by Douglas T. Stuart. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. 358pp. Hardcover. $35.00/£19.95. ISBN: 9780691133713.

Reviewed by Daniel N. Hoffman, Department of Social Sciences, Johnson C. Smith University (retired). Email: dhoffman [at]


This ambitious and meticulously researched study, by Douglas T. Stuart, has several overlapping objectives. The first is identified by the subtitle: “a history of the law that transformed America.” The law in question is the 1947 National Security Act, but the book encompasses the period from 1937 to 1960, shedding broader light on the origins and the effects of that law, as well as other related laws and executive orders. The second is a broader account of the national security state itself.

The thesis of Chapter 1 is that World War II, and the Pearl Harbor attack in particular, produced a major transformation in American thinking about our role in the world. The core concept in our foreign and defense policy now shifted from the “national interest” to “national security,” prompting a permanent overhaul of policymaking institutions and of our peacetime defense posture. The pursuit of the “national interest” had been seen, by isolationists and others, as tainted by the agendas of special interest groups. The deficits of long-term planning and coordinated action had left us vulnerable to the predations of more efficiently organized dictatorial regimes. The new concept and structure, in contrast, would subordinate special interests to the paramount, shared interest in preventing attacks from abroad, while preserving constitutional checks and balances, civilian control over the military, and civil liberties. It is interesting that some of the most influential, comprehensive proposals came from two academic experts in the new field of public administration, Pendleton Herring and Ferdinand Eberstadt.

Chapter 2 describes how national security decisions were made during the war, and the lessons this experience provided for postwar debates. One highlighted topic is the resistance of the Army and the Navy to efforts at unified command, magnified by difficulties in coordination with differently organized British forces. Likewise, the Manhattan Project was plagued by tensions between civilian and military participants.

Chapter 3 reviews the protracted and bitter postwar debate over unification of the armed forces. The War Department and the Navy had always been separate, mutually aloof, and jealous of budget and command prerogatives. Moreover, both were now threatened by the rising importance of air power. General George Marshall took the lead in pressing for unification, and had President Truman’s support; but the Navy, led by James Forrestal, mustered sufficient congressional support to force a “compromise” that proved to be a [*491] major defeat for proponents of unification.

Chapter 4 relates the simultaneous, less conspicuous debates and reorganizations that led to establishment of the National Security Council and the CIA. These agencies were established in July, 1947, after extended debate and negotiation; the chapter concludes by stating that “no one really understood what had been agreed upon” (p.143). The CIA’s authority, if any, to conduct covert operations was obscured by silence.

Chapter 5 reviews other provisions of the 1947 Act that pertained to a framework for managing and mobilizing industrial, human, and scientific resources, through such organizations as the National Security Resources Board, the Munitions Board, and the Research and Development Board. By 1953, all of these were gone or subsumed under the authority of the Secretary of Defense.

We have here the effort to organize a new military-industrial complex. Eisenhower’s valedictory warning about the dangers of such a complex is mentioned, but without much analytical follow-through. This warning, attributed to political scientist/speechwriter Malcolm Moos, may comfort some who regret the ways in which other political scientists, recruited and funded by that complex, contributed to the rise of the national security state. Stuart acknowledges that the government chose to coopt rather than command the cooperation of private industry for defense mobilization, and to massively fund scientific research with a view to potential defense applications. He does not analyze the economic and political effects of the arms race and increased defense spending. He notes that Pendleton Herring became the head of the Social Science Research Council in 1948, helping academics to employ their expertise in the service of national security. By largely ending his narrative at 1960, he omits much that is highly revealing. Thus, he does not relate how members of SSRC would later work with the CIA to establish ostensibly independent academic research centers in support of, for example, covert and violent “pacification” programs during the Vietnam War.

Chapter 6 focuses in more detail on the evolving office of the Secretary of Defense. Established by the 1947 Act, the office was strengthened by new legislation in 1949, in 1953, and again in 1958. One sponsor and beneficiary was Secretary Charles (“What is good for GM is good for the country!”– a quote from his confirmation hearing, not mentioned in the book) Wilson. A key issue covered here was the structure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary’s control over them. Another was the ability of service secretaries and service chiefs to communicate directly with Congress, which Congress successfully preserved. Stuart sees the new powers of the Secretary as a victory for the principle of civilian control over the military.

