The United States is a global power, and the U.S. military requires a global viewpoint. That was the reasoning behind establishing the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 69 years ago, August 10th.
On August 10th, 1949, President Harry Truman signed an amendment to the 1947 National Security Act, which officially created the position of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help provide unified direction of the services following World War II to address the growing nuclear Soviet threat.
General of the Army Omar N. Bradley became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Aug. 16, 1949.
A Global Perspective
Bradley put the pressures of the job in perspective in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1951: “The Joint Chiefs of Staff, in view of their global responsibilities and their perspective with respect to the worldwide strategic situation, are in a better position than any single theater commander to assess the risk of general war,” he said. “Moreover, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are best able to judge our own military resources with which to meet that risk.”
This statement contrasted with General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s approach as commander in the Far East prosecuting the Korean War. As the fight in Korea was the only active combat zone at the time, MacArthur believed it was the most important theater in the world. But Bradley and the other Joint Chiefs understood the Soviet Union posed the greater threat, given the Soviets’ ability to menace the United States and its allies across multiple regions.
This global focus has not changed since Bradley took office.
In fact, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 lists global military strategic and operational integration among the chairman’s responsibilities. The chairman provides advice to the president and the secretary of defense on ongoing military operations and advises the secretary on the allocation and transfer of forces among geographic and functional combatant commands, as necessary, to address transregional, multidomain and multifunctional threats, the legislation says.
The role of the chairman, as spelled out in the 1949 amendment to the National Security Act, was to serve as the presiding officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to assist the Joint Chiefs to prosecute their business as promptly as practicable. This also included informing the secretary of defense and, when appropriate, the president, of those issues upon which agreement among the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not been reached. The chairman, in his advisory role, was initially considered the “first among equals” advising the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council.
The Defense Reform Act of 1958 clarified the role of the chairman as military advisor. Furthermore, it reinforced the concept of civilian control of the military by establishing the operational chain of command to run from the president to the defense secretary to the combatant commanders. The chairman thus does not exercise military command over the combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the military services.
The last major defense legislative reform was the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. The act, signed by President Ronald Reagan, strengthened the role of the chairman as the senior ranking member of the Armed Forces and principal military advisor to the president. It also established the position of the vice chairman and added that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves as the spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs and the combatant commanders to the defense secretary and the president. Most importantly, it retained the concept that the chairman is the senior military advisor to the president and secretary and does not command any military forces.
Learn more about the individuals who’ve served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the past 69 years here.