Military and Police

The Confirmation of General Mattis – A History Lesson


By Morgan Deane:

Donald Trump has chosen retired General James Mattis to be his next Secretary of Defense. Despite his solid qualifications, this is a somewhat controversial choice. Perhaps the biggest issue is the fact that General Mattis does not qualify for Secretary of Defense under the National Security Act of 1947, specifically, 10 U.S. Code Section 113.

Because of America’s traditional fear of a large standing military, and their desire to retain civilian control of the military, a general must be retired at least seven years before becoming Secretary of Defense. This is not the only time a waiver has been requested to serve. In 1950 the confirmation of George Marshall as Secretary of Defense went through a similar process. We can then reasonably foresee what will occur and make the appropriate comparisons, which is that General Mattis will be confirmed as Secretary of Defense; however, the process will likely be used as a political football in the months ahead.

In September of 1950 the Soviet sponsored invasion of South Korea had reached the Pusan Perimeter in the South. American forces were hastily sent to reinforce the perimeter and suffered heavy casualties. With an ongoing war and American forces in harm’s way it amplified the arguments made on each side. Republicans accused President Truman of failing to take proper action to prevent aggression. For example, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a famous speech earlier in the year that left South Korea out of America’s defense obligations.  After World War II America had severely cut their budget, equipment, and man power. The people that had defeated Hitler just a few years before were incredulous that they had trouble handling what they saw as a third world army like Korea.

Korea was only a part of the narrative that America was losing the global war against Communism. Just a year before, the Communists had won the civil war in China, with accusations and recrimination in America over who “lost China.” Marshall had earlier led a peace mission to China and tried to broker a truce for a united government, but failed. With the subsequent loss by the Nationalists, George Marshall received much of the blame for the loss.

In a long speech during his confirmation, Senator William Jenner gave an epic rant on the senate floor against General Marshall’s confirmation. In a McCarthyite blast of conspiracy theory against Communism, General Marshall was deemed a member of a communist-favoring cabal going back to Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt granted the Soviet Union recognition in 1932 which provided them much needed aid.  General Marshall was blamed for giving lend lease aid to China that ended up in the hands of the Communists, brokering a peace that allowed Chinese Communists to gain vital industries and weapons in Manchuria, and disarmed Chinese Nationalists that opposed the Communists.   Joseph Stalin’s death, the armistice in Korea, and the public hearings that disgraced McCarthy, ended the hysteria but not before the savage beating that Marshall took in late 1950.

The clear threats of Communism, its spread around the world, and the active war in which the US was involved at the time led to a great deal of hysteria. But despite those active threats, there were strong isolationist elements in the US. Senator Robert Taft narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Eisenhower in 1952 and third party candidate Henry Wallace ran against Truman on an explicitly isolationist platform. They argued that these wars were too expensive, unnecessary, and made America unsafe by instigating conflict. General Marshall lent his name to the Marshall plan which helped rebuild Europe after the war.  As such, he was the epitome of what we would today call nation building and was attacked and ridiculed for it during his confirmation.

That wasn’t the only complaint that senators had. They attacked Truman for presenting them with a fait accompli, for presenting Marshall as the Secretary of Defense before he had received the waiver and confirmation by the senate.  Combined with Truman’s “police action” in Korea which was approved and conducted without a declaration of war from the senate, led to a series of debates finally resulting in the enactment of the War Powers Act which limits the President’s ability to send soldiers overseas.  Other senators argued that he was bailing out a presidency and claimed there is no single indispensable man, and that in a country of millions, he could find somebody else qualified to lead them.

This brief background reveals both similarities and differences to what is going on today with the upcoming confirmation of General Mattis. America is in a global war on terror that many feel it is losing. ISIS will remain relevant even if they do lose territory to those aligned to fight them.  Senators are still grandstanding their political points.  There haven’t been any epic Jenner-like rants in the Senate, but many are claiming that General Mattis is a needed antidote to Trumps erratic behavior.  Isolationists senators believe that General Mattis will be too warlike and commit American forces to longer rotations abroad. Senators like Rand Paul and other radical libertarians have assumed the mantle of fringe isolationism. They continue to argue a defunct message that American involvement abroad causes more problems than it solves, and that America should disengage from conflicts around the globe. There are some differences thankfully. There have been very few personal attacks against General Mattis and with President-elect Trump and congress aligned, his nomination may see some hiccups from the left, but ultimately he will get the waiver and be confirmed.

In short, studying history and more importantly, being intelligent enough not to repeat it, allows America the opportunity to face difficult issues like they should be faced, head on. Despite America being at war and the painful realities associated with those engaged in it, the country will continue to function and General Mattis will be the man they turn to for inspiration.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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