Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986

Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986

Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986

Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986


The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 is the most important legislation affecting U.S. national defense in the last 50 years. This act resulted from frustration in Congress and among certain military officers concerning what they believed to be the poor quality of military advice available to civilian decision-makers. It also derived from the U.S. military's perceived inability to conduct successful "joint" or multi-service operations. The Act, passed after four years of legislative debate, designated the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the principal military advisor to the President and sought to foster greater cooperation among the military services. Goldwater-Nichols marks the latest attempt to balance competing tendencies within the Department of Defense, namely centralization versus decentralization and geographic versus functional distributions of power.


Since the beginning of the republic, our nation has struggled with how best to organize for defense. After World War II, the National Security Act of 1947 charted a new course, but over the years many flaws in the Act were identified --some serious. The U.S. Congress, on three occasions, tinkered with this structure, but fundamental change did not occur for almost four decades. Despite organizational flaws, we won the Cold War. However, each crisis demonstrated anew the system's shortcomings.

In January 1985, Barry Goldwater assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where I was serving as ranking minority member. We agreed to form a partnership to formulate and enact historic changes in defense organization. The Pentagon strenuously opposed our efforts, and the debate bitterly divided our committee. We succeeded in overcoming these obstacles with the great help of several key members of the Armed Services Committee. In May 1985, the Senate unanimously approved our proposed legislation.

In the House of Representatives, Congressmen Bill Nichols and Les Aspin led a similar effort. The sweeping legislation that emerged from the SenateHouse conference was named the Goldwater-Nichols Act after each house's leading proponent. "One of the landmark laws of American history" is how Aspin labeled the act. He added, "It is probably the greatest sea change in the history of the American military since the Continental Congress created the Continental Army in 1775." And he was right. Since passage of the Act, the American military has experienced numerous successes in battle and peacetime activities.

Yet, there is no time to be complacent. An increasingly complex security landscape confronts the U.S. military. The end of the Cold War opened a pandora's box of bloody ethnic conflicts and power-hungry dictators. As exempli-

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