LinkedIn tracking pixel

Making Superpower Legal: The National Security Act

William J. Donovan
William J. Donovan

For most of its history, the United States needed no formal or legal supervision for its foreign policies since George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) created an “isolationist” nation that avoided any form of “entangling alliances” with other countries (European). With exceptions, Washington’s advice governed how the U.S. viewed itself on the world stage: independent, a democracy amidst tyrannies, undisturbed in a geography protected by thousands of miles of ocean (on both sides) and equally undisturbed by borders that presented no particular challenge to either its existence or expansion.

Within this unique setting, the U.S. was free both to defend itself and to develop a theological definition to grow “from “sea to shining sea.” By force, purchase, or settlement, the new American nation was able to create a “Manifest Destiny” to grow and expand until its borders, favored by the Creator himself, from the Atlantic seaboard, across the continent to the mid-Pacific, with the Navy able to develop territories stretching from the Caribbean and Central America to the Philippines in western Asia.

With an examination of the Inauguration Address of the (still fairly unknown) President James K. Polk (1845), one gets the feeling that America knew exactly what it was doing and was taking every advantage of the geopolitical virtues nature had bestowed upon its creation:

“As our population has expanded, the Union has been cemented and strengthened. As our boundaries have been enlarged and our agricultural population has been spread over a large surface, our federative system has acquired additional strength and security. It may well be doubted whether it would not be in greater danger of overthrow if our present population were confined to the comparatively narrow limits of the original thirteen States than it is now that they are sparsely settled over a more expanded territory. It is confidently believed that our system may be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial limits and that as it shall be extended the bonds of our Union, so far from being weakened, will become stronger.”

By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the U.S. had kept away from the internecine quarrels of Europe’s Balance of Power politics but, by definition of its growth and economy, had become a “superpower” in all but name.

With the rising tide of the German challenge to its global status, Great Britain began to develop a close relationship with the young North American power. It had acquiesced in American authority both in the Western Hemisphere and Pacific regions. By recognizing U.S. authority from the Monroe Doctrine to Teddy Roosevelt’s Panama Canal (1914), Britain had, by both design and political culture, developed what the new Century would later call the “Special Relationship” that, in effect, defined the Twentieth Century, from both world wars to the Cold War (1945). As pundits would define the new reality, Britain “called in the new world to redress the grievances of the old.”

It was within this definition of history that America made “exceptions” to Washington’s original Address that led this country to intervene against Germany both in 1917 and 1941. The ultimate aftermath of both world wars and the beginnings of the new Cold War provide sufficient “background” to the year 1947, when America could no longer distance herself behind both the British Navy and two oceans.

By 1947, the critical year, the U.S. became a “superpower” both in name and reality, a time when both the Truman Administration and the Congress needed the legal authority to “govern” the world when Britain no longer could. After nearly two centuries, the “new” world finally relieved the geopolitical duties of the “old” world. The first indication of this came via the National Security Act of 1947, which may be the most important legislation in American history.

The National Security Act of 1947 resulted from a letter created by the Director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), William J. Donovan. This letter was sent to President Roosevelt and Vice President Harry S. Truman, who had already thought about the prospect of reforming U.S. military and foreign policy legislation during his time as a Senator (D-MO) in 1944. When Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the U.S., he proposed the legislation that would become the National Security Act of 1947 to Congress on February 26, 1947, which was then presented to the House of Representatives on February 28, and subsequently then presented to the Senate on March 3rd. The legislation was passed in both the House and the Senate on July 19th and July 9th, 1947, respectively. President Truman signed the bill into law on July 26th, 1947.

The passing of the National Security Act of 1947 was revolutionary and resulted in the mass restructuring of the U.S. military and intelligence services following World War II. While it was signed into law in July 1947, it didn’t take effect until September 18th, 1947, following the Senate’s confirmation of James Forrestal as the first Secretary of Defense.

More specifically, the National Security Act of 1947 consolidated the then-titled Department of War, renamed to the Department of the Army, with the Department of the Navy and the then-newly created Department of the Airforce (DFA) into the conglomerate known as the National Military Establishment (NME). The passage of the National Security Act also created the Secretary of Defense position as the head of the NME. The Act also worked to transfer all responsibilities pertaining to the Air Force to the DFA and away from the Army Air Force to give the newly established Air Force Department autonomy and authority over matters concerning U.S. air space. Furthermore, the National Security Act of 1947 specifically protected the Marine Corps as an independent military service under the Department of the Navy.

The National Security Act of 1947 did more than restructure military services. It also led to the creation of the National Security Council as well as the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, whose first Director was Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter.

Truly, both the year 1947 and Harry Truman himself must go down in history as critical for the development of America as both a “Superpower” and as a “savior” of democracy worldwide. Whereas Truman began the role of “Superpower” at the beginning of the Cold War, it was Ronald Reagan who ended both the Cold War and, after his tenure, superpower status. Both need recognition as equals in the rise of this country and its global position. Both did more for liberty as a global design than any combination of two presidents in world history, a design that has been conveniently forgotten over time.