FPI's CMDH/CSBA Book Event: Elvis’s Army

On September 28, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History co-hosted events for Dr. Brian Linn with the Office of Secretary of Defense Historical Office and the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Dr. Linn, professor of history at Texas A&M University spoke about his newest book “Elvis's Army: Military Transformation in the 1950s.” FPI Intern Oliver Thomas summarizes key points presented by Dr. Linn during the events.

With the coming of the Atomic Age, General Maxwell D. Taylor and Major General William C. Westmoreland sought to transform the U.S. Army into a revolutionary force, capable of operating state-of-the-art weapons systems and adapting to a myriad of adversaries on the battlefield. Achieving this goal proved far more difficult than either man anticipated. Following the Second World War, demobilization imposed numerous cutbacks on the Army’s infrastructure, manpower, education, leadership, and reputation. In short, the Army had to deal with a looming “readiness” problem in the face of tactical nuclear warfare.

Army doctrine clashed with President Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look policy, which prioritized strategic nuclear weapons over tactical ones. The New Look called for a sustained downsizing of American conventional forces, pressing adaptive measures on the Army. Many of the resulting changes to the Army led to failures in command control structure and leadership quality.

The Army sought to adjust to the realities of the Eisenhower era by transforming itself to conduct a new form of limited atomic warfare. Chief of Staff Taylor created “pentomic” divisions aimed at improving troop mobility, self-sufficiency, and reaction time in a nuclear war. New doctrine, new technologies, and new organizations were required to ward off the threat of thermonuclear apocalypse.

To provide the manpower for the transformed Army, Westmoreland and Taylor attempted to educate young soldiers in technical knowledge, literacy, and strong character. However, competition with civilian companies undercut the Army’s efforts to recruit and retain highly trained personnel. A large number of the draftees and officers who filled the ranks suffered from a lack of motivation or skills, depriving the Army of the capability to operate and maintain highly complex machinery and weaponry.

Bridging the gaps between quality and quantity in the enlisted and officer ranks remained an issue for the Army up to the Vietnam War. Generational, cultural, and educational schisms among officers exacerbated the micromanagement that is endemic to a peacetime army. Centralized authority, bureaucratic regulations, and bad leadership drove talented men out of the organization. Training practices were incongruent with the vision of atomic warfare. Instead of empowering soldiers and granting them decision-making agency, the Army bureaucracy imposed petty restrictions and dictated solutions. The Army’s effort to sell itself as a positive and enjoyable undertaking for young citizens could not offset the widespread complaints about dreary conditions during deployment.

With the prospect of further budget cuts and a need for adaptive measures to contemporary threats, today’s armed forces should reconsider the debates over military readiness and tactical capabilities in light of the experiences of the 1950s Army. The so-called “revolutions in military affairs” touted in current discourse are strikingly similar to those mentioned in the fifties. They assume that material and technological solutions can dispel complex, multi-domain threats, glossing over problems of personnel. Initiatives to train, educate, and retain personnel should lie at the center of the Army’s restructuring.

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