The years 1902 to 1917 saw the United States entering fully upon the world stage, and that entrance mandated that the Army change itself accordingly. The Army was forced to shed most of its Indian- fighting past and transform itself into an Army for an empire. As an imperial police force it pacified the Philippines, occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, and participated in the international intervention force into China during the Boxer Rebellion. At the same time, it continued to fulfill its obligations as a homeland security force as it conducted operations along the southern border of the United States and into Mexico itself. The Army had by necessity become a much more capable force than ever before, equipped for overseas expeditions and for the essentially constabulary duties of America’s new empire.
Although the Army was forced to make numerous practical changes to cope with the new challenges of America’s becoming a world power, it also underwent a series of intellectual changes that established a frame- work for even greater changes to come. At the heart of these changes were the reforms undertaken by Secretary of War Root during his years in office (1899–1904). These Root reforms (changing the command structure of the Army with the establishment of the office of Chief of Staff with a General Staff and breaking the power of the bureau chiefs; the creation of the National Guard with training, organization, and equipment in line with the Regular Army; and the reorganization of the Army school system including the establishment of the Army War College in 1903) were essential in increasing the professionalism of the Army and forcing it to look outward to the new challenges to come.
Thanks to the reforms of the early twentieth century, for the first time the Army would have some of the basic intellectual and procedural tools in hand to prepare and conduct contingency plans for a wide variety of operations. It would have a corps of regular officers and men supported by a National Guard available for federal service on relatively short notice. When the National Defense Act enhanced the reforms in 1916, the result was little short of revolutionary. The Root reforms laid the basis for transforming the Army into a modern, albeit still modestly sized military force suitable for the new missions that had to be performed.
Yet events outside the United States were moving quicker than any peacetime reform packages could hope to contain. The United States’ involvement in the war in Europe would shortly mandate the whole- sale remaking of its Army yet again. This massive conflict that began in 1914 in Europe was to change all of America’s assumptions when it came to armies and international commitments. The war was terrifying to behold, with million-man armies locked in deadly combat in trench- es that scarred hundreds of miles of the landscape of northern France. Deadly armies of conscripts equipped with machine guns, vast arrays of artillery, airplanes, and tanks showed to any intelligent observer how ill prepared the American Army would be for the challenges of modern warfare. A new, and severe, test for American arms was on the horizon.
- What lessons do you believe the U.S. Army should have been able to use from its Indian-fighting days in the new situation of polic- ing an empire?
- Why was the Army so slow to adopt new technology even in the face of dramatic changes in the scope and scale of European warfare?
- Of what value were the Root reforms? Why did a civilian Sec- retary of War have to implement these reforms rather than the senior Army uniformed leadership?
- What was the “Plattsburg idea,” and how influential do you think it was?
- Was the United States justified in intervening in Mexican affairs in 1916? What were some of the unintended consequences for the U.S. Army as a result of this expedition?
- Should America have entered World War I? How could it have been avoided?
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