- Adapting to Flexible Response: 1960–1968 by Walter S. Poole
Like America as a whole, U.S. defense procurement passed through a period of great turbulence in the 1960s, and it is still affected by the controversial legacies of that decade. In both cases, much of the turbulence was generated by the war in Vietnam, but defense procurement was roiled even [End Page 998] more by the seven years Robert S. McNamara served as secretary of defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. This period is covered in Walter S. Poole’s Adapting to Flexible Response: 1960–1968, the second in a series of official histories of U.S. military procurement in the years since 1945. The title refers to the doctrine implemented by the Kennedy administration that moved U.S. military strategy away from the Eisenhower administration’s focus on nuclear weapons to a greater emphasis on conventional arms.
More jarring than flexible response for the military services were Mc-Namara’s aggressive moves to centralize and rationalize weapons procurement in an Office of the Secretary of Defense enlarged with the presence of “whiz kid” experts from business and academia. To many critics, the F-111 swing-wing fighter that McNamara urged on both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy came to symbolize the failings of the defense secretary’s efforts to impose commonality on the different services. In his telling of the F-111 story, Poole outlines how the varying requirements of the air force and the navy complicated the creation of this aircraft and led to its ultimate rejection by the navy.
The F-111 is naturally one of the major programs Poole selected for discussion in this book to illustrate the impact on military procurement of changing military strategy, McNamara’s reforms, and the Vietnam War. Other troubled weapons like the M-16 gun, and successes like strategic missiles and submarines, TOW missiles, and laser-guided bombs, are also explored. Amid these discussions of individual weapons, Poole takes into account the viewpoints of contractors, the services, and the defense secretary and his officials, along with those of the end users, making this book a superb reference for those looking for information on how weapons advanced or failed to advance during this pivotal decade. A unique feature of this period was the air force’s plan to send its own personnel into space, and the rise and fall of the air force’s space ambitions are explained here.
The shadow of Vietnam fell on many new weapons systems not related to that conflict, not only in the form of financial cutbacks, but also in terms of competition for skilled engineers and workers as the war demanded its own new weapons. Vietnam also made calls on existing weapons designed for use in other settings, and challenged producers of helicopters, among others, to adapt to the special requirements of this conflict.
Poole relates the work of McNamara and his officials to management trends in the corporate world from which many of them came, and while the author argues that many of the changes they made to military procurement have continued to the present day, more elaboration on this point would have been helpful.
Official histories such as Adapting to Flexible Response rarely contain groundbreaking ideas on the history of technology, just as they don’t challenge orthodox ideas about history, but they serve as a vital reference for [End Page 999] anyone interested in the area covered, in this case military research and development. The disciplined and dispassionate approach taken by Poole provides a good counterpoint to often-heated treatments of controversial topics like weapons in Vietnam. The Kennedy presidency brought with it political, managerial, and technological hubris that foundered in the rice fields of Vietnam and the streets of America’s inner cities on the watch of Lyndon Johnson. Adapting to Flexible Response is far from the last word on defense issues during those turbulent years, but it makes a...