The Pentagon’s 50th … And The Future For America’s Defense


The turning point came in February 1968 as the communists carried out a coordinated series of large-scale attacks across the whole of South Vietnam. On the field of battle they met defeat. But in the field of public opinion they scored a major success, for America had had no reason to expect such a blow. Similar setbacks had marked the progress of earlier wars, but now what told was that American leaders had failed to convince their people that the country had any major interest at stake, any compelling reason to be there. By the end of March, Lyndon Johnson had chosen not to seek reelection. Soon Richard Nixon was in the White House, with a mandate to withdraw the troops and end the war.

To a commander a retreat is among the most difficult of maneuvers, for it can readily turn into a rout. That was the situation facing the entire Pentagon in the years after 1968, years that saw a major stand-down. Though the budget remained nearly constant at $75 to $80 billion, inflation ran high; by 1974 the Defense Department’s purchasing power, in constant dollars, had fallen by 37 percent. Its budget fell from 9.5 percent of the gross national product to 5.8 percent, then fell further to 4.7 percent in 1979. With the Soviets conducting a large-scale build-up of conventional forces, our Army nevertheless still had the responsibility of countering any Warsaw Pact thrust into West Germany. The generals responded with a most uncertain trumpet, emphasizing that they would take the initial blow and fight on the defensive.


Nevertheless, the military was grappling in a serious way with the lessons of Vietnam. In 1973, with the ink barely dry on that war’s peace accords, we abolished the draft and returned to the concept of a citizen army. The Pentagon, supported by Congress, raised pay and benefits, while emphasizing that young people in the service would receive superb opportunities for training. These policies succeeded in attracting an all-volunteer force. Moreover, military service proved sufficiently enticing that many of the volunteers were high school graduates. As the new Army took shape, the draftees of Vietnam, who had spent their time counting the days of their one-year tours of duty while waiting eagerly to get back to the world, faded into memory.

Another reform accompanied President Reagan’s build-up, early in the 1980s. The flows of new equipment made possible a major new emphasis on combined arms. The Army made this change explicit in the 1982 revision of its principal manual of doctrine, FM 100-5. Gone now was its former emphasis on defensive battle. The focus now would feature an aggressively offensive approach known as Air-Land, which would demand close work with the Air Force. Rapid maneuver would complement the earlier emphasis on firepower, with the battlefield extending up to hundreds of miles in depth. Germany and the Warsaw Pact were still the anticipated theater and foe, but in this doctrine lay the main features of Desert Storm.

Unity of command also gained support. The Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 strengthened the hand of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, giving him new freedom to set priorities and to say no to chiefs of the individual services. It also set up new arrangements, within the Pentagon, aimed at promoting joint planning and coordinated activities involving these services. The chairman then could take on a role similar to that of MacArthur in Korea or Chester Nimitz during World War II, subordinating his colleagues’ rivalries and jealousies in the interest of a common effort. The nation saw the result during Desert Storm, when the chain of command was simple and clear: Bush in the White House, Richard Cheney as Defense Secretary, Colin Powell chairing the Joint Chiefs, Norman Schwarzkopf commanding in the field.

That 1991 war brought America its first unambiguous military success since the landing at Inchon, forty years earlier. It is true that Iraq would hardly bear comparison to the Warsaw Pact, and that Saddam Hussein proved to be a most cooperative enemy, giving Schwarzkopf all the time he needed for the U.S. build-up. Yet Iraq’s strength had to be taken seriously; Saddam had a world-class tank force, blooded in his recent war with Iran. And because he was a Soviet client, there was the prospect that Moscow would funnel men and equipment to Baghdad, to keep the war going.

Desert Storm had its share of spectacular actions. A star of the war was the Stealth fighter, the Lockheed F-117A, which had been developed in secrecy rivaling that of the Manhattan Project. It was advertised as being invisible to radar and took on the task of slipping past Iraqi defenses to strike at Saddam’s command centers. Also there were “smart” weapons, including laser-guided bombs and the Tomahawk cruise missile. The latter carried electronic maps within its onboard computer, permitting it to navigate through Baghdad’s streets like a tourist.