war on the rocks

Understanding the Abrams Doctrine: Myth versus Reality

December 9, 2015

Retired Gen. Carter Ham is currently heading a National Commission on the Future of the U.S. Army (NCFA) with a mandate from Congress to examine the proper organizational structure of the service. But the oft-misunderstood legacy of what has become known as the “Abrams Doctrine” might lead to poorly informed recommendations by the NCFA. The Abrams Doctrine, as it is understood today, claims that Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Creighton Abrams (1972–74) intentionally placed a significant amount of logistics support structure in its reserve components so that if the president of the United States sent the Army to war, he would be forced to mobilize the reserves, thereby requiring him to get the support of the American people.

A primary focus of the NCFA is finding the right balance between forces of the regular Army and the reserve components (the Army National Guard and Army Reserve). This is not the first time that such a study has been conducted. In April 1998, Secretary of Defense William Cohen directed a similar effort to look at more effectively integrating the reserve components into the full range of Army roles and missions, to include possible adjustments to the balance that had been established by Total Force policies after the Vietnam War designed to better integrate active and reserve components. After acknowledging the problems with having so many critical combat support and combat service support enablers in reserve components that were “not designed to respond as rapidly overall as the regular Army,” the report recommended against changing that balance, arguing that the policy was designed to “limit the executive branch’s ability to commit troops to substantial overseas contingency operations without ensuring there was sufficient political support for the mission.” If the Army altered its force structure to better meet requirements for speedy deployments, “this political ‘check and balance’ would no longer exist.

We will now pause while readers run to check their copies of the U.S. Constitution to look for that clause. …

You didn’t find it? Not surprising. Not only was that not an intent of America’s founders, there is no real evidence it was the goal of the Army leaders after Vietnam who put the Total Force Policy into practice. But that motivation has been enshrined in the public consciousness as the primary rationale for the so-called Abrams Doctrine.

In reality, the shifts of support capabilities to the reserve components began in 1969 during the tenure of Abrams’ predecessor, Gen. William Westmoreland. It was clear to military leaders that the usual force reductions would be coming as American involvement in the war in Southeast Asia diminished. Because active forces had been expanded through the draft instead of calling up reserves, there was a lot of redundancy between active and reserve components, especially in the Army. This duplication was most easily and cheaply remedied by reducing active strength. Shifting support capabilities to the reserve components also made sense to save money to pay for modernization programs for major regular Army combat units, which as usual had been delayed by the war. The election of Richard Nixon also portended the end of the draft. Westmoreland had already begun to focus heavily on reserve component capabilities and responsibilities when, in August 1970, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird issued a memorandum on “Support for Guard and Reserve Forces” that ordered all the services to implement a “total force concept.” Concerned about reserve component readiness and resources, he directed that the reserve components “will be prepared to be the initial and primary source for augmentation of the active forces in any future contingency requiring a rapid and substantial expansion of the active force.” Three years later, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger used virtually the same language in designating the concept the Total Force Policy.

By that time, Abrams had been Army chief of staff for over a year. He had finished implementing headquarters reorganization recommendations from his predecessor and had tackled the issue of active end strength. In his judgment, the Army needed 16 active combat divisions to meet its worldwide strategic requirements without resorting to nuclear weapons. He had also met with key subordinates and decided that 785,000 total personnel for the regular Army were the most they could get “in the environment in which we were operating.” Neither of those figures were the result of any sophisticated analysis by Abrams’ staff that would have compared and contrasted various types of organizational structure. His next step was to get support from Secretary of Defense Schlesinger. Secretary of the Army Howard “Bo” Calloway went along to introduce the subject, but he let his service chief do all the talking. Abrams was most concerned with end strength, believing he could fashion the structure he wanted within those parameters, but he did not discuss specific numbers at any time during the briefing. Secretary Calloway later stated that the chief of staff’s briefing left the secretaries “in a complete state of euphoria.” Abrams “never mentioned 785,000, never mentioned the number of divisions he wanted. Abrams provided a succinct argument for what the Army should be able to do in order to deal with the threat of the Soviet Union.” Secretary of Defense Schlesinger was so impressed with Abrams’ argument for adequate forces that he told Abrams, “You’re going to get them,” and when Abrams later presented the exact figure it was approved.

