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America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer, a review

[by J. Scott Shipman]

America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer (1870-1955)

Thanks to our blog friend Joseph Fouche, I discovered Brigadier General Palmer’s excellent history of how America has organized the army both in peacetime and in times of war. Fouche introduced Palmer in an excellent piece called, How Did We Get Here.

The Prologue to this excellent book begins:

When Washington became President, he had two main planks in his administration platform. His first plank called for a sound financial system; his second plank called for a sound national defense system.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, his first plank was installed before the end of his first administration. But it was not until 1920, more than one hundred and thirty years later, that Congress established a modern adaptation of his military organization. And it was not until 1940 that Congress completed the Washington structure by accepting the principle of compulsory military training and service in time of peace.

Thus begins one of the best written books I’ve read since Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy. While the authors cover different topics, both write in crisp, efficient prose and say what they mean the first time. One won’t find much fluff or nuance in either book; I like that.

Palmer traces the history of how America has organized to fight wars, and more often than not, the “how” is not pretty (we usually play catch-up in the early days of conflict). Palmer’s purpose in writing “this little book” was “to tell how Washington arrived at his military philosophy: how and why he was unable to persuade his countrymen to accept it; how their rejection of his advice affected their subsequent history; and finally how, after a century and a half their descendants have have been impelled to return to his guidance.” From the period of 1783 through 1911, Palmer’s book is history. Following 1911, Palmer provides “first-hand experience of the events described.”

Palmer begins with an early (pre-Constitution) inquiry to Washington by Congress on his views on a proper military policy for the new nation. Washington shopped the query around to Generals Steuben, Knox, Huntington, Pickering, Health, Hand and Rufus Putnam. Their responses were strikingly similar; “a well-regulated militia” would be sufficient for national defense. They agreed on a small regular army to patrol the Indian frontier and other “special duties” that could not be performed by citizen soldiers.

Palmer discovered Washington’s “Sentiment on a Peace Establishment” when researching his Washington, Lincoln, Wilson: Three War Statesmen. Washington’s treatise was pretty straightforward:

A Peace Establishment for the United States of America may in my opinion be classed under four different heads Vizt:

First. A regular and standing force, for Garrisoning West Point and such other Posts upon our Northern, Western, and Southern Frontiers, as shall be deemed necessary to awe the Indians, protect our Trade, prevent the encroachment of our Neighbours of Canada and the Florida’s, and guard us at least from surprizes; Also for security of our Magazines.

Secondly. A well organized Militia; upon a Plan that will pervade all the States, and introduce similarity in their Establishment Manoeuvres, Exercise and Arms.

Thirdly. Establishing Arsenals of all kinds of Military Stores.

Fourthly. Accademies, one or more for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery, which are highly essential, and the knowledge of which, is most difficult to obtain. Also Manufactories of some kinds of Military Stores.

(Would highly recommend reading the entire piece.)

Palmer accounts for Washington’s seeming contradiction on the issue of militias, and points out that Washington was specific in his low opinion of an “ill-organized militia” (one based on short enlistments and political connections influencing the selection of leaders—a problem which endured in Lincoln’s Union Army). Washington favored a “well-organized militia” with the Swiss model ranking high in his esteem. Of the generals providing Washington with their thoughts, Palmer writes that Steuben and Knox were largely in agreement with Washington’s ideas. Both were in general agreement on the organization of small infantry divisions, or legions divided between New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South Atlantic. Under the direction of Congress, in 1786, General Knox (then Secretary of War) completed a Plan for a General Arrangement of the Militia of the United States.

