The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense

Charles A. Stevenson

224 pages


June 2007


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July 2011


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About the Book

SECDEF offers an expert’s insights into one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. Of the twenty-one men who have held the post of secretary of defense since it was created in 1947, only half served more than eighteen months. The first, James Forrestal, committed suicide soon after leaving the Pentagon. Seven of his successors were fired or allowed to resign gracefully after losing the confidence of the president. Many left frustrated and disappointed, while few retained the celebrity and esteem they held while in office. One observer has called the job “the graveyard of political ambitions.”Charles A. Stevenson, who as a national security adviser to four U.S. senators has seen several defense secretaries in action, examines the unique challenges of this office to learn why the failure rate has been so high. SECDEF focuses on how the secretary performs in the broader world of national security policymaking, how he handles civil-military relations in planning strategy and wars, how he functions on the National Security Council and deals with the president and secretary of state, and how well he performs as a politician, especially in dealing with Congress. In office, Charles Stevenson finds, these men have tended to fall into one of the three general roles for executing such responsibilities: revolutionaries, firefighters, or, the most common role, team players. Stevenson analyzes each type for its defining characteristics and evaluates individual secretaries. This book will appeal to defense professionals and students alike and to readers interested in American defense and foreign policy who want to learn more about the important role often played by the person informally labeled the SECDEF.

Author Bio

Dr. Charles A. Stevenson teaches courses in American foreign policy at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was a longtime professor at the National War College, where he directed the core course on the interagency process for national security policy. He has executive branch experience, including service on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and served for 22 years as a Senate staffer on defense and foreign policy. He is the author of a study of the congressional role in major military operations, Congress at War; a historical survey of U.S. civil-military relations, Warriors and Politicians; and a comparative analysis of U.S. Secretaries of Defense, SecDef. He was a member of the Project on National Security Reform and headed its working group on Congress. He has an AB and PhD from Harvard.


"I learned a tremendous amount from SECDEF and enjoyed the process of learning. Charles Stevenson has combined encyclopedic knowledge of Pentagon history, a graceful and entertaining writing style, and provocative insights to produce an original and very valuable book. It is particularly useful in connecting debates about Secretary Rumsfeld’s leadership during the current Iraq war with the decades-long evolution of the SECDEF’s role."—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of National Defense

"Charles Stevenson has written a fascinating and insightful work that masterfully captures the character and performance of some of America’s secretaries of defense. It is a rare look and brilliantly written analysis of the men who have held this powerful position."—Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Ret.), former commander in chief, U.S. Central Command

"This insightful book fills a surprising gap in literature about national security. Drawing on long experience inside the Washington Beltway and sharp analytical skills, Stevenson brings into focus the varied operating styles, successes, and failures of twenty secretaries of defense--a job often second in importance only to the president’s. No other book surveys this complex of strategic, managerial, political, and personal issues as thoroughly, sensibly, and readably as this one."—Prof. Richard K. Betts, director, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University

"Stevenson's book is an excellent primer for those with orders to [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. . . .Delving into Stevenson's book on this rarely addressed subject will give the reader a deeper understanding of this important office."—Great Lakes Bulletin

"Students of this period of American political, diplomatic, or military history can profit from this book and instructors of national security and defense policy courses will find it most useful."—Parameters

"A clear, concise, and readable history of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD)…nicely fills a gap in the literature…perfectly suited primer for officers and civilian professionals who need or desire to understand the OSD, including those pursuing professional military education or a degree in security studies…This first-rate book should find its way onto syllabi in professional military education and security studies courses, the shelves of officers and Department of Defense civilians aspiring to develop themselves professionally, and the desks of congressional staff members who oversee this powerful institution."—Air and Space Power Journal

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