United States Army: Inter-War Years (1918-41)


Figure 1.--The U.S. Army after World War I was reduced back to a small professional core. The Army was primarily equipped with World war I surplus waponds. There was also very little money available to develop new weaponery. This photograph was taken at an Army base in 1935. I'm not sure who the boys are, perhaps a VFW youth group.

The U.S. Army that was to liberate Western Europe and play an important role in defeating NAZI Germany did not exist in the 1930s. What existed was a very small professional core. The War Department after the Armistice on the Western Front (November 1918) recomended that Congress authorize a permanent Regular Army of about 0.5 million men and a 3-month universal training system that would create a ready reserve thatv had basic military skills. This would give the United States the capability of rapidly creating a major force to provide for future defense needs. Congress accurately reflecting American public opinion firmly rejected these proposals. Americans thought they had won the "War to End All wars". With Imperial Germany defeated, few Americans saw the need for a large army or major military expenditures. There was a willingness to approve some naval spending, because the Navy was seem as America's shield. Most Americans thought that was all that was necessary. This became the conerstone of American defense thinking theoughout the 1920s and 30s. The world situation, however, changed dramatically in the 1930s. The United States found itself in an increasingly dangerous world. It was a world world in which Stalin was building a vast Red Army and the Japanese were building the Imperial Army which would undertake the conquest of China. Mussolini was building an army of 6 million bayonets. The tipping point was in 1935 when Hitler announced the introduction of conscription. This mean that the totalitarian powers possessed the overwealming balance of power in the world. In Europe the democracies placed their hope on the French Army, the force tht had stopped the Germans in World War I. The United States throuhout the 1930s even after Hitler reintoduced conscription, made nol effort to significantly expand its army. There was efforts to expand the U.S. Navy and later in the decade the air force. The Army remained, however, a small professional force. Even small countries in Europe had a larger army. Neither were there major efforts to upgrade weaponry.

World War I

America stayed neutral when Europe went to War (1914). America stayed neutral for nearly 3 years. The Germans, however, were understandably disturbed because British control of seas allowed them to obtain food and supplies in America. The Germans decided thst they would cut those supplies by launching unrestricted submarine warfare and this could win the War before America, which did not have a sizeablr Army could train and supply one before it could effectively intervene. America entered World War I without a large trained army and in both instances Germany made a fatefull gamble that they could win the war before the arrival of the Americans in force. German naval officers assured the Reichstag that the U-boats would prevent the Americans from deploying an army in France. When America declared war on Germany (April 1917) there was essentially no American Army. Although America only entered World war I in 1917, German Field Marshal Ludendorf was to say that it was the American infantry that was the decisive force in the West. The United States rush the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to France. The men were untrained. The AEF was trained in France. Even more Americans werectrained in America in preparation to be sent to France. The AEF was still not trained when the Germans launched their Spring 1918 offensive April 1918). The lack of a trained force when America entered the War almost cost the Allies the War. The inexperience of the AEF showed, but the bravery of the soldiers enabled the AEF to play an important role in stopping the Germans and then in the 100 Days Offensive (August-November 1918) which won the War.

Demobilization

The Army was suprised that World War ended so quickly. American planners were preparing to deploy a 3 million man army to France. The Allied 100-Day Offensive (August-November 1918) cracked the Western Front wide open and the German asked for the Armistice (November 1918). This was accomplished with an American Expeditionary Force of only about 1 million men in Europe. The more thn 2 million men still undergoing training in the United States proved not to be needed. The suddeness of the German collapse surprised Ameican planners. Some work on demobilization began (October), but it was very preliminary when the Armistice was signed. As the professional core of the Army was very small, virually the entire AEF was eligible for mustering out. There was a need for a small occupation force and a concern over the impact on the domestic economy of mustering out the military to rapidly. The Army decided to approach the problem by demobilizing on a unit basis. This began by demobilizing the units still in the United States undergoing training. The Army set up 30 demobilization centers located throughout the country. Thus the conscripts could be outprocessed and discharged as near their homes as possible. The Army began reyurning overseas units (mostly the AEF in France) as quickly as possible. The primary limitation here was shipping capacity. They were processed through debarkation centers operated by the Transportation Service. After reaching America, the men were transported by train to the various demobilization centers where they were mustered out. In addition to the unit approach, there were many individual discharges. There were also occupational groups, especially the railroad workers and anthracite coal miners. The demobilization went very rapidly. In the forst full month (November 1918?), the Army mustered out about 650,000 officers and men. And in 9 months it had demobilized nearly 3.25 million men--almost all of the volunteers and conscripts that had formed the World war I Army. This was done without any major disruption of the American economy. The Federal Government also released war industries and began to disposal of surplus materiel as the men were demobilized. The War Deopartment kept a a very substantial reserve of weapons and supplies that might be needed for peacetime use or in case of any new emergency. Although the Army had not been prepared for it, the demobilization process went rather smoothly.

