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1: Cast of Characters: Birth of the US War Department General Staff, 1898-1916

Introduction || 2: Exposition: American Military Planning Prior to January 1917 >>

Although the General Staff would bear the responsibility for moving the nation to a war footing once the US had entered the fray, it was embarrassingly weak at the time of the American declaration of war. The intersection of several sentiments, ranging from honest fear of militarism to political infighting within the War Department, had conspired to thwart the creation of a modern and centralized coordinating and planning agency. The General Staff that existed on paper was woefully inadequate; the one that existed in Washington was a mere shadow of that.

The General Staff had faced an uphill battle since its inception around the turn of the century. The division of authority that existed at that time between the Secretary of War and the Commanding General of the Army hindered the efficient administration of the US military. The Secretary controlled the financial affairs of the army and supervised the various bureaus, such as the Adjutant General, the Ordnance Department, the Quartermaster General and others. The Commanding General, on the other hand, was charged with purely line matters including the discipline and efficiency of the troops. No one had specific responsibility for mobilization planning. The Secretary of War was often too busy and, with little military experience, inadequately trained to deal with the technical aspects of military policy. In addition, turnover was often too great in the various bureaus to facilitate cogent planning, and the Commanding General suffered from a lack of personnel to concentrate on the task.(1)

The Spanish-American War demonstrated the glaring weaknesses in the organization of the War Department. The beginning of that conflict found the US not only lacking a definite plan of campaign, but even missing accurate maps of enemy territory and reliable information about the military resources necessary to devise such a strategy. Instead of determining the requisite size and composition of an expeditionary force to meet its predetermined mission, the actual approach of the strategic planners was to see how many troops, ships and supplies could be gathered in Florida and from there decide what to do with them.(2)

Soldiers initially sent to Cuba were clad in winter woolen uniforms ill-suited to the tropical climate. General Nelson A. Miles, Commander of the United States Army, reported on 4 June 1898 that over 300 railroad cars loaded with war materials were sitting idly along the roads around Tampa, Florida. The invoices and bills of lading for these shipments had not been received, forcing officers to break open seals and hunt from car to car to determine their contents. The day after he was sworn in as lieutenant colonel of the volunteer cavalry, Theodore Roosevelt observed, "The delays and stupidity of . . . the Ordnance Department surpass belief. The Quartermaster Department is better but bad. The Commissary Department is good. There is no head, no management whatever in the War Department. Against a good nation we should be helpless."(3)

Although the rapid collapse of the Spanish defenses failed to provide a severe test for the army, some reform- minded military leaders recognized the need for change in the structure of the War Department. Had the United States fought a sturdier foe at the turn of the century, the weaknesses in high level military organization might have proven disastrous. At the close of the war, President William McKinley appointed Grenville M. Dodge, a Civil War veteran and railroad promoter, to conduct an investigation into the War Department's failures during the war. The Dodge Commission provided an eight-volume critique of the status of the military, concluding that "no well regulated . . . corporation could transact business satisfactorily" under the existing conditions. The recommendations of this review board, however, were hardly radical in scope. One of the strongest proposals suggested that the current responsibilities of the Quartermaster Corps should be divided, but the Commission could not decide on the proper manner of doing so. In retrospect it is clear that true, fundamental reform would have to await the appointment of a new Secretary of War.(4)

When the continued criticism of the War Department forced the resignation of Secretary of War R.A. Alger, the problems arising out of the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines motivated McKinley's choice of a successor. His selection, Elihu Root, later described the telephone call that he received from a member of President McKinley's staff: I answered, 'Thank the President for me but say that it is quite absurd, I know nothing about war, I know nothing about the Army.' There came back the reply, 'President Mckinley directs me to say that he is not looking for anyone who knows anything about the Army; he has got to have a lawyer to direct the government of these Spanish islands, and you are the lawyer he wants.'(5)

