The American Presidency Project
John T. Woolley & Gerhard Peters • Santa Barbara, California return to original document
• Harry S. Truman
Special Message to the Congress on Reorganization of the National Military Establishment
March 5, 1949
To the Congress of the United States:

The maintenance of adequate armed forces has been one of the principal functions of the Federal Government since the establishment of this Nation. Today we maintain our armed forces in support of our primary desire for world peace. They are evidence of our determination to devote our utmost efforts toward achieving that all-important goal.

Throughout our history, the steady advance of science and technology has resulted in constant changes in the means of warfare and the character of our armed forces. In the few years since the cessation of hostilities in World War II, tremendous developments in technology have been made. The speed of aircraft has doubled, the means of undersea warfare have been revolutionized, the range and accuracy of guided missiles have increased, the potentialities of the atom have been more fully revealed.

The development of man's ability to shrink space and time and to control natural forces makes imperative a corresponding development of the means for directing and controlling these new powers. The effective and workable organization of our Government, and especially of our armed forces, is essential in the modern world.

The recent reports of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government have focused attention on the importance of the sound organization of the Federal Government. The Commission has stated that the first essential to the achievement of better government is a general clarification of the lines of authority and responsibility within the Executive Branch. In its report entitled "National Security Organization," the Commission has specifically applied this principle to the organization of our armed forces. The report states that we now lack adequate civilian authority and control over the military forces, that maximum efficiency and economy is not being realized in defense expenditures, and that interservice relationships must be improved to achieve the most effective defense. The recommendations of the Commission which would strengthen the National Military Establishment and the position of the Secretary of Defense have great merit and present an objective toward which I believe we must continue to move.

I have long been aware of the necessity for keeping our national security organization abreast of our security requirements. To this end, I recommended unification of the armed forces to the Congress in December, 1945. My desire was to improve our defense organization while the lessons of World War II were still fresh in the minds of all. We must not forget these lessons in evaluating our security position today.

A great deal was learned from those four years of war. We learned, among other things, that the organization of our War and Navy Departments, prescribed by detailed statutes, was far too rigid and inflexible for the actual conduct of war. We learned that modern war required the combined use of air, naval, and land forces welded together under unified commands overseas, and under the strategic direction of the Joint Chiefs Staff.

Other lessons were also learned. We learned that widely diverse supply policies of the separate services were costly, and hampered the total effectiveness of military operations. We learned that there were great differences in training and combat doctrine among the services, and that these differences often provoked sharp conflicts in our theaters of operation.

My message to the Congress of December, 1945 had a double purpose. It was intended to take advantage of our wartime experience and to prevent a return to the outmoded forms of organization which existed at the outbreak of the war.

Following that message, the subject of the proper organization of our armed forces was debated throughout the Nation. After the most careful consideration, the National Security Act was enacted by the Congress in July, 1947.

This Act has provided a practical and workable basis for beginning the unification of the military services and for coordinating military policy with foreign and economic policy. A few examples of the progress achieved in the period since the Act became effective are evidence of its value.

The efficiency of military purchasing has steadily increased until today more than 75 percent of the material of the armed services is procured under coordinated purchasing arrangements.

A number of joint training and education programs have been instituted so that the personnel of each service may gain a greater understanding of the weapons and doctrine of the other services.

A uniform code of military justice has been developed, designed to be applicable to the personnel of all the armed forces. This code is now before the Congress for its consideration.

The coordination of military policy with foreign and economic policies has been greatly improved, principally through the efforts of the National Security Council and the National Security Resources Board.

The past eighteen months have dispelled any doubt that unification of the armed forces can yield great advantages to the Nation. No one advocates a return to the outmoded organization of the days preceding the National Security Act. On the contrary, the issue today is not whether we should have unification, but how we can make it more effective.

We have now had sufficient experience under the Act to be able to identify and correct its weaknesses, without impairing the advantages we have obtained from its strength. We have also had the advantage of a thoroughgoing appraisal by the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. On the basis of our experience to date, as further borne out by the Commission, we should now proceed to make the needed improvements in the Act.

The duties and responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense as now set forth in the Act are of too limited a character, and are restricted to specified items. For example, the Act expressly provides that all duties not specifically conferred upon the Secretary of Defense are to remain vested in the Secretaries of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. While the Secretary of Defense, as the head of the National Military Establishment, ought to be ultimately accountable, under the President, for its administration, he is specifically limited by this Act in the degree to which he may hold the military departments responsible to him. The departmental Secretaries are specifically authorized to deal directly with higher authority. Furthermore, many of the key responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense have been assigned by this statute, not to the Secretary, but to Boards and agencies which derive much of their authority from the military departments themselves.

In short, the Act fails to provide for a fully responsible official with authority adequate to meet his responsibility, whom the President and the Congress can hold accountable. The Act fails to provide the basis for an organization and a staff adequate to achieve the most efficient and economical defense program and to attain effective and informed civilian control.

I, therefore, recommend that the National Security Act be amended to accomplish two basic purposes: first, to convert the National Military Establishment into an Executive Department of the Government, to be known as the Department of Defense; and, second, to provide the Secretary of Defense with appropriate responsibility and authority, and with civilian and military assistance adequate to fulfill his enlarged responsibility.

Within the new Department of Defense, I recommend that the Departments of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force be designated as military departments. The responsibility of the Secretary of Defense for exercising direction, authority, and control over the affairs of the Department of Defense should be made clear. Furthermore, the present limitations and restrictions which are inappropriate to his status as head of an Executive Department should be removed. The Secretary of Defense should be the sole representative of the Department of Defense on the National Security Council.

I am not recommending the blanket transfer of all statutory authority applicable to the Departments of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to the Secretary of Defense. Neither am I recommending any change in the statutory assignment of combatant functions to the Army, Navy and Air Force. I recommend, however, that the Secretaries of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force administer the respective military departments under the authority, direction, and control of the Secretary of Defense.

To meet these additional responsibilities, the Secretary of Defense needs strengthened civilian and military assistance. This can be provided by the creation of new posts and by the conversion of existing agencies of the National Military Establishment into staff units for the Secretary. I recommend that Congress provide an Under Secretary of Defense and three Assistant Secretaries of Defense.

The duties now placed by statute in the Munitions Board and the Research and Development Board should be recognized as responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense. The Act should be amended to make possible the flexible use of both of these agencies, and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as staff units for the Secretary of Defense. Finally, I recommend that the Congress provide for a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, to take precedence over all other military personnel, and to be the principal military adviser to the President and the Secretary of Defense, and to perform such other duties as they may prescribe.

In my judgment, these changes will make possible effective organization and management of the Department of Defense. They will provide a responsible official at its head with strengthened civilian and military assistance, to undertake the immense job of aiding the President and the Congress in determining defense needs and in supervising the administration of our defense activities. These measures are essential to continued and accelerated progress toward unification. I am convinced that only through making steady progress toward this goal can we be assured of serving our major objectives, the most effective organization of our armed forces, a full return on our defense dollar, and strengthened civilian control.

I urge the Congress to give prompt consideration to these recommendations. From the standpoint of present and potential cost to the Nation, there is no more important area in which to work for improved organization and operations. Action on these recommendations will prove beneficial to the Congress, the American people, and the President by providing better means of assuring defense needs and administering the defense program. We should seize this opportunity to strengthen our defense organization which is so vital to the security of this Nation and the peace of the world.


Citation: Harry S. Truman: "Special Message to the Congress on Reorganization of the National Military Establishment", March 5, 1949. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
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