Yesterday’s ‘First Line of Defense’

June 1, 1961

The following article—first of two by Dr. Green on the history of the struggle for a unified defense establishment—represents the authors own thoughts and conclusions and should not be construed as necessarily reporting official policy of the Department of Defense or the US Air Force.

In 1898 the Army’s Commissary General wrote that his office was running perfectly until the war with Spain disrupted and disorganized it. Five years later, a frail craft took wing at Kitty Hawk and in the process launched a new idea of warfare. Over the span of one generation, this idea disrupted and disorganized the care­fully laid functional separation between the Army, pillar of national defense on land, and the Navy, “the nation’s first line of defense” at sea.

By the end of that generation, Americans had stopped calling the Navy “the nation’s first line of defense.” A Gallup Poll, published in October 1949 at the conclusion of the B-36 hearings which aired in minute detail every nuance of our national policy, disclosed that seventy-four percent of those polled believed the Air Force “would play the most important part in winning . . . another World War.” Six percent chose the Army; only four percent chose the Navy.

This revolution in public response, inevitably reflected in congressional appropriations, is central to our under­standing of the bitterly determined, seemingly eternal op­position of the Navy to unification of the armed services.

That record is unmistakable: vs. the original unification proposals; vs. the strengthening amendments of 1949; vs. the Eisenhower Reorganization Act of 1958; vs. the Sym­ington Committee recommendations to President-elect Ken­nedy in 1960; and most recently, vs. the Defense Depart­ment directive assigning the USAF single managership of space development projects.

Pride in past glories helps esprit de corps, but may overstay its usefulness when it exercises a pervasive influ­ence upon a military organization’s response to the neces­sities imposed by changing technology. The origin and development of the Navy’s psychological orientation, from the dawn of the air age to the dawn of the space age, are readily discernible. They shed light on the reorganization issue as it stands at the moment.

From the turn of the twentieth century to the eve of World War II, with the exception of a brief interlude during World War I, the Navy has dominated US defense budgets and, to a lesser extent, the nation’s defense thinking. In Why England Slept, which he wrote in 1940, young John F. Kennedy reported some interesting statistics for the mid­way years between the wars:

US Defense Expenditures

1926-27 % 1927-28 %
1928-29 % 1929-30 % 1930-31
Army $267.3 45% $293.2
47% $312.1 46% $327.3 47% $345.2 48%
Navy 324.2 55% 332.2 53% 366.1 54% 375.4 53% 382.5 52%
TOTALS $591.5 $625.4 $678.2 $702.7 $727.7

The figures themselves do not wholly reflect true pro­portions; the Army appropriation included funds for non­military functions such as care of cemeteries, certain Corps of Engineers functions, activities, and much else. Perhaps the ratio of real defense appropriations was more like sixty to forty percent.

Beyond the military necessities, the apportionment of defense monies was influenced by other matters. Tradition­ally, in a democracy such as ours—and Britain’s, too—armies have reminded people of Napoleon, the “Prussian General Staff,” or some hybrid nightmare. The American image has portrayed armies as fatally lacking in glamor. In American historical mythology, it has always seemed easier to stir the imaginations of Americans with tales of heroism at sea. The careers of John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur held a fascination which those of generals—no matter how solid their virtues—were unable to equal.

But during World War I, and afterwards, Billy Mitchell, Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh, and a host of other men who braved the “wild blue yonder,” began to chip away at this psychological pillar of esteem.

In the ’20s this slowly changing attitude was no threat to the Navy’s preeminence. As one historian wrote of that period, the airplane was identified with aero clubs and county fairs. It “met the same good-natured skepticism and witticisms as had greeted the steam locomotive and the horseless carriage. Nobody was afraid of it.”

By the ’30s, there was a definite change. The military airplane began to develop its potential in terms of range, stability, safety, and payload. There was this indication of the shape of things to come.

