Gilpatric, Roswell Leavitt

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Gilpatric, Roswell Leavitt

(b. 4 November 1906 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 15 March 1996 in New York City), influential lawyer who served in the Department of Defense under Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Through his parents, Walter Hodges Gilpatric, a New York lawyer, and Charlotte Elizabeth Leavitt, a Congregationalist minister’s daughter, Gilpatric counted among his forebears a Mayflower pilgrim and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. From 1922 to 1924 he attended on a scholarship the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. Scholarships and part-time jobs likewise assisted him through Yale College and Yale Law School, where he earned a B.A. degree with honors in 1928 and an LL.B. in 1931. He was elected Phi Beta Kappa and edited the Law Journal for two years.

In 1931 Gilpatric joined the premier New York law firm Cravath, Swaine, and Moore (then Cravath, de Gersdorff, Swaine, and Wood) as an associate, making partner on 1 January 1940. The firm became his permanent professional base, which he left only for periods of government service. From 1966 until he retired in 1977 Gilpatric was the presiding partner. In the depressed 1930s Gilpatric handled corporate bankruptcies and reorganizations and international business; during World War II he advised large industrial clients, notably Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, on defense procurement matters. Until 1944 he also represented the government of Finland, facilitating its purchases of American war supplies, for which he was made a Chevalier of the Order of the White Rose. Among his postwar clients were several defense contractors, including General Dynamics, Olin, and the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation, which Gilpatric chaired from 1975 to 1977.

Gilpatric’s wartime activities triggered a lifelong interest in defense policy and government service, which accorded with the Cravath firm’s tradition of encouraging such outside occupations. In May 1951, during the Korean War, Gilpatric became assistant secretary of the air force for materiel, directing aircraft procurement and production. In October 1951 his effectiveness brought promotion to undersecretary, a post he held until January 1953. Gilpatric deplored waste and duplication within the armed forces and became a dedicated proponent of enhanced unification and systematic long-term military procurement.

Gilpatric served on the 1956–1957 Rockefeller Brothers Fund defense panel that produced the Gaither report, recommending major increases in weapons research and spending. In the summer of 1960 the Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, included Gilpatric in study groups on national security and the defense establishment. The latter group produced a report, to which Gilpatric contributed substantially, that further recommended unifying the armed services’ top command structures, abolishing the Joint Chiefs of Staff and enhancing the powers of the secretary of defense.

In January 1961 President Kennedy appointed Robert S. McNamara to the position of secretary of defense, with Gilpatric as his deputy. The two men quickly established a close working relationship; Gilpatric’s polish helped to soothe the resentments sometimes created by McNamara’s abrasive style. Gilpatric supervised procurement and overseas weapons sales, successfully persuading European allies to strengthen their defenses and narrow the dollar gap—the substantial imbalance in Europe’s favor between American spending in Europe and European expenditures in the United States—through massive purchases of American military supplies.

Gilpatric supervised early Defense Department policy planning on Vietnam. In April 1961 he headed a task force that recommended making moderate increases in U.S. aid to Vietnam (which President Kennedy endorsed), contributing some American ground troops, and publicly pledging U.S. intervention if needed to prevent a communist victory. As Vietnam’s significance grew, McNamara largely assumed personal control of Vietnam policy. In his absence, however, on 24 August 1963, Gilpatric approved a State Department cable endorsing a projected internal army coup against South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, a decision about which McNamara later had serious reservations.

During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 Gilpatric was a member of the executive committee created by Kennedy to handle the situation. When accompanying McNamara to meetings with the president, Gilpatric habitually said little. On 20 October the committee debated whether to launch direct air strikes on Cuban missile sites or merely impose a naval blockade on Cuba, the more cautious option McNamara and Gilpatric consistently favored. After both sides had spoken, Gilpatric summed up: “Essentially, Mr. President, this is a choice between limited action and unlimited action; and most of us think that it’s better to start with limited action.” Kennedy followed this advice, and ultimately the crisis was peacefully resolved.

Gilpatric originally intended to resign in mid-1963, but a lengthy Senate investigation into the Pentagon’s controversial award of the new TFX fighter contract to General Dynamics rather than Boeing delayed his departure until January 1964. Gilpatric’s previous role as lawyer for General Dynamics brought conflict-of-interest allegations, but a 5—4 vote of the Senate Permanent Investigations subcommittee eventually cleared him.

After leaving the Defense Department, Gilpatric wrote extensively on disarmament, military policy, and international affairs, consistently endorsing successive disarmament treaties and urging rationalization and civilian control of the defense establishment. Chairing a panel on nuclear nonproliferation appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in November 1964, Gilpatric made the controversial recommendation that the United States consider abandoning its proposed multilateral force. In November 1965 he cochaired a White House citizens’ committee that urged both superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—to prevent an arms race by instituting a three-year moratorium on producing or deploying defensive missiles. He publicly opposed the Nixon administration’s projected antiballistic missile system.

A debonair, though discreet, ladies’ man, Gilpatric was married five times. With Margaret Fulton Kurtz (married 18 June 1932; divorced 4 September 1945), Gilpatric had two daughters and a son, his only children. He was subsequently married to Harriet Heywood Wellington (25 October 1946; divorced April 1958); Madelin Thayer Kudner (18 September 1958; divorced February 1970); Paula Melhado Washburn (12 May 1970; divorced January 1985); and Miriam R. Thorne (2 May 1991 until his death). In the 1960s, Gilpatric’s frequent appearances escorting Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline, whom he accompanied on a 1968 Mexican vacation, sparked breathless media attention, which was rekindled in 1970 when several affectionate letters she had sent him earlier were stolen and published.

Cultivated, athletic, charming, polished, and impeccably tailored, the incisive and energetic Gilpatric took on numerous directorships and community, philanthropic, and fundraising activities. He was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 1972 to 1975 and a trustee of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He died of prostate cancer in New York City and is buried on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Gilpatric epitomized the American “eastern establishment”: the elite “in and outers” who, shuttling discreetly between the worlds of government service and corporate finance and law, largely directed the making of U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century.

Gilpatric deposited his papers, covering his public life from 1956 to 1967, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts. As yet there exists no full biography of Gilpatric. Material on his early legal career is included in Robert T. Swaine, The Cravath Firm and Its Predecessors, 1819–1947 (1946–1948). Primary source material on Gilpatric’s role in Vietnam policy and the Cuban missile crisis is in the relevant volumes of the Government Printing Office series Foreign Relations of the United States (1870-); Mike Gravel, ed., The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decision Making on Vietnam (1971–1972); and Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1997). Useful works on the American defense bureaucracy under Truman and in the McNamara years are Carl W. Borklund, Men of the Pentagon: From Forrestal to McNamara (1966) and The Department of Defense (1968); Doris M. Condit, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, vol. 2 (1988); Deborah W. Shaplen, Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara (1993); and Bernard C. Nalty, ed., Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force (1997). Informative summaries of Gilpatric’s contributions to successive Democratic presidential administrations are given in Eleanora W. Schoenebaum, ed., Political Profiles: The Truman Years (1978) and Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years (1976) and Political Profiles: The Johnson Years (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times (17 Mar. 1996), Washington Post (18 Mar. 1996), and London Times (18 Mar. 1996). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a memorial tribute in the Century Association’s Century Yearbook for 1997. Cravath, Swaine, and Moore holds an oral history interview with Gilpatric covering his legal career; the Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson presidential libraries hold various oral histories in which Gilpatric reflected on his public service.

Priscilla Roberts