International Relations The National Security Act of 1947
Douglas Stuart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0102


The 1947 National Security Act (NSA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation in modern American history. It created most of the institutions of the US national security bureaucracy, including the Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. It created the National Military Establishment, which became the Department of Defense in 1949, and it gave statutory identity to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. No comparable omnibus legislation has been passed since that time, and it is safe to say that no comparable legislation could be enacted in the early 21st century. The law was the product of a unique set of circumstances. The first factor that made it possible to achieve fundamental reform of the Washington foreign policy machinery was the disruptive effect of World War II, which gave Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisers the opportunity to experiment with new arrangements for intelligence gathering, propaganda, mass production, war fighting, policy making, and interagency coordination. These wartime experiments provided Washington with models for new institutions when the war ended. The second factor was a postwar national consensus on the need for a completely new approach to US foreign policy, which would accord priority to the concept of national security rather than the traditional concept of national interest. This consensus was the direct result of the shock of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which transformed the public’s sense of vulnerability and confirmed the need for perpetual preparedness. After three years of intense debate and a succession of congressional hearings, the 1947 National Security Act was passed, and a new network of national security institutions was established. In the second decade of the 21st century, in spite of the end of the Cold War, the attacks of 9/11, and numerous calls for institutional reform, this “Pearl Harbor system” still dominated the Washington foreign-policy-making community. This essay addresses the important books and articles that discuss the 1947 National Security Act, place it in context, or make arguments that relate to it.

The Concept of National Security

It may be hard for some readers to believe that the concept of national security has not always dominated foreign policy debates in Washington, DC. For the first 150 years of US history, the concept of national interest was the standard against which all foreign policies were judged, and the State Department was the lead agency in the articulation and implementation of policies that served the national interest. This does not mean that concerns for security did not dominate debates on foreign policy from time to time. Indeed, as Gaddis 2004 demonstrates, fear has sometimes been the driving force in American history. National interest nonetheless continued to serve as the lodestar for American foreign policy until World War I. After the Great War, Charles A. Beard (see Beard 1934) and others began to criticize the concept of national interest, while Pendleton Herring (see Herring 1941) and others began to make a case for policy making based on the concept of national security. Franklin D. Roosevelt was sensitive to some of these arguments because of his familiarity with the geopolitical arguments surveyed in Parker 1985. But as Cole 1983 argues, the president was not able to significantly enhance American preparedness before 1941 due to the influence of the isolationist movement. As Prange 1991 discusses, it was not until the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 that national security became the permanent and preeminent point of reference in US foreign policy making in times both of war and peace. Leffler 1984, Wolfers 1962, and Yergin 1977 provide insights regarding this conceptual change, which was institutionalized in 1947 with the passage of the National Security Act. The principal beneficiaries of these developments were the armed services and the newly established Department of Defense. The principal victim was the State Department, which lost its status as the lead agency in American foreign policy.

  • Beard, Charles A. The Idea of the National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy. New York: Macmillan, 1934.

    Although the logic of national security was not yet accepted by the American people in the 1930s, the traditional concept of national interest was becoming increasingly distrusted. Beard’s study will help readers understand why this change occurred. By the mid-1930s Beard could conclude that “the official thesis of national interest was not working out in practice” (p. 524).

  • Cole, Wayne S. Roosevelt and the Isolationists, 1932–45. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

    One of several good books on Roosevelt’s efforts to prepare the nation for war in the face of widespread resistance from a nationwide isolationist movement. Roosevelt was acutely aware of the problems the United States faced in the years before World War II, but he could not move too far or too fast to press the case for military mobilization.

  • Gaddis, John L. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    The author makes an interesting comparison between the fear-driven policies of the George W. Bush administration following the 11 September 2001 attacks and the fear-driven policies that followed the British attacks on Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. He argues that in both cases the United States responded to the attacks with policies of preeminence, unilateralism, and hegemony.

  • Herring, Pendleton. The Impact of War: Our American Democracy under Arms. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1941.

    This is the first book to systematically study the concept of national security and to make a powerful argument for a new approach to foreign policy making based on the demands of national security. Herring played an important role in the subsequent debates that culminated in the passage of the 1947 National Security Act.

  • Leffler, Melvyn P. “The American Conception of National Security and the Beginnings of the Cold War, 1945–48.” American Historical Review 89.2 (April 1984): 346–381.

    DOI: 10.2307/1862556

    Presents postwar US defense planners as hardheaded realists concerned about practical geopolitical issues, such as base access and defense in depth. A central preoccupation of these planners was the preservation of a favorable balance of power in Eurasia.

  • Parker, Geoffrey, ed. Western Geopolitical Thought in the Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985.

    This edited volume provides readers with a good introduction to some of the dominant geopolitical theories that helped convince Roosevelt and some other US policy makers during the interwar period that the United States was entering a new age of permanent vulnerability as a result of new technologies of warfare. Improvements in the range and lethality of airplanes were of special concern to Roosevelt during the late 1930s.

  • Prange, Gordon W. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: Penguin, 1991.

    Although it is dated (originally published in 1982), this book is still an excellent starting point for any scholars interested in both the American and the Japanese sides of the story. Anyone in need of greater detail can then proceed to the twenty-five thousand pages of the Pearl Harbor attack hearings, which took place between 1941 and 1946, available online.

  • Wolfers, Arnold. “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol.” In Discord and Collaboration: Essays on American Politics. By Arnold Wolfers, 147–166. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962.

    The author begins by comparing the concepts of national interest and national security. He then focuses on the latter concept, warning readers not to assume that the meaning of national security is self-evident. He criticizes those who claim that a nation cannot have too much security, noting that it is a value that is acquired at the expense of other values. Reprinted in 1984.

  • Yergin, Daniel. Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

    This justifiably popular study introduces two schools of thought in postwar America regarding the Soviet Union—the “Riga and Yalta axioms”—and then uses this dichotomy to tell the story of the growth of anti-Sovietism during the late 1940s. Yergin’s analysis of the “gospel of national security” (pp. 193–220) is particularly helpful for anyone studying the formative period of the Cold War.

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