From 1946 to 1949 Wheeler held various staff positions in France and Germany, and in November 1951, now a full colonel, he commanded the 351st Infantry in Trieste, Italy. From then until 1962, he alternated European and U.S. commands with Pentagon staff positions, being promoted to brigadier general in November 1952, major general in December 1955, lieutenant general in April 1960, and full general in March 1962.
In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy appointed Wheeler U.S. Army chief of staff. Almost immediately, his deft handling of racial confrontations at the University of Mississippi in Oxford impressed administration officials. In July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Wheeler chairman of the JCS. He held this position for six years, a record that no subsequent incumbent has yet surpassed. Although he sought to enhance the bargaining power of the JCS by persuading all service heads to maintain a unanimous united front on military issues, in practice decision making often rested with Robert S. McNamara, the dominating secretary of defense.
The most controversial issue facing Wheeler was the Vietnam War, on which he consistently took a strongly hawkish line. He disliked the Johnson administration's gradual escalation of the war, an ad hoc strategy that Wheeler thought likely to prove ineffective, and unavailingly pressed political leaders to call up reserve forces to supply the manpower needed to meet American commitments in Vietnam and elsewhere. The JCS never, however, came out forthrightly to their civilian superiors to condemn the graduated response strategy and demand the application of overwhelming force against the enemy, an omission that subsequent historians have fiercely criticized. Nor did the JCS, including Wheeler, express their reservations over the Johnson administration's limited rather than full-scale air bombing campaigns.
Wheeler consistently endorsed commanding General William C. Westmoreland's requests for additional manpower. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, Wheeler urged Westmoreland to demand an additional 206,000 troops, a requirement that he apparently hoped would trigger the call-up of reserves but instead helped to precipitate the Johnson administration's March 1968 decision to open negotiations with a view to withdrawing American forces. Wheeler also supported President Richard M. Nixon's controversial 1969 decision to begin secret air strikes on communist sanctuaries in Cambodia.
After suffering several heart attacks, at least partly due to stress and frustration over Vietnam, Wheeler retired in July 1970. He died in Frederick, Maryland, on 18 December 1975. One significant legacy of his tenure as chairman of the JCS was that subsequent American military leaders came to believe that the United States should not intervene in military situations unless civilian officials were prepared to endorse the employment of forces sufficient to guarantee swift and overwhelming victory.
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Cole, Ronald H. The Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1949–1999. Washington, DC: Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2000.; Korb, Lawrence J. The Joint Chiefs of Staff: The First Twenty-Five Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.; McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.; Perry, Mark. Four Stars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.; Webb, Willard J. History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1969–1970. Washington, DC: Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2002.