The National Security Act of 1947 united the armed services. Despite provisions that recognized the Marine Corps’ unique position, the act did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department, and the Corps still lacked direct access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Consequently, the Marine Corps remained vulnerable to the imposition of adverse decisions affecting its composition, resources, and operations without power to respond. It would take an unexpected war and a President’s indiscretion for the Marine Corps to obtain the prerogatives of an independent armed service.
A Fragile Gentleman’s Agreement
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Ernest J. King, with his characteristic need to control everything, interposed himself between the Marine Corps Commandant and the Secretary of the Navy during World War II. According to Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl, “In the King organization, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was simply a bureau chief.”1 When Admiral Chester A. Nimitz succeeded King as CNO, the Commandant again enjoyed direct access to the Secretary of the Navy. But passage of the Navy Reorganization Act of 1947—designed to make permanent within the Navy Department its principal wartime functions—threatened that relationship.
The status of the Marine Corps was not addressed in the act. Concerned about the inference that the Marines should be considered an integral part of the Navy directly under the CNO, Marine Commandant General Alexander A. Vandegrift obtained written assurance from Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan that the new law would not alter their relationship or the established status of the Marine Corps. It was a gentleman’s agreement enforceable only as long as Nimitz and Sullivan remained in office.
After succeeding Vandegrift as Commandant in January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront this difficult situation. In March 1948, at a conference in Key West, Florida, Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal and the other service chiefs settled their respective roles and missions. Cates was not invited; CNO Admiral Louis E. Denfeld represented the Marine Corps as part of the Navy. The group concluded the most likely war would be against the Soviet Union in Europe and that the Army and Air Force would need substantial reinforcement to fight it. To obtain the necessary funds while controlling military costs, they sought economies elsewhere—including from the Marines, whose expertise in amphibious warfare was not considered essential.
The Key West Agreement that emerged included the decision that, in the event of war, only four Marine divisions would be allowed, fewer than the six fielded during World War II and far fewer than Marine mobilization capability. Also, no tactical command above corps level would be permitted. Though hardly necessary given the other limitations, the agreement prohibited the Marines creating a second land army. Cates protested in vain that making such decisions without his participation violated the intent of the 1947 National Security Act and harmed the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its amphibious mission. He later told a reporter that his biggest worry was keeping the Marine Corps alive, adding, “There are lots of people here in Washington who want to prevent that, who want to reduce us to the status of Navy policemen or get rid of us entirely.”2
Season of Discontent
Unhappy with the pace of defense budget cuts, President Harry S. Truman fired Forrestal in March 1949, replacing him with Louis A. Johnson, a political crony who shared the President’s desire to reduce military spending. To save money, Johnson hoped the Army would absorb the Marine Corps. He also took steps to move Marine aviation into the Air Force before being reminded that was illegal without congressional approval. Marine General Merrill B. Twining said of Johnson: “He made Cliff Cates’ life miserable, treated him with contempt. . . . Cates hated him and he hated Cates and the Marine Corps.”3
To thwart independent lobbying by the Navy and Air Force, Truman obtained an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department. The service secretaries thus became subordinate to Johnson, whose authority was substantially enlarged. The law also created the position of JCS chairman, with Army General Omar N. Bradley—no friend of the Marine Corps—selected for the post. As a group, according to Heinl, “the JCS were glacially hostile to the Marine Corps.”4
Tensions between the armed services grew during 1949, erupting in the “Revolt of the Admirals.” To cover the considerable cost of the Air Force’s B-36 long-range bomber program, Johnson canceled the construction of the Navy’s supercarrier USS United States. Several admirals, as well as Navy Secretary Sullivan, resigned in protest. Truman replaced Sullivan with Francis Matthews, a politician without any naval background who was unsympathetic to the Marine Corps.
Concerned about interservice discord, the House Armed Services Committee conducted hearings during October 1949. CNO Denfeld and other active and retired admirals testified for the Navy. According to Twining, “Denfeld went over there and told them what sort of heels Matthews, Johnson, and company were.”5 Cates appeared, too, providing support for the Navy and forthrightly testifying for the Marines. He protested the lack of “adequate representation in matters of vital concern both to the Corps itself and to the National defense.” In a biting rebuke of Johnson and the JCS, Cates protested that “the power of the budget, the power of coordination and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.”6
Cates noted that former Navy Secretary Sullivan had wanted the Commandant to sit with the JCS when matters involving the Corps were discussed, to which Johnson responded, “I cannot see need or justification for giving the Commandant of the Marine Corps a special role which is not accorded to the chiefs of various other arms and services which are considered integral parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively.”7 According to Heinl, Johnson considered the Marine Corps no more separate from the rest of the Navy than the Veterinary Corps.8
The House committee also heard from Omar Bradley. The JCS chairman rejected the idea that amphibious operations, as had been conducted by the Navy and Marines, would need to be conducted again, a prediction that soon would prove grossly incorrect.
