Until the Constitutional Convention, the military presence in what became known as the United States was organized by each U.S. state as a voluntary or conscripted militia. Since 1789, the United States Constitution has provided authority for the Congress to levy taxes and to raise a navy and national militia. Federal legislation eventually led to the modern nationalized system of military in the country. Historically, the amount of money the U.S. government spends on the military has often been a politically contentious issues.
As of 2008, the U.S. military consists of an Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps under the command of the United States Department of Defense. There also is the United States Coast Guard, which is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security. The President of the United States is the commander in chief of each branch of the armed forces. In addition, each state has a national guard commanded by the state's governor and coordinated by the National Guard Bureau. The President of the United States has the authority during national emergencies to assume control of individual state National Guard units.
In the early years of the British colonization of North America, military action in the colonies that would become United States were the result of conflicts with Native Americans, such as in the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip's War in 1675, and the Yamasee War in 1715. Slave uprisings such as the Stono Rebellion in 1739, and inter-colonial conflicts, such as the Pennis Wars and the activities of the Green Mountain Boys, were also a part of the colonial military experience.
Beginning in 1689, the colonies also frequently became involved in a series of wars between Great Britain and France for control of North America, the most important of which were Queen Anne's War, in which the British annexed French Acadia, and the final French and Indian War (1754–1763). This final war was to give thousands of colonists, including George Washington, military experience which they put to use during the American Revolution.
Ongoing political tensions between Great Britain and thirteen colonies became a crisis in 1774 when the British placed the province of Massachusetts under martial law. While shooting began at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Continental Congress appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the newly created Continental Army, which was augmented throughout the war by colonial militia. General Washington was not the greatest battlefield tactician, but his overall strategy proved to be sound: keep the army intact, wear down British resolve, and avoid decisive battles except to exploit enemy mistakes.
The British, for their part, lacked both a unified command and a clear strategy for winning. With the use of the Royal Navy, the British were able to capture coastal cities, but control of the countryside eluded them. A British invasion from Canada in 1777 ended with the disastrous surrender of a British army at Saratoga. With the addition in 1777 of General von Steuben, of Prussian origin, the training and discipline of the Continental Army began to vastly improve. France and Spain then entered the war against Great Britain.
A shift in focus to the southern American states resulted in a string of victories for the British, but guerrilla warfare and the tenacity of General Nathanael Greene's army prevented the British from making strategic headway. A French naval victory in the Chesapeake led to the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781, resulting in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which recognized the independence of the United States.
Since many Americans of the revolutionary generation had strong distrust of permanent (or “standing”) armies, the Continental Army was quickly disbanded after the Revolution. General Washington, who throughout the war deferred to elected officials, averted a potential crisis and submitted his resignation as commander-in-chief to Congress after the war, establishing a tradition of civil control of the U.S. military.
Following the [American] Revolution, the United States faced potential military conflict on the high seas as well as on the western frontier. The United States was a minor military power during this time, having only a modest army and navy. A traditional distrust of standing armies, combined with faith in the abilities of local militia, precluded the development of well-trained units and a professional officer corps. Jeffersonian leaders preferred a small army and navy, fearing that a large military establishment would involve the United States in excessive foreign wars, and potentially allow a domestic tyrant to seize power.
In the Treaty of Paris after the Revolution, the British had ceded the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States, without Americans who lived there. Because many of the tribes had fought as allies of the British, the United States compelled tribal leaders to sign away lands in postwar treaties, and began dividing up these lands for settlement. This provoked a war in the Northwest Territory in which the U.S. forces performed poorly; the Battle of the Wabash in 1791 was the most severe defeat ever suffered by the United States at the hands of American Indians. President Washington dispatched a newly trained army to the region, which decisively defeated the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1795.
When revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain in 1793, the United States sought to remain neutral, but the Jay Treaty, which was favorable to Great Britain, angered the French government, which viewed it as a violation of the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. French privateers began to seize U.S. vessels, which led to an undeclared "Quasi-War" between the two nations. Fought at sea from 1798 to 1800, the United States won a string of victories in the Caribbean. George Washington was called out of retirement to head a "provisional army" in case of invasion by France, but President John Adams managed to negotiate a truce, in which France agreed to terminate the prior alliance and cease its piracy.
