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50 Years of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

By Tech. Sgt. Anne Proctor, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10, 1999 – It wasn't a plan or decision that brought about the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but war.

Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II in December 1941. In February 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill met with their military advisers to coordinate plans against the Axis powers. They established the Combined Chiefs of Staff to carry out the war effort.

The first U.S. members were officers whose positions and duties matched their British counterparts. The Army and Navy were represented, two each, to include the Army Air Forces. The initial members were Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold R. Stark, U.S. Fleet Commander Adm. Ernest J. King and Army Air Forces Chief Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold.

Though the group operated without any sponsoring legislation, they quickly saw the need for a presiding officer and for someone to act as a spokesman to the president. By the end of February 1942, Marshall suggested the idea to the president, who resisted at first. In fact, it would take another seven years to formally establish the position of the chairman, and more than 40 years of evolving legislation to create the role and authority of the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff.

Marshall saw another opportunity to pitch the idea of a chairman to Roosevelt when Stark left for a new command in March. Marshall recommended Adm. William D. Leahy, former chief of naval operations and U.S. Ambassador to France, serve as presiding officer and also fill the naval vacancy. The admiral became the chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Army and Navy in July 1942.

Leahy moved into an office at the White House, where he met daily with the president. He summed up his role by saying, "The most important function of the chief of staff was maintaining the daily liaison between the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was my job to pass on to the Joint Chiefs the basic thinking of the president on all war plans and strategy. In turn I brought back from the Joint Chiefs a consensus of their thinking."

Roosevelt avoided issuing formal guidance in order to preserve the flexibility of both the admiral and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Leahy developed a close relationship with Roosevelt and was given the means to keep in constant contact with the chiefs when he traveled. Leahy's role eventually grew beyond the realm of military affairs, and he became one of the president's closest advisers. His relationship with and access to Roosevelt greatly eased the burden of the combined chiefs during the war and set a precedent for the formal role of chairman.

To reorganize the armed forces after World War II, legislators crafted the "unification law" - the National Security Act of 1947. The act created the National Military Establishment under a secretary of defense, established the Air Force as a separate service and gave legal sanction to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs members were the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force, the chief of naval operations, and the chief of staff to the commander in chief -- a position that reflected an understanding between congressional leaders and the White House that Leahy would hold the office as long as President Harry S. Truman desired. The first members were Leahy, Army Gen. Omar N. Bradley, Navy Adm. Louis E. Denfeld and Air Force Gen. Carl Spaatz.

The need for a chairman quickly became evident to James V. Forrestal, the first defense secretary, when he encountered a number of problems while trying to organize the new National Military Establishment and bring it under his control. During 1948, the Joint Chiefs couldn't agree on national defense strategy, force structure and budgets. This experience led Forrestal to call for the designation of a responsible Joint Chiefs leader in his first report to Congress.

Forrestal's proposal required Congress to change the National Security Act. Pending those changes, Truman appointed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in February 1949 to serve temporarily as principal military adviser and consultant to the president and the secretary of defense, and act as presiding officer of the Joint Chiefs.

Truman called on Congress in March 1949 to change the National Security Act to achieve a more effective defense, including converting the National Military Establishment to an executive department known as the Department of Defense and creating a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take precedence over all other military personnel and be the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary.

The Joint Chiefs supported the creation of a chairmanship but not the idea the chairman would command them or the services. They wanted chairmen to represent the chiefs' views before the president and secretary, not their own.

The resulting bill provided for a chairman, but the corporate JCS would be the principal military adviser to the National Command Authority. The bill fixed the chairman's term at two years and possible reappointment to a second term. The amendment, signed Aug. 10, 1949, formally and legally established the position of chairman.

The scope, depth and authority of the chairman evolved over decades. The tumultuous times -- the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War -- challenged the chairmen who served during those periods. More than once, the Joint Chiefs would fail to agree on recommendations to the National Command Authorities.

The organization, lines of authority and responsibilities of the chairman were constantly studied by various administrations, Congress and the public. Though several chairmen argued for more power and authority, change was slow until 1986.

Air Force Gen. David C. Jones served eight years on the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- four as Air Force chief of staff and four as chairman. His experience convinced him of the need for fundamental change in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He reviewed all earlier reform proposals and presented his own four months before the end of his term in February 1982.

Jones found persistent shortcomings in the system and proposed increasing the chairman's authority. Specifically, he recommended the chairman, rather than the corporate JCS, serve as the principal adviser to the National Command Authorities and have oversight of the unified and specified commands.

He recommended the creation of a position of a four-star deputy to the chairman and that the Joint Staff work for the chairman rather than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He proposed requiring the Joint Staff to support JCS members on joint matters. He hoped to broaden the training, experience and rewards for joint duty in an effort to bring better people into joint assignments and thus improve the quality of joint planning and advice.

The House of Representatives passed a bill that included the principal elements of Jones' plan, but the Senate and Reagan administration opposed any change. The need for change would surface again under the next chairman, Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., and Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger.

The U.S. military intervention in Grenada in late October 1983 succeeded, but raised troubling questions about interoperability and cooperation among the services. At nearly the same time, the death of 241 Marines in a terrorist bombing of their barracks in Lebanon brought criticism of a cumbersome military chain of command. These events fueled continuing calls for changes in the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Another bill to reorganize the JCS passed both houses in 1984, but in reality it merely recognized existing practices. To forestall growing criticism, President Reagan appointed the Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense to examine the progress of changes in DoD and to propose future changes. The commission's charter included a review of JCS responsibilities. That same year, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. became the 11th chairman.

This movement for reform produced the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of October 1986, the first major reorganization of the JCS in almost 30 years. The law ushered in sweeping changes. It designated the chairman as the principal military adviser to the president, defense secretary and National Security Council. The chairman's term was set at two years beginning on Oct. 1 of odd-numbered years with the potential for reappointment up to two additional terms for a total of six years.

Goldwater-Nichols established the position of the vice chairman as the second-ranking officer of the armed forces. It specified chairman candidates must have served as vice chairman, service chief or commander in chief of a combatant command, unless waived by the president. The chairman would outrank all other military officers but would not command the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the services. The law placed the Joint Staff under the chairman's direction and control.

The law defined the chain of command as running from the president to the defense secretary to the commanders in chief. The president might direct that communication between himself or the secretary of defense and the commanders in chief be transmitted through the chairman, however, and he also might designate the chairman to assist him and the defense secretary in performing command functions. With this, the chairman gained broad powers to assist the president and secretary in the strategic direction of the armed forces.

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Related Sites:
Remarks by the President on the 50th Anniversary of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Aug. 9, 1999
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen at the 50th Anniversary of the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Aug. 9, 1999
Clinton, DoD Commemorate 50 Years of Chairmen (AFPS)

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