy assistant secretary and assistant secretary of the Navy, at how the Department of Defense functioned in the last days of the Cold War. He provides fascinating vignettes about numerous individuals, especially John Lehman and Jim Webb, two of the most celebrated secretaries of the Navy in modern times. Anyone interested in the Reagan administration or in the modern Navy must read this book.” —Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present
Robert Kagan

"Chase Untermeyer's diary account of his service in Ronald Reagan's Navy Department is a delight. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the same title held by Theodore Roosevelt at another dynamic period in Am naval history, Mr. Untermeyer took part in the expansion of the Navy which helped bring a peaceful end to the Cold War. Anyone interested in how the U.S. Government really works will find this account invaluable."—Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made (2013) and The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2009)
Mordecai Lee

"From the public administration perspective, the diary conveys so vividly and engagingly the cut & thrust of bureaucratic infighting, relations between civilians and military, relations between civil servants and political appointees, and relations between political appointees and elected officials. Really great. Practically a page-turner. I had trouble putting it down." — Mordecai Lee, PhD, Professor of Governmental Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Seth Cropsey

"Inside Reagan's Navy" provides an exceptionally intimate picture of the Pentagon. Its ironic, often humorous, well-written and always frank style gives readers a ringside seat at the Reagan Administration Navy. More important, the book offers a keen observer's personal insight about the larger issue of how the business of governing actually works." — Seth Cropsey, former deputy undersecretary of the Navy; director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute; and author of Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy.
Midwest Book Review

“. . . a lively view of not just Naval operations but Washington politics of the era, injecting a dose of humor into its social and political observations of his office and its interactions at the highest levels of government. . . with its blend of lively, personal encounters and political process, Inside Reagan’s Navy is a pick for any who would learn more about how the Navy works, is managed, and how it interacts with other government offices.”—Midwest Book Review

“A young appointee, Untermeyer gives an intimate look at the underbelly of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and its personalities, policies, and politics. The journal entries deal with issues large and small and give the reader an appreciation of the variety of decisions made on a daily basis by leaders and the consequences, often unanticipated, that result.”—Seapower
Daily Beast

" . . . has received far less attention than it deserves."--The Daily Beast
The Military Shelf

"... Based on his diaries and writings, these stories come to life in a revealing account perfect for any who would receive an insider's view of Pentagon politics and affairs."—The Military Shelf

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Inside Reagan's Navy

The Pentagon Journals

By Chase Untermeyer

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2015 Chase Untermeyer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-216-8


The Education of a DASNIF

My first Pentagon job wasn't in the Pentagon at all but in a nondescript office building in Crystal City, a complex of squat towers adjoining National Airport. There the Navy Department rented space for its logistical functions, and there, the Monday after leaving the Vice President's suite in the West Wing of the White House, I reported for duty as a deputy assistant secretary of the Navy.

Monday, 14 March 1983

Today commenced my new life in Washington. The Metro ride out to Crystal City from Northwest Washington took about half an hour, an ideal amount of time to read the newspaper or a book. There's a tunnel from the Metro station straight to Crystal Plaza 5, where Navy S&L (Shipbuilding & Logistics) is located.

My first stop in S&L was the office of Ev Pyatt, the principal deputy assistant secretary. The first thing Ev told me is I won't have [my predecessor] Chapman Cox's old office around the corner from Assistant Secretary George Sawyer nor Chapman's responsibility for logistics. Someone more concerned than I with bureaucratic face might object to having his office, duties, and staff juggled even before he is on the payroll. But I recognize that I'm on probation with Sawyer and Pyatt and if I do well they'll gladly give me more to do.

I was taken to my new office and introduced to staff director Capt. Eugene Peltier, a tall, monastic-looking fellow with a matter-of-fact manner. One of the Seabees (a naval civil engineer), Gene briefed me on the biggest issues I'm likely to face, in particular the $2 billion budget for naval military construction, or "milcon."

At noon I went to S&L's attractive mess [dining room] for lunch. I sat next to George Sawyer, who engaged in detailed shop talk with his chief assistants during the meal. This is contrary to the etiquette of a ship's wardroom, though I never knew a ship whose officers were lively enough conversationalists to avoid the subject of work. Sawyer is an affable soul, though his reputation for temper makes me wary.

Karl Rove is in town, and after dinner in the White House Mess I showed him around the West Wing [a place he would know extremely well twenty years later]. His direct-mail business is doing well; most recently he handled Congressman Phil Gramm's special election campaign. We had a good talk about Texas politics, the Bush staff, and Untermeyer's future.

