The Quiet Coup of 1949

July 1, 1999

The passage of the National Security Act of 1947 was a landmark in the organization of America’s military establishment. However, it was a series of little-known 1949 amendments to the act that decisively shaped the character and organization of the military for the next half century.

August 1999 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of those amendments, which took power from the military services and vested it in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Moreover, the amendments started a series of legislative initiatives in the 1950s which subsequently turned America’s defense establishment into a massive, highly centralized bureaucracy.

The drive to amend the National Security Act of 1947 occurred in the wake of James V. Forrestal’s first stormy months as Secretary of Defense, months which were distinguished by a bitter roles-and-missions struggle between the Air Force and the Navy. During the contentious years 1946–47, with the debate over national security legislation raging, Forrestal succeeded in achieving the Navy’s goal of making the Secretary of Defense a coordinator rather than a true administrator.

The 1947 act gave the United States Air Force its long-sought independence, but it failed to give the Defense Secretary sufficient authority over the National Military Establishment. The fledgling Air Force had fought for more authority for the Secretary because it believed he would be ineffectual without it. Moreover, USAF judged that a strong Secretary would support its claim to the strategic atomic bombing mission.

Third, Third, Third

Two factors caused tempers to flare. First, the Truman Administration was determined to hold the defense budget to about $13 billion a year, a relatively low amount. Second, Forrestal believed that sustaining a “balanced” force of land, air, and sea components required the US to split the tight budget into three nearly equal portions. This intensified the roles-and-missions struggle. The Navy thought it was in danger of losing its air arm to the Air Force. The Air Force was convinced that the Navy was attempting to build a strategic air force of its own.

This rancorous battle was played out in the context of deepening Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union had set up puppet governments in Eastern and Central Europe, prompting former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous 1946 comment that an “Iron Curtain” had fallen across the European continent. And in June 1948, provocative Soviet moves forced the Western Allies to mount the Berlin Airlift to keep the city free and functioning.

Thus, international tensions took center stage. Even so, the first Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, had been perturbed from the start that Forrestal had simply moved his staff from the Navy Department into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In a letter to Forrestal, Symington charged, “Nobody who ever served a day in the Air Force was a member of your permanent top staff.”

Another criticism came from Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. W. Barton Leach, the Harvard Law School faculty member who, in 1949, would organize the case for the Air Force during the Congressional B-36 investigation. Leach noted:

“ These [OSD] civilian officials are not prejudiced against the Air Force, nor are they unwilling to learn. But an instinctive understanding of Air Force problems is not in their blood; they do not naturally seek the association of Air Force people; and when the chips are down it too often happens that the Air Force gets the short end of these very important decisions that are controlled by the staff of the Secretary of Defense. … For the most part, OSD has been staffed with able men. But ability is not enough. A Supreme Court comprising the nine ablest lawyers in the country would not be acceptable if it turned out that all nine came from Wall Street firms.”

Symington had thought all along that the 1947 act should only be the first step in reorganizing the nation’s military, and he thought that there would ultimately be a price to pay for having a Secretary of Defense who was merely a coordinator rather than a strong administrator. In the summer of 1948, he informed Clark Clifford, Truman’s assistant, that “it is now my considered opinion that the present National Security Act must be changed in order to work.”

Forrestal thought that he could operate effectively as a coordinator. However, he now found himself unable to deal with interservice disagreements over allocation of resources and the assignment of responsibility for numerous programs. He lacked decision-making authority and had badly misjudged the intensely divisive character of the issues. On top of this, he and his staff found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the work before them.

“ Dead Cats”

In a moment of grim humor, Forrestal predicted, “This office will probably be the greatest cemetery for dead cats in history.” The official OSD history concludes that “one of the most painful experiences of Forrestal’s public career was reluctantly concluding that the statute he had done so much to engineer contained serious defects.”

In early 1949, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (USA, Ret.) noted that Forrestal was “obviously most unhappy.” Eisenhower said, “At one time, he accepted unequivocally and supported vigorously the Navy ‘party line,’ given him by the admirals.” Now, Eisenhower judged, Forrestal trusted the Army’s leadership more than the Navy’s.

As early as February 1948, Forrestal expressed serious reservations about the National Security Act. In a report to Truman, he indicated a need for a deputy and emphasized the debilitating effects of interservice rivalry.

Forrestal also tried to act through former President Hoover’s Commission on Reorganization of the Executive Branch, of which he was a member. In May 1948, he arranged for close friend Ferdinand Eberstadt to head the commission’s National Security Task Force. Symington informed Eberstadt in October 1948 that “we have had a year of unification directed toward obtaining ‘more security for less money’ and are more convinced than ever of the importance of putting more authority in the hands of the civilian head of the National Military Establishment, the Secretary of Defense, and also streamlining and concentrating the military authority under him.”

