Stuart Symington

Feb. 1, 1999

The United States Air Force was exceedingly fortunate to have among its early patrons two famous men from Missouri. These were President Harry S. Truman, who understood the necessity for an independent Air Force, and industrialist W. Stuart Symington, chosen by Truman to be the first Secretary of the Air Force.

Both had strong personalities, and they battled vigorously over the fundamental issue of the size of the independent United States Air Force and its share of the defense budget. The battles did not impair their friendship, however, and Truman would later become a strong supporter of then-Senator Symington as a presidential candidate.

Both men were indispensable to the founding of the Air Force, and both contributed substantially to its welfare in the years to come. Yet they were physically and temperamentally far apart and came from very different backgrounds.

Truman, the son of a mule trader and farmer, was smaller, stockier, and had the common touch of a politician who had worked his way up from the ranks. Symington, patrician son of an Amherst College professor, was tall, urbane, and sophisticated. During World War I, Truman became a captain in the artillery. Symington enlisted as a private and was commissioned at 17 as a second lieutenant. Truman did not attend college. Symington went to Yale.

Their business careers showed the most pronounced differences. Truman’s series of business failures as a farmer, lead-mine owner, oil prospector, and haberdasher are well-known. In contrast, Symington went from success to success, either engineering successful start-up companies or rescuing companies in distress.

Talent Spotter

Curiously enough, it was Symington’s series of successes in private business that caused Truman to single him out for service to the government. A lesser man might have resented the success of a younger, handsomer, better-educated, more socially adept business tycoon; instead, Truman approved of Symington and put him in positions where the government could benefit from his talents.

Fortunately, despite their powerful personalities and differences, they had similarities that bound them together to the benefit of the Air Force. They were patriots who objectively put their country’s interests ahead of their own. They were hard workers, who were willing to delegate but still demanded results from subordinates. Both were blessed with a basic common sense that made it easy for them to work together even when their beliefs did not coincide.

An important factor in their relationship, not fully appreciated at the time, was that they served together during an era when the powers of their respective offices were at their peaks. Each fostered independent thought from subordinates, but each was the master of his house who made the final decisions.

Symington was born on June 26, 1901, at Amherst, Mass. After his wartime service and four years at Yale, he went to work for his uncle in the shops of the Symington Co. of Rochester, N.Y., where he learned the ropes of manufacturing malleable iron products. The village of Geneseo, near Rochester, was the home of his bride, Evelyn Wadsworth, the daughter of Sen. (and later Rep.) James W. Wadsworth of New York. They were married in Washington, D.C., in 1924.

In 1925, Symington founded Eastern Clay Products, Inc., but two years later he returned to his uncle’s firm as the executive assistant to the president. Even in a family operation, he was no pushover, being fired at least twice by his uncle for being too outspoken.

His executive mettle was not to be proved fully until the Great Depression, when he became a specialist at turning companies around. In 1930, he became president of the Colonial Radio Corp., then desperately close to bankruptcy. He restored it to economic health, in part by securing a contract to make Silvertone radios for Sears Roebuck. The company was purchased by Sylvania for what Symington termed “a good price.” In 1935 he took over the Rustless Iron and Steel Corp., improved its situation, and added to his reputation as an evenhanded manager who could deal fairly and successfully with unions. After having by 1937 made a virtually derelict business profitable, he sold it to the American Rolling Mill Co., again for “a good price.”

With what would prove to be some historical irony, he was recommended by James V. Forrestal, his future boss in the Department of Defense, to take over and turn around the moribund Emerson Electric Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis. He became president in 1938 and charmed the banking world into advancing the firm the necessary capital, even as he charmed the truculent unions into an unprecedented cooperative campaign to save Emerson. And he succeeded, in part by re-establishing his contact with Sears and selling them Emerson’s arc welders and electric motors.

Setting the Stage

By 1940, Emerson had been turned around. The company had built an entirely new modern plant-just in time to launch a hugely successful wartime manufacturing enterprise that concentrated first on building artillery shells by the millions and then building gun turrets. For Symington, the stage was set for a career in government that would raise him first to the Senate and then to strong consideration as a presidential candidate.

Symington knew absolutely nothing about gun turrets. Still, he was asked by William S. Knudsen, former head of General Motors and then the director general of the newly created Office of Production Management, to go to England in 1941 and become an expert. He was to study aircraft armament, especially the British powered turrets with which British bombers (and the Boulton Paul Defiant fighter) were equipped. He returned to St. Louis in June 1941 and, with characteristic directness, visited US manufacturers of similar equipment. He pirated three engineers from Preston T. Tucker’s Detroit automotive firm and soon had a contract for 1,000 machine gun turrets per month.

Difficulties in converting the British turrets (which carried .303 Brownings) to handle US .50-caliber guns resulted in his brand-new plant building turrets for other manufacturers, including Sperry, during 1942. But a wide variety of excellent Emerson turrets were developed. By 1944 they were being produced at the rate of 70 per day. More than 12,000 of the Model 127 Emerson nose turrets were produced.

