Kenneth Rush

Richard Nixon Administration

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February 23, 1972–January 29, 1973

David Kenneth Rush became the 14th Deputy Secretary of Defense on February 23, 1972. He was Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s second and final Deputy. 

Rush was born on January 17, 1910 in Walla Walla, Washington. He earned an A.B. from the University of Tennessee in 1930 and an L.L.B from Yale University Law School in 1932. He joined the law firm Chadbourne, Stanchfield & Levy as an associate in 1932. From 1936 to 1937 he taught law at Duke University Law School. One of Rush’s students was a young man from Yorba Linda, California named Richard Nixon. According to Nixon’s daughter, Rush advised Nixon to return to California and enter politics instead of practicing law in a big city like New York. From 1936–1969, Rush held various executive positions at Union Carbide Corporation, including vice president (1949–1961), executive vice president (1961–1966), and president (1966–1969). Rush had seen Nixon casually in New York when the latter moved there following his defeat in the California governor’s race in 1962. After the 1968 election, Nixon nominated his old law professor to be Ambassador to Germany in the hopes that Rush’s legal training and negotiating skills would procure an agreement on the divided city of Berlin, the proverbial symbol of the Cold War. Rush proved extremely successful at this post, securing the Quadripartite Berlin Agreement between the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union in 1971.

After Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard’s resignation, Nixon recalled Rush from his diplomatic post to fill the Deputy’s vacancy at the Pentagon. Like many of his predecessors, Rush had stock holdings. However, since Rush only figured he would serve as Deputy for a year, having been promised either the State or Defense secretariats at the end of Nixon’s first term, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Stennis (D-MS) agreed to let Rush retain his stocks. He was confirmed on February 3, 1972. Rush took the oath of office on February 23.

During his tenure, Rush had an unusual role. Because of his relationship with Nixon, the White House preferred to deal with him rather than with Secretary of Defense Laird. Rush would attend White House meetings instead of Laird, but report to the Secretary on the nature of the discussions when he returned to the Pentagon. Rush recalled that the biggest challenge during his service as Deputy was keeping the White House’s lack of confidence in the Secretary of Defense from becoming known throughout the Pentagon.

When Rush became deputy, the Nixon administration was still searching for an honorable end to the Vietnam War. The prospects for an American withdrawal seemed particularly bleak in March 1972 after the North Vietnamese attacked northern provinces in South Vietnam. According to Rush, Nixon was “absolutely furious” when he learned of the assault. As a response, Nixon ordered the mining of the Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, which disrupted shipping and interfered with the Hanoi’s ability to receive supplies via the waterway, and approved B-52 strikes against fuel depots near Hanoi. Rush acknowledged that the Defense Department was “very surprised” at the president’s action to mine the harbor because the White House failed to inform the commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), General Creighton Abrams, that American naval vessels had been relocated from the area. At Nixon’s insistence, Rush represented the Defense Department on the May 9, 1972 “Today” Show broadcast to explain the administration’s decision for mining Haiphong. “We are not stopping ships,” Rush told Pentagon correspondent Robert Goralski. “We are saying that we are preventing the delivery of supplies to North Vietnam. We have laid mines and no ship needs to hit those mines.” Rush explained that the mining was part of a larger initiative to deescalate the war. The next day, Nixon called Rush to congratulate him for his candid justification of the president’s actions.

The Vietnam War continued to occupy Rush for the remainder of his time in office. He recalled that the war was “the obsession of Washington,” and affected the other aspects of his job including the budget and procurement. Rush and Laird shared similar views on American involvement in the war. Both men wanted to withdraw American troops and as a former ambassador, Rush hoped the United States could negotiate a way out of the conflict. The U.S. military commitment in Vietnam lasted until 1975, 2 years beyond Rush and Laird’s departure from the Nixon administration.

Rush also voiced his opposition to the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel that there be a second Deputy Secretary of Defense. In June 1969, Laird announced that President Nixon had commissioned a group to study four parts of the Defense Department: “organization and management; research and development; procurement policies; and additional areas.” The panel, under the direction of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company CEO Gilbert Fitzhugh, released its report in July 29, 1970. Among its other ideas for improving the Defense Department, the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel, also known as the Fitzhugh Commission, suggested creating three additional Deputies to ease the management burden on the Secretary and existing Deputy. Laird endorsed the idea and in October 1971, he convinced Nixon of the necessity for a second Deputy. In Laird’s opinion, another Deputy would permit the Secretary to have more interactions with the Service Secretaries and the Joint Chiefs. Rush objected to the idea of a second Deputy and argued that it would cause “people shopping as to whom [they] will deal with,” facilitating a “rivalry between the two [Deputies].” Nixon, however, sided with Laird as did the Senate Armed Services Committee by introducing a bill to create a second Deputy. The House of Representatives agreed to permit this bill’s language to be added to legislation that the House had already approved. On October 27, 1972, Nixon signed into law the bill containing the section creating a second Deputy Secretary of Defense. Laird resigned in January 1973 and never recommended a candidate. President Gerald Ford filled the position with Robert F. Ellsworth, who served from December 23, 1975 until January 10, 1977.

When Rush agreed to become Deputy Secretary of Defense, he did so based on the understanding that he would be promoted to either Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense during Nixon’s second term. After Nixon’s reelection in November 1972, he decided to replace Secretary of State William P. Rogers with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and named Rush as Kissinger’s Deputy Secretary of State. However, Rush served as Acting Secretary of State from September 3, 1973 until September 22 during the end of Rogers’ term and the beginning of Kissinger’s. Rush’s tenure as Deputy Secretary of State lasted from February 1973 until May 1974. He then served as the American Ambassador to France from 1974–1977. Rush died from heart and blood ailments at the age of 84 on December 11, 1994.