The best and worst US defense secretaries

Foreign PolicyJanuary 15, 2014 

WASHINGTON — All the news stories about Robert Gates’ memoirs have made me step back and think about the 23 defense secretaries the nation has had. (Through World War II, there was a Navy secretary and a War secretary.)

Here is my own personal ranking of the best and worst. I’ve tried to rate them by overall effectiveness, with extra points for handling civil-military relations well.



1. Robert Gates, Bush and Obama administrations. He was tough-minded but not as querulous at the news stories about the memoirs have made him look.

2. William Perry, Clinton administration. Low-key, but perhaps the clearest thinker I’ve ever met. He spoke in paragraphs, with topic sentences, explication and then a conclusion that led to the next point. Provided adult leadership at a time when it was much needed.

3. Dick Cheney, George H.W. Bush administration. He made a far better defense secretary than he did vice president, I think.



1. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush administration. Edges out McNamara just barely because I suspect he learned nothing in office, and because instead of engaging the mess in Iraq, he retreated from it. Publicly tough, privately indecisive.

2. Robert McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Hubris in action. Someone who knew much less than he believed he did. Still, he tried. A very American figure.

3. Louis Johnson, Truman administration. What happens when an ambitious political hack runs the Pentagon.

Thomas E. Ricks, a Foreign Policy columnist, covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.

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