‘Defective at the Top’

March 1, 1961

“The most important thing to be done now . . . is the creation of a General Staff. . . . Our military system is . . . exceedingly defective at the top. We have personnel unsurpassed anywhere. . . . We have wealth and a present willingness to expand it reasonably for the procurement of supplies and material of war. . . . We have the different branches of the military service well organized, each within itself, for the perform­ance of its duties. . . . But when we come to the coordination and direc­tion of all the means and agencies of warfare, so that all parts of the machine shall work true together, we are weak. Our system makes no adequate provision for the directing brain which every army must have, to work successfully.”

At first glance, the words above might reason­ably have come from a task-force report to Presi­dent John F. Kennedy on higher defense organization in this year 1961. Actually they are excerpts from the Annual Report of Secretary of War Elihu Root—in 1902.

Secretary Root wrote these words in the midst of a stormy—and finally successful—struggle to create a General Staff within the United States Army.

The fight to reorganize the Army at the turn of the century offers an interesting and significant parallel to the current controversy over defense reorganization, particularly with reference to the general staff ques­tion. The parallel is twofold. First, the United States at the turn of the century—as now—was entering a new era in world politics and military technology. This called for a more unified military structure. Second, the arguments against the general-staff concept in 1902-03 are strikingly similar to those heard now.

The basic issue in 1902-03 was between those de­fenders of the organizational status quo, marching under a moth-eaten banner reading NOTHING SHOULD EVER BE DONE FOR THE FIRST TIME, and those proposing reforms derived from a logical analysis of the existing situation. The same issue divides us today.

Among the most important and controversial pro­posals in the preinaugural report of President Ken­nedy’s task force on defense organization, headed by Senator Stuart Symington, was that the existing Joint Chiefs of Staff be reconstituted into a Joint Staff under a single chairman (see AIR FORCE, January ’61, pp. 38-41).

The striking analogy between 1902 and today can be seen by comparing reactions to the Symington group’s recent proposals with those which greeted Elihu Root’s plan for an Army General Staff at the dawn of the twentieth century.

A Navy admiral, as quoted anonymously by Busi­ness Week (December 24, 1960), commented on the recent proposals of President Kennedy’s defense or­ganizational task force as follows:

“It’s dictatorship, and contrary to everything that’s American. It violates constitutional principles of gov­ernment organization which guarantee the separation of powers, checks and balances, and protection for minority views.”

Turn the calendar back more than half a century and listen now to the view of the Commanding Gen­eral of the Army, reacting to War Secretary Root’s pro­posed Army General Staff:

“In my judgment… [an existing] system that is the fruit of the best thought of the most eminent patriots and ablest military men that this country has pro­duced should not be destroyed by substituting one that is more adapted to the monarchies of the Old World. … The scheme is revolutionary, casts to the winds the lessons of experience, and abandons methods which successfully carried us through the most memorable epochs in our history.”

These are the words of Gen. Nelson Miles, fore-telling to the Senate Committee on Military Affairs in 1902 the dire consequences to the nation if Root’s gen­eral staff proposal were adopted.

Fundamental changes in the military establishment, as Gen. Billy Mitchell once observed, seem to come only after disaster in war or from an aroused public opinion. Elihu Root’s reorganization of the Army in 1903 stemmed from shocking inadequacies of the armed forces demonstrated in the Spanish-American War in 1898. Disaster was averted and the war won in a short time because the Spaniards, as Mr. Dooley observed, were “in a trance.” But the war revealed the Army’s basic organizational defects. Elihu Root was aroused, and he set about to arouse public opinion in support of Army reform.

The current controversy over defense reorganization can perhaps be seen in a clearer light by viewing in perspective Elihu Root’s earlier fight to establish a gen­eral staff.

The war with Spain may have been a “splendid little war” to Col. Teddy Roosevelt of the Rough Riders, yet the performance of the Army in that war was something less than splendid. Certainly it was a tragic experience for those Americans who were killed or maimed in the battle for Santiago, Cuba, or who died or suffered from the incredible mismanagement of the military establishment. Army deaths from disease, for example, exceeded battle deaths by more than seven times.

For many of the war’s participants, as Harvard historian Frank Friedel has observed, “It was as grim, dirty, and bloody as any war in history. It was a little war, but only the incredible ineptitude of the Spaniards and the phenomenal luck of the Americans kept it from stretching into a struggle as long and as full of disasters as the Boer War became for the British.”

