Roswell L. Gilpatric

John F. Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson Administration

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January 24, 1961–January 20, 1964

Roswell L. Gilpatric became the 10th Deputy Secretary of Defense on January 24, 1961. He served 1,091 days in office, longer than any of his nine predecessors. 

Gilpatric was born on November 4, 1906, in Brooklyn, New York. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree as a Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in 1928 and a law degree from Yale Law School in 1931. From 1939 to 1942 and 1946 to 1948, he taught law at Yale Law School as the visiting sterling lecturer. In 1940 he became a partner at the law firm Cravath, Swane & Moore in New York. He first came to the Pentagon during the Truman administration in May 1951 as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Material. He then became Under Secretary of the Air Force in October 1953. From 1956 to 1957, he helped to prepare the section of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Special Studies Project on defense issues. In 1960, he joined the Committee on the Defense Establishment, which presidential candidate John F. Kennedy formed to assess the Defense Department and recommend organizational improvements. Chaired by former Air Force Secretary and Senator, Stuart Symington, the committee made sweeping suggestions for overhauling the military and the Department. The suggestions included centralizing power within the Office of the Secretary of Defense; abolishing the Joint Chiefs of Staff; abolishing the military departments; reassigning the services Chiefs of Staff with responsibility for logistics and administration; and reorganizing the unified commands. Although he had asked for the recommendations, Kennedy refrained from endorsing the proposals, as did Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. During Gilpatric’s confirmation hearing, he publicly championed the committee’s findings, but pledged to support the President and the Secretary of Defense whether or not they implemented the committee’s ideas. The Senate confirmed him as Deputy Secretary on January 23 and he took the oath of office the next day.  

Secretary of Defense McNamara had never met Gilpatric prior to 1960, but a “very intensive investigation” on his part reassured him that Gilpatric was “by far the best man qualified for the post.”  At McNamara’s behest, Gilpatric functioned as the Secretary’s alter ego and was involved in every aspect of McNamara’s job so that the Secretary and his Deputy functioned as a team. That meant Gilpatric was as informed as the Secretary himself on issues ranging from the budget, arms control, acquisition, to foreign and military policy. McNamara also delegated to him certain areas of responsibility, including Pentagon relations with the Central Intelligence Agency and NASA. Unlike his predecessors, however, Gilpatric lacked a prominent role in preparing the departmental budget. Secretary McNamara and Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Charles Hitch were both adept at numerical analysis and handled the Defense Department’s fiscal issues. While Gilpatric participated in budget decision-making, the Secretary and the Comptroller handled long-range fiscal planning. 

Gilpatric was drawn into the foreign policymaking process from the moment he took office. Dwight Eisenhower had left his successor tenuous foreign policies, especially in Vietnam and Cuba, two strategic areas where the communists appeared to be gaining strategic ground. On April 20, 1961, Kennedy created a Vietnam task force under Gilpatric’s direction to assess South Vietnam’s potential vulnerability to communism and to recommend strategies to prevent worst-case scenarios from happening.  Gilpatric’s task force report emphasized continuing the counterinsurgency program begun in January 1961, which called for bolstering South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, enhancing the number of troops in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and having the ARVN assume more of the military burden. Kennedy approved the Gilpatric task force report in late April 1961, laying the foundation for the administration’s overall Vietnam policy. The President also increased the number of Special Forces in South Vietnam to train their Vietnamese counterparts, and by November 1963, 16,000 American advisers were in Vietnam. Gilpatric later recalled that just before Kennedy’s assassination, the President tasked him and Secretary McNamara with planning the withdrawal of a large portion of these advisers. However, South Vietnam became increasingly unstable, as Diem authorized persecution of Buddhists, sparking violent protests. The Kennedy administration opposed this repressive action and the President searched for means to distance the United States from Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was responsible for the maltreatment of the Buddhists. When Diem refused to remove Nhu from his government, the administration endorsed Diem’s ouster from office. On August 24, 1963, Gilpatric, in his capacity as Acting Secretary of Defense during McNamara’s absence, signed off on a cable which encouraged Diem’s removal. On November 1, Diem and his brother were murdered as a result of a coup, which left the South Vietnamese government even more insecure. 

Cuba also occupied a large portion of Gilpatric’s time in office. With its location 90 miles from the United States and under the rule of Soviet-aligned Fidel Castro, Cuba appeared to pose a threat to the Western Hemisphere’s security and stability. President Eisenhower had severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in early January 1961 and consented to the CIA’s developing a plan in which CIA-trained Cuban exiles would overthrow the Castro regime. President Kennedy approved the plan, which resulted in the unsuccessful April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. In the aftermath of this debacle, Gilpatric became a member of the Special Group, the entity formed to devise sabotage strategies for eliminating Castro, and he was drawn into the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. 

