"WAR," declared Clemenceau, "is much too important a business to be left to the soldiers." In principle few statesmen or generals would now dissent. In practice there have been and are great difficulties in determining how and to what extent civilian control should be exerted.

During the Great War, Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, thought that only 25 percent of the national effort was being exerted by the services. He then saw more clearly than many what the preparations for and course of the present war have made plain to everyone: that international conflict is now totalitarian. In addition to naval and military operations, strategy must now comprehend diplomatic manœuvres, propaganda, the protection of the home front, the maintenance of morale, the speeding up of industrial production, the strengthening of financial sinews, the control of prices, the rationing of food, and a myriad of other matters.

Sir William Robertson and the British Cabinet disagreed about the control of the 25 percent of the war effort which he said had been left in the hands of the military services. Similarly, Sir Frederick Maurice, who as Director of Military Operations clashed with Lloyd George and resigned his post, declares that since war now "means the direction for a special purpose of the whole power and resources of the nation," it is "clearly not a matter to be left to soldiers or sailors, nor would any responsible soldier or sailor desire it to be so left." He adds the lament that principal and agent have failed to think through and agree upon the manner in which the control should be exerted.

In France, before Clemenceau stated the principle succinctly and implemented it effectively, the army had for three years been insisting on the opposite doctrine. Joffre, who reached supreme command because as an engineer officer he had spent some time in the Colonies (largely building barracks) and had a number of service years which counted double, refused to admit that French governments could issue instructions to him and that he must keep them informed. He recognized only a vague responsibility to the President of the Republic. Poincaré was horrified and with not unusual sententiousness confided to his diary: "Neither the constitution nor the law has regulated the relations between the public powers in time of war. Thus experimentally, by successive adaptations which will require good-will from all, we will be led to adjust the functioning of the different organs." There was not good will from all. Successive adaptations were not successful. Interference by parliament through its commissions was wrong in principle but served in a number of respects to fill a distressing lacuna in civilian knowledge of and control over conditions in the field and industrial preparations as well. Experiments with generals as Ministers of War were failures. Finally Painlevé made Foch Chief of the General Staff alongside the government and made Pétain commander in the field; and although their respective powers were vaguely defined, mutual confidence was such that the system worked. Under Clemenceau it worked even better, partly because of the effectiveness of the military cabinet which as Minister of War (as well as Prime Minister) he established. Two years before the outbreak of the war the chief of this cabinet, General Mordacq, had, curiously enough, written that armed conflict could "be prepared and conducted with much greater ease in a monarchy than in a republic, merely because the principle of authority can be exercised in the former completely and with continuity." He had thought that in a democratic system it would be difficult "to realize effectively" unity of direction between civil power and military command, but he helped Clemenceau to do it.

Across the Rhine the balance was the other way. The Kaiser's Ministers had to take from him the orders which his generals persuaded him to give. Historians of the first World War have discussed the question of whether this kind of "unity of direction" did not cause Germany's defeat. "How can you have any organization when the army is managed by civilians?" the German Emperor demanded of the British military attaché in Berlin. "Look at the state they are in in France! Saturated with délation!" Ludendorff may have been brilliant militarily but he was blind politically. He insisted on directing and controlling 75 to 85 rather than 25 percent of the national effort, and he failed.

Behind civilian-military relationships and questions of control and direction there lies of course the larger problem of the position of an army in a state. "It is no easy matter," wrote the English historian Trevelyan, "to reconcile the institution of a standing army with the genius of parliamentary and popular government, and the work was not done in a day." Trevelyan was talking of England in the age of Queen Anne, but the issue was not settled in Great Britain until the close of the nineteenth century and it raised its head again just before the outbreak of the Great War. Only by slow stages did the British constitution establish the principle that the army was not a royal preserve and that a Secretary of State for War should be responsible to Parliament for all of its activities. In the middle of the century, opposition to larger army appropriations resulted from fear that they would increase the influence of the Crown. Abolition of the purchase of commissions did not come until the 70's and then was put into effect in the face of royal opposition and despite warnings of disaster from an army whose officers, it was said, were too gentlemanly to learn anything about their duties. A Commander-in-Chief -- the Duke of Cambridge -- responsible to the Sovereign rather than to the nation through a Secretary of State stayed in office until 1895 and the post was not abolished until later.

