United States Marine Corps — 2007 edition
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The Chowder Society
Dwight Jon Zimmerman

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had what amounted to a ringside seat off the coast of Iwo Jima, standing on the deck of Vice Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious force flagship USS Eldorado, when he saw the Marines make what would be the first American flag-raising on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945. Beside the secretary was Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, commander of the Marines fighting to conquer the island. Turning to the general, the excited Forrestal pointed to the summit of the extinct volcano and said, “The raising of that flag on Suribachi means a Marine Corps for the next 500 years.”
Yet, in less than 500 days, the Marine Corps would be locked in a bureaucratic war in Washington, D.C., in which the stakes were nothing less than the continued existence of the Corps. For two years, from 1945 to 1947, the Marine Corps found itself in a vicious bare-knuckle battle for survival that would only end when the National Security Act was signed into law on July 26, 1947, with the Marine Corps organized to provide “fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases, and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”
That the Marine Corps was not consigned to the dustbin of history following the end of World War II can be attributed to the now largely forgotten efforts of a small and loose-knit group of Marine officers led by Brig. Gen. Gerald Carthrae Thomas that included Col. Merrill B. Twining, Lt. Col. Victor Krulak, Medal of Honor recipient Brig. Gen. Merritt A. Edson, Col. Robert E. Hogaboom, Col. James E. Kerr, Lt. Col. James C. Murray, Lt. Col. James D. Hittle, Lt. Col. DeWolf Schatzel, Lt. Col. Samuel R. Shaw, Lt. Col. Robert D. Heinl, Lt. Col. E.H. Hurst, Maj. Jonas M. Platt, and Marine Corps Reserve officers Russell Blandford, Arthur Hansen, Lyford Hutchins, and William McCahill – truly “the few.” These Marines called themselves the “Chowder Society.” Though they took their name from the popular Barnaby syndicated comic strip, what they did was of the utmost seriousness. They can be said to have saved their service, sometimes having to overcome hostility from fellow Marines who did not understand or appreciate their work. Even more important, they also preserved the Constitution’s provision of civilian oversight of the military.
The post-World War II demobilization and drawdown was a traumatic period that drastically affected all the military branches. Manpower, weapons and equipment, and budgets were slashed as the United States returned to a peacetime economy. At the same time, a new concept originally proposed during the war was gaining momentum in the halls of government – that of military unification. On the surface, its purpose seemed reasonable, consolidating the different services and the War Department and the Department of the Navy under one administrative roof in the name of efficiency. But coming as it did at a time when all the services, including the newly independent Air Force, were fighting tooth and nail for every dollar in a much-reduced defense budget, it became a handy weapon for rival branches, particularly the Army, to eliminate the Marine Corps.
The movement toward unification actually began during World War II when, in December 1943, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff his concept for a unified Defense Department that spelled out the largest reorganization of the military since Elihu Root’s reorganization of the War Department during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Marshall’s proposal prompted a number of hearings in which an assortment of proposals and plans from both Marshall and the War Department were discussed.
In June 1944, the Select Committee on Postwar Military Policy, chaired by Representative James Wadsworth, issued a report which stated that while wartime was not the proper moment to make changes in the administrative structure of the military, reorganization was necessary and the services should start formulating plans for its implementation following the end of World War II.
Up to now, the unification ball had been in the War Department’s court. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal countered by commissioning investment banker Ferdinand Eberstadt to embark on a study of military reorganization and provide recommendations. Eberstadt spent three months doing his research, and he handed Forrestal a document that was impressively comprehensive. In his book, First to Fight, Krulak wrote that Eberstadt found that “the narrow issue of amalgamation of the military into a single unified department did not address the real problem.” Anticipating the concept of joint operations and the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 by 42 years, Eberstadt stated that the real challenge was in “creating a system that brought together harmoniously all elements of the government involved in national security.” Eberstadt also underscored the need to have civilian checks and balances of the military, which ran counter to Marshall’s and the War Department’s proposals in which different levels of civilian oversight were reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.
In September 1945, with the surrender of Japan, the sword of war was sheathed. One month later, the bureaucratic knives were drawn. Over the next two years, many battles regarding military unification itself and the Marine Corps’ role within the reconstituted Department of Defense would be fought. Leading the defense of the Corps was the Chowder Society. The challenge it faced was starkly clear. Somehow it had to defend the existence of the Marine Corps without appearing parochial. It also had to learn – and fast – the art of political lobbying. The foes arrayed against the Marine Corps were formidable. The heavyweights included President Harry Truman (an Army artillery officer during World War I), Marshall, who had honed his political skills as Army chief of staff during the war and would be named secretary of state and later secretary of defense, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the War Department, and at times even the Department of the Navy.
