“Just What the Air Force Needed”

July 1, 1961

Gen. Thomas Dresser White, the soldier-scholar who has just vacated the Air Force’s most impor­tant staff desk in the Pentagon, has left an imprint on USAF history. It is not easy to define this imprint in 1961, on the threshold of military aerospace opera­tions, but when the transition is complete there will be no doubt of his role.

It is not likely that another man with General White’s particular blend of talents ever again will be Chief of Staff. It is equally improbable that USAF ever again will need a man with his particular blend of talents in that position. The reason is simple.

As the General himself puts it, he was running USAF at the very climax of the technological revolution, at a period when the number of problems was matched only by the variety and criticalness of the possibilities. His objective had to be the proper expansion of USAF’s area of operation out of the atmosphere and into space. At the same time, and for the same reason—to protect our national security—he had to keep a foot in the door to ensure continued operation of manned systems and a foot in another door for missiles.

“Pretty soon,” the General has commented, “you run out of feet.” The task of trying to hold onto existing capabilities, rush the utilization of new systems, and prepare for whatever it is that technology will bring next, is staggering.

Eugene Zuckert, present Secretary of the Air Force, has suggested in private conversation that “the right man for the times” doesn’t always show up with eligi­bility for the job but that “Tommy White was just what the Air Force needed.” Mr. Zuckert has known General White since1947 and, in the previous Demo­cratic Administration, was instrumental in selecting the General for his first Headquarters assignment as Director of Legislation and Liaison in 1948.

It is both interesting and germane that General White never was a combat hero and that the qualities that made him “just what the Air Force needed” when he became Chief of Staff four years ago are not those usually attributed to combat heroes. General White has been described as “a thoroughgoing professional and a global intellectual, a military and civilian thinker.” Newspaper photographers never have been able to take pictures of his near-professional interest in ichthyology and there is little military folklore built around officers who are adept in seven foreign languages, in­cluding Russian and Chinese.

General White leaves the Pentagon with few critics and no vociferous enemies. He has been cussed out, as he was by an Army lieutenant in the Pacific theater when he wandered too close to the enemy lines. Tommy White was fishing that day and had a lapse when he forgot there was a war going on. He later requested a commendation for the lieutenant.

During General White’s administration, the fighting strength of USAF has been drained, if that strength is measured on the conventional yardsticks of aircraft wing structure and personnel. The number of wings has dropped from 137 in 1957 to a scheduled eighty-four in 1962.

This depletion got fully under way almost at the same moment that General White moved up to the Chief’s post, replacing Gen. Nathan F. Twining. Presi­dent Eisenhower put White House impetus behind the effort to cut the armed forces. Congress was trimming the budget. General White consistently stressed the real nature of the Russian threat in the face of these decisions.

It is possible to find men, in uniform and out, who feel that General White has fought a smart battle but a feeble one for Air Force interests. Members of his own staff, seething with ire and straining for conflict, have been coolly reminded by the Chief that they are working first for the United States and that the national good comes before that of the Air Force.

Soon after his appointment in 1957, Time Magazine called General White a “brilliant, unobtrusive West Pointer with a flair for understatement.” It went on to say that this “tall, austere airman with a ramrod-back carriage well knows the Russian danger, well knows the need to tighten and use the bomber force in being to best advantage. …” Time pointed out how General White’s staff duties in the Pentagon ever since 1948 had brought him close to the fast-changing airpower scene and observed that he “invariably made it his business to emphasize how the Soviets were catching up.”

If we turn now to 1961, on the eve of his retirement, there is testimony that he still has his eye on the ball. It was on April 11, the day before a Russian Air Force officer, Maj. Yuri A. Gagarin, made an orbital trip around the world, that General White told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Russians “may put a man in space in the very near future.”

Said he, without knowing there was a countdown already under way behind the Iron Curtain:

“There can be no question that the Soviet Union has progressed to a point where it is one of the very few nations, perhaps the only one outside of our own, that can afford to support a forced draft, sustained explora­tion of all fields of science pertinent to military power.

“During the coming years we can expect the Soviets to expand their efforts in research, to make additional major scientific advancements and, concomitantly, to achieve great progress in their military development programs.

“It is obvious to me that the Soviets no longer walk in our footsteps. On the contrary, they are breaking new ground on their own, after an apprenticeship dur­ing which they have forced the pace through a combi­nation of native ingenuity and maximum exploitation of the free world’s own research and development results.”

Then there was a touch of jousting with the school, still strong in political circles, which holds that space is not an area where victory or defeat can or will be determined:

“In my mind,” General White said firmly, “it is par­ticularly significant that Soviet efforts in the military exploitation of space have an extremely high priority.

“Apart from their lunar probes of 1959 and their re­cent probe directed at Venus, however, Soviet explora­tion of space has been concentrated on the near-earth region—the logical area for the near-term expansion of military aerospace power … [they] could launch a large space platform—truly a major rung in the ladder to the achievement of effective space weapon systems. …

“It is apparent that the Soviets have demonstrated by intensive research and development programs … that they would like to acquire a clear military advan­tage at the earliest practicable date. Meanwhile, they are pruning away large masses of obsolete and obso­lescent forces from their existing strength.”

