Homeland Security and Security at Home

News at Home

Mr. Wagner is Assistant Professor of History at Missouri Southern State College. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1999.

When President George W. Bush proposed that Congress create a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security during his television address on the evening of June 6, 2002, he called it"The most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s." The news media picked up on this aspect of the proposal and made it a central element of their coverage. The President was referring to the National Security Act of 1947, and its subsequent amendments, which subordinated the command structures of the United States Army, Navy, and newly created Air Force to a cabinet-level Department of Defense. The act also created the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. Together these institutions provided the framework future presidents used to wage the Cold War.

Only time will tell whether or not the creation of a Department of Homeland Security will have as significant an impact on United States history as the National Security Act of 1947, but the comparison should encourage historians to revisit other changes in executive branch organization. Doing so will alert us to what we might expect as the current proposal works its way through Congress, and allow us to reflect on the importance of previous changes. One government shake up that is often overlooked is President Eisenhower's creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). The HEW gave cabinet-level status to the social welfare state created by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and was, therefore, as important for post-war domestic policy as the Department of Defense was for foreign policy.

Restructuring the United States defense establishment was only part of President Truman's ambitious plan to reorganize the executive branch. In 1947, President Truman appointed a panel, headed by former President Herbert Hoover, to suggest methods of increasing the efficiency of the federal bureaucracy. The recommendations of this panel went largely unfulfilled due to Truman's poor relationship with Congress. Federal waste and mismanagement, however, were key issues during the 1952 campaign and Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower promised to reexamine the Hoover Commission reports and make recommendations for government reorganization where necessary.1

At Eisenhower's request, Nelson A. Rockefeller, who had served under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, began work on government reorganization. Rockefeller personally financed a study undertaken by Temple University, whose president, Robert L. Johnson, had been chairman of the Citizen's Committee on the Hoover Commission. After Eisenhower's election victory, he made Rockefeller's role official, appointing him chairman of the new Special Committee on Government Organization (SCGO). The other members of the committee were the President's brother Milton Eisenhower, president of Pennsylvania State University, and Arthur Flemming, president of Ohio Wesleyan University and former director of the Office of Defense Mobilization. The SCGO had a broad mandate to study and recommend changes in the organization and activities of the executive branch to promote economy and efficiency. The starting point for the SCGO's studies were the reports produced by the Hoover Commission and Temple University, but Eisenhower's belief in pursing a"middle way" served as the blueprint for their recommendations.2"We have been guided by your own expressed determination to avoid any actions which tend to make people ever more dependent upon the government and yet to make certain that the human side of our national problems is not forgotten," noted the committee's report.3

The first of more than 120 recommendations made by the SCGO was for the creation of a new Department of Health, Education and Social Security, headed by a cabinet officer, to absorb the functions of the present Federal Security Agency (FSA). The FSA, created by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, had 38,000 employees representing the Social Security System, the Food and Drug Administration, the Public Health Service, and the Office of Education, and controlled a budget of $4.6 billion but lacked the status of a cabinet department. The creation of this new department, the committee believed, would be"an important milestone on the road to social progress," making clear that the Republican party recognized that the government responsibilities embodied by the FSA were permanent, providing"an excellent example of the beneficial functioning of our two-party system."4 Eisenhower accepted the recommendation, and on March 12, 1953 delivered a special message to Congress recommending the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).5

Although Republicans had opposed Truman's attempts to elevate the FSA to cabinet status in 1949 and 1950, there was very little opposition from either party to the creation of HEW. Previous opposition had been caused largely by the fear that elevating the FSA to department status would increase the power of FSA administrator Oscar Ewing, a strong backer of compulsory national health insurance, therefore helping the Truman Administration to advance this plan. Republicans had also opposed including health and education matters in an agency oriented toward welfare, subjecting them to bureaucratic control.

Besides the fact that they no longer had to be concerned with Oscar Ewing becoming secretary, Republican opposition to a new cabinet level department was eliminated in a number of other ways. The HEW plan did not place all of the department's powers in the hands of the secretary. The functions of the Public Health Service and the Office of Education remained in those agencies, which were subordinate divisions of the new department; the secretary would have only supervisory control. The plan also called for the creation of a Special Assistant to the Secretary for Health and Medical Affairs, to be appointed by the president from outside of government. The secretary had the authority to administer Social Security and welfare programs but the president would also appoint a commissioner of Social Security to assist with these matters.6

Although Republican congressmen acquiesced in the creation of HEW, they did not intend to permit it to preside over a permanent welfare state. Rather, they were admitting that Social Security, the Food and Drug Administration and other components of the HEW family were an accepted and popular part of American society. Only the most conservative Republicans favored their elimination.

Eisenhower signed the new department into law April 11, 1953. HEW consisted of: Social Security, a $17 billion trust for almost 70 million Americans disbursing $4 billion a year; the Public Health Service, including the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health; the Office of Education; the Food and Drug Administration; the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation; the Children's Bureau; the American Printing House for the Blind; Columbia Institute for the Deaf; and St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Mentally Ill.

