Skip to Main Content

Home Explore Careers

Military Workers, Officers

History

The history of the U.S. military dates back to defense forces, known as militias, that were used by the colonial states. These militias began to develop in the first decades of the 17th century, long before the United States existed as a country. More than 100 years later, in 1775, the Continental Army was established to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. The colonists so valued the army that its commander and most revered general, George Washington, became the first president of the United States.

The oldest continuous seagoing service in the United States, the Coast Guard, was established in 1790 to combat smuggling. In contrast, the first American marine units were attached to the Army at the time of its creation; these units then were made an independent part of the Navy when it was officially established in 1798. The Marine Corps was considered part of the Navy until 1834, when it established itself as both a land and sea defense force, thereby becoming its own military branch.

The air service grew from somewhat unusual beginnings. The Civil War marked the first use of aircraft in the U.S. military, when a balloon corps was attached to the Army of the Potomac. In 1892, a formal Balloon Corps was created as part of the Army's Signal Corps. By 1907, a separate Aeronautical Division was created within the Army. Air power proved invaluable a few years later during World War I, bringing about major changes in military strategy. As a result, the United States began to assert itself as an international military power, and accordingly, the Army Air Service was created as an independent unit in 1918, although it remained under Army direction for a time.

With the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America was plunged into World War II. At its height, 13 million Americans fought in the different branches of the military services. When the war ended, the United States emerged as the strongest military power in the Western world. A large part of America's military success was due to the superiority of its air forces. Recognition of the strategic importance of air power led to the creation of the now wholly independent branch of service, the U.S. Air Force, in 1947. Two years later, the various branches of military service were unified under the Department of Defense.

In the years following World War II, the United States and its allies devoted their considerable military resources to fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Anticommunist tensions led to U.S. involvement in the Korean War during the 1950s and to participation in the Vietnam War, which ended in the mid-1970s. Antiwar sentiment grew increasingly insistent, and soon, the policies that established an American presence in foreign countries came under new demands for reevaluation. In 1973, the draft was abolished, and the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force. The armed forces began to put great energy into improving the image of military personnel and presenting the military as an appealing career option, in order to attract talented recruits.

During the 1980s, the U.S. military increased its efforts to bring about the collapse of Soviet communism and became active in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf, through which flowed much of the world's oil supply. Later in the decade, many countries under Soviet rule began to press for independence, and, in 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed under the weight of its political and economic crisis, effectively ending the Cold War. That same year, the United States engaged in the Persian Gulf War.

From the early 1990s up until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. military took on a new role as a peacekeeping force. It participated in cooperative efforts led by organizations such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, suddenly changed the role of the military from a peacekeeping force to an aggressor in the attempt to destroy the strongholds and training camps of terrorists around the world. Then-President Bush said the war against terrorism would likely be a sustained effort over a long period of time. U.S. troops, warships, and dozens of fighter planes were deployed to south-central Asia and the Middle East and air and ground strikes began in Afghanistan. In addition to military action, the administration planned to use diplomatic, law enforcement, and financial strategies against those believed responsible for the attacks. In March 2003, a coalition of nations led by the United States and Great Britain invaded the nation of Iraq, whose leader, Saddam Hussein, was suspected of creating and harboring weapons of mass destruction for potential use in terrorist attacks, although none were found when U.S. forces entered the country. Hussein was captured in December 2003 and was tried and executed for his crimes, and a democratic government was established in Iraq in June 2004. Still, the struggle to bring peace to this nation in transition demanded a continued U.S. military presence.

By 2014, all U.S. troops (except for a small contingent to protect embassy workers) were withdrawn from Iraq. Terroristic activities and threats persist, however, and U.S. military forces stay prepared to defend the nation and the American people. The role of officers remains largely the same today but as technology advances, the knowledge and skills required advances also. Specialties now include cybersecurity, information technology, and unmanned aerial vehicle operations (also known as drones).