The term "flexible response" was first popularized in Taylor's book The Uncertain Trumpet (1959). In it, Taylor issued a scathing critique of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's New Look defense posture as he described the internal military debates that raged within the Eisenhower administration. Taylor proposed a new military strategy that would enable the United States to continue to compete with the Soviet Union at a time of approaching nuclear parity. Flexible response would provide the United States with more options in future crises by downplaying the concept of massive nuclear retaliation, which was clearly not applicable to many military confrontations. Critics of Eisenhower's New Look policy argued that it actually made the nation less safe, increased the likelihood of a nuclear exchange, and presented only two options in a face-off with the Soviets: surrender or suicide.
Taylor was particularly incensed about the disparity in spending among the various branches of the military that had developed under Eisenhower's tenure. The army's share of military spending had declined precipitously during the 1950s as Eisenhower shifted resources to nuclear deterrence via the air force and, later, the navy. Accordingly, although flexible response called for maintaining and modestly expanding the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal, the strategy expected that conventional military forces would be used in instances and in places where nuclear weapons might not provide a decisive military victory or would be disproportionate to the situation at hand.
By supporting a substantial increase in spending for conventional arms, flexible response implicitly rejected the economic principles that underlay Eisenhower's New Look strategy. Eisenhower had argued that the United States could not sustain a level of military spending in excess of 10 percent of gross national product; thus, the New Look policy sought to achieve and maintain a stable deterrent to the Soviet Union without bankrupting the economy. By contrast, in advocating flexible response, Taylor maintained that the U.S. economy could sustain higher defense expenditures, and he specifically called for tax hikes to pay for these increases.
Flexible response was put into practice in early 1961 under the direction of President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Believing that relative nuclear parity between the two superpowers had given cover to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's "wars of national liberation," Kennedy expanded conventional forces and also encouraged unconventional and counterinsurgency military forces, including the U.S. Army's Special Forces and the U.S. Navy's Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams.
Forces created under the guise of flexible response largely failed to play a decisive role during Kennedy's administration, but a newly expanded army was increasingly deployed in Southeast Asia in the late stages of Kennedy's term. Flexible response was given its greatest practical test during Lyndon B. Johnson's tenure as president. Constrained in the use of nuclear weapons by Soviet and Chinese threats, Johnson and Taylor prosecuted a conventional war in Vietnam using the very forces and weapons that had been constructed as part of flexible response. Aircraft designed to drop nuclear weapons rained conventional bombs on Vietnam, and naval forces patrolled the waters of the South China Sea.
Flexible response was never formally abandoned as military policy, but the fallout from the Vietnam debacle prompted future presidents to adopt alternative strategies for competing with the Soviet Union.
Christopher A. Preble
Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.; Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.; Taylor, Maxwell D. The Uncertain Trumpet. New York: Harper, 1959.