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Norman’s Corner: My Protégé and My Mentor

By Norman Polmar

(Editor’s note: This is the 25th in a series of blogs by Norman Polmar—author, analyst, and consultant specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence fields. Follow the full series here.)

Dr. David A. Rosenberg

Dr. David A. Rosenberg

During the summer of 1965, when I was assistant editor of the Naval Institute Proceedings, a young man came into my Annapolis office.  After saying that he had read all of my articles and books (two published at that time), we had a brief talk.  I was up against a deadline and cut him short.  His name was David A. Rosenberg and he was planning to attend American University in Washington the following year, which I was attending at night. 

He seemed bright. I asked Dave to contact me when he was settled at AU.  Over the next four years he and I talked regularly and, with my wife, we had many dinners as he told us about school, life, and love.  Dave majored in history and, with my encouragement, worked part time and two summers at the Naval Historical Center, writing ships’ histories for the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships.  And, for two summers he was an intern at the Smithsonian Institution, also working on naval history projects.  In this period, while at the Naval Historical Division, Dave met then-retired Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations from 1955 to 1961.  The admiral took an immediate liking to him.

Upon graduation from AU in 1970, Dave attended the University of Chicago to earn a master’s degree in history.  At Chicago he met Deborah Haines, a Quaker and pacifist.  Dave had never met a true pacifist and Deborah had never met a hard-core “navalist.”  It was “love at first discussion.” They married in 1973.  And, Dave began work on his doctorate in history at Chicago.

Meanwhile, in 1973, I was working for the studies firm Lulejian and Associates in Northern Virginia.   Dr. James Schlesinger became Secretary of Defense in July 1973, and soon after taking office he asked the question: “How did the United States and the Soviet Union come to develop and deploy the nuclear weapons that are now in our arsenals?”  The Army and Air Force established teams within their respective services to develop supporting papers on pertinent U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapon systems.  The Navy, however, went to a commercial contractor for the supporting papers on the development of U.S. and Soviet strategic missile submarines and U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft carriers.  The contractor was Lulejian and Associates, and I was named project manager.

While we had several highly qualified researchers and writers at Lulejian, I wanted Dave on our team to provide the perspective of a professional historian.  At first he was reluctant to interrupt his PhD program, but I prevailed—an interesting project, we could expedite obtaining security clearances for him, and we could pay him an excellent salary.  He and Deborah came to Washington.  Dave worked for Lulejian into 1975.

Back in Chicago, Dave completed his PhD dissertation on the first 15 years of U.S. nuclear strategy and war planning under Dr. Akira Iriye, one of the nation’s leading diplomatic historians.   In 1978—at the request of Under Secretary of the Navy James Woolsey—Professor Ernest May at Chicago asked Dave to undertake a history of long-range planning in the Navy.  Dave’s report was of considerable help to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas Hayward, in establishing the Navy’s Long-Range Planning Group (Op-00X).  This effort led to Dave meeting several of the Navy’s best and brightest officers at the time.

Dave and Deborah remained in Chicago, and he attempted to obtain a commission in the Naval Reserve.  Unfortunately, direct commissioning policies and Dave’s eyesight prevented him from entering the Navy.  Dave and I kept in contact and in March 1981, I went to Chicago to lecture on Soviet naval developments at Northwestern University. While there, I hosted a breakfast with my friend Samuel Sax, a Chicago banker and Naval Reserve captain (public affairs), and asked Dave and Deborah to join us.

Sax talked Dave into applying for a direct commission as a public affairs officer in the Naval Reserve.  Dave did so and, passing the physical, was given a direct commission as an ensign in January 1982. Dave was off and running.  He soon “converted” his Naval Reserve commission from public affairs to intelligence.

His writing on nuclear weapons and strategy, his work on the Schlesinger study, and his long-range planning report brought him to the attention of several Washington seniors.  In 1983-1985, he was a senior fellow at the Strategic Concepts Development Center (later the Institute for National Strategic Studies) at the National Defense University in Washington.

In his “civilian” life, Dave taught at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Houston,  the Naval War College, Temple University, and the National War College in Washington.  In addition to teaching, during his Naval Reserve service, Dave periodically went to sea, gaining his “sea legs” while also developing a broader understanding of the Navy.

We kept in contact and when he joined the faculty of the National War College in 1996, we began seeing each other on a regular basis.  In our discussions   I found that now our professional relationship was becoming reversed:  Dave was becoming my mentor.

Increasingly, Dave served on fleet and command staffs during exercises, bringing his special perspectives to those staffs.  During the 1991 Gulf War he was mobilized for duty in J5 directorate of the Joint Staff where he worked on war termination and national policy issues.  A year later he was assigned to write the classified history of the development of the Maritime Strategy.

In his “spare time,” Dave undertook a long series of interviews with Admiral Burke and began researching his voluminous papers in anticipation of a comprehensive biography of the admiral.  That is an on-going project.   Dave’s continuing interest in basic naval history led to his being named chairman of the Secretary of the Navy’s advisory committee on history, a position that he held for more than ten years, from 1995 to 2006.  And, in collaboration with Dr. Christopher Ford, he has written a most lucid and informative account of naval intelligence in World War II and the Cold War—The Admirals’ Advantage (2005, revised edition 2014).

Within the context of the Naval Reserve he was regularly advanced, being promoted to captain in 2003.  That year he assumed command of reserve intelligence unit 0566 at Suitland, Maryland. Under Dave’s leadership, the unit gained many accolades for its accomplishments and grew to the largest reserve intelligence unit.  When Dave was relieved of command in 2005, the unit was split into two organizations. He commanded another reserve intelligence unit in 2007-2009 prior to retiring from the Naval Reserve in September 2010.

Thus, Dave has had an interesting and at times exciting life.  Since 2006 he has been a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Northern Virginia.

Dave’s long-time interest and expertise in submarine operational history has provided him with recent opportunities to work with the Naval Historical Foundation.  And, in a related move, in early 2014 Dave took the reins from retired Rear Admiral Jerry Holland to design the programs for the annual Naval Submarine League’s history seminars.

We see each other regularly, including a “luncheon clique” that tries to meet once a month, consisting of Tom Brooks, Jack O’Connell, K.J. Moore, Dave, and me, I being the only one who has never served in the Navy.  Dave and Deborah, my wife, and I also go out socially and have taken vacations together.

And, every time that I see Dave I learn more from him.

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  1. Roger W Settlemyer

    From a young man in 1965, to a protege,to a Professional Historian to a Naval Captain and then being your mentor. It makes me want to buy The Admirals Advantage to gain an insight into Operational Intelligence of World War 2 and the Cold War. We never stop learning.

  2. RADM Jerry Ellis USN(ret), Chair, Undersea Warfare/Director Undersea Warfare Research Center, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

    Norman – Thanks for writing about Dave. I have also had the pleasure of working with him on several projects. His insight has always been correct and helpful in some of the operations I was involved in. From a historical perspective, the intelligence he provided was not only helpful but vital to the success of some missions. He is a great American.
    Best Regards – Jerry

  3. Dan JD

    Norm: Concerning the Thresher story, does the acronym “MSIV” ring a bell? It should.

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