The Rise of the National Security State, Part 1

(image by Stephen Melkisethlan

by Aaron Albrecht

Historian Michael J. Hogan (1998) writes that the National Security Act of 1947 laid the institutional, organizational framework for the rise of the national security state. Currently, the national security apparatus of the executive branch has usurped the power to decide military and foreign policy from the congress and has become autonomous in creating military and foreign policy and ensuring the continuity of these policies across administrations. This thesis is asserted by Glennon in his book National Security and Double Government (2015).

Within the contemporary political environment there is debate surrounding the increasing power of the executive branch in deciding matters of war, peace, and national security. This debate has a long history in the politics of the United States, but its most recent iteration has come about because of the Edward Snowden revelations of the public surveillance apparatus of the National Security Agency. The debate revolves around two positions: (1) that it is reasonable for the government to infringe upon civil liberties to provide security, or (2) that security is an insufficient reason to justify infringing upon civil liberties; real security is achieved when civil liberties are protected.

The birth of the national security state was the product of a process in which specific actors advocated for the passage of the Act within a political, ideological context. Within this context, ideology was not only a conceptual backdrop but was also used as a political tool to manipulate the political environment to be conducive to the preferences of the actors. In other words the actors propagated cultural and ideological narratives to manipulate the political environment in support of their policy preferences.

The Politics of the Passage of the National Security Act of 1947

In describing the political environment at the time, Hogan (1998: 23-25) points out that the congress and the presidency vied contentiously for power and influence. Also, a view had become prominent within the political discourse that the United States had the responsibility to contain the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet threat put the United States into a state of total war that required the reorganization and unification of the military establishment toward permanent military preparedness to counter the threat. Although there existed broad support for the reorganization of the military establishment, the Army and the Navy advocated for separate models. The National Security Act of 1947 came about as the product of compromise and negotiations between the Army, the Navy, and the Truman administration.

It is beneficial to study the passage of the NSA of 1947 using the advocacy coalition framework. From this perspective the Army and the War Department, the Navy, and the Truman administration are considered coalitions advocating for their policy preferences and their meetings, negotiations, deliberations in congress, and public relations campaigns make up the policy subsystem.

The Army, through General Marshall, and the War Department advocated for the position that the armed services needed to unite under a single department of defense. The consolidation and centralization of the institutions would lead to greater efficiency, the argument held (31).

On the other hand, the Navy, headed by Secretary of the Navy Forrestal, feared that unification would negatively impact the navy’s influence over procurement and the budget. The Navy advocated for the increased growth of the national security bureaucracy to mobilize all of society to prepare to contain the Soviet threat. This required the creation of a national security resources board, a munitions board, a central intelligence agency, a research and development board, and a national security council. This would in effect disperse power instead of unifying it under a single secretary of defense, as the Army proposed, which the Navy criticized as compromising the principle of civilian leadership (32-36).

Truman and his administration acknowledged the need to unify the military establishment to eliminate wasteful defense spending and to create greater efficiency in countering soviet aggression and exemplifying our new post-war responsibility. The Truman proposal called for the unification of the military establishment, much like the Army’s position, and Clifford and Elsey, two administrative aides, were the key architects of Truman’s position (39-40).

When Truman submitted his proposal for consideration by congress the Navy started a public relations campaign in strong opposition to it. The opposition coalition was comprised of naval-yard-worker unions, the Naval Industrial Association and the chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs. The Navy orchestrated public hearings of the proposal through the Military Affairs Committee and the Naval Affairs committee to present the testimony in support of the Navy’s position and against unification. Truman and the War Department responded with their own public relations campaign in support of unification and centralization (41-46).

On May 13, after no headway had been made, Truman called both sides to a meeting at the White House. There Truman gives an ultimatum of two weeks to come to a compromise. This led to a hardening of positions and a negotiations became sour. However, all sides agreed on the need to immediately create a security council and resources and munitions boards to mobilize the nation to prepare to contain the Soviet threat (47-48).

The Treasury Department and the Budget Bureau began to criticize the proposed act. They dissented asserting that the centralization plan would usurp power from the president and that the creation of a munitions board and a resources board would usurp power from the civilian side of the government.  The dissenters held that any national security council should be representative of all of the government. They feared that the council would be dominated by the Departments of State, War, and Navy, and would not be able to consider the non-military aspects of national security in a balanced and comprehensive way (50-51).

Negotiations and meetings continued between Truman, Forrestal, and Patterson, but the critics from the Treasury and Budget Bureau were not present. The relations continued to worsen and Forrestal threatened his resignation. But by February the actors came to a compromise. They submitted the accommodation proposal to congress to establish the Department of Defense headed by the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the National Security Resources Board, the Central Intelligence Agency, the War Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Munitions Board, and a research and development board (51-59).

Debate over the proposal ensued and endured within congress from March to July of 1947. The conservatives spoke out and criticized the proposal fervently. They asserted that the military arm was going to gain too much influence over the presidency through cabinet positions and the Security Council and that the munitions and resources boards would gain unwarranted influence over American industry.  Chiefly this band of congressional critics feared that the enactment of the proposal would lead to the forfeiture of congressional style governance in place of nonelected or military rule of the executive branch or a military dictatorship that would squander resources and take the republic down the road to ruin (60-61).

Despite criticism the National Security Act of 1947 was passed and enacted and a national security state was born whose mechanisms are the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and National Security Resources Board (both of which excluded the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, the Interior, and Labor), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Munitions Board, the War Council, the Research and Development Board, and a military establishment rival only to the Department of State in ability to influence foreign policy.

This piece concludes with Part 2 on Monday, March 28, 2016. 

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