For more than 150 years, presidents of the United States conducted foreign policy with the advice of a secretary of state; a small, select group of foreign service officers; and, perhaps, a personal adviser. As he directed American foreign policy during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt continued this tradition through his very personal diplomacy and his reliance on friends and advisers who had served him so well during the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal. The frustrating process of resolving complex problems of strategy and diplomacy within the unstructured and chaotic Roosevelt administration led a number of wartime leaders to search for a new institutional arrangement to fulfill the postwar obligations of a world power.
Concern also centered on the elevation to the presidency after the death of Roosevelt in 1945 of the untested Harry Truman. Worried about the growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, many members of Roosevelt's cabinet, including Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, assumed that the former senator from Missouri would need help from a formal council of advisers to provide the leadership necessary in the postwar period. Forrestal and his supporters began the search for a new institutional arrangement to advise the new president and provide coordination between the various military services, the State Department, and other agencies concerned with foreign affairs.
The opportunity for change unexpectedly arose when President Truman first proposed the unification of the military services, a proposal influenced by General George C. Marshall and his own experience in the Senate as chairman of a committee to investigate the national defense program. The fragmentation that had developed during World War II was now exacerbated by the development of airpower and the creation of three separate air forces, one for each service. Truman first proposed unification in December 1945 in a special message to Congress. The proposal met with hostility and protest. It was studied, debated, attacked, and revised for the next year and a half. With the support of Marshall, the army backed the plan for unification, but James Forrestal and the navy, supported by a coterie of congressional members, were adamantly opposed. The navy wanted to ensure the maintenance of its own air force and, furthermore, Forrestal was opposed to any system that would deprive the navy secretary of a seat in the cabinet and direct access to the president.
But Forrestal was also eager for the military services to be an integral part of foreign policy. He began to seek an alternative to the plan for unification, one that would integrate the decision making of the military services and the State Department without also jeopardizing the position of the navy. He called upon an old friend and former business associate, Ferdinand Eberstadt, to study and recommend an organizational system that would preserve the nation's security. The National Security Council emerged out of Eberstadt's recommendations. Eberstadt's plan emphasized coordination more than unity. The military establishment would remain decentralized but would be surrounded by several coordinating groups, the most important of which was the prototype of a coordinating body chaired by the president and composed of representatives from the State, War, and Navy Departments. Under this plan, the navy, and Forrestal, would continue to have a voice in policy.
Truman's advisers, including General Marshall, were suspicious of any congressionally imposed group that would usurp the president's power to conduct foreign policy and fulfill his duty as commander in chief. When Truman sent his proposal to Congress, a national security council was missing, made unnecessary in his view by the organization of a National Military Establishment with a unified armed services and a single secretary of defense. The navy rallied its supporters in Congress, and it appeared that after eighteen months of negotiations, unification would be defeated. Finally, to stave off defeat and achieve his goal of a unified armed services, Truman agreed to the idea of an advisory council. Meanwhile, his staff members were working on a revised draft of the original proposal. By the time they finished changing a word here and a phrase there, the precisely defined council with an executive director confirmed by the Senate had become a group purely advisory in nature, with no authoritative, statutory functions and a staff appointed at the sole discretion of the president.
Few, if any, members of Congress recognized the ramifications of the proposed National Security Council. Since it was part of the unification act, the legislation did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but went instead to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which was concerned only with the future of the military services and gave little time to the other agencies created by the measure. The ambiguous language describing the council and its responsibilities meant that some inclusion of advice from the military services in the formation of national security policy would be considered by the president. Otherwise, the law provided little guidance to presidents and their advisers.