For the United States, the history of demobilization begins, in modern terms, with the Civil War. Previous conflicts had involved forces small enough to make demobilization relatively invisible. Over the course of the Revolutionary War, for example, demobilization was a continual, and relatively informal, process. The Continental Congress had limited authority over the troops; soldiers were allowed to return home at the end of their enlistment, desertions were frequent, and men were often unceremoniously sent home after a campaign. With the cessation of hostilities, the Continental army was virtually disbanded. Men wandered home without medical examinations, outprocessing, written discharges, or pay.
The reasons for this are apparent after 200 years. The United States barely existed; the Continental Congress had little power; the army, composed of Continental troops and militia, was small and considered temporary; no bureaucracy existed to process or track either mobilization or demobilization. Significantly, there was strong distrust of standing armies during times of peace. That distrust was not only for the armed force itself, but the government that would control it. A standing force, it was felt, would contribute to a more centralized and more powerful government than many thought wise.
The War of 1812 and even the Mexican War changed this situation and sentiment very little. As during the Revolutionary War, men were continually inducted into service even as large numbers who had served out their enlistments were discharged. Terms of enlistment were short, from one to twenty months, and the total number of troops at any given time was relatively small for both conflicts. The Mexican War witnessed a movement to permanent enlistments, a precedent that would not be adopted again until the Spanish‐American War. At the end of each war, the army returned to a peacetime basis by disbanding all excess regiments and consolidating remaining ones with regiments in the active force. Demobilization could remain unorganized and informal because the forces were not large.
The Civil War changed the policy of demobilization, just as it changed warfare, public understanding of war, and almost everything else. True to tradition, prior to the end of the Civil War, little thought was given to how the war would end, much less to the processes of disbandment. As before, troops were continuously discharged after completing their terms of enlistment. With Lee's surrender in 1865, and a general public feeling that demobilization should be immediate, the Union faced the task of outprocessing over 1 million Federal troops. Demobilization directives were hastily drawn up and issued in May 1865.
The Union plan called for the movement of large units to rendezvous areas within the former Confederacy and the border states. This served both to facilitate the demobilization process and to position Union forces for reconstruction duties. Troops were marched to the rendezvous areas where they camped while muster rolls and payrolls were prepared. Units were mustered out of federal service and men were sent to their home state to be individually mustered out. Mustering out took time, and boredom and homesickness caused a mass of desertions. Payment for service was not uniform from state to state.
Meanwhile, Lee's Confederate army stacked its weapons, signed a pledge not to take up arms against the government, and marched home without pay. As word spread, many troops simply left without signing anything. Demilitarization of the South proceeded slowly and unevenly.
Because of the large numbers of troops who were recruited, fought, and were subsequently mustered out, America took some lessons on demobilization and applied them. The Spanish‐American War was a foreign war, which set it apart from the country's preceding experience; as in previous conflicts, the armed forces consisted of regulars and volunteers. No volunteer units were mustered out of the service during the conduct of operations. At war's end, most nonregular units were returned to their home state and demobilized. The federal government required that soldiers be transported to their respective state camps. There they were furloughed while their records were prepared. They returned for separation and pay. The exception was those units that were held over for occupation duty in the Philippines.
With the turn of the century, defense organization and legislation changed the face of the military establishment. The new Army General Staff lent the services a guiding structure; the Militia Act (1903) set the National Guard's relationship to the federal government. This represented a serious attempt to professionalize the military establishment. Each was intended to contribute to the ability of the services—and hence the nation—to mobilize for war and demobilize afterward.
The army that fought World War I was composed of regulars, National Guardsmen, and individual volunteers. Volunteer units were no longer called; most of the ranks were filled through conscription, which was passed in the summer of 1917. During this war, all troops under enlistment served for the duration of the conflict. Unfortunately, despite the existence of the General Staff, the end of the Great War found the United States as unprepared to demobilize as it had been to wage war. When Congress declared war in April 1917, the armed forces numbered almost 300,000. Nineteen months later, over 2 million men were serving in France, yet planning for demobilization began only a month before hostilities ceased. The army, relying on the draft, had greater problems with demobilization than the navy or Marines, of which most were volunteers.