Though Navy Secretary Matthews promised that those who testified could speak freely, Truman demanded Denfeld’s resignation, and other admirals were demoted. Cates was protected by Johnson, who convinced Matthews that action against the Commandant would be politically unwise.
Admiral Forrest P. Sherman replaced Denfeld as CNO. While Denfeld had abided by the gentleman’s agreement with Vandegrift, Sherman refused to recognize it. In Twining’s opinion, “It wasn’t so much that [Sherman] was anti-Marine as he was so tremendously egotistical and pro-Sherman, and the Marine Corps simply got in his way.”9 Intent on asserting his authority, Sherman obtained authorization from Johnson “to have a free hand in matters regarding the organization and training of the Marine divisions.”10 Viewing Marine Corps Headquarters as a mere bureau of the Navy Department, Sherman attempted to interpose himself between Cates and Navy Secretary Matthews. The gentleman’s agreement had become worthless.
The situation of the Marine Corps hardly could have appeared bleaker as 1950 began. After two years of forced cuts, Marine personnel were slated to be reduced by one-third, to fewer than 24,000 officers and men, falling from 11 to 6 infantry battalions and from 23 to 12 aviation squadrons. Johnson took other equally injurious actions against the Marines, including “curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people, and . . . a policy of exclusion in various aspects of tactical training and planning.”11 In addition, Sherman assigned the bulk of the Navy’s amphibious ships for Army training, limiting Marine Corps development of its own forces.
As in 1947, the Marine Corps’ best hope to avoid further downgrade and possible extinction lay with its friends in Congress. Convinced by the 1949 hearings of the rightness of the Marine’s cause, Democratic Representative Carl Vinson introduced a bill to extend membership on the JCS to the Marine Commandant. Although the measure failed, editorials in the Hearst press generated much public support for the Marines. Two unexpected events would turn that burgeoning public support into an irresistible tide.
War and a Presidential Indiscretion
The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 disproved JCS expectations about the likelihood of conflict, with whom, where it would happen, and what forces would be required. Immediately, Cates offered what ground and air forces the Marine Corps had available and obtained from Sherman and Truman authorization to mobilize the Marine Corps Reserve. The United States suddenly was reminded of its need for the Marines.
Of Truman’s congressional foes, few were more vocal than staunch right-wing Republican Representative Gordon L. McDonough. Soon after the war began, McDonough wrote to Truman noting how the Corps has repeatedly rushed to the nation’s defense. He urged that the Marine Corps be recognized as an independent branch of the armed forces, and “should have its own representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Department of Defense.”12 Truman was reminded by McDonough that, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, he had the authority to give the Marine Corps a seat on the JCS.
Truman responded, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force and as long as I am President that is what it will remain.” Ignoring that he was writing to an opponent who might turn his words against him and annoyed that this was just the most recent of many similar requests from Marine Corps supporters, he wrote, “They have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s.” Then, making his attitude even clearer, Truman continued: “When the Marine Corps goes into the Army it works with and for the Army and that is the way it should be. . . . The Chief of Naval Operations is the Chief of Staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”13
The only question was how the opposition would use this gift. McDonough chose to publish the correspondence in the Congressional Record. When the story was picked up by the wire services, it made newspaper headlines across the nation.
The reaction was overwhelming. Republican legislators tore into Truman, among them Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who called the statement a “fantastically unpatriotic thing to say about the boys who are dying out there in Korea.”14 The situation was a bonanza for syndicated columnists and editorial writers, including Dorothy Thompson, who deplored the “state of mind in the Chief Executive” and regretted “the tragedy of this Nation to face its greatest challenge with one of the most mediocre leaderships in its history.”15 The public expressed its indignation through one of the largest outpourings of mail received by the White House during Truman’s presidency.
Truman’s aides recognized the political damage. They hastily prepared a letter of apology that the President personally handed to Cates at the White House, with a copy released to the press. The Marine Corps League was meeting in Washington at the time and had demanded an apology for the slur; it was decided that Truman would appear there beside Cates. Truman’s apology quieted matters, but he was severely chastened and forced to recognize the strength of public support for the Marines.