Ironically, this lawyer who knew nothing about the army would provide the spark that resulted in the formation of the War Department General Staff. The reforms instituted after the Spanish-American War were shaped as much by the political climate of the War Department as they were by Root's own vision. The heads of the bureaus enjoyed a great deal of sovereignty within their domains of responsibility and fought any changes that threatened to undermine their influence. Nonetheless, Root sought to create a coordinating body to solve some of the deficiencies made obvious by the "splendid little war." His analysis had revealed several deficiencies in army organization, including a lack of connection between the staff bureaus and the army, the absence of any central agency for the formation of a general military policy and a lack of coordination among the various bureaus.(6)

Realizing that a radical reconstruction of the War Department would meet fierce opposition from its various divisions, Root decided that as a first step he would create a War College with as many powers of a General Staff as was practical. In February 1900 he appointed a board of officers to consider this proposal under the direction of General William Ludlow. On 31 October 1900 this panel recommended the creation of a War College to digest and disseminate military data and information, develop means of military education and training, further the higher instruction of the army and serve as an agency at the disposal of the War Department for the coordination of military administration.(7)

The proposal of the Ludlow Board met with anticipated opposition. Many people outside of the military feared that a General Staff smacked of Prussian militarism and therefore was antithetical to the American tradition of a soldiery under civilian control. Within the military, opposition was often more self-interested. General Miles, still the Commanding General of the army, vehemently resisted these suggestions, believing that a General Staff would threaten the initiative of his command. In addition, the bureau chiefs opposed the panel's conclusion, correctly viewing it as a challenge to their independence. Root, with much justification, believed that these chiefs' permanent tenure in Washington had created a chasm between their concerns and those of the rest of the US Army. In Root's own words, the heads of the bureaus "had become entrenched in Washington armchairs."(8)

The Act of 2 February 1901 included Root's recommended War College. The Secretary of War also succeeded in a brilliant and subtle -- but in the end fruitless -- plan to defuse future antagonism to his reforms. Knowing that he would never gain the support of the current bureau chiefs, and knowing too that any future heads of these departments would be equally obstinate because of their permanent tenure of office, he substituted a four-year detail for the previously fixed appointments. He successfully implemented this change because he did nothing to affect the current holders of these positions. Root thus attempted to secure a tighter degree of control over the War Department bureaus for any future battles.(9)

Buoyed by his success with the 1901 Act, Root decided to seek the establishment of a complete General Staff. In early 1902, the Secretary of War submitted a measure that was to become House Resolution 11350 of the 57th Congress. Sections four through ten of this proposition created a General Staff charged with the consideration of military policy and the formation of comprehensive plans for national defense. In addition, this proposal created a Chief of Staff who would, under the direct authority of the President and the Secretary of War, supervise both the General Staff and the army as a whole. General Miles led the opposition in the difficult legislative battle, again fearing that a General Staff would rob the Commanding General of his independence. Root's proposal faced opposition among some legislators as well. During his questioning of the Secretary of War, Senator Joseph Hawley of Connecticut claimed that "Washington and Napoleon had no need for strategy boards," to which Root responded, "Well, they are dead; dead as our present system."(10) In spite of those who wished to block the reforms, Congress enacted the bill on 14 February 1903.(11)

The Act had its weaknesses, however. The Inspector General's Office remained a separate bureau, and without the power of inspection, the General Staff's supervisory authority was relatively meaningless. In addition, minor modifications of the law opened the possibility that any individual bureau chief with sufficient legislative influence could exempt himself from the bill's restrictions. Nevertheless, a coordinating and planning agency for the War Department now existed.(12)

Under the Act of 14 February 1903 and subsequent army regulations, the General Staff consisted of a Chief of Staff (Lieutenant General Samuel B.M. Young), two other general officers and forty-two junior officers. The Staff itself included three divisions. The First Division, led by Colonel Enoch H. Crowder, dealt with administrative matters. The Second Division, under the direction of Major W.D.Beach, oversaw military information and attachés. The Third Division, headed by Colonel A. MacKenzie, directed military planning and training. The predecessor of the General Staff, the Army War College, assisted the General Staff and its Chief in the preparation of plans for national defense.(13)

