Thomas S. Gates, Jr.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration

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June 8, 1959–December 1, 1959

Thomas S. Gates Jr. became the eighth Deputy Secretary of Defense on June 8, 1959, one month to the day after the death of Deputy Secretary Donald Quarles. Gates was the fifth Deputy in the Eisenhower administration’s Pentagon. His tenure as Deputy Secretary is the shortest term in history—only 176 days.

Gates, a Germantown, Pennsylvania native, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928. He joined the investment banking firm Drexel & Co. and became a partner in 1940. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1942 and spent World War II as a naval intelligence officer. In 1945 he was released from active duty with the rank of Commander, USNR. In 1953 he came to Washington when Navy Secretary Robert Anderson asked him to serve as his Under Secretary. After four years at this post, Gates became Navy Secretary in April 1957. In early 1959, after six years of government service, he tendered his resignation, effective June 1. When Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy asked him to remain at the Pentagon to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense following Quarles’ death, Gates acquiesced, commenting: “I couldn’t think of any reason not to do it, except that I didn’t want to, and that wasn’t good enough.”

In mid-May 1959 McElroy was in Geneva at a foreign ministers conference and the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense was vacant. The President took the unprecedented step of designating Gates to act as Secretary during McElroy’s absence, ensuring the Pentagon continued to have a civilian manager. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10820, which emphasized that as President he could appoint “any officer … to succeed to the position of, and act as, Secretary of Defense.” But Gates was still Secretary of the Navy—his resignation not effective until June. In conferring executive authority upon Gates, Eisenhower upended the established order of precedence by empowering the Secretary of the Navy ahead of Secretary of the Army Wilber Brucker. However, both Eisenhower and Secretary McElroy expected Gates to become Secretary when McElroy stepped down later in the year.

During Gates’s short term as Deputy, he participated in meetings on the budget, a seemingly endless process for the Defense Department. He also gained an understanding of the difficulties surrounding an arms control agreement when in July and August 1959, the administration contemplated the American response to the end of the yearlong bilateral voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. Gates believed the United States should resume underground testing in 1960.

He attempted to solve the vexing question of how the United States should supply NATO members with missiles. In late November 1959, Gates devised a scheme that he hoped the United States could present to the Europeans at the December meeting of NATO’s North Atlantic Council. His idea, known as the Gates Plan, included extracts from some of the schemes the administration had been considering. It called for the United States to provide 50 Polaris missiles to NATO through the military assistance program. The Europeans would buy the requisite parts for manufacturing additional missiles in order to increase their arsenals while the United States would help them produce the necessary launch equipment. All of these missiles would be under the control of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In early January 1960, the State Department rejected the Gates Plan, preferring to sell missiles to NATO instead of giving them away at a cost of almost $1 billion.

A month after taking office, Gates appeared before a House Armed Services subcommittee investigating charges of influence by retired naval officers in procuring employment in defense industries. He advised committee members against restricting former military personnel from seeking opportunities once they were no longer active duty, as it may prove detrimental to industry. He gave as examples men such as Generals Douglas MacArthur, Jimmy Doolittle, and Omar Bradley who had been unimpeded by conflicts of interest in their post-military careers. Gates often advocated vociferously for the services, especially the Navy, even if his views sometimes conflicted with those of the administration.

Gates seemed the best qualified candidate to succeed Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, who intended to step down in late 1959 due to his wife’s illness. Gates was reportedly the only name considered for the secretariat, and Eisenhower made him Secretary through a recess appointment, the first session of Congress having ended on September 15, 1959. Gates took the oath of office on December 2 and was confirmed without objection by the Senate on January 26, 1960. He was the second Deputy Secretary of Defense to succeed to the secretariat. 

Following his tenure as Secretary of Defense, Gates joined Morgan and Company in New York, later the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company, becoming president in 1962 and chairman and chief executive officer in 1965. President Richard M. Nixon appointed him chairman of the Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Force, which presented its influential report in November 1969. In 1976–1977 he served, with the rank of Ambassador, as Chief of the United States Liaison Office in the People’s Republic of China. He died in Philadelphia at age 76 on March 25, 1983.