James H. Douglas, Jr.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration

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December 11, 1959–January 24, 1961

James H. Douglas Jr. was the sixth and final Deputy Secretary of Defense of the Eisenhower administration. He took the oath of office on December 11, 1959, succeeding Thomas S. Gates Jr

Douglas was born on March 11, 1899, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but he grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois in the family who founded the Quaker Oats Company. He entered Princeton University, but World War I interrupted his studies. Commissioned an Army Second Lieutenant in 1918, he spent the war years at Camp Hancock, Georgia. At the war’s end he returned to Princeton and earned an A.B. degree in 1920. He studied abroad for a year at the Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University, returning to the United States and earning a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1924. He passed the Illinois bar in 1925 and joined Winston, Strawn & Shaw, a Chicago law firm. In 1929 he left the legal profession for investment banking and secured a position at Field, Glore & Company. This led to an appointment as Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, a position he held from 1932 to 1933. After this year in government, he returned to practicing law as a partner with Gardner, Carton and Douglas. When the United States entered World War II, Douglas enlisted in the Army Air Force. He rose quickly to become Chief of Staff of the Air Transport Command, earning the Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. He returned to his law firm after the war ended, but Air Force Secretary Harold Talbott recruited him in 1953 as Under Secretary of the Air Force. He agreed to serve in the government for only a year, but ended up staying eight years.

The position of Deputy Secretary of Defense experienced a significant turnover in the last few years of the Eisenhower administration. In May 1957, Secretary of the Air Force Donald A. Quarles became Deputy Secretary of Defense and Douglas was promoted to Secretary of the Air Force. However, in May 1959, Quarles unexpectedly died. Secretary of the Navy Thomas S. Gates Jr became Deputy Secretary of Defense, but he only served 176 days in office before being promoted to Secretary of Defense. Gates turned to his “best friend in town,” Douglas, to fill the position of deputy. Both men had similar government career paths having served as Under Secretary and Secretary of service branches—Gates with the Navy and Douglas with the Air Force—at practically the same time. Like Gates’s nomination as Secretary, Douglas was a recess appointment; he took the oath of office on December 11, 1959, but the Senate did not confirm him until January 26, 1960.

Deputy Secretary Douglas was involved in several crisis moments in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. Despite his misgivings about an Air Force missile named Skybolt, he sought to reassure the British that they would receive their desired missile. The Air Force had been working on Skybolt, an air-to-surface missile, since 1958, and Britain hoped to adapt them to their bombers. When he was Secretary of the Air Force from 1957 to 1959, Douglas had questioned Skybolt’s feasibility because of the technical difficulty involved. Nevertheless, he was either unwilling or unable to prevent the missile’s development, as the “Air Force R&D people and procurement people went to work … to sell it to the British.” When Douglas visited London in October 1960, he informed British Defense Minister Harold Watkins that while the Secretary of Defense harbored concerns over Skybolt’s mounting costs, the Eisenhower administration intended to honor its commitment to sell the missiles to the British government. Skybolt survived into the Kennedy administration, and in 1962 President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara canceled it due to the rising costs and the uncertainty surrounding its operability.

In May 1960, ahead of a four-power summit in Paris, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane and captured the pilot, Francis Gary Powers. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded that the United States admit to violating Soviet sovereignty, Eisenhower demurred. On May 9, Deputy Secretary Douglas, Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates, Secretary of State Christian Herter, and Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon drafted a statement in which the President acknowledged awareness of the U-2’s mission, but blamed the Soviets for fostering a “state of apprehension” around the globe necessitating aerial surveillance. At the Paris summit, Khrushchev insisted that Eisenhower discontinue U-2 flights and apologize for his actions. When the President refused to express remorse, Khrushchev stormed out and the summit collapsed.

Douglas also chaired the Collateral Activities Coordinating Group (CACG) begun under his predecessor, Donald Quarles, to manage Defense’s “special operations.” Douglas convened the CACG in September 1960 to discuss ways to strengthen Ngo Dinh Diem’s Government of Vietnam (GVN) in South Vietnam. In the aftermath of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel into a Communist Vietminh-controlled North and a noncommunist South, and which mandated elections for unification in 1956, the United States supported Diem. The administration undertook initiatives to reinforce the GVN and Diem’s position as president. Deputy Secretary Douglas became an advocate for Col. Edward G. Lansdale, a counterinsurgency expert. Lansdale had worked for the CIA in the Philippines and had been sent to Vietnam to train the Vietnamese to resist the Communists. In May 1960 Diem personally requested that Lansdale be sent back to Vietnam. Douglas had to smooth over Lansdale’s Vietnam trip with Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) Admiral Harry Felt, who doubted that Lansdale was going to Vietnam to gain information on the security situation. Douglas cabled him that “Secretary Gates and I are interested in having first-hand suggestions from Lansdale on the whole situation in Vietnam, and I am confident this will be equally helpful to you.”  Lansdale returned from Vietnam only days before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. He briefed Gates and Douglas on his mission and warned them that the coming year was an important one for Vietnam since the Vietnamese Communists had gained strategic positions in the south. He recommended replacing the current group of American advisers with experts on Asia and advocated supporting Diem until he could be legally replaced by another “strong executive.” Gates, and especially Douglas, were pleased with Lansdale’s findings. Douglas, whom Lansdale considered a “very staunch friend,” made sure that the White House and the State Department received the Lansdale report.

On January 19, 1961, President Eisenhower awarded Douglas the Medal of Freedom for meritorious service as Deputy. After he left the administration, he returned to his law firm, Gardner, Carton & Douglas, where he worked for the rest of his life. He served as a trustee of the University of Chicago, president of the Commercial Club, and a director of American Airlines, March & McLennan, the Chicago Title and Trust Company, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He died on February 24, 1988, from cancer. He was 88 years old.