The following plan is formed on these general principles.
1st.
That it is the indispensible duty of every nation to establish all necessary institutions for its own perfection and defence.
2′ndly,
That it is a capital security to a free State for the great body of the people to possess a competent knowledge of the military art.
3′dly,
That this knowledge cannot be attained in the present state of society but by establishing adequate institutions for the military education of youth— And that the knowledge acquired therein should be diffused throughout the community by the principles of rotation.
4′thly
That every man of the proper age, and ability of body is firmly bound by the social compact to perform personally his proportion of military duty for the defence of the State.
5′thly;
That all men of the legal military age should be armed, enrolled and held responsible for different degrees of military service.
And 6thly,
That agreeably to the Constitution the United States are to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

Congress did not enact the Knox plan as the United States, still under the Articles of Confederation was “insolvent” and unable to act. Palmer estimated that had Knox’s plan been adopted in 1786, “it is my estimate that the advanced corps would have numbered 60,000 men at the end of three years.” Those numbers would grow progressively as the population increased, so that at the outbreak of the Civil War, “the first line of the civilian army would have numbered about 500,000 men. ” By WWI in 1914, that number would have been about 1.8 million.

As president, Washington’s military policy was closely aligned to the Knox plan (Washington amended the original). The change involved a reduction in the required training for the advanced corp—then, as now, costs were the motivating factor for the reduction, but Washington wanted to get a national infrastructure approved. As mentioned previously, the Swiss model factored heavily among Washington and his general’s thinking—with the essential difference between the Swiss plan and Knox being the “distribution of training time.”

The first Congress was reluctant to embrace Washington’s ideas and instead passed the “notorius Militia Act of 1792.” Palmer said this Act made “our military system worse than before the bill was introduced. The old militia organization [the "ill-organized" that Washington deplored] with its phony regiments and divisions now had Federal sanction and was made uniformly bad throughout the nation.”

Washington was defeated in his efforts to develop and deploy a national militia. Washington in warning of foreign entanglements in his Farewell Adress also reminded us of the realities nations must shoulder:

If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or War, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel…Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectably defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Palmer covers the efforts of Jefferson, and then, Madison to develop a cogent national military organization. The War of 1812 illustrated the the dangers of “the ill-organized militia” as it was, as organized the militias were found wanting. A new force emerged from the War of 1812 and that new force was the regular army. Palmer concludes this chapter: “The history of our modern regular army really begins with the War of 1812. Since then it has never failed to give a good account of itself. It won the pride and gratitude of the American people just when the failure of the national militia had filled them with contempt and humiliation.”

“A new military gospel” was formed after the War of 1812, and the War Department became the new headquarters of the regular army. Madison’s successors had to start over as the archives (including Washington’s Sentiments) were destroyed when the British burned the capitol in 1814. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War under Monroe, advocated an “expansible standing army”—the antithesis of Washington’s ideas. Palmer said, this “expansible-standing-army” plan hampered American plans for preparedness for more than a century…[through 1941] and…is not quite dead.” The problem was “how” to expand this force in time of war.

As Palmer traces the military policy from Florida to Mexico, and the Civil War, the same problems recurred: the standing army was stretched thin at the outset of conflict and ill-equipped to train recruits provided by the Several States. Added to this was the problems of short enlistments, that in some cases left commanders waiting to pursue the enemy while waiting for fresh troops (Battle of the City of Mexico).

After the Civil War Congress took action to attempt a solution to the broken military organization problem. The Burnside Commission was formed with veterans of the Civil War, but without Washington’s wisdom to guide them. Palmer recounts the accident of history where General Emory Upton had just finished reviewing Washington’s military writings—but missed Sentiments (referenced in a footnote). Upton missed the “key” to Washington’s thinking on an “efficient citizen army.” It appears Upton took the Washington he had read and connected to the expansible standing army idea—and missed Washington’s true intent.

Elihu Root became Secretary of War in 1899 and traced our military faults in the Spanish American war to “defective organization.” The defective organization, in Root’s estimation was this paragraph in Army regulations: “The military establishment is under orders of the Commanding General of the army in that which pertains to its discipline and control. The fiscal affairs of the army are conducted by the Secretary of War through the several Staff Departments”—dual control. While he was resisted, in 1903 the office of the chief of staff was created. Palmer calls this the first of Root’s “great reforms.” He followed by formalizing planning and organizing “the American war army.” A General Staff college was formed to educate those who would serve in the newly reorganized Army. Root and his use of Upton’s work made an indelible mark on the army, and in many ways made the army more professional and able. On the downside, I sense Root provided the shell of what is now the massive military bureaucracy.

