United States Armed Forces: Why Not?

Feb. 1, 1961

Three major facts emerge from an examination of defense reorganization proposals and compromises of the past …

* No major study group of national stature that has examined the defense re­organization problem since World War II has ever recommended less unification than existed at the time the study was made.

* Every major reorganization proposal has been met with essentially the same gloomy prophecies of the dire results that would transpire should they be accepted.

* None of these dark forebodings has ever come to pass, although there has been steady progress toward a more unified military establishment.

As was to be expected, the proposals of the Symington Committee on defense reorganization (AIR FORCE, January ’61) have thus far generated a good deal more fission than fusion. The stock arguments have been raised against them with little re­gard for past history, present requirements, or future technology. Hence it would appear useful, at this juncture, to place defense reorganization in historical perspective as a possible antidote to the emotional hysterics that characterize those who say that all is right with the Pentagon and that the nation can in­definitely afford the luxuries of three (or more) of everything that pertains to defense.

This study is based upon, and draws at length from, a much longer and more scholarly paper prepared by Dr. Harry Howe Ransom, of the Defense Studies Pro­gram at Harvard University. We are deeply indebted to Dr. Ransom for permission to make extensive use of his work, which is to be part of his forthcoming book on national defense and democratic government. The opinions and conclusions, however, are entirely our own.

In preamble, we would like to highlight three major facts that emerge from an examination of defense reorganization proposals and compromises of the past:

1. No major study group of national stature that has examined the defense reorganization problem since World War II has ever recommended less unification than existed at the time the study was made.

2. Every major reorganization proposal has been met with essentially the same gloomy prophecies of the dire results that would transpire should they be accepted.

3. None of these dark forebodings has ever come to pass, although there has been steady progress toward a more unified military establishment.

In the context of this discussion, the history of uni­fication begins shortly before World War II. In 1941, both the Army and the Navy began to show interest in a defense organization that would provide a single Department of Defense and a Joint Chiefs of Staff or­ganization. Navy interest quickly evaporated as the dangers of centralization to Navy autonomy became quickly evident. But the War Department, beginning actively in 1943, became the advocate of a highly cen­tralized system.

Early proposals included a powerful Defense Secre­tary, a single Chief of Staff with a general staff to serve him, and virtual elimination of separate single secretaries for the armed services—the latter to include an independent Air Force.

Among the more ardent proponents of such a sys­tem were Gen. George C. Marshall, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His wartime experiences had convinced General Mar­shall, in his words, that “even under the stress of war, agreement has been reached in the Joint Chiefs of Staff at times only by numerous compromises and long de­lays, [and] local service enthusiasms become a source of weakness instead of a source of strength.”

From 1943 until 1947 the debate raged. Committees in both the legislative and executive branches studied and recommended. Always the Navy, fearing the loss of the Marine Corps and naval aviation, was the prin­cipal foe of armed service unification proposals. The basic issue was the degree to which both the civilian and military authority would be centralized for stra­tegic planning, force levels, and assignment of service roles and missions. Both the Army and the Air Force consistently supported a centralized approach. But the Navy held firm.

Over the years, in fact, proponents of unification have often faced a situation amusingly described by President Roosevelt, quoted in Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power. Roosevelt once remarked:

“. . . The Treasury and the State Department put together are nothing compared with the Na-a-vy. The admirals are really something to cope with—and I should know. To change anything in the Na-a-vy is like punching a feather bed. You punch it with your right and you punch it with your left until you are finally exhausted, and then you find the damn bed just as it was before you started punching.” (The original quote is from the book, Beckoning Frontiers, by Mar­riner Eccles.)

During this period—1943-1947—there was wide pub­lic support for any measures that promised increased economy and efficiency in the Pentagon. But the key to the opposition to true unification lay on Capitol Hill. There, determined resistance to unification came, as it still does today, from a small but powerful minority in each house. The upshot was compromise legislation, strongly influenced by a carefully worked-out plan commissioned by Secretary of the Navy James V. For­restal and developed under the aegis of Ferdinand Eberstadt.

Highly significant but often overlooked are the words—including some between the lines—of the “Dec­laration of Policy” which served, in effect, as a pre­amble to the National Security Act of 1947 which first established the National Military Establishment, later, in 1949, to become the Department of Defense.

