From New Look to Flexible Response: The U.S. Army in National Security, 1953-1963 Review


By Donald A. Carter.
Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2023
ISBN 978-1-95930-204-9
Photographs. Maps. Appendix. Further Readings. Index. Pp. xvi, 517

From New Look to Flexible Response examines how the U.S. Army recovered from the Korean War to become the Army that ultimately fought in Vietnam. Donald A. Carter captures the delicate situation senior Army leaders faced during the Eisenhower administration as the new president focused the government’s efforts on building a strong economy and fielding atomic weapons. For the nation’s land forces, this meant adapting to a vision where large-scale combat could be radically different from the past. Therefore, the Army focused on new weapons, organizations, and tactics for success in nuclear combat.

Many of the problems the Army faced in this period mirror what Army leaders face in contemporary times. After two decades of counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East, the Army seeks to modernize its equipment, organization, and tactics for the large-scale combat it envisions in the future. Carter discusses how the 1950s Army struggled to recruit volunteers and experimented with different programs to entice high-quality commissioned and noncommissioned officers to remain in the service. The same issues occur today, except for draft augmentation allowing for the fielding of over 800,000 active-duty troops by the later years of the Eisenhower administration. As with today, the Army believed engagement with the public through film and radio could help it reach audiences with a propensity to serve. The experiences and modes utilized during this period could be useful for leaders as they decide how to allocate recruiting resources today.

Carter continues with an examination of the Army’s evolution throughout the Kennedy administration, which possessed a different vision of the future battlefield, and supported Army senior leader requests for additional funding. In addition, the new administration favored views that small wars could be more common in a bipolar world and emphasized the need for Special Forces focused on irregular warfare. The nation’s ongoing and growing involvement in Vietnam enabled the Army to test new equipment as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures for Army forces advising in South Vietnam.

As for the greater Army organization, Carter describes the evolution from the Pentomic Army organization through the Reorganization Objective Army Division (ROAD). Following the Korean War, senior leaders sought to align with the administration’s vision for the future. Eisenhower’s New Look military along with the policy of massive retaliation envisioned atomic warfare as very likely. This meant the Army shrunk while the Air Force obtained a larger chunk of the defense budget. With the Kennedy administration, the vision shifted towards the likelihood of limited warfare and the need for a robust land force. Current Army reorganization similarly seeks to adjust for future warfare, with the division the principal unit in combat operations as opposed to the brigade combat team employed in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 The Army is in a period very akin to the 1950s and 1960s as it changes its mindset from fighting the type of war fought since 2001 to what might come next. The belief by senior Army leaders in the 1950s that their numbers could only be sustained through a draft is interesting in informing how the Army might respond to a future crisis or great power war. Would Congress reinstitute a draft? Surely, the military as a whole would see large numbers of volunteers as it has at the beginning of previous conflicts, but how would they sustain the numbers needed to win a protracted conflict? How will equipment and organizational decisions made today support the future force, and will they have as big an impact as the decisions to forge ahead with helicopters and airmobile units? While Donald A. Carter’s work is a thorough study of the Army during the years from 1953-1963, the issues of that time raise awareness about our own time, and the decisions the Army makes to prepare itself for the next war.

Major Michael Britt, USA
Edison, New Jersey