Department of Defense - Early experiences




As a result of the National Security Act, the military establishment stood to gain considerably in its exercise of influence over peacetime foreign and defense policy. Forrestal, as one of the principal architects of the law, hoped that it would lead to closer politico-military collaboration, an area he thought had been slighted during World War II by what he saw as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's casual management style and haphazard approach to postwar planning. After the war, as relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated, Forrestal thought it all the more imperative that military planning and foreign policy be brought into closer harmony. As the first secretary of defense (1947–1949), he looked initially to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be his principal politico-military advisers and adopted the practice of consulting with them on nearly every foreign policy matter that crossed his desk. In view of the proliferating number of foreign crises—in Greece, Italy, Palestine, Berlin, China, and elsewhere—the Joint Chiefs had numerous occasions to express their views and to exert their influence. Yet rarely did they make as much of these opportunities as they might have. Divided among themselves over budgetary issues, the allocation of resources, and the assignment of service roles and missions, they seldom presented a united front. Where the use of force might be involved, their recommendations tended to be so unrealistic that they scarcely received serious consideration outside the Pentagon. A case in point was their finding in the spring of 1948 that 100,000 U.S. troops would be needed for peacekeeping duties in Palestine, an estimate built on worst-case scenarios that officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and at the White House dismissed as overblown for budgetary purposes.

As it became clear that the Joint Chiefs were a less reliable source of advice than Forrestal had expected, he found himself turning to members of his immediate staff to deal with politico-military affairs. This was not something Forrestal had anticipated, nor did it fit easily into the organization he had planned for his office. During the unification debate, he had told Congress that in the interests of preserving service autonomy it would be counterproductive for the new secretary of defense to surround himself with too many aides and assistants who might interfere in the services' business. A small staff, he contended, would be more than adequate. Politico-military affairs became the responsibility of John H. Ohly, one of the secretary's three statutory special assistants, who oversaw a mixed staff of civil servants and uniformed officers borrowed from the military departments. Although Ohly usually stayed in the background, operating more as an administrator than as an adviser, his role was such that he could, and did, freely offer suggestions when it seemed appropriate.

Under Forrestal's successor, Louis A. Johnson (1949–1950), politico-military affairs acquired a more formal and centralized structure, in line with Johnson's philosophy (as well as the increased authority he wielded as a result of the 1949 amendments to the National Security Act), that the secretary of defense should exercise closer control over departmental policy. The impetus for the changes Johnson made in handling foreign affairs came initially from the State Department, which wanted a single point of contact with the Pentagon instead of having to deal separately with the OSD, the JCS, and the military services. One proposal up for consideration at the time Johnson took office in March 1949 was to vest primary responsibility for politico-military affairs in the JCS. Johnson, however, vetoed the idea in favor of keeping control in his immediate office, thereby setting a precedent that would guide all future secretaries of defense. Over the next several months he moved policy responsibility for occupied areas from the army to OSD, ordered his immediate staff to monitor all correspondence between the military services and the State Department, and set up the State Liaison Section to serve as the central point of contact for all communications with the State Department other than sensitive intelligence matters.

An isolationist at heart, Johnson faced the somewhat personally awkward task of having to help implement two major foreign policy initiatives: the defense of Europe as part of America's obligations as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created in April 1949; and arming the allies under a companion measure, the Mutual Defense Assistance Program, enacted that autumn. Less than enthusiastic about either, Johnson turned coordination of these matters over to an assistant, James H. Burns, a retired army officer whose heart ailment allowed him to work only part-time. Fortunately, Burns had two exceptionally able deputies: Major General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, who handled military assistance; and Najeeb E. Halaby, who specialized in foreign military affairs, including NATO. Meanwhile, Johnson became involved in a running feud with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, which put a serious strain on State-Defense relations. Business between the two still managed to get done, but at a reduced pace with limited contacts and cooperation all around.

The low point came with the drafting of NSC 68 in the spring of 1950, when the State Department team, led by Paul H. Nitze, director of the Policy Planning Staff, effectively usurped leadership of what was supposed to have been a joint State-Defense endeavor. The product of the exercise was a paper tailored to Acheson's specifications, warning of great dangers ahead unless the United States abandoned the strict economy measures Johnson had imposed and stepped up the level of its military preparedness. From this point on, Johnson's credibility at the White House steadily diminished, until reverses at the outset of the Korean War that summer cast doubt on his continuing ability to manage the Pentagon and provided Truman with an excuse to fire him.

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