This part of the statute expresses the “intent of Congress”—with deliberate and significant ambiguity. The major portions are as follows:

1. It expressed congressional intent to provide a “comprehensive program” and “integrated policies and procedures” for national security, BUT …

It provided also for three departments “separately administered, for the operation and administration of the Army, the Navy (including naval aviation and the United States Marine Corps), and the Air Force. …”

2. These departments were to be under “authorita­tive coordination and unified direction” by a civilian Secretary of Defense, BUT …

The Secretary was “not to merge them.”

3. Finally, the intention was expressed “to provide for the effective strategic direction of the armed forces and for their operation under unified control and for their integration into an efficient team of land, naval, and air forces. …” BUT (added in 1949) …

“Not to establish a single Chief of Staff over the armed forces nor an armed forces general staff.” And the Secretary of Defense was specifically forbidden from maintaining a military staff.

From this planned ambiguity have stemmed a good many of the problems which still plague our military effort. How to supply simultaneously “integration” and “separation”; “unified direction” but not “merger”; strategic “integration,” without a unified staff, has puzzled many a Secretary in the years that have in­tervened.

Thus, the Unification Act of 1947 was clearly a com­promise, with the Navy retaining its internal mono­lithic structure by raising the bugaboo of a “mono­lithic” Defense Department.

Mr. Forrestal, the chief architect of the Act, became the first Secretary of Defense. Oddly enough, his first annual report called for a strengthening of his office and for greater centralization of power than he, as Secretary of the Navy, had been willing to allow the Secretary of Defense to have. His recommendations, plus those of the Hoover Commission task force, prompted a further reorganization in 1949.

The 1949 amendments further diluted service au­tonomy:

1. The individual departments lost their cabinet status, including their seats on the National Security Council.

2. The word “general” was taken out of the phrase giving the Secretary of Defense “general direction, authority, and control” over the departments.

3. The clause reserving to the departments those powers not specifically granted to the Secretary of De­fense was deleted.

4. BUT roles and missions could not be transferred, reassigned, abolished, or consolidated; and Congress was to be kept informed of other consolidations.

The next major change came in 1953, after the Korean War and a change of Administration. Many were unhappy about the way the Defense Depart­ment had functioned during Korea. There had been a rapid turnover of Secretaries—Louis Johnson, Gen. George C. Marshall, and Robert A. Lovett. In leaving his post, Mr. Lovett gave President Truman a detailed and highly critical letter about his department’s or­ganization. He wanted more authority for the Sec­retary and improvement in planning processes.

The new Administration appointed a committee, headed by Nelson Rockefeller, to study and recom­mend. The Rockefeller group’s report resulted in trans­mittal to Congress of Reorganization Plan No. 6 of 1953. Some of the proposed changes were described as “terrifying” by Mr. Eberstadt. The Navy League continued to warn of dangers to our form of govern­ment. Free enterprise and the capitalistic system were threatened, ran the stories, and there was an unsuc­cessful congressional attempt to block the plan.

But the 1953 reorganization further chipped away at service autonomy:

1. The power of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was strengthened, including the responsibility for management of the JCS and discretion as to selection of membership.

2. Various triservice boards and agencies were abolished.

3. The number of Assistant Secretaries of Defense was tripled, with specific executive functions.

But these measures were not substantive, and the debate wore on from 1953 to 1958. Technology con­tinued to challenge traditional concepts and to aggra­vate the competition for dollars, weapon systems, and missions. Arguments as to organizational structure be­came entwined with the continuing quarrels over ‘what kind of forces for what kind of war.” Added to these pressures for change were the rising cost of weapon systems; public shock at Soviet technological progress; fiscal ceilings which permitted one service to progress only at the expense of another.

The Pentagon structure had been sharply criticized by many individuals and influential groups such as the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund Report, the reorgani­zation portion of which was collaborated on by Ros­well Gilpatric, Gen. Lucius Clay, and Gen. Alfred Gruenther.

The still-secret Gaither Committee report is also supposed to have hit hard at Pentagon organization.

