The Joint Chiefs of Staff

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who consist of the head, or chief of staff, of each military service and an additional high‐ranking officer from one of the services who serves as chair, function as the virtual high command of the U.S. armed forces, the key planning organization for and coordinating link between the services, and the foremost military advisers to the president, secretary of defense, National Security Council, and Congress. The organization was established informally during World War II and institutionalized by an act of Congress in 1947. It has been altered on numerous occasions since then, with the emergence of a powerful chairman and joint staff the most notable change.

The roots of the JCS date back to turn‐of‐the‐century managerial revolution in warfare that resulted in the establishment throughout the world of general staffs headed by chiefs of staff to plan for and command national military establishments. Although the United States lagged behind many of its European counterparts in this development, in the first two decades of the twentieth century it did create army and navy staffs headed by service chiefs, as well as a Joint Army‐Navy Board composed of these chiefs and their key strategic planners. However, widespread fears of militarism, as well as intense interservice rivalries and bureaucratic political conflicts, for many years precluded the chiefs from exercising any real power or influence.

PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt altered this situation in 1939 by personally selecting and directly consulting with Gen. George C. Marshall and Adm. Harold E. Stark as the army and navy chiefs, and by placing the Joint Board into the newly created executive office of the president. In doing so, he bypassed the secretaries of war and navy, established a direct link between the chiefs and the White House, made those chiefs his foremost military advisers, and altered and expanded their powers. Nevertheless, the Joint Board continued to exhibit severe problems and limitations between the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and U.S. entry in late 1941 in terms of both interservice coordination and civil‐military coordination, and by early 1942 it was apparent that the organization was simply inadequate for the conduct of global war.

At that time the JCS came into existence and replaced the Joint Board. This occurred during and immediately after the Anglo‐American Arcadia Conference of December–January 1941–42, which established the Anglo‐American Combined Chiefs of Staff to plan global strategy. The British section of this organization was to be composed of the already existing British Chiefs of Staff Committee; the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff was formed along roughly parallel lines to ensure effective Anglo‐American, as well as U.S. Army‐Navy and civil‐military, coordination. In its original form, the U.S. organization consisted of army chief General Marshall; naval chief Admiral Stark; Army Air Forces Commanding Gen. “Hap” Arnold; and Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King.

This was not an exact duplication of the British organization, which consisted of independent army, navy, and air chiefs along with a special officer to represent the defense minister and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill. Roosevelt at first opposed the appointment of such a special officer within the U.S. organization as an infringement upon his powers. Furthermore, unlike its British counterpart, the American air force was a part of the army rather than independent, and the inclusion of Arnold on the JCS so as to parallel the British chiefs of staff thus aroused naval fears of being outvoted. This problem, and the one caused by the still limited powers of the U.S. chief of naval operations, were temporarily resolved by including King in the new organization as a second admiral.

Two alterations were made in the membership of the JCS between March and July 1942. In March, Stark left for England to head U.S. naval forces in Europe and King assumed the title of chief of naval operations while retaining his previous one of commander in chief of the fleet. Then, in July, Marshall succeeded in convincing the president to appoint the former chief of naval operations and Roosevelt's close confidant Adm. William D. Leahy as chief of staff to the commander in chief. This reestablished an army‐navy balance on the JCS, provided a direct link to the president, and stabilized the organization's membership: Marshall, King, Arnold, and Leahy would constitute the JCS for the duration of the war. Roosevelt, however, refused to allow Leahy to assume the functions Marshall had desired for him as chairman of and representative to the president. Leahy did preside over JCS meetings, but essentially remained merely Roosevelt's “leg man” to the chiefs, while Marshall himself gradually and informally assumed the leadership role within the organization as “first among equals.”

The U.S. JCS, the British chiefs, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff all proved to be highly effective organizations in the strategic direction of global war. By agreements reached at the Arcadia Conference and soon thereafter, the combined chiefs would meet in continuous session, in person when Churchill and Roosevelt met, and via deputies in Washington at other times. They were charged with planning for and directing all Anglo‐American land, naval, and air forces, which would be commanded in each theater by a single officer under the principle of unity of command. This critical decision made possible the effective integration of British and American forces as well as, for the first time, all U.S. Army and Navy forces. Within this system, the combined chiefs as a whole were responsible for the European‐Mediterranean theater of operations. Responsibility for the other theaters was divided between the British and the U.S. chiefs, with the British in charge of the Indian Ocean/Middle East theater and the Americans in charge of the Pacific theater (Southwest Pacific under Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Pacific Ocean Areas under Adm. Chester Nimitz). As the war progressed, the JCS developed an extensive structure of joint army‐navy planning committees staffed by officers from each service, who also served on an equally extensive series of Anglo‐American Combined Chiefs of Staff committees.