In August 1930, Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley wrote to President Hoover deploring what he called the Navy’s intrusion into the Army’s coastal defense mission and the development of naval land-based aviation despite a congressional injunction. The Act of June 5, 1920, had assigned land-based bombardment aircraft to the Army and fleet air operations to the Navy.

The dispute was promptly settled within the military family. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, and Adm. William V. Pratt, Chief of Naval Operations, signed an agreement under which each service’s air arm was to be “free to develop within well defined limits”—that is, the Army dominant over land while the Navy would preside over water.

But the airplane was no respecter of pat agreements. In May 1938, for example, three B-17 crews on a GHQ Air Force exercise spotted and “buzzed” the Italian liner Rex 725 miles out of New York harbor. The Navy exploded at this incursion into its “paramount interest? Within the week, the CNO had extracted from an almost equally irate Army Chief of Staff a verbal agreement to forbid the up­start Air Corps from operating beyond 100 miles offshore.

This restraint broke down short years later under the pressures of World War II. The spectacular successes of the Luftwaffe over Poland, Norway, and Western Europe brought new understanding of airpower. In May 1940, President Roosevelt called for 50,000 planes. In 1941-42, the Army Air Forces gained a measure of autonomy within the War Department.

But US military doctrine failed to keep pace with tech­nology. Doctrine, by definition, embraces concepts of organ­ization and strategy by which technology can be effectively applied in national defense. Doctrine is the military man’s gospel. In the United States, as we prepared to enter hos­tilities, Army and Navy leaders were unable to reconcile their special interests in a common doctrine to keep pace with fast-striding technology.

Six weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson sought to avoid giving offense to the Navy on the touchy issue of “paramount interest” in the matter of locating Nazi U-boat packs lurking in the Atlantic waiting for allied convoys. A War Department directive of October 24, 1941, read in part: “To avoid any infringe­ment upon naval functions, commanders concerned will refrain from referring to their tactical reconnaissance as off­shore patrols.” Reconnaissance “over the sea” was redefined as a naval defense task. Henceforth, AAF planes were to fly “inshore” patrols. There was a certain ambiguity about the directive. It left unclear whether the status quo existed, but under a different name, or whether AAF planes were actually debarred from offshore reconnaissance.

If reconnaissance by any other name had a bit of comic opera about it off Staten Island, it was rather more serious in the Philippine Islands where, that very same week, the Commander in Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet exchanged views with the Commander of US Army Forces in the Far East. Adm. Thomas C. Hart proposed to General Mac­Arthur that the Navy “control all scouting, patrol, and re­connaissance operations over the water.” In exchange, “the Navy is prepared to place under Army’s full tactical command such of its aircraft as may be assigned for attack on land objectives in the Philippines.”

“I find the proposal entirely objectionable,” MacArthur replied. “The mission of the US Asiatic Fleet at the present time, insofar as its strategic employment, is not known to me, nor have I been informed as to what you may have in contemplation,” his November 7 letter stated. Under ex­traordinary conditions, MacArthur noted, elements of the AAF, “the most powerful offensive striking element avail­able in the Philippine Islands,” might advantageously oper­ate under temporary naval direction, but in this sense—and here MacArthur must have withered Hart—”the term ‘Fleet’ cannot be applied to the two cruisers and the division of [usually four] destroyers that comprise the surface elements of your command.”

Such was the state of interservice cooperation just one month before Pearl Harbor. And at that defense bastion, relations were not much better between Admiral Kimmel and General Short, as a congressional investigation subse­quently disclosed.

Twenty years later, the experiences of World War II notwithstanding, there remains a curious but strong under­current of opposition to the establishment by Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates of a Joint Strategic Targets List in August 1960 as part of a Single Integrated Operational Plan to be invoked in the event of a major war.

The exigencies of World War II did dictate substantial cooperation, although by 1942 it became necessary to establish the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reconcile differences. Cooperation existed to the degree that both sides, and sometimes three sides—when the AAF asserted its inde­pendence from the parent War Department—made volun­tary concessions. In mid-1942, for example, Adm. Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief, US Fleet, tried to obtain two-and four-engined bombers to be manned by Navy crews for antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic. General Arnold turned him down because there were not yet enough of these bombers to satisfy his own requirement. Gen. George C. Marshall stood discreetly on the sidelines while some hot memoranda were exchanged.

