Hall of Famers

Lawrence Korb takes issue with Fred Kaplan's representation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's record.


In calling Robert Gates the most revolutionary leader in the Pentagon since Robert McNamara, Fred Kaplan (“The Transformer,” September/October 2010) not only overstates Gates’s real accomplishments, but he ignores the secretary who changed the way the Pentagon does business and fights wars more than any other — that is, Melvin Laird, who was U.S. defense secretary from 1969 to 1973.

In his four years at the helm, over the unanimous opposition of military leaders and many in Congress, Laird withdrew more than 500,000 troops from Vietnam by establishing the policy of Vietnamization, ended the draft, created the all-volunteer military, and developed weapons systems like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 aircraft and cruise missiles, which are still in the force and provided the foundation for winning the Cold War. He also brought weapons-systems cost growth under control by instituting a “fly before you buy” concept. And he did this while bringing defense spending down by more than 25 percent in real terms so that the United States could deal with issues like the environment and the rising cost of Social Security without bankrupting the country.

Gates does deserve credit for getting the Pentagon to buy more drones and MRAP vehicles and for implementing his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to stop production of the F-22 at 187 (actually, Rumsfeld said 184). However, he continues to increase defense spending in real terms despite the massive U.S. federal debt. Moreover, though he has raised questions about the big issues like the number of aircraft carriers or the role of the Marine Corps, he has not followed up by taking decisive action.

In fact, when it comes to these issues, Gates told Kaplan: “I may be bold, but I’m not crazy.” Well, by this standard, McNamara and Laird were crazy, and the country is better off because they were.

Lawrence Korb
Senior Fellow
Center for American Progress
Washington, D.C.

Fred Kaplan replies:

Melvin Laird certainly coined the term “Vietnamization” and pushed President Richard Nixon to withdraw more troops. For that alone, he deserves a spot in the SecDef hall of fame. But it was Nixon who ended the draft through a presidential commission to which he named as chairman Alan Greenspan, then still an Ayn Rand-influenced libertarian who likened conscription to taxes and detested both.

Laird did cut defense spending, but he got the services to go along by letting the military buy whatever it wanted with the remaining funds, a tradeoff it welcomed after McNamara’s hands-on management. The weapons that Lawrence Korb mentions were already on the services’ dockets; Laird had nothing to do with their creation (and it’s a stretch to claim they won the Cold War).

As for Korb’s recitation of Gates’s limits as a transformer, I fully agree and said as much in my article. For Gates to fulfill his stated agenda, he should at least consider cutting an aircraft carrier. But Laird wasn’t disposed to laying into the established “force structure,” either.

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