Much more clearly defined was the struggle in Germany where, since there was no parliamentary government, the possible incompatibility of a standing army was not a problem. But Bismarck always argued vigorously that the military machine and military aspirations must be subordinated to state policy. He warned that the army would be a dangerous thing "under a monarch whose policy lacks sense of proportion and capacity of resisting one-sided and constitutionally unjustifiable influences." So long as William I was Emperor, Bismarck was sufficiently powerful to keep the military machine in its place.

In a brilliant series of essays which he published during the war under the title "Militarism and Statecraft," the late Professor Munroe Smith pointed out that after Bismarck's fall the decision on conflicts between diplomacy and military strategy not only rested with the Emperor but that he was responsible for presenting the civilian or diplomatic point of view to the services because his Chancellors were not men of intelligence and force. The Emperor valued pliancy more highly than capacity. Munroe Smith argued that had Bismarck been Chancellor in 1914 and insisted, as was his wont, on interposing a counterweight "to one-sided and unjustifiable influence," the war -- if it had come -- would have come about in a different way, with its origins more clearly visible and perhaps its effects more localized. But there was no Bismarck -- only Bethmann-Hollweg.


In the democracies the problem now poses itself in a different setting. Strategy broadly conceived requires collaboration between the civil government and the services. For this collaboration machinery is necessary. In a sense the problem stems from a larger one: what should be the relations between political leaders and expert technicians? A Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an economist or a financier and so must have expert advice which he accepts or rejects in the light of his conception of what the political situation permits or forbids. A War Minister is not (and should not be) a soldier, but he must use the experts within the frame of the larger totalitarian strategy which armed conflict now requires. There are differences, of course. A tax expert can tell a Chancellor of the Exchequer within pretty precise limits what the yield of a proposed impost will be. Military scientists cannot be so certain. Problems constantly change because men's abilities are found wanting, because enemy plans are modified, or even because the weather takes a turn for the worse. The civil servant should (and for the most part does) remain anonymous; the general and the admiral cannot. At the request of a Minister, the civil servant prepares schemes in which he does not fully believe, and after the schemes are accepted, he may, without loss of intellectual integrity, share in carrying them out. The soldier and the sailor cannot be so cynical or so servile. Their labors will test their own expertness, while the civil servant is rarely faced by that grim touchstone: he estimates the yield of a tax and its collection is a problem of mechanical administration. Complaint is sometimes made that politicians refuse to realize that they are laymen in economic matters and too frequently insist on substituting their judgments for the judgments of experts. In civil-military relationships, the danger is perhaps the other way: that Ministers will think strategy and tactics are far more mysterious than they really are and thus hesitate to assert control. Their excuse is greater than in the first case, where the gamble is with economic well-being and not with human lives.

These are some of the considerations on the periphery of the problem with which Great Britain and France have been worrying and which they have by no means solved. The problem, to repeat, is to create machinery in order to make certain that there is (a) ministerial participation in formulating strategical plans and (b) ministerial control of the carrying-out of these plans if a state of war is entered upon. Many will maintain that the British and French machinery is well designed. Few will maintain that its operations have been as successful as they should be. The point is that the machinery has been set up and ministers and generals endeavor to make it work. In comparison, American thought on the problem -- save by extra-governmental persons -- has been almost nil. American machinery for coördination is rudimentary. What are the British and French devices that are worthy of attention?

First of all, the English system endeavors to ensure civilian control within the service departments. If a minister is to be responsible in the House of Commons, he must be something more than the uncomprehending mouthpiece of a chief-of-staff or a sea lord. Thus, since 1904, the British War Office has been under the direction of an Army Council. The Secretary of State for War is the chairman. Other civilian members are the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for War, the Financial Secretary of the War Office and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War -- a civil servant -- under whom a secretariat functions. The service members are the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the Adjutant General, the Quarter-Master General, the Director General of Munitions Production, and the Director General of the Territorial Army. It will be noted that the Council includes no soldier specializing in anti-aircraft defense. Such an appointment was urged and Mr. Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War, secured the appointment of a Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Anti-aircraft Defence), but the officer was not put on the Army Council. Moreover, the effectiveness of even this step was sabotaged by the designation to the new post of a general who lacked previous experience of anti-aircraft work.

In the American army there is a familiar quip that a Board is "long, narrow and wooden." That might be true of the Army Council if the British system did not require the Secretary of State for War to accept responsibility for all of its decisions. Since his is the responsibility, he can overrule the Army Council and substitute his judgment for its judgment. Military historians confine themselves largely to military operations and not to details of internal administrative difficulties. Hence little transpires concerning differences of opinion between the Secretary of State for War and the Council. No military critics in England, however, suggest that the management of the War Office would be better if the Council were abolished. Its civilian element ensures civilian knowledge of and participation in the formulation of army policy.

So with the Admiralty. The British Government, it has been said, "is haunted by the ghosts of extinct offices" and every minister presides not only over his department but also over "a legal museum." The British Admiralty illustrates this principle admirably. Control is still in the office of Lord High Admiral, but ever since 1708 his department has been in commission and is exercised by commissioners who together are known as the Board of Admiralty. The ministerial chairman is the First Lord; the other civilian members are the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary, the Civil Lord, and the Permanent Secretary -- a civil servant. The service members number six -- the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff and five Sea Lords: the Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of Naval Personnel, the Controller, the Chief of Supplies and Transport, and the Chief of Naval Air Services. Following rather closely the plan of the Army Council, the Air Ministry has its governing body of civilians and service men. In addition to the Secretary of State for Air, there are a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, three civil servants -- a Permanent Under-Secretary, a First Deputy Under-Secretary and a Director-General of Production -- and five officers of the Air Force: the Chief of the Air Staff and Air members for personnel, development and production, supply, and organization.

Above these departmental councils, as a general instrument of coördination, Great Britain has had, since 1904, a Committee of Imperial Defence which was set up on the theory that the Prime Minister should be its "invariable President" and that he should have complete discretion in selecting its members. The Committee of Imperial Defence is a large and unwieldy body composed of the principal Ministers -- eight or ten of them -- the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, the head of His Majesty's Civil Service and the three chiefs-of-staff. From time to time it has included extra-governmental members. Lord Haldane was particularly interested in its functioning and, though not a member of the Government, was on occasion coöpted for service on the Committee. As Secretary of State for War he had forced extensive reforms on the army and had been particularly interested in the Committee. After the war he was still of the opinion that there are "few questions, military or constitutional, in which such obscurity prevails as in those concerned with the higher direction of war."

In characteristically British fashion the Committee of Imperial Defence was given no executive authority. Its functions were to study, to discuss and to formulate. The final decision always rested with the Cabinet. An able secretariat prepared the subjects that went on the agenda and watched the work of subcommittees which at times were extremely numerous. In the first volume of his "War Memoirs," Mr. Lloyd George paid a glowing tribute to the Committee for its success in making Britain ready for war. As Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith did not disturb its constitutional position, but gradually -- because the Committee was so unwieldy -- permitted its functions to be taken over by a War Council of the Cabinet. As the Dardanelles expedition and other incidents disclosed, this Cabinet committee did not work too well. There was dubiety concerning the status of the chiefs-of-staff. Did they attend as experts who could not differ with their political chiefs or were they there for conference and advice? When Lloyd George formed his Government, he created his War Cabinet composed of Ministers without Portfolio. He made it clear that "the Cabinet would have the same access to the experts as their departmental chiefs; that questions could be addressed to them directly; and that they were to speak their minds freely without awaiting the permission or the opinion of their chiefs." He had "a painful recollection of the Dardanelles muddle when distinguished experts sat silent and sullen at the War Committee whilst their chief was advancing propositions with which they profoundly disagreed."

Down to the Armistice, Mr. Lloyd George's War Cabinet kept its hand on strategy more tightly than did the politicians of any other warring country. When peace came, the institution of the War Cabinet was abandoned and the normal Cabinet system was resumed, with the Committee of Imperial Defence again playing an active rôle. Later, after discussion, it was decided not to create a single Ministry of National Defence coördinating the three services. But in 1936, when Britain began extensively to rearm, the Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin, appointed a Minister for the Coördination of Defence -- Sir Thomas Inskip -- who was to preside over the Committee in the absence of the Prime Minister (which was frequent) and who, without legal authority -- again in characteristically British fashion -- was to have "general day-to-day supervision and control on the Prime Minister's behalf of the whole organization and activity of the Committee of Imperial Defence;" to make monthly progress reports to the Cabinet and to discern "any points which either have not been taken up or are being pursued too slowly, and (in consultation with the Prime Minister or other Ministers or Committees as required)" to recommend "appropriate measures for their rectification."

