History Exposes the Problem with Biden’s Defense Secretary NomineeRoundup
tags: military history, Pentagon, Joe Biden, national defense
Grant Golub is a PhD candidate in the department of international history at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), researching Henry Stimson, the War Department and the politics of American grand strategy during the Second World War.
Last week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to be secretary of defense. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black American and the third former military officer to run the Defense Department since its establishment in 1947. But Austin, who oversaw U.S. military operations across the Middle East, must obtain a congressional waiver to serve since federal law requires potential defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years before taking the post. Austin retired in 2016.
While Austin seems to be uniformly well respected, the need for a waiver has provoked an uproar in the foreign policy and national security community. Those criticizing Biden’s choice claim Austin’s selection would further erode civil-military relations after four norm-shattering years under President Trump. History says they’re right.
The architects of the 1947 National Security Act, the law that formed the Department of Defense, created the secretary of defense position because they wanted to ensure strict civilian control over the military after the dizzying experience fighting the Axis powers during World War II. In particular, one now long-forgotten crisis illuminated why the armed forces needed strong civilian leaders and inspired Congress to insist upon a gap between military service and assuming the secretary of defense position absent a congressionally granted waiver. This episode reminds us today why this tradition is still sacrosanct.
During the first half of 1942, the Allies were on the strategic defensive across the world. After their attack on the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces quickly conquered American, British and Dutch colonial possessions in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. In the Atlantic, German submarines were destroying Allied shipping at an alarming rate. Across the deserts of North Africa, Germany’s Afrika Korps had pushed the British Eighth Army into Egypt and threatened the Suez Canal and Britain’s position in the Middle East. On the Eastern Front, temporarily successful Soviet counterattacks during the previous winter had given way to a major German offensive.
The Axis appeared on the verge of total victory.
Amid these troubling developments, a messy debate erupted over how to prosecute the war effort. American military leaders were divided over whether the United States should focus its resources on defeating Germany or Japan first. The Army, viewing Germany as the biggest threat to American security, largely favored concentrating on Europe while the Navy pressed for determined action in the Pacific in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks and subsequent Japanese expansion in the region.
At the same time, senior American and British military officers disagreed on how to defeat the Axis. The British favored a Germany-first strategy, but advocated confronting the Germans in peripheral engagements in the Mediterranean basin designed to weaken them in a war of attrition. On the U.S. side, the Army and Navy agreed that if the Allies were to follow a Germany-first approach, they should vanquish the Germans as quickly as possible. A rapid buildup of Anglo-American forces in the British Isles for an invasion of northwestern Europe and a direct assault on German military power would best accomplish this goal.
Things worked out and America won the war after an eventual successful invasion of Western Europe. Yet, this demonstration of the willingness of military leaders to disobey their civilian chief compelled American policymakers to codify the chain-of-command and ensure robust civilian leadership at the Pentagon after the war. They created a secretary of defense with authority over the entire U.S. military, second only to the president — and harder to capture than a secretary focused on a single service like Stimson. The severe breakdown in civil-military relations showed although the president was commander in chief of the armed forces, he needed a strong civilian team to help him exert total control over an unwieldy military.