Department of Defense

Steven L. Rearden

A major change in the conduct of American foreign policy after World War II was the growing involvement of the military, represented by the Department of Defense. The explanation stems in part from the heightened concern for national security during the postwar period when much of the U.S. government became transfixed with waging the Cold War. During these years, as foreign affairs eclipsed domestic policy as the government's top concern, discussion of foreign policy options often dwelt on military courses of action, thereby assuring the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and the military services numerous opportunities to contribute views. Indeed, some secretaries of defense, like James Forrestal, Robert S. McNamara, Caspar Weinberger, and William Perry, played such a conspicuous role in foreign affairs that they seemed at times to rival the secretary of state. The result was a foreign policy that increasingly reflected the priorities and concerns of the Pentagon.

Even without the Cold War, however, a case can be made that the Defense Department's role and influence in policy circles would have grown appreciably anyway as the logical outcome of American experiences in World War II and its immediate aftermath. As the war ended, the security problems that preoccupied Washington policymakers were not just those associated with deteriorating Soviet-American relations, but also the obligations the United States was apt to acquire as a member of the recently created United Nations, the threats posed by atomic weapons and other new technologies, and the lingering memories of recent military setbacks like Pearl Harbor. The upshot was a growing acceptance that the country would have to have a larger, better-trained, and better-equipped peacetime military force than it had known in the past.

Created in 1949, the Department of Defense was an outgrowth of the National Security Act of 1947, which unified the armed services under a civilian secretary of defense. The debate in Congress leading up to passage of the 1947 legislation had its origins in the experiences of World War II, which, despite the overall success, revealed numerous flaws and shortcomings in command relationships and the allocation of resources among the military services. Aiming to avoid such problems in the future, President Harry S. Truman endorsed a War Department plan calling for a highly centralized and closely unified postwar military structure. The navy, fearing that such a setup would threaten the future of naval aviation and the independence of the Marine Corps, championed a competing plan that rejected outright unification in favor of closer coordination. The resulting compromise, enshrined in the National Security Act, borrowed from both sides but leaned more toward the navy plan, in the interest of avoiding what many in Congress worried might become "a Prussian-style general staff" at the Pentagon.

The responsibilities of the secretary of defense, as head of the new organization, cut across traditional lines. His main job was to provide "general direction, authority, and control" over the military departments, made up of the army, the navy, and a newly independent air force, which were now grouped together under a hybrid organization known as the National Military Establishment. But the secretary was also "the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the national security." Exactly where the latter language came from or how it was meant to be applied are unclear. The most likely explanation is that it reflected the philosophy and influence of James Forrestal, secretary of the navy during the unification debate, who believed that the secretary of defense should be primarily a coordinator rather than an executive administrator. Truman never liked this loose description of the secretary's duties, and when the opportunity presented itself in 1949 to amend the National Security Act (at which time Congress converted the National Military Establishment into the present-day Department of Defense and strengthened the secretary's authority), he insisted that the wording of the secretary's mission be changed to "principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense."

In addition to providing a framework for unification, the 1947 National Security Act created new machinery to promote closer coordination within the policy process. In practice this meant balancing competing claims of authority, influence, and resources among rival departments and agencies. In an effort to impose order on this situation, Congress created new mechanisms to help the president: the National Security Council to advise him on the formulation of overall policy; the National Security Resources Board to oversee future mobilization planning; and the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate the gathering and analysis of intelligence. Although it was generally assumed that the military would be represented on each of these bodies, the only stipulation in the law was that the secretary of defense and the service secretaries would sit on the National Security Council.


Betts, Richard K. Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises. Cambridge, Mass., 1977. Crisis-oriented study of the military's role in policy.

Goldberg, Alfred, ed. History of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Vols. 1, 2, and 4. Washington, D.C., 1984–1997.

Historical Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff. History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy. 7 vols. Washington, D.C., 1986–2000.

Hoopes, Townsend, and Douglas Brinkley. Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal. New York, 1992. Most complete biography of the first secretary of defense.

Kinnard, Douglas. The Secretary of Defense. Lexington, Ky., 1980. Biographical profiles of key secretaries of defense.

Lederman, Gordon Nathaniel. Reorganizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Westport, Conn., 1999.

McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York, 1995. McNamara's reflections on Vietnam and what went wrong.

Shapley, Deborah. Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara. Boston, 1993. Perceptive account of McNamara's successes and failures.

Trask, Roger R., and Alfred Goldberg. The Department of Defense, 1947–1997: Organization and Leaders. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Weinberger, Caspar W. Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon. New York, 1990. A quasi-memoir dealing with selected issues.

Yarmolinsky, Adam. The Military Establishment: Its Impacts on American Society. New York, 1971. A dated but still insightful examination of the military's role.

See also Department of State ; Presidential Advisers .

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