Robert B. Anderson

Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration

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May 3, 1954–August 4, 1955

On May 3, 1954, Robert B. Anderson became the fifth Deputy Secretary of Defense, and the second of four deputies serving under Secretary Charles E. Wilson.

Anderson was born in Burleson, Texas, on June 4, 1910. He began his career as a high school Spanish teacher and football coach. After three years of teaching, he entered the University of Texas Law School. He won a seat in the Texas State Legislature in 1932. From 1933 to 1937, he held several state-level appointments, including assistant attorney general, tax commissioner, and chairman of the Texas Unemployment Commission. In 1937, the W. T. Waggoner Estate, one of the largest oil, cattle, and horse ranches in Texas, hired him to oversee legal affairs; he became their general manager before his 31st birthday.

Anderson contracted polio as a child, resulting in a slightly paralyzed leg that rendered him ineligible for military service during World War II. In 1953, despite his lack of naval experience, Secretary Wilson handpicked him to join his Pentagon team and Eisenhower nominated him to be Secretary of the Navy. Anderson gained a reputation as soft-spoken yet firm. During his tenure as Navy Secretary, Eisenhower ordered the end of segregation at military bases, and Anderson oversaw the desegregation of bases in Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina.

When Roger Kyes resigned as Deputy Secretary in May 1954, Wilson immediately recommended Anderson for the Deputy position. President Eisenhower, an admirer of Anderson, described the Deputy Secretary as a “perfectly wonderful young man. My God, he could run for Pope on the Presbyterian ticket and get elected.” Eisenhower hoped that Anderson would run for President in 1960 and he reportedly pledged “the full limit of his capabilities in every respect” to help Anderson get elected.

Like his predecessor, Anderson participated in budget preparations and sat on the National Security Council’s Operations Coordinating Board as a statutory member. On May 13, only ten days after being sworn in as Deputy, President Eisenhower signed the St. Lawrence Seaway bill to initiate work with Canada on a navigable water route from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to strengthen the national security and economies of both nations. Anderson led the American delegation to Ottawa in July and August 1954 to finalize the arrangements with Canada for construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

As Deputy, Anderson’s opinion of the New Look, Eisenhower’s military strategy that relied heavily on nuclear weapons, had changed from what it had been when he was Secretary of the Navy. In March 1954, shortly after being nominated as Deputy, he spoke before the Philadelphia Bulletin Forum. He glowingly praised the New Look as a practical strategy for American national security: “We must have forces and weapons—always better than those of any aggressor—appropriate to a variety of situations that may confront us today.” His support was attributable to his position, as he wanted the Navy to benefit from the New Look’s technological innovation. As he pointed out, “There will be a somewhat greater role for air power, both Air Force and Naval.” But as Deputy, Anderson was more cautious because human discovery had “summoned into existence a power which could deeply impair civilization as we know it and jeopardize the gains of a thousand years of human experience.”

President Eisenhower’s emphasis on nuclear weapons overshadowed his attempts at arms control. Open Skies, developed in June 1955 by a panel of social scientists and former government officials led by the President’s Special Assistant for Psychological Warfare, Nelson Rockefeller, called for aerial inspections of American and Soviet military sites. Anderson accompanied Rockefeller, Director of the Mutual Security Administration Harold Stassen, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Arthur Radford to Paris in July 1955 to finalize Open Skies ahead of the President’s summit meeting in Geneva with Soviet officials. However, the President was unable to convince the Soviets of the merits of Open Skies, and the plan was subsequently tabled.

In July 1955, Anderson informed Secretary Wilson and President Eisenhower that he intended to resign his post and return to private business. On August 3, the day before he officially stepped down, President Eisenhower awarded him the Medal of Freedom. In accepting the award, Anderson indicated that he would “be obedient to any wishes that you [Eisenhower] may have,” suggesting that he would be amenable to serving again if the President called on him.

Before long, the administration contacted Anderson. In September 1955, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser brokered a deal with the Soviet Union to trade Egyptian cotton for arms and financial support to build the Aswan High Dam. In an attempt to entice Nasser away from the Soviets, the United States and Great Britain offered to finance the Aswan Dam, provided Egypt guaranteed peace with archrival Israel. In early 1956, President Eisenhower dispatched Anderson on the first of two top secret missions to the Middle East to mediate between Egypt and Israel. As a result of his first meeting with Anderson, Nasser secretly informed the President that he wished for peace. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion also expressed his desire for an end to the standoff that had persisted since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In March, Anderson returned to the Middle East to begin negotiations between Egypt and Israel. The mission ended in disappointment this time. Anderson informed the President upon his return to Washington that Nasser appeared genuinely unwilling to seek a peaceful settlement.

Following his foray into Middle East policy, Anderson once again returned to private business. However, he was summoned back to the Eisenhower administration in July 1957 as Secretary of the Treasury after Secretary George Humphrey resigned. He served in this capacity for the remainder of Eisenhower’s presidency. In December 1962, President John F. Kennedy named him to the Committee to Strengthen the Security of the Free World, also known as the Clay Committee after chairman General Lucius D. Clay. This committee developed a report on military and economic assistance programs.

Anderson continued to impress presidents. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed his fellow Texan as Special Ambassador to Panama to negotiate a new Panama Canal treaty.  Anderson and his Panamanian counterparts arrived at a preliminary agreement, but a military coup in Panama in October 1968 negated the deal and forced Anderson to renegotiate with the new government. In June 1973, he resigned his post without having secured a revised treaty.

After leaving government service for good, Anderson became a partner in Robert B. Anderson & Company, an investment house; chairman of the American Gas and Chemical Company; and director of both Pan American World Airways and Goodyear Tire & Rubber. He suffered a fall from grace in the late 1980s, pleading guilty to tax evasion and to illegally operating an unregistered bank in the Caribbean. He served one month in jail following five months of house arrest, and the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred him. In August 1989, he died from complications following surgery for esophageal cancer. He was 79 years old.