NHF Mourns the Loss and Celebrates the Life of Senator John W. Warner

A Statement From the Chairman of the Naval Historical Foundation 

Today we celebrate the life and mourn the passing of a great American patriot, John W. Warner, the epitome of the Virginia gentleman. Serving as an enlisted Sailor in the Navy during World War II, and then in the Korean War as a Marine Corps officer, he was later appointed Under Secretary and then Secretary of the Navy. Five-time elected U.S. Senator from Virginia, he was a towering figure in national security affairs for three decades. A long-time friend and supporter of the Naval Historical Foundation, it was my great honor to have known him for almost 50 years and in a recent conversation to have reminisced about events and experiences which we shared. Joining our fellow countrymen and women, we express gratitude for his service to our nation and salute his dignified example of leadership.

William J. Fallon

Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)

26 May 2021

The Life and Career of the Honorable John Warner
By Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox

It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of former Secretary of the Navy John William Warner on May 25, 2021. Secretary Warner served as Secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974 and then was a five-term U.S. senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1979 to 2009.

Secretary Warner was born 18 February 1927 in Washington, DC. He is the grandson of John William Warner and Mary Tinsley Warner of Amherst, Virginia. His father was Dr. John W. Warner, a physician who served as an Army doctor in World War I. His mother, Martha (Budd) Warner from St. Louis, Missouri served as a Red Cross volunteer, helping the wounded who returned from France.

As a young man, Warner was at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC when news began trickling that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. In a 2005 interview with NHF historian Dave Winkler, he stated that the ballgame’s announcer started to pass requests for generals and admirals in attendance to call their officers immediately. It wasn’t until the Warner family left the stadium that they learned why they departed the ballpark.

At the age of 17, he asked his parents for their permission to join the Marine Corps. His father refused stating that after serving in muddy trenches in the Army in World War I, his son would only serve in the Navy or Air Corps.

Soon enough, he enlisted in the Navy in late 1944. He boarded a train at Washington, DC Union Station bound for Great Lakes Training Center. On VE-Day in May 1945, he was a student at electronics school. A captain asked the students to raise their hands if they didn’t drink. Not wanting to admit imbibing, he raised his hand and that’s when the captain shared that the war in Europe was over. The captain then assigned Warner and other non-drinkers to shore patrol in central Chicago to maintain order among the celebrating military personnel.

He left the Navy in July 1946 as a third-class electronics technician and entered Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA in September 1946. He majored in general engineering courses, physics, and mathematics. During his senior year, Warner joined the Marine Corps Reserves and he was commissioned as second lieutenant upon graduating from college in June 1949.

The following September he entered the University of Virginia Law School. His law training was interrupted for a second tour of active military service when he was called to active duty as a Second Lieutenant in October 1950. After a tour of duty in Korea serving as Communications Officer for Marine Attack Squadron VMA-121 and later as Communications Officer for Marine Air Group 33, he was released from active duty in April 1952. He attained the rank of captain and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1961.

Graduating from law school in 1953, he was appointed law clerk to the Honorable E. Barrett Prettyman, former Chief Judge, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. He was admitted to the Bar in April 1954, and following a brief period in private practice was appointed a Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney in 1956. In 1957 he was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney, Department of Justice. He served as a trial lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Washington, DC, until April 1960, when he joined the campaign staff of then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

In November 1960, Warner became associated with the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, and in 1964 was admitted to the firm as a general partner, specializing in corporate and banking law.

He was appointed Under Secretary of the Navy by President Nixon and sworn in on 11 February 1969 by Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird. He subsequently was nominated by President Nixon to be the Secretary of the Navy and sworn in by Secretary of Defense Laird on 4 May 1972. He is the first Under Secretary and Secretary to have served in the uniform of both the Navy and Marine Corps.

In addition to duties as Under Secretary of the Navy, he was given assignments representing the Department of Defense. On 15 July 1971 he was appointed Director of Ocean Affairs, with the primary responsibility of representing the Department in international affairs involving law of the sea. The President designated him head of the U.S. Delegation which met in Moscow in October 1971 and again in Washington, DC, in May of 1972 to discuss incidents at sea between U.S. and Soviet naval units. Secretary Warner was a member of the Presidential Party at the Moscow Summit Meeting and signed, on behalf of the United States Government, the Executive Agreement on Incidents at Sea between the United States and Soviet Union on 25 May 1972. 

