Retired Rear Adm. Ronald J. Kurth, 45th president of the U.S. Naval War College, passed away April 10 in Jacksonville, Florida, after a long illness. He was 88.
A naval aviator who became an expert on the Soviet Union, Kurth presided over the college from 1987 to 1990 and played a key role in achieving academic accreditation for the institution, allowing it to award the Master of Arts degree.
“Having a president who was an active-duty admiral with a Harvard Ph.D. made all the difference at a time when many civilians did not think that colleges within the armed forces should be accredited,” said John Hattendorf, the college's Ernest J. King Professor Emeritus of Maritime History.
“He was a wonderful man for whom I have great respect,” he said.
Kurth also launched what became a long-term effort to construct a new building on campus. Opened in 1999 as McCarty Little Hall, the building was first envisioned as a library but by completion was dedicated as the high-tech home of the college's war-gaming activities.
Audrey Kurth Cronin said that her father loved his time in command of the Naval War College.
“He believed strongly in its mission of outstanding strategic thinking for the U.S. Navy while meeting the highest educational standards,” Cronin said in an email Monday. “He saw no contradiction between operational effectiveness and academic excellence – indeed, he believed they were complementary.”
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Kurth graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with an engineering degree in 1954. As a pilot of the P-2V Neptune and Lockheed Super Constellation, he flew maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare missions and was a hurricane hunter. In 1968, when the aircraft carrier USS America was on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam, he flew missions from Da Nang. He also served as nuclear weapons officer and public affairs officer aboard the carrier during the 1967 USS Liberty attack – surprising his family when they unexpectedly saw him reporting live from the ship on the nightly news.
But the bulk of Kurth’s career was as scholar, professor, strategist and diplomat. He earned his master’s degree in public administration and his doctorate in Russian studies at Harvard University.
He taught Russian at the Naval Academy and served as naval attache at the U.S. embassy in Moscow from 1975-77 and U.S. defense attache from 1985-87. In the May 2019 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, Kurth wrote about his memories of former Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy Adm. Sergey Gorshkov.
Fluent in Russian, seasoned by years of interacting with Soviet officials in Moscow and posts in high-level Pentagon policy jobs, Kurth enjoyed intellectually sparring with War College faculty and students, his daughter remembers.
“He was particularly proud of his role in initiating and promoting academic accreditation,” Cronin said. “And he also brought outstanding scholars to the Naval War College faculty, many of whom became top strategic thinkers in their fields.”
At the same time, Kurth disliked what Audrey Cronin describes as “academic affectation” – even calling it out when he perceived it in his daughter, who became a respected policy scholar and is a professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Also the father of three sons, Kurth proudly presided when each was commissioned as a Navy officer.
After retiring from the Naval War College and a 36-year Navy career, Kurth continued his work in academia. He served as president of Murray State University in Kentucky, dean of academic affairs at the Air War College and president of St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Wisconsin.
Cronin said memories of the family’s time in Newport remained fond ones throughout her father’s life.
“He and my mother, Charlene, both loved the history, setting and natural beauty of Navy Newport. His photographs of the War College, in snow and storm, are among our favorite family possessions,” she said. “My dad had a lifelong devotion and pride in the Naval War College that continued long after his presidency had ended.”
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Charlene; sons Steven, John and Douglas Kurth; daughter Audrey Kurth Cronin; and nine grandchildren.
Kurth's decorations include the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his work as Naval War College president and the Defense Department Distinguished Service Medal for his accomplishments as defense attache in Moscow.