Symington had a hands-on management style; he walked the production lines, exhorting his workers to remember that every turret they built saved American lives. In time, his Emerson Electric Co. would become the world’s largest airplane armament plant. The company produced huge quantities of power-driven nose and tail turrets for American bombers. Sales jumped from $4.9 million in 1940 to $114 million in 1944.

Symington ran Emerson Electric with a modern management style-delegated authority, good reporting systems, and tough cost accounting. His first official contacts with then-Sen. Harry Truman, head of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, were not auspicious. Truman’s investigations were rigorous, shining a spotlight on defense contractors who were not performing efficiently. His committee’s reports pulled no punches on aviation production fiascoes.

The tremendous expansion of Emerson Electric had caused some problems in accounting and in production, and Truman’s committee was tipped off. Symington met face to face with Truman and presented a defense that highlighted government interference with normal Emerson procedures.

Making an Impression

The Truman Committee eventually exonerated Emerson. The future President had been impressed by Symington’s defiant but reasoned defense of his business. In July 1945, Truman asked Symington to join the government as chairman of the Surplus Property Board. In October of that year he became administrator of the Surplus Property Administration. These were important jobs, for the torrent of American production had flooded the world with everything from boots to tanks. Stacked in endless quantity in ports, supply depots, and open fields, the American equipment and goods were an immediate source of controversy. Any left abroad or destroyed could cause a public outcry about the sheer waste. Yet the cost of bringing home much of the material often exceeded its worth. Further, some materials, if brought home, could depress the market for manufacture of replacement goods. Symington mapped out commonsense programs that distilled as much value as possible from the surplus war material while offending as few people as possible.

Symington viewed his public service as a short-term move. He had hoped to return to Emerson Electric after six months, but Truman had other ideas. He appreciated Symington’s excellent management at Emerson Electric and saw that it had been confirmed by his success with the thorny problem of surplus property.

Truman had become President after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he offered Symington a choice of three positions: assistant secretary of the Navy for air, assistant secretary of war for air, or assistant secretary of state. Aware that creation of an independent Air Force was imminent, Symington opted for assistant secretary of war for air.

It was an excellent choice, not least because he was following in the footsteps of Robert A. Lovett, who held the job in the war years under Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Lovett was one of the most influential and important officials in the executive branch. He had worked well with Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, and Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, and he had been of almost decisive importance in gearing up the US aviation industry for wartime production. Lovett had more than a passing interest in operational issues as well.

Symington established immediate rapport with Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces and soon to be first Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. He became an outspoken advocate of airpower and soon reached a modus operandi with Spaatz that would continue when the Air Force became independent. Although deeply interested in every aspect of the service, he did not make the mistake of assuming that his managerial experience translated to military expertise. He gladly left the operational elements to Spaatz and his staff. Instead, Symington used his talents to impose an overall management style on the Army Air Forces and to work smoothly with the other services, Congress, and the public.

Tightening Down

As assistant secretary of war for air, Symington realized that he had an opportunity to chart a positive course for the future independent Air Force by establishing an effective cost-control system, which included a comptroller equivalent in rank to a deputy chief of staff. Brig. Gen. Grandison Gardner was his first comptroller. Gardner was succeeded by then­Brig. Gen. Edwin W. Rawlings, a great leader and administrator. Rawlings, who had earned a Harvard MBA degree in 1939, made the comptroller operation powerful and effective.

The success of Symington’s efforts in this field are all the more important because they came just after World War II, when the main objective was to win the war and costs were a secondary consideration. After V-J Day, Congress would no longer be so openhanded, and Symington would have to battle for every dollar, no matter how well-managed.

It was generally recognized immediately after the war that the services were going to be reduced in size and a more unified command structure was necessary. The US Navy felt threatened by the impending changes, feeling that an independent Air Force and the Army would gang up against it in the fight for funds. The Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, was opposed to the concept that eventually materialized in the National Security Act of July 26, 1947, which established the Department of Defense. Forrestal was selected as the first Secretary of Defense, in part to mollify the Navy.

Unlike Symington, Forrestal was not a personable leader, and while the two men were longtime friends and respected each other, they did not get along because their points of view on the disposition of the budget and the operation of the Department of Defense were often diametrically opposed. Ironically, Symington urged that the Secretary of Defense should be given more authority, including power to dismiss the service secretaries. Instead, Forrestal sought to coordinate, rather than lead, the service departments.

That decision was unfortunate, for the next several years would see the new Department of Defense engaged in internal battles over roles and missions and budget share. The decisions made on roles and missions tended to be compromises that made future arguments inevitable. The defense budget levels were so unrealistically low that the roughly equal divisions that were made were irrelevant: None of the services were adequately funded.

The No. 3 Power

Forrestal’s personal management philosophy turned out to be greatly to the benefit of the Air Force, for Symington had greater power than any subsequent Secretary. The Secretary of the Air Force (because of the nuclear bomber) was in fact the third most powerful man in government, after the President and the Secretary of Defense. Symington used this power wisely to get the brand-new Air Force up and running.