For his nearly four years of service as Under Secretary and then Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Warner received the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medal on 10 January 1973 from the then-Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird. A citation accompanying the Medal, signed by Secretary Laird, said in part:

“…John W. Warner has provided superb leadership to the Department of the Navy during a difficult period of changing priorities, missions, and resources…he has brought great energy, keen foresight, broad vision and expert managerial capacity to guiding the development of new naval forces and concepts…and to improving the management of weapons systems acquisition…he has ably represented the Department of Defense in international law of the sea negotiations, and the President of the United States in negotiating an Executive Agreement on Incidents at Sea between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

After leaving the Navy, President Gerald Ford asked Secretary Warner to become Administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, the federal entity responsible for organizing commemorative events in 50 states and 22 foreign countries in 1976. Secretary Warner joined President Ford on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal initiating the ringing of the bicentennial bells, similar events are planned for the country’s 250th birthday in 2026.

In November 1978 Secretary Warner was elected as senator from the state of Virginia. He held this seat until 2009. Shortly before he retired his fellow senators paid tribute to his service on the Senate floor. Senator James Webb reminisced about his decades-long friendship with the Virginian.

As a twenty-five year old Marine captain and Vietnam War veteran, Webb was assigned to the Secretary of the Navy’s staff. Warner was serving as Under Secretary of the Navy at the time. He retired then-Captain Webb from the Marine Corps in front of the Secretary of the Navy’s desk. Webb followed Secretary Warner’s path becoming Secretary of the Navy Webb during the Reagan administration.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse shared two sea stories in his tribute. His first referenced Secretary Warner’s passion and devotion to Navy Sailors. Every time he visited a ship, he insisted on talking with Sailors. He wanted the ground truth.

Secretary Warner was frequently observed to be closing his eyes while talking during Senate hearings. Senator Whitehouse shared that the habit wasn’t one of disrespect. Rather, it was one of concentration and deliberation.

Five days after he retired from the Senate in 2009, Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter named a Virginia-class fast attack submarine after Senator Warner—USS John Warner (SSN-785). Commissioned in 2015, it was the first Virginia-class boat named after a person. His stature and efforts on behalf of his beloved Navy were such that USS John Warner was only the thirteenth Navy ship named after a living person in the last century.

Upon his retirement from the Senate, Secretary Warner returned to Hogan Lovells in 2010 (formerly Hogan and Hartson) as a senior advisor.

Senator Warner was a true American patriot who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy during WWII just as soon as he was old enough. He volunteered to serve as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in the Korean War flying as a bomb damage assessment observer over enemy territory. His tenure as Secretary of the Navy during a critical period in the Cold War was marked by a seminal agreement to reduce Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union—the US/USSR Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement of 1972. He was an avid student of naval history and supporter of naval history programs. In his recent years he was a vocal leading advocate for a new National Museum of the U.S. Navy. We will truly miss him, but his legacy will live on.

Rest in Peace Secretary Warner.

Very respectfully,

Samuel J. Cox (SES)

Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Director of Naval History

Curator for the Navy

Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

Reflections on Secretary of the Navy and Senator John W. Warner

By NHF Staff Historian David F. Winkler, Ph.D.

One of the great pleasures associated with being the Staff Historian at the Naval Historian Foundation is the opportunity to become associated with larger-than-life personalities. Adm. James L. Holloway III was one of those personalities. John W. Warner was another. 

My association with Senator Warner actually predates my time at the Naval Historical Foundation. Coming off active duty in 1991, I decided to pursue the story behind the Incidents at Sea Agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union for my master’s thesis at Washington University in St. Louis. With few official records available, my work relied heavily on oral interviews with key figures involved in the 1971-1972 negotiations. Hence, I first met the Senator in his office on Capitol Hill for a riveting discussion on his first trip to Moscow in April 1971, a reciprocal Soviet Navy visit to the United States, and the final trip to Moscow in May 1972 to sign the accord.

