Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Robert M. Gates (2009-2011): Secretary of Defense

Robert Michael Gates was born September 25, 1943, in Wichita, Kansas. He earned a bachelor's degree in European history from the College of William and Mary in 1965, a master's degree in history from Indiana University in 1966, and a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University in 1974.

From 1966 to 1968, Gates served in the U.S. Air Force. He joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an intelligence professional in 1966 and stayed with the agency for twenty-seven years. During his career at the CIA, he spent nine years at the National Security Council. From 1986 to 1989, he was deputy director of the CIA and then worked as deputy national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush until 1991. Gates was a close adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as they dealt with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, President Bush appointed Gates as the director of the CIA, making him the youngest director in the agency's history. He had a difficult confirmation hearing, however, because of questions about his role in the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration. As director, Gates turned the CIA efforts away from a Cold War orientation and towards issues such as nonproliferation, terrorism, and drug trafficking. He also helped establish better relations with the former Soviet Union. After leaving government, Gates became interim dean at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service in 1999, and from 2002 until 2006, he served as President of Texas A&M;University.

In December 2006, President George W. Bush nominated Gates to become secretary of defense, succeeding former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. As secretary, Gates was a supporter of the Iraq surge strategy that involved increasing U.S. forces in Iraq. He also endorsed efforts to improve communications and relations with both North Korea and Iran.

On December 1, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama announced that Gates would continue to serve as secretary of defense in his Cabinet. Obama cited Gates's "pragmatism and competence" as two of his most valuable assets. He also acknowledged Gates's primary responsibility in the administration: "responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control," as well as ensuring that the US has "the strategy—and resources—to succeed against al Qaeda and the Taliban."

Gates retired from the Department of Defense on June 30, 2011. He was replaced by Leon E. Panetta.