Then the General sounded his warning:

“On the basis of these actions … I believe that a very critical period is upon us. In fact, I consider the total power represented by the growing Soviet aero­space strength to be perhaps the greatest threat in the history of our country. To disregard this fact would be tantamount to inviting military inferiority, to degrada­tion of our total security position, and almost certain failure to obtain our national objectives.”

Later in his testimony the General was equally spe­cific and determined in his defense of the B-70 Mach 3 bomber system in the face of an Administration deci­sion to speed the transition to reliance on long-range missiles. And he challenged some of the basic ideas on which predominantly nonmilitary men had made the choice.

General White pointed out that missiles are “a static nondynamic system, like the Maginot Line . . . the na­tion which as a whole places its defense, and its most vital part of it, entirely on a static system is going to develop a psychology from which it cannot react in time of war.”

Missiles, he pointed out, are the least flexible of weapon systems. The orders are go or no go and this will be a handicap if nuclear war comes with the “greatest confusion that mankind has ever known.” And if nuclear arms are outlawed, which the General sees as a possibility, missiles will provide a way to launch conventional explosives only in the most diffi­cult, expensive, and useless way.

These are telling arguments put in General White’s characteristic dispassionate way. Their effect on Con­gress was that steps were taken to continue bomber production. They show why Robert Smart, counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, says General White always has been successful with the “soft sell” and that “his intellect alone is enough to command re­spect.” Mr. Zuckert points out that this respect is held by such diverse and experienced congressmen as Carl Vinson, House Armed Services Chairman; L. Mendel Rivers, Daniel J. Flood, and George H. Mahon. “They always know he is not bluffing,” the Secretary says, “and they take his opinion seriously.”

All of General White’s associates, including Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, retired Army Chief of Staff, stress his constant ability to put national interest before service interest. It was General White who suggested and quietly encouraged the formation of an interservice group to handle the selection and allocation of strategic targets, a proposal that was widely and deliberately misinterpreted as an effort to put the Polaris submarine system into the arsenal of the Strategic Air Command.

More recently he reached an agreement with Gen. George H. Decker, Army Chief of Staff, that would give the ground forces a decisive voice in the selection of certain tactical air systems. This is a move that irri­tated many men in Air Force blue, but General White says he made the approach on his own authority be­cause he “was convinced it was best for the United States and the long-range good of USAF itself.” The agreement illustrates another characteristic of the General that Time brought to the surface in 1957: He has the ability, the magazine said, “to steer clear of cliques and cabals, and win a reputation for sheer performance, for all-out mastery of Air Force doctrine and operations.”

One officer, who has worked far into many long nights preparing USAF position papers for Congress and the Defense Department, says that General White’s greatest strength may lie in the fact that he always can recognize what is, and is not, worth fighting for. In making these choices he was certain to make some people unhappy, yet he convinced the men closest to him with a frequent midnight lecture on “The Art of the Possible.” Under the circumstances of the past four years, this colleague maintains, a master of this art is the only kind of person who could have been effective as Chief of Staff.

General White graduated from West Point when he was eighteen years old and was one of the youngest men ever commissioned by the US Army. He stood 148 in his World War I speedup class of 270 new officers. His fitness reports are generously sprinkled with super­latives and only rare dissents. One commander, in 1939, called Major White an “excellent officer, one of the best I know.” The endorser wrote: “I do not concur. I consider this officer superior.” The endorser was a major general named H. H. “Hap” Arnold. In another case, four years earlier, 1st Lieutenant White was given a straight superior rating with superlative comments. The endorser in this case, who never became Chief of Staff himself, disagreed on the premise that no young officer could be that good.

History, of course, proved that Hap Arnold was a shrewd judge. He also would have applauded General White’s later career in the Head Shed and his con­sistently honest approach to his job.

This high regard is no monopoly of general officers. General White is credited with strong consideration for teamwork and morale. In the South Pacific, the record shows, he was the first commander to enforce a rule giving enlisted men flooring in their tents before officers. Once in his fishing clothes, which he dons at every opportunity, the stars are gone and with them the rank.

Last September, during the Air Force Association’s Annual Convention at San Francisco, General White was the speaker at the reunion luncheon of the Night Fighter’s Association at the St. Francis Hotel. The first thing he did was tell them—a ballroom of men with as much attachment for their birds as the cavalry had for horses—that he did not want to appear with any mis­understanding about who he was.

“I,” the General said with his shoulders back, “am the man who canceled the F-108 Mach 3 interceptor.” He explained that he faced a choice between this air­craft and the B-70 Mach 3 bomber and could not war­rant support for both systems. He said further that he picked the B-70 because it presented a bigger, more potent, and costlier threat to the Russians.

There was a silence after the admission and a touch of tension seemed to quiver between the speaker and his audience. The General repeated, “I am the man who canceled the F-108.” Then, from the back of the room, a voice almost aghast with surprise: “Well, hello there.” Laughter broke the tension and there was a round of applause for the Chief of Staff.—End