The Act of 1903 had established the framework for the General Staff, but it failed to guarantee its effectiveness. The traditional opposition continued, and the Act of 25 June 1906 exempted the Ordnance Department from the provisions of the four-year detail system, thus marking the beginning of the return to permanent tenure for the bureau chiefs. The small General Staff continued to drown in a sea of administrative matters and had little time to formulate plans during its early years. The scant planning that did occur was based on data from past wars; the US invasion of Cuba in 1906, therefore, suffered few of the problems of the Spanish-American War. Such an approach, however, lacked the foresight necessary for modern warfare.(14)

When Major General Leonard Wood became Chief of Staff on 22 April 1910, he was appalled by the mass of inconsequential matter occupying the General Staff's attention. Out of one hundred random studies, he found not a single one that bore any relation to war and only three that were of any consequence. One paper in particular illustrated the absurdity of some of the matters occupying the General Staff's time. After laying out seven pages of arguments, pro and con, it concluded that "it is therefore recommended that no toilet paper be issued." This paper was signed by the Chief of Staff and bore the approval of Robert Shaw Oliver, then Acting Secretary of War. These weaknesses indicted both the individual staff members and the fragmented structure of the General Staff itself. Wood reorganized the General Staff into three divisions: the Mobile Army, the Coast Artillery, and the War College Division, which combined the General Staff planners and the Army War College into one unit. This reorganization emphasized the General Staff's role as a coordinating agency and resulted in more integrated army planning and an end to the previous compilation of disparate studies.(15) In spite of these attempts, the inertia of inaction continued to hinder the General Staff's effectiveness. One Field Artillery Major who served on the General Staff during this time noted:

Most of the General Staff officers were then of the type whose conception of their job was to get to their desks at 9 A.M., pass papers from the "In" basket to the "Out" basket, read the Army and Navy Journal, and gossip about army politics. Their tendency was to concern themselves too much with administrative matters and too little with high planning and original thinking.(16)

Wood's reforms did not fail to step on some toes within the existing bureau structure. As part of his attempts to promote greater efficiency in governmental operations, President William Howard Taft created the War Department Board on Business Methods in March 1911. Major General Fred C. Ainsworth, Adjutant General, chaired the board. Under the direction of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Wood and the General Staff presented proposals for the board's consideration, including one suggestion for a change in paperwork methods within the Adjutant General's own office.(17)

The perceived audacity of the General Staff infuriated Ainsworth, who on 3 February 1912 sent a biting reply denigrating the experience and competence of its members: It is understood, perhaps incorrectly, that the plan now under consideration, was formulated by two relatively young officers, neither of whom has any practical knowledge of the purposes for which [this paperwork is] used in the War Department.

Neither of these officers, nor any other officer in or out of the General Staff, no matter how long he may have been in service, is qualified to prepare forms of any kind for use in the Adjutant General's Office, unless, through actual service in that office, he has acquired a practical knowledge of the manner in which and the purpose for which the information recorded on these forms is used.

Echoing the long-standing opposition of those within the traditional structure of the army, Ainsworth argued that "it is most inadvisable ever to intrust to incompetent amateurs the management of business that is of nation-wide importance, and that can only be managed prudently, safely, and efficiently by those whom long service has made experts with regard to it." In an ad hominem attack on Wood and by implication on the Secretary of War himself, Ainsworth added that if his objections to the General Staff proposal which "have been pointed out here are not sufficient to carry to the minds of those with whom the decision of this matter now rests . . . then it will be worse than useless to present further facts or arguments. . . ."(18)

Wood carried Ainsworth's reply to Stimson and President Taft. Stimson reprimanded the Adjutant General on 14 February. He enumerated several similar instances of defiance and concluded:

Your present action . . . is therefore but the culmination of a series of outbreaks evidencing such intolerance of subordination and such readiness to impugn either the motives or the intelligence of those with whom it is your duty to work in association as, if uncorrected, to destroy your usefulness in your present office. It is impossible that the business of the Government shall be properly conducted if official communications are made the occasion for contemptuous comments and aspersions upon fellow officers and for insolence to superiors.(19)

The President ordered Ainsworth to step down from his duties pending consideration of disciplinary actions. On the next day Taft granted the Adjutant General's request to be allowed to retire from the army.(20)

Thus by early 1912 one of the staunchest opponents of the General Staff had retired under threat of court-martial. Many of the other, older and more conservative elements had also been removed, and the Chief of Staff was now the recognized head of the army. Nonetheless, the General Staff itself had not yet reached maturity, and during the first part of the year the War Department remained preoccupied with trivial matters. A Leavenworth graduate sorrowfully noted that he found the cavalry officers in the War Department at this time concerned with a new style of saber while their infantry counterparts debated the color of the stripe on the dress-blue trouser.(21)

The General Staff's attempts at a comprehensive American military policy came to fruition in 1912 with Secretary of War Stimson's report, "The Organization of the Land Forces of the United States." This plan recommended that the United States organize its land forces into three distinct groups: a regular army organized in divisions and cavalry brigades ready for immediate use as an expeditionary force, an army of national citizen soldiers which would fill out the ranks of the regular army, and an army of volunteers to be organized if greater forces were needed.(22)

Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912, however, resulted in the shelving of the Stimson Plan. Unable to secure its comprehensive military policy, the General Staff was relegated again to a piecemeal approach to strategic planning.

Respect continued to wane for the General Staff. An investigation of Ainsworth's reprimand led by his supporters on the House Military Affairs Committee concluded that the General "had been guilty of no act which justified the letter of the Secretary of War and the action which resulted in the country's loss of his activities when they were most needed." Motivated in great part to avenge Ainsworth's treatment, Congress had by 1913 reduced the General Staff's number from forty-five to thirty-six.(23)

The beginning of the First World War in 1914 brought with it President Wilson's strong admonishment for neutrality. Military policy-making was anathema. The European conflict did, however, slowly reveal to some the inadequacy of the American military. In response to a request from Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison, the General Staff devoted a large part of 1915 to the preparation of the "Statement of a Proper Military Policy for the United States," which recommended increasing the size of the regular army from 100,000 to 230,000, continuing support for the organized militia and establishing a reserve of trained citizens, officers and supplies. Garrison adopted much of the "Statement" in his Continental Army Plan, which sought to establish a standing army of 140,000 (well below the General Staff recommendation in the "Statement," but the maximum amount which current military housing could accommodate) and a national, volunteer reserve force of 400,000 men ready for instant call.(24)

Garrison's Continental Army idea suffered opposition both from those who thought it went too far and from those who thought it was insufficient. Faced with stiff opposition from his own party, Wilson withdrew his support, and on 10 February 1916 Secretary Garrison and Assistant Secretary Henry Breckinridge resigned in protest, throwing the already fickle support for military planning and preparedness into further confusion.(25)

In the absence of Executive initiative and in the face of the shortcomings revealed by intervention in Mexico, Congress seized the reigns of leadership in 1916. After extensive hearings, the National Defense Act of 1916 finally became law on 3 June. Based in part on the 1915 "Statement" and supplementary documents, the National Defense Act seemed on the surface to vindicate the General Staff. According to the Act, the army would consist of the regular army, the volunteer army, the Officers' Reserve Corps, the Enlisted Reserve Corps, the National Guard and any other forces that might be authorized by law. Finally, the General Staff's work and planning seemed to be recognized for its merits.(26)

Provisions deeper within the National Defense Act, however, boded ill for the General Staff. The law limited it to fifty-five officers, including a Chief of Staff, two general officers, ten colonels, ten lieutenant colonels, fifteen majors and seventeen captains, with the added restriction that no more than half of the junior officers could be on duty in or around Washington, DC. The statute abolished the Mobile Army and Coastal Artillery Divisions within the General Staff, and limited the jurisdiction of the organization to non-administrative matters, calling into question whether it still had supervisory control over the bureaus. Although Congress had adopted many of the General Staff's recommendations and had once again codified the concept of a central, coordinating agency, the limitations caused the General Staff to come dangerously close to withering away in 1916. Only the fortuitous combination of the perception that the United States was rapidly drifting into the European conflict and the arrival of a new Secretary of War saved it.(27)