Oveta Culp Hobby became HEW's first secretary. Hobby was a registered Democrat from Texas, but she had backed Eisenhower against his more conservative Republican challenger Robert Taft, and endorsed him for president on the front page of her newspaper the Houston Post. She represented the many southern Democrats who had crossed over to vote for Eisenhower. Although this was an astute political appointment, Eisenhower had concerns about Hobby's ability to handle the job and believed that she would need a very able assistant.7 Nelson Rockefeller was thus offered the job of undersecretary. Rockefeller's family advisors recommended that he turn down the offer. They believed Rockefeller's interests would not be served by accepting the number two position in an upstart department so far removed from his primary interest of foreign affairs. Rockefeller, however, rejected this advice, claiming the realm of Health, Education and Welfare to be something he had been interested in all his life. Furthermore, he felt obligated to the new department he had helped to create."I'm responsible for creating this baby," he said,"I have a responsibility for seeing to it that it succeeds."8 Rockefeller believed that it was important for the Republican Party, which was so often associated with preserving the status quo, to get HEW off to a good start. He believed it was necessary to show that domestic programs from the New Deal era, such as Social Security, would not only be retained, but improved upon by the Republican Party."A Republican administration couldn't be seen to be trying to turn back the clock," he later recalled.9

Based on his campaign statements, Eisenhower agreed with Rockefeller."I believe that the social gains achieved by the people of the United States, whether they were enacted by a Republican or a Democratic administration, are not only here to stay but are to be improved and expanded," Eisenhower had noted during an October campaign stop,"Anyone who says it is my purpose to cut down Social Security, unemployment insurance, to leave the ill and aged destitute, is lying."10 President Eisenhower later echoed these sentiments in a letter to his more conservative brother Edgar."Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."11

The creation of the Department of Defense may offer the most obvious comparison to the current proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security. The creation of HEW, however, also has some interesting parallels. President Bush will find, as Eisenhower did, that some of his opponents are fellow Republicans who instinctively oppose the expansion of government bureaucracy. He will also encounter opposition, as Eisenhower did, from the congressional friends of the agencies and bureaus that he proposes be subsumed by the new department, perhaps to the detriment of the their prestige. Like Eisenhower, President Bush will likely find that if he is willing to compromise, and chooses the right man or woman to head the new department, that his enormous popularity will carry this proposal through. If the"War on Terrorism" comes to define this period of American history in the same way that the Cold War and Welfare Capitalism did the previous period, then the creation of a Department of Homeland Security may well be the momentous event that the Bush administration claims it to be.

1"Summary of Policy Statements Made by General Eisenhower; As Excerpted from Major Speeches Carried by the New York Times and Other Papers from June until November 4th [1952]," Volume 5, Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), Washington, D.C. Files, Record Group (RG) 4, Nelson A. Rockefeller (NAR) Personal, Rockefeller Archive Center, North Tarrytown, New York (RAC).
2 Steven Wagner,"Pursuing the 'Middle Way': Eisenhower Republicanism, 1952-1964" (Ph.D. diss., Purdue University, 1999).
3 President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization (PACGO), Volume 67, Washington D.C. Files, RG 4, NAR Personal, RAC. The committee, when first created by President-Elect Eisenhower in November 1952, was known as the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization. Executive Order 10432 on January 24, 1953 formalized the committee's status, making it the Special Committee on Government Organization (SCGO). It was later known as the Reorganization Advisory Committee (REAC).
4 Letter to President Eisenhower March 5, 1953, Folder 439, Box 49, REAC, Washington, D.C. Files, RG 4, NAR Personal, RAC.
5"Special Message to the Congress Transmitting Reorganization Plan I of 1953 Creating the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, March 12, 1953," Public Papers of the Presidents (PPP) 1953 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958-61), 28.
6 Congress and the Nation, 1945-1964: A Review of Government and Politics in the Postwar Years (Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Service, 1965), 1248.
7 Eisenhower's secretary, Ann Whitman later recalled that"After Mrs. Hobby's appointment, the President expressed concern that she is nearing the end of her rope, and definitely needs a good assistant." February 24, 1955, February 1955 (1), Box 4, Ann Whitman Diary Series, DDE Papers as President, DDEL. Labor leader George Meany concurred:"Nelson Rockefeller was running the Health, Education and Welfare Department, not Mrs. Hobby. She was the Secretary, he was the Undersecretary, but she wasn't with it at all. . . . she just sat back and let Nelson run the show," quoted in Archie Robinson, George Meany and his Times: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981) 208.
8 Quoted in Cary Reich, The Life of Nelson Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer, 1908-1958 (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 511.
9 Quoted in Reich, The Life of Nelson Rockefeller, 526; see also Joe Alex Morris, Nelson Rockefeller: A Biography, (New York: Harper, 1960), 289.
10New York Times, October 21, 1952, 24.
11 President Eisenhower to Edgar Eisenhower, November 8, 1954, Ibid.

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