The Root Reforms and the National Guard

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THE ROOT REFORMS AND THE NATIONAL GUARD
by William M. Donnelly
Elihu Root, 41st US Secretary Of War

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In 1898 the National Guard was governed by the amended Militia Act of 1792 and almost completely funded, organized, and administered by state governments. The amount of funding and attention state governments gave to their militia varied tremendously. The organization, the equipment, and the training of units varied from state to state and were not always compatible with those of the Regular Army. The mobilization of state military forces for the Spanish-American War in 1898, while much more effective than the mobilizations of 1846 and 1861, did clearly demonstrate that the Guard was not a reserve force fit for modern conditions. Under the amended Militia Act of 1792, the President could only issue a call for troops, with the War Department setting a quota for each state. Each state governor organized the units with which he answered the President's call, usually by requesting that National Guard units volunteer. Guardsmen, however, were under no legal obligation to volunteer, and a significant number refused either because of fears over how their unit would be treated by the Regular Army or from concern over hardships that volunteering would impose on their families. Large numbers of Guardsmen who did volunteer failed their physical examination. To fill units to full strength, states recruited enlisted men direct from civil life. As a result, most of the units organized for the war had a cadre of Guard officers and noncommissioned officers and large numbers of enlisted men with no prior military training. Federal service revealed that the training of Guardsmen in all aspects of military operations was, for the most part, grossly inadequate to the demands of active duty and extended field operations.

Secretary of War Elihu Root concluded that the Militia Act of 1792 had to be replaced. Root understood that such a reform would require building support in both Congress and the National Guard. He conferred frequently with key congressional leaders, most notably Congressman Charles Dick, chairman of the House Militia Affairs Committee and a long-time Ohio National Guard officer who had served in Cuba during the War with Spain. Since 1882 some National Guardsmen had been lobbying for Congress to repeal the Militia Act of 1792, officially designate the Guard as the Army's reserve force, and greatly increase the federal government's support of state units with funds, equipment, and supplies. These efforts continued after the war with Spain, and Root allied himself with these officers. When Root created a board of officers to study how to reform the Army, he included on it a Guard officer, and the board allowed prominent Guard officers to contribute to its deliberations on militia matters. Because of this preparation, Root's proposals for reforming the National Guard passed through Congress with little opposition.

The Militia Act of 1903--together with its 1908 amendment--was, in the words of a leading historian of the National Guard, "the most important national legislation in militia history." The act, also known as the Dick Act in honor of Dick, repealed the Militia Act of 1792 and divided the militia into two groups: the Reserve Militia, defined as all able-bodied men between 18 and 45, and the Organized Militia, defined as state units receiving federal support. There was a one-time grant of $2 million to modernize equipment, and states could now use federal funds to pay for summer training camps. The War Department would now fund the attendance of Guard officers at Army schools, and Regular officers would be detailed to serve as inspector-instructors with Guard units. There would be joint Regular-Guard maneuvers and training camps. In return for all this, the act gave the President the power to call the Organized Militia--that is, the National Guard--into federal service for up to nine months' service to repel invasion, suppress rebellion, or enforce federal laws, but not for service outside the United States. Guardsmen had to answer a presidential call or face court-martial, and states had to organize, equip, and train their units in accordance with the organization, standards, and procedures of the Regular Army. Finally, if Guard units failed to meet certain standards of training and administration as set by the War Department, they would lose their federal support.

In 1908 the act was amended. The nine-month limit on federal service was deleted; the President would now set the length of federal service. The ban on Guard units serving outside the United States was dropped. Clearly establishing the Guard's role as the Army's reserve force, the amended act stated that during a mobilization the Guard had to be called before the Army could organize a federal volunteer force. Also in 1908, Congress agreed to increase the annual federal subsidy of the Guard to $4 million, and the War Department established the Division of Militia Affairs. The division served as the link between the department and the state adjutants general, supervised the distribution of equipment and supplies to the states, evaluated Guard training and administration, and acted as the militia's representative to the General Staff.

