Air University Review, November-December 1977

The National Security Act of 1947:

Its Thirtieth Anniversary

Dr. Frank N. Trager

THE WAR was over. The Continental Army was to be demobilized. The problem of a standing peacetime army, if any, had now to be resolved. The Congress, not atypically even then, turned it over to a committee headed by Alexander Hamilton, and the committee sought advice from General Washington among others. The Congress rejected the recommendations of its committee and debated the issue. A congressional resolution under the Articles of Confederation would require affirmative votes from nine of the thirteen quarrelsome states. On the last two days of the session, in June 1784, the Congress voted terms of demobilization. All officers and men of what was left of the Continental Army--excepting "80 [87 according to another authority] artillery men retained to guard military stores at West Point"--were terminated with back pay. Further, the Congress tied this decision to another: recruitment of "a new force of 700 men, comprising a regiment of eight infantry and two artillery companies." Thus was born the Regular Army.

The Articles of Confederation gave way before the real problems of the thirteen states. The Constitutional Convention began its work in the spring of 1787; and in April 1789 Washington became President and Commander in Chief with executive power, "checked," of course, by congressional power of purse and power to declare war, to raise armies, and to provide for a navy. The Congress shared power over the militia with the several states. In August 1789 the new Federal Congress enacted legislation creating the cabinet-level Department of War, one of the three departments of the new constitutional Republic of the United States of America. The other two were State and Treasury. Thus was born the department concerned with the defense of the U.S.A.

General Henry Knox, who had succeeded Washington as Commander in Chief of the Army, was named the first Secretary of the Department of War. Its jurisdiction then included all U.S. land and naval forces. Though there were strong voices during the years of governance under the Articles of Confederation and during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 calling for a Navy Department separate from the Army, and though the Constitution authorized Congress "to provide and maintain a navy," considerations of expense and sectional benefits and rivalries among the states continued to postpone any such decision. l

Thus, as the Republic started on its course--and not since then--there was one unified military department of the U.S. government to "provide for the common defense," presided over by a cabinet-level Secretary of War with a Standing Army of 700-800 officers and men. 2 With the lessons of the European wars before them, the early congresses, except in wartime, proved to be generally indifferent if not hostile to standing armies. The Congress of today has not wholly cured itself of such attitudes. The "improvised Revolutionary Navy" (Sprout's phrase) had been liquidated by 1785. "All of the ships had been sold or given away leaving the United States with neither a navy nor a naval program. "3

Such depredations as holding American seamen for ransom and the pirating of American merchant ships and goods by the Barbary Coast powers renewed in the Congress the debate about a navy. And in 1794 by a narrow margin of two votes, the House of Representatives approved its special committee's report to create a "naval force of six frigates," to protect American shipping and to chastise Algerines and related Barbary Pirates. Four years later, in April 1798, the Congress established a cabinet-level Department of Navy, separate from the War Department. A politically effective and efficient merchant of Georgetown, Maryland, Benjamin Stoddert, was appointed as the first secretary of the new coequal defense sector of the government. These two cabinet-level departments, War and Navy, were to retain their names and their mostly uncoordinated and separate development throughout peacetime and wartime down through World War II.

This is not to imply that there were no changes in U.S. civil-military thinking and organization prior to WW II--quite the contrary. The Civil War and the Spanish-American War had profound influence on both the civilian and military leaders of America's defense establishment. A great Secretary of War, Elihu Root, succeeded at the beginning of the twentieth century in getting national attention and decisions about military reforms in the Army (e.g., in the system of military education, services of supply, and command and control) while breaking down some of the "walls of separation" between the Army and Navy.4 Earlier, the confluence of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S. Navy, a faculty member and fast-developing author at the newly founded (1884) Naval War College, and the newly appointed (1889) Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin F. Tracy, contrived to shake up the then stultified Navy, whose line leadership in the 1880s still held to "sails" first, "steam" only as needed! It took about a decade to effect changes in the Navy, but essentially Mahan's geopolitical and other concepts of sea power and command of the sea were vindicated in the war with Spain. They were further instrumentalized by a rising young political figure, Theodore Roosevelt, who became an Assistant Secretary of the Navy in March 1897, five years after he had published his first book, The Naval War of 1812.5 A disciple and friend of Mahan, Roosevelt was elected to the vice-presidency and became President of the United States in September 1901 when McKinley was assassinated. The Navy thrived.

