Seventy years ago, on 26 July 1947, a small band of U.S. Marines celebrated the signing of the National Security Act. Due to their efforts, and despite Army opposition, Navy defection, and waning support by the Marine Commandant, the law codified the specific roles and functions reserved to the Corps by Congress.
The Gathering Storm
Observing the fighting on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal predicted, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”1 The future of the Corps, however, was already in jeopardy.
Two years earlier, at Noumea, New Caledonia, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining heard Army officers freely express their opinions about the recently ended Guadalcanal campaign and the future organization of the armed services. They condemned the Marines’ intrusion into the Army’s customary land-warfare sphere, with Army Major General J. Lawton Collins calling for a streamlined national defense organization after the war that would prevent any repetition.2
Collins echoed Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who was overheard muttering that the Corps should be kept “very small” and vowing that he would “see that the Marines never win another war.”3 With the coming of peace and the succession to the presidency of Harry Truman, who harbored anti-Navy and anti-Marine Corps biases, unification was pursued in earnest.4
Appreciating the danger, Marine Corps Commandant General Alexander A. Vandegrift appointed his director of plans and policies, Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas, to act as his personal action officer for defense reorganization. As described by Thomas’ biographer, “the peril . . . in the Army’s proposed plan rested in the power of the proposed joint staff to decide roles and missions, force structure, and program budgeting, or to shape the decisions on these matters by a single civilian secretary or the president himself without Congressional review.”5
The vital connection between Congress and the Marine Corps was summarized as follows: “Marine Corps relations with Congress in 1944–1947 were based on the premise that the Corps’ existence as a balanced force of arms depended upon recognition of the need for diverse military forces and military innovation. Traditionally, this recognition had come from Congress.”6
Unification threatened the Navy, too. Leaders of the soon to be created Air Force argued that, for economy and efficiency, land-based naval aviation should become part of the new armed service. To help counter such plans, Forrestal formed a committee under the leadership of Vice Admiral Arthur W. Radford. Guadalcanal legend Brigadier General Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson was assigned to represent the Marine position.
‘Heroes Turned Bastards Overnight’
Meanwhile, an ad hoc group was formed by Vandegrift at the Marine Corps Schools headed by Twining, who first sounded the alarm after hearing Collins’ plans at Noumea. Joining Twining was Lieutenant Colonel Victor “Brute” Krulak, who demonstrated great resourcefulness during the war and would display that ability again on a very different battlefield. Twining and Krulak dominated what was called the “Chowder Society,” their studies and speeches referred to simply as Chowder. This dubbing derived from a popular comic strip, “Barnaby,” whose diminutive and flamboyant title character, much like Krulak in appearance and demeanor, belonged to the “Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society.”
The threat to the Marines remained undiminished when General Dwight D. Eisenhower succeeded Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. Twining described Eisenhower’s internal reports as “a long series of felonious attacks on the Marine Corps, efforts to cut it down, efforts to belittle it, efforts to do anything possible to demean us. It was a miserable display of malice.”7 Specifically, Eisenhower would limit the Marines to conducting small naval raids, minor landings, and traditional security duties. Citing the numerous amphibious assaults executed by the Army in World War II, he insisted the country could not “afford to provide and maintain two great forces, both of which have identical missions, conducting great landing operations.”8 Eisenhower went even further in letters to friends, writing that “he wanted the Marine Corps abolished, but feared public reaction to such a proposal.”9
In a congressional address prepared by the Chowder Society, Vandegrift argued the need for a strong Fleet Marine Force as a matter of strategic logic. As remembered by Twining: “[The speech] was innocuous. It simply identified the Marine Corps against merger. It inspired nasty articles . . . critical of the Marine Corps and the Commandant. It was to teach me how transitory was the public admiration that was enjoyed during the war. Heroes turned bastards overnight.”10
A valuable source of support was lost to the Marines when Radford was removed as chairman of the Navy committee. Replacing Radford was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, who was entirely comfortable having military roles and missions set by executive order. Twining hated Sherman, considering him motivated by egotism and ambition to act hand-in-glove with the Army. (Twining would have had in mind Sherman’s meteoric rise toward becoming Chief of Naval Operations in 1949, at age 53 the youngest admiral to that point to reach that pinnacle.) And Forrestal adopted the same attitude as Sherman. Twining suspected the Navy Secretary had struck a deal to protect land-based naval aviation at the expense of the Marines, remarking to his interviewer, “What they did was bribe Forrestal. . . . They told Forrestal he was going to be the first Secretary of Defense.”11
