THE DEVELOPMENT OF POLITICAL-MILITARY
CONSULTATION IN THE UNITED STATES
Ernest R. May
This selection traces the origins of the National Security Council as a cabinet-level coor-
dinating agency for security policy.
In the Cabinet room of the White House, every Thurs day morning, the National Security Council gathers around a long, massive table. On the table are printed briefs reviewing some problem of national policy. Pre pared by the Council staff, these briefs blend the views of many departments and agencies, but in Council dis cussions the members and advisers rehearse these views once again. The Secretary of State and others suggest desirable solutions to the policy problem, while the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman the Joint Chiefs of Staff describe the military risks entailed in each alternative course of action. The Pres ident then reaches his decision, and the United States may acquire a new foreign policy or perhaps a new shading for an old policy.
Nearly all Americans agree on the need for this National Security Council. Everyone realizes that American policy has outgrown the Cabinet, just as atom has outgrown the college laboratory. Where, fifty years ago, Secretary of State Elihu Root could disre gard reports of a crisis in the Middle East, cabling American envoy, "Continue quarrels with missionaries as usual,"1 a similar crisis today would call out instruc tions to diplomats all over the world, orders to military and naval commanders, anxious discussions in Wash ington, and an earnest session of the National Security Council. Living in a world as sensitive as a can nitroglycerin, Americans accept the need for exact weighing of political and military factors before each policy decision.
The nation has acknowledged this need, however, for only a short time. Not before the 1940's would the majority of Americans have endorsed the rationale that underlies the National Security Council. Yet this rationale now seems self-evident: military forces are the rooks and bishops behind the knights and pawns of diplomacy; although the rooks and bishops move less frequently, their role in the game is no less decisive. Before the executors of foreign policy can decide what the nation ought to do, they must learn from political and military experts what the nation is able to do. They must lay objectives alongside capabilities, in the same way that business men compare the blueprints of design engineers with the estimates of cost accountants. In making foreign policy, in other words, ends must be measured against means.
Although this rationale won acceptance only recently, it is not new, even in the United States. Nowhere, in fact, is it more vigorously summarized than in Number 23 of the Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton. But long years of isolated safety smothered the idea of political-military collaboration. It found no new spokesman until Captain Mahan began to preach, late in the nineteenth century. Even then, the idea was not translated into action until after the conquest of the Philippines, when a few Americans, look
Reprinted with permission from Ernest R. May, "The Development of Political-Military Consultation in the United States," Political
Science Quarterly 70 (June 1955): 161–180.
Ernest R. May is professor of history, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.