Occupation Duties (1918-23)

The Army began trasporting the AEF home very quickly after the Armistice. The Army organized a firce to ensure German compliance with the terms of the Armistice as the demobilizatiion process began. Germany after World War I with a few exceptions was not occupied by the Allies. The major exception was the Rhineland. The other was the Saarland. An Allied force (Belgium, France, Great Britain, and the United States) under the terms of the Armistoice occupied the German Rhineland. British forces occupied the northern Rhineland and French forces the southern Rhineland. The American Third Army was positioned between the British and French. This was a substantial force consisting of eight divisions organized into three corps. The newly activatedv Third Army entered Luxembourg (November 20). The Americans were surprised by their reception in Luxembourg. They were German speakers but like the Belgians had been occupied by the Germans at the onset of the War. The Americans continued to the Rhine and entered Germany (December 1). The American zone was the region around Koblenz (between Luxembourg and the Rhine River). The Germans were fairly friendly. The local Germans in fact were releaved that they were not in the French zone. There were no serious incidents with German civilians during the occupation. German attitudes, however, changed dramatically toward the Allies when the terms of the Versailles Treaty were published. General Pershing had more difficulty with the French than the Germans. The American occupation force was rapidly drawn down after the Paris Peace Conference which drew up the Versailles Treaty was completed (May 1919). The numbers were only 15,000 men (January 1920). The U.S. Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty. Thus a separate peace traty had to be negotiated between Germany and the United States (summer 1921). The United States gradually with drew the remaining forces after that. The American Government was anxious to repatriate the occupation force as soon as possible. The last 1,000 American troops withdrew from the Rhineland (January 1923). The principal American occupation operation was in the German Rhineland. There was also a limited occupation of the other major member of the Central Powers--Austria Huingary. A small operation involved deploying an Army regiment to Italy, They entered Austria and participated in the occupation there for 4 months.

Russian Expeditions

Tsar Nicholas was forcedcto abdicate (March 1917). A Provisional Government tried to continue the War, but were overthrown by the Bolsheviks who promised peace (November 1917). The Allies hoped to reopen an Eastern Front and launched several expeditions in Russia. After the Armistice this mission changed to supporting the whites in the Russian Civil War (1918-20), although the Allies never developed a coherent policy. President Woodrow Wilson to order the Army to join Allied forces in expeditions into Russian territory (August 1918). The first intervention was a multinational forces led by the British which seized the ports of Murmansk-Archangel. About 5,000 Americans were involved. Their primary assignment was to guard war supplies meant for theTsarist Army. The were engaged by the Red Army and some hard fighting ensued. There was no substantial White Army in the north. They finally withdrew (June 1919). Another force seized Vladivostok and took up positions in Siberia allong the Trans-Siberian Railway where they supported Kolchsk's White Army. They major force at Vladivostok was the Japanese. About 10,000 Americans commanded by Maj. Gen. William S. Graves were involved. The assignment became very complicated. A major effort was made to assist the Check Legion persued by the Red Army reach safety. The Americans and Japanese were suspicious of each other. A major American objective became to get the Japnese out of Siberia. Some historians claim that the Allied interventions poisoned Soviet relations with the West. This is a curious interpretation. It might be the case if the Bolsheviks were faviravly disposed to the West to begin with. Of course that was not the case. The Bolshevik were commited to world revolution and were involved in supporting revolutionary activities in other countries. It also ignores the fact that the major American goal came to be to get the Japanese out of Siberia. It also ignores the American food relief program that saved millions of Russians.

