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Reserve Forces Act (1955)

Reserve Forces Act (1955). President Dwight D. Eisenhower's “New Look” defense strategy emphasized nuclear‐armed air power, stronger reserve forces, and a greater reliance on conventionally‐armed allies. To correct the weaknesses of all of the reserve components of the U.S. armed services, his administration convinced the Congress to pass the Reserve Forces Act of 1955. It amended the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1952 and the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1951. The 1955 legislation increased the size of the Ready Reserve from 1.5 million to 2.9 million personnel and authorized the president to mobilize up to 1 million ready reservists in a declared national emergency without congressional action. For those who agreed to spend two years on active duty and four years in a reserve component, the total military commitment was reduced from eight to six years. The legislation required all those who entered the armed forces after 9 August 1955 to participate in reserve training following completion of active service and authorized specific sanctions for those who failed to participate. It also allowed direct enlistments in the reserve components for nonprior service youths as an alternative to the draft and established a system of continuous screening for members of the Ready Reserve to ensure their availability for active duty. The act did not authorize universal military training, mandatory basic training with the active forces for National Guard recruits, or authority to induct men into the reserve components if sufficient numbers could not be obtained voluntarily. Despite his own grave misgivings about those omissions, President Eisenhower signed the bill on 5 August 1955.

The 1955 act failed to produce the highly capable reserve forces its proponents envisioned. While the numbers of drill pay reservists and Guardsmen climbed dramatically, use of conscription (or the threat of it) often filled the ranks with less than enthusiastic soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. Funding, equipment, and training remained below par for most of the reserve components until the 1980s. To deal with that problem Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara attempted to shrink the size of the nation's large reserve establishment and merge the federal reserve components of the army and air force into their National Guard counterparts in the early 1960s. When those efforts were blocked on Capitol Hill, he used his administrative authority to create a selected reserve force in each of the military services that was given priority access to training beyond what was normally authorized for Guard and reserve units. McNamara's program provided most of the nation's strategic military reserve in the continental United States while a growing portion of the active duty force was engaged in the Vietnam War. Although successful, the program was shelved in the early 1970s for budgetary reasons.

With the elimination of the draft and the Cold War's end, the Reserve Forces Act of 1955 lost much of its relevance. Although the basic legal structure of the reserve components remains unchanged, economics has replaced the draft as the principal incentive for providing reserve components manpower under the all‐volunteer force. The president was granted additional authority by the Congress during the 1970s to involuntarily recall limited numbers of Guardsmen and reservists to active duty for specified periods without either a declaration of war or a national emergency. The size of the ready reserve had shrunk to barely over 1.45 million personnel by 30 September 1997 due to the end of the Cold War and cuts in defense expenditures.
[See also All‐Volunteer Force.]


Eileen Galloway , History of U.S. Military Policy on Reserve Forces, 1775–1957, 1957.
Robert L. Goldich , Historical Continuity in the U.S. Military Reserve System, Armed Forces and Society, Fall 1980, pp. 9–16.
Charles J. Gross , Prelude to the Total Force: The Air National Guard, 1943–1969, 1985.
Gerald T. Cantwell , Citizen Airmen: A History of the Air Force Reserve, 1946–1994, 1997.
Reserve Component Programs: The Annual Report of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, Office of the Secretary of Defense, March 1998.

Charles J. Gross

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