Truman’s “Parity” of Airpower

March 1, 2006

“Army-Navy Merger”

President Harry S. Truman

Message to Congress

Washington, D.C.

Dec. 19, 1945


For most of 1945, President Harry S. Truman listened as Army and Navy officers debated whether and how the US armed services should be unified. Senior Army officers favored a merger of the War Department (i.e., Army and Army Air Forces) and Navy Department (Navy and Marine Corps) under a single department. The Navy balked, preferring a principle of “mutual cooperation,” in which the Army and Navy informally coordinated forces in battle.

Now, Truman was ready to give his decision. On Dec. 19, 1945, the President formally sent Congress legislation favoring unification under a single Cabinet head. One big reason, said Truman, was the need to organize a system that would “provide parity for airpower.” As Truman astutely noted, such parity could be achieved in a single defense department, or in three separate military departments (for air, land, and sea forces), but not when just two—Army and Navy—controlled the air weapon.

Congress came down on the side of the Navy and Marine Corps, forcing President Truman to accept a compromise National Security Act. On July 26, 1947, Truman signed the act, which created a “coordinated” National Defense Establishment. However, it also established an independent Air Force, which, like its sister services, was essentially autonomous. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The entire structure … was little more than a weak confederation of sovereign military units.”

I recommend that the Congress adopt legislation combining the War and Navy Departments into one single Department of National Defense. Such unification is [an] essential step … in the development of a comprehensive and continuous program for our future safety and for the peace and security of the world.

One of the lessons which has most clearly come from the costly and dangerous experience of this war is that there must be unified direction of land, sea, and air forces, at home as well as in all other parts of the world where our armed forces are serving. We did not have that kind of direction when we were attacked four years ago—and we certainly paid a high price for not having it.

In 1941 we had two completely independent organizations [i.e., Army and Navy] with no well-established habits of collaboration and cooperation between them. If disputes arose, if there was failure to agree on a question of planning or a question of action, only the President of the United States could make a decision effective on both. Besides, in 1941, the airpower of the United States was not organized on a par with the ground and sea forces. …

Further studies of the general problem would serve no useful purpose. There is enough evidence now at hand to demonstrate beyond question the need for a unified department. …

We should organize to provide parity for airpower. Airpower has been developed to a point where its responsibilities are equal to those of land and sea power, and its contribution to our strategic planning is as great. In operation, airpower receives its separate assignment in the execution of an overall plan. These facts were finally recognized in this war in the organizational parity which was granted to airpower within our principal unified commands.

Parity for airpower can be achieved in one department, or in three, but not in two. As between one department and three, the former is infinitely to be preferred. The advantages of a single department are indeed much clearer when the alternative is seen to be three departments rather than the present two. The existence of three departments would complicate tremendously every problem of coordination that now exists between the War and Navy Departments, and between the services and the rest of the government. …

I recommend that the reorganization of the armed services be along the following broad lines:

(1) There should be a single Department of National Defense. This department should be charged with the full responsibility for armed national security. It should consist of the armed and civilian forces that are now included within the War and Navy Departments.

(2) The head of this department should be a civilian, a member of the President’s Cabinet, to be designated as the Secretary of National Defense. Under him there should be a civilian under-secretary and several civilian assistant secretaries.

(3) There should be three coordinated branches of the Department of National Defense: one for the land forces, one for the naval forces, and one for the air forces, each under an assistant secretary. …

(4) The undersecretary and the remaining assistant secretaries should be available for assignment to whatever duties the President and the Secretary may determine from time to time.

(5) The President and the Secretary should be provided with ample authority to establish central coordinating and service organizations, both military and civilian. …

(6) There should be a Chief of Staff of the Department of National Defense. There should also be a commander for each of the three component branches—Army, Navy, and Air.

(7) The Chief of Staff and the commanders of the three coordinate branches of the department should together constitute an advisory body to the Secretary of National Defense and to the President. …

Unification of the services must be looked upon as a long-term job. We all recognize that there will be many complications and difficulties. Legislation of the character outlined will provide us with the objective, and with the initial means whereby forward-looking leadership in the department, both military and civilian, can bring real unification into being.

I make these recommendations in the full realization that we are undertaking a task of greatest difficulty.