Following a 1957 White House-Pentagon study chaired by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles A. Coolidge, President Eisenhower ordered some important organizational changes by presidential directive, and others were incorporated in Pentagon-drafted legislation submitted to Congress. Here the Administration bill was quickly countered by another sponsored by a bipartisan group of opponents of cen­tralization.

In brief, the Administration position called for even more authority for the Secretary of Defense in strategic planning, in administration, and in military operations; for greater unification of strategic and tactical plan­ning; for using the device of unified field commands to implement the concept voiced by President Eisenhower that “separate ground, sea, and air warfare is gone forever.”

The congressional proposals jealously guarded the application of divergent service views to defense de­cisions; its own “coequal” responsibility for defense matters; a continuing prohibition of either any service merger or a single chief with a general staff.

Again, the case was settled out of court, by com­promise. But longer steps were taken in the direction of real unification than at any time since the original act of 1947.

The principal results of the 1958 reorganization (by both executive directive and statute) were:

1. Lines of Command:

• Commanders of unified (e.g. Pacific) and speci­fied (e.g. SAC) commands were given full operational control over forces assigned to them.

• Lines of command were clarified—from the Com­mander in Chief through the Secretary of Defense (advised by the JCS) to the unified or specified com­manders. The service secretaries and service chiefs were taken out of the chain of command except that the latter, as members of the Joint Chiefs, would be involved in issuing strategic directives in the name of the Secretary of Defense.

• The individual services remained charged with organizing, training, and equipping forces for the op­erational commands and for administering and sup­porting forces so assigned.

2. Secretarial Authority:

• Secretarial authority was strengthened, although the attempt to give him “greater flexibility in money matters” ran into a stone wall on Capitol Hill.

• The service departments were no longer required by law to be “separately administered” but simply ‘sep­arately organized,” and came under the clearly stated “direction, authority, and control” of the Secretary.

• The Secretary could propose to reassign, trans­fer, consolidate, or abolish major combatant functions (in effect roles and missions), subject through speci­fied procedure to congressional veto. Other functions, such as services and supply, could be reassigned at the Secretary’s discretion.

• The service secretaries became responsible to the Secretary of Defense for the efficient operation of their departments. Orders to the departments would be issued through the service secretaries or the De­fense Secretary’s various deputies (including assistant secretaries) but only under authority specifically dele­gated in writing by the Secretary.

• The Joint Chiefs, as a corporate body, became “directly responsible” to the Secretary of Defense.

• The Secretary of Defense was to give the Presi­dent nominations for three- and four-star rank, with “suggestions” from the service secretaries and “ad­vice” from JCS.

• The post of Director of Defense Research and Engineering was created under the Secretary of De­fense with statutory authority to be his principal ad­viser on scientific and technical matters; to supervise all research and engineering in DoD; and to direct and control, assign or reassign any research and engi­neering activities the Secretary thought needed a cen­tral management.

• And the Secretary of Defense could assign any new weapon system, regardless of which service might have developed it, to any service for production, pro­curement, and operational control.

3. JCS and Joint Staff:

• Size of the Joint Staff was raised from 210 to 400.

• The JCS Chairman, instead of the JCS, would select the Director of the Joint Staff, in consultation with JCS and with approval of the Secretary.

• The enlarged Joint Staff was reorganized, with a J-Staff setup (J-1, J-2, etc.) replacing the old inter-service committee system. J-3, of course, became a new, integrated operations division, significant be­cause the JCS assumed, as staff for the Secretary, stra­tegic direction of the unified field commands.

• On the negative side, Congress stipulated that

the new Joint Staff “shall not operate or be organized as an over-all Armed Forces General Staff and shall have no executive authority.” A three-year limit was placed on Joint Staff service.

• The individual Chiefs were authorized to dele­gate to their Vice Chiefs such duties and authority as might be necessary to give the Chiefs more time for their JCS responsibility.

4. Roles and Missions:

• The law specifically provided for continuation of the Departments of the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy (“including naval aviation and the United States Marine Corps”). Although the authority of the Secretary of Defense in the “unified direction” of the departments was increased, Congress reiterated its in­tention “not to merge these departments or services.” The departments were to remain “separately organ­ized,” and the authority of the Secretary to alter major combat functions was, as stated above, subject to con­gressional veto. Thus roles and missions remained as muddled as before, except for the effect of the strengthened unified command system on the -inde­pendence and command functions of the chiefs.

