Beginning in the 1820s and continuing into the early twentieth century, the Army had a Commanding General who theoretically headed the line but did not in fact or law command the Army. There was no direct, vertical, integrated chain of command. The administrative, technical, and supply bureau chiefs in Washington, claiming the authority of the Secretary of War, dealt directly with their own officers in the field at all levels of command. Secretaries in the late nineteenth century, seeing the Commanding General as a rival for power and seeking to exercise their statutory control of the War Department's fiscal affairs, generally allied themselves with the bureau chiefs. In the absence of any retirement system, the bureau chiefs enjoyed virtual lifetime appointments, thereby greatly limiting the actual influence of Secretaries who came and went every few years. Real power lay in a congressional-bureau alliance that produced a geographical pattern of Army expenditures little related to any national conception of military policy. Lacking an effective internal mechanism for coordination, the War Department suffered from overlapping and conflicting functions among the largely autonomous bureaus.
Significant problems arose in the bureaus' conduct of transportation, supply, and medical affairs in the Spanish-American War in 1898. A postwar presidential investigative commission recommended a rationalization of War Department operations, particularly consolidation of supply bureau functions. Victory in the war actually accentuated the need to transform the Army, as the service took on a new and important duty in the governing of the Philippine Islands, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, all acquired from Spain. A Filipino rebellion against American rule, particularly, showed the need to shape the Army into a more effective, coordinated force.
Secretary of War Elihu Root, who took office in August 1899, accepted the challenge. Taking the counsel of officers who sought reform, he stressed to Congress that a modern army must be able both to plan efficiently for future operations and to exert executive control over current ones. He proposed that authority for direction of the operations of both the line and the bureaus run unequivocally from the President to the Secretary. Subordinate to the Secretary would be a Chief of Staff, in place of the Commanding General. Serving as the principal military adviser to the Secretary and the President, the Chief of Staff would exercise the Secretary's supervisory authority over the entire Army (although how this would work in practice was not wholly clear). To assist the new uniformed head, a General Staff would make plans and ensure that they were carried out. General Staff officers would be detailed for specified periods of service from both line and bureaus, to prevent unhealthy entrenchment. Quartermaster, subsistence, and pay functions would be consolidated in one bureau, and there would be a single transportation department. For all of this, Root needed congressional approval.
He achieved some initial success in the Army Reorganization Act of February 1901. Besides providing for an enlarged permanent Army, the act mandated that billets in some War Department bureaus be filled by line officers on detail for no longer than four years. Although incumbent bureau officers were not affected (this provision enabled the act's passage), Root's ultimate goal was to abolish tenure in the affected bureaus and thus reduce their power significantly. One problematic aspect of this goal was that it did not sufficiently take into account the increasing need for technical expertise in the twentieth-century Army. Balancing the requirement for such expertise against the need to subordinate the bureaus to effective command authority was a dilemma that would persist well beyond the era of the Root reforms.
To move toward his envisioned General Staff while he worked at persuading Congress, Root in November 1901 authorized the establishment of a War College Board. Activated in July 1902, the board, although ostensibly designed only to develop the Army's educational system and study military policy, at least partially filled the planning vacuum in the absence of a General Staff. Root's diligent campaign for congressional action finally came to fruition in the General Staff Act of 14 February 1903, which created the position of Chief of Staff and established a General Staff Corps of forty-four officers who would serve on four-year details. As is often true for proponents of significant legislation, the Secretary did not achieve total success. Congress rejected the consolidation of supply bureau functions. But when Lt. Gen. Samuel B. M. Young became the first Chief of Staff on 15 August 1903, it marked the beginning of a modern command structure for the Army. T ransformation to the efficient, coordinated fighting force of Root's vision did not follow immediately or easily. Large organizations -- including the 1903 Army of 69,595 men -- do not accomplish change effortlessly. Officers of the General Staff in its early years had to pioneer and define its functions by performing them. Continuing conflict among the bureaus involved the General Staff in administrative details in aid of the Chief of Staff's supervision.
Although this involvement reduced the time available for planning, the staff did manage some notable achievements, such as preparing the Field Service Regulations of 1905, 1910, and 1914; making the plan for an expeditionary force sent to Cuba in 1906; coordinating relief after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906; drawing up the war plans that served as the basis for President Woodrow Wilson's decision to move the main U.S. base in the Pacific from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii; and coordinating the mobilization of the 2d Division on the Mexican border in 1913 and the mobilization and movement of National Guard units to the border in 1916. Contributing to these accomplishments was the Army War College, which, from its formal establishment in 1903, served as an unofficial part of the planning apparatus of the General Staff.
What the staff was able to achieve before the U.S. entry into World War I came in the face of numerous, persistent difficulties. Not all of Root's successors as Secretary shared his determination to transform the Army. Only a minority of the Chiefs of Staff pushed for that goal. Opposition to the General Staff was sharp among the bureau chiefs, especially the Adjutant General. Influential congressmen remained protective of their traditional connections with the bureau chiefs and extremely wary of the General Staff. No training for General Staff duty existed.
The first of these troubles was relieved with the accession of Henry L. Stimson, Root's law partner, as Secretary of War in 1911. Stimson supported the Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood (1910-14), who sought to build on the advances of his predecessor, Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell (1906-10). Bell had reorganized the General Staff to place greater emphasis on intelligence gathering and strategic planning. He had also broached the desirability of increasing the General Staff's power over the War Department's administrative bureaus. Wood elaborated and strengthened Bell's reorganization and joined with Stimson in an effort to shift some of the considerable power of the Adjutant General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Fred C. Ainsworth, to the Chief of Staff and the General Staff. After a bitter bureaucratic struggle, Ainsworth retired. Wood's and Stimson's victory seemed to settle any question of the Chief of Staff's authority over the various War Department bureaus.
Ainsworth and the forces that he represented, however, were not done contending. The former Adjutant General worked with congressional allies to obtain legislation in 1912 that reduced the number of General Staff officers to thirty-six and tightened restrictions on detached service by line officers, making it more difficult for them to serve on the General Staff. In 1916 the National Defense Act increased General Staff billets to fifty-four but limited the number that could serve in Washington; transferred some General Staff functions to the bureaus; gave the offices of the chiefs of bureaus statutory protection; and confined the General Staff's jurisdiction to nonadministrative matters -- an attempt to free the bureaus of effective General Staff supervision. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, however, interpreted the jurisdictional restriction as applying only to administrative details within each bureau; he found that the act reaffirmed the intention of the General Staff Act of 1903 that the Chief of Staff supervise the bureaus, and he declared that the War Department's policy in that regard would not change. The National Defense Act had weakened the General Staff in significant respects, yet Baker's decision was an important milestone in the staff's continuing struggle to assert its authority.
Elihu Root's vision for command of the Army had not been fully realized by the time that World War I came in April 1917. The Chief of Staff and the General Staff still lacked the power required for effective executive control. Nevertheless, a vastly expanded staff would help to successfully prosecute World War I -- and wars beyond -- because of the foundation that Secretary Root, in his foresight, had laid.
– US Army Center of Military History