In spite of the lessons which the Civil War might have taught, the War Department on the eve of the Spanish War maintained an organization more attuned to Indian warfare on the frontier than to the requirements of an emerging world power. Consequently, the United States performance resembled a combination of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and the Keystone Cops. This is not to overlook the idealism and heroism of the thousands of Americans who fought and suffered.

It soon became clear that organizational deficiencies were a central cause of glaring ineptitude and shocking inadequacies.

The fact that the war was reported by hordes newsmen and that the greater part of the task force was made up of civilian volunteers—some of them politically influential—meant that the nation quickly learned that “something was rotten in the War Department.” A postwar presidential investigation, headed by Gen. Grenville Dodge, issued an eight-volume report on the war’s conduct. Among other things it noted: divided authority and responsibility in the upper echelons of the War Department; basic planning failures in training, equipment, and logistics; and the lack of foresight and of even elementary strategic planning, including the absence of coordinated information and programming.

The public came to learn of troops dispatched to tropical Cuba clad in heavy woolen winter uniforms, to be fed “embalmed beef,” and to receive shockingly inadequate medical care. Ships transporting troops to hostile shores possessed no adequate landing craft. Soldiers were equipped with obsolete weapons, the ammunition for which emitted great clouds of black smoke, while the Spaniards were equipped with Mauser rifles and smokeless powder. The land war was waged virtually without plan. On top of this the Secretary of War and Commanding General were not on speaking terms—the outgrowth of years of divided authority.

The heart of the problem was early diagnosed by Theodore Roosevelt. The day after he was commissioned, he noted in his diary: “There is no head; no management whatever in the War Department. Against a good nation we should be helpless.”

Elihu Root appeared on the scene in 1899 as the new Secretary of War—one of the ablest men ever to occupy that post. Root began the job with the conviction that the war with Spain had, in his words, demonstrated “inefficiency and corruption” in the War Department.

The basic structural problem was that the War Department was a multiheaded creature. The three major focuses of power and authority were the Secretary of War, the Commanding General of the Army, and the diffused authority to be found scattered among the chiefs of the bureaus and subdepartments, such as Ordnance, Quartermaster, Inspector General, etc. This latter assortment of semisovereign satrapies was independent of the Commanding General. Each of the supply and service units was headed by a permanently assigned chief, who worked ­to entrench the position of his domain by carefully cultivating support on Capitol Hill. Often such a chief’s power was greater than that of the Secretary of War.

Secretary Root, a New York lawyer, carefully studied our existing structure and various foreign military systems. He rejected the wholesale adoption of the German or French staff system, recognizing that the US required its own brand of military organization. But he became convinced that the Army required a General Staff, American-style. Only this could bring the needed unification of intelligence, strategic plan­ning, and central direction to the various elements of the Army.

The War Secretary saw the corollary requirement for strengthening the hand of a proposed single Chief of Staff relative to the chiefs of the various supply and service bureaus. He also recognized the need to strengthen the authority of the Secretary of War over both. Root worked hard to publicize Army organiza­tional defects and to overcome widespread internal War Department opposition by circulating and patiently explaining the arguments for reform. Mean­while, by executive order, he created the Army War College, to function as something of a General Staff until Congress could be persuaded to adopt his reor­ganization.

As Root moved cautiously but with determination toward reform, he expectedly encountered the oppo­sition of the Commanding General. Nelson Miles had as allies most of the bureau chiefs and their potent array of supporters on Capitol Hill. To destroy this opposition alliance, Root succeeded, in 1901, in the statutory elimination of the permanent detail of of­ficers as bureau chiefs. Thereafter they served four-year terms.

Root’s General Staff bill was submitted to Congress in 1902. Essentially it called for a Chief of Staff as the unchallenged military head of the Army, thereby eliminating the post of Commanding General, and placing the bureau chiefs under the specific super­vision of the Chief. Also provided was a General Staff corps to assist the Chief in central mobilization and war planning. The military command authority of the Secretary of War was also to be strengthened. Under the new system command authority would be exercised by the Chief of Staff but under the authority of the Secretary of War, agent of the President. The new system would require mutual confidence between Chief of Staff and Secretary of War.

As expected, opposition to the congressional bill was led by Commanding General Miles. He flailed the proposal as un-American, revolutionary, and an un­warranted risk. His basic argument was that the nation had won all of its wars under the existing system. So why risk change? This was to become the copy-book maxim for opponents of unification in later years. With such arguments Congress was persuaded to postpone action.

