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Veterans Memorial Center

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US Military History

A History of the U.S. Military

In many ways, the history of the America’s military is a history of America itself, for it is a projection of America’s political, economic, and institutional issues. U.S. military history is both vast and complex, but its pluralistic military institutions, dual force of professional and citizen soldiers, and commitment to civilian control of the military have been consistent themes. As of 2017, the term “military” encompasses the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, which are all under the command of the Department of Defense. The U.S. president is Commander in Chief of each of these branches and also has authority to assume control of individual state militia or National Guard units. Today, America still stands as the world’s premier military superpower, but it has not always been this way.

Colonial Wars: The Beginning of a Civilian Military 1512-1774

U.S. military history begins when the earliest English settlers arrived in a dangerous New World. In response to not only unfriendly Native American tribes but also raiding European rivals, English settlers began developing a civilian militia in each colony in which the militiamen were required to maintain and provide their own weapons (Millett and Maslowski 1984). Within each colony, civilian authority controlled military matters, thus establishing America’s revered tradition of civilian control of the military. During this time, militia primarily engaged Native Americans in the Pequot War 1637, King Philips War 1675, and the Yamasse War 1715 (Bradford 2003). Though the colonists fought together with the British during the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763), tension between Britain and its colonies soon grew untenable.

Revolutionary War: Establishing the Common Defense 1775-1783

Convinced Great Britain was illegally subverting their liberties, colonists created the Second Continental Congress which then formed the Continental Army. On April 19, 1775, shooting began in Lexington and Concord (Bradford 2003). Initially, the states’ militias and the Continental Army seemed to be embarked on an unequal war against Britain, but Britain underestimated the colonists’ commitment to “natural courage, God, Freedom and posterity” as well as the extent of both Tory and British support (Millett and Maslowski 2003). Britain also misunderstood how difficult it would be to a fight a thinly populated society across vast expanses of territory. Perhaps its greatest shortcoming was its inability to implement an unambiguous strategy early in the war (Millett and Maslowski 2003). American military success was due, in large part, to their unlimited goal of independence and their mobilization of citizen soldiers rather than professionals. The Constitution tried to embody these ideals by balancing a central government that could provide for the “common defense” without usurping states’ rights.

Post-Revolutionary Era: Moving Toward a Nationalized Military 1783-1815

The New Republic had to both survive on a dangerous international stage while at the same time try to reconcile its ideological concerns for liberty with military effectiveness. This task was further complicated when the Continental Army began making demands that reawakened fears of a standing army. In addition, the lack of an institutionalized response to Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87) led leaders to question the nature of their military force (Millett and Maslowski 1984). Eventually, Congress passed the Calling Forth Act and the Uniform Military Act which allowed the national government to create and call out state militias. To the dismay of antinationalists, these acts essentially gave the Federal government concurrent power over both previously autonomous, local state militia as well as a regular national Army.

During this time, the United States fought of series of wars that further tested its military force generally and provided validation of early American naval power specifically. These wars included the Quasi-War (1798-1802), which was an outgrowth of the French Revolution; the Barbary Wars (1791-1815) with North African states; and the War of 1812, which was the first war declared by the U.S. as a sovereign nation. The war, which was a direct result of Britain clashing with America’s national interests, ended in basically a stalemate but helped solidify the U.S. as a nation. In addition, after the War of 1812, political leaders realized that no matter how politicians idealized the citizen-soldier, government regulars provided the most effective line of defense, and military policy further evolved from a common militia as the foundation for national defense to professionalized regulars (Millett and Maslowski 1984). The military, which had previously been involved in Europe’s affairs, consciously tried to avoid further entanglement and assumed a passive defense policy while playing a key role in America’s own domestic development and expansion (Bradford 2004).

U.S. Civil War: The Beginning of Modern Total Warfare 1861-1865

The Civil War began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861, in South Carolina when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. No one knows exactly what caused the war, though thoughtful explanations include moral disagreements regarding slavery, slavery’s expansion into the territories, and states’ rights versus national authority (Millett and Maslowski 1984). Most people at the time thought the war would be brief and romantic; instead, it was the beginning of modern total warfare (Weigley 1975). Though twice as many soldiers died from disease than from battle, the fact of Civil War battles is that technology had outpaced tactics. The Civil War Napoleonic formations based on frontal assaults with bayonets were not suited for more rifled weapons that would blast scores of men into bloody masses. In many respects, the North won by sheer numbers (Millett and Maslowski 1984). Such a large coordination of logistical and strategic matters could not be left to individual states. Massive mobilization required an unprecedented degree of centralized control over military policy, and the country saw the military’s balance of power shift further from the states to the national government. After the war, the military, which now included African-Americans and Native-Americans as permanent soldiers, returned to its traditional missions in support of national policy of expansion.