The public sparrings were literally star-studded affairs, with distinguished generals, admirals, and other officers in full dress uniform speaking before House and Senate committees and subcommittees. There were lobbying efforts with politicians and campaigns to harness public opinion through interviews with the press, magazine articles, and speeches before veterans groups.
The Marine Corps’ isolation and its tenuous position were underscored just after Christmas 1945. Thomas had obtained copies of documents from meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), part of what was later called the series of 1478 JCS papers. In one, the Navy appeared willing to sacrifice the Marine Corps in order to preserve naval aviation. In two others, designated JCS 1478/10 and 1478/11, the attack on the Marine Corps was blunt. Army Air Force Gen. Carl Spaatz called Marine Corps amphibious operations during World War II “patently an incursion” into the roles of both the Army and the Air Force and recommended “that the size of the Marine Corps be limited to small, readily available, and lightly armed units no larger than a regiment.” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight Eisenhower continued the attack, proposing that in the future, the role of the Corps should be “initially bridging the gap between the sailor on the ship and the soldier on the land” – whatever that meant. He amplified Spaatz’s suggestion that Marine units be no larger than a regiment, adding that their ranks should “not be appreciably expanded in time of war.” Tellingly, the documents were marked “Top Secret.” This meant that even though they had access to the papers, the information in them could not be used to defend the Corps. After he read them, Krulak later wrote, “… blunt and brutal though they were, [the documents] proved to be a blessing in disguise, for they removed all doubt of the fate of the Corps as planned by the Army.”
Matters regarding unification and the Marines’ role continued to roil behind the scenes for weeks. They came to a head in the spring of 1946 as the Senate Naval Affairs Committee considered the latest bill on military unification. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift was scheduled to testify before the Committee on May 10, 1946. Twining and Krulak prepared for the commandant a tough speech that would spell out in no uncertain terms what the pending legislation meant – not just for the Corps but also for civilian control and oversight of the military. Facing the committee, Vandegrift, a Medal of Honor recipient, stated that the proposed legislation was flawed and was based on “the War Department General Staff theory that the complexities of modern warfare justify an extension of political-military control into fields of government which are essentially civilian in character.” After expanding on that point, noting at how Congress’ prerogatives over the military would be reduced, he then addressed the parts that related to the Marine Corps, stating, “This bill [S. 2044] gives the War Department a free hand in accomplishing its expressed desire to reduce the Marine Corps to a position of military insignificance.” After recounting the service to the nation the Corps had performed, the general began his conclusion. Instead of having a department in the executive branch arbitrarily decide its fate, he said, “The Marine Corps thus believes it has earned this right – to have its future decided by the legislative body which created it – nothing more.” He followed this up by stating, “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If a Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years, he must go. But I think you will agree with me that he has earned the right to depart with dignity and honor, not by subjugation to the status of uselessness and servility planned for him by the War Department.”
Vandegrift’s “bended knee” speech, as it came to be known, succeeded in alerting legislators. As the bills were re-examined and their implications were discussed, the tide of opinion both in Congress and the general public rallied around the Corps. By mid-July 1946, the War Department’s merger plan was dead.
An important battle was won. But the legislative war was far from over. That became obvious when Vandegrift was summoned to President Harry Truman’s office. Though the Chowder Society did not learn the details of what was said, the result spoke volumes. Vandegrift had been muzzled and would no longer lead the Corps in the public debate.
A new round of meetings to resolve the merger differences were begun in the fall of 1946. The trio of Army Gen. Lauris Norstad, Adm. Forrest Sherman, and presidential emissary Clark Clifford was tasked with working out a compromise that could be presented to Secretary of War Robert Patterson and Forrestal. Though the Chowder Society was able to monitor the talks and glean details, once again, the Marine Corps was denied representation in a process that would, amongst other things, decide its fate.
A deal agreeable to the two secretaries was worked out around Christmas 1946. An official letter endorsed by Secretaries Patterson and Forrestal was sent to the White House on Jan. 16, 1947. The following day, Thomas summoned Twining and Krulak to his office and showed them a copy of the letter. The general said neither he nor Vandegrift had advance knowledge of its contents. The letter confirmed their worst fears. It was a masterpiece of bureaucratic double-speak, with some parts that delineated lines of civilian and military authority open to a wide range of interpretation. Also, as Krulak later wrote, “the joint letter declared that the roles and missions of the several armed services should be prescribed by an Executive Order, leaving to the discretion of the president or the secretary of defense what any service might be called on to do.” If the agreed-upon letter was turned into legislation and passed into law, in effect, the president of the United States would have the sole authority to, as Edson later said, “eliminate the effectiveness of the Marine Corps by the stroke of a pen.”