Forrestal told Eberstadt’s group that the truly enormous workload was swamping OSD’s ability to cope. In December, in his first annual report, Forrestal recommended appointment of an undersecretary of defense and augmentation of the Joint Staff. Moreover, he called for removing the service secretaries from the National Security Council. Finally, he asked that his office be given more authority; specifically, he asked Congress to drop the word “general” in describing the nature of his control over the three military departments.

Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force, contended that the National Security Act needed fixing to enable the Defense Secretary to be “in control of the Department of National Defense and the component parts thereof.”

Spaatz argued, “The safeguards placed by law to protect an individual service are an anachronism that dates from the days of sailing vessels. Any attempt to temporize with this situation by further adherence to outworn and overworked traditions will not only pyramid the costs of our national defense establishment but will be disastrous in the event of war.”

Spaatz believed that Forrestal was, in fact, overburdened. The remedy, he maintained, would be to provide the Secretary with assistant secretaries. The right of appeal of the service secretaries to the President and the Bureau of the Budget should be abolished, he went on. Moreover, Spaatz argued that the Pentagon leader should have a military chief of staff as a top advisor and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be abolished along with the service secretaries. The military heads of the services would be designated as commanders, and the Secretary of Defense would serve as the only military representative on the National Security Council.

Vandenberg and Norstad Weigh In

Spaatz was succeeded in April 1948 by Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Several months later, in June 1948, the new Air Force leader testified before the Eberstadt group, which had been chartered to determine how to make the defense establishment more efficient. Vandenberg, like others, emphasized that Forrestal possessed neither sufficient authority nor adequate staff. Lt. Gen. Lauris Norstad, USAF deputy chief of staff for operations, agreed with Vandenberg and noted that the Secretary of Defense simply did not have the staff to properly discharge his duties.

Norstad said, “The Secretary needs high-caliber assistant secretaries who are important all-around-capable people, not just experts along narrow lines.” Norstad also proposed a military staff for the Secretary, one that would be headed by “a top military man who would sit on the JCS and carry its decisions to the Secretary of Defense.”

Moreover, according to Norstad, the right of appeal of the department secretaries up to the President—over the head of the Secretary of Defense—“should be struck out since it tends to destroy the Secretary’s authority.”

Both Vandenberg and Norstad favored abolishing the position of the President’s chief of staff (held during the war by Adm. William D. Leahy) in favor of giving the Secretary a top military person to resolve differences between the services.

With a weak Secretary and an ineffective JCS, it was difficult to break deadlocks within the Joint Chiefs. The Chief of Staff charged, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff is not effective as a top-level military authority. The reason is that this body does not have at its head an officer who has the authority and responsibility of decision—and can arrive at decisions only by unanimous vote—which is another way of saying that each service has an absolute veto power such as exists in the Security Council of the UN. No other agency of American government is expected to exercise authority under the handicap of such a system.”

Vandenberg noted that the Joint Chiefs were under substantial pressure to reach agreement—“some agreement, any agreement.” He did not believe this approach to be sound. “The country,” he said, “is entitled to expect from its military leaders right decisions in the national interest, not merely agreements which represent the best deal that can be made among the three armed services.”

“ Man on Horseback”

Meanwhile Navy leaders continued to emphasize that they feared excessive power in the hands of the Secretary of Defense, claiming it could produce the much-feared “man on horseback” style of leadership. John J. McCloy, president of the World Bank and advisor to Eberstadt, noted that the man on horseback argument usually was advanced by “those who themselves seek unfettered power.”

McCloy asserted, “I doubt whether we need fear the man in uniform in this regard any more than the man or men in civilian clothes to whom we have given far greater authority.”

As to the argument that change should proceed gradually, McCloy told Eberstadt that “the condition of the world today demands that our military establishment be put in order right away.”

In its final report to the Hoover Commission, Eberstadt’s task force recommended strengthening the Defense Secretary’s authority, increasing his staff, and appointing a full Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Truman got behind the drive to revise the National Security Act, and the commission in early 1949 went on record in support of placing more power in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Within the Administration, there were voices—some of them in the Bureau of the Budget—that called for Congress to go much further in the direction of downgrading the military services, but they did not prevail.

Meanwhile, Forrestal had begun suffering deep mental distress of a clinical nature. He had resigned under pressure in March 1949 and was replaced by Louis A. Johnson, a former assistant secretary of war and fund-raiser for Truman’s 1948 campaign. Forrestal had wanted to remain at his post for a few more months, but Truman asked for his resignation, having become aware that Forrestal had turned increasingly indecisive and appeared to be racked with tension and fatigue.