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent intermediate range ballistic missiles and medium range ballistic missiles to Cuba to protect his ally from an American invasion and to offset the United States’ strategic nuclear superiority. The discovery in October 1962 of Soviet missiles in Cuba by an American U-2 spy plane using high-altitude photography touched off one of the most dangerous crises in the Cold War. Gilpatric was heavily involved in crisis resolution efforts. He virtually lived with McNamara at the Pentagon during the infamous 13 days and attended most of the National Security Council’s ExComm meetings. He supported the decision to impose a quarantine of Cuba to prevent further shipments of missiles from reaching the island as a less militant course of action. He earned the President’s trust and was as relieved as his colleagues when Khrushchev agreed to dismantle Soviet missiles in Cuba. Gilpatric then served on the Coordinating Committee formed to ensure that all of the missiles and nuclear bombers in Cuba were taken out according to Khrushchev’s pledge.  

Gilpatric also helped expose the missile gap as favoring the United States. The Soviet Union’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in August 1957 followed by Sputnik in October prompted reporters and congressional members to accuse President Eisenhower of permitting a missile gap to form in which the United States was perceived to be lagging behind the Soviet Union in rockets, missiles, and nuclear weapons. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy routinely exploited the missile gap as proof that the Republican administration had placed the United States at a strategic disadvantage during the perilous Cold War. But shortly after taking office as Deputy, Gilpatric ordered a review of the Department’s intelligence activities and from this study, he signed a directive creating the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). As he explained to President Kennedy, “only through a DIA would the over-all capacity of the Department of Defense to collect, produce, and disseminate military intelligence be greatly strengthened.” In early fall, he also concluded an agreement with Deputy Director for Central Intelligence Charles Cabell establishing a National Reconnaissance Office to oversee a National Reconnaissance Program to manage satellite programs. Aerial reconnaissance was becoming more revealing about the extent of the Soviet missile program. In early July, spy satellites indicated that Soviet nuclear retaliatory capabilities were minimal and could be decimated by a “very small sneak attack” by the United States. Gilpatric later recalled, with what can only be described as a sense of relief, the feeling of the Kennedy administration when they learned that the United States possessed “a very definite margin of [missile] superiority, particularly from a qualitative standpoint.” The President approved a policy speech designed to publicly acknowledge the myth of the missile gap while reassuring NATO allies that the United States would maintain its access to the divided city of Berlin regardless of the risk of a Soviet reprisal. He asked Gilpatric to give the address. Gilpatric described the speech drafting process as an “across-the-board administration effort, in the national security area,” as he, McNamara, McNamara’s assistant, Adam Yarmolinsky, Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, contributed to the text. The President also approved the language, although with some trepidation that the Soviet government would institute a crash program to increase their ICBMs once Gilpatric revealed the American strategic advantage.

In October 1961 Gilpatric spoke before the Business Council in Hot Springs, Virginia. He informed his audience that the United States “has today hundreds of manned intercontinental bombers capable of reaching the Soviet Union, including 600 heavy bombers and many more medium bombers equally capable of intercontinental operations. … Our forces are so deployed and protected that a sneak attack could not effectively disarm us.” Business Week described Gilpatric’s speech as “the most precisely confident statement of U.S. armed strength that has been made in many years.”  In an instant, Gilpatric deflated the perception that Moscow had more missiles than the United States. 

Despite the American missile strength and the Kennedy administration’s desire for an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, progress continued on new weapons and delivery vehicles. In November 1962, the Pentagon announced that General Dynamics had won the contract for the new tactical fighter experimental (TFX) plane, despite the military’s preference for the designs submitted by Boeing. Senator Henry Jackson (D-WA), unhappy that Seattle-based Boeing failed to win the contract, persuaded Permanent Investigations Subcommittee Chairman John McClellan (D-AR) to probe the award. When the subcommittee discovered the fact that General Dynamics had been a client of Gilpatric’s law firm, it summoned the Deputy Secretary to Capitol Hill to explain the possible conflict of interest. Secretary McNamara vociferously defended his Deputy and issued a statement expressing full confidence in Gilpatric and affirming his “integrity and devotion to public service.” The Justice Department investigation subsequently exonerated Gilpatric of any “legal or ethical conflict of interest” since he had left the law firm partnership to join the Defense Department, had only received payment for services rendered before he resigned, and had never held any General Dynamics stock. On November 21, 1963, the subcommittee rendered a 5-4 vote of confidence in the Deputy. 

Despite having his name cleared, Gilpatric resigned. He had wanted to return to his law firm in early 1963, but the TFX controversy postponed his departure from the government. In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson formally accepted his resignation, and he stepped down on January 20. His absence from the government was short, as he briefly served as the Special Presidential Emissary to Portugal in 1964, as a member of the President’s Task Force on Nuclear Proliferation from 1964 to 1967, and as a member of the President’s Consultants on International Problems from 1964 to 1965. In 1971 he was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. He died from prostate cancer on March 15, 1996, at the age of 89.