League of Nations

The United States Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty, primarily because it included a provision creating the League of Nations. Republicans were dubious about the League believing that it represented the vary entagling alliances that President Washington had warned against. The Senate might have given its consent to ratify the Treaty had President Wilson been healthier and able to push as well as willing to compromise. He was not and the Senate rejected the Treaty. America;s failure to join the League significantly reduced American particupation in European affairs, especilly the collective security on which the League was based. This affected the potential American overseas military military commitments. This was a rejection of Wilsonian internationalism and a reafirmation of the traditional American rejection of foreign alliances and large standing military establishments.

National Defense Act of 1920

Following World War I the U.S. Cngress passed a sweeping reform of The U.S. Army. It would set the organization od the army not only during the the inter-War era, but more more importantly World war II--the climaric strgglke to save Wsrrn civilization. The Act was a comprehensive reform of the National Defense Act of 1916. The National Defense Act of 1920 would givern the U.S, Army into the early Cold War era (1920). It has been described as 'one of the most constructive pieces of military legislation ever adopted in the United States'. [Stewart, p. 57.] The Congress as a result of the the World War I experienbce finally rejected the theory of an 'expansible' Regular Army that had dominated American military thinking since the ealiet days of the Reoublic. It was not what Amnerican military leaders wanted, but rather what the civilian leadership in Conress was determined to maontain, primarily to keep military spending as low as possible. This worked for a century because, unlike Europe, the United Stats was not bordered with well armed powers anxious to seize territory. The central feature of the Act was a major reorganization. The U.S. Army was organized in three components. First was the Regular or standing Army, a small core of prpofessionals. When World war II began, several small European countrieshad lrger armies than that of the United States. Second was the National Guard. The National Guard was essentially state milias wghch have bee renamed an regularized by the National Defense act of 1916. National Guard Divisions would play asn important role in World war I. Third was a new Organized Reserves. The reserve component consisted of the Officers’ Reserve Corps and the Enlisted Reserve Corps, two separate organizations. The system ws set up Each of these three Army components were to be administered in peacetime so hat that it could contribute to any needed and rapid expansion of the army in case of a future war emergency.

Peacetime Army

The U.S. Army that was to liberate Western Europe and play an important role in defeating NAZI Germany did not exist in the 1930s. What existed was a very small professional core. The War Department after the Armistice on the Western Front (November 1918) recomended that Congress authorize a permanent Regular Army of about 0.5 million men and a 3-month universal training system that would create a ready reserve that had basic military skills. The Army thought that America's World War I experience of entering the War without a substantial force showed the dead for both a credible force and a conscription-based reserve system. This would give the United States the capability of rapidly creating a major force to provide for future defense needs. Congress accurately reflecting American public opinion firmly rejected these proposals. Americans thought they had won the "War to End All wars". With Imperial Germany defeated, few Americans saw the need for a large army or major military expenditures. Congress was only willing to fund an Army needed to defend the continental United States and its overseas territories and possessions. Given the American naval shield, this did not require a large force. The other firce Congress was willing to fund was one that could ensure that the United States kept up to date with the military arts and to train a small voluntary reserve component. The U.S. Army in the inter-war period was thus not a real army with a credible force. It was a small professionl core on which a real army could be built. It was what was called a “mobilization army”. The U.S. Army thus devoted much of its efforts on the planning needed for how to expand in case of emergency.

Deployments Overseas

After the withdraw of the U.S, Army from Europe and related deployments such as Siberia, there were very few American Army expeditionary deployments overseas. A rare deployment was a small force of about 1,000 men stantioned as part of the China Station in Tientsin, China. They were first deployed just after World War I (1923). Tienstsin was a stratehic port in norther China. This was the port from which an Allied expeditionary force relieved the foreign embassies in Pieking during the Boxer Rebellion (1900). The deployment was we believe to protect shore facilities of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. They were also to impede Japanese seizure of Chinese ports. A similar force was briefly briefly deployed from the Philippines Islands, at the time a U.S. Commonwealth, to Shanghai when the Japanese attacked the city (1932). The U.S. Army Tientsin was finally withdrawm (1938 after the Japanese invaded China proper and launched the Second Sino-Japanese War. In addition to these U.S. Army deployments, the U.S. Marine Corps was also used for epeitionary deployments, primarily in the Caribbean. These deploymnts ceased with the Roosevely Administration's Good Neighbor Policy (1933). The largest U.S. Army deployment was in the Philippines Iskands, but this was of course obstesibly American territory. Another Army force was deployed to guard the Panama Cana, which was also at the time U.S. territory. The primary importance of these deployments was the operational experience gained by the officers nd men of the small peace-time Armu. These were the men that would constitute the profesional core of the massive U.S. Army that would fight World War II against Axis forces. [Stewart]