Once he had the 785,000-soldier end strength established for the regular Army, Abrams told his staff to figure out how to construct 16 divisions from those numbers. That was a tall order for his subordinates, considering Army plans up to that point had contemplated getting a bit over 13 divisions out of an end strength above 800,000. Staff planners were forced by necessity to continue the emphasis on transferring combat support and combat service support organizations to the reserve component, especially those at corps level and higher.

There is no documentation to support the claim that Abrams also had a dominant vision to ensure that no president could ever again fight a war without mobilizing the reserves. That motivation was never mentioned in congressional hearings or explanatory briefings or articles. In a series of interviews of Abrams’ subordinates conducted after his death that are housed at the Army Heritage and Education Center, that idea is never mentioned. In fact, Secretary of Defense Schlesinger considered the general the epitome of the “good servant” who always deferred to civilian control of the military and would not purposefully try to circumvent it.

The first public mention we have been able to find of the idea that the Army needed a check on presidential power was in 1986. In an article describing the reorientation of the Army drawing down after Vietnam, Col. Harry Summers wrote that Abrams sought to deliberately create “an interrelated structure that could not be committed to sustained combat without mobilizing the reserves.” Summers, who was a young major working for Abrams at the time of the reorganization and who in the early 1980s would write a widely read and important book critical of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, said it aimed to “correct one of the major deficiencies of the American involvement in the Vietnam War — the commitment of the Army to sustained combat without the explicit support of the American people as expressed by their representatives in Congress.” That quickly became the standard understanding of the primary intent of the Abrams Doctrine that has shaped the U.S. Army ever since.

Lewis Sorley, in his book Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times, is convinced that Abrams intended to limit presidential power. He cites Gen. John Vessey, who had had worked intimately with Abrams and recalled years later from memory that he and Abrams had discussed implementing a force structure designed to limit presidential war-making power, and asserted that Abrams definitely intended that effect “with malice aforethought.” Other gifted subordinates like Summers also realized and probably discussed the limitations the new structure could place on the executive branch, though they were careful not to trumpet that publicly until a decade later. But there is nothing recorded to support this justification in contemporary interviews in the Abrams Papers at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center or in other archival holdings. In short, the primary record does not support the contention made about Abrams’ intentions in the currently understood Abrams Doctrine.

So which is it? What was Abrams’ real intent?

This discussion leaves us with two possible interpretations for the reorientation of Army force structure after Vietnam. Both are troubling. If Sorley is correct, then the true justification for the force realignments was purposefully hidden from civilian decision-makers. The other interpretation, which we endorse, is that Abrams was not primarily motivated by the desire to establish that sort of check on military deployments. That might have been seen as a positive collateral spinoff from the new manpower policies, but we do not think it was a primary reason for them and, to restate, there is no documentary evidence to support that view. If this is so, that leads to an interpretation that the justification for Abrams’ actions was distorted after the fact to preserve existing manpower policies or justify new ones. Since the publication of his influential book On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, Summers’ portrayal of the Abrams Doctrine and its motivations has been even more widely accepted, and may have altered proper understanding of that war and its outcomes.

By the mid-1990s, with the promulgation of the so-called Weinberger and Powell Doctrines, many critics of civil-military relations accepted the perception of a military orthodoxy that expressed strong opposition to missions that did not agree with their own partialities and priorities, especially those involving peacekeeping operations or irregular warfare. In this interpretation, Abrams’ supposed move to check presidential power marks the beginning of that trend. And whether Summers’ explanation is correct or not, and despite the problems the imbalance of support formations created for subsequent contingency operations, the so-called doctrine did not limit presidential decision-making in any future deployments. If Summers and Sorley are right, then the doctrine must also be judged to have been a failure.

As the NCFA finishes up its important work on the future of the Army it is worthwhile to note that the strategic context in which the Army operates and is organized has changed over time, resulting in different calculations of costs and risks. Understanding how conditions have changed and are likely to change further will be critical to the successful adaptation of what Abrams had originally intended from his historical era to the strategic environment we face today — that is, how to generate and rapidly employ sufficient combat power during a period of constrained resources. The extent to which Abrams’ original intent for restructuring the Army and the later developed “Abrams Doctrine” should guide the Army’s future is a question that needs to be thought through carefully.


Conrad C. Crane is chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks and a former director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute. Gian Gentile is a senior historian at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.