Chapter 7 reviews the evolution of the NSC and CIA from 1947 to 1960. As in Chapter 6, the main themes here are moves toward increasing power and resistance to congressional intervention. With inputs from political scientists Henry Kissinger and Hans Morgenthau, repeated studies were done and [*492] reorganizations of the NSC attempted. The centralization process reached a unique highpoint with Kissinger’s accession as National Security Adviser in 1973. For the CIA, the independence of the defense intelligence agencies and of the FBI were ongoing problems. [The “firewall” between CIA and FBI was, of course, a casualty of the 9/11 disaster.] Meanwhile, the analysis and operations branches of the CIA have continued to compete for funds and prestige. A 1949 Act enhanced the influence of the operations side by authorizing use of unvouchered funds for covert operations. Allen Dulles successfully resisted demands for enhanced congressional oversight.

Stuart’s Conclusion notes that if the new system “was not under the direct control of the military, it was nonetheless a militarized approach to foreign policy” (p.276). Indeed, the marginalization of the State Department has been a consistent theme throughout. Stuart contends that this followed from the concept of “national security” itself. Perhaps he means that diplomacy cannot provide a complete defense against attack, but that a threat of massive retaliation was thought able to do so. That was then. Stuart suggests that the new Department of Homeland Security falls short of the “architectonic” rethinking, comparable to that of the 1940s, that may be called for. He appears to have in mind our view of our role in the world, rather than the organization of our government. He terms the current official view a “militarized and unilateralist form of utopianism” (p.286).

The alphabet soup of ongoing reorganizations in these chapters is confusing enough to warrant Stuart’s index of abbreviations, but the role of a small set of dominant personalities is manifest throughout. All three of the presidents involved – Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower – had strong views on how things should be done and who should be in charge. So did senior civilian and military leaders like George Marshall, James Forrestal and Dean Acheson. Over and over, the advent of new personnel in top positions would prompt a study of the need for reforms, engendering proposals that suited the aims of those who commissioned the study. Invariably, such proposals evoked fierce resistance from others whose personal status, scope of authority or budget was threatened.

Indeed, what is most striking about the entire narrative is the predominant role played by personalities and turf wars in shaping the course of events. It is obvious that outcomes were determined by the strategies and tactics of vested interest groups, housed within the executive branch’s civilian and military bureaucracy. Each competitor saw the requirements of national security as identical with his own personal and/or bureaucratic advantage. While concerns for a strong defense, administrative efficiency and to a lesser extent constitutional values were constantly voiced, there was never consensus about what those concerns required in the immediate context. Moreover, the game was almost exclusively in the hands of insiders for whom congressional prerogatives and civil liberties were marginal concerns at best. The role of Congress was manifest mostly in budget battles among partisans of the several armed services, in which the level of overall spending and its allocation would [*493] come into play. Although hearings were sometimes used to delay or defeat executive proposals, efforts to promote consistent and effective legislative oversight were few and feeble.

Law and Courts scholars should be advised that the judicial branch is virtually absent from this book. The internment of Japanese-Americans and ensuing litigation receive only passing mention; the Steel Seizure case or the use of Military Tribunals against enemy aliens are never referred to. Not only are courts a nonfactor, but Stuart’s own account of the legislation that ostensibly “transformed America” acknowledges that said legislation was exceptionally vaguely drafted and thus enabled, far more than it decided or constrained, the ensuing bureaucratic battles.

As the title of Chapter 2 frankly states, the bottom line is that, in terms of political accountability, “one man [the President] is responsible.” Insofar as Herring and Eberstadt intended their reforms to enhance the national security while preserving constitutional restraints on executive power, they appear to have fallen short in both respects. Despite occasional expressions of concern, Stuart offers no extended analysis of the causes and consequences of the accelerated trend toward an imperial presidency. Stuart does not trace this trend back to earlier periods of crisis, as this reviewer and many others have argued it can be. But the modern presidency is apparently more effectively imperial vis-a-vis the other branches of government than it is toward its own “subordinates” or its campaign contributors. Despite suggesting in his Conclusion that more fundamental reforms may be needed post-9/11 than those instituted so far, Stuart cannot overcome – let alone overcome by democratic means – the inherent impossibility of effective one-man control of a vast and fragmented bureaucracy. Nor does he deal with the mechanisms by which potent economic and ideological interests continue to influence and distort policymaking. In sum, the book achieves its first objective more thoroughly and persuasively than its second.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Daniel N. Hoffman.