As subsequent events showed, the Baldwin Government was not greatly concerned about speeding rearmament. It did not intend that Sir Thomas Inskip should be too vigorous. He was to preside and to appease those who demanded action. Hence he concerned himself with supply rather than with strategy and a more intelligent parcelling out of the expenditures the government was making. Thus the War Office could continue to spend only one quarter of one percent of its total appropriations on anti-aircraft defense. The strategists had ignored the principle that they had always declared to be fundamental: operations can be conducted only from a secure base. They had permitted the British Isles to become insecure -- a target without sufficient means of protection. One reason was that older departments in the services with strongly entrenched bureaucracies insisted that extra moneys be allocated to them for increased expenses. There was no one to make an effective demand that newer weapons be recognized. As Captain Liddell Hart has remarked, "the custom of the services differs from the domestic formula in that the latest born is commonly the first to suffer." So the Air Force was kept on short rations, and the anti-aircraft defense on starvation rations. To say this is not to say that civilian participation and scrutiny were wrong in principle, but only that they were ineffective -- partly because of lethargy at the top and partly because of the fact that traditions, precedents and vested interests are formidable obstacles to the reconsideration and revision of old policies. After Munich, when Mr. Chamberlain pleaded that he had no other alternative because Britain was completely defenseless against air attack, Sir Thomas Inskip went, and his place as Minister for Coördination of Defence was taken by Lord Chat-field. Then preparations became less laggard and vested interests less sacrosanct.

Like Great Britain, France has three service departments -- War, Navy and Air -- but it has attempted coördination in a different fashion. When Léon Blum formed his Government in 1936, he made his Minister of War also Minister of National Defence as well, and charged him with the task of coordinating the three services and preventing them from competing with each other. The results were not spectacular. M. Blum had to yield to bureaucratic demands that autonomy be not interfered with. M. Daladier, his Minister of National Defence and of War, could only preside and request. In France influence is more unlikely to be an adequate substitute for legal authority than is often the case across the Channel. Hence in later cabinets M. Daladier had a stronger legal position. As Minister of National Defence, his countersignature was necessary for many important decisions in respect of the army, the navy and the air force.

The law on the general organization of the nation for war which the French Parliament passed in July 1938 solidifies this position. It provides also for a Permanent Committee of National Defence -- much along the lines of the Committee of Imperial Defence -- that is, under the chairmanship of the Minister of National Defence and with the chiefs-of-staff as members. The law provided that when war came, this Permanent Committee of National Defence should become a War Committee presided over by the President of the Republic and that this committee should assure the unity "of the military direction of the war within the frame of the government's decisions." This War Committee has its secretariat from the Superior Council of National Defence. At the same time there is a Chief-of-Staff for National Defence, General Gamelin, and, as a sop to the Navy, an Admiral was put in charge of the reorganized College of National Defence for the instruction of officers in higher strategy.


In comparison, American devices for effective relationships between statesmen and soldiers seem extremely rudimentary, and this despite the fact that the Constitution established civilian control. The President is Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy. To be sure, through the Army Appropriation Act of 1867 Congress attempted to make it impossible for the President to use his constitutional powers, but the issue here was a controversy between the legislature and the executive. To be sure also, testifying in opposition to the general staff legislation which Secretary of War Root was urging (1902), General Miles argued that the commanding general's authority should not be taken away and his freedom limited by "the direction or sanction of the all-powerful general staff which, under the Bill, is only subject to the control of the Secretary of War whose knowledge of affairs military may be meagre or nil."

In practice, however, the balance is the opposite of that which General Miles feared. It is notorious that with rare exceptions American Secretaries of War and of the Navy have not seemed to dominate their Departments as have some of their fellow Cabinet members. Even when they are extraordinarily able, which happens too infrequently, they are handicapped by the absence of any machinery like the Army Council or the Admiralty Board. Their testimony when they retire is that they were only machines to parade and to sign. "I had my head full of the great things I was going to accomplish," said Victor H. Metcalf, Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt. "I know better now. My duties consist of waiting for the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to come in with a paper, put it down before me with his finger on a dotted line and say to me, 'Sign your name here.' It is all any Secretary of the Navy does."