The traditional unit demobilization began with the war's conclusion. Some units were still required to man the ports of debarkation, demobilization centers, supply depots, hospitals, and various garrisons. Due to strong public outcry, however, the War Department accelerated demobilization by discharging individuals, generally before deactivating their units. The discharge was carried out at demobilization centers throughout the country, where physical exams were conducted, financial claims made, and administrative details gathered. The centers were primarily designed to accommodate troops returning from overseas. Soldiers were discharged at camps closest to their homes; physical needs were attended to; coal miners, railroad employees, and railway mail clerks were discharged immediately. Units were demobilized according to plan, with replacement battalions first and combat divisions following. Because of the number of men under arms, the demobilization process affected society in general: communities with war industries experienced an immediate labor surplus when those industries closed down, and the large numbers of returning soldiers added to the unemployment problem.
In World War II, formal planning for demobilization began two years before the end of the war with Germany. For the first time in American history, demobilization was done primarily by individual rather than by unit. Demobilization by unit had previously been the standard for the army, and had worked well with small forces, for it allowed units to retain their integrity and combat effectiveness. The individual method, however, allowed for faster mustering out with acknowledgment paid to individual service—both of which were popular in American society. A service score plan was devised whereby individual soldiers were assigned points as credit for length of service, time spent overseas, time spent in combat, number of wounds sustained, and number of children at home. America began partial demobilization of its ground and air forces in May 1945 with over 8 million men under arms. The navy began demobilization on V‐J Day with a strength of approximately 4 million. Demobilization took from 1945 to 1947, and was characterized by upheaval, waste, and confusion. By June 1947, the total strength of the army was just over 900,000.
This immense demobilization affected all phases of American life. The army, after having been perhaps the most powerful military machine in Western history, dwindled to a state of near impotence, impairing national security and limiting the flexibility of foreign policy. Demobilization also adversely affected supply, maintenance, and storage of munitions; experts in those fields were normally in rear areas during fighting and among the first to leave the service. The army thus was left with not only an absence of manpower to tackle the job of organizing and mastering demobilization and reorganization but also a low level of expertise in many significant fields. Waste was incredibly high; thousands of items of equipment worth millions of dollars were left to rust in place. The mass exodus of men from units overseas caused a complete turnover in leadership. In some cases, whole units disappeared, to be replaced by untrained and untried fillers. Throughout the process, congressional criticism was intense, made particularly acute by upcoming congressional elections in which candidates demanded swift, if not immediate, dismantling of the military.
With the war's end, debate again resurfaced over the issue of universal military training. Late in 1945, President Harry S. Truman asked Congress for legislation requiring male citizens to undergo a year of military training. Proponents believed this would permit a quick expansion of the force when mobilization was necessary. Although this idea became the subject of extensive debate, American citizenry did not accept it, and reinforcement of the regular forces would continue to depend on the reserve forces. Interestingly, the draft, enacted in 1940, was maintained, although not without debate of its own, until 1973.
From the end of World War II until 1989, America was preoccupied by the Cold War, as a result of which it maintained a relatively large standing army for the first time in its history. Conscription was enforced until 1973 to ensure that strength was held at that high level. The draft ended in 1973; since then, all services have been filled by enlistments alone. Over the Cold War period, no large conflict erupted between the superpowers. The United States did participate in limited hostilities, however, including the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Both of these required the armed forces to be built up to fight on foreign soil; neither, however, resulted in mass mobilization or demobilization. During the Vietnam conflict, the United States returned to the earlier policy of “rolling” demobilization—recruits served in Vietnam for thirteen months (including one month of R&R) rather than for the duration, America's earlier pattern of demobilization.