In the Pacific, the Army and Navy were having their troubles. The Marines landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942. The Army, at the same time, was hard pressed to keep the Japanese from overrunning New Guinea. Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides became famous as a principal South Pacific logistics base for both services. Without ade­quate central control, supply lines became fouled up. Army Maj. Gen. LeRoy Lutes, a supply expert, was sent out to help straighten them out. His report to the Commanding General, Services of Supply, of November 12, 1942, is—even allowing for a certain amount of bias in favor of his own service—a minor classic.

It seems that Army and Navy airstrips were constructed less than five miles apart on Espiritu Santo. Separate trac­tors and engineering materials were used by the Aviation Engineers and Navy Seabees throughout, with separate access roads being constructed. General Lutes reported that Navy officials told him their airfield project was of such priority that no construction equipment could be loaned to the Army.

At another resupply base, in Noumea, New Caledonia, seventy-five ships congested the harbor with Army and Navy supplies. Only five berths were available to unload the ships. Dispute waxed hot over which ships should un­load first. No study of the importance of each Army and Navy cargo was made, no priorities assigned. The competi­tion reached such a state that Admiral Halsey, who also chafed at the bickering, voluntarily moved his supply staff ashore alongside the Army’s where decision-making then proceeded in an atmosphere of informal cooperation. Halsey did not inform Admiral King in Washington because he feared the informal agreement would be canceled.

In Hawaii, Admiral Nimitz “agreed with me,” Lutes wrote, “that there was need for joint logistics staff work.” But Nimitz could not act without approval from Washing­ton, “and it was more than six months before he received authority to organize within his staff in Hawaii a joint logistics group,” Lutes reported. Then there were the separate Army and Navy station hospitals. Lutes did not attach sole blame for this situation to either service.

In 1944, the JCS, partly in response to criticisms by the Senate “Watchdog” Committee headed by Sen. Harry S. Truman, sent its own special committee to the war thea­ters to elicit experienced opinions on the subject of joint service activities. Among those interviewed, Admiral Nimitz strongly supported a postwar military unification. Admiral Halsey, in typical candor, said: “I probably am one of the lone naval officers in favor of a single department. In other words, I believe in unity.”

But what about the danger of giving too much authority to the single head of the armed forces, he was asked? “I am not afraid of that,” he replied.

And what about the political power that a single Secre­tary of Defense would wield, a questioner persisted? “He’d probably have a lot, and he should have,” Halsey replied. “Again I am not afraid of it, if it gets results.”

Halsey hoped this unification would come about six months after the war ended. But, would service people accept it, the Committee asked? “I think that if they can’t, they ought to be made to do it—have it beaten into their heads.”

Back in Washington, Admiral King was less convinced of the desirability or the inevitability of merger. In 1945, some years before Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson evoked national cries of anguish for expressing a parallel thought, Admiral King told the Senate Military Affairs Committee: “. . . If the Navy’s welfare is one of the pre­requisites to the nation’s welfare—and I sincerely believe that to be the case—any step that is not good for the Navy is not good for the nation.”

Upon reflection, one cannot strictly assume that Admiral King had ruled out unification under any conceivable cir­cumstances. A memorandum deposited with James Forrestal on July 1, 1948, stated that King had at the end of the war urged General Arnold: “Hap, bring over your strategic bombers, and we will shut out the War Department.” Inas­much as General Arnold never volunteered to do so, Admiral King was willing to settle for the status quo. In his final report to the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral King proposed to maintain the voluntary wartime cooperation:

“It was fortunate that the War Department and Navy Department working together for many years—definitely since World War I—before the war began, had correctly diagnosed what was likely to occur and had instituted, not rigid rules, but a set of principles for a joint action in the field, which proved sufficiently flexible to meet the varied conditions that were encountered during the war.”

As we have already noted, if such a set of principles existed, it was unknown to Admirals Hart and Kimmel as well as to Generals MacArthur and Short. These officers held the command posts under the enemy’s gun and should certainly have been apprised of any plans for joint action.

Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson was also unaware of any joint plans. In his postwar reflections (New York Times Magazine) he blamed Pearl Harbor upon divided

Army-Navy command. Some improvements occurred during the war, he conceded, but the requirements for unanimous JCS decision “caused many delays.” The prime case, he said, was the inability of the JCS to agree on one com­mander to lead the final assault on Japan. In those last months, three separate commands commingled on Okinawa—General MacArthur’s, Admiral Nimitz’s, and General Arnold’s Strategic Air Force. It was “fortunate,” Patterson wrote, that we dropped the atomic bomb and the Japanese sued for peace before this conglomerate command struc­ture could be put to a test.

John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War throughout the war, expressed a near-subversive thought in 1948. He suggested to a “task force” inquiring into the need to re­form the defense establishment, that we had overwhelmed our enemies by sheer numbers:

“Though the last war was handsomely won, victory was accomplished as much by the plenitude of our resources and energies as by good management. Those who know something of the inner conduct of the war are aware of the frustrations and compromises which marked some of its planning. …”

Navy Secretary James Forrestal, no ardent advocate of unification, saw some portents. In September 1944, while the JCS Committee was asking questions out in the field, the Navy Secretary was writing his friend, Palmer Hoyt, publisher of the Denver Post, that the Navy had lost its case for maintaining its separate postwar status. Forrestal said he advised King and Nimitz that “a merely negative attitude would not be enough.”

In April 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ardent col­lector of ship models and Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1918 to 1920, was succeeded by Harry S. Truman, former commander of a certain Battery “D,” and former Chairman of the Senate “Watchdog” Committee. Two months later, the new President rejected a request by For­restal to increase the peacetime strength of the Navy and Marine Corps on the grounds that “the time had come to put an end to piecemeal legislation and separate planning or the services.”

Forrestal took the hint and enlisted Ferdinand Eberstadt, a close friend and business associate, to make a study. Eberstadt’s proposal in September 1945 provided an alter­native to the kind of legislation desired by Army and Air Force leaders. It called for three departments—War, Navy, and Air—each with its own air component. An extension of this logic, Stuart Symington pointed out to Secretary For­restal a year later, should have permitted the Army to add its own Navy, and the Air Force to add its own Army and Navy, making for nine services.

President Truman believed there should be one Depart­ment of Defense with three branches. Navy supporters tried to head him off. In November 1945, a delegation led by Secretary Forrestal brought Sen. David Walsh and Rep. Carl Vinson, Chairmen of the Senate and House Naval Affairs Committee, respectively, to the White House. Mr. Vinson told Mr. Truman bluntly that unification “would not pass either this winter, next winter, or the winter after.”

The Chief Executive, a rather determined man himself, sent his message to Congress anyway. In December 1945 he called for a Department of National Defense with three co­equal branches. It was the first time a President had ever publicly supported the formation of a separate Air Force.

In January 1948, unification was going to need superior political generalship to coax or push it through the Con­gress. There was mounting opposition by influential com­mittee chairmen sympathetic to the Navy’s desire to leave well enough alone. President Truman appointed Stuart Symington to be Assistant Secretary of War for Air. His principal assigned mission was to shepherd that legislation through both Houses. As Chairman of the Surplus Property Board, Symington had displayed valuable talents along this line.

Before Symington really came into the picture, however, Navy Secretary Forrestal had visited President Truman in March 1946 and urged him to put an end to “propaganda and lobbying” by the services. He suggested the issues could be hammered out at a top-level conference “by the fewer people . . . the better.”

