Seventy years ago today, on July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed into law the National Security Act. The scholar Douglas Stuart has rightly called it “the law that transformed America.” Some of the most important institutions of America’s national defense and international leadership, including the National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, and Air Force, all trace their birth to this one law.
The world of 1947 was very different from our own. The United States sat at the zenith of its global dominance. It possessed a monopoly on atomic weapons and a conventional military of unrivaled strength, produced half of the world’s economic output, and presided over the creation of the international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund that would undergird the new global order.
Yet in other ways, a disquiet loomed. The euphoria over the allied victory in World War II was soon eclipsed by the emerging Cold War. The Soviet Union began imposing communist puppet regimes throughout Eastern Europe, even as it sponsored communist insurrections in Greece, Turkey, China, and elsewhere. The severe depression that afflicted the economies of Western Europe had prompted Secretary of State George C. Marshall to announce in June 1947 what became his eponymous development aid plan. In the next three years, the Soviets would detonate their first atomic bomb, one-quarter of the world’s population would fall under communist control in China, and Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin would jointly encourage North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.
Into this increasingly fraught world, the National Security Act sat athwart the traumas of the past and the growing threats of the future. Drawing on recent experience, it attempted to incorporate the hard lessons of World War II into America’s emerging foreign and defense policy institutions. These included preventing another devastating surprise attack like Pearl Harbor, and ensuring proper institutional coordination of political and military means and ends. Looking forward, the act attempted to equip the United States to integrate its newfound diplomatic, military, and economic power in waging the Cold War in all of its dimensions, from the ideological, to the financial, to the military.
Despite its importance, the act itself has persistently suffered from anonymity. Outside of specialist circles in the contemporary era, the act is little remembered today and is often overshadowed in historical memory by other landmark initiatives announced that same year such as the Marshall Plan and the Truman doctrine. At the time the law was passed, most Americans — including the law’s congressional authors and President Harry Truman himself — seemed unaware of just how revolutionary it would become.
The evening that he signed it, Truman referred to the act in his diary merely as the “unification bill.” This reflected the political debate that had convulsed the months leading up to its passage, as the Navy had mounted a fierce campaign to preserve its status as an autonomous service branch rather than succumb to some proponents attempting to merge it with the Army into a blended armed forces monolith. In a compromise, the bill created the National Military Establishment while still preserving the independence of the Army and Navy, and establishing the Air Force as a new service branch. The law was amended two years later, and the National Military Establishment was replaced by the Department of Defense.
Unmentioned by Truman were the provisions of the bill that turned out to be perhaps even more consequential: the creation of the CIA and the National Security Council. Their obscurity stemmed in part from their vague mandate and uncertain purposes. The legislation birthed the CIA as a small clerical entity underneath the National Security Council, chartered only with coordinating and disseminating any intelligence produced by other departments. The council’s role was unclear beyond the law’s mandate “to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” The national security advisor position — which today is one of the most powerful positions in government — did not even exist in the original law. Instead, it created a mere executive secretary who coordinated the paper flow from the council’s meetings.
Truman had actually opposed the creation of the National Security Council because he feared it might undermine his executive authority and surreptitiously transform the presidency into a parliamentary system where decisions were made collectively by a majority of cabinet members rather than the commander-in-chief. In a compromise, he conceded the National Security Council’s inclusion in the bill, but then expressed his disdain for it when he chaired the first council meeting and sternly admonished all present that “the Act establishes this Council purely as an advisory body, with no policy-making or supervisory functions except in its direction of the Central Intelligence Agency.” As Secretary of Defense Forrestal memorably wrote in his diary, “[T]he President indicated that he regarded it as his council, and that he expected everyone to work harmoniously without any manifestations of prima donna qualities.” To reinforce this point, Truman then refused to attend any further National Security Council meetings for the next year, and instead turned over authority to chair the meetings to the State Department.
In light of Truman’s initial disregard for the council, Stuart concluded that:
No one really understood what had been agreed upon on July 26, 1947. The legislation had established a new institution to assist the president in the coordination of foreign and defense policy, but it was up to the president to decide how to use it, or whether to use it at all.
Some of the law’s ambiguities stemmed from the fact that the concept of “national security” itself was new. The phrase seems to have entered the American lexicon in the late 1930s. Before, people spoke of “national defense” or protecting the nation from a military threat. “National security” encompassed much more, embracing all elements of national power to protect not just our borders but also our way of life and national values. This was especially trenchant in an era of totalitarianism, when ideologies such as Nazism and Soviet communism threatened the very existence of democratic capitalism, and when the United States sought to marshal all elements of national power in response — including instruments that had been little used previously, such as intelligence and ideological warfare. This is why the law created the first permanent intelligence agency in our nation’s history, and why the National Security Council institutionalized the alignment of diplomatic and military efforts and soon came to house the Psychological Strategy Board, tasked with waging the battle of ideas against communism.
Almost as soon as the act became law, its provisions began to shift and adapt, subject to the incessant buffeting of bureaucratic politics at home and global events abroad. Numerous policy entrepreneurs within the government began exploiting its ambiguous mandates, while several advisory commissions recommended further amendments and revisions. Further legislation in 1949 resolved some uncertainties by abolishing the National Military Establishment in favor of the Department of Defense, and expanding the CIA’s authorities to include intelligence collection and covert action. Global challenges over the next 20 years such as the Berlin blockade, Korean War, and Cuban missile crisis would force successive presidents to adapt their tools of statecraft in response to each event.
In the coming decades, the National Security Council itself would grow from Truman’s disdained discussion group to the preferred instrument for presidents to wield their executive power on foreign and defense policy. At the same time, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower elevated the council’s executive secretary role to special assistant to the president for national security affairs, the position of national security advisor grew to become co-equal with cabinet secretaries and sometimes even the interagency’s primus inter pares, represented by iconic figures such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft.
Perhaps the law’s ambiguities help account for its enduring effectiveness. It created the broad institutions for the statecraft of national security while allowing ample latitude for adaptation and evolution across very different eras including the Vietnam War, post-Cold War, the 9/11 age, and beyond. Notably, major legislative reforms in the years since 1947, such as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, may have made profound changes within the Pentagon and the intelligence community, but still preserved the basic framework of the National Security Act.
As President Donald Trump and his administration now confront a staggering array of security threats and global challenges, new debates have arisen over things like the staff size and membership of the National Security Council, and the structure and role of the intelligence community and Defense Department. Not for nothing is a standard talking points at Washington cocktail parties that “we need a Goldwater-Nichols for the interagency.” Other voices insist that the new threats must be addressed by the creation of entire new departments or agencies focused on issues like cyber-security and counter-radicalization.
These debates are important and several of the proposals have significant merit, but they should not obscure some larger lessons of the past 70 years: The president gets the executive branch that he wants, and the effectiveness of American national security policy depends less on its organizational chart than on the wisdom, convictions, and skill of the people who run it. In that sense, looking back over 70 years the original National Security Act has served us well.
William Inboden is Executive Director of the Clements Center for National Security and Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the editor-in-chief of the forthcoming Texas National Security Review, in partnership with War on the Rocks. He previously served on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration.