In November 1943, General of the Army George C. Marshall called for post-war unification of the Department of War and the Department of the Navy. His proposals also included the creation of a separate "Air Arm", the United States Air Force. These proposals led to what became known as the "unification debates" and the eventual passage of the National Security Act of 1947. That Act reorganized the military, creating a unified National Military Establishment (renamed the Department of Defense shortly after), the National Security Council (NSC), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and an independent United States Air Force (which became its own military branch after being part of the Army).
The generals of the newly-formed Air Force propounded a new doctrine: that strategic bombing, particularly with nuclear weapons, was the sole decisive element necessary to win any future war; and was therefore the sole means necessary to deter an adversary from launching a Pearl Harbor like surprise attack or war against the United States. To implement this doctrine, which the Air Force and its supporters regarded as the highest national priority, the Air Force proposed that it should be funded by the Congress to build a large fleet of U.S. based long-range strategic heavy bombers. The Air Force generals argued that this project should receive large amounts of funding, beginning with the B-36 Peacemaker bomber.
The admirals of the Navy disagreed. Pointing to the overwhelming dominance of the aircraft carrier in the Pacific Theater, they asked the United States Congress to fund a large fleet of "supercarriers" and their supporting battle groups, beginning with the USS United States (CVA-58). The Navy leadership believed that wars could not be won by strategic bombing alone, with or without the use of nuclear weapons. The Navy also maintained that to decide, at the outset of any future conflict, to initiate the widespread use of nuclear weapons—attacking the major population centers of the enemy homeland—was immoral. The USS United States was, however, designed to support 100,000-pound aircraft, which would be large enough to carry the multi-ton nuclear weapons of the day. The plans for the United States-class called for eight ships carrying ten heavy bombers each and enough aviation fuel for eight raids per plane, allowing them to drop 640 nuclear weapons before resupply became necessary.
The first Secretary of Defense, former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, supported the Navy position and authorized construction of United States. However, he had to resign for reasons of health on March 28, 1949 and was replaced by Louis A. Johnson, who supported the Air Force's position.
On April 23—less than a month after taking office, and without consulting Congress—Johnson ordered cancellation of United States. Sullivan and a number of high-ranking admirals resigned in protest. A few days later, Johnson announced that the aviation assets of the United States Marine Corps would be transferred to the Air Force; this plan was quietly dropped in response to an uproar in Congress. The Navy's aircraft carriers were roundly disliked by the Air Force, as they were an aviation asset which the Air Force could not control, and Johnson, who was a staunch proponent of the new Air Force, consequently sought to limit as much as possible the Navy's procurement of these ships.
A research group, Op-23, headed by Captain Arleigh A. Burke, began to gather material critical of the B-36's performance and capabilities. An "anonymous document" soon appeared, claiming that the B-36 was a "billion-dollar blunder" and alleging fraud on the part of B-36 contractors. The document stated that Johnson, who had been on the board of directors of Convair, manufacturer of the bomber, had a personal interest in its production.
The situation was further exacerbated by a series of articles for popular consumption written by Rear Admiral Daniel V. Gallery for The Saturday Evening Post. The final article, "Don't Let Them Scuttle the Navy!" was so inflammatory that Johnson wanted Gallery court-martialed for gross insubordination. Although Gallery was not court-martialed, the articles cost him his promotion to vice admiral and ultimately ended his career.
The author of the so-called "anonymous document" turned out to be Cedric R. Worth, civilian assistant to the Under Secretary of the Navy. A House Investigating Committee recommended that Worth be fired. Following a naval court of inquiry, Worth was dismissed.
The committee expressed solid support for effective unification, but stated that "there is such a thing as seeking too much unification too fast" and observed that "there has been a Navy reluctance in the interservice marriage, an over-ardent Army, a somewhat exuberant Air Force... It may well be stated that the committee finds no unification Puritans in the Pentagon."
Finally, the committee condemned the dismissal of Admiral Denfeld. The House Armed Services Committee concluded that Denfeld's removal was a reprisal because of his testimony, and a challenge to effective representative government.
Army General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Navy admirals "'fancy dans' who won't hit the line with all they have on every play unless they can call the signals" who were in "open rebellion against the civilian control." This was as much for budgetary reasons as any other; the services were then in the middle of the post-World War II drawdown (which would continue into and past the Korean War era) and Army-Air Force thinking held that their life depended on securing as many missions for themselves as possible.
The "Revolt of the Admirals" opened the discussion, still ongoing, in the American military establishment about the role of nuclear weapons, strategic bombing, and the unification of military command. The first test of national doctrine came on 25 June 1950 when the Korean War broke out, and the national command authority decided that strategic bombing would not be used to defeat North Korea—rather, the use of ground forces, supported by naval gunfire and amphibious assault, would defeat the invasion. Although that limited war was dismissed as an aberration by supporters of the Air Force doctrine, scores of other smaller conflicts have since been fought without the use of strategic bombing. The idea of defeating an enemy with few or no American casualties continues to be a factor in the debate, as in Operation Desert Storm and Kosovo, although in the 21st century cruise missiles have replaced high-altitude bombing in the airpower role. The Korean War reinforced the lessons of World War II that held carriers to be a primary implement of American foreign policy, and shortly after the North Korean attack began, Secretary Johnson promised the Navy that it would have a new aircraft carrier as soon as it wanted it.
Air Force and Navy historians continue to advocate the positions held by their respective sides during the "Revolt of the Admirals".