Roger M. Kyes

Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration

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February 2, 1953–May 1, 1954

Roger M. Kyes was the first of six Deputy Secretaries of Defense to serve during the eight years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. He was sworn in on February 2, 1953.

Kyes was born in East Palestine, Ohio, on March 6, 1906. He graduated from Harvard in 1928 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics. After stints at the Glenn L. Martin Company, an aircraft manufacturing company, Black & Decker, and the Empire Plow Company, he spent World War II with Ferguson-Sherman Manufacturing, becoming president in 1943. He joined General Motors (GM) in 1948 and became vice president of the corporation in 1950. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson needed a capable second-in-command to help manage the Pentagon, so he convinced his GM colleague to serve as his Deputy. While the rest of the cabinet took the oath of office the day after Eisenhower’s inauguration, Kyes and Wilson were confirmed at the end of January after lengthy hearings on Capitol Hill focused on their substantial GM stockholdings. When asked if he could make decisions benefiting the United States over GM, Wilson quipped his now-infamous retort that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors.” Likewise, when senators questioned Kyes as to whether he would unlawfully gain from his defense post by showing favoritism towards GM, the Deputy Secretary-designate replied, “Actually if … you will take a look at what I have given up at this point of my career to come down here, I think I would have stayed home rather than to come down to steal. I would have been more profitable, I am sure.” In response to congressional pressure, however, Kyes and Wilson, the former GM president, promised they would divest from GM to avoid potential conflicts of interest arising from their ties to one of the Pentagon’s largest contractors.

As Deputy, Kyes developed a reputation as a tough, pragmatic operator. Time wrote an article on him and titled it “Jolly Roger” to describe his brusque manner. However, Kyes also had the capacity for self-effacing humor. He once described himself as “the ugliest man to be in Washington since Abe Lincoln.” By the time he left office, he had earned praise from his Pentagon colleagues, including Secretary Wilson, as well as President Eisenhower.

During Kyes’ tenure, he promised to examine “assets—both physical and fiscal—to determine existing activities and programs [that] could be curtailed or eliminated with little or no effect on national security.” He reviewed appropriations from the Truman administration and concluded that the previous administration had inflated spending based on “unrealistic requirements, poor planning, and inefficient execution,” which resulted in a “waste of money, inefficient utilization of manpower, unnecessary drain of materials from the civilian economy, inefficient use of tools, equipment and facilities, and unnecessary inflation.” He worked closely with Secretary of Defense Wilson and Assistant Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Wilfred McNeil in formulating the Defense Department’s budget to meet the President’s objective of producing a military budget that reduced spending but still fulfilled America’s strategic goal of deterring global communism. He testified before Congress on behalf of the budget for fiscal year 1954.

President Eisenhower also precipitated changes within the Defense Department and called for a novel approach to departmental organization. He directed Secretary Wilson to devise a plan for revitalizing Defense. Wilson’s blue-ribbon commission completed their recommendations in mid-April 1953. Called simply “Reorganization Plan No. 6,” it made modifications in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the civilian chain of command. The task of selling the report to Congress fell in part to Deputy Secretary Kyes, who testified before the House Committee on Government Operations that the plan increased the Defense Department’s managerial efficiency. He also met with members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to lobby members to accept the changes in Defense’s operations. Since neither the House nor the Senate took unfavorable action on the plan within 60 days of President Eisenhower submitting it to Congress for consideration, Reorganization Plan No. 6 took effect on June 30, 1953.

In addition to his role as the Pentagon’s “executive vice president,” Kyes participated to some extent in foreign and national security policymaking. However, he lacked experience in and an understanding of American foreign policy, so his views were often at odds with Eisenhower’s strategy. In September 1953, he embarked on a 30-day inspection tour of American military installations in Europe. Upon his return, he opined that the United States had greatly overestimated the Soviet threat to Western Europe and had too many troops stationed on the European continent. Kyes and Secretary Wilson favored reducing the American presence, but President Eisenhower rejected their suggestion of withdrawing forces until NATO nations assumed more of the burden for their own defense. 

In September 1953, Eisenhower implemented his campaign pledge to rework the National Security Council (NSC) and created, by executive order, the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) to replace the Truman-era Psychological Strategy Board. Comprising the Under Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Director of the Foreign Operations Administration, and Director of Central Intelligence, the OCB met once a week to coordinate the political, military, economic, and psychological aspects of national security policy originating from the NSC Planning Board and approved by the entire NSC. As an OCB member, Kyes participated in drafting summaries and guidance for policy implementation. And because he often had to attend NSC meetings for Secretary Wilson, he was assigned to policy working groups, such as the President’s Special Committee on Indochina, formed in January 1954 to analyze the increasingly unstable situation in Southeast Asia and develop contingency plans. Kyes and his fellow committee members completed their review in March 1954. They recommended a combination of political assistance and psychological warfare to assist French forces struggling to retain control over their Vietnamese colony against the native resistance movement aligned with Communist Ho Chi Minh. President Eisenhower hated the thought of losing Vietnam to the Communists, but he refrained from militarily committing the United States to aid the embattled French at Dien Bien Phu, and the garrison fell in May 1954.

Following his departure from the Defense Department in May 1954, Kyes became an Ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church and served as the chairman of the board of trustees of Kirk-in-the-Hills Church from 1954 to 1960 and from 1962 to 1965. He returned to General Motors in 1959 as vice president of the Accessory Group. He retired from GM in 1970 and joined Lazard Freres & Co., a New York investment banking firm, as a partner on February 1, 1971. On February 13, 1971, he died of a heart attack at the age of 64.