I’ll conclude my chronological review here, as the author enters the narrative in first person while signed to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War. Suffice it to say, Palmer’s recounting of “how” we have traditionally organized our army is a very informative read. I have seen many “reading lists” of generals and leaders, but haven’t seen this old book on any of those lists—it should be. The “tribal” disconnect between the regular army and the National Guard is explained (not in so many words, mind you), and Palmer’s recounting of the dangerous power of doctrine and dogma is worth the read. The writer of the biblical book Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In America in Arms, military personnel and general reader will find that many of today’s challenges have been challenges since our Founding.

This book has my highest recommendation—especially if you are a serving army officer or have interest in American military organization. This is a great old book. Get a copy; Palmer has much to teach us.

Postscript: Another friend of this blog, Lexington Green, recommended Citizen and Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service, by Eliot Cohen, in the comments to the same post posted at chicagoboyz.net. On Lex’s recommendation, I ordered and have Cohen’s book, but have not yet read.

Second Postscript: I purchased America in Arms from a used book dealer on abe.com, and was fortunate to get a first edition hardback (ex-library book) in excellent condition. This particular title spent time on the shelves of The Catlin Memorial Free Library, Springfield Center, NY, and was placed there by the Arthur Larned Ryerson Memorial; Mr. Ryerson perished on the Titanic. In addition, this particular edition was also published by Yale by the Foundation established in the memory of Philip Hamilton McMillan (check the wife and children entry), Yale Class of 1894. Quite a pedigree for any book; a book that will remain safely in my collection. (the photo above is a snap-shot of my copy)

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21 Responses to “America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer, a review”

  1. zen Says:

    Superb review Scott! well worth the wait!
    .
    ” Root and his use of Upton’s work made an indelible mark on the army, and in many ways made the army more professional and able. On the downside, I sense Root provided the shell of what is now the massive military bureaucracy.
    .
     Astute observation. Root overturned the old Army system beloved of Southern Senators to keep the US Army ineffective and unprofessional as an act of revenge for Reconstruction and Sherman’s March to the Sea, but he opened the door to Weberian bureaucracy in uniform

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    .
    Many thanks! As I scattered the review around social media last night, I mentioned this book should be on the Army CoS’s reading list—there is much to learn from Washington’s wisdom. 

  3. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Excellent review Scott. Palmer is the most influential American strategic thinker of the early 20th century, as seen from his early reform work for Secretary of War Stimson c. 1912 to his role as Marshall’s consigliere during World War II. Universal military training is something the United States could still use. I favor the individual right to keep and bear arms but I also support the right of every eligible adult American to have up to date military training, integration into a state military unit in their locality, and a military assault weapon for their home or office. This is more important for maintaining a healthy political balance within the United States than for its pure military effectiveness. Oligarchy is checked when a preponderant majority of the American people are competently armed. The All-Volunteer Force is one of the main factors contributing to a decline in America’s civic fabric. There’s a word for a population that chooses to completely outsource its coercive services to self-selecting regular formations: peasants.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi JF, 
    .
    Many thanks!
    .
    Before I read Palmer, I was cool to the notion of universal military training, but he convinced me the benefits outweigh the burdens—if, and only if, “integration into a state military unit in their locality” were a requirement. 
    .
    On our current course we will be out-sourcing defense to private companies on a much larger scale than we do presently, and as you infer, this is a dangerous trend.
    .
    Question: What national politician would have the courage to propose Washington’s model? From what I see of both parties, no one.
    .
    One reason I mentioned the Army CoS’s reading list in my comment above, is I believe budgets are driving us to make arrangement—it is about time to revisit our first president’s excellent ideas. 

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