Creighton Abrams and the Rise of the Modern Military

In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed General Creighton Abrams as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Previously, Abrams had replaced General William Westmoreland as the commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). In that role, he had overseen the expansion of the war into Cambodia, as well as the withdrawal of 90 percent of U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. Overall, Nixon was not particularly pleased with Abrams’s performance as the MACV commander, and thus, in a surprisingly common move, decided to promote him to the highest position within the Army. This move allowed Abrams’s subordinate, General Frederick Weyand. Abrams’s tenure as the commander of MACV can be considered undistinguished, at best, and is generally criticized within military history circles. However, as the Chief of Staff, he proved to be a decisive visionary whose influence is still strongly felt today.



Abrams believed that the long war in Vietnam had not only cost the United States enormous amounts of blood and treasure, it had also sapped the public’s confidence in the military, and cost tremendous political capital for little gain. As Chief of Staff, he pushed for the transition to an all-volunteer military, a massive transformation of how the services would handle their constant need for new personnel. No longer would young men be drafted into service, as had been the case for more than five decades. Instead, the Army and the other services had to engage in recruitment within the marketplace, competing as an employer with limitless other options for America’s youth. In order to be an attractive employer, rather than a refuge for those who could not obtain any other form of employment, Abrams knew the military would need to raise pay, offer benefits not found elsewhere, and increase the standard of living for military personnel. Over the next few years, the Department of Defense pushed heavily for transformations in how troops were housed, fed, clothed, and paid.



Abrams understood that military service could offer a purpose that could not be found among other employers, and that volunteers were more likely to join and stay with an organization if they felt their work was meaningful and fulfilling. As the Army pivoted away from operations in Vietnam, the Cold War focus upon deterring Soviet aggression returned its gaze to Europe. However, strategists feared that if the Soviets chose to launch an attack into central Europe, there would be little that the United States could do on the ground to stop it—American forces utilized obsolete equipment, were poorly trained, and would likely have to resort to the use of nuclear weapons in very short order. Abrams resolved to create another option for his commander-in-chief than the terrible choice of using nuclear weapons or surrendering control of Europe.



In his effort to modernize the equipment of the U.S. Army, Abrams identified a massive number of systems that simply could not compete with their Soviet counterparts. The 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, between Israel and its Arab neighbors, demonstrated that while the US was bogged down in Vietnam, the Soviets had made significant advances—and had supplied them to client states in the Middle East. Thus, U.S. observers were able to get a first-hand look at how American equipment supplied to Israel fared against Soviet technology—and the results were jarring—in six short years, Soviet equipment had not only matched, in many cases it had exceeded that used by American troops. Given that the US had always assumed that better technology would offset the larger number of forces fielded by the Soviets, this created the possibility of a disastrous setback in Europe.



Abrams certainly understood the value of marketing. Although he had identified a much larger number of necessary acquisitions, he focused his lobbying efforts on the “Big Five,” a short phrase that quickly caught on. In his Big Five, Abrams called for a new main battle tank; an armored personnel carrier; an attack helicopter; a transport/utility helicopter; and an air defense system. These five programs soon bore fruit, namely the Abrams M1 tank; the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle; the Apache attack helicopter; the Blackhawk transport helicopter; and the Patriot air defense missile. Of those five systems, four remain at the heart of U.S. Army combat operations today—only the Bradley has been substantially replaced, while the other systems have remained not just operational, but dominant, through various modernization and upgrade programs.



The Big Five program has been repeatedly hailed as one of the most effective and efficient acquisitions programs in history. In each case, the development programs managed to field a major weapon system that has withstood the test of time. In addition to providing this first-rate equipment for combat, the Big Five paid major dividends in recruiting—what other employer could offer the opportunity to utilize this type of technology on a daily basis? Army recruits became fiercely supportive of their branch of service, and the special tools it employed. In Operation Desert Storm, the Big Five faced its first major combat tests—and when matched against contemporary Soviet equipment, proved to be massively superior, allowing the United States to once again rely upon technological advantages to offset the larger numbers of potential adversaries.


Creighton Abrams did not live to see the effects of his efforts. He was diagnosed with cancer and died at Walter Reed Army Hospital in his second year as the chief of staff. But, his legacy remains, not only in acquisitions programs created during his tenure, but also in the reliance upon volunteers rather than conscripts to serve as the defenders of the nation. Thanks to his efforts, and those of his peers and successors, the military is not a reviled institution seen as the last refuge for the underclass of society. It has emerged as the most trusted institution in American society, a viable path for economic and social mobility, and a profession that can be selective in its membership because it offers so many benefits to those who join.