Academic journal article Military Review

The Story Behind the National Security Act of 1947

Academic journal article Military Review

The Story Behind the National Security Act of 1947

Article excerpt


Harry Truman was at Washington D.C.'s National Airport on Saturday, 26 July 1947, waiting impatiently to fly home to Missouri to see his dying mother. First, however, he wanted to sign a long-delayed bill reorganizing the government to deal with national security matters. Congress had completed action on the measure, but the printing office had closed, so there was a delay in preparing the bill for Truman's signature.

A little after noon, congressional clerks brought the bill on board the Sacred Cow, the four-engine C-54 presidential plane. Truman promptly signed it, as well as an executive order setting forth roles and missions for the Armed Forces and a paper nominating James Forrestal to be the first Secretary of Defense. An hour later, en route to Missouri, Truman learned that his mother had died. Meanwhile, just before adjourning until November, the Senate quickly approved Forrestal's nomination by voice vote. (1)

The press hailed the National Security Act of 1947, public law 80-253, as a major accomplishment. Headlines called it a "Unification Bill," although it fell far short of merging the Armed Forces. In fact, it created an independent Air Force and preserved the autonomy of the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. The new law did not even create the Department of Defense--only the awkwardly named National Military Establishment headed by a Secretary of Defense with just three special assistants. The secretary had only limited power to "establish general policies and programs" and "exercise general direction, authority, and control" over the service departments. (2)

In 1949, amendments to the law gave the position more power and created a regular Department of Defense. However, there have been few other significant changes in the 60 years since Truman signed the original bill.

The story behind the act is a tale of bitter interservice rivalry, clever alliance building with Congress, clashing ambitions--and, yes, a desire to strengthen America's defenses so it could exert global leadership and counter the emerging Soviet threat.

Wartime Experience

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran World War II directly from the White House, working with and through four senior military officers--two Navy admirals, Ernest King and William Leahy, and two Army generals, Chief of Staff George Marshall and Chief of the Army Air Forces Hap Arnold. These four became the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), but the president never issued an order describing their roles or powers. They met at least weekly as a group to develop consensus recommendations to the president, and they met with their British counterparts as the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Although the system seemed to work surprisingly well, General George C. Marshall and others in the Army started advocating a clearer, centralized structure early on.

Marshall believed that unity of command in the various theaters of war needed to extend to Washington as well--in the form of a single chief of staff who could resolve disputes among the military and assign clear priorities for plans and budgets. Reformers also wanted to create a policy structure that minimized the role of personal idiosyncrasies and maximized rational strategic planning. FDR's management style dismayed even his loyal admirers, such as Secretary of War Henry Stimson. As Stimson confided to his diary in 1943, "The President is the poorest administrator I have ever worked under in respect to the orderly procedure and routine of his performance. He is not a good chooser of men and he does not know how to use them in coordination." (3) Many senior leaders did not want the same organizational chaos to continue under Harry Truman.

In April 1945, a JCS committee on "Reorganization of National Defense" recommended creating a single Department of the Armed Forces with a civilian head above a military commander of the Armed Forces. …

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