While the changes were a great improvement, they did not create a truly national militia force that was a ready reserve for the Army. The Army could not dictate what types of units states could form. Because infantry units were the cheapest for states to maintain and carried the most prestige, about 80 percent of Guard units were in this branch, even though the Army needed more of other types to form a balanced reserve. The effectiveness of Guard units varied significantly among the states, depending on how much states spent on their militia. The federal standards now imposed on units made the Guard much more expensive. Federal funding was insufficient to meet the standards, however, so state funding became crucial to the quality of Guard units. Recruiting and retaining enlisted men was very difficult because federal standards increased the demands on a Guardsman's time, training was often monotonous, and drilling was unpaid. Many commanders responded by emphasizing the athletic and social aspects of Guard service at the expense of military training. Readiness suffered from these causes, from often inadequate armories, and from the Regular Army's inability to fill all inspector-instructor billets.

Since the Civil War many, perhaps most, Regular Army officers had believed that the militia was incompetent and unreliable, and this belief remained strong after passage of the Militia Act. Harsh and sometimes unreasonable criticism by Regulars angered Guard officers working hard to improve their units. Many Guard officers continued to see the increasing federal regulation of the militia as an unwarranted intrusion into what had traditionally been state and local matters. These frictions, arising in large part from incomprehension by each component of the other, did much to sour the relationship between the Regular Army and the National Guard between 1903 and 1916. In 1915 the pressures came to a boil. The General Staff was focused on planning for war with another great power and on intervening in Mexico. Based on the Regulars' evaluation of the Guard's shortcomings and a 1912 ruling by the Judge Advocate General that Congress was in error when it approved the use of the Guard outside the United States, the General Staff concluded that the Guard as an institution was now unsuitable for modern war and could never be an effective reserve force for the Army. The staff's consequent "Continental Army" plan more than doubled the size of the Regular Army, created a permanent federal volunteer reserve force--the Continental Army--and limited the National Guard in federal service to repelling invasions, suppressing rebellion, and enforcing federal laws. The plan also called for Congress to repeal the 1908 provision giving the Guard preference over any wartime federal volunteer force. While Guardsmen lobbied vigorously against the plan, it was defeated in Congress early in 1916 for other reasons: doubts that the Continental Army could recruit sufficient men; concern that it would be too expensive; dislike of ceding more power to the federal government; and fear that the plan was a militaristic threat to American democracy.

In large part to address the serious shortcomings of the Guard as a reserve force, Congress later in 1916 passed the National Defense Act. This law completed the work of the Root reforms in determining the Guard's role in national defense and asserting federal control over state military forces. The act doubled armory drill requirements and tripled the length of summer training. In addition, the War Department could now dictate the number and types of a state Guard's units and could impose uniform enlistment contracts and standards for commissions in the Guard. Guardsmen had to take both state and federal oaths and could be drafted into federal service. Moreover, the Regulars obtained federal reserve forces of their own, both officer and enlisted, and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. In return, the size of the Guard was to be expanded to 430,000; the annual federal subsidy was replaced by an annual budget to cover most Guard expenses; Guardsmen would now be paid for armory drill; and the Division of Militia Affairs was replaced by a General Staff agency, the Militia Bureau. Many Regulars saw the National Defense Act as a victory for the Guard, but it was a victory only in the sense that the Guard had not been eliminated. In exchange for continued existence and the hefty increase in federal funding, the Guard had lost most of its autonomy and much of its fraternal character so prized by state soldier. Most Regular officers continued to view the Guard with disdain. And while the Guard's authorized strength had been greatly increased, it would find itself in the coming world wars submerged within a multimillion-man force composed mainly of federal draftees.

The mobilization for World War I demonstrated the triumph of federal control over the Guard that the Root reforms had brought. The Guard contributed approximately 12 percent of the wartime army, a far lower percentage than state units had contributed in previous wars. After mobilization, federal draftees and reserve officers were used to bring Guard units to full strength, diluting their character as state units. A major reorganization of American tactical organizations, prompted by the demands of combat in Europe, caused further dilution. Once in federal service, many Guard units were reorganized, disbanded, or converted to a different type of unit. Many Guard commanders were relieved and replaced by Regulars. After the war, the Army discharged all Guardsmen as individuals instead of releasing them from federal service with their units. Many Guardsmen and their supporters vigorously protested these actions, but to no avail. Congress in a 1920 amendment to the National Defense Act rejected efforts by Regulars to replace the Guard with a federal reserve force but reaffirmed the strong federal control over the Guard that the Root reforms had instituted.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).
– US Army Center of Military History