Thomas’ biographer observed, “Vandegrift and Thomas hoped they could count on the Navy. In 1946 they concluded, that the Marine Corps would have to save itself—and that meant winning the support of Congress.”12
No Bended Knee
As a fresh unification bill moved toward passage in May 1946, Twining and Krulak outdid themselves preparing an address for Vandegrift to deliver before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. The Commandant would indirectly attack the Army’s blueprint for unification, set forth in classified position papers designated JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) 1478, proving the service planned the “emasculation of the Marines.”13 Twining acidly observed: “These [papers] were stamped ‘Top Secret.’ There wasn’t anything top secret about them, but it was the Army’s way of keeping them under cover.”14
Vandegrift needed to be prodded by Thomas and Twining to deliver the address as written. From a cultivated Virginia family, Vandegrift was, according to Krulak: “ill-fitted for the gut fight that he faced in the unification controversy. This was to hurt the Marines before it was all over.”15
Still, Vandegrift’s testimony made a strong impression. After warning Congress that its prerogatives were in jeopardy, he charged, “This bill gives the War Department a free hand in accomplishing its expressed desire to reduce the Marine Corps to a position of military insignificance.” Based on the secret JCS 1478 papers, Vandegrift could legitimately claim that such treatment was an objective at “the highest quarters of the War Department.”16 Reminding his audience of the Marine Corps’ glorious past and asserting its central position in national defense, Vandegrift proclaimed, “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps.”17
The Marine cause was taken up by the press and collected much public support. Truman recognized that the bill could not pass and deferred further action until the 1947 session of Congress. But victory came with a price. Vandegrift “was taken to the woodshed by President Truman . . . and would never again [be found] in the forefront of the battle.”18
To prepare for the next round, Vandegrift formed a new board headed by Edson and Thomas. The loosely organized group monitored unification developments and functioned as both a think tank and a direct action group, identifying and enlisting the support of legislators, the media, and veterans’ groups.
Defeat in the Senate
With the White House, War Department, and Navy Department essentially aligned, the Marines fought with their backs to the wall when the new legislative battle commenced in February 1947. Krulak denounced the Senate bill as being “without a shred of Marine input,” noting, “As we feared, it proposed to endow the new secretary of defense with immense and ill-defined authority over the entire military establishment. There was no statutory prescription at all of what the several armed services were expected to do.”19
As rebuttal, the Edson-Thomas group arranged for Vandegrift to testify again. Twining and Krulak prepared a hard-hitting speech that questioned whether the civil authority should direct the military or vice versa. Vandegrift rejected the speech, protesting that it involved matters “above and beyond the Marine Corps.”20 A more benign speech was obtained by Vandegrift and shown first to Truman, who asked rhetorically: “You don’t trust anybody, do you?” Vandegrift responded: “You are not going to be here forever. . . . It is very much easier to get an executive order changed than it is an act of Congress. That is why I would like our role and missions spelled out by law, and that is what I have asked for.”21
But Vandegrift was less bold in Congress. He had fallen under the influence of his legal advisor, Colonel Joseph W. Knighton, and advertising executive Samuel Meek, who regarded Thomas’ opposition a barrier to necessary legislation. Edson’s biographer appreciated Vandegrift’s dilemma, observing, “The commandant did face a tough situation. He had to make his concerns known, but he did not want to go so far as to antagonize Forrestal and Truman into relieving him, which would prevent him from exerting any influence at all.”22
Vandegrift suggested some mild protective amendments to include a statement of Corps roles and missions. In the end, he accepted the proposed statement that read, “The provisions of this act shall not authorize the alteration or diminution of the existing relative status of the Marine Corps (including the fleet marine forces) or of naval aviation.” For Krulak, “This was a tepid guarantee, indeed, since it failed to give any clue as to what ‘relative status’ meant or to what it was tied.”23
Wearing his Medal of Honor earned on Guadalcanal, Edson was far more effective before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Using both the speech rejected by Vandegrift and his own words, Edson tore into the bill’s proposed centralized defense structure as tending toward dictatorship, reminiscent of the discredited German general staff. He contrasted the long American tradition of civilian control with the concentration of military power in one individual and condemned the anti-Marine bias in the JCS 1478 papers, which remained unavailable to the Senate.
