July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act. Not only would it stand as one of the most important pieces of Cold War policy, but it exists today as one of the most important pieces of legislation in our history.
What did the National Security Act do?
In essence, it entirely re-structed the American military and intelligence community.
The Act merged the Department of War (renamed the Department of the Army) and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment. Truman justified the merger by citing wasteful spending with multiple departments and inter-departmental conflicts.
The new National Military Establishment would be headed by the newly created Secretary of Defense. The act officially took effect on September 18, 1947, after the Senate confirmed James Forrestal as the first Secretary.
The Act also created the Department of the Air Force and the United States Air Force. Previously, our air forces served in the Army-Air Corps. It also reiterated the Marine Corps as an independent service operating under the Department of the Navy.
Aside from some re-structuring, the Act also established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Of course, there’s nothing secretive about these organizations. Well…not about their existence anyway.
What you should bear in mind when reading this next section is that the National Security Act had a lot of resistance initially. Critics felt that it would give the executive too much military power. Here’s why:
The National Security Council exists for the purpose of informing the President on the consideration of…well…national security. It is counted as a part of the Executive Office of the President.
The NSC also serves as the President’s arm in coordinating policies among other government agencies.
Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence service. Their official duty is to gather, process, and analyze national security information. The CIA reports to the Director of National Intelligence. Unlike the FBI, the CIA has no law enforcement function. It’s sole purpose is intelligence gathering…so they say. It also serves to carry out covert operations in foreign nations. For example, the CIA was responsible for the Bay of Pigs invasion which would turn out to be a large blunder.
Since the inception of the National Security Act, the Department of Defense, the NSC, and the CIA have all grown quite steadily in terms of power and budget. For example, in May of this year, President Trump sent Congress a proposed budget of $639.1 billion dollars for the Department of Defense. For comparison, the entire budget of the U.S. military in 1948 was $375.7 billion.
The actions of President Truman, and the passage of the National Security Act, was representative that the United States was doubling down on its security. As World War II came to a close, and the the global community just survived one of the darkest times in our history, it was clear that something needed to be done.
With the Soviet Union now an enemy, the U.S. needing to execute containment policy in Turkey and Greece, and the Marshall Plan in full swing, the U.S. demonstrated its commitment to what it thought could be a better, safer world.
But, analysis is key. So, are we better and safer today?
Roughly fourteen years later, in January of 1961, President Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation.
In his speech he warned of what the nation had become and of the military prowess we possessed.
He said: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”