To the political and organizational changes wrought within the two military cabinet-level departments, War and Navy, there emerged a third catalyst of change, technology, which in time would bring about further decisive legislative change. The nineteenth century had witnessed a quantum leap in the development of arms and armor. Rifled artillery, the machine gun, high-explosive artillery shells, the internal combustion engine and steam propulsion, steel and advanced armor in land and sea transport--all were products of the technological/industrial revolution of that century.

Prior to the advent of the nuclear / space age, perhaps the most important of these technological developments, certainly with respect to the development and organization of defense, was the introduction of the airplane. In August 1907, an aeronautical division was established in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army to "study" the new "flying machine" and the possibility of adapting it to military purposes. After World War I the National Defense Act of 1920 and the consequent Army Reorganization Act of the same year set up the Air Service as a separate branch of the Army. It was redesignated as the Air Corps in 1926. During World War II its fortunes were advanced as the Army Air Force, one of the three autonomous and coequal commands within the still named War Department; the other two were the Army Ground Forces and the Services of Supply. Finally, the National Security Act of 1947 created a separate Department of the Air Force, coequal in status to the two earlier-created Departments of the Army and the Navy. The U.S. now had three military departments, but something happened on the way. The three, in a significant sense, were "less" than the one department of the early Republic and less than the two departments coexisting since 1798.

The National Security Act
of 1947

Each of the major wars fought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought about at least temporary concern for the "common defense." The lessons of the war were presumably translated into enacted policy affecting the military departments and the armed forces. As we have seen, from time to time leadership capable of effecting change in policy came from civilians, from the military itself, or from a fortuitous combination of both. The experience during and immediately after World War II proved to be no exception. Out of it there came the most important governmental restructuring for defense and reorganization of the armed forces since the beginnings of the Republic. These changes were instituted in the National Security Act of 1947 (Public Law 253, 80th Congress), signed by President Truman on July 26th of that same year. The act was subsequently amended in 1949, 1953, and 1958 and will again be amended when the present Congress acts, if it does, on the post Watergate issue of the role and structure of what is now referred to as the intelligence community. 6

the war and the debate

Within days after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. found itself, for the first time in its history, fighting a war on two fronts. Germany and Italy, following the Japanese attack, declared war against us. President Roosevelt was not wholly unprepared for the event. In the summer of 1940 a strategy for war had been developed with the British, based on the expected entrance of the U.S. into the war. Mobilization, by means of the first U.S. peacetime draft and stepped up industrial war production, had been initiated. The Regular Army had been put on a war footing, and the National Guard and Organized Reserves were federalized. Any public opposition to preparation for war disappeared on December 7, 1941. Later that month further planning for allied or coalition warfare was undertaken at and in response to the Roosevelt-Churchill Arcadia Conference in Washington, D.C. There it was decided to organize the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) "to plan and direct global strategy" with the newly authorized American Joint Chiefs of Staff (Army, Naval Operations, and Army Air Forces) and the President's personal military Chief of Staff, designated to represent the U.S. on the CCS.

Coalition warfare, never easy to conduct, proved to be even more difficult after Stalin joined with Roosevelt and Churchill to prosecute the war.7 The task of defeating Germany and Japan was ultimately successful, but costly. On the American side there were inadequate arrangements for integrating and coordinating the roles and missions of the War and Navy departments. Error and what has been called "a low level of efficiency" stalked the war effort. Political and military objectives were not always dovetailed. Those principles of war known as "unity of command" (or, the application 6f the full combat power under one responsible commander), and "mass" (or superior combat power targeted for decisive purpose), and "economy of force," its corollary--principles known to every military man--were not infrequently in dispute or otherwise frustrated in application. This was true not only between and among the three American services--Army, Navy, and Air--but also between and among the Allies. During the war there was some discussion in the U.S. calling for unification of the Army and Navy, but this issue was shelved so as to get on with the war. It was relatively clear that after the war there would be congressional hearings, inquiries, and studies designed to bring about reforms and improvements in defense requirements.

