Donald A. Quarles

Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration


May 1, 1957–May 8, 1959

Donald A. Quarles became the seventh Deputy Secretary of Defense on May 1, 1957. He was Secretary Charlie Wilson’s fourth and final Deputy. His tenure—737 days—was longer than any of his predecessors, and was only interrupted by his untimely death from a heart attack on May 8, 1959.

Quarles was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, on July 30, 1894. He graduated from Yale University in 1916 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics and physics. In 1917 he enlisted in the Army and spent World War I in France and Germany. He was honorably discharged in October 1919 as a field artillery captain. When he returned from Europe he went to work for Western Electric Company, which became Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925. Quarles continued at Bell Telephone while studying theoretical physics part-time at the Columbia University Graduate School in 1920 and 1921. From 1929 to 1940, he oversaw Bell’s Outside Plant Development Department, which studied telephone materials, designs, and electrical characteristics. During World War II, he was the director of transmission development, focusing on military electronic systems such as radar. In 1944, he was appointed director of apparatus development, responsible for telephone designs for commercial and military communications. He was also appointed to the newly formed Committee on Electronics of the Joint Research and Development Board. In 1949, he became the committee’s chairman. In 1948, he was named vice president of Bell Telephone Laboratories, vice president of Western Electric, and president of Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary of Western Electric. 

Quarles first came to the Defense Department in October 1953 as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Development, which replaced the Truman-era Research and Development Board, and oversaw important innovations like the guided missile program. In August 1955, after Secretary of the Air Force Harold Talbott resigned amid controversy, President Eisenhower appointed Quarles interim Air Force Secretary. He took the oath of office on August 15, 1955, but he was not confirmed by the Senate until February 17, 1956, since his nomination occurred during a congressional recess. In spring 1957, after Deputy Secretary of Defense Reuben Robertson resigned, Quarles was chosen to replace him. He was confirmed on April 9 and took the oath of office on May 1. 

With his engineering background and prior Pentagon service, Quarles often overshadowed Secretaries Wilson and Neil McElroy, who lacked his technical expertise. His familiarity with Defense Department organizational issues and operations was invaluable during the second departmental reorganization of the Eisenhower administration, during which he established a Collateral Activities Coordinating Group (CACG) comprising Defense offices engaged in covert operations. He routinely participated in budget discussions, accompanying McElroy to meetings with Bureau of the Budget personnel, interfacing with congressional appropriations committees, and coordinating fiscal issues with the services. In addition, he was involved in foreign policy deliberations. In mid-1958, when tensions escalated in Lebanon and the President decided to send Marines to Beirut to quell political unrest arising from a coup in neighboring Iraq, Quarles attended all the deliberative meetings prior to the American intervention. He usually stood in for McElroy on the President’s Committee of Principals, an ad hoc group consisting of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the President’s Special Assistant for Science, which the President formed to discuss the intricacies of arms control issues. According to the President’s son, John S. D. Eisenhower, Quarles “ran the Defense Department.”

Quarles became the Pentagon’s point of contact with the Gaither Committee, the ad hoc group President Eisenhower commissioned to study civil defense and American vulnerability to a Soviet attack. McElroy also consulted Quarles in developing the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which handled special projects from the Secretary of Defense, including antimissile defense and satellite programs. Quarles also created a steering group to observe antimissile defense developments. His response to the Soviet Union’s October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made orbital satellite, was measured and calm: 

"I find the existence of the first satellites no cause for national alarm. In this respect I am disagreeing with many people who have been saying ‘let’s beat them’; ‘let’s put up a bigger satellite’; ‘let’s hit the moon with a rocket … We must not be talked into ‘hitting the moon with a rocket’ just to be first, unless by so doing we stand to gain something of real scientific or military significance."

His emphasis on achieving military and scientific gains extended into the issue of a nuclear test ban. He opposed a testing moratorium and feared that if the United States unilaterally ceased weapons development, the Soviet Union would continue to test and produce nuclear weapons, eventually exceeding American weapons in numbers and strength. Despite the Deputy’s concern, Eisenhower imposed a one-year, renewable test ban beginning October 31, 1958.

Quarles, the “mild-mannered, soft-spoken, quiet man,” was twice considered for the position of Secretary of Defense. In 1957, when Secretary Wilson informed the President that he intended to resign, he “virtually promised” Quarles that he would succeed him. Eisenhower, however, chose Neil McElroy over Quarles. In March 1959, Quarles was again mentioned as a replacement for the outgoing McElroy, who announced that he planned to step down before the end of the Eisenhower administration. McElroy expected that Quarles would become Secretary. On the morning of May 8, 1959, however, the 64-year-old Quarles was found dead in his home in Washington, DC. An autopsy later revealed that he had had a heart attack. He was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.