When General James Mattis was sworn in as secretary of defense on January 20th, he became the second person in history to receive a congressionally approved exemption to serve in this post. The first was General George C. Marshall who served as secretary of defense under President Truman from September 1950 to September 1951. Although Marshall and Mattis share this unusual distinction, their situations for needing a waiver and their subsequent confirmations had some notable differences.
The National Security Act of 1947 brought all the military and intelligence services of the United States government under the control of the secretary of defense. To ensure civilian control of the military, a provision stipulating that no individual who served on active duty in the military in the last 10 years (reduced to seven years in 2008) could serve as secretary of defense was included.
As a five-star general Marshall remained on active duty until his death, so he required an exemption because he was still considered on active duty when President Truman nominated him. Many representatives expressed concern that the nomination of a military officer only a few years after the passage of the National Security Act would set a bad precedent for future appointments. The addition of a stipulation that the waiver would only apply to General Marshall resulted in its approval in the House of Representatives by a vote of 220-105.
General Mattis, who achieved the rank of four-star general and retired from active duty in 2013 after 44 years of service with the Marine Corps, needed an exemption because he had not yet met the requirement of being retired for seven years. The waiver for General Mattis passed by a similar margin in the House of Representatives: 268-151.
When the vote on General Marshall’s waiver moved to the Senate, the process became much more contentious. While the waiver was being debated, Senator William Jenner of Indiana launched a personal attack against Marshall calling him, “an errand boy, a front man, a stooge or a conspirator for this Administration’s crazy assortment of collectivist cutthroat crackpots and Communist fellow-travelling appeasers.” Jenner’s efforts to undermine Marshall’s character and qualifications were ineffective as the Senate passed the waiver by a vote of 47-21; the vote to approve the waiver for General Mattis passed with considerably more favorable votes 87-17.
During Marshall’s 55-minute confirmation hearing, he faced Jenner’s questions (even though Jenner was not a committee member) ranging from why he had signed the lend-lease agreement with Russia during the war to why he accepted President Truman’s mission to China and his whereabouts prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee voted 9-2 to recommend Marshall’s confirmation. When the vote on Marshall’s confirmation went before the entire Senate the following day, it passed by a vote of 57-11. General Mattis experienced a much smoother Senate confirmation and was approved by a vote of 98-1.
More information about General Marshall’s appointment as Secretary of Defense can be found in volume 7 of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall.