Stephen T. Early

Harry S. Truman Administration

May 2, 1949–September 30, 1950


Stephen T. Early served as the first Under Secretary of Defense and then as the first Deputy Secretary of Defense. He assumed office at a critical time for the fledgling Department of Defense. Not only were the three military departments attempting to coordinate military policy under the direction of a new Secretary of Defense, but the post–World War II peace appeared threatened by the onset of a cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  


The position of Deputy Secretary of Defense owes its origins to the first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal. As Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal played a significant role in unifying the armed services, but he initially opposed a civilian Secretary of Defense out of fear he would lose his own authority over his department and his access to the President. In compromising with Secretary of War Robert Patterson over the components of a National Military Establishment, Forrestal acquiesced to the idea of a Secretary of Defense, but he rejected the idea of a civilian deputy lest the Service Secretaries’ standing within the hierarchy diminish. After becoming Secretary of Defense in September 1947, however, Forrestal realized he could not discharge the duties of his office alone. From February 1948 to April 1949, he lobbied the President and Congress for an Under Secretary, a second-in-command who could share the responsibilities of running the Pentagon and overseeing the National Military Establishment.


On April 2, 1949, President Truman signed H.R. 2216 into law, amending the National Security Act to provide for an Under Secretary of Defense. The Under Secretary was appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The law barred from consideration for the post anyone who had been on active duty as a commissioned officer within 10 years of his nomination. The Under Secretary’s authority was prescribed by the Secretary of Defense and he was empowered to act for, and exercise the powers of, the Secretary of Defense during his absence or disability.


President Truman nominated Early to be the first Under Secretary of Defense on April 7, 1949, at the behest of his new Secretary of Defense, Louis A. Johnson. Born on August 27, 1889, in Crozet, Virginia, Early had been a reporter for the United Press and the Associated Press. He met Franklin D. Roosevelt while covering the 1912 Democratic National Convention for United Press. In 1913, assigned to the War, State and Navy Departments beat as an AP correspondent, Early and then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt solidified their friendship. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Early enlisted in the 80th Division’s 317th Infantry. He rose to the rank of First Lieutenant and saw combat in France in July and October 1918. After the war ended, he was briefly assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces’ General Headquarters where he became the assistant officer in charge of the Stars and Stripes, the Army’s newspaper that General John J. Pershing had published for the American Armed Forces in France from February 1918 to June 1919.


Early returned to the United States as a Captain, having been promoted for his outstanding service as a soldier in combat and for his oversight of the Stars and Stripes. He renewed his contact with Franklin Roosevelt and, after Roosevelt received the Democratic vice presidential nomination, served as his advance man during the 1920 campaign. Following the election, Early went back to work for the Associated Press but soon left for Paramount News. When Roosevelt became president in 1932, he asked his old friend to be Secretary to the President for Press Relations. 


Early served as Roosevelt’s press secretary until the President’s death in April 1945. He is considered the first modern press secretary, holding daily press conferences and revolutionizing the President’s connection with the American people through FDR’s Fireside Chats. He remained at his post until June 1945 when he informed the new President, Harry Truman, that he had accepted the job as vice president of Pullman, Inc. His summons back to Washington in April 1949 to serve as Under Secretary of Defense came “as a surprise” to him, but he nevertheless accepted the job. He was sworn in on May 2, 1949. Within three months, the National Security Act Amendments renamed his position Deputy Secretary Defense. The duties of the Deputy were similar to those of the Under Secretary but the Deputy would “take precedence in the Department of Defense next after the Secretary of Defense.”


In this role, Early cultivated good relations with the press and enhanced the Department of Defense’s image through carefully crafted communiques. This was essential in the aftermath of numerous instances of global unrest. The Soviet Union tested their atomic bomb in August 1949, Communist revolutionaries founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, and in June 1950 North Korea attacked South Korea, precipitating the American military’s intervention in the conflict. Early’s knowledge of, and involvement in, defense and military policy was limited, but he was instrumental in coordinating the Pentagon’s message that the United States resolved to stand firm in the face of aggression.


Deputy Secretary of Defense Early resigned in September 1950. When he was appointed, he expressed his desire to serve for only one year, the length of his leave of absence from Pullman, Inc. He had twice attempted to step down from his government duties, but the Korean War obligated him to stay at his post. In December 1950, he took another short leave of absence from Pullman to briefly return to the White House to act as temporary press secretary in the aftermath of Press Secretary Charlie Ross’s death.


In August 1951 Early was hospitalized for a heart attack. Although he appeared to recover, he died of a second heart attack on August 11, at the age of 61. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.