The Center for Legislative Archives


The Senate Committee on Armed Services, 1947-1996

A Brief History of the Committee: The Russell Era, 1955-1968

A Strong Chairman

The accession of Senator Richard Russell to the chairmanship in 1955 opened a 14-year era when the power and prestige of the Senate Armed Services Committee were intimately bound with its leader. Senator Russell solidified the committee's traditions of the strong chairman, bipartisanship, and the committee as the forceful voice for a strong defense in the Senate. Under Chairman Russell's leadership, the committee became the incubator for the Senatorial careers of Senators Johnson, John C. Stennis (D-MS), W. Stuart Symington (D-MO), and Henry M. Jackson (D-WA).


In the 84th Congress (1955-57), Chairman Russell created the panel's first stable subcommittee system that persisted into the 1970s. During Russell's tenure, the Real Estate and Military Construction Subcommittee was chaired by Senators Stennis (1955-60, 1963-64) and Jackson (1961-62; 1967-68). Senator Stennis also chaired the Officer Grade Limitations Subcommittee from 1955 to 1966. Senator Symington was chairman of the National Stockpile and Naval Petroleum Reserves Subcommittee from 1955 to 1970. Senator Samuel J. Ervin, Jr. (D-NC) chaired the Status of Forces Treaty Subcommittee from 1955 to 1974.

Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader from 1955 to 1961, chaired the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee until he resigned from the Senate after his election as Vice President. When Senator Stennis succeeded Johnson as chairman of the Preparedness Subcommittee, he held hearings on the "military implications" of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963), on the Cuban military buildup (1963), and the situation in Vietnam (1965). Senator Russell chaired the controversial Subcommittee on Central Intelligence (1955 to 1968) and in 1956 and 1966 withstood powerful challenges to the committee's responsibility for oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Origins of Annual Defense Authorizations

During the 1950s, the committee became an independent, forceful voice on defense issues. Senator Symington chaired a Subcommittee on the Air Force in 1955 that held extensive hearings and issued a report holding President Eisenhower's defense policies responsible for declining U.S. airpower relative to the Soviet Union. Senator Stennis' Subcommittee on Real Estate and Military Construction identified inefficiency, duplication, and service rivalries in the developing missile defense program. When the Soviet Union launched the first earth satellite in October 1957, Senator Johnson's Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee conducted a searching inquiry into all aspects of the nation's missile and satellite programs. That subcommittee's hearings raised concerns that a dangerous "missile gap" exposed the U.S. to a Soviet nuclear attack.

The comprehensive authorization of the defense budget that became the hallmark of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1980s and 1990s had its origins in these legislative-executive conflicts over defense policies. Over the determined opposition of President Eisenhower and the Pentagon, Senator Russell sponsored an amendment, 412(b), to the Military Construction Act of 1959 that required authorization of missiles, aircraft, and naval vessels prior to appropriations. The requirement, Chairman Russell told the committee members, "would put us in the policy area where, in my judgment, the Armed Services Committee should be."

Expansion of Defense Authorization

During the 1960s, the committee cautiously and incrementally expanded the scope of the authorization requirement and addressed many questions surrounding its implementation and meaning. Following a dispute with the administration over adequate funding for development of a long-range bomber to replace the aging B-52 bomber, the committee in 1962 required authorization of research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) of all weapons subject to 412(b) and, the following year, extended the RDT&E requirement to all of the Department of Defense.

In 1965, the committee extended the authorization requirement to include tracked combat vehicles after learning that the administration had depleted the inventory of tanks because of transfers to allies. In reaction to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's plan to consolidate the Army Reserves and the National Guard, in 1967 the committee reported legislation establishing "Select Reserve" components and subjecting them to annual authorization.

Vietnam War

As the Vietnam war increasingly claimed military resources, the authorization hearings and bills became the focal points for differences between the committee and the Johnson administration. Secretary McNamara's Cost Reduction Campaign, his plan to close 95 military installations in the U.S. and abroad, reduced funding and delayed decisions on major weapons, provoked spirited opposition from the committee. Tensions between the committee and the Johnson administration reached a climax when the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee held hearings on the conduct of the air war in Vietnam (1967).

Although there were differences within the Armed Services Committee over weapons, policies, and programs, Senator Russell solidified the panel and secured unanimous votes on all eight of the authorization bills reported during his chairmanship. With the exception of the fiscal year 1969 authorization, the momentum of a united Armed Services Committee was sufficient for the Defense Authorization bills to clear the Senate floor in a day and pass by voice votes.