The 5 Most Famous Secretaries of Defense

Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney

They operate behind the scenes, and usually you only see them at press conferences, but there's no denying the impact of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. With power over the military second only to that of the President, the Secretary of Defense plays a key role in every major decision involving the military. Although the history of the position has been relatively short, dating back to 1947, we've already seen a few secretaries make their mark in the public consciousness. With the confirmation of the newest Secretary Ashton Carter, we decided to take a look back and spotlight five men who made a significant impression during their tenures.

James V. Forrestal (1947-1949):

"No group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security."

It's only right to give a shout-out to the first man to take on the position of Secretary of Defense -- James Forrestal, a former Secretary of the Navy, who was appointed by President Harry S. Truman. Under his watch, racial integration of the services was officially implemented (in 1949); the Marshall Plan, which provided economic aid for 16 European nations, was implemented; and the US took a leading role in developing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formally established in April 1949. Even back then the Secretary of Defense had to fight budget wars: Forrestal clashed with Truman over allocations for defense, arguing for $29 billion for the FY1950 budget while Truman set a ceiling of $14.2 billion (the eventual budget was $14.3 billion). Perhaps most notably, Forrestal organized a new Department of Defense, under which the services and their Secretaries reported to him.

Forrrestal's mental health weakened at the end of his tenure, and his life ended abruptly and tragically soon after he resigned in early 1949. On the morning of May 22, 1949, Forrestal committed suicide at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland by jumping to his death. A few months later, the House Armed Services Committee, with which he had worked closely over the years, described his administration as "able, sensitive, restrained, and far-sighted."

Robert McNamara (1961-1968):

"We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

The eighth man to hold the office of Secretary of Defense had the longest tenure at the position: a whopping 2,595 days. Prior to his service, McNamara was mainly known for being one of the "Whiz Kids" who helped rebuild Ford Motor Company after World War II, and also served as Ford's President. Initially brought on as Secretary of Defense by John Kennedy, McNamara moved away from previous President Dwight D. Eisenhower's military policy of "massive retaliation" in favor of a "flexible response" strategy that focused more on limited, non-nuclear warfare. His beliefs were quickly put to the test during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where he advocated a blockade of Cuba over a missile strike, and helped persuade the Joint Chiefs of Staff to agree with the blockade option.

Ironically enough, it would be another conflict that McNamara foresaw that would mark his legacy. In a 1962 report on what he believed to be the future face of combat, he stated, "The military tactics are those of the sniper, the ambush, and the raid." As the Vietnam War escalated, the U.S. found itself in conflict with an enemy who had adopted those very attributes. Long after his service as Secretary, McNamara found himself looking back on the decisions he made and regretting some of them, including the deployment of more troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam. In the Errol Morris documentary ‘The Fog of War,' McNamara commented on Vietnam: "None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."

Donald Rumsfeld (1975-1977, 2001-2006):

"Looking back on the weeks following 9/11, some accounts suggest an administration that seemed to have a preordained response to the attacks. From my vantage point, however, quite the opposite was the case. It was a time of discovery–of seeking elusive, imperfect solutions for new problems that would not be solved quickly. There was no guidebook or road map for us to follow."

The only man so far who has held the office of Secretary of Defense twice (for a total of 2,585 days), Donald Rumsfeld has become synonymous with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After a decade and a half serving in Congress and on Richard Nixon's administration, Rumsfeld was elevated to White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford, and then to Secretary of Defense a year later. During this two-year tenure  he focused on building up U.S. strategic and conventional forces, arguing that the U.S. had to keep pace with the Soviet military. This led to the development of cruise missiles, the B-1 bomber, and a major naval shipbuilding program.

Over two decades later, Rumsfeld came back as Secretary of Defense at the recommendation of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who had worked under Rumsfeld during the Nixon administration. Rumsfeld became one of the most influential Cabinet members in the George W. Bush administration, and he played a key role in the planning and execution of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war with Iraq. In a concept that became known as "the Rumsfeld Doctrine," he favored sending as small a force as possible to both conflicts. Rumsfeld became prominent in the public eye thanks to his press conferences, which were often an unusual mix of blunt honesty and humor. Eventually he came under fire for the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, as well as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, and resigned in late 2006.

He has since published his autobiography Known and Unknown: A Memoir and Rumsfeld's Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.

Caspar "Cap" Weinberger (1981-1987):

"Sanctions and negotiations can be very ineffective, and indeed foolish, unless the people you are talking with and negotiating with and trying to reach agreements with are people who can be trusted to keep their word."

Caspar Weinberger's tenure as Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, the third longest tenure at the position, saw the U.S. through the final years of the Cold War. Although he had previously been known as "Cap the Knife" due to his tendency to cut costs when he served in the Office of Management and Budget, Weinberger followed Reagan's lead in increasing the Department of Defense budget, leading to a new nickname: "Cap the Ladle." Major programs under his watch included the B-1B bomber and the "600-ship Navy." It has been argued that the increase in U.S. military strength led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, which could not keep up, although others have argued that the collapse would have occurred regardless of U.S. military spending.

Weinberger's eventual downfall proved to be the Iran-Contra scandal, during which the U.S. sold missiles to Iran, illegally using the funds to finance Contra freedom fighters in Nicaragua. Weinberger was among 14 administration officials indicted in the scandal, leading to his resignation in 1987. He was eventually indicted on two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice on June 16, 1992, but he was eventually pardoned by President George H.W. Bush later that year. Upon his death in 2006, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered the following eulogy: "His extensive career in public service, his support for the men and women in uniform and his central role in helping to win the Cold War leave a lasting legacy ... He left the United States armed forces stronger, our country safer and the world more free."

Richard B. Cheney (1989-1993):

"We're always going to have to be involved [in the Middle East]. Maybe it's part of our national character, you know we like to have these problems nice and neatly wrapped up, put a ribbon around it. You deploy a force, you win the war and the problem goes away. But it doesn't work that way in the Middle East. It never has, and isn't likely to in my lifetime."

Dick Cheney is now primarily known for being Vice-President from 2001-2009, but by the time he became the Secretary of Defense in 1989, he had already served as a representative from Wyoming and the White House Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford. During his tenure he directed the U.S. invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East, as well as oversaw a reduced military budget in the wake of the Cold War's end.  

While Cheney remained engaged with Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, encouraging NATO to lend more assistance to new democracies in Eastern Europe, his attention was soon diverted to  fresh conflicts brewing in countries like Somalia, as well as potential nuclear threats from nations such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Overall, though, his time as Secretary of Defense is known mainly for Operation Desert Storm, which saw a convincing U.S. victory over Iraq forces in Kuwait.

At the conclusion of the operation, it was decided that U.S. forces would stop short of invading Iraq and pushing on to Baghdad. As Cheney explained at the time: "Because if we'd gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn't have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein's government, then what are you going to put in its place? That's a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off." Ironically enough, this scenario played out during his later tenure as Vice-President, as Operation Iraqi  Freedom led to a new government in Iraq, with the danger of a fragmented country constantly looming.

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