With the additional acquisition of the historical paperwork with the help of Capt. Jim Bryant who had INCSEA agreement oversight in the Pentagon, I was able to complete my doctoral dissertation on this subject at American University in 1998. Published by the Naval Institute under the title Cold War at Sea in 2000 and again as an expanded version in 2017 rebranded as Incidents at Sea, my study identifies then Secretary of the Navy Warner as a key figure in an effort to mitigate interactions between opposing navies that could escalate into an unforeseen conflict. One of the great honors I had came in 2012 during the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the accord when Senator Warner and I had the opportunity to address the delegations of the U.S. and Russian Navies as they met at the Naval Observatory for their annual review of the behaviors of their respective navies. Not only does this accord continue to help keep the peace between Russia and the United States but it has served as a template for several other bilateral accords between other nations and agreements between the United States and China.

Eight years before that 40th anniversary INCSEA meeting, I conducted a second interview with Senator Warner on behalf of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, this time alongside Admiral Holloway on a stage on the National Mall as part of a tribute to honor the Greatest Generation in conjunction with the opening of the National World War II Memorial.

With Warner and Holloway who served together as SECNAV and Chief of Naval Operations, it was a mutual admiration society and the banter on their service certainly entertained the large audience of veterans and their families. In connection with that experience, last year, in collaboration with the Friends of the World War II Memorial and the Naval Institute Press, I wrote a book about the design and building of that memorial. In researching Tribute to a Generation, I learned the backstory how the Senator was one of those hidden hands who helped to make the memorial reality in the face of some dogged opposition. As part of a later series of interviews, I learned he had played a critical role in fundraising for the Vietnam Memorial as well as pushed other projects honoring our veterans.

A year after doing the Mall interview, the Library of Congress asked me to do an individual sit down with Senator to talk about his service in World War II as an enlisted Sailor in the U.S. Navy and as a Marine officer in Korea. We met in a conference room for a 20-minute session down the hall from his office and he started to give a talk I had heard previously at banquets that minimized his time in service at the end of the war when I cut him off to ask “Where were you on December 7?” Needless to say, that threw him off script and we got into topics such as metal scrap drives and older kids joining the service and coming home looking spiffy in their uniforms. As the interview entered its second hour his assistant kept breaking in to say, “the VCNO is still waiting in your office,” to which he snapped back “tell him to keep waiting.” After about 75 minutes I escorted him back to his office and he asked if there was anything he could do for his friend Admiral Holloway at the Naval Historical Foundation. With that, Senator Warner would arrange for an appropriation of $3 million to support the Cold War Gallery of the National Museum of the United States Navy.

In 2014, I had the privilege of interviewing the Senator for a fourth time at the National Museum of the United States Navy in a pairing with former NHF President Vice Adm. Bob Dunn to discuss the impact of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Captured on C-SPAN, both gentlemen spoke of the impact of the war in their home cities of Washington and Chicago and their motivations to join the service. Actually, for me the highlight of the evening was driving the Senator home and stopping at Balducci’s in Old Town Alexandria to pick up a few grocery items and watch him work the room as if he running again for the Senate. He called out the baker and the butcher by their first names and let everyone know he appreciated their good service. Here was a man who really liked people.

For that later series of interviews mentioned earlier, I credit the U.S. Naval Institute for commissioning me to conduct ten interviews covering Senator Warner’s is life with a focus on his service in the Navy and Marine Corps, his service as Undersecretary and Secretary of the Navy, and his time on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though the interviews are sea service oriented, Senator Warner’s words painted a panorama of the political landscape in the late twentieth century from the perspective of a point man on President Nixon’s failed bid for the presidency in 1960 to his own run for the Senate, an accomplishment he credits to his second wife – Elizabeth Taylor.

Over the years Senator Warner’s support of maritime heritage was demonstrated by his attendance at National Maritime Historical Society Washington Awards dinners where I often found myself as his date and at receptions the Naval Historical Foundation held at the Navy Museum to welcome incoming Secretaries of the Navy. One cause he really pitched in recently was a NHF effort in partnership with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to broaden public awareness on the state of the nuclear power infrastructure in this nation, focusing on how the United States had lost its historic edge in this mode of energy generation.

Others will eulogize Senator Warner as the type of consensus-building get-things-done politician that Washington is sorely lacking while some will note his legacy as Liz Taylor’s seventh husband. I will always remember him as a patriot, a champion of the sea-services, a believer in the importance of heritage, and a friend. 

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