Secretary Root’s persistent, eloquent, and politically astute campaign to give the Army a central brain and unified direction bore fruit the following year. But not without another skirmish on Capitol Hill.

In the House debate on the measure, Congressman Theodore Kluttz of North Carolina echoed the senti­ments of the Commanding General and some of the bureau chiefs:

“… We can better trust our generals in the field, as shown by experience, than a board or staff, sitting here in Washington, moving them about like men on the chessboard. . . . I can see no reason for setting aside the lessons of experience for an untried experi­ment. … “

Amidst “loud applause” Mr. Kluttz expressed a sen­timent voiced so often in later unification debates. An Army General Staff, he said, “would set up what might be an oligarchy in the War Department. . . .” The ap­plause may have been loud, but it represented a minority. Root’s work had been well done, and the bill, with amendments, was passed in the House by a three-­to-one margin. It met similar success in the Senate.

Although the heart of Root’s proposal was adopted, Congress insisted on some compromises, a trait to become a familiar pattern in subsequent unification battles. (See AIR FORCE, February ’61, pp. 38-41).

For example, Congress failed to eliminate the in­dependence of the Inspector General’s Department which Root wanted to transfer to the new General Staff. Other compromises left some of the bureaus—such as Brig. Gen. Frederick Ainsworth’s Records and Pensions Bureau—with potentially independent authority. This was a harbinger of later bitter struggles to achieve fuller unification in the War Department. Another able New York lawyer, Henry L. Stimson, had to be summoned in 1911 to put things into better order as Secretary of War under President William Howard Taft. But that is another story.

After a three-year struggle against supporters of the status quo, Elihu Root had succeeded, in spite of the compromises, in achieving a significant reform in the Army system.

What are the lessons? Some say that all that history teaches is that history teaches nothing about contem­porary and future events. A possible contradiction of this is that the arguments in the military reorganization issue have changed little over the past half century­. As we have seen, Elihu Root, a type of civilian secretary all too uncommon, carefully analyzed the new position of the United States in the world at the turn of this century, and studied the consequent new military and strategic requirements and their organiza­tional implications. Out of this came his proposals for a General Staff.

These were opposed with the same tenacity and with many of the same arguments that greet current proposals for unifying our general staff planning sys­tem. Modern-day proposals, like Root’s earlier ones, stem from careful, objective analyses of the new position of the United States in world affairs and the new technology of warfare.

Opposition to change stems not only from a perhaps unconscious belief that NOTHING SHOULD EVER BE DONE FOR THE FIRST TIME but also from a fear of the unknown or untried or from a feeling that the privileges and prerogatives of those com­manding the existing system might be upset or dis­arranged. One hears the argument proclaimed again and again that the existing system “has served us well in the past.” Normally it has served well the spokes­men who defend it. Indeed the existing organization may have served the nation well in the past. Yet any discussion of reorganization should concern itself with the future, not the past. As each word here is written, the present becomes the past. Unless we act now, we cannot expect to have the new organization which surely will be needed in the future.

The existing compromise defense organization rep­resents the patchwork of reorganizations between 1947 and 1958. Many admirable accomplishments in de­fense have been realized in spite of the system. Yet it has been responsible for perpetuating expensive interservice rivalry and duplication, for prolonging be­yond belief decisions on critical strategic questions, for risky delays in the development of new weapons and procedures, and for other shortcomings having a dele­terious impact on national security.

The Symington panel plan is a logical step toward unification. It would strengthen the decision-making authority of the Secretary of Defense, reorganize the JCS into a general staff with a single chief, deem­phasize the semi-independent role of the separate serv­ices in strategic planning and military operations, and would clarify and strengthen military command and control.

Those who label such proposals as “dictatorship” and un-American would do well to note the story of the 1902-03 Army reorganization. From the perspec­tive of half a century one is struck by the speciousness of the arguments then against the general staff con­cept and their similarity with modern-day arguments against change.—End


When Secretary of War Elihu Root reorgan­ized the Army in 1902-1903 he ran into the same problems and the same arguments that color the current unification controversy:

* “Nothing should be done for the first time.”

* “Today’s system served us well in the past.

But the problems lie in the future, not in the past. Unless we act now, we cannot solve them.

The author, Dr. Harry Howe Ransom, a political scientist, has been a senior staff member of the Defense Studies Pro­gram of the Graduate School of Public Administration at Harvard University since the program was set up in 1955. Dr. Ransom is the author of the 1958 book Central Intelli­gence and National Security and many articles on defense subjects. Harvard’s defense group has played an important role in stimulating thought in this vital field.