In 1801, the United States fought another undeclared war, this time with the city-state of Tripoli. When President Thomas Jefferson discontinued the custom of paying tribute to the Barbary States, the First Barbary War followed. After the U.S.S. Philadelphia was captured in 1803, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a raid which successfully burned the captured ship, preventing Tripoli from using or selling it. In 1805, after William Eaton captured the city of Derna, Tripoli agreed to a peace treaty. The other Barbary states continued to raid U.S. shipping, until the Second Barbary War in 1815 ended the practice.
By far the largest military action in which the United States engaged during this era was the War of 1812. When the United Kingdom and France went to war again in 1803 with renewed vigor, the United States sought to remain neutral while pursuing overseas trade. This proved difficult, and the United States finally declared war on the United Kingdom in 1812, the first time the U.S. had officially declared war. Not hopeful of defeating the Royal Navy, the U.S. attacked the British Empire by invading British Canada, hoping to use captured territory as a bargaining chip. The invasion of Canada was a debacle, though concurrent wars with Native Americans on the western front (Tecumseh's War and the Creek War) were more successful. After defeating Napoleon in 1814, the United Kingdom was able to send troops from Europe to America, leading to the burning of Washington on 25 August 1814, although the Chesapeake Bay Campaign was thwarted at the Battle of Baltimore. A second British offensive was defeated by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. By this time, diplomats in Europe had worked out a peace treaty, restoring the status quo ante bellum.
With the independence of the United States established, military efforts then focused on ensuring a dominant role on the continent, an idea which came to be known as "Manifest Destiny."
The Texas Revolution was a war fought from October 2, 1835 to April 21, 1836 between Mexico and the breakaway province of Texas. In February 1836, Santa Anna led his army into Texas; delayed by the defense of the Alamo, he overwhelmed it and shot the prisoners. The Texans declared their independence on March 2, 1836. Sam Houston led a successful retreat, but other insurgents were defeated at Goliad; Santa Anna shot the prisoners. But he was defeated and captured at San Jacinto on April 21; Santa Anna signed a treaty recognizing Texas independence and its expanded boundaries. The government in Mexico City repudiated the treaty and vowed to subdue Texas, a position that led to the Mexican-American War with the United States in 1846.
Sectional tensions had long existed between the states located north of the Mason-Dixon Line and those south of it, primarily centered on the "peculiar institution" of slavery and the ability of states to overrule the decisions of the national government. During the 1840s and 1850s, conflicts between the two sides became progressively more violent. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (who southerners thought would work to end slavery) states in the South seceded from the United States, beginning with South Carolina in late 1860. On April 12, 1861, forces of the South (known as the Confederate States of America or simply the Confederacy) opened fire on Fort Sumter, whose garrison was loyal to the forces of the North (who represented the United States or simply the Union).
The American Civil War caught both sides unprepared. Both the Union and the Confederacy had to build their armies practically from scratch. Both sides sought a quick victory focused on the respective nearby capitols of Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, but neither side would surrender their national identity cheaply. Even after the First Battle of Bull Run, many were slow to accept that war would last much longer than a single campaign. However, it spilled across the continent, and even to the high seas. Much of the vast resources of America would be consumed before it would be resolved.
The American Civil War is sometimes called the "first modern war" due to the use of mass conscription, military railroads, trench warfare, submarines, ironclads, aerial reconnaissance, modern cartridge firearms, rifles, and machine guns. It introduced the modern world to the horrors of total war.
The Spanish-American War took place in 1898, and resulted in the United States of America gaining control over the former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific, most notably Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
This conflict is also known as the "Philippine Insurrection." This name was historically the most commonly used in the U.S., but Filipinos and an increasing number of American historians refer to these hostilities as the "Philippine-American War," and, in 1999, the U.S. Library of Congress reclassified its references to use this term.
Most notable of these conflicts was when U.S. forces occupied the Mexican city of Veracruz for over six months in 1914, in response to the April 9, 1914 "Tampico Affair," which involved the brief arrest of U.S. sailors by soldiers of the regime of Mexican President Victoriano Huerta. The incident came in the midst of poor diplomatic relations with the United States, related to the ongoing Mexican Revolution.
In response to the Tampico Affair, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Navy to occupy Veracruz. Huerta was overthrown and a regime more favorable to the U.S. was installed. The incident, however, worsened U.S.-Mexican relations for many years.
During the interwar period the United States again reduced its military, but mobilized to its largest levels for the ensuing Second World War. The global conflict started in the 1930s and raged until 1945, involving most of the peoples of the world. It was the most extensive and costly war in history as well as the history of the United States.