Early in April 1946, General Eisenhower, then Army Chief of Staff, arranged a private luncheon attended only by General Spaatz, Commanding the AAF; Adm. William Leahy, representing the President; and Admiral Nimitz, the new CNO. Eisenhower started the discussion by saying that any unification should be based on the premise that land-based air was a function of the AAF. Nimitz argued that land-based reconnaissance and antisubmarine warfare were vital to the Navy’s mission. Eisenhower said he was opposed to assigning large numbers of land-based planes to the Navy.

The conferees also deadlocked on basic terminology. Eisenhower regarded Nimitz’s language as “loose and con­fusing.” The CNO had spoken of land, sea, and air forces throughout, using the word “functions” in, the same sense the Army used “combat objectives.” For example, Nimitz said “the function of the ground forces is to deal with land objectives.” Eisenhower argued that the function of ground forces was to conduct operations on land. Dealing with land objectives, he said, was a function of air, land, and sea forces collaborating under a unified command estab­lished by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Spaatz strongly supported Eisenhower. Admiral Leahy tried to mediate the differences.

One week later, the Administration-supported bill was introduced by Senators Thomas, Austin, and Hill. S.2044 called for a Department of Common Defense comprising three separate and equal components—the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The administrative head would be the Secretary of Common Defense, a civilian and a regular member of the President’s cabinet. There was further provision for a Chief of Staff for Common Defense to act as a military adviser to both the President and the Secretary of Common Defense. He would rank all other officers and would be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the Senate for a three-year term.

The next day, April 11, 1946, President Truman held a press conference and made some veiled criticisms of service “lobbying” against the Administration’s bill. In reporting it, the press indicated that the Chief Executive had directed his remarks to the “Navy lobby.” Secretary Forrestal was puzzled by this reaction, according to Walter Millis and Rear Adm. Eugene S. Duffield, compilers of his famous Diaries. He thought the Navy was the least guilty of the parties. If Forrestal were President, he told his Diaries, “I would in a week or ten days tell both services it was time to call a halt in the propaganda discussion and lobbying.” Forrestal said he told Truman “the Navy would make it stick, but I didn’t think the Army could, particularly the Air Forces.” Forrestal recalled Truman telling him “that the Air Forces had no discipline.”

The Air Force’s discipline was, it must be agreed, not nearly so effective as the Navy’s. Chairman Walsh had re­ceived a copy of S.2044 as a “courtesy” gesture. He de­cided to hold full hearings of his Naval Affairs Committee and called up a solid phalanx of Navy witnesses. One after the other, they denounced the bill as an open violation of the principles of democratic process, of improper coordi­nation of foreign and military policies. Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, one of the witnesses, offered somewhat more down-to-earth arguments:

“Frankly, I believe that the Navy as a whole objects to the so-called unification because under any system the Navy will be in a numerical minority and the Army and Air Force, a military majority . . . [who] will always be in a better political position than the Navy.

“Because the Navy has had and should retain in the future its position as the first line of military security for the United States, I believe the Navy will never willingly agree to a consolidation of national military forces in any matter that will silence the Navy’s voice in military affairs or materially restrict its present responsibilities.”

Secretary Forrestal did not openly oppose the legislation. He told the Committee that he was “solidly behind the basic objective of the President” (italics supplied). Forrestal called S.2044 “illogical administratively” and said it would create “vacuums of authority.”

Only two witnesses favorable to the bill were called to testify. Senators Thomas and Austin, whose names were on the bill, were asked only to explain its provisions. With their testimony, the Naval Affairs Committee suspended further hearings on May 9, 1946.

President Truman was irked by these dilatory tactics. He called a meeting at the White House and announced his decision to oppose a single Chief of Staff—a change from his previous position. On the other issues, however, he told the adversaries to work out points of specific agree­ment and disagreement and to submit both lists to the White House by May 31.

If Forrestal and Nimitz came away with some misgivings about continuing to drag their heels, their determination was given a boost by a private letter to them signed by Senator Walsh and Representative Vinson. This letter, un­der date of May 15, 1946, expressed the joint conviction that Congress would not create any single Department of Common Defense, transfer any aviation functions away from the Navy to the AAF or to a separate Air Force, or reduce the powers of the Secretaries of War and Navy.

