Changing With the Times


Throughout its early existence, the U.S. military depended on volunteers to supplement its regular forces in time of war. From the American Revolution up to World War I, thousands of patriotic citizens enlisted to serve their country and defend liberty. As the twentieth century dawned, however, a number of forward thinking military officers realized the country could not always depend on patriotic fervor to draw men to the flag. There needed to be a reliable system to assure the army’s strength. One of the individuals who saw this was a life-long army officer. He had served the U.S. faithfully since the days when the Army consisted of only a few thousand professionals. He desired to see the country institute a new policy whereby the army depended on men from all walks of life and from all around the country. His name was General Leonard Wood. This is the story of how he fought to bring universal service to the U.S. Army.

As a young man, Leonard Wood believed that patriotic zeal would lead Americans into military service. It was how his own career had begun. He was born in Winchester, New Hampshire in October 1860, and at an early age, he told his father he wanted to enter either the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Though forced by his father to attend Harvard Medical School, he only practiced private medicine for a year before entering the Army Medical Department. He was assigned to be a contract surgeon with the Fourth Cavalry at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. In May 1886 he took part in the campaign to subdue Geronimo’s renegade Apaches. Though he started out as the medical officer, it was not long before he led an infantry company. The experience transformed him, and he returned to Fort Huachuca with the desire to become a line officer. His chance came twelve years later during the Spanish-American War when he served as colonel of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, more popularly known as the Rough Riders. In July 1898, Colonel Wood commanded a brigade of volunteers and regulars who seized the San Juan Heights outside Santiago, Cuba and brought victory to the American army. This experience convinced him that ordinary citizens could adapt to the harsh realities of military life, and he determined to encourage the enlistment of large numbers of citizens even as he was being commissioned a brigadier general in the regular army.

As he climbed through the ranks to Army Chief of Staff, Wood faced hostility from the professional officer corps to his plan to introduce American citizens into the U.S. Army. Many officers believed ordinary individuals were incapable of handling the rigorous demands of the military. Wood rejected this premise. He argued that young, intelligent men were the perfect candidates for army recruits. There was no valid reason, Wood said, they could not be absorbed into military life within a year — with the proper training. The most critical threat to this plan, however, was that the current Army training often centered on harsh discipline. Most instructors treated the recruits as if they were completely ignorant. Realizing this was an insult to capable recruits, General Wood issued a directive at the start of his four-year stint as Chief of Staff in 1910 saying officers should treat their enlisted men with due respect. If instructors dealt harshly with the soldiers, he said, they would reject military service and urge their fellow citizens to do the same. This would likely increase the apathy already existing among the civilian populace regarding army life. This knowledge convinced Wood that he should not focus all of his efforts on the military establishment alone.

At the same time Wood was working to encourage the military and civilian leadership to enlist more private citizens, he was also trying to convince ordinary Americans of the value of military service. He believed every American had an obligation to serve in the military. It was one of the responsibilities a person had when they lived in a free country. In a way it was similar to paying taxes, for it was a tax on one’s physical strength. He went on to say that it would make people better citizens of their country and would unite them in spirit with those who underwent the same experience. There were benefits that would accrue to the military as well. Wood’s plan was based on the idea that a younger citizen-soldier force would be more physically capable and efficient than the traditional approach which led to longer service terms, a bloating at higher ranks, and a more aged fighting force. He proposed citizens sign up for three years and then serve for another three years in the reserves. At the urging of the entrenched Army hierarchy, however, Congress rejected his proposal in favor of a plan whereby enlistees could, at their own choice, either serve for four years in the army or for three years in the army and four in the reserve, all reserve years without pay. The final legislation gutted the most crucial of Wood’s reforms. He feared this new plan would lead to an Army “whose losses were due only to death, retirement, or disability, and we would have no instructed reserve in the population.”

Despite his defeat, Wood refused to give up on creating a “sense of personal and individual responsibility for one’s preparedness to discharge the duties of a soldier in case the Republic should become involved in war.” He decided to take his ideas directly to the American people. In the summer of 1913 he assembled over two hundred students from 90 colleges at military camps in Monterey, California and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He provided the students instruction in drilling, the manual of arms and battlefield tactics. The camps were so successful he made plans for four such camps during the summer of 1914. This time over six hundred students attended. Many paid their own way, demonstrating their “sincerity of purpose and interest” in becoming citizen soldiers. His mission to augment the regular army with ordinary citizens took on greater urgency in 1914 as Europe exploded into war.

