Genesis of the U.S. Navy’s SEa, Air, Land (SEAL) Teams
After World War II, the U.S. slashed its post-war force substantially, and on the eve of the Korean War, which erupted on June 25, 1950, the country was caught totally by surprise, since its military had bottomed out at fewer than 1.5 million members. The communist attack in Korea resulted in a quick buildup, and within a year America had 3.3 million troops under arms.
During the post-Korean War period, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ushered in what came to be known as the “New Look” in U.S. strategic affairs. Because the Korean War resulted in such a huge U.S. buildup in the armed forces, President Eisenhower did not want to go back to the prewar status quo. Unlike the post-war WWII period, he did not want to totally dismantle the country’s military strength.
As a result of President Eisenhower’s shift in military policy, what emerged was a deeper dependence on nuclear weapons and long-range air power to deter war. The president chose not to maintain the large Army and Navy that had fought the Korean War, but rather chose to invest more heavily in air power, and especially in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command; in large part because that kind of defense could be built for lower cost. Fast forward to the end of his second term, and these were essentially the policies to be inherited by the new Kennedy administration.
Between the end of the Korean War and the Vietnam War buildup in 1965, U.S. military end strength never fell below 2.5 million and averaged 2.8 million. In the late 1950s, however, there was a growing need for skills involving non-strategic forces with special operations capabilities. The Army had Green Berets Special Forces; the Navy had Underwater Demolition Teams; and, the Marines had Force Reconnaissance units.
During the final years of his administration, President Eisenhower began to engage these kinds of specialized forces to address small conflicts involving U.S. interests. Foremost was the civil conflict in Laos in Southeast Asia and at Cuba 90 miles off the U.S. shoreline; by then a declared Communist state after take over by Fidel Castro.
As directed by President Eisenhower, the U.S. began planning for what we know today as the “Bay of Pigs” operation. President Eisenhower’s administration actually completed all of the planning and training for this operation, but did not approve its execution, which he left for President Kennedy to sort out.
The promise of a restoration of democracy in Cuba at the beginning of Castro’s government had vanished. By that time the promise of general elections was discarded along with key men in the government, who were truly pro-democratic. Also almost gone was the free press, which was nearly eliminated by mid-1960. Members of the old and unpopular communist party were increasingly entering positions of power, while an effective repressive apparatus was being constructed under the model of those of Eastern Europe. By 1961 Castro had also intervened militarily in four Caribbean and Central American countries. This was the threat situation facing President Kennedy as he took office.
Many do not realize that President Kennedy also inherited the U.S. commitment in Vietnam during the same period. However, he came into office with a belief that America could and should shape the destiny of the world’s developing countries. Vietnam, however, was not primarily what he had in mind. It was not on the president’s list of priorities, nor was it ever discussed as a key issue between President’s Kennedy and Eisenhower.
It has been often printed that President John F. Kennedy directed establishment of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Teams for activities in Vietnam; and, while that is a good urban legend, it’s not at all true.
History itself has demonstrated that formation of the SEAL Teams was an evolutionary process, which didn’t happen overnight or result from the efforts of an isolated few. The concept emerged largely because of the efforts of many individuals, and also in response to developments surrounding UDT experiences in Korea, post-Korea, and emerging world events; especially in Laos and Cuba.
After the Korean War the future of the Underwater Demolition Teams was uncertain. Mission activity during that war brought about a whole new range of operating concepts for the UDTs, which involved behind the lines operations, inland raids, targeting railroad tunnels, disrupting emery movements, and the total destruction of Hingham. The old premise that UDT responsibilities ended at the high-water mark was a thing of the past.
Much of the post-war analysis occurred within the Navy Staff (OPNAV) at the Pentagon or at the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS), but the discussions also involved several UDT officers.
As early as 1958, the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh A. Burke proposed initiation of covert measures designed to keep the Communist powers off balance. Understanding where President Eisenhower and later Kennedy wanted to focus in the area of Unconventional Warfare, Admiral Burke directed the OPNAV staff to organize new or existing Navy units for smaller conflicts.
After considerable study it was determined that expanding the UDT mission would hinder their traditional and now doctrinal responsibilities to the Amphibious Force. As a result, it was considered that new units should be established possessing the operational experience of the UDTs, but incorporating the new warfare concepts learned during Korean.
Because the UDTs were doctrinally tied to the Amphibious Force, thus, it was intended that any new unconventional warfare units would not be doctrinally hindered and would have the freedom to establish a broader and flexible mission, establish separate personnel allowances, material allowances, and work their own budgets.
In early 1960, because of the crisis in Laos and Cuba and the increasing insurgency in South Vietnam, Admiral Burke directed his staff to prepare options with respect to unconventional warfare. Among other recommendations, the staff suggested “that the Underwater Demolition Teams and Marine reconnaissance units were considered organized and capable of expansion into unconventional warfare.”
More concrete steps were taken on 13 September 1960 when an OPNAV Unconventional Activities Working Group was formally established. This group reported to Admiral Wallace M. Beakley, Strategic Plans Division, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Operations and Readiness, and was directed to investigate “naval unconventional activity methods, techniques and concepts, which may be employed effectively against Sino-Soviet interests under conditions of cold war.”
The concept for special operations units within the Navy, and even the acronym SEAL had already emerged in outline form by 10 March 1961, when preliminary recommendations of an Unconventional Activities Committee were sent to the CNO for review and concurrence. Included among these was a recommendation for a wide range of “additional unconventional warfare capabilities within, or as an extension of our amphibious forces;” and, emphasized operations conducted in “restricted waters.”
The committee also proposed establishment of one unit each, under the Pacific and Atlantic amphibious commanders that “would represent a center or focal point through which all elements of this specialized Navy capability (naval guerrilla warfare) would be channeled. An appropriate name for such units could be SEAL units, SEAL being a contraction of SEA, AIR, LAND, and thereby, indicating an all-around, universal capability.” Initial units would consist of 20 to 25 officers and 50 to 75 enlisted men.
On 3 May 1961, Admiral Burke signed a memorandum to his staff stipulating that: “We should have a record of all Naval personnel, particularly officers, who have been especially trained in guerrilla warfare, UDT, psychological warfare, and what the Army calls “Special Forces Training… I know this is going to be difficult, but we are going to have to take over such operations as river patrol in the Saigon Delta, in the Mekong River, and other areas. Our people will have to know thoroughly how to fight and live under guerrilla conditions.”
Two months later on 13 May 1961 Admiral Beakley addressed a memo to the CNO that proposed a concept of operations, a detailed mission and tasks statement for SEAL Teams, and other background information – including UDT special operations during the Korean War. Admiral Beakley wrote, “If you agree in the foregoing proposals, I will take action to establish a Special Operations Team on each coast.”
Several weeks later in a special message personally delivered to the Congress on 25 May 1961 entitled, “Urgent National Needs,” President Kennedy remarked:
“I am directing the Secretary of Defense to expand rapidly and substantially, in cooperation with our Allies, the orientation of existing forces for the conduct of non-nuclear war, paramilitary operations, and sub-limited or unconventional wars. In addition, our special forces and unconventional warfare units will be increased and reoriented. Throughout the services new emphasis must be placed on the special skills and languages which are required to work with local populations.”
The above remarks in President Kennedy’s speech are the closest he came to actually directing formation of SEAL Teams.
While they began organizing as early as November 1961, two SEAL Teams were officially authorized by the CNO that December, and both units were formally established in January 1962. Their mission: conduct unconventional warfare, counter-guerrilla warfare, and clandestine operations.
SEAL Team ONE was located at the Naval Amphibious Base (NAB), Coronado, California and co-located with UDT-11 and UDT-12. SEAL Team TWO was positioned at NAB, Little Creek, Norfolk, Virginia and co-located with UDT-21. The existing UDTs supplied the manpower to establish the new SEAL Teams. At the time of their establishment, and throughout much of the Vietnam conflict, the existence of these new units remained highly classified.