American Chieftains

Sept. 1, 2002

The way the American military is organized to fight the nation’s wars has evolved incrementally since World War II, culminating in the Eisenhower reorganization of 1958 which removed the military departments from the operational chain of command.

In the 55 years since passage of the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the United States Air Force and creating the modern American national security establishment, a number of reorganizations have fundamentally altered the defense establishment.

Ironically, initial reluctance to reorganize centered on the fear of a “man on horseback,” an all-powerful Secretary of Defense who would ride roughshod over the military services. As it turned out, the National Security Act gave insufficient authority to the Secretary of Defense. Politicians and defense officials for decades attempted to revise the 1947 act to strengthen the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff at the expense of the services.

A number of these efforts–notably in 1949, 1953, 1958, and 1986–resulted in legislation that led to centralized authority and creation of a massive defense bureaucracy. This centralization of authority was primarily a response to the evolution of nuclear weapons and to service roles and missions disputes that were seen as affecting the nation’s warfighting capability.

Landmark Reorganization

The pivotal reorganization, championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his second term, occurred in 1958 when the military departments were removed from the operational chain of command. Operational direction would run from the President through the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs, to the unified and specified commands.

This landmark defense reorganization was not unexpected from a soldier-statesman with an extraordinarily distinguished military career. It was also true that Eisenhower felt much more confident of his ability in military affairs than in the civilian policy arena.

Eisenhower’s experience in World War II convinced him of the absolute necessity of unified command. As Supreme Allied Commander, he realized it was time to change the way America fought its wars. The objective, he said, was to “achieve real unity” and end, “once and for all, interservice disputes.” Unity of direction was the key, he explained, to victory in World War II.

His ideas on military organization–a fundamental concept of the military services as mutually supporting–and his abhorrence of interservice rivalry or parochialism, as he frequently called it, can be traced directly to his war experience. In November 1945, testifying before Congress about defense unification, Eisenhower observed: “At one time I was an infantryman, but I have long since forgotten that fact, under the responsibility of commanding combined arms. I believe it is honest to say that I have forgotten that I came originally from the ground forces, and I believe that my associates of the Air and of the Navy in that command came to regard me really as one of their own service rather than one of the opposite.” He emphasized that “competition is like some of the habits we have–in small amounts they are very desirable; carried too far they are ruinous.”

He was also sensitive to the effect on the economy of overemphasizing the military aspects of national security: “We must always retain,” he said, ” a strong and solvent economy.” Thus, in the immediate post-World War II period, Eisenhower emphasized the need “to root out the empire builders [in the military] with a sledgehammer.”

Three-Legged Stool

Eisenhower later likened his philosophy of a balanced military to a three-legged stool: “We have learned by hard experience that the nation’s security establishment is, in fact, a single fighting team composed of three services each supplementing the other in proper balance. No single service can be independently considered.”

Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general, Army Air Forces, in his testimony on defense unification, echoed Eisenhower’s view, noting that a basic pattern emerged from the war: “This pattern is coordinate organization of the principal forces having their respective missions in one of the major elements–land, sea, and air–each under its own commander and each respectively responsible to a supreme commander, i.e., three coordinate forces under unified supreme command.”

The framework advocated by Eisenhower and Arnold was created on Dec. 14, 1946, when President Harry S. Truman signed the Outline Command Plan establishing seven unified commands. (The Outline Command Plan was the first of what is now known as the Unified Command Plan.) The first seven unified commands were Alaskan Command, Atlantic Command, Caribbean Command, European Command, Far East Command, Northeast Command, and Pacific Command. The plan also recognized the existence of Strategic Air Command, a command of the US Army Air Forces, and placed it under the responsibility of the JCS. SAC was the first of what would later be designated specified commands.

The drive toward defense centralization continued to pick up momentum. In 1949, amendments to the 1947 National Security Act removed the service Secretaries from their policy role in the National Security Council. A reorganization in 1953 further centralized authority in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,

Ever since adoption of the 1947 act, the Air Force had favored a more unified defense establishment. In 1956-57, when Sen. W. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), who had been the first Secretary of the Air Force, conducted his airpower hearings–the most comprehensive ever held on the subject–the Air Force took the position that a defense reorganization was required. Gen. Nathan F. Twining, Air Force Chief of Staff, emphasized that it was a mistake for each service to attempt to attain self-sufficiency.

The Air Force View

Throughout the 1950s, the Air Force continued to press for a more unified defense structure. With evolution of Strategic Air Command as the fulcrum of US defense policy, air leaders reasoned that a stronger OSD would institutionalize the Air Force’s justifiable domination of the defense structure.

In October 1957, in the wake of the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union, critics of the Eisenhower Administration blamed interservice rivalry for the lag in US missile and space technology.

In late 1957, a study panel of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund described three significant defects in the organization of the Department of Defense:

Roles and missions had become competitive rather than complementary.

The organization and responsibilities of the Joint Chiefs precluded development of a comprehensive and coherent defense doctrine.

The Secretary of Defense spent too much time arbitrating interservice disputes and could not contribute significantly to evolving military policy.

The Rockefeller panel recommended that the military departments be removed from the chain of operational command and instead support the unified commands. It proposed that “all operational military forces of the US should be organized into unified commands to perform missions dictated by strategic requirements. The units assigned to each unified commander should be organic to his command not simply placed under his temporary operational control.”

In early January 1958, President Eisenhower, in his State of the Union address, emphasized the need for a shakeup in defense organization. In late January, the Senate preparedness investigating subcommittee recommended action “to reorganize the structure of the defense establishment” and to “accelerate and expand research and development.”