US involvement in World War II was initially limited to providing war material and financial support to the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. The US entered officially on 7 December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, followed by attacks on US, Dutch and British possessions across the Pacific. On 11 December, the remaining Axis powers, Germany and Italy, declared war on the US, drawing the US firmly into the war and removing all doubts about the global nature of the conflict.
The loss of 8 battleships and 2000 sailors and airmen at Pearl Harbor forced the US to rely on its remaining aircraft carriers, which won a major victory over Japan at Midway just 6 months into the war, and its growing submarine fleet. The Navy and Marine Corps followed this up with an island hopping campaign across the central and South Pacific in 1943-45, reaching the outskirts of Japan in the Battle of Okinawa. During 1942 and 1943, the US deployed millions of men and thousands of planes and tanks to the UK, beginning with the strategic bombing of Nazi Germany and occupied Europe and leading up to the Allied invasions of occupied North Africa in November, 1942, Sicily and Italy in 1943, France in 1944, and the invasion of Germany in 1945, parallel with the Soviet invasion from the east. That led to the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945. In the Pacific, the US experienced much success in naval campaigns during 1944, but bloody battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945 led the US to look for a way to end the war with minimal loss of lives. The U.S. used atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to shock the Japanese leadership, which (combined with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria) quickly brought about the surrender of Japan.
Despite the crippling effects of the Great Depression, the United States was able to mobilize quickly, eventually becoming the dominant military power in most theaters of the war (excepting only eastern Europe and mainland China), and the industrial might of the US economy is widely cited as a major factor in the Allies' eventual victory in the war. Early in the war, the US military was perceived by some observers to be too "green" and untested to be of much use other than cannon fodder against experienced German and Japanese troops (especially as their first major action against German forces resulted in the Kasserine disaster), but the US eventually acquitted itself well and established a modern military tradition. Strategic and tactical lessons learned by the US, such as the importance of air superiority and the dominance of the aircraft carrier in naval actions, continue to guide US military doctrine more than 60 years later.
World War II holds a special place in the American psyche as the country's greatest triumph, and the soldiers of World War II are frequently referred to as "the greatest generation" for their sacrifices in the name of liberty. Over 16 million served (about 13% of the population), and over 400,000 were killed during the war; only the American Civil War saw more Americans killed. The US entered the war, like many other nations, as a country struggling with economic and social problems and unsure of its identity. It emerged as one of the two undisputed superpowers along with the Soviet Union, and unlike the Soviet Union, the US homeland was virtually untouched by the ravages of war. The importance of US military and political power in world affairs since 1945 cannot be overstated; the outcome of the war and the fortunes of the victors have shaped world events to this day.
During and following the Second World War, the United States and United Kingdom developed an increasingly strong defense and intelligence relationship. Manifestations of this include extensive basing of US forces in the UK, shared intelligence, shared military technology (e.g. nuclear technology), shared procurement (mainly British purchases of American weapon systems).
The war started badly for the US and UN. North Korean forces struck massively in the summer of 1950 and nearly drove the outnumbered US and ROK defenders into the sea. However the United Nations intervened, naming Douglas MacArthur commander of its forces, and US-ROK forces acting under the UN auspices held a perimeter around Busan, gaining time for reinforcement. MacArthur, in a bold but risky move, ordered an amphibious invasion well behind the front lines at Inchon, cutting off and routing the North Koreans and quickly crossing the 38th Parallel into North Korea. As UN forces continued to advance toward the Yalu River on the border with Communist China, MacArthur and U.S. President Harry Truman came into serious disagreement about military objectives and resolution of the conflict. In November, 1950, after Truman refused to bomb bridges on the Yalu River, the Chinese Army poured across the border and sent UN forces reeling back across the 38th Parallel. MacArthur was later relieved of his command by Truman for insubordination, and while some feared the conflict might spark another world war, negotiations beginning shortly after MacArthur's dismissal eventually resulted in a stalemate and armistice in 1953, with the two Koreas remaining divided at the 38th parallel. North and South Korea are still today in a state of war, having never signed a peace treaty, and US forces remain stationed in South Korea as part of US foreign policy.
The invasion was not reinforced by US military forces, in accord with the original CIA contingency plans. Newly elected President Kennedy refused to commit U.S. military forces in support of the Cuban exiles who foundered, and were defeated by the Cuban communists in the Cuban exile forces' invasion attempt.
