National Security Act of 1947 – A Horse of a Different Color

A horse of a different color remains unnoticed on the streets of Emerald City

A horse of a different color remains unnoticed on the streets of Emerald City

Like L. Frank Baum’s horse of a different color parading through the streets of Emerald City in The Wonderful  Wizard of Oz, the National Security Act of 1947[1] is noticed by few.  Cited by many as a link in a logic chain going somewhere else, the Act itself was a sea change that forever altered the course of the United States’ Foreign Service business.  In addition to forming the CIA as we know and love it today, the National Security Act of 1947 gave rise to the standing military by forming the Department of Defense.  With the deftness of a magician’s misdirection, the Truman administration’s in-plain-sight side-step of the U.S. Constitution in the name of modernization was passed and heralded as a breakthrough piece of legislation.  The full force of the Tsunami created by the National Security Act of 1947 rushed through my brain’s backdoor and swamped the story I was recently researching so I’ll begin at the beginning.

In 2011, Melbourne, Australia’s Nigel Davies posted Uselessly comparing Patton and

General Montgomery and Lt. General George S. Patton meet.

General Montgomery and Lt. General George S. Patton meet.

Montgomery. It was a delightful romp through the tulips of commonly held convictions about the Patton-Montgomery feuds and their significance.  Davies’ irreverent treatment of verbal tribal custom belief systems regarding Patton and Montgomery sparked a question. How do Vietnam veterans feel about the generals that led them through that era?

I asked the members of the American Cold War Veterans Facebook page which was the best Vietnam War General and why. I also provided some names who gained notoriety during that time: GEN Maxwell Taylor, Harkins, Westmoreland, Krulak and Abrams. COL’s Olds, Starry, Summers, and George S. Patton IV (son of WWII’s George S. Patton, Jr).  Their answers were interesting. 

One felt that Generals Taylor and Westmoreland were a ‘waste of oxygen’.  Several liked Abrams and Patton. Another nominated LTC Anthony B. Herbert from the 173rd Airborne.  There were votes for Donn Starry, and Lt. Generals Raymond G. Davis and Richard G. Stillwell as well as for Gen. James C. Smith.  All of the leaders preferred by the veterans had actual combat experience.  Although a combat veteran from WWII, General Westmoreland was a party to the ‘body count’ victory standard and was not a combatant in Vietnam.  General Maxwell Taylor was more a spook than a soldier.  The veteran-preferred leaders shared two characteristics; they paid their dues on the battlefield and, in one way or another, cared about the troops.  Vietnam is a context and the men cited by the veterans were each important within that framework.

General Creighton Abrams, for whom the Abrams tank is named, is widely regarded as a something of a genius in the strategic use of tanks. General George S. Pattern Jr., once said:

General Creighton Abrams

General Creighton Abrams

“I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer – Abe Abrams. He’s the World Champion.” Abrams advocated a ‘One War’ strategy that measured success by the security of the population rather than the body count. In 1967, Abrams was the Deputy Commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, responsible for overseeing the U.S. advisory effort with the Vietnamese Armed Forces (RVNAF).  After the 1968 Tet Offensive, General Westmoreland was promoted to Army Chief of Staff and Abrams assumed the Command of MACV. In 1972, Abrams was named “Chief of Staff of the Army, where he continued the Army’s transition to an all-volunteer force and its reorganization in Western Europe.”[2]

Maj. General Patton was Col. George S. Patton during Vietnam when he took command of the

Colonel George Smith Patton served in Vietnam

Colonel George Smith Patton served in Vietnam

11th Armored Cavalry Regiment on July 15, 1968 as the regiment’s 39th commander. The son of the famous W.W.II general George S. Patton, Jr., he was born George Smith Patton IV, but legally changed his name and dropped the Roman numeral.  According to The Military Times, Patton earned his first Silver Star in the Korean War. “…in Vietnam he earned TWO Distinguished Service Crosses and a second Silver Star. He was shot down at least three times during his three tours of Vietnam War duty. He retired as a U.S. Army Major General, having at one point commanded the 2d Armored Division that his father had commanded in World War II, the only time in history a father and son have commanded the same division.”[3]

The advocate for LTC Anthony B. Herbert said, “LTC Anthony B. Herbert 173rd Airborne Bde.  If his superiors wouldn’t have been so caught up in the West Point Win-By-The-Body-Count thing then this guy would have been a hero.”  Herbert retired from the military a Lieutenant Colonel because he spoke out against the war crimes, including torture, looting, execution and outright murder, he saw in Vietnam.  Although later exonerated through official U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigation, Herbert was accused of exaggeration and lying about what he had seen and reported.  According to Herbert, “War crimes are infinitely easier to overlook than to explain to an investigating committee. Nor do they do much for promotion among the ‘West Point Protection Society’ of the Army’s upper-echelon career men. So when I kept bringing up the matter, I kept on making enemies and getting answers such as, “‘what the hell did you expect, Herbert? Candy and flowers?’ I reported these things and nothing happened.”[4]

Gen. Donn A. Starry was a military strategist who commanded the 11th Armored Cavalry

General Donn A. Starry

General Donn A. Starry

Regiment in Vietnam, leading its attack into Cambodia in 1970.  A four star general, Starry is described by the HALO Foundation, one of the organizations with which he was affiliated, as a ‘soldier’s soldier’ who reported that “He served as a commander in Korea, Germany and Vietnam.  During his career, General Starry earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with “V” (valor) device, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Soldiers’ Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters and the Air Medal with nine Oak Leaf Clusters.  He was proud to be named Honorary Colonel of the Regiment for the 11th Armored Calvary “Blackhorse” Regiment.”[5]  Starry, who helped write the specifications for the Abrams tank, is remembered for the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine that promoted “a strategy based on the idea that a small but agile high-tech force could repel the first wave of a massive conventional attack by Soviet forces, allowing time for reinforcements to arrive. At the time, Soviet ground forces significantly outnumbered NATO forces.”[6]

Operation Dewey Canyon

Operation Dewey Canyon

Lt. Generals Raymond G. Davis and Richard G. Stillwell were “two generals who went ‘beyond the normal channels in the 1969 Operation Dewey Canyon,” according to the veteran who submitted their names. He pointed out that:

“Operation Dewey Canyon included a sweep of the A Shau valley and denial of the valley as an NVA staging area for the duration of the operation. This led to a raid into Laos conducted by Special Operations Group (SOG) to reconnaissance into Laos. Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell forwarded Davis’ request to have a limited raid into Base Area 611 up to General Abrams for his approval. The success of the operation was more valuable than just the destruction of the enemy, because it allowed the commanding officer to request that continued operations in Laos be approved. His reasoning for continued operations was that the presence of the enemy in the area was a threat to his troops. Both operations deemed as U.S. tactical victories.”

Gen. James C. Smith was another nominee. “In 1969, he was assigned as the assistant

Major General James C. Smith

Major General James C. Smith

division commander of the 101st Airborne Div. in South Vietnam, with the primary responsibility of assisting in the conversion of the 101st to the Army’s second full airmobile division while the division continued its combat mission. Through his broad aviation and combat arms experience, this major action was accomplished smoothly and effectively over a period of six weeks, a tribute to his outstanding organizational ability.”[7] What the veteran recalls was that he had an amazing memory and treated each person as if they were important. He said, “He knew every PLL clerk in the 101st by the first name. He would go into a unit’s motor pool and review the PLL shortages. At the 5 o’clock briefing , he would grill the G-4 folks on shortages. When he was ADC-Operations, he got a Brigade Commander off our backs during a combat assault so we could do our job.”

The veterans chose an amazing group of leaders. Some well-known and others not on the radar but each had leadership skills that inspired action and earned respect from the people they led.  During my research on these leaders, I kept ending up back at the Chiefs of Staff in the Department of Defense.  How does the DOD lash-up actually work? The answer to that question went back to the National Security Act of 1947.

From the formation of the United States of America until the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the Navy held a position in the president’s cabinet consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which provides for the Legislative Branch – “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy”.   National Security Act of 1947 established the Secretary of Defense as the Cabinet position and lumped the Navy with the Army, Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, which are all active duty service members who are appointed by the President following the Senate’s confirmation.  Ta da! The U.S.’s standing military is born. But wait, it gets better.

Each Chief of Staff has two bosses; the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of their respective service (Army, Navy, Air force, etc.).  Each Chief of staff is the principal military advisor and a deputy to the Secretary of that service branch.  For the other boss, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the military advisors to the National Security Council, the Secretary of Defense, and the President.

The Chiefs of Staff were stripped of any combatant role in 1986 during the Reagan

The Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Joint Chiefs of Staff

administration.  The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986[8] neatly re-routed the military chain of command, bypassing the service chiefs. Orders come from the President through the Secretary of Defense directly to the unified combatant commanders (CCDRs).  The service chiefs were thrown a bone, however.  They are now responsible for training and equipping personnel for the unified combatant commands. In reading the advance questions for Hagel’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense, it becomes clear that support for the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act is important.[9]

The pièce de résistance is the role of the secretaries of the services (Navy, Army, Etc.). While these secretaries are non-cabinet positions, each is the service branch’s  senior civilian

SECNAV Ray Mabus. "Before his appointment, Mabus held a variety of leadership positions. From 1988 to 1992, Mabus served as Governor of Mississippi, the youngest elected to that office in more than 150 years. Mabus was Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 1994-1996 and later was Chairman and CEO of a manufacturing company."

SECNAV Ray Mabus. “Before his appointment, Mabus held a variety of leadership positions. From 1988 to 1992, Mabus served as Governor of Mississippi, the youngest elected to that office in more than 150 years. Mabus was Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from 1994-1996 and later was Chairman and CEO of a manufacturing company.”

official within the Department of Defense and has the statutory responsibility for all matters relating to that service: manpower, personnel, reserve affairs, installations, environmental issues, weapons systems and equipment acquisition, communications, and financial management.  The secretaries are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate. Staffing for the secretarial slots comes from the military contractor community to which they will return upon the election of a new administration.  It would be difficult to design any organization more subject to moral corruption that this one.

The intended consequences of the National Security Act of 1947 were to bypass the American predisposition to get a job done and get back home.   Americans were pushing to downsize the WWII war machine in the late 1940s.  The politicians feared the Soviets and wanted to keep the military intact.  A quick slight-of-hand bypassed the Constitution and made the standing military a mandate to defeat the Soviets. It worked.

The unintended consequences would fill a volume but rather than clutter the paper, let’s keep it to a small list. First, the contracting corporations who make money from the military rule that same military from very high platforms; they are the secretaries of the services.  Secondly, the checks and balances are out of whack when the president can command the Secretary of Defense to take military action and the Secretary of Defense gives orders directly to the combatant units. It matters not how brilliant the leaders are within the military ranks, the bureaucracy tends toward corruption.  Given the creep of corruption, it is no small wonder that the civilian component of the military is crossing lines like never before and making noises about acting within the U.S. against U.S. citizens.  The military ethics and history taught through the military academies is lost because those officers will never, ever have the authority to use that knowledge.  It is truly a horse of a different color that wanders the streets of the Emerald City without raising a single eyebrow.

[Editor’s Note: Vietnam in the era of the Tet Offensive was a scary place for the ‘boots on the ground. Leadership was important. Following is an exchange between a CIA officer, Richard Hale, and a colleague John Guffey. The analysis provides excellent insight to the times:

“It’s water over the dam now and no amount of second guessing will change the outcome. Westmoreland was in one sense a dunderhead who had no faith in his field commanders or his intelligence network. A young Major I knew told me that at one planning session a recon
officer was showing him, and the assembled group, an area NE of Cu Chi about 50 miles where he KNEW there were about 100,000 N Vietnamese holed up preparing to move on Cu Chi and Saigon and recommended to Westy that he request a B52 saturation bomb attack.
Westy jumped to his feet and said, “that’s bullshit, we’ll send the bombers here”, pointing to the Cambodia / Viet border. I heard a lot of stories about his freaky behavior.

Abrams might have won the war if he didn’t have Bob McNamara jerking his strings like a puppet. When McNamara took command our chance for victory was effectively cancelled. He didn’t know what war was about, had no military training and I believe that he believed
all he had to do was give an order and whateever it was he ordered would be successful. Ergo, victory!!! He never got it. He came home from every trip to Saigon beaming about the light at the end of the tunnel, never realizing the candle belonged to General Vo N. Giap.
To bad for our treasury, 58,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. 

I hate that bastard.

These combatants did not trust the government to take care of them and armed themselves for the eventualities of the Vietnam reality.

Weapons of Choice (Courtesy of John Malch)

Weapons of Choice (Courtesy of John Malch)




[1][1] National Security Act of 1947,

[2]; Creighton Abrams;

[4] Joe Bageant; April 12, 2007; Remembering Colonel Tony Herbert;

[5] The Halo Foundation; Drew Watkins; May 23, 2013; In Memorium of Retired General Donn A. Starry;

[6] The New York Times; DENNIS HEVESI; September 21, 2011; Gen. Donn A. Starry, Cold War Strategist, Dies at 86;

[7] Army Aviation Association of America; Army Aviation Hall of Fame 1976 Induction;

[8] Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986; PUBLIC LAW 99-433-OCT. 1, 1986;

[9] Advance Policy Questions for the Honorable Chuck Hagel Nominee to be Secretary of Defense;

5 thoughts on “National Security Act of 1947 – A Horse of a Different Color

  1. So is the solution to rescind the Act, amend the Constitution to establish and allow multi-year funding for the Air Force, and then do what with the command structure?

    Also, do you think the Cold War was necessary? I think that if the US had retreated to its usual isolationist position, the U.S. would have started with the Iron Curtain where it was, but as the privations of the recovery from the War plus the Communists’ predilection for meddling in the affairs of the West worked their magic, Berlin would have fallen first, based on being surrounded by the Soviet occupation zone, then probably Austria, and eventually the rest of Europe, but maybe not Spain. We’d have had to fight them eventually, I think.

    • Your point is well-taken, Roger! No I do not think the solution can possibly be to ‘go back’ but I do think we need to have a conversation about checks and balances. As the bureaucracy is currently configured, the military has been and continues to be used as a political tool. There is no need for the US military to have a presence in 170 or so countries. The troops are used up, then abandoned. Overall, our readiness is a fraction of what it once was because of poorly focused funding priorities.

      No, with 20-20 hindsight, I do not think the Cold War was necessary. Instead of cow-towing to the Soviets on the occupation, We should have had it out then and there and pushed them back to their border. Playing cat and mouse was absolutely the wrong strategy. How the end of hostilities was managed was a crime for which millions paid in pain and suffering.

      • The world leaders of post-WW II, have redefined ’cannon fodder’, a term from antiquity and used often in World War I describing the futility of trench warfare. Where soldiers were made to engage the enemy with an intent of suffering extremely high casualties to gain an expendable target. (Examples: Assault on Hamburger Hill, a battle in the Vietnam War, 10-20 May 1969. Black Hawk down in
        Mogadishu, 1993. And many other fatal missions in Iraq II and Afghanistan’s on-going war.)

        Today, military personnel have become expendable in the name of poor political planning with decisions, commitments and threats which are not fulfilled. The current crisis in Syria certainly confirms this.

  2. From John Malch: Worth noting is Harold Gregory “Hal” Moore, Jr., a Lieutenant Colonel and commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry who led his unit at the famous Battle of Ia Drang, one of the first major engagement in the Vietnam War. (14-18 November 1965) Moore retired in 1977 with the rank of Lieutenant General.
    Read more….

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