Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The best and worst defense secretaries, as rated by Foreign Policy’s Best Defense

All the news stories about Robert Gates’s memoirs, to be released next week, 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 ...

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All the news stories about Robert Gates’s memoirs, to be released next week, 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.

The best

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

2. William Perry. 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. He made a far better defense secretary than he did vice president, I think.

The worst

1. Donald Rumsfeld. 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. Hubris in action. Someone who knew much less than he believed he did. Still, he tried. A very American figure.

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

All the news stories about Robert Gates’s memoirs, to be released next week, 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.

The best

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

2. William Perry. 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. He made a far better defense secretary than he did vice president, I think.

The worst

1. Donald Rumsfeld. 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. Hubris in action. Someone who knew much less than he believed he did. Still, he tried. A very American figure.

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

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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