Primary Source Archives
Gale Primary Sources contains archives and collections that provide researchers with firsthand content that can be used to examine and analyze the evolution of the military over time.
Take a closer look at the military history of the United States, from the formation of colonial militias in the 18th century to the use of armed forces to combat terrorism in the 21st century.
The history of the American military begins with colonial militias (irregular soldiers available for emergency defense) to provide protection against hostile Native Americans. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the fledgling American government created the Continental Army, Navy, and Marines as the nation’s first regular troops, although militias still served as the bulk of the American forces.
During the 19th century, the U.S. government was reluctant to fund a large standing army even though the militias performed poorly during the War of 1812. The U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) divided the U.S. military into the Union Army (so named because it was trying to preserve the Union) and the Confederate Army (fighting for the secessionist South). This war sparked notable innovations in military technology, although it was not until the end of the 19th century that the need for a modern military was revealed by the Spanish-American War (1898).
Although the Spanish-American War was a short and decisive victory for the United States, the U.S. Army had been ill prepared for it, highlighting the need for modernization. The war also elevated the status of the U.S. Navy, which grew in the years after the war to become the second largest in the world. Having largely kept out of international affairs during the 19th century, the United States was now a major player on the world stage with colonial holdings, and it needed a military to back up its new status.
The U.S. military proved decisive in the two defining world wars of the 20th century. Although initially reluctant to become involved in both World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945), the U.S. military’s entrance in these conflicts proved decisive in securing victory against Germany and its allies. The second half of the 20th century was dominated by a Cold War with the Soviet Union as the two superpowers battled for hegemony. The Korean War (1950–1953) and the Vietnam War (1957–1975) were products of this rivalry even though Soviet troops were never involved.
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other high-profile U.S. targets on September 11, 2001, introduced a new era of U.S. military strategy in which the enemy was not a country but Islamic extremists operating in cells throughout the world. American efforts to combat terrorism led to the U.S. invasion of both Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), resulting in protracted occupations of both countries.
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