The Council of National Defense: Now a Little Known or Appreciated World War I Federal Agency

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Among the wonderful sources at the National Archives for the study of World War I are the records of the Council of National Defense (Record Group 62). This Council touched the lives of every American, whether they realized it or not. The records, contained within one thousand boxes, provide a wealth of information about gearing up for war and about the home front during the war, particularly efforts for the mobilization of industries, resources, and the people of the United States for the effective conduct of the war.

The Council of National Defense was established by section 2 of the Army Appropriation Act of August 29, 1916 (39 Stat. 649), to coordinate industries and resources for the national security and welfare. The Council was to investigate and make recommendations regarding the availability, production, and increase of war supplies and transportation. It was the first of the large emergency Government agencies of World War I and became, in turn, the parent organization of most of the other special war agencies. The Council and an Advisory Commission, to be nominated later, were headed by a Chairman, and the administrative duties were exercised by a Director and a secretary.

The Council consisted of six Cabinet members: the Secretaries of Agriculture— David F. Houston, 1916-20, and Edwin T. Meredith, 1920-21; Commerce— William C. Redfield, 1916-19, and Joshua W. Alexander, 1919-21; the Interior— Franklin K. Lane, 1916-20, and John Barton Payne, 1920-21; Labor— William B. Wilson, 1916-21; the Navy— Josephus Daniels, 1916-21; and War— Newton Baker, 1916-21.  Secretary of War Baker was Chairman of the Council.

The Council had its first meeting on December 6, 1916.[1] The Council nominated to the President for appointment to an Advisory Commission seven persons, “each of whom shall have special knowledge of some industry, public utility, or the development of some natural resource, or be otherwise specifically qualified.” The Advisory Commission was to advise and assist the Council in the execution of its functions and to create relations that would render possible the immediate concentration and utilization of the resources of the Nation. The seven members of the Advisory Commission, appointed by the President on October 11, 1916, were Bernard Baruch, financier; Howard E. Coffin, vice president of the Hudson Motor Co.; Hollis Godfrey, president of the Drexel Institute; Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor; Franklin H. Martin, secretary-general of the American College of Surgeons; Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co.; and Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The Advisory Commission had its first meeting on December 6, 1916, and Godfrey served as Chairman of the Advisory Commission until March 3, 1917, when he was replaced by Willard.

Walter S. Gifford, chief statistician of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., served as temporary Director from December 7, 1916, to March 3, 1917, becoming permanent Director on the latter date. Gifford was succeeded in October 1918 by Grosvenor B. Clarkson, who was followed by Herbert N. Shenton in March 1920 and by Emmons K. Ellsworth who served from November 1920 until June 1921. Baruch served as secretary pro tempore of the Council and the Advisory Commission for the first two meetings on December 6 and 7, 1916, until he was succeeded by D. Dana Bartlett on December 16, 1916, who served as temporary secretary until Clarkson became permanent secretary on March 3, 1917. Upon Clarkson’s appointment as Director, in October 1918, the position of secretary was abolished and the Director assumed its duties. Gifford, Clarkson, and Advisory Commission member Coffin had served together in 1916 as secretary, assistant to the Chairman, and Chairman, respectively, of the U.S. Naval Consulting Board’s Committee on Production, Organization, Manufacturing, and Standardization. This body, which was better known as the Committee on Initial Preparedness, not only served as a model for the Council of National Defense but, on the Committee’s termination during the winter of 1916-17, provided many of its personnel to committees created by the Council and Advisory Commission.

