That system is now gone, replaced by a joint command structure in which Navy Department alumni get most of the plum jobs. The Bush administration plans to replace the Marine general and Navy admiral who head the joint staff with two more sea-service representatives. Admirals are running Central Command and Southern Command, while retaining their lock on Pacific Command.
Such a lopsided preference for one military department would have been unthinkable in the Clinton years, leading to bureaucratic warfare in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. But looking at the apportionment of senior military positions under President Bush, it's as though the Navy and Marines had become separate departments, while the Army and Air Force had reunified after 60 years of separation.
What does this "sea change" mean? Is it a reflection of passing circumstances, such as the Army's preoccupation with Iraq, or a more durable pattern? An examination of forces driving the change suggests that the rising tide of Navy leaders is unlikely to recede anytime soon.
Military transformation -- Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made integration of a Balkanized military force the centerpiece of his transformation efforts. He not only sought to break down barriers to cooperation but insisted on interviewing every candidate for a three-star and four-star job to assure they had the right mindset for leading a transformed force.
In general, Rumsfeld found the sea-service representatives to be more ecumenical and imaginative, so he favored them for promotion. The Army and Air Force candidates often struck him as parochial and inflexible. Whether this was really true or the sea services were just better at spinning him, he came to prefer them.
Political leadership -- The military departments have experienced markedly different political leadership during the Bush years. Navy Secretary Gordon England was a tireless defender of the Bush agenda, while his Army counterparts were fired and his initial Air Force counterpart resigned under a cloud of scandal. England eventually was rewarded with the post of deputy secretary of defense, which has something to do with why Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen will be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But England is just the latest chapter in a long-running story: From John Warner to John Lehman to Richard Danzig to England, the Navy always seems to attract the smartest, most politically astute U.S. civilian leaders -- which translates into political clout.
Institutional culture -- In recent years the U.S. Army and Air Force have followed the example of the Marine Corps in posturing themselves as expeditionary war fighters.
But the part of the Navy Department run by admirals doesn't really see itself that way. It views its forward-deployed aircraft carriers and submarines as instruments of foreign policy as much as combat systems -- in other words, as versatile tools in a global strategy.
Because the Navy thinks strategically rather than tactically, its leaders are more comfortable with the nuances and ambiguity of political processes than war fighters in other services. So Navy leaders get along better with political appointees, ascending to the top jobs.
(Loren B. Thompson is chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank that supports democracy and the free market.)