The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense

Published 04 Jan 2017


Political Chairs in a country like USA are hot. But certain of them are like the boiling kettle. Always problematic and tension-ridden! The coolest brain will crack under pressure and falter. The post of the Secretary of Defense is one such position in Washington. The origin of this post is not very old, it was created in 1947 and the average ‘life’ of the appointee is about eighteen months. This is such a vital position, the inpidual who enjoys the total confidence of the President only sticks to the chair or else he will go. One builds or breaks! Only a few remained happy and continued to be celebrities of USA, even after their retirement from the responsibility.

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Many sunk into oblivion. Charles Stevenson describes the plight of the Secretaries of Defense thus: “In Office, these men have tended to fall into one of three general roles for carrying out their responsibilities. :Revolutionaries, Firefighters, or team Players…The revolutionaries were bold innovators who sought to change the Pentagon in far-reaching ways in order to fulfill their inner vision. These men were political appointees of course, by they were also advocates for new approaches, and each ultimately persuaded his presidential boss to follow his lead.”(Stevenson, 2006, p.5) The Secretary of Defense has to swim against unpredictable currents of unknown force and depth. He works under pressure from all sides.

This Secretary’s life is like that of the octopus. He has to grow from all directions, carry on and impress with his odd shape. Chares A. Stevenson is eminently suited to write on this subject as he worked as a national security adviser to four U.S. senators and he saw many defense secretaries perform their duties. He knows why the failure rates are so high. A small mistake by the defense secretary will take shape as the national blunder, if he slightly misjudges the situation. He is answerable and has to carry along with him conflicting power groups that make the nation, like civil-military relations, receive and give advise in planning strategy and wars, liaise with other top functionaries and bodies of the government like National Security Council, President and the Secretary of State. His role is that of a politician-cum-bureaucrat. Depending upon the situation he has got to be the wily politician and the agile bureaucrat.

The book provides the broad structure of the department of the Secretary of Defense (DoD) and is mainly concerned with military matters and armed services. This post can be equated with the position of Defense Minister in other countries. The Secretaries Of Defense is answerable to the President and is solely responsible to formulae and execute the approved defense policies. He is appointed by the President, with prior approval of the Senate and he is a member of the Cabinet. By law, he needs to be a civilian and he should not be in the active component of the service at least for 10 years. In exceptional circumstances a military man can as well be the Secretary of Defense for which Congress has to pass the specific law.

This was done in the case of George Marshall in the year 1950. The Secretary of Defense is the sixth in the hierarchy for the presidential line of succession. The exercise to create the post the Secretary of Defense was carried out in the year 1947.A National Military Establishment was created merging the Navy, Army and the newly created Air Force. The three Secretaries, who held non-cabinet positions, the Secretary of War, (replaced by the Secretary of the Army), the Secretary of the Navy and the New Secretary of Air Force were under the Secretary of Defense now. The current name of the Department, the Department of Defense goes back to 1949, when the National Military Establishment was renamed.

Forget for a while the big events like World War I and II. The United States fortunately or unfortunately was engaged in one or the other type of military conflict with deep impact on its internal administration and external affairs. Sensitive issues require diplomacy of the highest order than the wars fought outright. The delicate balance of international relations with various countries that are not directly involved in the conflict has to be maintained. The Secretary of Defense in the broad sense is not only answerable to the President of USA, the people of US, but to the government and the people of the world.

The department handles a very big budget, which is more than the budgets of several other departments put together. In war times, it grows into gigantic proportions depending upon the length and stake involved in the war. A few of the Secretaries of Defense had to face toughest of the situations. Donald Rumsfeld had to face the Iraq War. In such situations the whole world evaluates the worth of the inpidual concerned and the best of the latent talents in him come to the fore. The people of the Nation will thank him or condemn him, depending upon the outcome of the war.

The second important man in US from the practical considerations overseas a budget of $419 billion during the current year. This is the biggest department. Strength-wise, the number of people whose destiny he presides over is more than the number of people of all the departments put together. This position is toughest from this angle alone. He has to handle too many important officials, please the President at all times and at all costs. The Congress, the senior military officials and the Secretary of State are lurking on his shoulders. President Truman created this post and Forestall was the first Defense Secretary. This post is special for one more reason. The National Command Authority (NCA) has the authority to launch strategic nuclear weapons and President and the Defense Secretary are the two members of this committee. Nuclear weapons are under the two-man command.

The two must concur to unleash a nuclear war. In the normal course of administration, he is assisted by a Deputy Secretary and five Under Secretaries in the fields of Acquisition, Technology & Logistics; Comptroller/Chief Financial Officer; Intelligence; Personnel & Readiness; and arguably the most important, Policy. All of these positions require Senate confirmation. He also supervises the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of the ten Combatant Commands. Along with the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense is generally regarded as one of the “Big Four” important cabinet officials.

Charles Stevenson has exhibited the writer’s skill combined with the practical knowledge of functioning of the US politics. His writing is graceful and entertaining and he never loses the track of the issue that he tackles. He possesses thorough knowledge of history of the Pentagon and his insights are the product of his practical experience. He has provided the sterling description of the difficult times faced by Rumsfield and how he excelled in providing the leadership. Many other secretaries come under his scanner and he provides useful insights into their style and the constraints under which they worked.

He has detailed about twenty Secretaries of Defense and the style with which each one of them handled the complex situations. This post, even though sixth in the hierarchy, is only second in importance from the practical point of view. Only the best can survive, and Stevenson gives his views how the weak perished, fired or made to resign gracefully.

Any book related to the history of U.S. must find mention on the subjects related to of Soviet Union, Great Britain, South Vietnamese, Second World War, Pearl Harbor, Gulf of Tonkin, etc. The Defense Department is the core of the book. Presidents and important personalities like John Adams, Harry Truman, George Washington, Lyndon Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, General George, General Marshall, etc. get detailed coverage. Within the compass of the book complete history of the period or the personalities can not be expected, but a clear picture emerges about the happening in the defense Department of US, during the past sixty years.

The conclusion of an essay:

On reading this book, one concludes that the right man has done the right job. Dr. Charles A. Stevenson teaches at the Mitze school of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. He was Professor at the National War College. As a Senate Staffer he has the practical experience of what US politics is all about and how the policy decisions are made. He seems to have fair exposure to behind-the-scene parleys and activities that happen before important decisions are taken. For research students, this book serves as an important tool, as to how the various defense establishments and the men who were connected to them functioned under the overall command of the Defense Secretary.


Stevenson, Charles A.SECDEF: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense

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