Small Wars Journal

The Tale of Two Generals Who Became Secretary of Defense

The Tale of Two Generals Who Became Secretary of Defense by Chuck Allen – U.S. Army War College’s War Room

Flag officers are esteemed members of American society, both inside and outside the military. By and large, they exhibit the best qualities of leadership and character the nation has to offer. They also have decades of experience gained through their military service; in times of peace, conflict, and national crisis, they have proven themselves in varied contexts. So, when the commander-in-chief and president of the United States calls upon retired flag officers to continue serving as high-ranking civilians, it reflects well on the officers and those who served under them. Their effectiveness and success are determined by the relationships they develop and sustain with civilian leaders. Importantly, the character of their service informs the study of civil-military relations and has implications for the profession of arms.


A particularly great honor is bestowed on those called upon to be Secretary of Defense. It might seem natural that retired flag officers would be considered for that position; they, after all have demonstrated both relevant expertise and willingness to defer to elected officials. Nonetheless, the U.S. tradition of civilian control is strong. The National Security Act of 1947 emplaced a cooling-off period of ten years between commissioned active duty service and appointment to be Secretary of Defense. The current Title 10 U.S. Code specifies a separation of seven years. Though more than half of the secretaries of defense have served in the military—whether in the active or reserve components—most were not career officers.


Thus, only two general officers have returned to government to serve as Secretary of Defense, Army General George C. Marshall and Marine Corps General James N. Mattis. Both Marshall and Mattis received congressional waivers, after which they were confirmed by the Senate. However, in approving their appointments, Congress reaffirmed the law’s intent. The 1950 legislation passed specifically for Marshall to allow his retention of the rank of General of the Army, conveyed this quite directly, “It is hereby expressed as the intent of the Congress that the authority granted by this Act is not to be construed as approval by the Congress of continuing appointments of military men to the office of Secretary of Defense in the future.” This statement of congressional intent begs the question, is having a military officer serve later as Secretary of Defense a good or bad thing? Examining the tenures of Marshall and Mattis may offer some insights…

Read on.