Nearly three in 10 defense secretaries never served in the nation’s Armed Forces

With Leon Panetta slated to be the nation’s 23rd Secretary of Defense this summer, the U.S. Army will have yielded its first head of the Defense Department since the mid-1990s.

Panetta served in the Army from 1963 to 1965, exiting with the rank of First Lieutenant.

Of the 21 men who have been appointed Secretary of Defense over the last 64 years, seven have come from the Navy, with seven from the Army, and one from the Air Force. (With Donald Rumsfeld, who served 13th and 21st defense secretary, counted just once for the Navy).

More than one in four defense secretaries, however, never served in the Armed Forces, or six of 21 (29 percent).

Four of these six men without military service were appointed by Republican presidents: Charles Wilson (Eisenhower), Neil McElroy (Eisenhower), James Schlesinger (Nixon), and Dick Cheney (George H.W. Bush).

Harold Brown (appointed by Carter) and William Cohen (Clinton) also never served. (Brown had been a consultant to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board from 1956-1957, a member of the Board from 1958 to 1961, and Secretary of the Air Force from 1965 to 1969).

Of the seven defense secretaries who have served in the Army, five achieved a higher rank than Panetta’s First Lieutenant: George Marshall (Five-Star General), Robert McNamara (Lieutenant Colonel), Louis Johnson (Captain), Caspar Weinberger (Captain), and Les Aspin (Captain).

Elliot Richardson, who was Secretary of Defense for less than four months in 1973, also was a First Lieutenant in the Army, while Clinton appointee William Perry was an enlisted man in the Army Corps of Engineers just after World War II and went on to reach the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves in the 1950s.

The Air Force has been represented by two well-known wartime defense secretaries: Kennedy appointee Robert McNamara (1961-1968) who headed the DoD at the beginning of the Vietnam War (and served in the U.S. Army Air Forces) and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Naval alumni are James Forrestral (1947-1949), Robert Lovett (1951-1953), Thomas Gates (1959-1961), Clark Clifford (1968-1969), Melvin Laird (1969-1973), Frank Carlucci (1987-1989), and Donald Rumsfeld (1975-1977, 2001-2006) who also served in the Naval Reserves.

World War II veterans Elliot Richardson and Melvin Laird were Purple Heart recipients while Robert McNamara received the Legion of Merit. George Marshall earned a Distinguished Service Medal as well as a Silver Star.

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  1. Jake W. on December 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    While Robert McNamara did serve with the air forces, during World War II it was still the US Army Air Forces (USAAF), not the US Air Forces (USAF). Technically, McNamara served in the Army and not the Air Force, since it was not created as a separate branch until 1947(*).

  2. Terry on October 18, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    I believe that only people who have served in the military should be appointed to the position of Secretary of Defense.

    • Marvin H. Taylor on November 10, 2016 at 11:20 am


      Can you imagine appointing someone who has never recived medical training or experience to Surgeon-General, or someone with no legal training or experience to Attorney-General. I rest my case.

  3. Bill G on November 19, 2016 at 2:08 am

    I was sure you cannot be the SecDef if you served as a high rank officer…

  4. Chris G on December 2, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Can you imagine someone who has never received medical training or experience to Surgeon-General, or someone with no legal training or experience to Attorney-General, or someone who have never held public office to be president. I rest MY case.

  5. Tom Tracy on December 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    If we’re going to make a general our Secretary of Defense, let’s revert to its previous name: Dept. of War. Appointment of a civilian chicken-hawk like Dick Cheney, of course, is no better.

  6. Andrew E. Valentine on January 12, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Finally! a former Marine is at the helm. Semper Fi! General Mattis. Oooh Rah!

    • Steven Brule on December 25, 2018 at 12:17 am

      Hahahahahahaha. Former Marine is in the unemployment line.

      • Sailor and Marine on December 30, 2018 at 8:12 pm

        Sadly he was the only adult in the room! Now that he is gone we are doomed!

  7. W. R. Boyd on October 13, 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Try as I may, I cannot find out how many Marines have served as Secretary Of Defensew…..

  8. W. R. Boyd on October 13, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    How many Marines have served as Secretary Of Defense?

    • Eric Ostermeier on November 3, 2017 at 2:55 pm

      Only current Defense Secretary James Mathis served in the U.S. Marines.

  9. max on February 8, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    Civilian control of the military is one of the oldest traditions of America’s constitutional government. It actually predates the Constitution itself; it very likely began in March 1783, when General George Washington deftly headed off a planned military takeover of the government –

    • Steven Rumbaugh on February 1, 2023 at 7:53 pm

      Thankfully, someone knows history and understands American government.

  10. John W on January 23, 2024 at 8:33 am

    The U.S. Military is complicated. I served almost 30 years, and there was so much, I still did not know? Having advisors to keep the secy Def, up to speed is one thing, but being in their boots, is another. I think the experience is valuable of serving in the Armed Forces. No matter what rank or how long. The understanding of how things are suppose to work, vs, the real world of how things may go wrong. Thank you all for your respected comments.

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