Coast Guard, U.S.

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COAST GUARD, U.S., one of the armed forces of the United States and the principal federal agency for marine safety and maritime law enforcement. It operates under the Department of Transportation except when serving as a part of the navy.

Congress established the Coast Guard's parent service, the U.S. Revenue Marine (later the Revenue Cutter Service), on 4 August 1790, on the advice of Alexander Hamilton, then the secretary of the treasury. The act authorized the secretary of the treasury to construct and operate ten small cutters to ensure the collection of customs duties on imports imposed by the Revenue Act of 1789. Hamilton insisted that revenue-cutter officers be given military rank to "attach them to their duty by a nicer sense of honor." Administrative responsibility initially resided with the Treasury Department.

The cutter service soon became better known for its expertise and daring in aiding ships and seamen in distress than for safeguarding the revenue. At the time of the Quasi War with France, there being no other U.S. naval force, Congress on 1 July 1797 authorized the president to allow cutters "to defend the seacoast and to repel any hostility to their vessels and commerce"—in effect, to oppose the whole French fleet and the French privateers men then threatening U.S. trade. The service soon distinguished itself as a fighting force. After the establishment of the navy (1798), Congress decreed that the cutters "co-operate with the Navy … whenever the President shall so direct," a mandate subsequently confirmed and broadened by other acts. Since then, except for the brief imbroglio with Tripoli (1801–1805), cutters and cutter men have sailed with the navy against all armed enemies of the United States.

Other areas of law enforcement and marine safety led Congress to establish several other, essentially unifunctional agencies. The first, the Lighthouse Service, launched by an act of 7 August 1789, tacitly acknowledged federal responsibility for maintaining lighthouses, buoys, and related navigation aids. In 1832, explosions destroyed 14 percent of all American steamboats, prompting Congress, by an act of 7 July 1838, to create the Steamboat Inspection Service (later the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation) to regulate the construction, equipping, manning, and inspection of vessels in the interest of safety. Meanwhile, such hazardous areas as Cape Cod and North Carolina's Outer Banks became veritable graveyards for ships and seamen of all nations. Private lifesaving efforts, however commendable, were unequal to the task presented by hundreds of disasters along thousands of miles of coast. Eventually recognizing the need, Congress, by an act of 3 March 1847, authorized the secretary of the treasury to equip lighthouses for rendering aid to ship-wrecked persons. Subsequent legislation soon formally established the Life-Saving Service, a chain of lifeboats stationed along the coasts.

Successive efforts to rationalize the federal structure and to centralize responsibilities along functional lines led eventually to the amalgamation of all these agencies around the Revenue Cutter Service as nucleus. The first merger (28 January 1915) combined the Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, thus centralizing federal marine search-and-rescue activities into one agency. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard, broadening the latter's direct concern with the prevention of disasters. An act of 22 June 1936 clarified the Coast Guard's general responsibility for the enforcement of all applicable U.S. laws on the high seas and waters of the United States, and in 1942 the transfer to the Coast Guard of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation's marine safety duties gave the Coast Guard specific responsibility for the enforcement of navigation laws. On 1 April 1967, in a sweeping reorganization, Congress relocated the Coast Guard itself from the Treasury Department to the Department of Transportation, newly organized to exercise federal responsibilities in all transportation fields.

During American military operations in Vietnam, Coast Guard cutters and patrol craft served with the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet, providing gunfire support aimed at sea and shore targets, interdicting enemy replenishment by sea, and engaging in a variety of civic actions. Other Coast Guard units engaged for the most part in normal peacetime duties.

The modern Coast Guard performs a multitude of varied duties, including providing search-and-rescue operations for vessels in distress; maintaining "ocean stations" along most-traveled routes to furnish meteorological data to the National Weather Service, collect oceanographic data, and provide navigation aids; maintaining military readiness in time of war or when the president directs; enforcing U.S. laws on the high seas and waters under U.S. jurisdiction; enforcing U.S. laws dealing with the safety of small boats and their occupants; providing lighthouses, buoys, and other aids to safe navigation; providing icebreaking services in support of American commerce and the national defense; ensuring the security of U.S. ports and ships therein; conducting surveys, research, and special air-sea patrols in support of national oceanographic policies; and maintaining a program of research and development for improving Coast Guard capabilities and effectiveness.

The Coast Guard is headed by a commandant, an officer with the rank of admiral, whose headquarters are in Washington, D.C. Major field commands include the Atlantic and Pacific areas, with five districts each, and two inland districts. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, at New London, Connecticut, offers a four-year academic and professional course to cadets selected by nationwide competitive examinations. On graduation a cadet is awarded a B.S. degree (engineering) and a commission as ensign in the career-officer corps. Intermediate ranks ranging up to admiral correspond to those of the navy.


Coast Guard, United States. Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard, 1790–December 31, 1933. Washington, D.C.: Department of Transportation, 1989. The original edition was published in 1935.

Evans, Stephen H. The United States Coast Guard, 1790–1915: A Definitive History. Annapolis, Md.: United States Naval Institute, 1949.

Fighting Ships of the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II. Canoga Park, Calif.: Challenge Publications, 1986.

Kaplan, H. R., and James F. Hunt. This Is the Coast Guard. Cambridge, Md.: Cornell Maritime Press, 1972.

Stephen H.Evans/c. w.

See alsoHamilton's Economic Policies ; Oceanographic Survey ; Transportation, Department of ; Weather Service, National .

U.S. Coast Guard

views updated May 23 2018

U.S. Coast Guard

Established in 1790 as the Revenue Marine Service but named as such after combination with the U.S. Lifesaving Service, the U.S. Coast Guard provides support for the protection and preservation of the United States' marine and natural resources. Although a branch of the armed forces, the agency operates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation during times of peace. The agency is responsible for managing the nation's seas and coastal waters, with environmental issues primarily handled by two offices: Marine Safety, Security, and Environmental Protection, and Law Enforcement and Defense Operations. Two primary agency functions are the enforcement of environmental laws (e.g., Clean Water Act, Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act, and Oil Pollution Act) and the provision of an emergency response system to mitigate the release of pollution (e.g., garbage discharges, hazardous substance releases, and oil spills) into seas and coastal waters. With respect to enforcement, the agency enforces U.S. environmental laws along with all treaties and international agreements that allow the Coast Guard to assess penalties for violations under the law. With respect to its emergency response system, the agency is proactive by serving as a lead agency under the National Oil and Hazardous Pollution Plan by coordinating federal, state, local, and responsible party resources in conducting spill response efforts in the containment, removal and disposal of oil, and hazardous substance discharges in the country's coastal zone areas. The agency also assesses movements of potential pollutants (e.g., discharges and spills), accounts for wind and ocean currents, and evaluates potential chemistry changes due to those caused by evaporation, mixing, and sunlight.

see also Clean Water Act; Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; Petroleum.


Goldsteen, Joel B. (1999). The ABCs of Environmental Regulation. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes.

internet resource

Marine Safety, Security and Environmental Protection. Available from

Robert F. Gruenig

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U.S. Coast Guard