The momentous events of the war, culminating in the need to decide what kind of military establishment the United States would require to guard our security and welfare and to preserve the peace, served as the springboard for the "beginning" of a great debate. Usually scholars and others will make choices and therefore dispute statements about where a beginning really began. I face that risk and arbitrarily select as my "beginning" General George C. Marshall's expressed concern during World War II for postwar military arrangements and conditions. That he was and is a revered figure in American history and that he was a great man gave weight to his views. His concern rose out of what he rightly anticipated to be postwar and interservice differences and rivalries; the loss or decline of national interest in military affairs so clearly exhibited after World War I; and the difficulty in postwar peacetime to gain acceptance for a balanced defense program. His views were funneled into the debate on what generally has come to be called the issue of unification or merger and the proper organization of the military departments and services.

In October 1943, General Marshall presented to the Joint Chiefs and to the Army initial views on the subject of reorganization and unification. The Navy thereupon countered with its proposals. In a sense, as I have suggested above, the stage for the great debate was set. The problems that the Army and Navy faced as their respective proponents pushed forward to a resolution were then, as now, strikingly evident. Among them are the following:

What should be the proper relationship between the political civilian institutions and the military under the constitutional doctrine awarding primacy to the former? How shall the professional military contribute to the interdependent mixture of policy and decision-making?

Under the President and Commander in Chief, how shall the services and service chiefs be organized for command?

What command and control arrangements should be created at the national center and in the light of "unification" ; and, correlatively, what would "unification" mean for the then existing War Department (Army) and Navy Department, and the then emerging third independent service, the Air Force? What are their primary roles and missions? 

Under what provisions shall we mobilize and maintain men and arms for peacetime and wartime defense?

How shall we set up and implement, and where possible standardize (nationally and internationally), current and new weapons and weapon systems? Who runs what, does what in research and development?

How shall we set up and carry out the quintessentially necessary functions of gathering, analyzing, and implementing intelligence in peacetime?

These are not the only issues that were analyzed and acted on during the great debate, but they were the major ones, and, in fact, the National Security Act (as amended), as we shall see, attempted to provide for their resolution.

The debate continued with ever growing intensity from 1943 until the act itself was passed and approved on July 26,1947. There were a significant number of service plans presented to the various congressional committees and at various hearings. During the war, the Admiral Richardson Committee, correctly known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Committee for Reorganization of the National Defense, interviewed scores of general staff officers and others in the field so as to garner their views for its April 1945 Report. Through the influence of the Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, the Eberstadt Committee was appointed and presented its report in September 1945. Since this was primarily Navy-oriented, or so the Army thought, the Army presented its report and set of recommendations through General J. Lawton Collins. In October 1945 and gain in December, President Truman presented his proposals to Congress, calling for a strong postwar military organization and favoring some kind of merger under a single civilian Secretary of Defense (the Army view), and called attention to the views expressed in General Marshall's Biennial Report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1945. The Senate Military Affairs Committee (Army) began its hearings on the several proposals emanating from civilian and military authority. The Senate Naval Affairs Committee did likewise. 8

As in all political processes in a democratic society, bargaining and compromising are inevitably necessary in order to produce a majority consensus. The Congress, among other decisions, contributed the passage of the National Reorganization Act of 1946, merging into a single committee the Military and Naval Affairs Committees of each house, and similarly merged the Army and Navy Appropriations Committees of each house. In July 1947 the National Security Act was passed, in recognition of the need for greater unity, coordination, and integration for defense purposes. It was clearly a compromise calling for unified control, but not merger, of the services in a "National Defense Establishment" consisting of three executive departments, Army, Navy, arid Air, headed by a civilian Secretary of National Defense with cabinet rank.

IF, FROM time to time, we appropriately refer to landmark decisions of the Supreme Court as those which establish significant, initiating, innovative baseline constitutional interpretation, then similarly it is appropriate to so regard the National Security Act of 1947, the thirtieth anniversary of which we are "celebrating"--if that is the right word--this year!

