• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

In the Bowels of Behemoth

Now, almost eight years later, Senator Javits implies that Gilpatric’s role was minor, almost incidental, and says:

Hindsight indicates that Mr. Gilpatric would have been better advised to have avoided even the appearance of impropriety by not taking part in the final decision to any extent, but this falls a good deal short of a “flagrant conflict of interest” as charged by the report.11

Senator Muskie, who ran interference for Gilpatric during the hearings, did not mention Gilpatric in his own “Individual Views” but “associated” himself with the individual views of Javits. The New York Times, in an editorial (January 2), took a similar tack, saying that Gilpatric was “less than frank” about his relationship with General Dynamics but did not appear to have played “a major role” in the decision. The Washington Post, of which Gilpatric is a director, carried a similar editorial (December 29), “The End, We Hope, of The TFX Affair.” The affair came too close to home for the liberal establishment.

What the record shows is that Mr. Gilpatric was a commuter between Wall Street and the Pentagon. He has been with the Cravath firm since his admission to the bar in 1931. Twice he left his law firm, one of Wall Street’s most prestigious, for a “tour of duty” in the Defense Department with which many of his firm’s clients did business. He served as Under Secretary of the Air Force from 1951 to 1953 and as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1961 to January, 1964. He told the committee that both times he had retired from the firm and broken all ties with it to take the defense post. He denied that in both cases these were merely leaves of absence—which would clearly have raised conflict of interest questions.

But the McClellan investigators found that his law firm in 1951 advised its insurance broker to maintain his group insurance because he was on “a leave of absence…to serve as Assistant [sic] Secretary of the Air Force.” His group insurance and that of his private secretary (who accompanied him from the firm to the Pentagon) was continued in 1961-63, on the same assumption that he was again on a leave of absence. Gilpatric claimed that he had retired from the firm in 1961 but admitted to the committee, “It is a reasonable expectation that I will return to the Cravath law firm.” The expectation proved reasonable. After three years he did return to it and (as the TFX report notes) “was advanced in seniority, moving above six other senior partners to the No. 4 position in the firm.” 12

This slippery record goes far to explain the suspicions that will always cling to the TFX affair. The New York Times said, quite correctly, that the report provides no evidence to support “the rumors that President Kennedy favored General Dynamics over Boeing, the rival bidder, because he was politically indebted to its principal stock-holder [then and now again Henry Crown of Chicago—IFS] or because its plant was in Vice President Johnson’s home state.” A Congressional investigation is too coarse a sieve to catch such shadowy deals, which require neither letters nor phone calls. They need not even necessarily involve actions that look particularly dishonorable from the inside.

Defense is a giant pork barrel; politicians fight to get contracts for their home cities and states; the arms manufacturers—who live in a cost-plus world—are easy sources of campaign funds. Henry Crown, who moved into General Dynamics with Kennedy’s election, was a No. 1 “fat cat” of the Cook County machine which turned in the votes that made the hair’s breadth difference between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. For Fort Worth and Texas, the TFX contract was a major plum. From the standpoint of national politics, the prime contract with General Dynamics went to the Convair plant in Texas, with twenty-four electoral votes, and the biggest subcontract to Grumman in New York with forty-five votes, while an award to Boeing would have put the prime contract in the state of Washington with nine electoral votes and the main subcontract in Kansas with eight votes which go Republican anyway.

These are not matters which politicos discuss in public, though sometimes the smaller fry are frank about them. “During the course of the last year,” Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth told Richard Harwood in a Louisville Courier-Journal interview,13 when the TFX furor was at its height,

I talked about this subject with everybody I could get to listen. Believing that good and adequate reasons existed for giving fair and just consideration to the General Dynamics submission, I made it my business to try to persuade people to this point of view. I am not ashamed of that. I considered it my duty. There is nothing sinister about it. I made no secret of the fact. I talked to both military and civilian officials. I tried to be as persuasive as I knew how to be.

It may be that Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, unlike Wright, remained above the TFX contract battle, unaware of the stakes in employment, electoral votes, and campaign contributions, but that is hard to believe.

No politician has been more acutely conscious than Johnson of the political leverage in defense business. When he was first elected to the House, his first committee choice was Naval Affairs, which is knee-deep in oil as well as arms business. When he was first elected to the Senate in 1948, his first choice was the Armed Services Committee. Two years later Johnson persuaded its chairman, Senator Russell, to establish a Preparedness subcommittee and make him chairman.