As establishments become larger, as mechanization proceeds, as more money is spent for more numerous purposes, the helplessness of civilian secretaries will be even more pronounced. They demonstrate it when Congressional committees consider programs of expansion. The Secretaries cannot explain these programs to Congressional committees but have to permit the Chief-of-Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations to be the spokesmen of the Departments. In Great Britain or France, because of the machinery of consultation and coördination which has been set up, civilian ministers can master the business of their departments in sufficient detail to explain it to their parliaments.

So far as strategical coördination is concerned, there is an agency -- the Joint Board -- which is composed of the Chief-of-Staff of the Army, the Deputy Chief-of-Staff, and the Assistant Chief-of-Staff (War Plans Division), the Chief of Naval Operations, the Assistant Chief and the Director of the War Plans Division of the Office of Naval Operations. Allegations are sometimes made that for some of its business the Joint Board confines itself to agreeing to disagree. Such allegations are probably exaggerated, but in the case of the manœuvres in the Caribbean last winter the services were unable to agree on the way they would play the games jointly and hence the Navy played by itself. The services could not do that if the country were at war.

In all probability the weaknesses of the Joint Board are exaggerated. It should be noted, however, that there is equal representation from the Army and Navy and there is no special representation for a service which in Great Britain and France is autonomous -- namely, the Air Force. This is not to suggest that there should be a separate ministry of air in Washington. That question has been inquired into and adversely decided by several competent civilian boards. It should be noted also that the Joint Board's secretariat is a device to record rather than an organ of study as is the case with the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence and its numerous subcommittees. And there is on the Board no outside civilian mediating influence -- no officials from the Department of State or other branches of the government which must concern themselves with the 75 percent of the national effort which in war time is exerted by forces other than those in military and naval uniform. War colleges, seconding of officers for study at universities and for special details, great activity and much coördination in the formulation of joint plans for procurement -- the progress in these directions is doubtless admirable. But the plain fact is that in the United States the important business of war is being left almost completely to the soldiers, save when the President as Commander-in-Chief can squeeze it in among the demands on his time and energy by his heavy administrative duties and the terrific burden of ceremonial functions. British Prime Ministers found that they had to delegate the task of coördination, and the burden on them is far less than it is on the President of the United States.

Within the services there is a good deal of questioning of present arrangements but it cannot be articulate. It is confined largely to younger men who, when they grow older and attain the higher posts, are content to do the best they can in an administrative world which they had thought should be better but has not become so. Then, curiously enough -- or naturally enough -- when they retire, the generals and admirals call for reform. Little attention is paid to them. The services ignore the wisdom of the leading members of their professions when those members cease to be on active duty. That is not the case in medicine, or in law, or in journalism. Soldiers and sailors criticize most when they have abandoned their ambitions to get on; and then scant heed is paid to their admonitions.

In August 1917, Woodrow Wilson went to sea in the Mayflower, boarded an American battleship and, according to the editors of his papers, talked to the officers like "a football coach to his team between the halves."

"I have had most of my thinking," Wilson declared, "stimulated by questions being put to me which I could not answer, and I have had a great many of my preconceived conceptions absolutely destroyed by men who had not given half the study to the subject that I myself had given. The fact of the matter is that almost every profession is pushed forward by the men who do not belong to it and know nothing about it, because they ask the ignorant questions which it would not occur to the professional man to ask at all; he supposes that they have been answered, whereas it may be that most of them had not been answered at all. The naïveté of the point of view, the whole approach of the mind that has had nothing to do with the question, creates an entirely different atmosphere."

This philosophy -- and who will challenge it? -- would justify civilian participation in the consideration of service problems even if the service effort constituted a larger percentage of war effort. In the same speech, President Wilson went on to say that "this is an unprecedented war and, therefore, it is a war in one sense for amateurs." He thought that "because of the novelty of the instruments used" and because "nobody ever before fought a war like this," experience in previous wars would count for little.

The observation is even truer of the present war. The British Field Service Regulations anticipated it. They recognized that high command in war demands "the broadest possible outlook and knowledge of social as well as of military questions." They declared that "a major war affects the whole of the national life and every class of citizen and there is a corresponding civil influence on the conduct of military operations." In the United States there do not seem to be sufficient opportunities for civil influence to affect military policy and preparations for defense.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • LINDSAY ROGERS, Burgess Professor of Public Law at Columbia University since 1929; author of "Crisis Government" and other works
  • More By Lindsay Rogers