It can be safely said that the intention of the Congress was clear and became clearer with succeeding amendments, even where the separate provisions of the act were deliberately vague. And, I add, this was so in order to allow for experience and evolutionary development to guide the Congress and the executive branch in the future, Thus, the act was amended in 1949, in 1953, and in 1958 and has acquired minor changes since then. There have been no significant legislated amendments since 1958. Secretaries of Defense since then have been able to effect changes within the Department of Defense because of additional authority vested in them by the 1958 enactment. This was especially and necessarily true in the power-wielding era of and by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The Act of 1947 (as amended) contains this declaration of policy:

Declaration of Policy

Sec. 2. In enacting this legislation, it is the intent of Congress to provide a comprehensive program for the future security of the United States; to provide for the establishment of integrated policies and procedures for the departments, agencies, and functions of the Government relating to the national security; to provide a Department of Defense, including the three military Departments of the Army, the Navy (including naval aviation and the United States Marine Corps), and the Air Force under the direction, authority, and control of the Secretary of Defense; to provide that each military department shall be separately organized under its own Secretary and shall function under the direction, authority, and control of the Secretary of Defense; to provide for their unified direction under civilian control of the Secretary of Defense but not to merge these departments or services; to provide for the establishment of unified or specified combatant commands, and a clear and direct line of command to such commands; to eliminate unnecessary duplication in the Department of Defense, and particularly in the field of research and engineering by vesting its overall direction and control in the Secretary of Defense; to provide more effective, efficient, and economical administration in the Department of Defense; to provide for the unified strategic direction of the combatant forces, for their operation under unified command, and for their integration into an efficient team of land, naval, and air forces but not to establish a single Chief of Staff over the armed forces nor an overall armed forces general staff. 9

The act as amended obviously drew on the experiences of World Wars I and II, where hastily improvised arrangements were adopted and then dismantled in peacetime. Its ultimate significance rested on the determination of the executive and congressional branches of the government to institutionalize for the common defense the lessons learned from the improvisations of the past two world wars.

main features of
the amended 1947 Act

The solution to the issue of unification under civilian control was to create a new structural vehicle into which the former cabinet-level departments of War, now called Army and Navy, would be separately fitted. The Congress wanted "integration," a kind of "unification," but it emphatically and repeatedly rejected merger. The 1947 Act named this the National Military Establishment, added to it the newly created Air Force department, and subordinated all elements to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). James V. Forrestal, former Navy Secretary and one of the most prominent and influential civilians involved in debate, was named the first Secretary of Defense. The amendments of 1949 changed the name of the new cabinet-level office to the Department of Defense (DOD) and enlarged the powers of the secretary, making him "the central figure in coordinating the activities of the three Services." Corresponding to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense became the principal adviser to the President on matters of defense. The service departments were placed in a second-level DOD tier and deprived of their executive character. The secretaries of the three departments, responsible to the Secretary of Defense, were also deprived of direct access to the President. Roles and missions were generally defined:

The Army received primary responsibility for conducting operations on land, for supplying anti-aircraft units to defend the U.S. against air attack and for providing occupation and security garrisons overseas. The Navy, besides remaining responsible for surface and submarine operations, retained control of its sea-based aviation and of the Marine Corps with its organic aviation. The new Air Force received jurisdiction over strategic air warfare, air transport, and combat support of the Army. 10

The Act of 1947 and the 1949 reorganization of the Defense establishment in itself gave major importance to the enacted legislation. Further, the act and the amendments created a number of "firsts" in the long and erratic congressional provision for the common defense. For the first time in our history, legislation established a peacetime Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) headed, as of the 1949 amendment, by a chairman from the military who acquired a vote in the JCS by the 1958 amendment. The chairman and the three service chiefs (the Marine Commandant sits with the Joint Chiefs when a subject pertinent to the Marines is on their agenda) are the senior military officers and advisers in peace and war. Though they report to the Secretary of Defense, they have the right of direct access to the Congress and to the Commander in Chief, the President. The JCS was provided with a support military group called the Joint Staff.

The presumed unifying instrumentality of the JCS (wherein each service chief also commands his respective service) was furthered by the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 amending the National Security Act of 1947--authorizing specified and combined or unified commands. A specified command, usually assigned to a single service, such as the Strategic Air Command, has a worldwide mission. The combined or unified commands, usually regional, consist of components from the three services and are commanded by an officer from one of the services assigned to that regional military section.

The act created, also for the first time, two other major national security institutions outside the Department of Defense. These are:

From time to time the Congress, by amendment or new legislation, has authorized other additions to, deletions from, or changes in the National Security Act. Three boards were named in the 1947 Act: the already mentioned National Security Resources Board, later renamed the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) and disbanded in June 1973; the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board, the latter two located in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. These two boards were abolished by the 1953 amendments and replaced by the far more important Office of Defense Research and Engineering (see below) in the substantial revisions of the act in 1958. Other minor changes continued to be made.

