Carl Vinson, recognized as “the father of the two-ocean navy,” served twenty-five consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. When he retired in January 1965, he had served in the U.S. Congress longer than anyone in history. He also set the record for service as chair of a standing committee. He chaired the House Naval Affairs Committee for sixteen years (1931-47) and its successor, the House Armed Services Committee, for fourteen years (1949-53 and 1955-65). By concentrating on military affairs throughout his long career, Vinson became the foremost advocate of a strong national defense and the most powerful voice in Congress in shaping defense policies. His strong support of the navy earned him the nickname “the Admiral.”
Born on November 18, 1883, in Baldwin County, Vinson was one of seven children born to Edward Storey Vinson, a farmer, and Annie Morris. He attended Middle Georgia Military and Agricultural College in Milledgeville, read law with county judge Edward R. Hines, and earned a degree from Mercer University’s law school in Macon in 1902. Admitted to the state bar, Vinson became a junior partner of Judge Hines in Milledgeville. After serving two terms as county court solicitor, he won a seat in the Georgia General Assembly at age twenty-five. Reelected two years later, he was chosen Speaker pro tempore during his second term.
In 1912 Vinson suffered his only defeat at the hands of the voters of middle Georgia in a political career that spanned six decades. His bid for a third term in the legislature lost by five votes, apparently the result of voter backlash over reapportionment. The governor then appointed him judge of the Baldwin County court. Soon afterward, however, when the U.S. representative from the Tenth District resigned, Vinson ran for the vacant House seat. Easily defeating three wealthy opponents, he was sworn in on November 3, 1914, as the youngest member of Congress. Competent and hardworking, he became a fixture in Congress. After defeating the former Populist leader Thomas E. Watson in 1918, he rarely faced opposition.
In 1921 he married Mary Green of Ohio. They had no children. She died in 1949 after a lengthy illness, and he never remarried.
Although Vinson represented a landlocked district, he secured a seat on the Naval Affairs Committee in 1917. Convinced that increased spending for national defense was absolutely necessary, he believed this committee would provide a needed arena in which to present his views. He foresaw a growing role for both sea and air power. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Vinson consistently called for strengthening the nation’s defenses. Committed to arms reduction, the United States had agreed to the Washington Treaty of 1922 and the London Treaty of 1930, which limited the size of the naval fleets of the major powers. Vinson protested that the United States, unlike the other powers, had not even built its navy up to the level authorized by these treaties. He made little headway during the administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, but found President Franklin Roosevelt more receptive to his arguments. In 1934 Roosevelt signed the Vinson-Trammell Act, which would bring the navy to the strength permitted by the treaties of 1922 and 1930.
As conditions in Europe and Asia became more ominous, Vinson wrote several bills strengthening the navy and applying aircraft in national defense. Twenty months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an event that precipitated America’s entry into World War II (1941-45), Vinson steered two bills through Congress. The first called for expanding naval aviation to 10,000 planes, training 16,000 pilots, and establishing 20 air bases; the second speeded naval construction and eased labor restrictions in the shipbuilding industry. Assessing Vinson’s impact on sea power, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz later remarked, “I do not know where this country would have been after December 7, 1941, if it had not had the ships and the know-how to build more ships fast, for which one Vinson bill after another was responsible.”
A modest man of simple tastes, Vinson shunned the limelight and quietly did his duty. When Congress was in session, he lived in a modest six-room bungalow in Chevy Chase, Maryland; when it adjourned, he retreated to his 600-acre farm near Milledgeville. Unlike most of his congressional colleagues, he rarely traveled. He went to the Caribbean once in the 1920s and never traveled abroad again. He rarely set foot on an airplane or ship and never learned to drive a car. Eccentric in many ways, he smoked or chewed cheap cigars, wore his glasses on the end of his prominent nose, and spoke with a middle Georgia drawl. Although he appeared to be a country bumpkin, his shrewd political instincts, enormous common sense, and mastery of detail enabled him to dominate his committee and steer legislation through Congress.
Vinson asserted, “The most expensive thing in the world is a cheap Army and Navy.” During the cold war he continued to stress the need for military preparedness, especially a buildup of strategic bombers. He rammed his views through Congress, often over the objections of the president. Indeed, throughout his career he tangled with presidents, cabinet members, and top brass, whittling pompous admirals and generals down to size. When he was rumored to be in line for appointment as secretary of defense, his standard rejection was, “I’d rather run the Pentagon from up here.”
After serving fifty years and one month, Vinson quietly retired to his Baldwin County farm, having set the record for longevity in the House. In 1964 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Vinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award that a president may bestow upon a civilian. U.S. president Richard Nixon honored Vinson in 1973 by naming the nation’s third nuclear-powered carrier for him. He died in Milledgeville on June 1, 1981, at age ninety-seven.
In 1983 the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Georgia was renamed the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The institute seeks to improve the understanding, administration, and policymaking of governments and communities by bringing the resources and expertise of the university to bear on the issues and challenges facing Georgia.