Council of National Defense and Advisory Commission. Seated left to right, Secy. David F. Houston, (Agriculture) Secy. Josephus Daniels (Navy) Secy. Newton d. Baker, (War) Secy. Franklin K. Lane (Interior) Secy. Wm. B. Wilson (Labor), Standing: Grosvenor B. Clarkson, Secy, Julius Rosenwald, Bernard N. Baruch, Daniel Willard, Dr. F.H. Martin, Dr. Hollis Godfrey, Howard E. Coffin and W. S. Gifford, Director. (NAID 26432759)

After the Council and Advisory Commission had held several meetings, including joint sessions, during December 1916 and one in January 1917, the Advisory Commission decided in February to organize its work into seven committees, each to be headed by a member of the Commission as follows: Baruch— raw materials, metals, and minerals; Coffin— munitions, manufacturing, and industrial relations; Godfrey— engineering and education; Gompers— labor; Martin— medicine and sanitation; Rosenwald— supplies; and Willard— transportation and communications. These committees, in turn, established subcommittees in their fields. The Council in conjunction with the Advisory Commission also established subordinate units, most notably the Munitions Standards Board in February 1917, the General Munitions Board in April 1917, the Woman’s Committee (headed by Anna Howard Shaw and Ida M. Tarbell)[2] in May 1917, and the War Industries Board in July 1917.

When it appeared the United States would soon enter the war, the creation of these subordinate bodies by the Council and Advisory Commission and the creation of emergency units by governmental agencies resulted in much overlapping of responsibility and duplication of effort. In an attempt to stop the overlapping and duplication and to keep the executive agencies that were engaged in national defense in closer touch with one another, the Council established the Interdepartmental Advisory Committee on March 29, 1917, and its first meeting was held on the same day. The new Committee was composed of one representative from each of the 10 executive departments, a representative of the National Research Council, and the assistant to the Director of the Council of National Defense and the Advisory Commission, who was in charge of cooperation with the States. The Chairman of the Council acted as Chairman of the Committee. The Committee met twice a week until November 2, 1917, when it was adjourned, subject to the recall of the Chairman. It was never recalled.

The exigencies of wartime economic mobilization demanded not only cooperation among Federal agencies, which the Interdepartmental Advisory Committee could suggest but was powerless to enforce, but also direct coordination of the war effort, which the Council, Commission, and Committee lacked the power to provide. Council members were too involved in coordinating the activities of their executive departments and Advisory Commission members were too involved in their committee activities to provide direct coordination. Because the Committee was not empowered to act as a coordinating body, the Council, on November 27, 1917, created the Joint Weekly Conference “to coordinate all the war activities of the Government.” The Conference was composed of all Council members and Chairman of the War Industries Board Daniel Willard (later Baruch), Chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board Edward N. Hurley, Food Administrator Herbert Hoover, Fuel Administrator Harry A. Garfield, and the Director of the Council and the Advisory Commission Walter Gifford. They met twice weekly from December 3, 1917, to April 15, 1918.

By the spring of 1918, the President’s War Cabinet (the Chairmen of the War Trade Board, the War Industries Board, and the U.S. Shipping Board; the Fuel Administrator; the Food Administrator; and Director General of Railroads) had assumed most of the coordinating functions of the Joint Weekly Conference, the Council, and the Advisory Commission. The War Industries Board had been created by the Council on July 28, 1917, to “act as a clearing house for the war industry needs of the Government, [to] determine the most effective ways of meeting them and the best means and methods of increasing production.” Subordinate bodies of the Council and Advisory Commission whose work related to the duties of the War Industries Board were directed to cooperate with it. Many of these bodies eventually were absorbed by the Board, particularly after Baruch became its Chairman in March 1918. At Baruch’s insistence, the President made the Board a more effective coordinating and policymaking body, and on May 28, 1918, it was made an independent agency.

The growth of the War Industries Board and the adjustment and expansion of the regular executive agencies to meet wartime conditions lessened the authority and responsibility of the Council and Advisory Commission. This, in turn, reduced the number and scope of their subordinate organizations. The Council, nevertheless, remained a vital organization, coordinating the work of approximately 164,000 State and local defense councils and 18,000 State and local women’s committees. Another important area in which the Council became concerned and involved, as early as May 1918, was the planning for reconstruction of the economy and postwar adjustment. In June 1918 the President designated the Council “as the agency to coordinate studies of reconstruction problems and to suggest methods of procedure in connection therewith.”