Nevertheless, the uphill battle in the Senate failed. As a small concession to the Marine Corps and naval aviation, the weak clause proposed during Vandegrift’s testimony was added to the bill.
By Luck and Pluck
Now, everything hinged on what occurred in the House of Representatives. Knowing that the Marines might obtain strong support in the House Armed Services Committee, the pro-Army managers of the bill deliberately referred it to Clare Hoffman’s Expenditures Committee. They expected that Hoffman, an isolationist without interest in military affairs, would refer it to a subcommittee dominated by James W. Wadsworth Jr., a pro-Army representative described by Twining as “a supine tool of the General Staff [who] hated the Marine Corps.”24 As Hoffman was a close friend of the father of a Chowder Society member, that maneuver backfired. Instead of sending the bill to a subcommittee, Hoffman kept it in the Expenditures Committee and assembled a bipartisan coalition to support the Marines.
Witnesses favoring the bill were battered with sharp questions about the concentration of powers in the secretary of defense, the dangers of the Joint Chiefs becoming a German-style general staff, the usurpation of the authority of Congress, and threats to the Marine Corps. The need to provide the Marines with legislative safeguards was proved when Hoffman forced the JCS to make the 1478 papers available.
Vandegrift’s appearance turned out to be critical to the outcome. Hoffman had in hand protective amendments drafted by the Chowder Society that were presented earlier to the committee. When Hoffman asked for Vandegrift’s opinion about those amendments, Vandegrift said he was in favor. In expressing his assent, Vandegrift assumed Hoffman was referring to the mild protective amendments rejected by the Senate, which he also proposed in the House, an error that also got past Vandegrift’s lawyer, Knighton. According to Krulak, “Whether Hoffman realized the confusion but chose to let the effect stand is unclear. What is clear is that he later said for the record that the commandant’s testimony concurred with the amendments.”25
Another unexpected success occurred during Eisenhower’s testimony. Denying that the Marine Corps had reason to suspect the Army, Eisenhower was caught in the lie when it became apparent the committee possessed portions of the JCS 1478 papers, including his own anti-Marine statements. It was “as if General Eisenhower had found himself in the middle of a minefield.”26
Despite these successes, as retired Marine Corps Colonel Gordon Keiser observed, without “a spectacular public denunciation of the pending bill, all efforts to prevent its unamended passage would prove inadequate.”27 That task fell to Edson, who went far beyond his Senate testimony in the depth and fervor of his argument. Hammering the point that civilian control was necessary at the highest levels, he warned that “there can be a monopoly within the military field, just as there can be a monopoly within the industrial or commercial field, and with the same suppressive effects.”28 Having said his piece, Edson withdrew into retirement.
Another loss was Thomas, Chowder’s unofficial leader, reassigned to command a brigade in China. According to historian Allen R. Millett:
Twining and Krulak certainly thought that Vandegrift had decided to curb the colonels of “Chowder” by transferring the one general at Headquarters who truly understood that only Congressional protection of the Fleet Marine Force would save the Marine Corps from eventual extinction. Thomas believed Vandegrift had lost his moral courage to see the battle for legislative protection to its conclusion. Vandegrift would have accepted an executive order on roles and missions, and Thomas would not.29
With Hoffman’s strong support, the revised bill passed in the House. The House-Senate conference committee then compromised on a bill that essentially followed the House version, including specifying the roles and missions of all the armed services. Gaining approval by both houses, the bill was signed into law by Truman.
The crucial protective wording in the law read:
The United States Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall include land combat and service forces and such aviation as may be organic therein. The primary mission of the Marine Corps shall be to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.30
Reflecting on the remarkable turnaround, Twining marveled: “Sometimes it looked like Providence was guiding our fortunes. One [thing] was the advent of Hoffman . . . to frustrate the Army’s well-laid plot. . . . The other was Knighton’s stupidity in not reversing the Commandant during the hearing.”31
As for the most mystifying aspect, Twining admitted: “I still don’t know what possessed Vandegrift in those days . . . . He certainly was a loyal marine.”32 Ironically, the hero of Guadalcanal, who proclaimed “no bended knee,” had himself succumbed to some undefined pressure. In his memoirs, Vandegrift gave no hint that he was ever less than wholeheartedly committed to obtaining the protections included in the law.
