Laird, Melvin Robert

Laird, Melvin Robert

Laird, Melvin Robert, 1922-, American politician, U.S. secretary of defense (1969-73), b. Omaha, Nebr. After serving (1942-46) in the navy during World War II, he entered politics as a Republican and was (1946-52) a state senator in Wisconsin. As a member (1953-69) of the U.S. House of Representatives, he served on the appropriations committee where he actively supported a large military budget and a strong nuclear defense posture as well as increased funds for health and education. Laird became secretary of defense in President Nixon's cabinet and presided over the shift from a conscripted to an all-volunteer army. He supported (1970) the invasion of Cambodia and approved the strategy of bombing North Vietnam to force a peace settlement. After his resignation as secretary, he served (1973) briefly as counselor to the president for domestic affairs. Laird is the author of A House Divided (1962) and editor of Republican Papers (1968).

See M. R. Laird et al., The Nixon Doctrine (1972).

The United States Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) is the head of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), concerned with the armed services and military matters. This position roughly corresponds to Minister of defense in other countries. The role of the Secretary of Defense is to be the principal defense policy advisor to the President and is responsible for the formulation of general defense policy related to all matters of direct and primary concern to the DoD, and for the execution of approved policy The Secretary is appointed by the President by and with the approval of the Senate, and is a member of the Cabinet. By statute the secretary must be a civilian who has not served in the active component of the armed forces for at least 10 years (- Note that Congress had passed a law to allow George Marshall to be appointed in 1950 despite having only been a civilian since 1945). The Secretary of Defense is sixth in the presidential line of succession.


The position was created in 1947 when the Navy, Army, and newly created Air Force were merged into the new National Military Establishment. In the same massive reorganization, the Secretary of War was replaced by the Secretary of the Army and, along with the Secretary of the Navy and the new Secretary of the Air Force, became non-Cabinet positions placed under the Secretary of Defense. In 1949, the National Military Establishment was renamed the Department of Defense, which remains the current name of the department.


In the U.S. Armed Forces, the Secretary of Defense is often referred to as SecDef.

The SecDef and the President together constitute the National Command Authority (NCA), which has sole authority to launch strategic nuclear weapons. All nuclear weapons are governed by the two-man rule, even at the highest levels in government. Both individuals must concur before a strategic nuclear strike may be ordered.

The SecDef, as the head of the United States Office of the Secretary of Defense, is assisted by a Deputy Secretary and five Under Secretaries in the fields of Acquisition, Technology & Logistics; Comptroller/Chief Financial Officer; Intelligence; Personnel & Readiness; and arguably the most important, Policy. All of these positions require Senate confirmation.

The Secretary of Defense also supervises the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of the ten Combatant Commands.

Along with the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense is generally regarded as one of the "Big Four" important cabinet officials.

List of Secretaries of Defense

# Picture Name Term of Office President(s) served under
Start End
1 James Vincent Forrestal September 17, 1947 March 28, 1949 Harry S. Truman
2 Louis Arthur Johnson March 28, 1949 September 19, 1950 Harry S. Truman
3 General George Catlett Marshall, Jr. September 21, 1950 September 12, 1951 Harry S. Truman
4 Robert Abercrombie Lovett September 17, 1951 January 20, 1953 Harry S. Truman
5 Charles Erwin Wilson January 20, 1953 October 8, 1957 Dwight D. Eisenhower
6 Neil Hosler McElroy October 9, 1957 December 1, 1959 Dwight D. Eisenhower
7 Thomas Sovereign Gates December 2, 1959 January 20, 1961 Dwight D. Eisenhower
8 Robert Strange McNamara January 21, 1961 February 29, 1968 John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson
9 Clark McAdams Clifford March 1, 1968 January 20, 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson
10 Melvin Robert Laird January 22, 1969 January 29, 1973 Richard Nixon
11 Elliot Lee Richardson January 30, 1973 May 24, 1973 Richard Nixon
12 James Rodney Schlesinger July 2, 1973 November 19, 1975 Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford
13 Donald Henry Rumsfeld November 20, 1975 January 20, 1977 Gerald Ford
14 Harold Brown January 21, 1977 January 20, 1981 Jimmy Carter
15 Caspar Willard Weinberger January 21, 1981 November 23, 1987 Ronald Reagan
16 Frank Charles Carlucci III November 23, 1987 January 20, 1989 Ronald Reagan
17 Richard Bruce Cheney March 21, 1989 January 20, 1993 George H. W. Bush
18 Leslie Aspin, Jr. January 21, 1993 February 3, 1994 Bill Clinton
19 William James Perry February 3, 1994 January 24, 1997 Bill Clinton
20 William Sebastian Cohen January 24, 1997 January 20, 2001 Bill Clinton
21 Donald Henry Rumsfeld January 20, 2001 December 18, 2006 George W. Bush
22 Robert Michael Gates December 18, 2006 Incumbent George W. Bush

Line of succession

In an Executive Order of December 22, 2005, President George W. Bush modified the line of succession regarding who would act as Secretary of Defense in the event of a vacancy or incapacitation as follows:

  1. Deputy Secretary of Defense
  2. Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence
  3. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
  4. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics
  5. Secretary of the Army
  6. Secretary of the Air Force
  7. Secretary of the Navy
  8. Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)
  9. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Deputy


Despite being second only to the President in regard to military affairs, the position has only once been held by a retired general (George C. Marshall), although many Secretaries of Defense have had previous military service.


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