Wednesday, 16 March 1983

Today I attended the staff breakfast that George Sawyer holds promptly at 7:30 every Wednesday to hear each honcho report on his area of responsibility. When my turn came, I admitted, "I haven't understood anything of what's been said here. It's like being an exchange officer with the Thai navy." The acronyms, weapon systems, and abbreviations were so baffling that the only words I understood were verbs and prepositions. George good-naturedly assured me that I'll learn it all in time. At least I am getting the full-on exposure to "the bureaucracy" I yearned to join.

This evening, I gathered my old gear in the White House before heading home. This was the fabled moment of leaving the West Wing for the "last time" that I vowed always to keep in mind. That determination proved successful, and tonight I left without tears. I am grateful for what I've done, and I'm grateful for what I'm going to do.

Friday, 18 March 1983

One of the prime responsibilities in my new job at Navy was to be "executive agent" for the Department of Defense on all matters affecting the Outer Continental Shelf.

At 9:30, environmental staffer Mary Margaret Goodwin and I boarded a Navy motor pool car for a quick rainy ride to the Pentagon. Deep within the building, appropriately far from the surface, lurks the Submarine Force. Waiting there was a Commodore Eytchison and several four-stripers [naval captains]. It was my first exposure to high-ranking naval officers in my new role, and it is not easy to shift into being the dignitary after trailing behind one for so long.

The submariners wanted to brief me on their concerns regarding the planned sale of oil leases in Narragansett Bay before I go see people at Interior. A captain said that oil rigs in sub transit lanes would pose a threat to navigation, since underwater cruising isn't precise, and the noise generated by the platforms would prevent the quiet listening required to track enemy subs. The commodore compared this sound to "a jackhammer in the concert hall."

In the car heading back to Crystal City, I told Mary Margaret, "When I rejoined the Navy in this job, I thought the enemy was the Soviets. Now I learn it's the Interior Department." For my sake I hope we are successful in this confrontation. My early reputation as a political fixer may be made on it.

Monday, 21 March 1983

Today the Navy landed on the shores of the Interior Department and advanced to the suite of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). There I met with Dave Russell, a young man of stocky build, thinning red hair, and a permanent smirk. I affirmed my support of Administration policy on mineral development, which promotes national security through energy independence. But, I said, Navy's concerns in Narragansett Bay reflect a more concrete aspect of national security, for while there may or may not be oil under the waves, we know for sure that Soviet subs are.

My arguments failed to move Russell, who was quietly unyielding on our request. I suspect he is trying to out-Watt Jim Watt in promoting oil and gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf. I shall have to wage the battle on a higher plane. Going one-on-one with Jim Watt is a daunting prospect, but I'm confident enough in our case and friendly enough with the Secretary to welcome it.

Thursday, 24 March 1983

Today the ranking Marine officers responsible for installations briefed me on the effort by Oceanside, California, to annex Camp Pendleton [the big operationalMarine base between San Diego and Los Angeles]. On 8 April, I will meet with Larry Bagley, the mayor of Oceanside. One of the briefers said, "Mr. Untermeyer, you are unique right now, because you are the only official in the Navy Department that Mayor Bagley hasn't insulted."

Steve Shipley, Secretary Watt's executive assistant, called to say his boss "thinks we ought to place obstacles on the Outer Continental Shelf so our submarines can practice their navigation." After this side-splitter, I said I'm concerned that Interior looks on Navy "as just another anti-drilling group, like the Georges Bank fishermen or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Friday, 25 March 1983

Today Capt. Gene Peltier and I went to the headquarters of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC), where for my sole benefit its top officers conducted a full formal briefing. There was a published agenda, slides, and coffee served by the aide to "the chief" (of naval engineers). One striking statistic: Navy owns four million acres of land, equivalent in size to New Jersey.

At lunch with the Seabees, I asked a captain who worked for both Chapman Cox and his Democratic predecessor what advice he might give me. He said simply, "Trust your people." My going-in attitude toward career folk springs from what George Bush learned as director of the CIA. Like me, he was a political outsider among professionals. GB said he started off presuming competence and loyalty and let his underlings disprove this notion, rather than start off presuming incompetence and disloyalty and make them prove themselves trustworthy.

Monday, 28 March 1983

I received a call from Paul Thayer, the deputy secretary of Defense, asking what to tell Jim Watt about the Narragansett Bay lease sale. Thayer is a rough-and-ready test pilot-turned-corporate executive, very similar to his friend and predecessor Bill Clements, also of Dallas. But this afternoon he was low-key and respectful, perhaps out of contrition for flunking an earlier phone call from Watt. "I don't envy what you are about to do," I told Thayer, "but I'm grateful."