Outgoing President Eisenhower had warned American citizens to beware of the military-industrial complex. In his Farewell Address to the Nation on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower described the Cold War and stated:
In the penultimate draft of the address, Eisenhower initially used the term military-industrial-congressional complex, and thus indicated the essential role that the United States Congress plays in the propagation of the military industry. But, it is said, that the president chose to strike the word congressional in order to placate members of the legislative branch of the federal government.
After the failed invasion attempt, President Kennedy negotiated with Cuban President Castro and paid $53 million in foods and medicines as ransom for release of the 1,113 surviving exile combatants. President Kennedy also issued a number of Executive Orders curtailing the relatively unbridled power of the CIA.
President Kennedy had appointed his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the cabinet post of U.S. Attorney General (AG). They had many enemies, both at home and abroad. President Kennedy was assassinated, and he was succeeded by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. AG Robert Kennedy was also later assassinated during his campaign for the U.S. Presidency.
On April 28, 1965, 400 Marines were landed in Santo Domingo to evacuate the American Embassy and foreign nationals after dissident Dominican armed forces attempted to overthrow the ruling civilian junta. By mid-May, peak strength of 23,850 U.S. soldiers, Marines, and Airmen were in the Dominican Republic and some 38 naval ships were positioned offshore. They evacuated nearly 6,500 men, women, and children of 46 nations, and distributed more than 8 million tons of food.
Fighting on one side was a coalition of forces including the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam or the "RVN"), the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Participation by the South Korean military was financed by the United States, but Australia and New Zealand fully funded their own involvement. Other countries normally allied with the United States in the Cold War, including the United Kingdom and Canada, refused to participate in the coalition, although a few of their citizens volunteered to join the U.S. forces. The U.S. and its allies fought against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as well as the National Liberation Front (NLF, also known as Viet communists Viet Cong), or "VC", a guerrilla force within South Vietnam. The NVA received substantial military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, turning Vietnam into a proxy war.
The U.S. framed the war as part of its policy of containment of Communism in south Asia, but American forces were frustrated by an inability to engage the enemy in decisive battles, corruption and incompetence in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and ever increasing protests at home. The Tet Offensive in 1968, although a major military defeat for the NLF, marked the psychological turning point in the war. NLF forces appeared to be everywhere at once, even overrunning the US embassy in Saigon, supposedly one of the most secure places in the country, and news anchor Walter Cronkite, in a famous broadcast from the battlefield, pronounced the war "unwinnable." After more than 57,000 dead and many more wounded, US forces withdrew in 1973 with no clear victory, and in 1975 South Vietnam was finally conquered by communist North Vietnam and unified. The chaotic evacuation of the US embassy in April 1975, as NVA forces closed in on the city, made for enduring images of desperate souls clinging to helicopter skids, trying to escape Communist rule.
Even today, "Vietnam" is a politically divisive subject in the U.S. Some Americans view the Second Indochina War as a noble, if flawed, cause which limited and delayed communist expansion and conquest of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Others see the conflict as a quagmire; a waste of American blood and treasure in a conflict that did not concern US interests. Military service during Vietnam is still an issue in U.S. presidential campaigns, more than 30 years after US troops left the country, and fears of another "quagmire" have been major factors in U.S. military planning since 1975.
In 1983 fighting between Palestinian refugees and Lebanese factions reignited that nation's long-running civil war. A UN agreement brought an international force of peacekeepers to occupy Beirut and guarantee security. US Marines landed in August 1982 along with Italian and French forces. On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber driving a truck filled with 6 tons of TNT crashed through a fence and destroyed the Marine barracks, killing 241 Marines; seconds later, a second bomber leveled a French barracks, killing 58. Subsequently the US Navy engaged in bombing of militia positions inside Lebanon. While US President Ronald Reagan was initially defiant, political pressure at home eventually forced the withdrawal of the Marines in February 1984.
Before the war, many observers believed the US and its allies could win but might suffer substantial casualties (certainly more than any conflict since Vietnam), and that the tank battles across the harsh desert might rival those of North Africa during World War II. After nearly 50 years of proxy wars, and constant fears of another war in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, some thought the Gulf War might finally answer the question of which military philosophy would have reigned supreme. Iraqi forces were battle-hardened after 8 years of war with Iran, and they were well-equipped with late model Soviet tanks, jet fighters but the anti-aircraft weapons were crippled; in comparison, the US had no large-scale combat experience since its withdrawal from Vietnam nearly 20 years earlier, and major changes in US doctrine, equipment and technology since then had never been tested under fire.