Richard F. Kaufman’s caustic and surgical new book, The War Profiteers, tells amid much else the story of how Johnson made this subcommittee the sounding board of the Air Force lobby and discovered the “missile gap.” Kaufman is economist-counsel for the Joint Economic Committee in its investigation of defense procurement under the chairmanship of Senator Proxmire. He notes that Texas rose from eleventh to second largest recipient of defense contracts when Johnson was in the White House. It may be that Johnson kept hands off the TFX but it would take a computer to figure the probability; the fraction would be infinitesimal.14

These things are done in the Byzantine bowels of the Pentagon, well hidden from the public eye. The Navy has a legislative liaison office which issues reports—for internal circulation only—on contract lobbying. The existence of this office was turned up and a copy of one of its reports was obtained by a lively group of college students who swooped down on the Pentagon in the summer of 1969 and came up in a sassy new book, The Pentagon Watchers, with many tidbits that put us older reporters to shame. One of them was this Navy paper, which dealt with efforts to sell the Fast Deployment Logistics Ship program. As described in the book, this report shows how closely the services and their industrial contractors synchronize their activities on Capitol Hill:

A number of key Congressmen are listed under the heading “Completed Action and Results” followed by the individuals who visited them to discuss the FDL program. The paper notes that “Mr. Dan Houghton (Lockheed) talked to Senator Russell. The Senator was not responsive. Direct contact by Navy personnel required.” Senator Kennedy and Congressman Burke were “contacted by Mr. Roger Lewis (General Dynamics), who explained the overall merits of the program. Follow-up briefing required.”15

The McClellan Committee might have subpoenaed similar internal “public affairs” papers recounting Air Force and Navy, General Dynamics and Boeing lobbying in the TFX affair. But that would have been as damaging to the bomber admirals on Boeing’s side and put the committee in conflict with the military. It is hard to believe that General Dynamics was any less active in the much larger TFX contract than it was in the FDL affair, and that it was not useful to General Dynamics to have its former lawyer and de facto director on the inside of the process, at McNamara’s right hand.

The concept of conflict of interest rests on a calculus of probabilities—not on a documentation of corruption after the fact—and on the observation that, in the government of men, appearances may be as important as reality. A man disqualifies himself because the probability of his being able to disengage himself from his interests is not high, and to keep his government agency free from suspicion. Over and above these chaste abstractions is the cynical but undeniable observation that private interests all too often infiltrate government for their own advantage. Gilpatric could have saved himself and his chief from inquisitorial pursuit if he had simply disqualified himself from any part in the TFX contract.

His failure to do so was made worse by his persistent efforts to mislead the McClellan Committee as to his close ties with General Dynamics. This invited the bitter suspicions it aroused. Perhaps the most unctuous passage in the hearings occurred on November 20, 1963, 16 when Gilpatric tried to make it appear that his connections with General Dynamics and other defense contractors were a positive asset in his job. “Is it fair to say,” Senator Javits asked him, “that in your judgment the President of the United States knew at all times that in your capacity as Under Secretary [sic] of Defense you were passing on important matters relating to former clients or clients of your former law firm?” Gilpatric replied:

I am sure he did, Senator, because I think one of the reasons he selected me for this position was because I had had this kind of broad business experience. If I hadn’t had it, I don’t think that I would have been as well qualified as I trust I have been for this office.

It would be wonderful if Gilpatric could have proved this by testifying that he gave McNamara the benefit of his experience with General Dynamics by warning him that Convair had a poor record as compared with Boeing. Or by advising McNamara not to get involved in the kind of contract McNamara finally signed with General Dynamics. This—the McClellan Committee afterward found—prevented termination of the agreement for default, insulating the company from penalty if it failed to meet the specifications.17

Gilpatric was a major piece in the chess game, but the moves were made by more powerful forces. Nor were his the only actions which invited suspicion. In the middle of 1963, after the McClellan Committee found that Boeing’s bid was lower and that the Air Force and Navy source selection teams had found its proposal technically superior to that of General Dynamics, the Defense Department’s files were closed to the committee. But the materials it needed had already been obtained by the staff, probably from its military allies in the Pentagon. The death of Kennedy, who was—with Johnson—the ultimate target of the inquiry, seems to have shocked the subcommittee into inactivity.

  1. 11

    TFX Report, “Individual Views,” p. 97.

  2. 12

    Ibid., pp. 48-9 for all of this paragraph.

  3. 13

    Quoted in Adam Yarmolinsky, The Military Establishment, pp. 39-40.

  4. 14

    A month after General Dynamics won the TFX contract Lyndon Johnson visited the Fort Worth plant, as I pointed out in The New York Review two years ago, and was greeted by union members waving banners which said, “LBJ Saved The Day” and “We’re Here To Say Thanks to LBJ.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 12, 1962, pp. 180-1, also in my Polemics and Prophecies: 1967-70 (Random House, 1971).

  5. 15

    pp. 130-1.

  6. 16

    TFX Hearings, Part X, pp. 2694-5.

  7. 17

    TFX Report, pp. 86-9.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print