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 ...

Wikimedia
Wikimedia
Wikimedia

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.

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

More from Foreign Policy

A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.
A view of the Russian Central Bank headquarters in downtown Moscow on May 26.

Actually, the Russian Economy Is Imploding

Nine myths about the effects of sanctions and business retreats, debunked.

Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.
Taliban fighters wait as people gather for a ceremony to raise the Taliban flag in Kabul.

The Taliban Detained Me for Doing My Job. I Can Never Go Back.

FP’s columnist on a harrowing return to Kabul, almost one year after the United States left Afghanistan.

A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.
A man walks past a closed store of the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo in Moscow on June 8.

Russian Sanctions Are Working but Slowly

Moscow’s military capabilities are being ground down, piece by piece.

Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.
Men stand atop a wooden platform over a muddy river holding a long pole down into the water.

Ghana’s ‘Success’ Exposes the West’s Toxic Development Model

Standard theories of global progress continue to be largely limited to raw extraction.