Consequently, Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy appointed a group to draft reorganization legislation and, based on its report, Eisenhower on April 3, 1958, asked Congress to deploy troops into truly unified commands and to eliminate separate ground, sea, and air warfare forever.

The President emphasized that future wars would be waged “in all elements, with all services, as one single concentrated effort. … Strategic and tactical planning must be completely unified, combat forces organized into unified commands, each equipped with the most efficient weapons systems that science can develop, singly led and prepared to fight as one, regardless of service.” He expected the unified command “to go far toward realigning our operational plans, weapon systems, and force levels.” The nation required, he said, “maximum security at minimum cost,” a constant refrain of Eisenhower’s since World War II.

Congress incorporated most of Eisenhower’s recommendations in the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. This legislation marked a turning point in American military organization by removing the military departments and their service Secretaries from the operational chain of command.

The New Warrior Chiefs

The 1958 act stipulated that operational command would be directed from the President to the Secretary of Defense through the Joint Chiefs (as an advisory conduit) and then to the unified and specified commands. The JCS would provide a channel of communications from the Secretary of Defense to the unified and specified commands. The law gave unified and specified commanders control and direction of US combatant forces.

The so-called nonoperational chain of command or responsibility for preparing and supporting forces remained with the military departments. The act greatly strengthened the powers of the Secretary of Defense, granting him direction, authority, and control over the Department of Defense and the military services. It repealed the previous legislative authority for the service Chiefs to command their respective services. The National Security Act of 1947 described “three military departments separately administered,” as opposed to the 1958 act which described a “Department of Defense, including three military departments, to be separately organized.”

In addition, the 1958 legislation granted control and direction of military research and development to the Secretary of Defense and created a director of defense research and engineering. The Secretary of Defense was also authorized to establish agencies to conduct any service or supply function common to two or more services.

In sum, although the 1958 reorganization act left the military departments intact, it centralized power in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and gave the Secretary more responsibility to craft strategy in concert with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The service Secretaries and Chiefs could still present recommendations to Congress.

From the Air Force’s perspective, the legislation failed to achieve the control of combat forces desired by Eisenhower. “The top military body,” emphasized Gen. Thomas D. White, Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, “was still shot through with interservice rivalry.” According to White, there was “no more agreement in the JCS” than before the reorganization. Although the law “was a pretty good step,” White believed that legislation by itself could not resolve interservice rivalry.

However, the war in Southeast Asia increased the pressure to strengthen the role of the combatant commanders. In early 1982, prior to his retirement as JCS Chairman, Air Force Gen. David C. Jones testified before the House Armed Services Committee, stating that commanders of the combatant commands and the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs needed to be given more authority and responsibility. He pointed out that since the 1958 reorganization, the only important change within the defense department had been in 1978 when the Marine Corps Commandant received full-fledged status on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In Jones’s view, it was absolutely essential to construct “a joint staff and a joint system that were not beholden to the services.” He observed that “we need to spend more time on our warfighting capabilities and less on intramural squabbles for resources.”

In early 1985, a study conducted under the auspices of Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies argued “for a sweeping restructuring of the American military operation.” It described the military structure as “stagnated” and rife with interservice rivalries.

Participants in this study included Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and later a Secretary of Defense under President Clinton; Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.); Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), also later a Clinton Secretary of Defense; and Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Navy opposed restructuring, with Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. commenting that these proposed reforms “would centralize too much power in Washington and diminish civilian control.”

Toward the Eisenhower Vision

The drive for reform picked up more steam in October 1985 when the Senate Armed Services Committee issued another study recommending that the Joint Chiefs be replaced with a military advisory council, that OSD be strengthened, and that more responsibility be given to the unified commanders. This Senate study concluded that the position of the Secretary of Defense was weaker “today than when it was created by President Truman in 1947.”

Congress then reached a final compromise resulting in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan. Nunn, one of the major architects of the legislation, declared that it provided the country the kind of unified structure that Eisenhower had had in mind for the 1958 reorganization.

The Goldwater-Nichols legislation gave more power to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and to the unified commanders. It designated the JCS Chairman as the principal military advisor to the President. Thus, the JCS Chairman now assumed the advisory role that the corporate Joint Chiefs had maintained since 1958. The law also stipulated that communications between the President and Secretary of Defense and the heads of the unified and specified commands could be channeled through the Chairman.

The Joint Chiefs and individually each service Chief remained outside the operational chain of command. The legislation also stipulated that the JCS Chairman would perform reviews of the unified and specified commands and submit a report on roles and missions of the services every three years.

The act contained two other major provisions. It made the Secretary of Defense responsible for strategic and logistical planning and budget requests. And, it created a four-star vice chairman of the JCS, a position to be manned from a service other than that of the Chairman.

Air Force Gen. Robert T. Herres was the first officer to occupy the position of vice chairman of the JCS. He described the objective of Goldwater-Nichols to be “less talk of so-called roles and missions of the services and more meaningful, aggressive action to support the combat commanders.”

Herres stressed that the architects of the law believed “service interests” had been “served at the expense of joint responsibilities” and “resource managers held excessive influence at the expense of warfighters.”

It had taken 28 years to reach Goldwater-Nichols. Since then, additional reports have focused on strengthening America’s warfighting capability, emphasizing ways to field a fighting force not constrained by parochialism.

The end of the Cold War and the startling events of the past decade have once again turned the spotlight on how best to organize the nation’s military to meet the difficult challenges ahead.

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 coauthor of Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force (1997). His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Pantelleria, 1943,” appeared in the June 2002 issue.