In some ways the changes brought about by the amendments to and rewriting of the act by the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 were the most significant and lasting. Two factors contributed to this. There had been ten years of trial and error since the act was passed in 1947. Its defects of organization, as well as continuing interservice friction over roles and missions, required executive and congressional decision-making. The second factor was much more stimulating. On October 4,1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first manmade earth satellite. The shock of having been bested by Khrushchev's sputnik helped to catalyze action both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. President Eisenhower had no difficulty in getting congressional attention for the Defense passage in his State of the Union message to Congress on January 9, 1958. In fact, appropriate committees of the House and Senate had begun hearings and investigations even before the second session of the Eighty-fifth Congress convened early in January 1958.

The 1958 changes,11 in addition to those items mentioned above, increased substantially the authority of the Secretary of Defense to transfer, reassign, abolish, or consolidate service and combatant functions, including roles and missions, within certain defined time frames and constraints imposed by the Congress. The act clarified the chain of command from the Commander in Chief to the service chiefs, and to them acting jointly. It added to the number and responsibilities of the Joint Staff of the JCS.

The services retained control of training, equipping, and organizing the forces for the unified commands and of all units and individuals not assigned to these commands. They were also responsible for logistical support to all forces. The 1958 reorganization also created a powerful instrument in the new Office of Defense and Research and Engineering (DR&E). Its director (DDR&E) "is the principal adviser and staff assistant to the Secretary of Defense. . . (for) scientific and technical matters; basic and applied research; research, development, test and evaluation of weapons, weapons systems, and Defense materiel; design and engineering for suitability, producibility, reliability, maintainability, and materials conservation." He supervises all research and engineering activities of the DOD "and in coordination with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs helps friendly countries in military research and development."12 Finally, the DDR&E was added to the Armed Forces Policy Council. The latter, originally (1947) called the War Council, received a change of name in 1949. Its members are the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, the three service secretaries, the Director of DR&E, the chairman and members of the JCS, including the Marine Commandant.

The accompanying somewhat simplified chart illustrates the National Security Act of 1947 as amended, 1947-1977.

Chart illustrates the National Security Act of 1947-1977

the Act as amended and
implications for the future

A rather significant body of experience and data has been gathered in the thirty years of history under the act. Two wars have been fought, one ending in stalemate and the other in defeat. We have survived the trauma of Watergate. We are at the beginning of the administration of the seventh President and the thirteenth Secretary of Defense since the act was first passed. The National Security Council has functioned always in accordance with the idiosyncratic will of the President and, as a matter of fact, so has the Central Intelligence Agency. The Congress has deposed its will mainly, as its constitutional right makes clear, through the power of purse over the defense budget and through derivative powers of six committees, three each for the House and Senate: Appropriations, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs/ Relations.

The time has come for a "new look." The issues and the questions to be addressed are virtually the same as were examined during the debate attendant on the passage of the original act and its subsequent amendments. They are the following: The proper relationship between political civilian authority and military professionalism; the organization of the military for the most effective command and control functions; the assignment of roles and missions; the efficient mobilization of men/women and materiel; the elements of policy guidance from the Commander in Chief gathered together from relevant agencies (State, CIA, Treasury, Commerce, etc., and including Defense).

Put another way, one might ask:

Has "unification" worked under its present terms? Has it gone far enough or too far? What recommendations, if any, would be made if we had a chance to improve on the present order? Is DOD, as presently structured, an appropriate "solution"? Does DOD represent a balance between civilian control and military command and control, military professionalism? Are we any closer to clarification of roles and missions? Has the National Security Council worked well or otherwise? And what of the intelligence organization? 

To address these issues and to seek answers to these questions--to take a "new look" inevitably raise an anterior issue. How "scientific" or "objective" can the "answers" be? Some parts of some issues and questions can be tested and quantified and, where relevant, should be. However, while the efficiency of men and materiel is measurable, the outcomes are not always meaningful. Hence, it is here admitted that what follows is based on reason, experience, and value judgments necessarily tainted by the subjective lenses employed in taking a "new look." Further, there is the imponderable role of tradition and its partisans. Tradition, not always reasonable, absorbs change, if it does, slowly.