Originally established during peacetime and expecting to continue after the war, the Council envisioned itself as the proper agency for centralizing, preserving, and studying the industrial and economic records accumulated by the Federal Government during the war. It created the Interdepartmental Defense Board on October 27, 1919, to review the administration of the Government’s war program in order to make recommendations for future emergencies, to study the duties and role of the Council, and to prepare a plan of reorganization of the Council. The Interdepartmental Board, as it was called, was composed of one representative from each of the six executive departments represented on the Council plus the Director of the Council and the Advisory Commission, who served as Chairman. Representatives included: Agriculture—Leon M. Estabrook; Commerce— Samuel W. Stratton; Interior— Van H. Manning and later Frederick G. Cottrell; Labor— Royal Meeker and later Ethelbert Stewart; Navy— Rear Adm. William S. Smith; and War— Maj. Gen. George W. Burr and later Maj. Gen. William M. Wright.  The Interdepartmental Board’s first meeting was held November 10, 1918; its last, October 29, 1920.

Despite opposing arguments presented by the Interdepartmental Defense Board and the Council, the task of developing plans for industrial mobilization, which consisted of industry converting from civilian production to war production, was taken from the Council by section 5a of the National Defense Act of 1920 (41 Stat. 764) and given to the Assistant Secretary of War. He established, in 1921, the Planning Branch of the War Department to implement the task. The Council ceased functioning on June 30, 1921, because no appropriations were granted to it for the next fiscal year. The Council continued, however, to have a statutory existence, and in May 1940, facing another threat of war, the President revived the Council and appointed a new Advisory Commission. By doing this, he used the Council as the means to institute defense activities and create new agencies deemed necessary for the defense program without offering additional legislation. On January 7, 1941, an administrative order of the President (6 F.R. 192) provided that the activities and agencies of the Advisory Commission, which had absorbed the functions of the Council, should thenceforth be coordinated through the Office for Emergency Management, which was established within the Executive Office of the President. The last meeting of the Advisory Commission was on October 22, 1941.

The World War I era records of the Council of National Defense and the Advisory Commission, including those of the subordinate committees were transferred to the Planning Branch of the War Department by an Executive order of April 21, 1921. In 1933 the records were transferred to the Army Industrial College and from there to the National Archives in 1937. [3] The records produced in 1940 and 1941 were absorbed mostly by agencies that assumed the functions of the committees created by the 1940 Advisory Commission. Many of these records have since been accessioned by the National Archives, including the Advisory Commission records, which form part of the Records of the Office for Emergency Management, Record Group 214.


[1] National Archives Microfilm Publication M1069 (one roll) contains the indexes to the minutes and the minutes of the meetings of the Council of National Defense, 1916-21; the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense, 1916-18; the Interdepartmental Advisory Committee, 1917; the Joint Weekly Conference, 1917-18; and, the Interdepartmental Defense Board, 1919-20.

[2] National Archives Microfilm Publication M1074 (one roll) contains the minutes of meetings of the Committee on Women’s Defense Work of the Council of National Defense, May 2, 1917-February 12, 1919, and copies of the weekly and monthly reports submitted by that Committee to the Council, May 12, 1917-October 15, 1918.

[3] Wayne Grover, who became the third Archivist of the United States, as a young archivist, arranged and described the records of the Council of National Defense and the War Industries Board. His descriptions were published by the National Archives as its first two Preliminary Inventories. See Greg Bradsher, “Wayne Grover: Shaping the National Archives,” Prologue, vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter 2009).

Images in this post are from the folder: Council of National Defense (NAID 26417715) in the series: American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918; Record Group 165: Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, 1860-1952.

2 thoughts on “The Council of National Defense: Now a Little Known or Appreciated World War I Federal Agency

  1. I have a badge from the Council of National Defense # 1254 Can you offer any information? Thanks, Thomas L Borden

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