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75th Anniversary of the National Security Act
Today, July 26th, marks 75 years since President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act on July 26, 1947. Sean O’Keefe, University Professor and Howard & Louise Phanstiel Chair in Leadership at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, shared his thoughts on the anniversary.
“It was 75 years ago that the Congress passed, and President Truman signed, The National Security Act of 1947. This was the most significant legislative initiative in the history of the Republic pertaining to the defense of the country and the cultural behavior of the military personnel and institutions that perform the duty to defend us. The Act transformed the national security organization framework to focus military capabilities in a more coordinated manner. It also reflected the importance of new technologies and capabilities to organize military operations during conflict and integrate the nation’s defense capabilities to maximize effectiveness.
Enacted after World War II, the 1947 Act incorporated many “lessons learned” stemming from the successful campaign to defeat the Axis powers and Japanese imperialists. The Act was also developed to correct some of the deficiencies which emerged and became evident during the global conflict in the 1940s. In particular, the coordination between the War Department and the Navy Department were limited to the most senior civilian and military leaders at the highest levels. The Secretaries of War and Navy reported to the President directly with little coordination between them. Similarly, the General Staff of the War Department were often disconnected from the naval services – the Navy and Marine Corps – at the Navy Department. In effect, the military capabilities were engaged as two separate, independent silos with all the duplication, sibling rivalries and jealousies that such an arrangement implies.
While naval forces were engaged in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Europe was considered a dominant land war which engaged traditional land-based Army forces. Similarly, while the Army Air Corps was heavily engaged in the Pacific theater, the vast region and its multitude of islands prompted military leaders to consider this to be dominantly conflicts between naval forces. Naval gunfire engagements and submarine warfare in both theaters of operations opened new options to defeat the enemy. The Marines were tasked to secure the shoreline and island terrain while the Navy transported the “soldiers from the sea.” But while the loosely formed strategy produced success, it also revealed defective operational results that could have been more effective and reduced the horrific number of military and civilian casualties had military worked together more closely.
The solutions embraced in the 1947 Act were sweeping. The War Department and Navy Department established by Constitutional mandate at the founding of the Republic were fundamentally reformed. The War Department became the Department of the Army, and a new Department of the Air Force was created to coordinate the nation’s air warfare assets, largely from the Army Air Corps assets of the time. A new civilian Secretary of the Air Force was established along with a new military Chief of Staff of the Air Force. The Marine Corps remained under the purview of the Navy Department, but the stunning victories in the Pacific theater raised the standing of the Marines as an essential element of force projection from the sea.
Most significantly, the Army, Navy and Air Force Departments became subordinate to a single civilian leader who reported to the President as the Cabinet Officer responsible for the “National Military Establishment” renamed two years later as the Department of Defense in 1949. The “Joint Chiefs of Staff” was formally designated and composed of the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, the Chief of Naval Operations, and Commandant reporting to their respective service Secretaries, as well as the new Secretary of Defense. In doing so, they began to act as a consolidated “team of rivals” rather than a collection of stand-alone subsidiaries.
This was an important legislation initiative that boldly recast the nation’s military capabilities. Over the years since, other significant changes were made to bring the military services even closer together to coordinate their capabilities and make the national security capability more formidable. Significantly, command structures that were cobbled together by necessity during WWII were designated under a single senior officer in charge to coordinate all armed forces in their respective regions. The 1947 Act started a string of reforms designed to formalize the concept to coordinate forces in a joint, integrated manner to maximum collective effectiveness. It all started with the 1947 Act to build on the American military success and organized to do so when called upon to work together to realize a common goal of victory.”
Among many impressive experiences O’Keefe has had, it’s important to note that on four separate occasions, he served as a presidential appointee when he led NASA, as secretary of the Navy, as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and deputy assistant to the President, and as comptroller and CFO at the Defense Department. Read his full biography here.