William C. Foster

Harry S. Truman Administration

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September 24, 1951–January 20, 1953

William C. Foster took the oath of office as the third Deputy Secretary of Defense on September 24, 1951, serving under Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett. Foster was the last Deputy Secretary of Defense of the Truman administration.

Foster was born on April 27, 1897, in Westfield, New Jersey. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of the class of 1918, but his academic coursework in engineering was interrupted by World War I and he never completed his degree. He enlisted in the Army, became a pilot with the Army Air Corps, and rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant.

In 1922 he went to work for the Pressed & Welded Steel Products Company on Long Island. In 1946 he became its president. Two years earlier, he entered government service and served in the Purchase Division of the Army Service Forces while also holding several positions as assistant director, deputy director, director, and special representative on Army Air Forces procurement and reported to Secretary of War Robert Patterson. He was also a member and chairman of the War Department’s Purchase Policy Advisory Committee; chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation’s Region 11 Board of Governors; and a member of the New York ordinance district’s advisory board. For his involvement with the war effort on the home front, he received the United States Medal for Merit and the War Department’s Commendation for Exceptional Service. In 1946, President Truman appointed Foster Under Secretary of Commerce. He served until 1948, when he became the Deputy Administrator for the Economic Cooperation Authority (ECA), the organization created to oversee the European Recovery Program, or more commonly known as the Marshall Plan. He was promoted to administrator in 1950.

When Secretary of Defense George Marshall announced his retirement in September 1951, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett, who was to succeed Marshall as Secretary, asked Foster to give up what was essentially a cabinet-level position as ECA Administrator to become Deputy Secretary of Defense. Initially, Foster demurred, regarding the post of Deputy as a demotion “in rank and pay” compared with being ECA Administrator. He also feared that because he was a Republican he might be a political liability for President Truman during the 1952 election year. Truman, however, assuaged his fears when he informed Foster that he would not seek reelection. Foster then accepted the job, secured in the familiarity he shared with Lovett. The two of them had served together in the War Department during World War II and had enjoyed a close working relationship throughout Foster’s ECA dealings with the State Department during Lovett’s tenure as Under Secretary. Foster surmised that Lovett believed the job of Deputy was “more important” than being ECA Administrator since the Marshall Plan was almost complete. The Senate easily confirmed Foster on September 21, and he took the oath of office three days later.

Although Lovett and Foster spoke only briefly before his confirmation hearing, the Secretary  conveyed his hopes that Foster would act as a true deputy with full authority to administer any type of issue in his absence. The press praised Foster’s nomination, and, as the Washington Post observed, the Pentagon was getting “another Lovett” since Foster’s administrative skills were equivalent to those of the new Secretary. Lovett happily turned over management of the Pentagon to his Deputy, which Foster interpreted as “procurement [and] relations with the budget preparation.” Foster was indeed a capable administrator, running Staff Council meetings, serving as Chairman of the Defense Management Council devoted to improving the Defense Department’s organizational aspects, and serving as one of the statutory members on the Psychological Strategy Board (PSB). Created by presidential directive in April 1951, the PSB coordinated all of the government’s political, military, economic, and propaganda programs. 

In October 1952, Foster embarked on a 24-day inspection tour of the United States’ overseas military installations, becoming the first Deputy Secretary of Defense to travel abroad. His itinerary included stops in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, India, Egypt, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. He reported that the morale of the troops in South Korea was high, but he did not anticipate a rapidly negotiated armistice. He also indicated that in Indochina, where French forces had been fighting the Communist-backed Vietminh since 1946 to retain control over their former colony, pro-French forces had been built up and were assuming a large portion of the fighting.

Foster returned to private industry at the end of the Truman administration, but President John F. Kennedy called him back into public service in 1961. Kennedy appointed him the first Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the newly created entity charged with overseeing disarmament policies. During his tenure as Director, the Kennedy administration negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the Johnson administration procured the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. Foster resigned this post in 1969 but remained involved in arms control issues through membership on the State Department’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament.

He died on October 16, 1984, at the age of 87 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.