Having served for one year as deputy secretary of defense under Marshall, Robert A. Lovett was thoroughly familiar with the duties and responsibilities of his new office when President Truman selected him to replace Marshall as secretary of defense. The son of a judge, Lovett was born in Huntsville, Texas, on 14 September 1895. He graduated from Yale University in 1918 and took postgraduate courses in law and business administration at Harvard University between 1919 and 1921. As a naval ensign during World War I, Lovett flew for a time with the British Naval Air Service on patrol and combat missions and then commanded a U.S. naval air squadron, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.
Lovett began his business career as a clerk at the National Bank of Commerce in New York and later moved to Brown Brothers Harriman and Company, where he eventually became a partner and a prominent member of the New York business community. He remained interested in aeronautics, especially in European commercial and military aviation. In December 1940 Lovett accepted appointment as special assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and four months later became assistant secretary of war for air. He served with distinction, overseeing the massive expansion of the Army Air Forces and the procurement of huge numbers of aircraft during the war. In awarding Lovett the Distinguished Service Medal in September 1945, President Truman wrote: "He has truly been the eyes, ears and hands of the Secretary of War in respect to the growth of that enormous American airpower which has astonished the world and played such a large part in bringing the war to a speedy and successful conclusion."
After leaving the War Department in December 1945 Lovett returned to Brown Brothers Harriman, only to be called back to Washington a little more than a year later to serve with General Marshall as under secretary of state. Lovett went back to his investment business in January 1949, but Marshall insisted that he join him again when he took over at the Pentagon in September 1950. As deputy secretary of defense, Lovett played a critical role in the management of the department; his appointment as secretary, made on Marshall's recommendation, received wide praise.
When Lovett became secretary of defense, the end of the Korean War was not yet in sight. Thus the long-range rearmament program continued to be one of his main concerns. Like Marshall, Lovett believed that the United States erred seriously at the end of World War II: "We did not just demobilize . . . we just disintegrated." As secretary of defense he designed a rearmament program intended both to meet the demands of the Korean conflict and to serve as a deterrent and mobilization base in future military emergencies. As Lovett put it, "Heretofore this country has only had two throttle settings–one, wide-open for war, and the other, tight-shut for peace. What we are really trying to do is to find a cruising speed."
Lovett therefore argued for budgets large enough to carry on the Korean conflict and to improve U.S. defensive strength. In his main budget effort during his 16 months in office he sought to secure adequate funds for FY 1953. Lovett eventually reduced initial service requests of about $71 billion to $49 billion, which the president and the Bureau of the Budget cut further to $48.6 billion, the amount requested of Congress. Lovett argued strenuously against additional congressional cuts, emphasizing the need to expand Army, Navy, and Marine Corps forces and to work toward a goal of 143 Air Force wings (as compared with 95 then authorized). Lovett did not get all that he wanted. Actual TOA for FY 1953 came to about $44.2 billion, almost $13 billion less than the previous year.
Lovett's efforts to meet rearmament and preparedness goals suffered in 1952 from a major dispute between the federal government and the steel industry. Truman tried to avert a threatened strike, caused mainly by a wage dispute, by taking over the steel mills in April 1952. The strike occurred after the Supreme Court overruled Truman's seizure order. Lovett supported the president's action as essential to maintaining defense production and expressed serious concern about the strike's effects on the nation's military capabilities. Even so, he noted that "the last six months of 1952 saw the most significant increases in the military effectiveness of the United States since the beginning of partial mobilization." By the end of the Truman administration, the Defense Department had met successfully the challenges of the Korean War mobilization and embarked on a long-term preparedness effort.
Besides the preparedness issue, Lovett inherited a number of other matters that were still unresolved in the early 1950s, including the proper military role of nuclear weapons. In 1951 Sen. Brien McMahon of Connecticut led the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in endorsing a resolution urging DoD to expand the atomic weapons program. Lovett noted that the department accorded such weapons a prominent place in its planning and budget requests. His proposal for increased funds for the Air Force, in fact, recognized that aircraft represented the most efficient delivery method for atomic weapons. But he warned against premature reliance on them: "There is no new, inexpensive, or magic way to win wars in the near future. We must be able to defend ourselves and to win battles with tested, available armaments. . . . Any premature adoption of the most modern but untried weapons and devices could lead to possible disaster."
Lovett's stands on the nuclear weapons question and other major military issues generally followed those of his predecessors. He strongly supported universal military training, regarding it as the only viable long-term approach to building a reserve force, and thus making possible a smaller regular military establishment. A firm proponent of NATO, he played an important role when the NATO Council in February 1952 adopted force goals totaling 50 divisions and 4,000 aircraft to be achieved at the end of 1952. Lovett endorsed enthusiastically the council's decision to admit Turkey and Greece as new NATO members. He supported the Mutual Security Program, viewing it as an important and integral part of the U.S. defense effort and as vital to future NATO effectiveness. Reliance on unilateral security rather than mutual security would require a tremendous commitment in manpower and funds without guaranteeing the nation's safety.
Despite a relatively smooth administration, Lovett felt a growing dissatisfaction with the existing defense organization. Although he recognized that real unification could result only from an evolutionary process and not legislative edict, as the end of his term approached he discerned the need for changes in the National Security Act beyond those made in 1949. Commenting about unification at a press conference a week before he left office, Lovett observed that the Department of Defense would have to be reorganized substantially if the United States became involved in a major conflict. He put forward his recommendations in a long letter to President Truman on 18 November 1952, proposing clarification of the secretary of defense's relationship to the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military departments; redefinition of JCS functions; reorganization of the military departments; and reorganization and redefinition of the functions of the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board.
Lovett meant his recommendations for practical consideration by his successor, and they indeed played an important role in the formulation of a reorganization plan during the early months of the Eisenhower administration. Concerned about the need for an orderly post-election changeover in the Department of Defense, Lovett met several times during the transition period with the incoming secretary, Charles E. Wilson, and made sure that he was thoroughly briefed on current issues.
After Lovett left office on 20 January 1953, he returned again to Brown Brothers Harriman, where he remained active as a general partner for many years. Robert Lovett has been recognized as one of the most capable administrators to hold the office of secretary of defense and as a perceptive critic of defense organization. His work in completing the Korean War mobilization and in planning and implementing the long-range rearmament program, as well as his proposals to restructure the Department of Defense, were among his major contributions. He died in Locust Valley, New York, on 7 May 1986.