Failure at Fort Knox: Public Opinion and the End of Universal Military Training

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Amy Rutenberg, University of Maryland at College Park
This paper uses the creation of and publicity surrounding the Experimental Training Unit established at Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a lens to explore the reasons for the defeat of universal military training (UMT) in the late 1940s.  It argues that the War Department and Army framed the Fort Knox unit as a reaction to criticism of UMT rather than publicizing it as a genuine test run for universal military training. In the process, planners unintentionally constructed ideals of citizenship and manhood they believed would appeal to a wide swath of the American public. Many of the unit’s unique features and its resultant publicity were designed to quell fears about militarism and moral decay, but planners lost sight of the main purpose of universal training – the importance of the program to national security.  The media campaign they launched treated training like a year of summer camp rather than the military endeavor it was.  They failed to convince Congress, detractors, and the American people at large that the Army was the proper place for instilling the virtues of citizenship and masculinity into American men. 

This work is significant for several reasons.  First, it illustrates the limits of federal reach during the early Cold War.  Congress and the American people not only rejected a plan they believed would lead to a “garrison state,” but they also rebuffed the military’s inadvertent attempts to dictate a universal male citizenship.  Second, the failure of UMT confirmed the nation’s commitment to military service as a selective male obligation.  This decision ultimately opened the door to the mass resistance to conscription that developed during the Vietnam War, as American men increasingly understood service in the armed forces as something that “other people” did.

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