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History exposes the problem with Biden's defense secretary nominee

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Biden administration's

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the Biden administration's choice to be secretary of defense, at the DC Armory on Dec. 10, 2020. Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Last week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated retired Gen. Lloyd Austin 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 that Austin's selection would further erode civil-military relations after four norm-shattering years under President Donald Trump. And 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 a series of 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.

By summer, this debate reached a crossroads. On July 8, 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he and his military advisers unambiguously opposed an invasion of the European continent across the English Channel. Instead, Churchill proposed a joint Anglo-American invasion of North Africa to evict the Germans from the region code-named Operation GYMNAST. Roosevelt, who believed it was vital to have U.S. troops fight the Germans somewhere in 1942 and who sought to relieve pressure on the Soviets fighting on the Eastern Front — something demanded by Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin — found the idea enticing.

Yet, his military leaders vehemently objected. During a July 10 meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the president's chief uniformed military advisers, Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, extraordinarily proposed that if the British urged GYMNAST over a 1942 European invasion, then the U.S. should abandon the Germany-first strategy and launch all-out offensives against Japan. This was a remarkable turnaround, because Marshall had spent months fending off Navy schemes to do just this. Adm. Ernest King, the Chief of Naval Operations, unsurprisingly backed the proposal, which was forwarded to Roosevelt as a formal memorandum in a rebellious gamble to force the president's hand.

In a second private memorandum to the president, Marshall argued that his plan intended to force British acquiescence to American strategy, but acknowledged that if they would not budge, the general wanted to decisively reconfigure U.S. assets toward winning the Pacific war first. Marshall even enlisted Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the Army's civilian head and his superior, in his stratagem by leading Stimson to believe the proposal was a ruse to scare the British and not a serious operational proposition.

The gambit represented an astonishing breach of civil-military norms and a violation of the president's constitutional prerogatives as commander in chief of the armed forces. The military chiefs' machinations amounted to a group of unelected officials aiming to constrain their elected leader by presenting him with a no-win scenario they felt he would have to accept. The move clearly subverted the American constitutional structure and threatened a key presidential power.

The memorandums outraged Roosevelt. He supported the Germany-first strategy as the soundest method for winning the war and was furious the JCS were trying to undermine him. In response, the president spent the next several days working to get his military chiefs back in line and eventually ordered them to London to reach an agreement with the British on strategic plans.

Roosevelt bluntly signed the memo outlining instructions for this mission, "commander in chief" as a straightforward reminder of who was in charge. The president's envoys finally reached an accord with the British, but Roosevelt took charge, directing a North African invasion to begin no later than Oct. 30, and forcing the JCS to ostensibly accept them. Yet, even this directive did little to alter the joint chiefs' thinking; instead, they began to sanction offensive action against the Japanese and divert additional U.S. resources to the Pacific theater for months later in clear defiance of their commander in chief.

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 that 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.

Congress inserted the waiver provision because legislators understood achieving this goal required civilian control of the military, not a secretary fresh enough from uniform that he might side with his fellow generals thanks to training and experiences.

Ironically, the first such waiver would be granted to Marshall himself, who after a distinguished tenure as Secretary of State, would become the third defense secretary. Yet, Congress would not grant another such waiver, until it approved one for Trump's first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, in 2017.

Repairing the enormous damage done to civil-military norms over the last four years necessitates reestablishing traditional lines of civilian authority at the Defense Department. That can't be accomplished by further eroding yet another norm — no matter how accomplished Austin might be. The insubordination that Roosevelt confronted reminds us why civilian control of the military is paramount in a well-functioning democracy.

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. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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