If anyone in 1916 was a less likely candidate for the position of Secretary of War than Elihu Root had been at the turn of the century, it was Newton D. Baker. Apart from a short stint as private secretary to the Postmaster General and two terms as mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Baker had little administrative experience. Perhaps more worrisome to those who favored expanded military planning, the Martinsburg, West Virginia, native was an avowed pacifist, holding membership in three pacifist societies. It was precisely for this reason that Wilson dubbed him as the new Secretary of War; the President desired an administrator who could ameliorate the army's demands for military expansion. A New York Times article astutely observed that Wilson sought a "sympathetic and useful co-adjuter . . . in this time of trial." Baker himself viewed the appointment as temporary, agreeing to serve only until the preparedness controversy could be resolved. Nonetheless, Baker proved as strong a supporter of the General Staff idea as had Elihu Root at the turn of the century.(28)

Baker sought to settle the question of the General Staff's relationship with the various bureaus. Judge Advocate General Enoch H. Crowder had counseled the new Secretary of War to make a narrow reading of the National Defense Act, thereby limiting the role of the General Staff. He argued that:

duties performed by the General Staff of whatever nature must be general in character. So the statute expressly provides. If the matter be of special rather than of general interest and concern; if it be limited rather than general in its effect; if it be a matter falling within and confined to the special jurisdiction of a bureau and not reaching directly other bureaus or the Army as a whole; if it be routine rather than of far-reaching consequence and importance; if it deal with details and specifics rather than generalities, with particular performance rather than general policy, then it is entirely clear that it is not a subject for General Staff consideration and functions.

As for the duties of the Chief of Staff, Crowder concluded that "I do not believe that by virtue of any authority he has, either in his capacity as a member of the General Staff Corps or as chief of said corps, he can lawfully exercise his power so as to stand between a bureau head and the Secretary of War."(29)

Chief of Staff Hugh L. Scott viewed Crowder's opinion with much skepticism and concern. Vowing to "fight this till the end," he sent his own brief to Baker, adding, "Mr. Secretary: I am handing you a case that will be the most important decision that you will ever have to make in that chair. Your verdict may spell victory or defeat for our armies."(30)

On 13 September 1916 Baker rendered his decision. Basing his conclusion on an interpretation of the intent behind both Elihu Root's reforms and the resultant Act of 1903, Baker ruled that:

The Chief of Staff, speaking in the name of the Secretary of War, will coordinate and supervise the various bureaus, offices, and departments of the War Department; he will advise the Secretary of War; he will inform himself in as great detail as in his judgment seems necessary to qualify him adequately to advise the Secretary of War.

The Secretary of War found in the National Defense Act of 1916 a reiteration of the intentions of Congress in the Act of 1903 -- namely, that the duties of the General Staff, while not including daily administrative or executive powers within each individual bureau, clearly gave that body a supervisory role. Thus, less than seven months before the US declaration of war, a clear-cut decision on the General Staff's powers was finally issued. Even after this ruling, however, the Secretary of War usually dealt with the various bureau chiefs directly. Therefore, in spite of this belated recognition, and although it would be charged with formulating American strategy, the General Staff was still unprepared for the demands of the coming war.(31)

1. Kreidberg and Henry, History of Military Mobilization, 175; William R. Roberts, "Loyalty and Expertise: The Transformation of the Nineteenth-Century American General Staff and the Creation of the Modern Military Establishment" (Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1979), 210. Roberts points out that during the two-and-a-half years prior to the Spanish-American War, the army appointed four quartermasters general and six commissaries general.

2. Major General Otto L. Nelson, Jr., National Security and the General Staff (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1946), 28-34.

3. Correspondence, Relating to the War with Spain, April 15 to September 1, 1898 (Washington: U.S. Adjutant General's Office, 1902), 4, cited in ibid., 28; Walter Millis, The Martial Spirit (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 217.

4. Report of the Commission Appointed by the President to Investigate the Conduct of the War Department in the War with Spain, by Grenville M. Dodge (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899), 44; Hewes, "The United States Army General Staff," 62.

