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The History of Armed Forces Day: Why Are We Celebrating?

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Armed-forces-dayBy Dr. Richard Hines
Program Director, History and Military History at American Military University

The third Saturday of May is Armed Forces Day to honor the men and women who have valiantly served the United States. This day is also intended to educate the public on the various roles of the military and how each branch of the service accomplishes the task of keeping our nation safe.

Armed Forces Day came into existence on August 31, 1949, when Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced that this single day would replace the individual celebrations for the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Marine Corps League still celebrates Marine Corps Day, as well as Armed Forces Day.

Following the American Revolution, the citizens of this nation, because of their former relationship with Britain, feared a standing army. As a result, the United States continued to maintain a minimal force depending instead on an “army of potential,” the thinking being that we would raise an effective fighting force during times of need. Out of this grew a policy of a “navy second to none,” that could stop our enemies at mid-ocean. Ironically, both Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolph Hitler believed they could achieve their goals before the United States could effectively mobilize.

Up through World War II, the U.S. depended on the Secretary of War and the War Department, but the Cold War changed the focus to national defense. The need for national defense in the nuclear age created an interservice competition that hindered adequate defense planning. This competition revolved around funding, organization, and strategy.

Recognizing the need to develop a single strategy, the Army submitted a plan that would grant autonomy to the Air Force, and a defense staff headed by a single military officer to be supervised by a defense secretary. This officer and the defense secretary would be responsible for determining roles for each branch and the preparation of annual budgets.

Army planners believed that the Soviet Union did not have a global navy, and therefore the Navy should relinquish their role as the first line of defense. Reading between the lines, Admiral James V. Forrestal realized this would put an end to land-based naval air, no nuclear weapons for the Navy, and a reduction and change in role for the Marine Corps. Forrestal asserted that interservice rivalry did not present as much as problem as did a lack of coordination at the level of the executive branch.

For the next two years, the two coalitions debated the best way to coordinate a defensive strategy for the nation. With the Cold War intensifying, President Harry S. Truman and Congress legislated the National Security Act of 1947. This act inaugurated the National Military Establishment, and created the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the United States Air Force. The National Military Establishment officially began on September 18, 1947.

Just two days earlier, the Senate confirmed James Forrestal as the first Secretary of Defense. Initially, the Secretary of Defense did not have much in the way of power, but in 1949, an amendment to the National Security Act strengthened the role of the secretary and created a Department of Defense instead of the National Military Establishment.

Essentially, Forrestal had won. He had managed to save naval air and the Marine Corps, but the Cold War and the need for national defense would mean that the new Air Force would gain increased significance. To meet the challenge, and much to the chagrin of Truman and Forrestal, the proposed budget for the Air Force skyrocketed. Forrestal gathered the JCS together, but could never reach consensus. As a result, he resigned as the secretary of defense.

In March 1949, a former army officer and assistant secretary of war, Louis Johnson, became the new secretary of defense. Just five months later, Johnson announced the creation of Armed Forces Day. With the U.S. military under a centralized department, it only made sense that the various services should be honored on a single day.

At American Military University (AMU), we have had a longstanding relationship with our nation’s military. A large number of our students are presently serving or have served in the military, as have many of our faculty and staff. An online education greatly benefits those serving in far-distant places.

On many occasions, I have had students ask for a little more time on their assignments because they had to go on patrol in Afghanistan or Iraq. I remember in an introductory post, at the beginning of a session, when one student wrote “I like long moonlight walks in the sand and blowing-up stuff, I am stationed in Afghanistan.” It’s an honor to work alongside these vigilant soldiers who serve or have served our country.

May 20, 1950, marked the first Armed Forces Day. Themed as “Teamed for Defense,” this day sought to honor those who served as well as increase public awareness of the role the military plays overseas and at home. This coming Saturday, May 16, 2015, is a time to honor our fallen heroes and those still serving here and abroad. These men and women hold a special place in the heart of those of us here at AMU. We will be forever grateful for what you do for all of us. May we, as a nation, never take that service for granted.

About the Author

Dr. Richard K. Hines is the Director of History and Military History Programs at the American Public University System. He received his PhD from Washington State University, where he then taught for many years, and developed some of the university’s first online courses. Dr. Hines has been at APUS since January 2012.

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