And therein was the crux of the problem. Unless the Chowder Society could find a way to have the role of the Marine Corps codified in law, the existence of the service would always be at the mercy and whim of an unsympathetic or hostile chief executive influenced by a politically ascendant rival service. The only solution to this problem was to lobby Congress for legislation that would give the Marine Corps the same protection under law held by the Army, Navy, and the Air Force. It was a daunting challenge, for as one member of the Chowder Society ruefully observed, the Corps “did not have a single influential Congressman or Senator who could be contacted on a personal basis and could be counted on to comply with requests for political action.”
Thomas succeeded in getting permission from Vandegrift to establish a board under Edson that would gather, prepare, and disseminate in an organized fashion information about unification so that legislators and other influential parties were aware of all the facts and implications of the proposed legislation. As part of its strategy, the Chowder Society chose the argument that the legislation was bad for national security. The reasons were many: The legislation did not succeed in its stated role of achieving economy, streamlining, or harmony among the services; it gave the new secretary of defense too much power; and it allowed for broad influence by the military in national political and economic matters. With the help of the Marine Corps Reserve Officers’ Association, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and important allies in the press, the Chowder Society began its lobbying.
Despite their efforts, President Truman submitted to Congress on Feb. 26 a bill that contained almost all of the points in the Jan. 16 letter. The Senate approved the bill on July 9. Anticipating Senate passage, the Chowder Society had focused its lobbying efforts on the House. But momentum was on the side of the War Department and the Army, who had many powerful friends in the House. These legislator allies decided that rather than having the Armed Services Committee hear the unification issue, where they anticipated informed opposition, it would be heard by the Committee on Executive Expenditures, which was chaired by Congressman Clare E. Hoffman of Michigan, an isolationist who had no record of having any interest in military affairs and who did not have any military base in his district. Smart money had it that Hoffman would turn the hearings over to a subcommittee headed by pro-Army Congressman James Wadsworth of New York. But in having the Committee on Executive Expenditures hear the bill, the War Department and Army overplayed their hand. What they did not know was that Hoffman had a long-standing and close acquaintanceship with the father of Chowder Society member Lt. Col. James D. Hittle. A meeting between Hoffman, Hittle, and Twining was arranged. That meeting proved to be the turning point. A quick study, the congressman promptly recognized the real issues contained in the bill and decided that he and the full committee would be responsible for the hearings and debate.
From that point on, the tide began to turn in favor of the Corps. Hoffman proved to be a brilliant, conscientious, and tenacious legislator who, during the hearings, made himself an expert on the subject before him. Pro-Army witnesses, including Eisenhower, were thrown on the defensive by his incisive questions and his savvy use of the JCS 1478 Papers that he succeeded in obtaining. Hoffman introduced amendments to the bill designed to limit the powers of the secretary of defense and to protect the Marine Corps.
With the tide swinging against the bill, and aware of the lobbying by the members of Edson’s board, the dissatisfied president ordered Vandegrift to “get those lieutenant colonels off the Hill and keep them off.” President Truman’s gag order only rallied support in the House for the Marines. Even more important was testimony provided by Edson, who sacrificed his career in order to do so. Edson had submitted his retirement request to Vandegrift earlier in the year prior to a previous testimony before Congress, but had been turned down. This time, Vandegrift accepted Edson’s retirement. The day he appeared before Hoffman’s committee, Edson was a civilian who officially only represented himself and was free to speak his mind. Because he was intimately involved in all the Chowder Society’s efforts, he was well versed in the details of the bill and its many faults. In calm, measured tones, he proceeded to deliver a devastating chapter-and-verse indictment of it. Among his points was the condemnation of a piece of legislation that would place a third of the national budget under the control of the secretary of defense, who was only advised by his military subordinates and whose charter permitted almost unlimited expansion.
Other witnesses were to follow, but by that time Hoffman had redrafted the bill, effectively writing a whole new piece of legislation. A follow-up House-Senate conference adopted Hoffman’s bill, which was then passed on to President Truman for signature. On July 25, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act into law.
The existence of the Marine Corps was written into law. Its mission accomplished, the loose-knit Chowder Society “disbanded.”
Near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, there is a monument to the Marine Corps sacrifice in battle – the Marine Corps’ World War II monument that turned into bronze Joseph Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the second flag-raising at Iwo Jima. There is no monument of stone or metal commemorating the Chowder Society’s struggle and success. Instead, there is a living one – the United States Marine Corps.