Interestingly, the issues concerning institutions established by the National Security Act (as amended) outside the Department of Defense are easier to treat than those of the department. Since the administration of President Truman, the National Security Council as a statutory body has served those presidents who wanted to use it. But most American presidents since Washington have utilized statutory bodies, e.g., the cabinet or personally selected advisers (e.g., "kitchen cabinets") at will. The NSC fits into such a category. What should be expected from a president whether he does or does not utilize a National Security Council is clear policy guidance to the Department of Defense and to the military, the essential element of that arm of government.

The military, indeed the Department of Defense as a whole, however upgraded as an organization, cannot function efficiently without national security policy guidance from the office of the President. To be told to prepare for fighting two and a half wars, as in the Johnson administration, or one and a half wars, as in the Nixon-Ford administration, hardly represents guidance. It can and should prepare for war against defined putative enemies. And the President, with or without the advice of a NSC or equivalent, is the source of such definition. The military in the present nuclear / space age cannot and should not prepare for war, as such. Inevitably, generalized and less than meaningful guidance leads to preparation for the worst case rather than for prudent preparation. Military doctrine must flow from policy guidance and from a clear-cut delineation of roles and missions so as to proceed eventually to military readiness. Our military must function as professionals--as do doctors, lawyers, engineers--who can best define their profession, but they can function optimally only when they are clear about policy guidance. That they should share in the formulation of national security policy or at least have their professional input in its making seems to me to be a necessary and appropriate solution for civilian-military relations. There is no wall of separation between civilian and military participation in defense policy-making though the civilian prime responsibility is readily acknowledged. It is time to disabuse ourselves of the view that somehow the soldier should be excluded from the political decision-making process. To participate is not to dominate. The so-called historical fear of the man-on-horseback should no longer be used to invalidate the subordinated but integrated role of the military in matters of defense policy. After all, that is their profession. Nothing should prevent the military from presenting its case, whatever the case may be, to the civilian Secretary of Defense and through him or directly to the Commander in Chief. The latter, it seems to me, is preferable.

In like manner, the Central Intelligence Agency as a peacetime institution is a necessary arm of the President/Commander in Chief. Its overt and covert functions are the logical extension in our own age of the historical and traditional functions of national and international diplomacy. If the CIA were no longer to exist, it would be necessary to invent its successor. What is involved, therefore, with respect to the future of any CIA is the need for agreed presidential and congressional definitions and oversight for its operations, its mandate to perform. The present CIA has been badly marred by the events of and the congressional investigations related to Watergate. Though the damage has been severe, now that the tumult and shouting have died down, it is time to take a calmer and fresh look at the intelligence function, including its ability to prepare national estimates for the President and the National Security Council. Very little tinkering with the National Security Act is required to bring this about.

When one takes a new look at the Department of Defense itself, the task of thinking about its future is more complicated. For the DOD, not unlike the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, is a huge conglomerate, to use a business term. Its central legislated structure is the multisided Pentagon, but its not always harmonious parts have a global purpose, outreach, and positioning, subject to episodic, sometimes unpredictable, change. The way it is presently organized may prove to be unmanageable by any cabinet secretary even though its existence over the past thirty years has brought about some desirable unifying features.

The assets and liabilities of unification within the highly structured Department of Defense are best revealed by a brief examination of the McNamara era, for this strong Secretary of Defense ruled that roost for all but the last year of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--the longest tenure of any defense secretary. McNamara insisted on centralized military planning on functional, not service, lines. His program packages were supposedly chosen on a cost-effective basis. He gathered into a Defense Supply Agency all possible common-use items previously acquired separately by the service departments. He required that all service-gathered military intelligence be funneled into one Defense Intelligence Agency reporting to the secretary. He combined the Army's Strategic Army Corps with the Air Force's Tactical Air Command into an operational Strike (now Readiness) Command for rapid deployment in eruptive contingencies. In brief, McNamara's era may well be characterized as one in which unification under civilian control (in matters of budget, manpower, logistics, weapon design and acquisition, other R&D, etc.) made maximum headway. He was an indefatigable civilian manager, with a vise-like mind capable of absorbing all the numbers of his whiz kids, his systems analysts, and his computers. If a proposition could be quantified, it was acceptable; if it could not, it was questionable. He seemingly did not absorb the nonquantifiable arts of politics and warmaking. 

The liabilities of the McNamara era are equally clear. The military were downgraded and depressed, in both senses of the latter term, not only by the civilian authority of the secretary but also by the extravagant growth in numbers and assumed powers of the civilian DOD bureaucracy. Their military professionalism was frequently ignored even in terms of fighting in a theater of war, Indochina. "McNamara on Vietnam" is a serious causal factor in the tragedy of Vietnam, a tragedy in which President Johnson and some top "military brass" shared, as did, later on, President Nixon and his NSC adviser and Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger. In sum, the McNamara era produced a dangerous imbalance in civil-military relationships and policy-making while advancing the cause of centralized managerial unification. 

Whether or not others share this view, it is still the case that the lessons of the McNamara era, including the lessons of the Vietnam war, require a cool analysis free from the partisanship engendered by the troublesome events of the 1960s. I suggest that such analysis warrants legislative and organizational changes in the DOD. Such changes to be truly effective would most certainly have to consider the possibility that the vasty deep of the Pentagon and its centralized management might require at the very least some decentralizing initiatives. Conglomerates in the business world sometimes acquire too much. They decide to sell off or split off certain subordinate assets. Or, antitrust actions force them, by order of the court, to divest themselves of certain operatives. The profession of the soldier--like that of the doctor or lawyer or engineer or other--is much too complicated to be mastered by one soldier (or sailor or airman); and certainly it is much too complicated to be mastered by one Secretary of (one) Department of Defense.

I DO not propose legislative change for its own sake. I believe, however, that the kind of analysis herein suggested could lead to a resolution of some of the troublesome issues revealed by the thirty-year history of the act. For example, it is necessary to clarify further the relationship between the civil and military authorities within the DOD; to address remaining interservice differences; to come to grips with the ever present problem of the budgetary process and its relationship to the allocation of always scarce resources of manpower, force structure, and research and development. If, further, there could be a satisfactory definition and assignment of military roles and missions, a major, if not the major, contribution would be made. Improvements between legislative and organizational relationships would necessarily have to be related to decisions with respect to mobilization of men and materiel. It is clear that the issues of modern warfare and advanced technology can no longer rely on the kind of mobilization of men and materiel that we successfully managed in World Wars I and II. Further, we have gone from conscript armed forces to a voluntary system, and voluntarism already reveals severe limitations. It is time to take a new look at the volunteer armed forces for at least two reasons: (1) It is failing to meet the manpower and readiness requirements of the services. (2) It consumes 55 percent of the total Defense budget. Once again we face the need for re-examining whether our present voluntary system of acquiring forces ready for all contingencies is adequate. Shall we move to a national service act or to a nonprejudicial draft procedure, eliminating some of the injustices that were so marked in the conscript system during the Vietnam war?

In my judgment the institution of the military cannot be modeled on just another business or civilian professional institution though I have suggested that we can learn something from the experience of business conglomerates and from other professions. The military; however, has no counterpart in our civilian society. It is unique if for no other reason than being the only institution in American society with the right and duty to kill if necessary, and be killed if necessary. Models drawn from civilian society, therefore, are not readily applicable to this unique institution.

I do not mean to suggest that all has been bleak in the thirty-year history of the act, nor even in true McNamara era--quite the contrary. What I am suggesting is that there has been, as is proper in a democratic society, an evolutionary history and that the process itself leads to the discovery of assets and liabilities. Or, to put it another way, new challenges arise out of experience-challenges which can be met by serious re-examination and decision. Surely, for example, the silly propaganda about the military-industrial complex and the problems created by new technology when applied to weapon systems should not obscure the wisdom of having a single departmental research and development section that seeks to meet the requirements of one or more services. There is no reason why Occam's razor, the principle of scientific efficiency, should not be applied in this instance to the military in this scientific age. Incidentally, in this connection, research and development for U.S. defense would be even better served if it was a shared enterprise with advanced industrial societies allied with us.

Since the reforms of the 1958 amendments and the extraordinary use of which those reforms were put during the McNamara era, there has been no serious public consideration of the Department of Defense as a whole either by the Chief Executive or the Congress. At this time we are not in any war-danger crisis. Hence, it may be altogether "fitting and proper," as Caesar wrote in his Gallic Wars, to use this period of relative quiet to take a new look at the ever continuing issue of how best to organize for the- defense of our country; how best to assist our allies and friends; how best to acquire information about the threat from actual or putative adversaries; how best to preserve the historic and traditional relations of the civilian authority while guiding, acquiring, and supporting a military ever prepared to do and, if necessary, die for us all.

