U.S. Army history from the year you were born
Since the 1920 amendment to the National Defense Act was passed reorganizing the United States Army, arguably the most powerful fighting force in history has seen a lot of changes. The U.S. Cavalry that fought in the Indian Wars has faded into history, those who protested for promised pay in post-World War I have died out, and the soldiers of the Greatest Generation who landed at Normandy Beach are almost gone.
In the 100 years from 1920 to 2020, Army history has changed demographically, physically, and ideologically. Countries have fallen and risen, Special Forces have infiltrated Panama and Somalia, and training facilities have begun to employ video games to prepare recruits for 21st-century warfare. U.S. soldiers were once male only, yet women are now permitted on the front lines of open combat. Women are also training in co-ed facilities, something unheard of 100 years ago when the world was still reeling from a war that had rocked the globe with its modern tactics and immense scope.
But the history of the Army isn’t only about warfare: During the Great Depression, it operated Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps out of which previously unemployed, unmarried men worked on infrastructure programs designed to help stabilize a failing economy and provide jobs to those unable to find work.
The 1940s saw another war that affected the entire world. The U.S. was reluctant to get involved until the Pearl Harbor attack, which changed the national consensus and led the country to massively mobilize into stopping the Nazi regime and its allies. The 1950s was a decade that included the Korean War, nuclear testing, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy attacking the Army for being too easy on communists.
The 1960s brought another set of challenges. The Cold War began that decade, and Cuba became the face of America’s closest communist threat. Vietnam, a war that many protested, began with troops arriving in the country as early as 1965. From the 1970s to the 1980s, the U.S. struggled with recruitment and painting a new face on the Army. The 1990s and 2000s began a tech revolution, as well as fighting in the Middle East—which continues to this day. The U.S. Army has changed, but it endures and is still the main infantry force defending America.
To further explore the fascinating history of the U.S. Army, Stacker scoured resources from newspaper articles and primary documents to studies and various governmental websites. Army strength numbers for each year are sourced from the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC). Keep reading to learn more about Army history from the year you were born.
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1920: Amended National Defense Act is passed
Army strength: 204,292 people (0.19% of U.S. population)
The National Defense Act of 1920 provided updates to the 1916 National Defense Act, including the reorganization of the U.S. Army as a three-part organization comprised of the standing Regular Army, the National Guard, and the Organized Reserve. The act strengthened the National Guard and Organized Reserve in particular, stipulating that the Militia Bureau's chief be a National Guard officer and allowing National Guard officers to perform as Army general staff. Also in 1920, there was a big push for universal weight standards to ensure those who enlisted could meet the responsibilities of war.
1921: The Army intervenes at the Battle of Blair Mountain
Army strength: 230,725 people (0.21% of U.S. population)
Four labor uprisings between 1919 and 1921 required Army intervention, but the largest of these—and the largest in U.S. history—took place over five days in late August and early September of 1921 as part of the Coal Mine Wars, multiple labor disputes throughout Appalachia. Around 10,000 fully armed coal miners who sought to unionize marched to Logan County in West Virginia to confront 3,000 “Logan Defenders” (strike bearers backed by coal operators) and law-enforcement officers, and force the coal mines into a contract. Roughly 1 million rounds were fired, up to a 100 people killed (though this report varies), and many more arrested. The Army was deployed by a presidential order to stop the fighting—famously managed to send thousands of miners home without firing a single shot.
1922: Col. Charles Young dies
Army strength: 148,763 people (0.14% of U.S. population)
Col. Charles Young was the first black colonel in the United States Army, the first black U.S. national park superintendent, first black military attache, and third black graduate of the United States Military Academy. The son of former slaves, Young led the U.S. Calvary into Mexico in Pershing's Punitive Expedition. At the time of his death in 1922, he was the highest-ranking black officer in the Regular Army.
1923: Harding orders troops home from Germany
Army strength: 133,243 people (0.12% of U.S. population)
Four years after the end of World War I, President Warren G. Harding ended the U.S. occupation of the Rhine through an executive order, effectively calling the last of the U.S. troops back home from Germany. Six months later, Harding and his wife embarked on a “voyage of understanding” speaking tour throughout Alaska and other western U.S. states in order to connect with voters there, amidst multiple scandals dogging the Harding presidency.
1924: Philippines scouts rebel
Army strength: 142,673 people (0.13% of U.S. population)
Philippine scouts trained by members of the U.S. Army mutinied because they were not given the same pay and treatment as their stateside counterparts. The men, who were essential to American rule in the Philippines in spite of not receiving equal benefits or pay to American soldiers, were sent to jail for rebelling and defying orders. The U.S. Army ignored their requests for equal pay and changed nothing about recruitment methods or leadership.
1925: Black soldiers evaluated for wartime fitness
Army strength: 137,048 people (0.12% of U.S. population)
The Army War College in 1925 began a study of the service and fitness of black soldiers. After review, the college found that black soldiers who were led by white officers could enter into wartime conflicts. For many years this policy was in place; the segregation of troops continued until 1948, just two years before the start of the Korean War.
1926: Sgt. Stubby dies
Army strength: 134,938 people (0.11% of U.S. population)
Sgt. Stubby, the mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, died in his sleep March 16, 1926. Stubby was famous for grabbing a German by the seat of his pants, and shook paws with three presidents (Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge). The dog was an honorary member of the America Red Cross, YMCA, and American Legion. He could sniff out poison gas, track down wounded and dead soldiers, and survived shrapnel wounds, a gas attack; he took part in 17 battles. He was the most highly decorated dog of World War I and so beloved that when he died, his body was preserved. He still wears his blanket decorated with his medals and can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
1927: Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan Red
Army strength: 134,829 people (0.11% of U.S. population)
Surrounding the Geneva Naval Conference in 1927, the U.S. Army developed a series of color-coded war plans for hypothetical conflict scenarios with Japan, Germany, Mexico, and England. War Plan Red outlined a hypothetical plan for defending and invading British-held Canada. The plan described first sending the Joint Army in to capture Halifax in order to cut off Canadians from British allies before overtaking power plants around Niagara falls, causing Canadians to freeze. Mounting attacks—from marches into Montreal and Quebec to seizing nickel mines in Ontario—were intended to gain complete control. War Plan Red was approved in 1930 by Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley and Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams III. Updates came to the war plan in 1934 and 1935, but it was never presented to Congress for an actual war declaration.
1928: First U.S. Army Day
Army strength: 136,084 people (0.11% of U.S. population)
The first official U.S. Army Day was celebrated May 1, 1928. It was timed for the same day as Workers' Day, a communist celebration. Army Day was moved to April 6 in 1929 in honor of the anniversary date of the U.S. entering World War I. The holiday is meant to introduce the public to the activities of the U.S. Army, convey the importance of preparedness for the military, and to bring attention to national defense.
1929: Escobar revolutionaries send stray bullets to U.S.
Army strength: 139,118 people (0.11% of U.S. population)
In El Paso, Texas, the U.S. Calvary was under threat from the Escobar Revolution. The revolutionaries fought so close to the U.S border that stray bullets landed on the U.S side and several injuries were reported.2018 All rights reserved.