Forrestal, in fact, was suffering a mental breakdown. Some maintain that he was victimized by the combination of holding an office with great responsibility and insufficient authority.

After relinquishing his post, Forrestal entered Bethesda Naval Hospital, where, on May 22, 1949, he plunged to his death from the hospital’s 16th floor.

Johnson strongly supported the Administration position on amending the National Security Act, as did the Army and the Air Force. The Navy and Marine Corps remained reluctant, however, with Gen. Clifton B. Cates, the Marine commandant, arguing that the legislation would confer “entirely too much power” on the Secretary of Defense.

In the summer of 1949, during hearings on the amendments, Johnson clashed with Rep. Carl Vinson, the powerful Georgia Democrat who chaired the House Armed Services Committee. Vinson emphasized that, in his opinion, the position of the Secretary was sufficiently strong already. Johnson retorted: “I think the security of the nation can’t be adequately protected without having this additional authority. I think secondly that it is going to cost the defense establishment more than our economy can bear unless we have this law.”

Vinson attempted to delay the legislation by suspending hearings—his committee was gearing up to investigate procurement of the B-36 bomber—but Truman reacted by transmitting his plan (Reorganization Plan No. 8) to Congress first. It passed both houses, and Truman signed it into law Aug. 10, 1949.

Total Authority

The National Security Act Amendments of 1949 converted the National Military Establishment into the Department of Defense, making it an executive—or cabinet level—department and downgraded the services from executive to military departments. In addition, the Secretary of Defense gained total “direction, authority, and control” over the entire department and became the “principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense.”

Although the service secretaries would still administer their respective departments, they would be under the complete direction and control of the Secretary of Defense. Departmental secretaries also lost their previous statutory right to make recommendations directly to the President or the budget director. However, the secretaries could make recommendations to Congress. Also importantly, the secretaries would no longer be allowed to represent their departments on the National Security Council.

The undersecretary of defense was given the rank of a true deputy secretary with the authority, when required, to act for the Secretary of Defense. The three special assistants to the Secretary were elevated to assistant secretaries.

Several changes were made in the composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Leahy’s position of chief of staff to the President, a holdover post from World War II, was abolished and Congress authorized the appointment of a full-time Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The JCS Chairman would hold rank senior to all other officers and advise the President and the Secretary of Defense. However, Truman’s recommendation to allow the JCS a joint staff of indeterminate number was rejected. Congress agreed only to increase the staff from 100 to 210.

The 1949 amendments also gave the Secretary more control over the Munitions Board and Research and Development Board.

“ Crybabies in the Niches”

This 1949 legislation marked a critical turning point in US military organization away from decentralization toward a highly centralized national defense bureaucracy. “We finally succeeded,” Truman noted, “in getting a unification act that will enable us to have unification, and as soon as we get the crybabies in the niches where they belong, we will have no more trouble.”

At the time, many interpreted the President’s comment as a slap at Navy and Marine leaders who had opposed unification and remained unreconstructed.

The Air Force and the Army understood that Forrestal’s concept of the Secretary as coordinator had failed and resulted in confusion if not chaos in the defense establishment. The Secretary, bereft of requisite authority, could not make decisions.

Just ahead lay stunning events that would test the new defense setup. Truman announced on Sept. 23, 1949, that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic device; the American monopoly was broken, with great emotional and political effect in the US. Symington became increasingly disturbed at what he viewed as the Administration’s inaction in the wake of the Soviet atomic explosion.

“ It is the psychological tendency of humans,” he wrote to Johnson, “to become used to danger. So far as this reduces the effects of fear, it is good. So far as it leads to discounting danger and failing to provide against it, it can lead to disaster.”

Frustrated by his inability to convince the Administration to build up the Air Force, Symington resigned to take the helm at the National Security Resources Board, just two months prior to the onset of the Korean War in June 1950.

The passage of the amendments did not resolve deep-seated issues between the services. However, the outbreak of war in Korea led to a great expansion of the defense budget and relief from the funding pressure that had stoked interservice rivalry.

The 1949 amendments brought a measure of stability to the defense establishment. The structure has always been imperfect. Today, the challenge to US leadership is to keep the military establishment fine-tuned in a period in which the US has undertaken vast new international responsibilities.

Herman S. Wolk is senior historian in the Air Force History Support Office. He is the author of The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947 (1997) and a co-author of Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force (1997). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “When the Color Line Ended,” appeared in the July 1998 issue.