During Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency (1953–1961), the Defense Department's involvement in foreign affairs continued to expand as military responses increasingly became a part of the U.S. strategy for containing communist expansion. Ironically, however, the secretary of defense himself was a relatively minor figure in shaping foreign policy decisions during most of this period. Stressing the need for sound management, Eisenhower selected former business executives as his first two secretaries of defense —Charles E. Wilson (1953–1957), who had headed General Motors, and Neil H. McElroy (1957–1959), former president of Procter and Gamble. Hired for their ability to run large enterprises, they operated on the philosophy that, above all, the secretary of defense should concern himself with the managerial side of the department and leave policy and strategy decisions to be hammered out in the National Security Council by the president, the Joint Chiefs, and Eisenhower's number one foreign affairs adviser, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
Despite the limited role that Wilson and McElroy embraced for themselves, Defense Department involvement abroad continued to grow. Often the responsibilities were routine and dealt with administrative chores requiring prior defense arrangements with U.S. allies, such as those in NATO and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), access to overseas bases, and the buildup, equipping, and training of allied forces under U.S. military aid programs. Accordingly, provisions had to be made to handle the influx of U.S. military personnel into foreign countries, arrange for the administration and allocation of assistance, define the duties and responsibilities of U.S. advisers, and negotiate agreements governing the status of forces, usually with the International Security Affairs office providing the initial liaison and coordination on the Washington end.
At the same time the department also faced a wholly new set of security problems arising from advances in military technology and corresponding decisions by the president and the National Security Council on how these advances would be exploited. The advent of thermonuclear and tactical nuclear weapons and of ballistic missile technology, coupled with Eisenhower's decision to "conventionalize" the atomic arsenal, raised problems of unprecedented political complexity and diplomatic sensitivity. Never before had any country possessed such enormous power with so few guiding precedents on how to manage it. As it turned out, some of these new weapons would be deployed abroad and shared with America's allies. How much control, if any, the host country would have over the storage, movement, and use of these weapons invariably invited prolonged discussion, both within the U.S. government and between Washington and foreign capitals.
The inherent importance of being able to deal effectively with these problems was manifest when in February 1953 Wilson promoted the International Security Affairs assistant to the rank of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. The decision to elevate the job (a move Lovett was on the verge of making when he left office) was long overdue, but as a practical matter its only real significance was to reaffirm the office's already well established place among the Pentagon's elite. In 1956, Wilson tried to upgrade the office to the rank of undersecretary, to place it on a par with the service secretaries. However, legislation that would have effected the change died in the House Armed Services Committee.
In fact, the mandate of the International Security Affairs office was never so clear as to give it undisputed control of politico-military affairs. Each of the services continued to maintain its own politico-military and international affairs section, which could be used to circumvent the secretary of defense and his deputies. Best organized for this purpose was the navy, which maintained regular informal communications with the State Department through its Politico-Military Policy Division. In addition, the chief of naval operations had his own "back channel" contacts abroad, which infuriated Secretary of Defense Wilson when he learned of them. And while International Security Affairs was supposed to be responsible for policies governing the programming of foreign military aid, it often encountered resistance from the Joint Chiefs and the military departments when it attempted to probe the details of their recommendations concerning program development and implementation practices. Had Wilson and McElroy taken a greater personal interest in foreign affairs, many of these problems might have been avoided. But with secretaries of defense whose interests lay elsewhere, the assistant secretaries for International Security Affairs knew that they could count on little support and generally felt constrained from pressing their authority too far.
The situation started to change with the appointment in December 1959 of Thomas S. Gates, a Philadelphia banker, as Eisenhower's third secretary of defense. Although his tenure was short (1959–1961), it reestablished the secretary of defense as a major figure in foreign policy decision making. Occasionally criticized for trying to usurp the secretary of state's functions, Gates pursued a State-Defense partnership that would yield more truly integrated policies with less interdepartmental friction and parochialism. As a first step, Gates abandoned the practice of trying to control the flow of State-Defense business through his immediate office. Indicative of the results he hoped to achieve, he initiated regular one-on-one meetings with Secretary of State Christian A. Herter and encouraged subordinates to do the same with their State Department counterparts in an effort to improve interagency cooperation and coordination.
Gates was also highly instrumental in shaping Defense Department responses in the increasingly important area of arms control and disarmament, where prior to Gates the Pentagon's support and endorsement of such measures had been lukewarm. Although Wilson and McElroy had spent considerable time and energy studying arms control proposals passing across their desks, they were forever confronted by the unremitting skepticism and apprehension of the Joint Chiefs, whose opinions on such matters carried considerable weight both inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Since the chiefs knew that it was impossible for political reasons to keep arms control off the national agenda, they focused their objections instead on technical matters—the lack of adequate and effective verification measures, for example, or the debilitating consequences for research and development programs. As delaying tactics, these arguments worked well against such proposals as an atmospheric test ban and a cutoff of nuclear production. But they were also the kinds of arguments that wore thin after awhile and gave the Defense Department a reputation for contentiousness.
Gates was decidedly more inclined than his two immediate predecessors to bring arms control and disarmament into the mainstream of American defense policy. While he readily acknowledged to the press that there was a "negative attitude" in the Pentagon toward arms control, he was prepared to entertain any and all suggestions and told Eisenhower that he was thinking of appointing a special assistant on disarmament matters. Still, about the only arms control measures Gates was seriously willing to consider (without, as he put it, "a complete review of our force structure") were those that promised to result in some sort of U.S. advantage over the Soviets. Personally, Gates favored a cutoff of nuclear production, preferably sooner rather than later, not so much for disarmament purposes but to preserve what he estimated as a two-to-one American advantage over the Soviets in nuclear bombs and warheads. Moreover, he fully agreed with the Joint Chiefs that arms control for the sake of arms control was inherently dangerous, and that the administration should not allow itself to be stampeded into reaching agreements merely because of public opinion.
Whether Gates could or should have been tougher with the military on accepting the need for arms control falls into the realm of conjecture. Gates himself, although more open-minded toward such matters than Wilson and McElroy had been, was still very much committed to the concept of foreign and defense policies resting on ready military power rather than the negotiation of agreements with one's potential adversaries. Like Forrestal and Lovett, he was part of a generation whose view of international politics derived from memories and experiences of the 1930s, when military weakness and appeasement had seemed to invite oppression and aggression. International communism, to Gates's way of thinking, was basically no different from the Axis alliance that had bound Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and imperial Japan in World War II. Despite rumors and diplomatic reports of a growing Sino-Soviet rift, Gates remained convinced that there were no fundamental ideological differences between Moscow and Beijing, and that American foreign policy should treat such stories with utmost caution. It was, perhaps, a quintessential Cold War viewpoint, but not one that was uncommon or out of place for its times.
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