5. Elihu Root, Addresses on Government and Citizenship (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916), 503-04.

6. John Dickinson, The Building of an Army (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1922), 255.

7. Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 46-7.

8. Philip C. Jessup, Elihu Root, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1938), 1:244; John L. Sutton, "The German General Staff in US Defense Policy," Military Affairs 25 (Winter 1961-62): 197.

9. Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 48

10. US Congress, Senate, Committee on Military Affairs, Efficiency of the Army, 57th Congress, 1st Session, 1902, 13, 17-18.

11. James W. Pohl, "The General Staff and American Defense Policy: The Formative Period, 1898-1917" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1967), 62-93; Roberts, "Loyalty and Expertise," 247-50. Roberts emphasizes the significance of the word "supervise" rather than "command" in regards to the chief of staff's duties as being fundamental to the ultimate passage of the legislation.

12. Ibid.

13. Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 60-71.

14. Pohl, "The General Staff and American Defense Policy," 93-4.

15. Johnson Hagood, The Services of Supply: A Memoir of the Great War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927), 21; Kreidberg and Henry, History of Military Mobilization in the U.S. Army, 179-82; Hewes, "The United States Army General Staff, 1900-1917," 69-70.

16. William Lassiter, "Memoir," US Military Academy Library, West Point, New York, quoted in Edward M. Coffman, "The American Military and Strategic Policy in World War I," in War Aims and Strategic Policy in the Great War, 1914-1918, ed. Barry Hart and Adrian Preston (London: Croom Helm, 1977), 67. Lassiter went on to become a major general and the chief of corps artillery during the war.

17. Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 151-57.

18. Ainsworth to Wood, 3 February 1912, in US Congress, House, Report Number 508, 62nd Congress, 2nd Session, 1912, 6-13.

19. Stimson to Ainsworth, 14 February 1912, ibid.

20. Hermann Hagedorn, Leonard Wood: A Biography, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931), 2:112.

21. Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 151-66; Kreidberg and Henry, History of Military Mobilization, 182; Hewes, "The United States Army General Staff," 68-9; Coffman, The War to End All Wars, 12-13.

22. "The Organization of the Land Forces of the United States," in "Report of the Secretary of War," in War Department Annual Reports, 1912, 4 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), 1:69-128.

23. "Report Number 508," 2; "Report of the Chief of Staff," in War Department Annual Reports, 1912, 1:242-43; Pohl, "The General Staff and American Defense Policy," 355.

24. "The Statement of a Proper Military Policy for the United States," in "Report of the Secretary of War," in War Department Annual Reports, 1915, 3 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916), 1:113-35.

25. Garrison to Wilson, 9 February 1916, PWW, 36:143-44; Wilson to Garrison, ibid., 36:162-64. See Chapter 2 of this thesis for a more detailed discussion of the fate of the Continental Army Reserve Plan.

26. Kreidberg and Henry, History of Military Mobilization, 192-95; Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 180-84. For a detailed discussion of the legislative history of the National Defense Act of 1916, see John Patrick Finnegan, Against the Specter of a Dragon: The Campaign for American Military Preparedness, 1914-1917, Contributions in Military History 7 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), 139-57.

27. Finnegan, Against the Specter of a Dragon, 139-57.

28. New York Times, 7 March 1916; Daniel R. Beaver, Newton D. Baker and the American War Effort, 1917-1919 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 1-21.

29. Crowder to Scott, 24 July 1916, in "Report of the Secretary of War," in War Department Annual Reports, 1916 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1917), 80-9.

30. Scott to Frederick Palmer, quoted in Palmer, Newton D. Baker: America at War, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd & Mead, 1931), 1:65; Hugh L. Scott, Some Memoirs of a Soldier (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1928), 546-47.

31. "Decision of the Secretary of War on the Effect of Section 5 of the National Defense Act," in "Report of the Secretary of War," in War Department Annual Reports, 1916, 70-80; Nelson, National Security and the General Staff, 198-223.

Introduction || 2: Exposition: American Military Planning Prior to January 1917 >>