Tracing the Genesis of the Swamp

Much has been made of the Washington, D.C. "swamp" over the last four years.  The vast apparatus of power that is now consecrated in the federal government is certainly immense and a far cry from what the Founders envisioned.  It contains programs and agencies that work for both domestic and foreign goals.

The question of how the swamp came to be has no one particular answer.  Some can be laid at the feet of the 20th-century Progressives during the Roosevelt-Wilson era.  Other expansions of power originated with the New Deal.  Certainly, the last quarter-century has seen its fair share of new agencies, policies, and expansions of government.  However, one particular moment deserves its own focused attention if we are to truly understand the vast apparatus that is the swamp and the rationale for its creation from a national defense perspective: the National Security Act of 1947.

It was post-WW2.  The United States under President Truman had challenging questions to deal with: how do we move forward in a postwar world?  How do we deal with the Soviet threat?  What should the role of government and the military be in a rapidly technologically changing world?  To help deal with these troubles, the National Security Act of 1947 thrust into existence the National Security Council, the CIA, and with the first secretary of defense (among other positions, departments, etc.) as various agencies were morphed, merged, and created anew.  In thinking about national security, the CIA itself was divided into two camps — one led by Richard Helms, who wanted the agency to be a purely information-gathering service, and the other led by Frank Wisner, who wanted covert actions to be used to alter political events to our favor (Weiner, p. 11).  Eventually, it would become both.  The information-gathering, in theory, would help the U.S. no longer be blind to world events or reliant upon the British to gather intel, thus allowing the NSC to formulate strategic and tactical planning, and the remodeled Defense Department would be better equipped to implement those plans.

There were a few reasons why President Truman would approve of this design.  First, the advent of the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan the following year, led America into a much more interventionist foreign policy.  By utilizing economic and military resources to aid other nations against the Soviets, Truman and his cohort believed they could contain the Soviet threat.  The National Security Act of 1947 would go a long way in providing the framework to implement those designs.  Secondly, the U.S. would have felt itself in an economic position to fund these programs.  A solid internal industry, growing technology, and being a creditor nation certainly on the surface would justify that optimism.  Finally, especially on the intelligence front, Americans felt that it was imperative that they be independent.  This proved prescient, as historian M. Stanton Evans revealed in his seminal work on communist influence and infiltration in U.S. institutions both before, during, and after the war (Evans 2007).  While the National Security Act did increase the size, scope, and power of the government, that power was meant to be used as a defense against what was considered an existential threat.

Fast-forward over a half-century.  While the Soviet threat no longer remains, its ideology has permeated American universities, news rooms, and even state and federal legislatures.  We are now a nation of debt and bailouts, with immense welfare liabilities that cannot continue to fund everything it used to.  Yet the cyber-world has opened an entirely new arena for national defense that requires high levels of training and investment.  The actual apparatus created in 1947 has expanded into countless competing agencies that requires an ever increasing budget to keep up with such demands.  Still, other concerns have been raised as unintended consequences continue to emerge.  The old adage of "power corrupts" has been present with the bureaucratic creations of the National Security Act of 1947, and growing concern over this point has certainly reached a new peak in 2020.  However, it has been present since the passing of the 1947 Act.  For example, in his history of the CIA, author Tim Weiner notes:

The CIA Act was rammed through Congress on May 27th, 1949. With its passage, Congress gave the agency the widest conceivable powers. It became fashionable a generation later to condemn America's spies for crimes against the Constitution. But between the twenty five years between the passage of the CIA Act and the awakening of the watchdog spirit of Congress, the CIA was barred only from behaving like a secret police inside the United States. The act gave the agency the ability to do almost anything it wanted, as long as Congress provided the money in an annual package. Approval of the secret budget by a small armed services committee was understood by those in the know to constitute a legal authorization for all secret operations. (pp. 45-46)

These words are no doubt concerning to those who fear improper collusion of elected officials with agencies or councils designed to keep us informed and safe.  Certainly, 20th-century history shows us that domestic abuses occurred to tragic effect in places like the Soviet Union and Germany.  Yet it cannot be denied that the powers granted in the National Security Act of 1947 could be invaluable in protecting the nation if utilized properly and kept within our constitutional framework.

Where does this leave us?  In Colonel David Hackworth's critique of the post-WW2 army, he called for major reform that started with an emphasis on valuing moral courage, practical education that related to the actual profession of soldiering, and an end to ticket-punching nepotism in favor of meritorious promotion of actual intellects and warriors (Hackworth, 1989).  A similar framework could undoubtedly do wonders for the offspring of the National Security Act of 1947, but if that framework is truly to be successful, it must be enacted by an American people who have followed it themselves.


Evans, M. Stanton. Blacklisted By History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy. Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Hackworth, Col. David. About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior. Touchstone, 1989.

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Anchor Books, 2008.