The Center for Legislative Archives


The Senate Committee on Armed Services, 1947-1996

A Brief History of the Committee: Formative Years, 1947-1954


The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 created both the Senate Committee on Armed Services and its counterpart in the House of Representatives, the House Armed Services Committee. By merging the Senate Military Affairs Committee (1816-1946) and Naval Affairs Committee (1816-1946), the Reorganization Act created for the first time in the history of the U.S. Senate a single committee responsible for national defense. The committee's broad jurisdiction was based largely on the sweeping powers that the Constitution granted Congress and included responsibility for the "Common defense generally."

The 13-member committee met for the first time on January 13, 1947, and included some of the most respected former members of the Senate Military Affairs and Naval Affairs Committees, including H. Styles Bridges (R-NH), J. Chandler (Chan) Gurney (R-SD), Leverett Saltonstall (R-MA), Millard E. Tydings (D-MD), Richard B. Russell, Jr. (D-GA), and Harry F. Byrd (D-VA). These members formed a bipartisan leadership core that fostered consensus, provided continuity, and encouraged respect for committee precedents and traditions. The need for a strong defense in the early cold war years also fostered a bipartisan, consensus decision-making style. Despite cohesive leadership, shifting party control of the Senate and the 1950 electoral defeat of Chairman Tydings meant that four different Senators chaired the committee between the 80th and 83d Congresses (1947-55).


The committee pursued an ambitious legislative agenda. The panel reported the landmark National Security Act of 1947 and the Amendments of 1949 which laid the organizational foundations defense policies of the cold war. Other significant defense legislation that the committee reported included the Officer Personnel Act of 1947, the Selective Service Act of 1948, the Armed Services Procurement Act of 1948, the Air Force Composition Act of 1948, the Uniform Code of Military Justice Act of 1950, the Universal Military Training Program Act of 1952, and the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1952.

Institutional constraints precluded the committee from originating rather than responding to executive branch legislative proposals. The committee relied upon ad hoc subcommittees and established no permanent subcommittee structure conforming to categories of legislation, jurisdiction, or committee priorities. The committee lacked the staff resources to scrutinize in detail complex Pentagon requests because the Legislative Reorganization Act restricted standing committees to no more than four professional staff members. In addition to a chief clerk, who was chosen by the chairman, the committee relied upon a non-partisan, professional staff of three who were responsible to the full committee.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed multi-year, general authorization bills that provided little guidance for the annual funding decision of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations. While the Armed Services Committee was removed from the pivot of annual defense funding decisions in the Senate, members of the Armed Services Committee were amply represented among the appropriators. Senators Bridges, Saltonstall, Russell, and William F. Knowland (R-CA) held joint appointments on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee. In addition, the Standing Rules of the Senate provided for the appointment of three Armed Services Committee members as ex officio members of the Appropriations Committee. The two committee maintained a cooperative rather than competitive relationship.


The Armed Services Committee began exercising other important powers. In the 81st Congress (1949-51), the committee asserted its power to report Presidential nominations to the Senate when it voted seven to six to table the nomination of Mon C. Wallgren as chairman of the National Security Resources Board and when it conducted a month-long inquiry into conflict-of-interests before favorably reporting the nomination of Louis A. Johnson to be Secretary of Defense. In the 83rd Congress (1953-55), the committee required Charles E. Wilson, President of General Motors and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's choice for Secretary of Defense, to sever all financial ties to the corporation before favorably reporting his nomination to the Senate.

In the summer of 1951, the national spotlight fell on the Senate Armed Services Committee when Senator Russell chaired hearings jointly with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to investigate President Harry S. Truman's dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur from his duties as Commander of U.N. Forces in Korea and to review U.S. foreign and defense policy in the Far East. The dispassionate and dignified manner in which Chairman Russell conducted the hearings underscored the role of the Senate in maintaining civilian control of the military and heightened the prestige of the committee and its chairman.


In 1948, the committee first fulfilled the Legislative Reorganization Act's requirement that standing committees "exercise continuous watchfulness" over the executive branch when it created a "Watchdog Committee" that Senator Saltonstall chaired. In September 1950, the committee created the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and appointed Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) as chairman. This subcommittee was the primary oversight and investigative arm of the Armed Services Committee until the mid-1970s.