New York, New York


1. For a brief review, see Maurice Matloff, general editor, American Military History (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, 1969), pp. 101-10; and Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power 1776-1918 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1939), chapters II-IV, pp. 7-49.

2. There were also the militias of the several states. In 1792 the Congress passed the Militia Act which made every able-bodied citizen between the ages of 18 and 50 years a potential member of the militia, officered and controlled by the states but subject to one federal system replacing the 13 separate state systems. The Militia Act remained In force until the National Defense Act of 1916, which established a maximum for the Standing or Regular Army of 175,000, renamed the Militia the National Guard at 425,000 men, and authorized a new Reserve Corps.

3. Sprout, p. 15.

4. See The Military and Colonal Policy of the United States, Addresses and Reports by Elihu Root, collected and edited by Robert Bacon and James Scott (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1916). Pertinent excerpts appear in A History of Military Affairs in Western Society Since the 18th Century, edited with Introductions by Gordon B. Turner (New York: Harcourt Brace, n.d. [1952-53]), pp. 257-68.

5. See Sprout, chapters XI-XV, pp. 165-249. See also Margaret Tuttle Sprout, "Mahan: Evangelist for Sea Power," in Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Edward Mead, Earle (New York: Atheneum Press, 1966), pp. 415-45. (The first edition was published by Princeton University Press in 1941.)

6. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, under the chairmanship of Senator Daniel K. Inouye, succeeded in having the Senate pass (June 24, 1977) a first bill authorizing a separate budget for the Intelligence community; other proposals will 'be forthcoming as the committee continues its work during its second year (1977-78).

7. For a brief overview at the start of "coalition warfare" see Herbert Feis, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 3-47. For a summary discussion of President Roosevelt, the American Joint Chiefs, and civil-military relationships, see Russell F. Weigley, "Military Strategy and Civilian Leadership," in Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems, edited by Klaus Knorr (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976), pp. 64-69.

8. The literature is voluminous. Among the relevant documents one might want to consult:

U.S. Congress (78th and 79th), House Select Committee on Postwar Military Policy, Hearings, April-May 1944, and June 1945. House Reports 1645 (June 15, 1944), 1923 (November 24,1944), 505 (May 2, 1945), 857 (July 5, 1945), and 1356 (December 10, 1945).

U.S. Congress, House Res. 6066, Senate 2044, Armed Forces Merger, Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Hearings, April 30-July 11, 1946, Senate Report 1328, May 13, 1946; Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings, April, May, July 1946.

U.S. Congress (80th Congress, 1st Session) Senate Armed Services Committee, Hearings, March 18-April 3, 1947; Senate Report 239, June 5, 1947.

9. This declaration amplifies the general thrust of the language in the original act, Public Law 253, 80th Cong. See, Sec. 2, Public Law 216, 81st Cong. 1949 and Sec. 2, Department of Defense Reorganization, Act of 1958, Public Law 599, 85th Cong.

10. See Maurice Matloff, American Military History, pp. 531-33.

11. For a comprehensive review of these, see United States Defense Policies in 1958, July 10, 1959 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1959), pp. 47-60; and Ibid., Appendix C, "Department of Defense Directive no. 5100.1, Dec. 31,1958," pp. 115-20. For a brief review, see Maurice Matloff, pp. 582-83 and pp. 602-4.

12. Ibid., Appendix D, pp. 121-23.


Frank N. Trager (Ph.D., New York University) is Professor of International Affairs and Director, National Security Program, New York University, and Director of Studies, National Strategy Information Center. Dr. Trager currently is general editor of the National Security Studies Series, editor of the Strategy Papers, and a member of the editorial boards of Orbis and Asian Affairs: An American Review. He is chairman of the American-Asian Educational Exchange; board member of the Foreign Policy Research Institute; chairman, Executive Committee, Chinese Cultural Center, Inc.; and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Burma Research Society, and the Siam Society. He has been on the faculties of Johns Hopkins and Yale Universities, the National War College, the Foreign Service Institute, Department of State, and has held various government positions. Dr. Trager has served as Director of the U.S. Economic Aid Mission to Burma and has frequently visited Southeast Asia. He has been a consultant to the Rand Corporation, Stanford Research Institute, Hudson Institute, and to the Departments of State and Defense. He is author of numerous books, monographs, and articles on Burma, Asia, and national security topics.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor