Ike, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Unification

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s well-deserved reputation for military leadership comes mainly from the formal command authority he exercised: first at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt during World War I; as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II; as postwar U.S. Army Chief of Staff; and as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for NATO, in the early 1950s. 75 years ago, however, he faced a different, and in some ways more difficult, test of his abilities.

By November 1948 the armed forces of the United States—including the newly independent Air Force—had been combined (“unified”) to form the National Military Establishment (the precursor of the Defense Department). A major reason for this step, taken the previous year, was to save money, but the Truman Administration’s budget cuts had exacerbated a serious struggle over funding levels and the proper functions that each service should have (“roles and missions”). The Secretary of National Defense, James Forrestal, had a solution in mind. He suggested to President Harry S. Truman that Eisenhower’s known talents for “the identification of problems and the accommodation of differing views” could help solve problems resulting from interservice rivalries and provide a model for restructuring the Joint Chiefs of Staff (ltr., Forrestal to Truman, Nov. 5, 1948). Truman agreed, and Forrestal brought Eisenhower down to Washington in December, to begin several months as his adviser and informal Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman.

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Without specified power to coerce the service chiefs, the only tools available to him were those of logic and methodical persuasion, not to mention the considerable talents and assistance of his friend General Alfred M. Gruenther, Director of the JCS Joint Staff. His first step was to get the Army, Navy, and Air Force to agree on a concept of operations in the event of a war with the Soviet Union. With some difficulty he accomplished this, largely by shifting the focus from the eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe, which would take advantage of the collective strength that would soon become available through NATO. He next tried to have all the Chiefs agree to the minimum forces (called “red bricks”) necessary to accomplish the essential tasks necessary to avert disaster in the opening phases of the conflict; any additional resources that might be available were to go into other forces that were desirable, as opposed to absolutely necessary (“blue” and “purple” bricks). But the JCS cost estimates were excessive, so he asked them to list forces that they could provide under several budgetary limits.

Truman then pulled the rug out from under the endeavor by cutting the budget limits below what had been anticipated. Eisenhower thus was forced to resolve the resulting impasse. Since the agreed-upon strategic concept emphasized an initial air-delivered counterstrike using atomic weapons, he recommended that the Air Force’s strategic forces should be favored. The Navy, which had been trying to claim a role in strategic bombing, was forced to abandon the construction of a prototype supercarrier capable of launching long-range atomic strikes. Eisenhower did, however, insist on the retention of smaller aircraft carriers that would, he claimed, prove vital in dealing with Soviet attacks at the outset of a war.

Eisenhower’s job ended in mid-August 1949, when General Omar N. Bradley took office as the first statutory Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Bradley, his West Point classmate, quickly discovered that his formal authority was no substitute for Ike’s extraordinary leadership skill set. The Navy’s leaders made public their grievances by attacking the Air Force, eliciting Bradley’s ill-considered and extremely caustic rebuttals in return. The Chief of Naval Operations was fired, and the Secretary of the Navy resigned in protest.

As it turned out, the budget Eisenhower had so painfully engineered was abandoned after the Korean War broke out in July 1950. The end result of his frustrating tour of duty, however, was positive. He had clearly defined the leadership role that future JCS chairmen would play. Even more valuable were the lessons he had learned about how to control the armed forces and their struggle for resources. As President, Eisenhower would successfully rein in defense expenditures and tamp down interservice conflicts to the extent possible.

Dr. Daun van Ee is an historian and editor for the Eisenhower Papers Project at Johns Hopkins University and a Trustee of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Society. The Eisenhower Society is dedicated to promoting the memory and legacy of leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower through educational programs, scholarships, grants, and special events. Learn more at dwightdeisenhowersociety.org.

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