John Chafee, Governor, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Navy

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John Lester Hubbard Chafee

Birthplace: Providence,RI
Death: October 24, 1999 (77)
Immediate Family:

Son of John Sharpe Chafee and Janet Melissa Hunter
Husband of Private
Father of Lincoln Chafee, Governor, U.S. Senator

Managed by: Geoffrey David Trowbridge
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About John Chafee, Governor, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Navy

John Lester Hubbard Chafee ( /ˈtʃeɪfiː/ chay-fee; October 22, 1922 – October 24, 1999) was an American politician. He served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, as the 66th Governor of Rhode Island, as the Secretary of the Navy, and as a United States Senator.

Early life and family

Chafee was born in Providence, Rhode Island to a politically active family. His great-grandfather, Henry Lippitt, was governor of Rhode Island (1875–1877) and among his great-uncles were a Rhode Island governor, Charles Warren Lippitt, and United States Senator Henry Frederick Lippitt. His uncle, Zechariah Chafee, was a Harvard law professor, and a notable civil libertarian.

John Chafee graduated from a coeducational primary school, Providence's Gordon School, in 1931 and then attended Providence Country Day School. In 1940, he graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Chafee was in his third year as an undergraduate at Yale University when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He interrupted his undergraduate studies and enlisted in the Marine Corps, spending his 20th birthday on Guadalcanal fighting on the island from August 8, 1942 until November 1942, when the First Marine Division was relieved, during the Battle of Guadalcanal. After receiving his commission, he fought in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 as a Second Lieutenant. Following the war, he received degrees from Yale University in 1947 and Harvard Law School in 1950. At Yale, he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and Skull and Bones fraternities. In 1951, he was recalled to active service to be a Marine rifle company commander during the Korean War with Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines.

Author James Brady in his memoir of the Korean War, and his serving as a Marine under Chafee writes: “Nowhere, at any time, did John Chafee serve more nobly than he did as a Marine officer commanding a rifle company in the mountains of North Korea.” and that "He was the only truly great man I've yet met in my life..."

Chafee became active in behind-the-scenes Rhode Island politics by helping elect a mayor of Providence in the early 1950s. He successfully ran for a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1956 and later became the minority leader. He was re-elected in 1958 and 1960, the latter a year when many Republicans were swept from office in his state.

Governor of Rhode Island

Chafee was elected governor in 1962, helping create the state's public transportation administration as well as what was known as the Green Acres program, a conservation effort. In 1968 he served as chair of the Republican Governors Association. He served as governor until 1969, when he was surprisingly defeated by underdog Democrat Frank Licht. Reasons ascribed for the defeat include the fact that, after running three times on a strong anti-income tax platform, Chafee now said that such a tax was imperative (indeed his anti-tax opponent went on to champion one in 1971); and that he stopped campaigning after his 14-year-old daughter Tribbie was killed in a riding accident.

Secretary of the Navy

He was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. Chafee's tenure as Secretary was marked by a willingness to make bold decisions and stand by them. Emblematic of this was his decision to elevate Admiral Elmo Zumwalt as Chief of Naval Operations over 33 more senior officers, and his judicious handling of the USS Pueblo situation. His action as Secretary of the Navy that is most clearly remembered is his disapproval of the recommendation to court martial Commander Lloyd Bucher, the commanding officer of the Pueblo. While it was clear that the guilt clearly rested on the North Koreans and not Bucher or the sailors on the Pueblo, Chafee stated that "Bucher and his men have suffered enough", and that a court martial would only add insult to injury. He served as Secretary of the Navy until 1972 when he resigned to run for the U.S. Senate.

United States Senator

After an unsuccessful candidacy for the Senate in 1972 against Democratic incumbent Claiborne Pell, Chafee was elected to that body in 1976, the first Republican to win a Rhode Island Senate election since 1930. He joined the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in 1977 and made environmental matters a chief concern, often breaking with his party to the delight of conservation groups. He chaired that committee during his last term in office from 1995 to 1999.

Among the bills Chafee fostered while in the minority was the Clean Water Act of 1986, and the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. He also was an architect of the 1980 Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites as well as the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Chafee authored the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982, establishing the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS). Upon Chafee's death in 1999, the CBRS was renamed the John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System.

Frequently following a moderate path, Chafee was pro-choice on abortion and supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. He took a moderate stance on taxes and government assistance to the needy. On social issues, Chafee was among the most liberal members of the Senate. He opposed the death penalty, school prayer, and the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. Chafee was one of the few Republicans to support strict gun control laws. He sponsored a bill that, if passed, would have prohibited the "manufacture, importation, exportation, sale, purchase, transfer, receipt, possession, or transportation of handguns and hand ammunition."

During the late 1980s and 1990s Senator Chafee became an advocate for improving the U.S. health care system. He supported legislation to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income children and pregnant women, sponsored legislation to expand the availability of home and community-based services for persons with disabilities and worked to enact legislation to establish Federally Qualified Health Centers. In 1992, he was appointed Chairman of the Senate Republican Task Force on Health, and he worked to develop a consensus among Republicans on health care. In 1993, he joined with Democratic Louisiana Senator John Breaux to form the Senate Mainstream Coalition, a coalition of six Democratic and six Republican Senators seeking bipartisan consensus on health reform. He sponsored legislation that increased funds to states to assist youths in making the transition from foster care to independing living; recognized the need for special help for youths ages 18 to 21 who have left foster care; offered states greater flexibility in designing their independent living programs; and, established accountability for states in implementing independent living programs. As a testimonial to the late Senator Chafee, the program is now entitled the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.

"John Chafee proved that politics can be an honorable profession," President Bill Clinton said in a statement to the Associated Press, shortly after Chafee died. "He embodied the decent center which has carried America from triumph to triumph for over 200 years." On February 12, 1999, Chafee voted against both articles of impeachment against Clinton.

Chafee sat on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Health Care, but his biggest imprint was on environmental concerns. He also served in his party's leadership, chairing the Senate Republican Conference from 1985 to 1990.

His last major act was authoring and sponsoring the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century, which authorized funding for transportation programs for the next six years.


A few months after declaring that he would not seek reelection in 2000, he died suddenly from congestive heart failure in October 1999 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. His son, Lincoln Chafee, was appointed to serve the remainder of his term – after leaving the Senate and the Republican Party, in 2011 Lincoln Chafee, elected as an independent, would follow his father's footsteps as Governor of Rhode Island as well. Senator Chafee was survived by his wife Virginia Coates Chafee, a daughter and four sons.

In 2000, Senator Chafee was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


The USS Chafee (DDG-90), the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor and the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge were named in his honor.

Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island named its World Trade Center on campus after John. H. Chafee for his continuing support for global trade and his association with the University.

The Chafee Social Science Center at the University of Rhode Island is named in his honor. It is the tallest building in southern Rhode Island.

The Foster Care Independence Act of 1999, passed on November 23, 1999 after his death, is known as the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program.

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John Chafee, Governor, U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Navy's Timeline

October 22, 1922
March 26, 1953
Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, United States
October 24, 1999
Age 77