"Defense reorganization for unity" : the unified combatant command system, the 1958 Defense Reorganization Act and the sixty-year drive for unity in grand strategy and military doctrine




Gventer, Celeste Ward

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation seeks to answer a deceptively simple question: why, in 1958 and as part of the Defense Reorganization Act (DRA) passed that year, did U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower remove the chiefs of the military services from the chain of operational command and instead empower the so-called “unified combatant commands,” to lead American military forces in war? The answer, this dissertation will argue, is that Eisenhower had found himself competing with his military service chiefs for his entire first administration and the first half of his second over national (grand) strategy and military doctrine. Taking those service chiefs out of the chain of operational command would, in effect, diminish the role of those officers. Eisenhower had found that simply getting rid of refractory officers was insufficient to quiet their rebellion: only by suppressing their role permanently in the bureaucracy did he hope to unify American strategy- and policy-making. This interpretation is at odds with the few accounts of the 1958 DRA that do exist, which tend to take Eisenhower’s stated purposes—to enhance “unity of command”—at face value. The circumstances that led Eisenhower to take this step were decades, if not longer, in the making. Two factors stand out. First, the situation resulted from the inherent pluralism in American military policy making. Second, it was also a product of the decades that preceded Eisenhower’s administration during which the American military was consistently forced to “fill in the blanks” of national strategy. What drove matters to a head in the 1950s was the steady growth of American power after the 1898 Spanish-American War and, especially, after the Second World War. It is necessary to also appreciate several legacies Eisenhower confronted and that colored his own views: the history of American military thinking about command and about civilian control; the creation of military staffs and the process of reform and professionalization inside the military services during the twentieth century; and the development of independent service doctrines. While complex and interwoven, these five conceptual threads form the fabric of issues, debates and dilemmas that make Eisenhower’s decision to take the services out of operations comprehensible. These threads also make up the major parts of the history described here. This work will trace these conceptual threads over the sixty-year rise of the United States to a global power, culminating in Eisenhower’s standoff with his service chiefs in the 1950s.



LCSH Subject Headings