Kennedy's Men

by The New Republic | December 26, 1960

The President-elect may not, in every instance, have picked "the best men available" for his Cabinet, but since "the best man," like "the very best butter," is a matter of personal taste, the new appointees and John Kennedy should be given the benefit of a few doubts. On the whole, the Cabinet has a new-minted brightness.

There are doubts, nevertheless, and the Defense appointment gives rise to the most important of them. Robert S. McNamara will run not only the most expensive operation in the United States (roughly $43 billion a year) but a Department on which the President must rely for advice on conflicting strategic concepts, the resolution of which could determine whether the United States comes out whole in the next 20 years. In perhaps no other top position in government is there as great a need for not merely administrative ability but for a broad grasp of foreign policy and a sophisticated understanding of intricate weapons systems, production and procurement, and of the kind of balanced defense structure most likely in a nuclear age to "provide for the common defense."

One can see why Mr. McNamara seemed irresistible, once the thought had been planted by the new Secretary's political sponsor, Michigan Senator Philip Hart. Here was someone who fit to a "T" the measurements in the minds of the image-makers: A Republican, brainy, a furious worker, self-made at 44 as the President of Ford, he would bring identification with modern business management. As an executive specialist in cost-control, he had the look of a man who could cut through red tape and trim fat. And yet he also had the inquiring and free-wheeling style now so admired: a former Harvard Business School professor who lives in academic Ann Arbor rather than in the motor society of Grosse Pointe, who contributed to citizens' efforts for a Michigan FEPC and had been among the first signers of a "Covenant of Open Occupancy" against racial discrimination in the sale of local real estate. But for all the philosophy he studied as a University of California undergraduate, Mr. McNamara is the product of a life in industry where making good and making money are assumed to be the same. In general (and the new Defense Secretary may be the exception that proves the rule), industrialists have been less effective in government than have that quite different business type--the New York investment bankers or corporation lawyers. The Stimsons, the Lovetts, the Forrestals, the McCloys, the Nitzes are a different breed from GM's Knudsen and Wilson or Proctor and Gamble's McElroy. In this connection, it is not encouraging to learn from The Wall Street Journal that the Secretary-designate is unsympathetic toward the $5.9 billion Pentagon research budget, seeing it as the place to begin cutting costs; not encouraging because we need more rather than less research and a proportionate decrease in production commitments to permit continual readjustment in the light of technological advance.

Although Mr. Kennedy has not swapped a Chevrolet for a Ford (Mr. McNamara is not another "Engine Charlie"), the appointment does raise substantive questions. Secretary McNamara must soon resolve, before he has a clear and informed view of what is required, bitter built-in controversies not only among the three services but among many outside military "experts" about the priorities to be assigned to conventional strength as against nuclear deterrence, disarmament negotiations, a nuclear test ban, the form of our relationship to military allies in Western Europe, the future of US overseas bases, the character of military commitments and alliances in Asia, etc.

And all of these problems must be analyzed in terms of the positive effect any US policy has on the military decisions of friends, the uncommitted and the adversaries. Every decision in Defense must reflect an outwardlookingness. Mr. McNamara's brilliant record in business may incline him to underrate his own ignorance of military matters, to overemphasize the domestic scene (in which he is most at home) to the neglect of the foreign field (where the problems lie). To avoid such pitfalls, the new Secretary must rely on the informed opinion of others. But who, in the early months of '61, will advise him? For all practical purposes, one or more subordinates will have to be Secretary of Defense until a year or 10 months from now.

If the choice of his principal assistants offers reliable pointers, Mr. McNamara may be postponing indefinitely any redefinition of our national defense strategy, for he is said to be thinking of co-equal status for two deputy secretaries (possibly Roswell Gilpatric, former Undersecretary for Air, and Paul H. Nitze) holding dissimilar strategic views. More money for air offense and defense-capability on the one hand, and upgrading conventional forces on the other, would not be irreconcilable given a large enough defense budget, for then there would be money for all. But there can never be enough funds for simultaneous development on all fronts at the same time. Fundamental choices need to be made. Someone must bite the bullet.

The new Defense Secretary appears to have been given a free hand by the President-elect, not only on such operational matters as Pentagon reorganization and selection of his assistants, but on the fundamentals of strategy. We trust this does not mean that Mr. Kennedy chose his Defense Secretary without prior agreement on the broad approach to the strategy debate implicit in the Democratic platform pledge "to provide forces and weapons of a diversity, balance and mobility sufficient in quantity and quality to deter both limited and general aggressions."

By TNR Editors

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