Why Generals Need Congressional Waivers To Become Defense Secretary

Jan 9, 2017
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, North Korea is just one of the issues that the next secretary of defense is going to have on his plate. Here's President-elect Trump a few weeks ago in North Carolina introducing the man he hopes he - will take up that job.

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DONALD TRUMP: It is now my honor and privilege to welcome to the stage your next secretary of defense, General Mad Dog Mattis.

INSKEEP: That would be James Mattis - his given name. He's a retired Marine. Now, when he joined the president-elect on stage, he mentioned the one thing that has to happen before he can head to the Pentagon.

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JAMES MATTIS: I look forward to being the civilian leader so long as the Congress gives me the waiver and the Senate votes to consent.

INSKEEP: Civilian leader - it's a civilian job, and so retired General Mattis would need a waiver to get around a law that requires the defense secretary to be far removed from military service. This has been granted once before 67 years ago. NPR's Tom Bowman has a look back at the man who got the waiver - General George Marshall.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: General Marshall was the Army chief of staff during World War II. He created a force of more than 8 million soldiers, settled disputes with allies, laid the strategy to defeat Germany and Japan. Winston Churchill called him the true architect of victory. Marshall was famously apolitical. He didn't vote and was not chummy with those in power. Franklin Roosevelt once called him George. Marshall replied, it's General Marshall, Mr. President.

H. W. BRANDS: He was partly a standoffish guy by temperament. He was quite reserved.

BOWMAN: H.W. Brands teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. He says it's no surprise President Truman turned to this tall, aloof general for secretary of state.

BRANDS: George Marshall was the model of the soldier statesman in the early years of the Cold War. He was someone whose temperament was such that no one worried about him becoming another Caesar, a military man taking over the government.

BOWMAN: Marshall did take over the rebuilding of Europe, with billions of dollars in American money, in what became known as the Marshall Plan. The general talked about that effort a few years before his death.

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GEORGE MARSHALL: As I've often said, it wasn't the idea of the so-called Marshall Plan as it was the execution and how we got it through Congress, and it took us from June until the following April. And I worked on that as hard as though I was running for the Senate or the presidency. And that's what I'm proud of, that part of it.

BOWMAN: Marshall's career did not end there. President Truman wanted him as secretary of defense following the disastrous first few months of the Korean War when U.S. troops were ill-prepared and forced to retreat.

ROBERT SCALES: Everyone in 1950 considered Marshall to be the iconic general of his generation.

BOWMAN: Robert Scales is a retired Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College.

SCALES: He used the power of his personality not only within the American military, which was absolute, but also among our allies.

BOWMAN: First, Marshall needed a waiver from Congress. The law said an officer nominated for defense secretary must be out of uniform for 10 years. Scales said that had more to do with concerns a former general might be too cozy with those on active duty than any worry about a loss of civilian control of the military. Still, Senator Harry Cain of Washington opposed Marshall for that very reason.

America will not solve her problems, Cain told Marshall at his hearing, by endeavoring to find a soldier old or young to carry burdens which ought to be borne and conquered by civilian citizens. And a young senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, asked Marshall what he thought about the need for civilian control. When I was a second lieutenant, Marshall told him, I thought we'd never get anywhere in the Army unless a soldier was secretary of war. As I grew a little older, the general said, I came to the fixed conclusion he should never be a soldier.

MARK STOLER: Marshall once said there is nothing greener than a freshly minted second lieutenant.

BOWMAN: Mark Stoler is editor of the George Marshall Papers and is a professor at the University of Vermont.

STOLER: What he had learned was that his purely military training was insufficient for the tasks that face the country at the highest level.

BOWMAN: In the end, Marshall got his waiver and was easily confirmed as defense secretary. This week, those same issues will be raised on Capitol Hill. Like General Marshall, General Mattis is seen as a consummate professional and has a lot of support in Congress. But a few Democrats, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are opposed to a waiver for Mattis. Civilian control of our military, she said, is a fundamental principle of American democracy. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "CHERRY BLOSSOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.