Naval Shield

While Congress was unwilling to vote substantial appopriations for the U.S. Army, naval appropriations were viewed differently. There was a willingness to approve some naval spending, because the Navy was seem as America's shield. Most Americans thought that was all that was necessary for an effective national defense. This became the conerstone of American defense thinking theoughout the 1920s and 30s. While naval appropriations were approved, they were not sufficent to mintain a sunstantial lead over the Imperil Japanese Naby thast had existed at the time of Workd war I.

World Situation (1920s)

The defeat of Germany in World War I removed the one country that seemed ti constitur=te a threat to America and the other democracies. There was concern about Communist Rusia. But that was aremote danger and the Russia Civil War (1918-20) was so damaging that the danger seemed to have been reduced. Mussolini's Fascist ceased power in Italy, but he did not challenge the established European system. The world seem a relatively safe place in the 1920s, especially with Germny disarmed and a democratic government in place. Thus there seemed to be no compelling reason to expand or even moderize the Army.

The Rise of Dictators (1930s)

The world situation, however, changed dramatically in the 1930s. The United States found itself in an increasingly dangerous world. It was a world world in which Stalin who seized power in the late-1920s was building a vast Red Army. The Japanese military had by the 1930s largely seized control of the Japanese Governmenr. They built the most modern military in Asia and after seizing Manchuria (1931) launched on the conquest of China (1937). Mussolini was building an army of 6 million bayonets and began to use it with the invasion of Eyhiopia (1935). The tipping point was in 1935 when Hitler announced the introduction of conscription. He was shortly to use it to expand the borders of the Reich. The first action was the Anschluss (1938) followed by an assault on Cechoslovakia. The military expansion program of the totalitarian powers meant that they by the end of the decade possessed the overwealming balance of power in the world. In Europe the democracies placed their hope on the French Army, the force that had stopped the Germans in World War I.

American Response

The United States throuhout the 1930s even after Hitler reintoduced conscription, made nol effort to significantly expand its army. There was efforts to expand the U.S. Navy and later in the decade the air force. The Army remained, however, a small professional force. Even small countries in Europe had a larger army. Neither were there major efforts to upgrade weaponry.

The Bonus March

One of the shabiest chapters in America's treatment of its veterans is the Bonus March that occurred during the Great Depression. Tanks and banyonets deployed against unenployed veterans against the background of the Depression caused mant to question the future of America. As a result of the Depression there had been a number of small marches on Washington, but nothing along the domensions of the Bonus March. Congress after World War I promised veterans a bonus to honor their service. Congress passed the Adjusted Service Certificate Law (1924). The bonus was to be paid in 1945. The American Legion has pushed for the legislation. The Law was not just what the Legion wanted and they pushed for revisions, especially after the Depression began. Veterans were of course among the millions of unemloyed Americans.The Legion pushed for a bill allowing veterans to borrow against 50 percent of the nonus certificate value (March 1931). Congress passed the bil, but President Hoover vetoed it. He believed that the Government could not afford it and deficit spending would just impede recovery from the Depression. Congress passed the bill over Hoover's veto (February 1932). Thus many veterans began to see money from their bonus as a real possibility. Walter W. Walters and a group of other unemployed cannery workers decided that the Government should pay their bonus now when they really needed it. They came to WAshington and set up camp, calling themselves the "Bonus Expeditionary Forces" (May 1932). As word spread of the initial encampment, thousands of veterans, many brining their family, headed for Washington. Eventually about 20,000 veteranns massed in Washington. Some of the veterans set up the Mall, but most built a "Hooverville" at nearby Anacostia Flats. The House of Representatives passed the Patman Bonus Bill moving up the payment date (June 15). The Bonus Army demonstrated at the Capitol as the Senate considered the bill (June 17). The Senate rejected it. The District of Columbia police attempted to evict some of the remaining Bonus Marchers from a Federal construction site (July 28). In the ensuing mele the police shot and killed two Bonus Marchers. The Marchers then attacked the police. They did not use fire arms, but they managed to injure several policemen who fell back. District of Columbia authotities informed President Herbert Hoover that they could not deal with the situation. President Hoover ordered Secretary of War Hurly to "surround the affected area and clear it without delay." Hoover did not order an attack on the major encampment at Anacostia. The resulting attack, however, would be one more action that would descredit President Hoover in the eyes of many Americans. The action against the Bonus Marchers involved three future luminaries of World War II.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)

