Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Neil H. McElroy (1957–1959): Secretary of Defense

Neil Hosler McElroy was secretary of defense under President Eisenhower from October 9, 1957, to December 1, 1959. Prior to his appointment to the cabinet, McElroy's only political experience was in chairing a White House conference on education in 1955.

McElroy graduated from Harvard in 1925 as an economics major and began work in the advertising department of Procter and Gamble. He became manager of Procter and Gamble's promotion department in 1929, established a new branch in England in 1930, was made advertising and promotion manager in 1940, became vice president of advertising and promotion in 1943, and finally rose to become president of the company in 1948.

As Eisenhower's secretary of defense, the defining moment of McElroy's tenure took place five days before he assumed his duties: the Soviets launched Sputnik into space, prompting the United States to devote greater resources to the "space race." Because of his experience in advertising, McElroy was aware of the harm that Soviet space supremacy could have on U.S. morale.

McElroy tried to calm public fears by insisting that Sputnik did not prove that there was a missile gap, an advantage that the Soviets had in long-range missiles that could hit targets on U.S. soil. His assurances, however, did not persuade Congress, which created a new agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to make sure that the country could overcome the Soviet advantage in the space race.

He announced his intention to resign his post on March 12, 1959, and sent his letter of resignation on December 1, 1959, citing "reasons of an urgent nature." McElroy did not technically vacate his office until the confirmation of Thomas Gates as the new secretary of defense on January 26, 1960. After his resignation, McElroy returned to Procter and Gamble as chairman of the board until shortly before his death in 1972.