One national news magazine called the congressmen “the entrenched chairmen. . . fearful of losing power of patron­age,” and predicted that if unification were to be achieved, “public and military pressure would have to reduce these last political pillboxes.”

With that letter in his pocket, however, Forrestal joined Mr. Eberstadt at a horse-trading session with Patterson and Symington the next day. Forrestal told Symington he could either oppose a new department or perhaps decide it was none of the Navy’s business what the Army did with its Air Force. Eberstadt stated the Navy’s terms: Suppose the Navy were to agree to accept legislation creating the sepa­rate Air Force, would Patterson and Symington be willing to go along with the Navy’s conception of limited powers for the Secretary of Defense? He received no commitment at that time, but as we now reflect upon the nature of the National Security Act of 1947, this is how the law turned out. The compilers of Forrestal’s Diaries said the bill “had been shaped slowly, skillfully, and patiently, very largely in accordance with Forrestal’s ideas.”

Secretaries Patterson and Forrestal composed a joint let­ter to President Truman on May 31, 1946, as directed, but aside from agreement on a separate Department of the Air, there was little other agreement about control of aviation, limitations on expansion of the Marine Corps, powers to be held by a Secretary of National Defense, and the Navy’s desire to retain full departmental status with cabinet rank for its secretary.

President Truman called a June 4 secret meeting at the White House to include all his top military and civilian leaders. The substance of the discussion leaked to the press, which commented upon the apparently irreconcilable serv­ice differences.

In exasperation, President Truman on June 15, 1946, re­leased a letter to the service secretaries and appropriate congressional leaders outlining a twelve-point “unification’ law. His letter, in sum, called for:

1. A single Department of National Defense under a civilian head who would be a member of the President’s cabinet;

2. Three coordinate services—Army, Navy, and Air Force;

3. The Air Force to be responsible for all military air resources of the United States with the exception of ship-borne and water-based aircraft essential to the Navy for internal administration, air transport, and training purposes;

4. The preservation of the Marine Corps as a separate entity with all its prerogatives;

5. Council of National Defense (National Security Council) with a chairman of cabinet rank;

6. A National Security Resources Board responsible for mobilizing the economic resources of the nation;

7. The Joint Chiefs of Staff set up on a formal basis to be responsible for strategic plans, integrating military pro­grams, etc.;

8. Rejection of the single military Chief of Staff concept;

9. A Central Intelligence Agency;

10. A centralized agency for procurement and supply;

11. A single agency to coordinate all military research and development;

12. A single agency to integrate all military education: and training of the services.

On three of these major points, the services had been unable to agree: (1) creation of a Department of Defense, (2) the over-all status of aviation, and (3) the position of the Marine Corps.

They never did come to true agreement on these and other points, of course, nor have the essential differences among other service viewpoints been fully thrashed out even today. But the immediate product of these postwar disputations and negotiations, which were not yet over by any means, was the first big step toward unification, the National Security Act of 1947. It created the Department of Defense and a separate, coequal Air Force.

Actually, with passage of the act, the antiunification forces hurled themselves into the organizational fray with renewed determination; their stubborn resistance to pro­gressive change has been a feature of the national scene ever since.

Next month: The end of the beginning of the unification fight.

The author, Murray Green, is a civilian aide at Headquar­ters USAF. This is his fourth article in AIR FORCE/SPACE DIGEST; most recent previous contribution was an authori­tative piece on French missilry in October ’60. A second installation, on unification will be published in the next issue of this magazine. A lengthy letter from Dr. Green also appears in the “Airmail” department of this issue on page 8. Dr. Green holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from the City College of New York and a Ph.D. from American University, Washington, D. C., in history and international relations. A Reserve major in Air Force intelligence, he served as a naval officer aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific in the second World War.