Happy 69th birthday, Defense Department! Technically, at least.
Aug. 10 is the birthday of the name Defense Department, even though the federal government branch that oversees national security and the U.S. armed forces has been around just about as long as our nation.
But it wasn’t always called that, and it didn’t always include all of the components it currently does.
If that seems confusing … it is. So here’s an explainer that hopefully will help!
Way back in 1789, Congress created the War Department at the Cabinet level to oversee the operation and maintenance of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, which had been operating since before the Revolutionary War.
As the U.S. grew in size over the next century and a half, so did the department, and it eventually grew fragmented. By World War II, its operations were being run by three autonomous components: the Army Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces, and the Services of Supply (which was in charge of administrative and logistical operations). It didn’t even include the Navy, which had become its own department in 1798.
So to make a long story short, there were just too many military authorities bogging U.S. leaders down with too many details. And in a Cold War world in which nuclear proliferation had become the major threat, the department was in desperate need of more centralized direction and efficiency.
Making Some Changes
So in the summer of 1947, shortly after World War II, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act, which created a unified department known as the National Military Establishment. Under its umbrella fell the Department of the Army (converted from the old War Department), the Department of the Navy, and the newly created U.S. Air Force. The Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, National Security Resources Board and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were also set up.
All of those things were put under the control of one Cabinet-level person: the secretary of defense. On Sept. 18, 1947, the NME officially began operations under the direction of James V. Forrestal, the former secretary of the Navy, who had been sworn in the day before to lead the reorganized department.
And that’s why we celebrate the birthday of the Office of the Secretary of Defense in September! But not the DoD’s birthday. Another two years went by before that happened. So let’s get back to that …
The Department We Know Now
While the National Security Act created the position of secretary of defense, the pre-existing secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force were all still considered Cabinet positions. On Aug. 10, 1949, the National Security Act was amended, rescinding the Cabinet-level statuses of those secretaries and making them all subordinate to the secretary of defense, whose authority and responsibilities were increased. The amendment also established a chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The first man to be appointed to the position was famed World War II Army Gen. Omar Bradley.
The amendment also converted the NME into an executive department with a new name – the Department of Defense.
So there we are! That’s why we’re celebrating today as the day of our department’s official (yet not-so-official) birth. Happy birthday, Defense Department!
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