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Home : News
NEWS | June 3, 2013

Commentary: National Guard milestone law was signed June 3, 1916

By Bill Boehm National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - On June 3, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed  the National Defense Act of 1916.

This law is one of the most important pieces of Guard legislation in the nation's history.  First, it greatly increased federal supervision and federal pay for the National Guard.   The law gave the federal government more control over what units the states could raise and how they would be equipped and trained.  

With the nation establishing a global defense stance and emerging as a world power for the first time by the 1900s, local militias alone could no longer provide defense for their communities and their states.  The issue of preparedness was discussed vigorously as Europe was engaged in World War I by late 1914.  To supplement the standing Army, multiregional forces would serve as the basis for Army divisions, a strategy best demonstrated by 1917 when the United States was on the verge of entering World War I.

Most importantly for Guardsmen, the National Defense Act authorized federal pay for 48 days of armory drill a year, as well as for 15 days of annual training.  Previously the federal government paid for five days of summer camp, and nothing for drills.

The 1916 Act established a separate Militia Bureau, subsequently renamed the National Guard Bureau in 1933.  This new agency oversaw federal spending for the Guard. Although a Division of Militia Affairs had been operating since 1908, the new Bureau established a funding mechanism that operates to this day to help serve the states throughout the nation.

In the short term, the law also gave the president of the United States the authority to mobilize the entire National Guard in case of a national emergency, for the duration of the declared event.  In just over weeks after signing the bill into law, President Wilson did indeed mobilize the entire National Guard beyond the border states who were already activated by their individual governors (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) in the wake of border raids that took place after Francisco “Pancho” Villa raided Columbus, N.M., on March 9, 1916.

In addition, the new measure settled the issue of how to employ the National Guard outside the United States. Up to that point, the Guard was limited by the Constitution in its service as militia for all the states and some territories. In the event of an emergency, Congress would draft the National Guard into federal service, which is what happened on August 5, 1917.   This enabled the entire Army to have enough manpower to fight with the Allied Powers in Europe and allowed the National Guard to provide a large part of the force that won the War by November 1918.

But the National Defense Act did not affect just the National Guard.  It targeted other military operations that required attention as well.  To facilitate technological advances into military equipment and strategic planning, the Act created the National Research Council.   It filled the need to integrate greater technical details into military planning.  The use of weapons of great destruction in World War I being fought in Europe brought attention to the need for the United States to marshal advances in vehicles, weapons, and other equipment.  Known today as the United States National Research Council, the organization is administered jointly by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

Along with the greater recognition of technological advances in military planning and production, armament manufacturing received a great boost from this law.

The main raw material for manufacturing gun powder and other accelerants was nitrate, a mineral often imported from foreign countries in past decades.  The ability to generate electric power for such vital defense plants was also addressed by providing for the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

With the ability to manufacture nitrate, two plants were authorized.  The first plant in the pair was in Sheffield, Ala., a location convenient to phosphate mines in Tennessee that composed part of the manufacturing process for nitrate.  The second facility was constructed at nearby Muscle Shoals, Ala.  The construction of all the facilities was authorized by the measure signed by President Wilson.

The National Defense Act of 1916 also marked the formal organization of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which formalized the education of Army officers at certified colleges and universities.  Although many land-grant schools included military education as part of their curriculum, the ROTC expanded officer training to other institutions of higher learning and improved the quality of military leadership throughout the ranks of the Army, and later within the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.  Many ROTC graduates have become National Guardsmen, including the most recent past Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Craig McKinley, a 1974 ROTC graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Nearly 100 years after its passage, the National Defense Act of 1916 carries with it a legacy that is still felt strongly.

ROTC programs continue to supply an important section of officer training to all branches of military service, and the expansion of defense plants in conjunction with evolving weapons and technology continues to fuel the greater United States economy.