Two additional provisions of the 1958 reorganiza­tion might be noted here:

• The right of service secretaries and service chiefs to make recommendations on their own initiative to Congress was specifically reaffirmed, and:

• A grant of statutory status to the National Guard Bureau and its chief was made.

With these and other changes which space does not permit us to elaborate upon, the Reorganization of 1958 was, as described in this magazine, “the most vigorous and imaginative step yet made in these direc­tions [toward true unification] by the Executive De­partment.” Navy Magazine, published by the Navy League, called it “another step toward a more highly centralized Department of Defense. The groundwork, through doubling the size of the Joint Staff, is laid for what could become, if not carefully watched by Con­gress, a supreme high command.”

Here, essentially, is where the matter rests at the moment. Defense organization remains a compromise between the concept of unified strategic planning and centralized administration of the armed forces on the one hand, and on the other, a traditional, carefully guarded preservation of independent missions assigned to semiautonomous, separately organized services, based upon the concept of sharply defined land, sea, and air functions.

In passing, it is impossible to resist the temptation to comment on the incongruity of the salt-encrusted Navy position in the unification matter. Horny-fisted opponent of unified control over all the armed serv­ices—whether they walk, fly, shoot missiles, or sail on or under the seas—the Navy finds no contradiction in the fact that it has its own fleet, its own air force, its own army, its own missiles. Indeed, it is undoubtedly its own self-sufficiency which makes the Navy so con­tent with things as they are, and even more content with things as they used to be.

There is more than a laugh in Adm. “Bull” Hal­sey’s one-time remark to Gen. “Hap” Arnold: “Just bring your strategic bombers into the Navy and we’ll have the whole show anyway, with built-in unifica­tion.” Indeed, with the big carriers in the strategic bombing picture and Polaris submarines now on sta­tion, Navy missions currently range from one end of the military spectrum to the other. Yet the Chief of Naval Operations still manages to keep track of every­thing, from the foot-soldiers in the Marines to ballistic missiles, even though he cannot possibly have had personal experience with them all. Is there any real reason to believe that he, or any of the Joint Chiefs, could not adapt themselves to the responsibilities of an Armed Forces Chief of Staff

The Symington Committee proposals stop well short of the stated Air Force Association position of one Secretary, one Chief of Staff, one service. But they go a good deal farther than the Navy and its sup­porters even care to think about. The Democratic Party platform is committed to a “complete reexami­nation” of defense reorganization. Yet, with a crowded legislative docket, the new Kennedy Administration is likely to avoid any head-on fights on the Hill for statutory support. Of the new Pentagon team, Mr. Gil­patric, the Undersecretary of Defense, served both on the Rockefeller Report Panel and President Kennedy’s special committee, headed by Senator Symington. Mr. McNamara has promised Mr. Vinson, long-standing congressional foe of unification, that he will not under­take any sweeping reorganization in the near future.

But a great deal can be accomplished without wait­ing or fighting for new legislation. The Secretary of Defense has great powers, yet unused, which can ac­celerate the process immeasurably. Mr. [Thomas] Gates was keenly aware of this and was moving in this direc­tion, as witness his establishment of the Joint Strategic Target Agency as the next best thing to a unified stra­tegic command, and the setting up of a joint long-line communications agency. Mr. Gates’s most important single decision was probably the initial one to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs. By doing so, he placed himself in position to make these significant moves.

Some of these measures that can now be taken uni­laterally by the Secretary include such devices as loading the unified commands and the Joint Staff with three- and four-star billets; integrating the component and unified staffs in such places as the Pacific Com­mand; rotating commanders in unified and specified commands without regard to traditional service back­grounds—there are many other examples.

The Secretary who wishes to exert pressure for uni­fication can utilize other powerful allies—if he has an aggressive, imaginative General Counsel; if his Assist­ant Secretary of Defense, Comptroller, applies the power of the purse; if his Director of Defense Research and Engineering blows the whistle on unrealistic, wasteful, and self-serving development programs.

We have never specified that our unification goals must needs be satisfied with legislation. Our interest is in ends, not means. Imaginative, determined lead­ership is still the best way to skin a cat.—End