The Herculean Effort to Build an American Army


The forgotten story of how America forged a mighty army before Pearl Harbor
By Paul Dickson

“The Rise of the GI Army, 1940-1941” by Paul Dickson tells the remarkable story of how the United States built its army from the ground up before World War II. In 1939, the army consisted of less than 200,000 poorly trained and poorly equipped soldiers and officers. By October 1941, the country’s newly revamped army numbered over 1.5 million uniformed soldiers and was led by a revitalized officer corps. Dickson’s goal is to explain how this feat was accomplished – before Americans knew they were going to war.

Dickson’s book reveals a little-known history of the American military and society in the 1930s and early 1940s. Some readers may be surprised to learn that a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, known as the Tree Army, was administered by the War Department. The men recruited for the CCC never received any military training, but army officers supervised their camps, which they ran with military efficiency. The military learned valuable lessons from the experience, including how to handle a large influx of recruits. Many leaders of the Tree Army later became non-commissioned officers in the service. The experience also demonstrated to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall, the virtues and potential of a citizen force.

The establishment of a peacetime project in September 1940 also played a crucial role in the creation of the new army. The legislation was fiercely opposed by many isolationist groups fearing they would be drawn into a European war, and its passage was a fierce victory for the Defenders Project. This political struggle was then revisited a year later when it was time to extend the project’s initial 12-month service life. In Dickson’s account, the peacetime project was essential in preparing the army for war. Without it, the experience of the United States and its allies during WWII would have been drastically different, with many more lives lost.

The main sections of the book deal with a series of “maneuvers” in the southern United States in 1940 and 1941, including the major Louisiana maneuvers of 1941. Involving hundreds of thousands of men, the exercises made it possible the growing military to test new training and equipment and expose its soldiers to the drudgery and physical challenges of deployments under harsh conditions. One of the most important lessons learned by military leaders was how to move and supply large numbers of soldiers. After observing one of the maneuvers at the end of 1941, the famous columnist Walter Lippmann joked that the year before the military “reminded him of jobless mechanics”, but now had the character of ‘a serious fighting force.

Marshall plays a particularly important role in Dickson’s story as someone who both understood and embraced the Army expansion effort through conscripts. Under his leadership, the military established basic training for all new soldiers. Marshall also pushed for the creation of Officer Candidate Schools, which enabled the best of the Army’s enlisted personnel to become officers. During the war, the schools generated more than 150,000 officers per year. Marshall’s keen appreciation for the welfare of his soldiers also inspired the creation of the Moral Division to provide men with entertainment and spiritual sustenance. Under Marshall’s leadership, the USO was formed in February 1941, bringing movie stars like Bob Hope to military audiences across the country.

It’s an American story in many ways. Dickson, the author of over 50 non-fiction books, tells how the impetus for the peacetime project did not come from the military, but from a private citizen named Grenville Clark, a wealthy lawyer from New York who fought for the project with his many contacts in business and Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt and Marshall did not join the effort until it was well under way. Various pro and anti-isolationist groups maneuvered to influence the legislation, in a dynamic reminiscent of American politics at its best and worst.

Meritocracy is also a lingering theme, especially in the tactics Marshall employed to ensure that only worthy officers would lead the troops. During the maneuvers, more than 1,000 officers were made redundant or reassigned. The first important officer to leave was a major general who was the senior division commander of the army. Of the 42 corps and division commanders participating in the Louisiana maneuvers, 31 were dismissed from their posts.

The press also helped build the new army – and not by accident. Journalists were the guests of choice at the maneuvers. At one o’clock, the military provided a space with tables and typewriters that stretched over three-quarters of a block. Marshall and others hoped they would write stories that both generate pride in the new military and encourage Americans to spend more to support it. Many journalists have done just that.

Marshall also relied on popular culture to woo audiences, as well as to encourage camaraderie in the ranks. He enlisted Hollywood’s help in making films about the military’s needs to be shown in theaters nationwide. In early 1941, the service released a new field manual that included a glossary of military slang, including an entry for GI, or government issue. The tale even includes a bit of celebrity. In July 1941, General George S. Patton appeared on the cover of Life magazine, providing, as Dickson puts it, a face for the new army.

The story of discrimination against African Americans is also deeply American. In segments scattered throughout the book that reflect the separate units in which black Americans then served, Dickson chronicles the efforts of civil rights leaders, members of the African-American press, and the soldiers themselves to ensure equal treatment. Dickson has a long Jim Crow history to draw upon in these passages.

In a particularly poignant vignette, he recounts the experience of Charles Young, who in June 1917 was such a talented officer that he was forced to resign from his post as colonel, in order to avoid threatening the hierarchy of white officers. if he was promoted. Dickson also writes of an incident in 1941 in which a division of African-American soldiers led by a black officer, rather than the usual white officer, was turned away from participating in a maneuver. Army chiefs were apparently uncomfortable with junior white officers and enlisted personnel having to greet a black superior. Not all the progress made in building up the army included the fight against endemic racism within it.

Throughout the book, the book evokes WWII-era philosophy, with subtle hints of willfulness and pugnacious spirit. It also reinforces to some extent the mythology surrounding the “greater generation” of WWII. Many Americans came to believe that there was something inherently valiant about the generation that fought the Germans and the Japanese. Dickson’s account does little to distract us from the fact that these men were indeed better Americans.

Dickson also approaches the story with perhaps an overabundance of faith that it will end well. It details many of the roadblocks to building the military, but at no point does the narrative stray too far from what the reader knows to be a happy ending. The book could have wrestled a bit more with the unresolved issues and character failures that hampered the effort along the way.

Yet reading about the birth of the country’s citizen army before WWII is a deeply encouraging experience. With all they face today, Americans need Dickson’s reminder of this momentous achievement.


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