by James L. Yarrison



The rise of the United States to world power status at the dawn of the twentieth century coincided with an intensification of international rivalries that led most world powers to tighten their alliances and alignments in an effort to strengthen their positions. Although it was not aligned with any power bloc, the United States felt the impact of increased world tensions because it had acquired overseas possessions in the Spanish-American War and because it needed new markets and raw materials for its expanding industrial economy. The new possessions needed to be secured--an insurrection in the Philippines began in 1899--and the nation needed to guard against possible danger from abroad. Since advances in weapons, communications, and transportation were ushering in a new era in warfare, the Army had to develop new capabilities. Beginning with Secretary of War Elihu Root (1899-1904), the service strove toward that end in the years before the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917. Challenges in recruiting and retention, consolidation and closure of posts, relationships with the militia, and garnering congressional support impeded progress. Despite these difficulties, the Army in the Root reform era began a significant process of innovation and reform era that continues today.


Of great importance for the Army and its future was the adoption during this period of many of the reforms recommended by Secretary of War Root. After studying the lessons of the War with Spain and taking into account the recommendations of reform-minded Army officers, Secretary Root concluded that most of the mistakes made during the war were the product of faulty organization and planning. These reforms related to three principal areas: command, the National Guard, and branches and schools.


The Commanding General of the Army before the war did not exercise command or control over the administration and supply of the Army. These functions were under the command of bureau chiefs who were responsible to the Secretary of War, alone, a system that saddled the Army with a problem of split authority at its highest levels. After long study within the War Department, Secretary Root proposed a plan to eliminate this bifurcation and restore to soldiers command in strictly military matters. To do this, he would reduce the power of the bureau chiefs and establish a General Staff headed by a Chief of Staff who would replace the Commanding General of the Army and act as chief adviser and executive agent of the President on military policy. Despite the opposition of the incumbent Commanding General and the bureau chiefs, Congress adopted Secretary Root's proposal in 1903.

The General Staff that Secretary Root envisioned was actually a group of selected experienced officers who would be free to plan, investigate, and coordinate military activities under the supervision of the Chief of Staff. Misconceptions and disputes about the General Staff's role and functions arose. Nevertheless, for the first time in American history, the Army had the basis for an effective planning machinery in peacetime. Also, the introduction of details to the General Staff of officers from the line and from some of the bureaus assuaged the problems of entrenchment associated with permanent assignments.

Changes in the National Guard

At the suggestion of Secretary Root, Congress, in the Militia Act of 1903 (the Dick Act), reorganized the Militia as the Organized Militia, which was to be called the National Guard, and the Reserve Militia and sought to bring the National Guard's training program, organization, and equipment in line with that of the Regular Army. Control over Guard personnel remained, however, in the hands of the state governments, and the President was authorized to call the Guard into federal service only in case of invasion or insurrection or to enforce the laws of the Union. Federal service in these cases was to be limited to nine months.

Branch and School Reforms

To meet the needs of the Army for better educated and specialized officers, reforms affecting branches and schools also were introduced. The Medical Department was enlarged to include a Medical Corps, a Hospital Corps, an Army Nurse Corps, a Dental Corps, and a Medical Reserve Corps; the Quartermaster Corps was eventually created as an efficiency by combining the Quartermaster, Subsistence, and Pay Departments; and several Army schools were reorganized and new ones established. Of the new ones, the Army War College, established by Secretary Root in 1903 to educate experienced officers in the problems of high command, was the most important.


Carrying forward the momentum of Root's reforms, between 1908 and 1914 several changes were made in the law governing the National Guard. Of these, the right of the President to prescribe the length of federal service and the authority to appoint all National Guard officers while the Guard was in federal service were the most important. To break down the barriers that existed between the Regular Army and the National Guard and to afford training in the handling of large units and combined arms, joint maneuvers were held. In 1910 another step in the direction of integrating the Regular Army and the National Guard was taken when the General Staff prepared a plan for three permanent infantry divisions, to be composed of regiments from both components. Because of difficulties along the Mexican border, however, that plan was not implemented, and only a provisional maneuver division was created to deal with the Mexican situation.

Between the Spanish-American War and World War I, the Army made considerable adjustment in response to new developments in munitions and equipment. Probably the most far-reaching changes came as a result of the development of the internal combustion engine, which made possible the truck, the airplane, and the tank. The impact on tactics, organization, and logistics was revolutionary.


Although Secretary Root repeatedly made the point that the purpose of the Army is to fight, the service found itself engaging in a number of challenging missions short of war. Among the peacetime missions of the Army between the Spanish-American War and World War I, two stand out --the accomplishments of the Army of Occupation in Cuba and the construction of the Panama Canal.

In Cuba, a provisional government led by Army generals brought economic and political stability to the island. Among its greatest achievements was the discovery of the cause of yellow fever in 1900 and the subsequent elimination of the disease in Cuba by the Medical Department.

The building of the Panama Canal was supervised by a commission composed chiefly of Army officers and headed by Col. George W. Goethals, who pushed construction to completion in eight years. Both the Corps of Engineers and the Medical Department made major contributions to this project. The Medical Department eradicated the malaria and yellow fever that had blocked earlier attempts to build a canal. The Engineers' completion of this project freed the nation from the cost of maintaining large fleets in two oceans. At the same time, the canal established a requirement for constant protection by highly trained garrisons manning modern fortifications and weapons.


The Root reform era, which encompassed the period between the Spanish-American War and World War I, saw vast changes in the entire fabric of the US Army. This reorientation of a largely frontier-based, Indian-fighting force to meet modern requirements started it on the path to becoming, eventually, the most powerful army on the globe. The reforms that Secretary Root sponsored and facilitated made this evolution possible. To his vision and willingness to think beyond the limits imposed by entrenched interests and practices, the Army of the twenty-first century is lastingly indebted.

page created 3 May 2001

Return to CMH Online