Reimagining American Civil-Military Relations at Home and Abroad, 1779–1999

AHA Session 122
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 201 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Robert Berlin, Society for Military History
Antulio Echevarria, United States Army War College

Session Abstract

One of America’s first naval officers, Joshua Barney, resigned in protest over his relative rank in 1794. Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson struggled in 1949 to convince a reluctant Army to racially integrate its forces. In 1999 Kosovar refugees took comfort from knowing that U.S. Marines guarded them. On the surface these episodes, spanning 200 years of American history, have little in common. Each, however, manifests a different aspect of the same issue: civil-military relations. The papers by Thomas Sheppard, Richard Cranford, and Mary Elizabeth Walters approach the subject from distinct perspectives. Sheppard analyzes the influence of the American military over American civilians, while Cranford examines the influence of the American civilian government over the military in order to affect broader societal change. Finally, Walters explores the influence of the American military over foreign civilians and vise versa. In addition, the papers explore the dynamics of American civil-military relations over multiple levels of experience, from structural to highly personal.

            The conduct of American officers, especially in regards to the rarity of any interference with civilian policy, is often held up as a model of a well-functioning civil-military relations system. Thomas Sheppard, however, challenges us to look beyond this comforting narrative of civilian control. By examining naval officers during the early republic, Sheppard reveals a pattern of behavior in which naval officers used resignation, or the threat of resignation, to alter civilian policies.

            Six years before the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling desegregated schools, President Harry Truman issued an executive order mandating the integration of America’s armed forces. Richard Cranford examines the difficulties the American civilian government faced in forcing the U.S. Army to comply with the integration of African-American soldiers. Focusing on discord between the Fahy Committee, the U.S. Army, and Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson Cranford explores the role of bureaucratic systems and personalities is shaping civilian control over the military.

            While Sheppard and Cranford focus on civil-military relations between the American military and American civilians, Mary Elizabeth Walters seeks to broaden the scale of the concept by incorporating foreign civilian populations. Walters’ paper on the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis and military humanitarianism explores the multiple levels of experience in which civil-military relations functioned between the American military, Albanian civilians, and Kosovar refugees.

            By linking these diverse approaches and temporal periods together, the panelists aim to open a conversation on the nature of American civil-military relations. Rather than craft a cohesive narrative, Sheppard, Cranford, and Walters pose a series of questions that combined pose an opening to reimagine American civil-military relations.

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