American Indian Wars: Continental Expansion 1866-1890

These wars--which ranged from the seventeenth-century’s King Philip’s War to the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890--were a result of several complex influences on the U.S. military, including America’s emerging imperialistic impulses, technological military advances, officers’ concerns about their own careers, and social Darwinism (Millett and Maslowski 1984). What these wars did was open the frontier to further colonization and force Native American assimilation. While these wars did not significantly change military policy or doctrine, the military gained experience using guerrilla-style tactics that would aid them in the next century.

Spanish-American War: The Beginning of a Military Superpower 1898

With the diminishing frontier, America began to abandon its “continentalist” policy in favor of more aggressive competition for world trade, and it turned its eye toward Spain. The war began after Spain rejected American demands that Spain resolve the Cuban fight of independence peacefully (Bradford 2003). America eventually won Spain’s remaining overseas territories and, in doing so, acquired a colonial empire. Acquiring vast amounts of land had several important implications for the U.S. military. Aware that its new possessions placed them on an international stage rife with economic and imperialistic competition and that more land also meant more area to defend, the U.S military sought to increase its forces. The next two decades saw unprecedented accelerated military change and development. By WWI, the American Navy battle fleet was second only the British and Germans, and the American Army transitioned from frontier constabulary to a force equipped with air and motor power.

World War I: America’s Debut as a Superpower 1917-1918

America entered WWI reluctantly in 1917, abandoning its official policy of neutrality. Despite pleas from President Woodrow Wilson, German submarines continued to attack U.S. ships carrying aid to Britain, forcing the U.S. to join the war with the objective to “make the world safe for democracy” (Bradford 2003). President Woodrow Wilson successfully framed the first peacetime draft in such terms, reciting ideals such as democracy, freedom, and national self-determinism. In practical terms, however, the military struggled with a new concept of twentieth-century war: the economic implications of national mobilization. The Department of War’s procurement efforts coupled with the government attempts toward centralizing economic regulations overcame initial mobilization challenges. Though the U.S military initially struggled with the economic realities of twentieth century war, it had gone to Europe and successfully fought a massive industrialized war against a nation known for its military strength and expertise and emerged a formidable superpower (Millett and Maslowski 1984).

World War II: Military Golden Age 1939-1945

On December 7, 1941, Japan pushed America into WWII by bombing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Seven days later, Germany declared war on the U.S. and President Franklin D. Roosevelt quickly mobilized the military. In the Pacific, the Japanese were defeated in the carrier battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. Limited U.S. offensives in the Solomons and in the Papuan area of eastern New Guinea were launched in the last months of 1942, followed by Nimitz’s decision to “island-hop” 2,000 miles across the central Pacific from the Gilbert Islands to Okinawa. The exceptionally bloody battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945 prompted the U.S. to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which quickly ended the war in the Pacific.

Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. deployed millions of men to fight in Europe. Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945 after the Allied forces invaded North Africa in 1942, Italy in 1943, and France in 1944 (Bradford 2003). Due to its use of atomic weapons and impressive ground forces, the U.S. military emerged as a one of only two new superpowers. The advent of nuclear weapons sharpened interservice competition among the military as the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corp vied to adapt to the new technology. Most notably, the U.S. changed its policy to emphasize deterrence, and it was decided that the creation of nuclear weapons seemed to be the best form of deterrence.

Cold War: Nuclear Deterrence 1946-1990

The Cold War was a political, ideological, strategic, and military conflict between the two post WWII superpowers, the U.S. and Soviet Union. (Bradford 2003). U.S. Cold War military policy was defined by two themes: communist containment and strategic nuclear deterrence. Such a policy highlighted the move from a crisis oriented military policy to a policy devoted to creating programs that would last as long as the Soviet Union. In fact, until the end of the 1960’s, the public polls favored maintaining long-term military superiority. Significantly, the U.S. joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which both allowed the military to create a “nuclear umbrella” by stationing missiles in NATO countries but at the same time tied the military to the behavior of NATO allies. Though the U.S. and the Soviet Union rarely fought each other, the Cold War nevertheless was a global struggle that prompted several wars, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and soon competing East/West ideologies were felt in developing nations across the globe. It wasn’t until the break up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s that the Cold War effectively ended.

