Stephen Ailes; Army Secretary in ‘60s


Stephen Ailes, who served as undersecretary and then secretary of the Army during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died of congestive heart failure June 30 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 89.

Ailes also was a member of the Intelligence Oversight Board, which was created by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 to monitor U.S. intelligence operations.

As an antitrust lawyer with the Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson, he wrote the charter for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

His years as secretary of the Army coincided with an initial commitment of troops in Southeast Asia that over the next decade would swell to more than 500,000 and engulf the United States in one of the most divisive conflicts in its history. In a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy in June 1964, Ailes disclosed that the Army had 10,000 men deployed in South Vietnam to help defeat a communist insurgency, but his announcement drew little notice from the media.


Ailes was born in Romney, W.Va. He attended Alexandria, Va.'s Episcopal High School and graduated from Princeton University. In 1933, he received a law degree from West Virginia University, where he later became a professor.

Colorblindness kept him out of military service during World War II, but Ailes was recruited for civilian service by the Office of Price Administration, which had been created to fight inflation during an expected period of wartime industrial expansion.

“What the hell is inflation?” Ailes is said to have asked the man who recruited him, noting that the nation was just emerging from a sustained period of falling prices during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, he took the job, and by the end of the war was the agency’s general counsel.

After the war, Ailes remained in Washington, where he joined Steptoe & Johnson. In 1947, he took a leave of absence to serve as counsel to a U.S. mission to help stabilize the government in Greece. From that mission came a recommendation of U.S. financial aid. “The Truman Doctrine grew out of that and the Marshall Plan [for economic assistance to postwar Europe] out of that,” Ailes said later.


He was named undersecretary of the Army when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, and Army secretary on the resignation of Cyrus Vance in 1964. On his watch, the Army dealt with riots in the Panama Canal Zone, where Ailes helped negotiate a settlement. Army forces also provided disaster assistance after earthquakes in Skopje, Yugoslavia, and Anchorage. U.S. troops were dispatched to protect Americans and end a civil war in the Dominican Republic, and Ailes helped negotiate an agreement with West Germany for joint development of a new tank.

From 1972 until 1977, Ailes took another leave of absence from Steptoe & Johnson to serve as president and chief executive of the Assn. of American Railroads. He then returned to the law firm, where he retired in 1985.

Survivors include four children; a sister; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.