Numerous strategic conflicts arose both within the U.S. chiefs and between them and the British on the Combined Chiefs of Staff, most notably over cross‐Channel vs. Med i terranean operations and Europe vs. Asia/Pacific priorities. Overall, however, these organizations succeeded in compromising interservice and national differences, in working with their political superiors, and in developing and implementing an effective global strategy to defeat the Axis powers. Indeed, both U.S. Army‐Navy and Anglo‐American military cooperation and coordination during World War II reached unprecedented levels and played a major role in Allied victory. Consequently, there was fundamental agreement at war's end that some form of continued interservice coordination and control at the chiefs' level would be mandatory. The form eventually selected was essentially a retention of the World War II system into the postwar era.

Throughout World War II, the JCS had existed solely at presidential discretion. Two years after Allied victory, however, Congress formalized the institution as the centerpiece of the postwar U.S. military establishment in the National Security Act of 1947. This formalization, and the other components of the National Security Act, were the end result of an extensive debate between the services and their congressional allies over the proper shape of the postwar armed forces. American Air Force officers pressed for independence as a third branch of service, and—together with army officers—for full unification of the three services under a single military staff, a single chief, and a single cabinet secretary. Naval officers remained fearful of being outvoted and overwhelmed in such a unification and proposed instead continuation of the World War II system whereby the separate service chiefs would retain their individual powers while serving as members of the JCS. The final act was largely a naval victory, which preserved this “federal” or “dual‐hat” system of World War II, whereby the JCS represented both their individual services and the armed forces as a whole, rather than creating any true unification. Instead of a single general staff under one chief, the U.S. armed forces would include separate army, navy, and air staffs as well as separate civilian departments for the army, navy, and air force. The chiefs of the three military staffs would retain full powers within their services and meet as independent equals (along with the chief of staff to the commander in chief) within the JCS, where they would negotiate their differences as they had during World War II. Similarly, army, navy, and air force staff planners would meet and negotiate in a series of joint staff committees. In 1953, the commandant of the Marine Corps was added to the JCS when it considered matters of direct concern to the Marines, and in 1978 the commandant became a full member.

Continued and extensive interservice conflict, illustrated by the so‐called “Revolt of the Admirals” in 1949, led Congress to amend the National Security Act in 1949 so as to create a single Department of Defense and an official chairman of the JCS, who would not, however, have a vote on issues dividing the chiefs. Although far from the single chief of staff originally envisioned by army and air force planners, that individual did become the principal military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense. Despite his lack of an official vote, he was also able to exercise some leadership over the JCS, speak for them, and clarify their authority over all theater commanders—most notably in the Truman‐MacArthur controversy of 1951 during the Korean War when Gen. Omar N. Bradley held the post of chairman.

From that time onward, the power of the chairman of the JCS has gradually increased, though haltingly, amid continued buraucratic and political conflict, and never to the extent of creating a single chief of a general staff as reformers desired. In 1953, the chairman was given control over an enlarged joint staff and in 1958 a vote on the JCS. The most far‐reaching increase in his power, and reform of the entire joint chiefs system, took place in 1986 with the passage of the Goldwater‐Nichols Act. This Department of Defense reorganization act made the chairman the principal military adviser within the executive branch, enabled him to speak independently of the service chiefs, enlarged his joint staff, and gave the joint staff additional autonomy and responsibility. A few years later Gen. Colin Powell would vividly illustrate just how powerful and important the chairman had become. The service chiefs still retained enormous powers, however, and by no means did the act create a general staff with a single chief. Although reformers continue to argue that such a staff and chief are necessary to create true interservice coordination and halt service parochialism, such parochialism has combined with a continued, traditional American fear of centralized military authority to preclude the replacement of the JCS with such a system.

In September 1998, the JCS warned that the combat readiness of the armed forces was being endangered by chronic problems, from replacing aging equipment to recruiting and retaining qualified service people, particularly pilots. Gen. Henry Shelton, JCS chairman, urged fixing the military's retirement system and closing the pay gap between military personnel and civilians with similar training, recommending an additional $40 billion over five years to a Pentagon budget that was $271 for fiscal year 1998–99.

In effect, the JCS organization, from its World War II inception down to the present day, has attempted to provide the nation with the advantages of full interservice coordination and control, but without a loss of service identity or the creation of an all‐powerful and threatening central military command. In so doing it has created a military version of the constitutional system of checks and balances, albeit between the services rather than between the different branches of government. And as a combination of external threats and internal problems led the executive branch during the twentieth century to expand enormously its powers within this system of government, so a combination of external threats and internal inefficiencies within the JCS system has led to the rise of a chairman within that body and a continual increase in his powers—though never to the extent reformers have desired.
[See also Jones, David; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Domestic Course; World War II: Postwar Impact.]


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Mark A. Stoler

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff

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