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Federalizing the National Guard: Preparedness, reserve forces and the National Defense Act of 1916

By National Guard Bureau Historial Services | National Guard Bureau | June 02, 2016

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ARLINGTON, Va. - June 3 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Defense Act of 1916, a defining moment in the history of the National Guard.  To commemorate this anniversary, the National Guard Bureau presents a brief history of the origins and impact of this legislation.

Isolated nation

In 1915, war raged across Europe in a protracted stalemate between the Allied and Central Powers.  Foreign powers appealed for American intervention, yet isolationist sentiment at home prevented the mobilization of the United States’ military power.  The idea of American intervention in a foreign war was anathema to many Americans who had grown content with the nation’s relative geographic isolation, enabled by the barriers of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. America’s leaders pursued stability through diplomatic rather than military means.

Everything changed on May 7 when a German submarine sunk the British passenger ship R.M.S. Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Over 120 Americans died, and the attack prompted calls for the United States to declare war on Germany.  However, the question remained, was the American military ready to go to war?

In the early twentieth century, military preparedness was a major concern.  In 1910, Gen. Leonard Wood, the newly appointed Army Chief of Staff, began the gradual modernization of the Army from a sparsely garrisoned, nineteenth-century relic to a prepared twentieth-century fighting force.  Nonetheless, the Army's strength remained low with fewer than 72,000 Soldiers.

At the same time, the National Guard sought similar improvements.  The passage of the Dick Act in 1903 organized state militias and provided for greater training and professional instruction to Guardsmen.  However, from state-to-state, there still existed a wide variance in resources, training capacity, and overall readiness standards.

Concerns over preparedness rose to a fever pitch after the sinking of the Lusitania.  The U.S. House of Representatives sought to address this deficit in military training and manpower that summer. However, the Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs, Rep. James Hay (D-VA), only grudgingly admitted a willingness to confer with the Wilson administration with regard to preparedness.

Legislative action

Two general goals came from these discussions among the House of Representatives.  The first was to bolster military capabilities while keeping military spending in check amidst the uncertain atmosphere.  Further, political leaders sought to improve training and readiness standards for the National Guard.  However, entrenched in tradition with a focus on local rather than national concerns, the National Guard was resistant to change.

A legacy of the colonial era, the United States traditionally disdained a large standing army, and Hay envisioned the National Guard as a means to bolster military power in a time of war while adhering to the idea of a small standing army during times of peace.  He was resistant to calls from the Department of War to eliminate the National Guard and bolster active-duty army forces.

Secretary of War Lindley Garrison proposed a new federal reserve known as the "Continental Army" in place of the National Guard, and the matter came up for debate before the House of Representatives in early 1916.  Hay viewed the matter as a grab for power by the Department of War, and Garrison eventually admitted that the Continental Army system offered few readiness benefits over the National Guard.  When President Wilson abandoned support for the Continental Army, Secretary Garrison resigned from his post on February 10, 1916.

The matter gained greater urgency in early March 1916 when Francisco "Pancho" Villa and his rebel army charged into U.S. territory at the town of Columbus, New Mexico, stunning the nation and thrusting it into an offensive posture.  Congress quickly passed the National Defense Act of 1916, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on June 3, 1916.  The National Guard remained the United States’ first-line reserve force, yet maintained a means to positively impact the nation’s defense well beyond this milestone.

The law's impact

The National Defense Act of 1916 made significant changes to National Guard readiness, structure, and mobilization.

The law increased and standardized training and personal standards.  Congress required Guardsmen to fulfill 48 days of drill and 15 days of annual training at federal expense; this doubled the number of drill days and tripled the annual training requirement.  In addition, the Department of War now administered annual inspections, and the Army required Guardsmen to meet uniform physical fitness and eligibility tests.

As a federal reserve military force, Congress increased funding for personnel and equipment.  Plans increased National Guard end strength to 425,000 Soldiers over a five-year period and provided missing equipment to units.

Standardization of the National Guard brought visible changes.  All state militias were renamed as National Guards, and Guardsmen would wear the U.S. Army uniform.  This visual identity proved important by demonstrating the unity of active-duty and reserve forces and signifying Guardsmen as military professionals.

The law redesignated the Division of Militia Affairs as the Militia Bureau. This title placed War Department as the immediate supervisory agency and placed the Chief of the Militia Bureau as the lead officer of the National Guard. This provision aligned the Bureau under the stricter drill and training standards.

The Department of War would bestow federal recognition to National Guard units that passed the inspections administered annually along with training improvements. This control established more clear objectives for the entire organization, which furthermore would be subject to federal laws governing the active duty Army when called into federal service.

The law codified the dual state and federal mission of the National Guard and required new Guardsmen to swear allegiance to both the Constitution of the United States and their state of record. The president of the United States could now federalize the National Guard in time of declared federal emergency and provided for expeditionary service.

Other notable measures included the establishment of the office of the U.S. Property and Disbursing Officer, later renamed the U.S. Property and Fiscal Officer in 1954.  Congress delegated responsibility to this officer for the disbursement and oversight of federal funds at the state level.  The comprehensive law also formalized the establishment of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in colleges and universities across the country. It also established the National Research Council, which spearheaded the employment of scientific methods to aid in the common defense of the United States.

p> The National Defense Act of 1916 was critical to the establishment of the modern National Guard in that it closely integrated the Guard with the active-duty component, established the Guard’s dual mission, and provided federal funding to support the National Guard.

As a consequence of the law, the National Guard was a major force provider for both World Wars and recent contingency operations.  The provisions of the act allowed the Guard to later be mobilized in over a year before the United States was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. The forward posture of the Guard allowed planners such as Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to ensure that mistakes would be more likely to be made in training rather than combat situations.

One hundred years after its passage, historians consider the National Defense Act of 1916 a far-reaching, forward-thinking law whose comprehensive nature established the modern National Guard.

Recommended readings:

George C. Herring, Jr., "James Hay and the Preparedness Controversy, 1915-1916," The Journal of Southern History 30:4, November 1964.

John Garry Clifford, The Citizen-Soldiers:  The Plattsburg Training Camp Movement, 1913-1920, Lexington KY:  University Press of Kentucky, 1972.

Jerry Cooper, The Rise of the National Guard:  The Evolution of the American Militia, 1865-1920, Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1997.