The first Secretary of the Air Force stated his objectives forthrightly. They were:

  • A 70-group Air Force, considered by Spaatz’s team to be the minimum required for peacetime defense.
  • A trained Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
  • An adequate commercial transport industry to support Air Force needs and
  • A healthy aircraft and component production industry.

He would labor valiantly for all four, persuading Congress and the public and responding to requests from Spaatz and later Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. At the same time he had to deal with a series of controversies. The first of these concerned the illegal wartime activities of Maj. Gen. Bennett E. Meyers, who had embezzled public funds with false contracts given to a company he owned. Symington, in characteristic fashion, gave the public a full view of the case, and Meyers was dismissed from the Air Force. He was successfully tried in a civil court. As a direct result of this case, Symington established an Office of Special Investigations to ferret out fraud and impropriety.

Symington’s sterling character and integrity were also demonstrated in the trumped up charges made by the Navy against the procurement of the Convair B-36 in 1949. As George M. Watson points out in his excellent book The Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, 1947-1965, “He took control, marshaled his forces, orchestrated the Air Force’s case, and in presenting compelling testimony, carried the day. He performed brilliantly, demonstrating the authority of his position and settling the issue of civilian control of the military services.”

Although Symington listened to his military staff, he left no doubt that he was unquestionably the boss. He monitored every aspect of the Air Force’s operation and was particularly concerned about the welfare of enlisted personnel. His whole management style was characterized by the way he operated during the Berlin Airlift. He left the operational matters to his generals but did take an active interest in resolving unpleasant living conditions for the enlisted personnel. Symington was also an advocate of research and laid the groundwork both for USAF’s Arnold Engineering Development Center and the Air Force Academy.

His greatest management characteristic was courage. He fought hard for the 70-group Air Force, even after Forrestal and Truman tried to bring him into line. His efforts effectively destroyed his relationship with Forrestal and Louis A. Johnson, Forrestall’s successor as Secretary of Defense, and even impinged on his strong friendship with the President. So strong were his feelings that the Air Force could not do its mission with less than 70 groups that he resigned as Secretary of the Air Force on April 24, 1950. The outbreak of the Korean War two months later more than confirmed his judgment.

Symington demonstrated his loyalty to Truman by staying on with government, becoming chairman of the National Security Resources Board and administrator of the Reconstruction Finance Corp. In 1952, he became the junior senator from Missouri, serving four terms.

Tail Gunner Joe

As a senator, Symington conducted himself with dignity and continued to fight for the Air Force and other military services. His finest hour came in the spring of 1954, when he sat on both the Armed Services Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. The latter was being used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in mad-dog attacks on everyone, including the United States Army. Symington decided to take on McCarthy (who derisively referred to him as “Sanctimonious Stu”) in the famous televised hearings.

The results were devastating for McCarthy, whose thug-like tactics were revealed to the public. Symington conducted himself brilliantly, responding sharply and with dignity to McCarthy’s almost random assertions. At one point in the hearings Symington looked straight at McCarthy and said slowly, “You said something about ‘being afraid.’ Let me tell you, Senator, that I’m not afraid of you. I will meet you anytime, anywhere.”

Symington led the charge for others, such as Army lawyer Joseph N. Welch, whose famous question-“At long last, have you no sense of decency?”-marked the decline of McCarthy’s career.

His excellent record made Symington a likely candidate for the 1960 presidential contest, although he recognized that only a deadlock between the front runners-John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson-would give him a chance. The primaries eliminated even this slender option, but they also made Symington the logical candidate for the vice presidential slot. His longtime friend, Clark M. Clifford, stated unequivocally in his memoirs that the newly nominated JFK unconditionally offered Symington the position. Symington had always said that he did not want the vice presidency but was persuaded to accept. The next day, political reality dawned, and Symington supporters, including Robert Kennedy, were stunned to find out that JFK had reneged on his offer and, in deference to Texas’ electoral count, turned to Lyndon Johnson as his running mate.

Symington accepted the situation gracefully and even persuaded a reluctant Truman to join him in campaigning for Kennedy. Given Symington’s 1967 decision to oppose further US involvement in the Vietnam War, it is interesting to speculate what the course of history might have been if there had been a Kennedy­Symington ticket.

Symington had been a capable and effective Air Secretary, maximizing both his strengths and that of his military leaders by paying close attention to their advice. He worked with very limited funds compared to either World War II or the years subsequent to his time in office, but he was devoted to modernizing the Air Force with a steady concern for the welfare and morale of its men and women.

As Secretary, Symington had authority and used it. The role of the service secretaries would be continuously downgraded by amendments to the National Security Act that transferred authority to the Secretary of Defense. Robert S. McNamara would take full advantages of the legislative changes and use these powers to their fullest, further weakening the service secretaries’ offices.

Symington had the courage to resign when the policies he knew to be necessary were not backed by the Administration. Fortunately for the Air Force, and the country, he was able to serve with even greater distinction as a US senator.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 400 articles about aviation topics and 29 books, the most recent of which is Beyond the Horizons: The Lockheed Story. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Nickel Grass,” appeared in the December 1998 issue.