Service Associations

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Service Associations. The establishment of service associations or societies for military personnel is a key milestone in the development of professionalism in the U.S. armed forces. America's first military society, the U.S. Naval Lyceum (1833–39), addressed a small audience with an underdeveloped sense of professional identity, dispersed around the globe. The next effort was more enduring and set the pattern for later groups. In 1873, the U.S. Naval Institute was formed by officers who were interested in advancing naval thought and doctrine, even though their service was moribund after the post–Civil War drawdown. The institute consciously patterned itself after the British Royal United Services Institute, which in turn had imitated the activities of medical and engineering societies. It published a journal, sponsored lectures, symposia, and prize competitions for essays, and lobbied uniformed and civilian authorities.

The army quickly followed the lead of its maritime counterpart with the establishment of the Military Service Institution of the United States (MSIUS) in 1878. However, the various army branches eventually established their own societies, such as cavalry (1885), infantry (1904), and field artillery (1910). This fragmentation eventually proved fatal to MSIUS, which in 1917 succumbed to the frantic World War I buildup. Attempts to gain a “one‐Army” voice floundered in the interwar period and were successful only in the early 1950s with the merger of the infantry, field artillery, and coast artillery bodies into the Association of the United States Army.

The U.S. Navy avoided this fragmentation, though the naval engineering corps formed the American Society of Naval Engineers, which addressed technical concerns. Marine Corps officers formed a Marine Corps Association in 1913, and the Air Force Association was established in 1946. Over the years, other associations for various military branches and activities were organized, such as the Reserve Officers Association and the Non‐Commissioned Officers Association. These societies generally sponsor journals, book ordering services, meetings, writing competitions, and financial services (insurance, charge cards, job placement, etc.). Moreover, they cultivate government and industry contacts to advance the members' agendas, which often (but not always) parallel the concerns of the relevant armed service. Some academic critics contend that the officers' societies are not true professional bodies that define expert knowledge but are merely lobbying or “backstop” groups that promote the military's interests in the federal government.

Another type of association is the military‐industrial trade group, which often consists of uniformed and civilian members. One of the earliest was the Navy League (1902), which initially tried to become a major grassroots pressure group like its British and German counterparts. After several decades of searching for a workable identity, it adopted a more realistic mission of championing the maritime industry in the federal government. The periods after both world wars saw the emergence of groups that initially focused on army activities but quickly expanded to address similar concerns of the other services. Most prominent of these are the American Defense Preparedness Association, the Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association, and the American Logistics Association.

Normally, the activities of the societies are fairly low‐keyed, but there is an inherent tension in having government officials as members of private bodies that try to influence government activities. From time to time, the congressional and executive branches have tried to distance official military activities from the societies. In 1973, Congress passed a ban on active duty personnel working on associations' staffs, and Navy Department assistance to the Tailhook Association declined rapidly in the 1990s following the notorious Tailhook Convention (1991). Despite such actions, the existence of military societies is well established; they will continue to examine defense issues, provide services for their members, and champion their interests.


Samuel P. Huntington , The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics, 1961.
Gordon Adams , The Iron Triangle: The Politics of Defense Contracting, 1982.

Michael E. Unsworth