Never was the meaning of Semper Fidelis better expressed than in the actions of the selfless Marines who celebrated the signing of the National Security Act on 26 July 1947. Along with absent Edson and Thomas, they risked their careers in a noble cause that many in the Corps, even the Commandant in the end, did not fully embrace.
But the fight was far from over. Vandegrift’s successor, General Clifton B. Cates, correctly observed that the law was “not a refuge but a battle position which must be defended in full force.” Until the attacks abated during the Korean War, the Marine Corps needed to reengage in a battle for survival. Most needed was a voice on the JCS, which began in 1952 when the Commandant was invited to attend discussions involving the Corps, and was fully realized in 1978 when full membership was obtained. Other milestones included appointment of the first Marine as JCS chairman in 2005 and selection with overwhelming bipartisan support of a retired Marine general, James Mattis, as Secretary of Defense in 2017.
Just how well the Chowder Society and its descendants have succeeded in preserving the special status of the Corps in the nation’s defense is reflected in an unbroken record of proud, independent service, promising fulfillment of Forrestal’s Suribachi prediction for centuries to come.
Muzzling Military Expression
Writing for the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1962 about the Marine Corps’ turbulent years before and after military unification, Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl created a furor that reverberated in the Pentagon, Congress, and the press. Working from experience as a one-time member of the Chowder Society, Heinl revealed, according to the article’s promotion, “the history of attempts to cut back or do away with the Marine Corps as an effective fighting force.”
On 19 January 1962, newspaper readers across the country encountered articles pointing to the Pentagon’s silencing of dissent in the military. The Pentagon had refused publication of Heinl’s article, intended as a chapter in a projected history of the Marine Corps, because it “impugned the good faith” of President Harry S. Truman, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and other leaders. A Defense Department spokesman challenged the inference that there had ever been “a conspiracy to kill the Marines.”
Significantly, the news broke just five days before a Senate subcommittee was scheduled to investigate the alleged muzzling of military expression. During those proceedings, Senator Strom Thurmond used Heinl’s silencing as evidence that such censorship existed.
When the Pentagon relented, and allowed publication in the October 1962 issue of Proceedings, news agencies again took note and served up some juicy tidbits once uttered by Truman, including his calling the Marine Corps “the Navy’s police force” with “a propaganda machine almost equal to Stalin’s.” Others whose anti-Marine biases were exposed included Eisenhower, quoted as having said “the Marines should hereafter be allowed to fight only in minor shore combat operations.” Accusations extended to the late Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Forrest Sherman, alleged to have worked against the Marine Corps to achieve military unification and receiving that top post as his reward.
3. Thomas B. Buell, Master of Sea Power (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 340.
4. Allen R. Millett, In Many a Strife: General Gerald C. Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps 1917–1956 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 248.
5. Millett, Thomas, 248.
6. COL Gordon W. Keiser, USMC (Ret.), The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification 1944–47: The Politics of Survival (Washington, DC: National Defense Unification Press, 1982), 119.
7. GEN Merrill B. Twining, Oral Interview 1 February 1967, Oral History Collection, U.S. Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
8. Millett, Thomas, 249.
9. Ibid, 250.
10. Twining, Oral Interview.
12. Millett, Thomas, 251.
13. LTGEN Victor H. Krulak, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 36.
14. Twining, Oral Interview.
15. Krulak, First to Fight, 26.
16. Robert Coram, BRUTE: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine (New York: Little, Brown, 2010), 166.
17. Millett, Thomas, 252–53.
18. Krulak, First to Fight, 40.
19. Ibid, 42–43.
20. Ibid, 44.
21. GEN A. A. Vandegrift, Once a Marine: The Memoirs of General A. A. Vandegrift (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964), 323–24.
22. Jon T. Hoffman, Once a Legend: “Red Mike” Edson of the Marine Raiders (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994), 370.
23. Krulak, First to Fight, 44.
24. Twining, Oral Interview.
25. Krulak, First to Fight, 48.
26. Keiser, Survival, 102.
27. Ibid, 106.
28. Ibid, 108–9.
29. Millett, Thomas, 256-57.
31. Twining, Oral Interview.
Mr. Rems is the author of South Pacific Cauldron: World War II’s Great Forgotten Battlegrounds (Naval Institute Press, 2014). He has been a regular contributor to Naval History since his article titled “Halsey Knows the Straight Story” appeared in the August 2008 issue and earned him selection as the magazine’s Author of the Year.