War Department

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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 .

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United States War Department

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United States War Department