Throughout late 1914 and early 1915, General Wood became even more strident in his argument, warning that the nation could not rely on patriotic sentiment any longer. Most of the European armies now engaged in warfare were massive forces, but President Woodrow Wilson declared his belief that the U.S. should continue to rely on volunteers in the militia and National Guard. Large armies violated American traditions. Wood saw this policy as the precursor to disaster. He foresaw volunteers being sent to the front untrained to face a superior enemy. To prevent this eventuality, Wood, now in command of the Department of the East, took it upon himself to mobilize a large force of citizen soldiers. He drew up plans for the American Legion, a reservist force filled with militarily qualified men. When notified of this, President Wilson ordered the general to cease all cooperation with the Legion. Wood reluctantly did so, but he refused to give up rousing public opinion in favor of his position. In January 1915 he proudly watched the National Security League, an organization designed to urge Americans to prepare for war, adopt his views as part of its platform. It called upon the American people to accept that each of them owed their country a term of service in its defense. As war fever swept the nation, more and more citizens agreed with this argument.

Wood was pleased his ideas had taken hold of the American imagination. During the summer of 1915 he once again planned to open military camps to train young Americans. This time camps were situated around Plattsburg, New York and included businessmen and other professionals. As before, the camps proved extremely popular, attracting 1,200 men. These endeavors seemed to indicate Americans’ willingness to enter into military service. Wood hoped it was the beginning of a large citizen army, so he was disappointed when Congress passed the National Defense Act in May 1916. The act enlarged the regular army to 175,000 troops and authorized a National Guard reserve force of 400,000 men. It also created ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) units at universities across the country. While this act appeared to strengthen the army, it still remained dependent on the individual patriotic citizen doing his duty. This reality finally convinced Wood there was only one solution to the country’s military needs — conscription.

By the summer of 1916 Leonard Wood had come to the conclusion that national defense required national participation. He knew there were millions of Americans who exercised their right to vote, but incongruously, at least to him, those same Americans thought they could choose whether or not to “render service in case of necessity.” In the past, he told the Senate Military Affairs Committee, the rich “have been able to buy the poor to take their places” in the army. There had to be a way to prevent less-patriotic citizens from “ducking, side-stepping or dodging [military service]” and ensuring equality of service among all Americans. The answer was the adoption of universal military training. Every able-bodied American male should be required to undergo a military education and defend his country. He argued that such a program would dramatically increase the numbers of soldiers eligible for the U.S. Army. It would also allow the government to show impartiality by recruiting men from every area of American society. Wood spent the remainder of 1916 campaigning for the program. Along with other advocates, he testified before the Senate Military Affairs Committee on the principle and helped convince the government the military situation warranted such action. He went on to champion the idea in the court of public opinion, through such outlets as the Journal of the National Education Association and the Universal Military Training League. By January 1917 his ardent advocacy had encouraged 118 newspapers and 378 mayors to second his proposal. His efforts finally convinced Congress to pass the Selective Service Act in May 1917.

While it achieved less than he wanted, Leonard Wood was still jubilant when he learned the government had the authority to recruit American men and boys directly into the U.S. Army. At long last, his dream for a truly “national” American military was realized. Within days of the act’s passage, President Woodrow Wilson used it to authorize the formation of a one million-man army. The men would serve for the rest of World War I. Wood’s greatest hope was to lead these men into battle. He thought his aspirations had come true when he was ordered to take command of the new 89th Division. He travelled to Camp Funston, Kansas and oversaw their training. He then led his troops to New York City for embarkation, where he learned he had been selected as the new commander of the 10th Division. Though he was disappointed, he returned to Kansas and ensured his new command was as ready for combat as the 89th had been. Through both units, he contributed mightily to the final victory in 1918. He retired in 1921 and died less than six years later in August 1927. A grateful nation mourned the loss of one of its greatest public servants.

Change does not come easy. General Leonard Wood set out to transform the make up of the United States Army. Along the way he had to confront not only a staid military hierarchy but also a dubious Congress and a skeptical American public. He grasped, as few others did, that the old policies and outdated thinking simply would not meet the needs of a 20th century army. His new ideas and innovative approaches to the Army force structure brought about fundamental changes still in use today. Although full acceptance of universal military service never took hold in the U.S. as it did in countries like Switzerland and Israel, Leonard Wood’s legacy lives on through the citizen soldiers who loyally serve our country.

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One response to “Changing With the Times

  1. Great story Jake! I’m reading Teddy Roosevelt’s book Rough Riders and it mentions Wood a couple of times. Otherwise, I’d never heard of him and I appreciate you educating me and your readers. Well done (as usual!)

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