March to Victory
During September 1950, as Marine forces approached Inchon, they gained another victory that was cheered just as heartily. As Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. “Brute” Krulak, then a colonel embarked with the invasion force, wrote later:
We received some surprising news. President Truman, under heavy fire for the lack of preparedness of American forces . . . and tired of Louis Johnson’s squabbling . . . marched his defense secretary down the plank. Johnson was fired, and there was genuine rejoicing. . . . There seemed in this some just retribution.16
Between the outstanding Marine performance in Korea and public reaction to the McDonough correspondence, the time was ripe for a fresh effort by Marine supporters in Congress. Democratic Senator Paul H. Douglas and Representatives Carl Vinson and Mike Mansfield urged the Marine Corps’ expansion. Douglas introduced a Senate bill calling for four permanent Marine divisions and four air wings, membership in the JCS, and creation of an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to represent the Corps in the Navy Department. Mansfield prepared a similar measure in the House. The two bills were considered when the 82nd Congress convened in 1951.
Strengthening the hand of pro-Marine forces was a report by Army Major General Frank E. Lowe, who visited Korea on a fact-finding tour for Truman. Lowe found the Army’s senior leadership and combat doctrine badly lacking. In contrast, he wrote: “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.”17 Lowe recommended that all future amphibious operations be Navy-Marine and that, as a force held in readiness, the Marine Corps have a permanent establishment of three divisions and three air wings.
Lowe’s report may have influenced Truman to tone down his opposition to the Douglas-Mansfield bills, but the Department of Defense, Sherman, and the JCS remained steadfastly opposed. Though support for the Marine Corps had grown substantially, the final Senate bill fell short, and an acceptable compromise with the stronger House version could not be reached. With the two camps at an impasse, further consideration was deferred to the 1952 congressional session. Before then, two significant changes in military leadership occurred. Sherman died suddenly in July 1951, and General Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr. succeeded Cates as Marine Commandant on New Year’s Day 1952.
When the legislators returned in 1952, they achieved a compromise with relative ease. The law gave the Marine Corps a peacetime force of three divisions and three air wings, with a ceiling of 400,000 men. Also, the Commandant would sit on the JCS, with voting rights when matters of direct interest to the Marine Corps were considered. On 20 June 1952, the Senate and House approved the Douglas-Mansfield Act, which Truman then signed into law. While Douglas believed that “Truman did not dare to veto the bill,” the President may have reassessed military needs in light of the experience in Korea and wider U.S. military commitments.18
As important as anything else in the law was the clear statement that the Marine Corps was a separate armed service with specific roles and missions. The legislation elevated the Commandant to the same level as the CNO, with equal access to the Secretary of Defense. Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball, far more accommodating than his predecessor Matthews, issued an appropriate order to the Navy Department defining the changed relationship.
When Shepherd took his seat on the JCS, Bradley made it clear that he opposed it, but their relationship was satisfactory nevertheless. Shepherd’s position became more comfortable and consequential after Bradley was succeeded as chairman by Admiral Arthur W. Radford. Shepherd and Radford had worked closely together during the Korean War and became close friends. Although Shepherd only needed to attend JCS meetings when Marine Corps business was considered, Radford so valued Shepherd’s opinions he often asked him to sit in during other discussions. Now a peer of the CNO, Shepherd served beside Admirals William M. Fechteler and, later, Robert B. Carney, both of them friendly to the Corps—and a welcome change from Sherman.
Though the Marine Corps would endure budgetary and other struggles in the future, after 1952 the Corps possessed the means to influence the outcomes. It gained a full seat on the JCS in 1978, with overwhelming congressional approval of a bill signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
Cates called Truman’s incautious remarks “one of the luckiest things that ever happened to the Corps.”19 For Krulak, the law that resulted from Truman’s letter was, “in many ways the coming of age event in the Corps’ organizational history.”20
1. COL Robert D. Heinl Jr., USMC, “Oral Interview 12 November 1976,” Oral History Collection, U.S. Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
2. COL Robert D. Heinl Jr., USMC (Ret.), “The Right to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 88, no. 9 (September 1962): 29.
3. GEN Merrill B. Twining, USMC, “Oral Interview 1 February 1967,” Oral History Collection, U.S. Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
4. Heinl, “Oral Interview.”
5. Twining, “Oral Interview.”
6. LTGEN Victor H. Krulak, USMC, First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 55.
7. Heinl, “The Right to Fight,” 34.
8. Heinl, “Oral Interview.”
9. Twining, “Oral Interview.”
10. Heinl, “The Right to Fight,” 33.
11. Krulak, First to Fight, 121.
12. Franklin D. Mitchell, “An Act of Presidential Indiscretion: Harry S. Truman, Congressman McDonough, and the Marine Corps Incident of 1950,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11 (Fall 1981): 567.
13. Mitchell, “Presidential Indiscretion,” 568.
14. Mitchell, 568.
15. Mitchell, 568.
16. Krulak, First to Fight, 137.
17. Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 498.
18. Mitchell, “Presidential Indiscretion,” 573.
19. Mitchell, 573.
20. Krulak, First to Fight, 59.