United States War Department

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


WAR DEPARTMENT. In 1789 Congress created the War Department to administer the field army commanded by the president and secretary of war. After the War of 1812, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun reorganized the department and introduced a system of bureau chiefs with a commanding general in the field. The bureau chiefs advised the secretary of war and commanded their own troops and field installations. The secretary typically supported the bureaus in disputes with the commanding general. Congress regulated the bureaus in minute detail, and their bureau chiefs often relied on federal lawmakers for support. The Spanish-American War demonstrated a need for more effective control over the department and its bureaus, and the debate over how to do so reshaped the War Department during the twentieth century. In 1903 Secretary Elihu Root asserted department control by appointing a chief of staff and a general staff for planning. Yet, his successor, William Howard Taft, reversed this position, subordinated the chief of staff to the adjutant general, and reinvigorated the traditional secretary–bureau chief alliance. In 1911 Secretary Henry L. Stimson revived Root's reforms and tried to rein in the bureaus. Congress undermined his efforts with the National Defense Act of 1916, which reduced the size and functions of the general staff. During World War I, Secretary Newton D. Baker and President Woodrow Wilson opposed efforts to control the bureaus and war industry, until competition for limited supplies almost paralyzed the American economy. Baker soon yielded to pressure from Congress and big business. He placed Benedict Crowell in charge of munitions, named George W. Goethals acting quartermaster general, and made Peyton C. March chief of staff. Assisted by industrial advisers, they reorganized the army's supply system and nearly eliminated the bureaus as independent agencies. March also reorganized the general staff along similar lines and gave it direct authority over departmental operations. Nevertheless, after the war, the bureaus regained their former independence from Congress. General John J. Pershing realigned the general staff on the pattern of his American Expeditionary Forces field headquarters. Although the general staff had little effective control over the bureaus, the chiefs of staff had gained substantial authority over them when General George C. Marshall assumed that office in 1939. Marshall believed that the department was a "poor command post" and, supported by Henry L. Stimson, who once again held the post of secretary of war, took advantage of the War Powers Act to reorganize the department following Pearl Harbor. He created three new commands to run the department's operations: the Army Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces, and the Army Service Forces. The Operations Division served as Marshall's general planning staff. After World War II, the federal government abandoned Marshall's organizational scheme and returned to the fragmented prewar structure, while the independent military services parried efforts to reestablish firm executive control over their operations. Under the National Security Act of 1947, as amended in 1949, the War Department became the Department of the Army within the Department of Defense, and the secretary of the army became an operating manager for the new secretary of defense.


Cline, Ray S. Washington Command Post: The Operations Division. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1951.

Hewes, James. E. From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration, 1900–1963. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975.

Skelton, William B. An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784–1861. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

James E.HewesJr./e. m.

See alsoArmy, United States ; Defense, Department of ; Defense, National ; Federal Agencies ; Military Policy ; Mobilization .

views updated

United States War Department, federal executive department organized (1789) to administer the military establishment. It was reconstituted (1947) as the Dept. of the Army when the military administration was reorganized (see Defense, United States Department of). During the American Revolution, military affairs were largely supervised by the Continental Congress, and under the Articles of Confederation a secretary of war was put in charge of defense matters. In Aug., 1789, the U.S. War Dept., headed by the Secretary of War with cabinet rank, was created to organize and maintain the U.S. army—under the command of the President in time of peace and war. Subsequent legislation expanded the department's organization, and until 1903 the commanding general of the army and various staff departments aided the Secretary in guiding the military establishment. Its supervision of naval affairs was soon transferred (Apr., 1798) to the U.S. Dept. of the Navy. At times the War Dept. supervised quasimilitary matters—e.g., the distribution of bounty lands, pensions (see Interior, United States Department of the), Indian affairs (see Indian Affairs, Bureau of), and the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, but by the 20th cent. the only such responsibilities that remained were the construction of public works in connection with rivers and harbors and the maintenance and operation of the Panama Canal. Meanwhile, the purely military functions of the department were vastly expanded in war periods, and after the Spanish-American War the War Dept. was thoroughly reorganized (1903). The office of the commanding general of the army was abolished, and the general staff corps was established to coordinate the army under the direction of the chief of staff, who was charged with supervising the planning of national defense and with the mobilization of the military forces. Thereafter the War Dept. absorbed several new functions; it was given supervision over the newly created National Guard, and under the National Defense Act of 1916 the officers' reserve corps was created within the department's organization. This act also established the office of Assistant Secretary of War to coordinate the procurement of munitions. After World War I the War Dept. was again revamped (1922). Its scope of military activities, however, remained wide, stretching from the supervision of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) to the guidance of insular affairs and occupied territories and to the intricate organization of defense. In World War II plans were laid to coordinate the activities of the armed services, and with the creation (1947) of the National Military Establishment—which later became (1949) the U.S. Dept. of Defense—the War Dept. was reconstituted as the Dept. of the Army, which became a division of the Dept. of Defense. The Secretary of War, holding a post with high cabinet rank, became the Secretary of the Army, an office without cabinet rank, and several of the department's functions, notably those connected with the air arm, were transferred.