Friday, 1 April 1983

Today I chaired a meeting to develop Navy's position on the bid by the city of Portsmouth (Virginia) to lease a 40-acre landfill from us. In a one-hour discussion over a dumpsite, I had more job satisfaction than in a week of work for the Vice President.

Saturday, 2 April 1983

At a party tonight I met Tidal (Ty) McCoy, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs & Installations. A West Point grad, Ty speaks very fast, punctuating his conversation with a soldier's mindless obscenities. He had an interesting characterization of the different services. The Navy is very hierarchical, he said, with the CNO [chief of naval operations] the supreme boss for four years. The Air Force by contrast, operates as a board of directors, with the chief of staff merely a presiding officer. And the Army is run by the chief of staff and a kitchen cabinet of cronies from West Point, one or two of whom may have retired. Ty said nothing about the Marines.

Tuesday, 5 April 1983

Today, shortly after arriving at Crystal Plaza 5, I was summoned to "the front office." There George Sawyer raised the request by Congressman Jack Edwards (R-Alabama) for joint civilian-military use of Barin Field near Mobile. Gene Peltier had given me a number of decent arguments why Edwards's request didn't make sense. I signed this over to Sawyer, who signed it over to SecNav Lehman—only to have Lehman overrule S&L on the grounds that Edwards deserves a plum now and then. Though he had been a participant in this episode, George used it as an object lesson for me. "Don't trust these guys," he said bluntly.

Wednesday, 6 April 1983

Today brought the weekly S&L breakfast. It always feels as if the week is over the hump after these breakfasts, even though chronologically that's not true.

At the Pentagon, I met with counterparts from Air Force and Army to devise a joint position in response to the "installations management" initiative by Assistant Secretary of Defense Larry Korb and his deputy Bob Stone. My colleagues, both career civil servants, see this as a power grab by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and want to counter-propose a tri-service committee. When I asked the aim of such a panel, the two men chuckled, so obvious was the answer to them: the aim of the tri-service committee is to kill the OSD scheme.

Thursday, 7 April 1983

In a meeting with my predecessor, Chapman Cox, awaiting confirmation as assistant secretary for Manpower & Reserve Affairs, I mentioned George Sawyer's "object lesson" a couple of days ago on distrusting uniformed officers. Chapman said he doesn't distrust them but that I should always be skeptical when they say something can't be done.

Friday, 8 April 1983

I did some final reading on the Camp Pendleton annexation issue before my meeting with Mayor Larry Bagley of Oceanside, a scowling terrier of a man. With him was Congressman Ron Packard (R-California), a dentist and former mayor of neighboring Carlsbad in northern San Diego County. There are many base-related conflicts with Oceanside, a blighted honky-tonk town dependent on what Packard's aide called "young oversexed Marines."

During the 90-minute session I listened sympathetically to my visitors' tale of Navy Department double-crosses. I kept the tone even rather than confrontational. Packard asked what it will take for Navy to drop its opposition to Oceanside's annexing the base. I offered to find out the answer—a chore that could take weeks. Delay is important because San Diego County will decide the Oceanside–Camp Pendleton issue in early May.

Thursday, 14 April 1983

At lunch today, George Sawyer declared, "I'll bet there are not ten members of Congress who can tell you what DOD's [Department of Defense's] budget request is, within 10 percent." To test his hunch, he began to poll those of us around the table, starting with me. I blinked and a number came to me: 274 billion dollars. George blinked back; I was absolutely right. I had read the figure a couple of weeks ago, and it stayed with me, thanks to a local politician's simple mnemonic: my voting precinct in Houston is number 274. Of course, I didn't tell George this.

Wednesday, 20 April 1983

At the Kennedy Center tonight, I sat next to Barbara Bush, whose stage whispers and delicious commentary so attracted a fellow sitting in the next box that he practically leaned over me to listen to her. Out came the 67-year-old Frank Sinatra, in show business for over 40 years, to deliver such numbers as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)," and his 1970s signature song, "New York, New York." Sinatra's voice often disappeared into a rasp or a conversation, but it was still good to see the great Frankie in person. Afterwards we were ushered down to the green room to meet him. Sinatra called me "sir."

Monday, 2 May 1983

The best news of the day was the rejection of Oceanside's petition to annex Camp Pendleton. Under state law, the city can't try again for another year. I notified the EA [executive assistant] to the under secretary, who said, "It's a good thing for you to win your first battle." Of course the Marines did the real lobbying, but I don't mind getting the credit.

Tuesday, 3 May 1983

Thirty-nine people applied to be my secretary, and the reviewing committee screened out only twenty-one of them. Under the rules, if I interview one, I must interview all eighteen. The two highest-scoring candidates are a current S&L secretary and one who works for Army. So, to avoid interviewing everyone or creating a problem for a colleague, I will simply hire the woman at Army, Mrs. Betty Thompson.

This sight-unseen personnel action was one of the wisest I would make in a dozen years in Washington. Betty Thompson proved a wonderful assistant and faithful friend who would go with me from S&L to the E-Ring of the Pentagon to the West Wing of the White House and finally to the Voice of America—a ten-year run.

I was at the Pentagon for a 2:00 meeting of JIMFOG, the Joint Installations Management Flag Officer Group, the tri-service committee created to keep the OSD nose out of the services' installations tent. OSD's Bob Stone, with quavering voice, urged us to "start small." He left the room, and for the balance of three hours we proceeded to be as small as possible. Men of one- and two-star rank haggled over whether to use "foster" rather than "promote" or "review" versus "examine." A colleague called the session "government at its worst."

Tuesday, 10 May 1983

At the Pentagon, Chapman Cox and I greeted our guest for lunch: Liche Castaño, mayor of Vieques, the small island just east of Puerto Rico that the Navy has used for target practice and ammunitions storage for years. Despite this, Castaño is very pro-Navy. Built like a barrel, the mayor is a cocky and well-humored political operator. "Do you know what my opponents said before the last election?" he demanded. "They said I got $25,000 from the CIA! Can you imagine that?" Chapman replied, "Liche, you're right. You'd never take anything less than $100,000."

This afternoon I met with Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia) in the doughty Russell Senate Office Building to talk about the future of the Washington Navy Yard. Warner doesn't mind if we move a few Navy offices to save on rent; he just doesn't want us to depopulate Crystal City until after his reelection in 1984.

Monday, 23 May 1983

The under secretary, Jim Goodrich, invited me to brief him before our 2:00 meeting with Gov. Ricardo Bordallo (D- Guam). Goodrich, an enormously pleasant older man who headed the Bath Iron Works shipyard, yearned to have his Encyclopedia Britannica back home in Maine so he could read up on the island.

Bordallo came in with his entourage, including a huge Chinese-Chamorro senator who kept dozing off during the meeting. The governor was not unlike the typical labor leader, with a necktie that was too short and a belly that was too big. He went down his laundry list of requests for the Navy, everything from wanting scrubbers on the power plant's smokestacks to our blasting through some coral to create a cruise ship pier. UnSecNav sat like a red-cheeked Buddha, saying, "Yes, yes." I hope the Guamanians didn't think he was agreeing with them instead of merely acknowledging their words. I rather like having responsibility for two exotic isles: Guam to the west and Vieques to the east.

Thursday, 26 May 1983

Andy Card called from Massachusetts to say he's still getting nowhere in his search for a federal job. At least he's earning an income from a company based in Vienna, Virginia, that wants him to move here. But Andy, eyeing another race for governor in 1986, doesn't want to move to DC except for a government job. I connected him with Jane Kenny [who has taken over my political personnel duties] in the VP's office.

A former state legislator, Andy was a key organizer in the Bay State for George Bush in 1979–80. At the time of this call, he was still recovering from a loss in the 1982 Republican primary for governor.

From this low point, Andy Card would rocket into the stratosphere of American government. With the help of VP Bush and Jim Baker, he would soon become White House liaison to the governors. When Bush became president, Andy became deputy chief of staff and then (in 1992) secretary of Transportation. During the Clinton era, he headed the Washington-based trade association for the "Big Three" automakers and served on the board of the Union Pacific Railroad. And when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the family stalwart returned to the White House as chief of staff.


Excerpted from Inside Reagan's Navy by Chase Untermeyer. Copyright © 2015 Chase Untermeyer. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

A diarist since the age of nine and later a journalist, CHASE UNTERMEYER began his service in Washington in January 1981 as executive assistant to Vice President Bush. Subsequently he was an assistant secretary for the US Navy, a senior White House aide to Pres. George H. W. Bush, and director of the Voice of America. He would later serve Pres. George W. Bush as US ambassador to Qatar. Now an international business consultant, he lives in Houston.

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