[See also Militia and National Guard; Mobilization; Recruitment.]
William A. Ganoe , History of the United States Army, 1936.
Oliver L. Spaulding , The United States Army in War and Peace, 1937.
Kent R. Greenfield , The Organization of Ground Combat Troops, 1947.
John C. Sparrow , History of Personnel Demobilization in the United States Army, 1951.
Russell F. Weigley , History of the United States Army, 1967.
"Demobilization." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/demobilization
"Demobilization." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/demobilization
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DEMOBILIZATION, the dismissal of troops to civilian life and the winding down of a war industry at the cessation of a national emergency. Because American wars have relied predominantly on volunteers, militia, and drafted civilians, the sudden return of these service people to civilian life often has had the proportions of an avalanche, particularly since Americans paid little attention to this phase of warmaking—except following World War II.
In the first two American wars, the Revolution and the War of 1812, short-term enlistments and limitations of transportation and communication made demobilization a continuous process. Mustered-out troops often went unrecorded, sometimes unpaid, and always had to find their own way home.
In the Mexican-American War, Gen. Winfield Scott experienced a premature demobilization of 40 percent of his troops after the Battle of Cerro Gordo (18 April 1847) when their one-year enlistments expired. From then on, volunteers enlisted for the conflict's duration. At the end of the war, 41,000 men dispersed over the American southwest and Mexico before the military finally transported them to New Orleans by boat.
The problems of releasing 1,034,064 men after the Civil War dwarfed previous demobilization efforts but lacked a detailed demobilization plan. Corps and divisions were transferred to nine rendezvous areas, where officials prepared muster-out rolls and payrolls, released soldiers, and deactivated units. Demobilization took as long as eighteen months for volunteers, and even longer for regular troops.
The sudden victory of the United States in the Spanish-American War (1898) heralded the usual public outcry to bring the troops home, but changes to mustering-out procedures midway through demobilization caused much confusion. Some regiments were held in service until 1902 because of the continuing insurrection in the Philippines.
World War I ended with an abruptness that again caught American military planners unprepared. More than 3 million service people were eligible for discharge. Officials considered discharge by military unit the most equitable and least economically disruptive alternative, and, at the same time, provided an effective force for occupation and other contingencies. Thirty demobilization centers in the United States processed troops out of service as close to their homes as possible.
A special division began planning World War II demobilization in the last two years of the war. Even so, the sudden Japanese surrender and public pressure to return soldiers to civilian life released a deluge of veterans and caused concern among military strategists eyeing the threat of the Soviet Union to American security. Eight million soldiers—five million deployed abroad—had to be demobilized, and a four-year logistical buildup had to be liquidated. A point system governed the sequence of troop release by individual rather than by unit. The military released half of its 8 million service people by the end of 1945, but a slowdown early in 1946 prompted public outcry and even troop demonstrations. By June 1946, the army again halved its strength. This sudden reduction left the fully demobilized U.S. Army much weaker than its numbers implied.
After World War II, several factors altered the traditional problems of demobilization. The limited wars of this period used reserve call-ups and rotated drafted troops on an individual twelve-month basis, making demobilization continuous. Moreover, peace did not come unexpectedly and demobilization could be planned in advance.
Carroll, John M., and Colin F. Baxter, eds. The American Military Tradition: From Colonial Times to the Present. Wilmington, Del.: S. R. Books, 1993.
Matloff, Maurice, ed. American Military History: 1775–1902 (Vol. 1) and 1902–1996 (Vol. 2). Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Publishing, 1996. Earlier publication: Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1969.
Sparrow, John C. History Of Personnel Demobilization in the United States Army. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1994. (Distributed to depository libraries in microfiche.) Originally published: Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1951.
Don E.McLeod/c. w.
"Demobilization." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/demobilization
"Demobilization." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/demobilization
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"demobilization." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/demobilization
"demobilization." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/demobilization