What Truman can teach Bush about reorganizing the government.

The history behind current events.
June 13 2002 4:28 PM

The Truman Show

Bush's Department of Homeland Security plan is modeled on Truman's 1947 national security reorganization. Here's what Harry got wrong.

Truman: the Democrat Republicans love to love
Truman: the Democrat Republicans love to love

When President Bush unveiled his plan for a Department of Homeland Security last week, he invoked the Democratic president Republicans love to love, Harry Truman. Bush compared his reorganization to Truman's 1947 National Security Act. "Truman recognized that our nation's fragmented defenses had to be reorganized to win the Cold War," Bush said. "He proposed uniting our military forces under a single Department of Defense and creating the National Security Council to bring together defense, intelligence, and diplomacy." Bush added that we now need "similar dramatic reforms to secure our people at home."

The Truman analogy has a political purpose. The Cold War, by spotlighting themes of patriotism and military strength, has always served Republican politicians well, and it's natural that Bush should now try to evoke it. But his Truman-esque plan is nonetheless a bad idea—on conservative grounds. As conservatives often note, the law of unintended consequences holds that the plans of the best and the brightest will inevitably go awry. And as they note even more often, the law of government expansion suggests that federal programs and departments are rarely dismantled, only created. The history of Truman's National Security Act shows that both rules apply particularly in the area of national defense. (For another reason the new department is a bad idea, click here.)

Politics aside, parallels to the situation Truman faced are strong. Like the war on terrorism, the Cold War was an ambiguous kind of conflict—less than a literal war but more than a metaphorical one like the fights against poverty or drugs. Since Sept. 11, we've also seen a resurgence of Cold War-style civil-liberties infringements, although to a much smaller extent than in the 1950s. And just as Bush is now reacting to the pre-9/11 intelligence collapse, so Truman believed a lack of coordination between Army and Navy intelligence had left the country vulnerable to the attack on Pearl Harbor and resolved that America wouldn't be caught napping again. Whatever Bush's motives, it makes sense to think about his plan in light of Truman's 1947 act.

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On balance, the 1947 law was a success, giving the U.S. government the equipment it needed to fight the Cold War. It unified the Army and Navy and created a new Air Force, then placed them all under a single National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense) run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It created the National Security Council to coordinate policy-making among the State and Defense departments and other agencies. And it replaced the old Office of Strategic Services with a new Central Intelligence Agency to collect information from abroad about possible threats to the United States.

For all the advantages of the new arrangements, the law also produced some unfortunate, even catastrophic outcomes. Critics of the plan—mostly on the political right—warned that it would create a "garrison state" in which individual rights and liberties were sacrificed to a militaristic ethos. Some evoked the specter of the Gestapo secret police of Nazi Germany. In A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, historian Michael Hogan has noted that while the darkest fears of Truman's critics were never realized, the military-intelligence apparatus did become the biggest and fastest-growing piece of the government. Foreign-policy decisions, increasingly made by these new agencies, receded from public view. Adventurism abroad became more sweeping and less democratically accountable.

One reason the NSC and CIA grew unexpectedly powerful was that in sculpting the legislation, Congress focused on the merger of the armed forces more than on the new agencies. The NSC's creation occasioned almost no discussion. The debate about the CIA centered on whether it would fall under civilian or military control. The possibility that the agency might develop its own operational capacities wasn't even considered. The bill's final language, while bowing to garrison-state Cassandras in requiring that the agency "shall have no police, subpoena, law enforcement powers or internal security functions," also contained an open-ended clause permitting it to perform unspecified "other functions" relating to national security. Similarly vague wording allowed the NSC to metastasize.

The CIA's evolution was most dramatic. Under Eisenhower, the agency changed from an intelligence-gathering outfit into a tool of intervention. It developed a secret, high-level paramilitary shop that plotted coups and assassinations of foreign leaders without public, congressional, or sometimes even White House knowledge. The NSC, too, was transformed. It was conceived as a small, neutral coordinating body to be dominated by the secretary of state and other Cabinet members, with a tiny staff of administrators. But Truman and Eisenhower used executive orders to place the council within the Executive Office of the President (in 1949) and to create a new position of national security adviser (in 1953). By Kennedy's presidency, the NSC was an independent policy-planning institution that competed with the State Department.

The rise of these agencies wasted resources by duplicating work. More disturbingly, it diminished Congress' role in foreign-policy-making. The resulting system—secretive and often reckless—produced the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Contra scandal, to name just the highlights. All these debacles were the work, to some extent, of a national security apparatus without sufficient democratic checks.

Most unconscionable of all was the CIA's spying on American civilians, in explicit violation of its charter. Under Operation Chaos, which began in 1967 and was exposed in 1974, the CIA spied on thousands of anti-war activists and Democrats, including Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The CIA also opened citizens' mail and experimented with drugs on unwitting subjects. Under Henry Kissinger, the NSC slid into similar lawlessness with the secret wiretaps that were the first of the Nixon administration's Watergate crimes. The 1947 National Security Act did not cause these abuses, of course, but it fostered the conditions under which they occurred.

At the same time, the 1947 law didn't solve one of the main problems it was supposed to, that of interservice rivalry. As early as World War I, the liabilities of having separate War and Navy departments had become obvious—they fought over issues from budgets to military strategy—but it took World War II to provide the impetus to combine them. But when Truman proposed a merger, the Navy feared it would lose its autonomy and resisted the president's plan. Legislators also worried about a single centralized military. A compromise was thus struck that preserved the Navy as a free-standing department within the newly unified armed forces. Yet in allowing the Navy to retain some independence, the compromise undermined the plan's main purpose, as infighting continued.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also turned out to be a poor vehicle for coordinating military operations—"barely adequate," as its onetime chairman, Colin Powell, has said. In Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC, political scientist Amy Zegart cites the failed 1980 effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran as one example: Because of the military's organizational structure, no single officer was responsible for planning and coordinating the effort—a systemic flaw that contributed to the disaster. Only with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which gave the JCS chairman direct control over the Joint Chiefs, was the situation remedied. And where the JCS was hard to reform, the CIA and NSC have been impossible. Since the Soviet Union's demise, sporadic cries to abolish one or the other of these two institutions have fallen on deaf ears.

Whatever the nature of the bill that Congress ends up passing, it should include—as did the U.S.A. Patriot Act passed last fall—sunset provisions to disband or renew the new agency in several years once the terrorism threat has subsided. Otherwise we may end up a half-century from now with another hulking bureaucracy as efficient and beloved as today's CIA and NSC.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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