However, the battle was one-sided almost from the beginning. The reasons for this are the subject of continuing study by military strategists and academics. There is general agreement that US technological superiority was a crucial factor but the speed and scale of the Iraqi collapse has also been attributed to poor strategic and tactical leadership and low morale among Iraqi troops, which resulted from a history of incompetent leadership. After devastating initial strikes against Iraqi air defenses and command and control facilities on 17 January 1991, coalition forces achieved total air superiority almost immediately. The Iraqi air force was destroyed within a few days, with some planes fleeing to Iran where they were interned for the duration of the conflict. The overwhelming technological advantages of the US, such as stealth aircraft and infrared sights, quickly turned the air war into a "turkey shoot". The heat signature of any tank which started its engine made an easy target. Air defense radars were quickly destroyed by radar-seeking missiles fired from wild weasel aircraft. Grainy video clips, shot from the nose cameras of missiles as they zeroed in on impossibly small targets, were a staple of US news coverage and revealed to the world a new kind of war, compared by some to a video game. Over 6 weeks of relentless pounding by planes and helicopters, the Iraqi army was almost completely beaten but did not retreat, under orders from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and by the time the ground forces invaded on 24 February, many Iraqi troops quickly surrendered to forces much smaller than their own; in one instance, Iraqi forces attempted to surrender to a television camera crew that was advancing with coalition forces.
After just 100 hours of ground combat, and with all of Kuwait and much of southern Iraq under coalition control, US President George H. W. Bush ordered a cease-fire and negotiations began resulting in an agreement for cessation of hostilities. Some US politicians were disappointed by this move, believing Bush should have pressed on to Baghdad and removed Hussein from power; there is little doubt that coalition forces could have accomplished this if they had desired. Still, the political ramifications of removing Hussein would have broadened the scope of the conflict greatly, and many coalition nations refused to participate in such an action, believing it would create a power vacuum and destabilize the region.
Following the Gulf War, in order to protect minority populations, the US, Britain, and France declared and maintained no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, which the Iraqi military frequently tested. The no-fly zones persisted until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, although France withdrew from participation in patrolling the no-fly zones in 1996, citing a lack of humanitarian purpose for the operation.
Additionally, following the discovery of an aborted assassination plot aimed at former President George H.W. Bush, Navy ships bombed Iraqi intelligence facilities with cruise missiles in June 1993.
US troops participated in a UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia beginning in 1992. By 1993 the US troops were augmented with Rangers and special forces with the aim of capturing warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, whose forces had massacred peacekeepers from Pakistan. During a raid in downtown Mogadishu, US troops became trapped overnight by a general uprising in the Battle of Mogadishu. 18 American soldiers were killed, and a US television crew filmed graphic images of the body of one soldier being dragged through the streets by an angry mob. Somali guerrillas paid a staggering toll at an estimated 1,000-5,000 total casualties during the conflict. Despite much public disapproval, US forces were quickly withdrawn by President Bill Clinton. The incident had a profound effect on US thinking about peacekeeping and intervention. The book Black Hawk Down was written about the battle, and was the basis for the later movie of the same name.
Taylor insisted that he would resign only if American peacekeeping troops were deployed to Liberia. President Bush publicly called upon Charles Taylor to resign and leave the country if any American involvement was to be considered.
Meanwhile, the African states, in particular the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), under the leadership of Nigeria, sent troops to Liberia with the assistance of $10 million from the US On August 6, a 32 member U.S. military assessment team were deployed as a liaison with the ECOWAS troops
On August 11, Taylor resigned, leaving Moses Blah as his successor until a transitional government was established on October 14. The U.S. brought three warships with 2,300 Marines into view of the coast. The subsequent transformations of government and elections were peaceful.
After the lengthy Iraq disarmament crisis culminated with an American demand that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein leave Iraq, which was refused, a coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom fought the Iraqi army in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Approximately 250,000 United States troops, with support from 45,000 British, 2,000 Australian and 200 Polish combat forces, entered Iraq primarily through their staging area in Kuwait. (Turkey had refused to permit its territory to be used for an invasion from the north.) Coalition forces also supported Iraqi Kurdish militia, estimated to number upwards of 50,000. After approximately three weeks of fighting, Hussein and the Ba'ath Party were forcibly removed, followed by an extended period of military occupation.