American through the 1930s was in the grips of the Great Depression. One Depression era assignment was the New Deal program--the Civilian Conservation Corps. Youth benefitted from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). President Franklin Roosevelt established the CCC, only a month after taking the oath of office in 1933. It was one of the first alpahbet soup agencies the President established under his New Deal. The CCC was created for boys who had finished school and couldn't find jobs. They worked in national parks and forests throughout the country, earning the nick name of the Tree Army. It is estimated that the CCC youths planted 200 million trees among their many projects. It was the largest program of reforestation and conservation in American history. This environmental program provided employment for 2.5 million youth and young unmarried men from age 17 to 25. The maintained and restored forests, beaches, and parks. The CCC built numerous forest roads, campgrounds, ranger stations and trails, many still used by park visitors and campers today. The stipend was only $1 a day for regular enrolless, but included received free board and job training. Assistant Leaders got $36 and leaders $45. Each month, $25 of their $30 salary was sent home to their families, many of whom were on relief. The money not only fed the families, but put money into local economies. This was pump-priming in New Deal terms. The CCC also provided their clothes, items similar to what the army wore. Youths who joined up were issued clothes for work and dress uniforms of spruce green in the winter and khaki for summer wear. They wore stripes on their uniforms. Two stripes were Assistant Leader, three strips for the Leader. I believe they were also provided work clothes. The CCC youths were lodged in camps and provided good food and medical care. The camp facilities varied. Many were made up of barracks-like building, often of wood and tar paper. Other worked from tent camps (figure 1). There were about 1,300 camps. During World War II, some of the camps were turned into prisoner of war (POW) camps. The program operated 1934-43. There was also a similar, but much small program for young women. About 8,500 women participated. Many New Deal agencies were sharply criticised, usually by business groups with the recurring charge of socialism. The CCC was one of the most popular and least criticised of all the New Deal programs.

World War II

Again when World war II broke out, the American Army consisted of only a small professional core. Thanks to the Roosevelt Administration, steps were underway to build an airforce, but the Army was still a mere shell. Devisive debates were held in the Congress over drafting a sizeable force (1940 and 1941). Only amonth before Pearl Harbor, the Congress almost ended the draft and allow those drafted to return home (November 1941). A journalist working in Britain recalls see the first boatload of American infantry arriving in Britaion (January 1942). They were an Iowa National Guard unit, the 43th infantry. They landed in Belfast still wearing the old World War I helmets. They were singing, "Ioway--Ioway--Out Where the Tall Corn Grows". The journalist writes, "I hoped with all my heart that the men who led them knew what they were doing. They seemed a little dewy behinf the ears, almost surprised that they were overseas so far from Iowa where they might soon have to fight an ememy who wanted to kill them," [MacVane, p.75.] Few in this and subsequent units had any military experience. And they would soon be pitted against the battle hardened Wehrmact arguaably the most professional military in the history of warfare. They were in fact not prepared as the Panzers demonstrated at Kaserine (February 1943). The U.S. Army proved, however, to be fast learners. The prncipal World War II commnanders emerged from the fighting in Tunisia and Sicily. Most imprtant of all, Eisenhower emnerged as he indespensible Allied commander of the War. [Atkinson] Even major American commanders were guilty of amateurish mistakes. It is not diffcult to understand. Only a few years earlier many had been majors and lieutenant colonels in the peacetime army. The U.S. Army had two major advanyages over the Wehrmacht, First, it was backed by the emenese industrial capacity of the United states. Second, it did not have a political commander that micro-managed operations. Unlike World War I, the U.S. Army did not play the central role in defeating Germany. It did, however, play an important role in reentering the Continent. This allowed it to play a n important role in defeating the NAZIs and in preventing Western Europe from falling into the ominous orbit of the Soviet Union.

Sources

Stewart, Richard W. General Editor. American Military History Vol. II The United States Army in a Global Era, 1917-2003 (Center of Military History, United States Army: Washington, D.C.. 2005). Washington, D.C., 2005.







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Created: 5:27 AM 11/9/2007
Last updated: 11:57 PM 6/17/2013