Following World War II, Gavin served in various staff positions. These included stints with the Department of Defense Weapons System Evaluation Group and the headquarters of the Allied Forces Southern Europe. He then commanded VII Corps in Germany. In 1954 he returned to Washington to serve as the deputy chief of staff for plans and in 1955 was assigned to the newly created chief of research and development position on the army staff as a lieutenant general, the youngest in the U.S. military.
Gavin was an innovator who advocated exploiting advanced technology to enhance American military capabilities. He conceptualized the use of helicopters to improve army mobility and is regarded as the father of the air assault concept. He criticized the emphasis on the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and long-range nuclear forces during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. Gavin argued for a more flexible force structure that could respond to limited-war scenarios. He strongly supported the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the modern battlefield, and he was also an early advocate of reconnaissance satellites and the military use of space. He was critical of the role played by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), urging that it should be limited to planning and that actual operations be carried out by integrated unified command staff, which would ease interservice rivalries.
Despite his criticisms, Gavin was slated for promotion to full general. But in 1958, on the eve of his promotion and assignment as commander of the Seventh Army in Europe and after thirty-three years in the military, he abruptly resigned from the army in frustration, saying that he would not compromise his principles.
Gavin retired from active duty in March 1958. That same year he published War and Peace in the Space Age. A critique of the Eisenhower administration's New Look military policy, it held that the United States needed strong conventional forces to deal with limited wars. Such ideas found credence in the early 1960s during the Kennedy administration.
Gavin was a senior executive for Arthur B. Little, Inc., until 1974, with a brief sabbatical during 1961–1962 when he was the U.S. ambassador to France. He opposed American involvement in Vietnam. Gavin died in Baltimore on 23 February 1990.
Jerome V. Martin and Spencer C. Tucker
Booth, T. Michael, and Spencer Duncan. Paratrooper: The Life of General James M. Gavin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.; Gavin, James M. War and Peace in the Space Age. New York: Harper, 1958.