Korean War: Military Containment 1950-1953

The Korean War, sometimes called the “Forgotten War,” was essentially a proxy Cold War. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the U.S. became involved under the auspices of the United Nations (Millett and Maslowski 1984). This was the first war in the nuclear age and the first war in which communist “containment” became a military rather than a political endeavor. Though the war ended in a stalemate, it solidified the U.S. as the world’s policeman and strengthened its relationships with Western European allies. After the war, rather than demobilize as the U.S. military traditionally did, it remained strong. The defense budget quadrupled, creating the world’s most powerful military, one that could skillfully combine land, sea, and air forces. The war was also interesting in its extensive use of the helicopter for reconnaissance, evacuation, and rescue work (Bradford 2003).

Vietnam War: Erosion of U.S. Military Power 1959-1975

The roots of the Vietnam War lie in the U.S. Cold War policy of Communism containment, for it was containment that prompted the U.S. military to become involved during the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and to continue its involvement unabated until Saigon was conquered by the Communist People’s Army of China in 1975. When actual U.S. military combat units first entered the conflict between North and South Vietnam in 1965, they were accompanied by huge logistical support by land, sea, and air. Such a powerful arsenal guaranteed that the U.S. never lost a major battle in Vietnam; however, the fact that the U.S. never achieved its objective of stabilizing an independent, noncommunist state highlights the war’s significant complexity.

Though the U.S. military had superior military power, the communists waged an effective psychological “hide and seek” war in oppressive jungle conditions by using ambush, night attacks, suicide bombers, snipers, and booby traps. Hoping to nourish the growing anti-war movement in the U.S., the communists also bombed key U.S administration sites, such as the Saigon Embassy. In addition, U.S. politicians’ own political motives and their confusion about war goals made it difficult for them to create an effective strategy in Vietnam. Under pressure from strong anti-war protests, military policy shifted mid-war from battlefield victory to negotiated settlement and withdraw. The soldiers perceived this shift as further lack of support for the war and reports of troop misconduct and demoralization increased domestic war-weariness. In a continued attempt to defuse the anti-war movement, the U.S. government also ended the draft, but military technology could not compensate for the decline in man power. Consequently, the U.S military was forced to reduce its spending on operations and maintenance and after signing the Paris Peace Accord, finally withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. The war left the U.S. military demoralized and materially crippled. Defense spending dropped, and the power of the President to conduct war fell under attack. Because the U.S. failed to win its political objectives in Vietnam, the military’s ability to use military force anywhere else in the war became seriously compromised. In addition, “containment,” at least as a military policy, was not a success. While the Vietnam War did not end the Cold War, it did cast doubt on 25 years of U.S. military superiority.

Persian Gulf War: The Computer War and a Military Redemption 1990-1991

When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded and Kuwait, coalition forces led by the United States responded swiftly in the largest U.S. wartime engagement since Vietnam. (Bradford 2003). Using lessons gleaned from the Vietnam War, The U.N. coalition that attacked Iraqi forces was able to synchronize powerful air strikes. The Gulf War was technologically the fastest and most dramatic war in history and is often referred to as the “computer” war because of its use of “smart” bombs and guided missiles. (Bradford 2003). After just 100 hours of ground combat, the U.S. had Kuwait and southern Iraq under control. Though highly controversial, President Bush Sr. decided to keep Saddam Hussein in power to act as a counterweight in the region.

September 11th and the War in Iraq: 2001-present

Prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and on the assumption that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a coalition led by the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 (Bradford 2003). After three weeks of fighting, the United States military captured Saddam Hussein in a hole, and the Iraqi government executed him on December 30, 2006. Though President Bush consistently states that the Iraq war is the central front on the war of terror, the war has been severely criticized. With heavy coverage by modern media, operations in a country with little modern infrastructure or political stability, the war has been compared to Vietnam. However, several milestones have been reached, including the capture of Saddam Hussein and democratic elections. 


United States Army began in 1775. 

United States Navy  13 Oct. 1775 
United States Marine Corps Nov. 10, 1775
The United States Air Force became a separate military service on 18 September 1947 with the implementation of the National Security Act of 1947. ... The predecessor organizations leading up to today's U.S. Air Force are: Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps (1 August 1907 – 18 July 1914)
United States Coast Guard goes back to the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which was founded on 4 August 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. ... In 1939, the United States Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard.
Army National Guard as a reserve component of the Army is December 13, 1636.
Air National Guard was officially established in law as a separate reserve component on 18 September 1947





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