The U.S. Army Center of Military History: A Brief History

Terrence J. Gough

From ARMY HISTORY, PB-20-96-2 (No.37), Washington, D.C., Spring 1996

The Center of Military History traces its functional lineage to the Civil War era. An 1864 congressional authorization for the War Department to collect and publish the military records of the Civil War resulted in the appearance of 131 volumes of documents and maps between 1880 and 1901—a collection that remains an essential source for the study of that great national conflict. In a separate project, the War Department between 1870 and 1888 published a study (two volumes in six books) of the Union Army's medical experience, the first official histories of the U.S. Army.

Although Army regulations based on the General Staff Act of 1903 recognized historical study as a proper staff function, and there was some historical activity over the next fifteen years, not until March 1918 was a Historical Branch organized in the War Plans Division (ever since this slow start, the Army has maintained a central historical office). The branch's projected comprehensive,65-volume history of U.S. Army participation in World War I never came to fruition because of postwar personnel reductions and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker's apprehension about controversy over economic, political, and diplomatic issues. He thought that the branch's work should be restricted to "the collection, indexing, and preservation of records and the preparation of such monographs as are purely military in character."

Notwithstanding a fifteen-volume history of the Medical Department's clinical and administrative experience in World War I, published by that branch in the 1920s, Baker's opinion exercised a limiting influence over the Army's historical work for a quarter of a century. The central historical office collected records in the United States and Europe for eventual publication, prepared about a dozen specialized studies of military operations in World War I, and began compiling and publishing a multivolume Army order of battle for the war. Nominally attached to the War College in Washington and redesignated the Historical Section in 1921, the historical staff actually continued its central role for Army headquarters and supervised all historical work in the War Department. In 1922 the section became responsible for determining the official lineages and battle honors of Army units. The section's staff, with a professional component composed mostly of military of ficers, spent an increasing portion of its time answering queries from the Army and the public about the recent war and earlier Army history.

America's entry into World War II brought the Historical Section important and varied duties. To deal with the war's exigencies, the Army's leaders needed to know how their predecessors of twenty-five years before had dealt with similar challenges. The Historical Section began responding to requests for studies, producing the first one, "Deficiencies in Transportation, 19171918," on 6 March 1942 and sixty-one more by the end of the war. Reference inquiries from War Department agencies rose from a stream of about a thousand in 1942 to a torrent of well over ten thousand in 1943. Units peppered the historians with questions—eighteen thousand in 1944 alone—about their organizations' history. Initially, the Historical Section also had supervisory responsibility for historical of fices that the Army's major commands established in 1942. Threequarters of the section's enlarged staff nonetheless continued work on the World War I documents (collection of which in French and German archives had not ended until 1940) and order of battle, so that the seventeen volumes of documents and last volume of the order of battle appeared in 1947 and 1949, respectively.

With the wartime Historical Section thus engaged, the Army in 1943 organized in the G-2 (Intelligence) division of the General Staff an additional historical office with responsibility for the history of World War II. All of the senior officers in the Historical Section during the war were retired men recalled to active duty, and some of them were over seventy. A separate office was necessary to provide the vigorous leadership required for a large new effort. The second entity's placement in G-2 was a matter not of any particular functional affinity, but rather of administrative convenience.

PresidentFranklin D. Rooseveltcatalyzed the creation of the second office through the Committee on Records of War Administration, his instrument for ensuring that executive agencies would preserve "for those who come after us an accurate and objective account of our present experience." Both civilian and military War Department leaders supported the eventual publication of a comprehensive narrative history of the Army's experience in the war—precisely what had not been done for World War I. Building the groundwork to realize that vision, the new Historical Branch, G-2, recruited, trained, and deployed historians— primarily civilians who had brought academic history credentials to their military service—to supervise the gathering and preservation of the necessary documents.

To ensure that a definitive and comprehensive history of World War II would come to fruition, the Historical Branch needed a stronger and more secure position in War Department headquarters. In November 1945 the branch achieved that goal with its departure from G-2 and establishment as the Historical Division, headed by a general officer, in the Special Staff. The division absorbed the staff and functions of the Army War College Historical Section in 1947.

Employing mostly civilian professional historians who had practiced their craft, as soldiers, in overseas theaters during the war, the Historical Division embarked on the most ambitious U.S. official history project ever, the United States Army in World War II series. Since 1947 the division and its successors have published seventy-seven volumes in the series, and the final volume is being edited for publication. These books describe in detail the organization, plans, and operations of the War Department and the Army in the zone of interior and in all of the Army's five theaters of operations from 1939 to 1945. A massive accumulation of source material, mainly of ficial records of the Army's activities but also captured enemy documents and statements and writings of enemy of ficers, undergirds this vast work.

The Historical Division produced additional studies on World War II and on other aspects of the Army's history, while also performing related historical functions. Published as Department of the Army pamphlets (many of them book-length), the studies included many German Army subjects, such as operations in the Balkans, and chronologically broader treatments of the U. S. Army's experience in such areas as mobilization, demobilization, and personnel replacement. The division gave expanded attention to unit lineages and honors, the determination of which would become increasingly complex with successive reorganizations of the field forces in the post-World War II era. Eight volumes in an Army Lineage Series have since appeared. Staff support and general reference services continued, with a reference collection significantly augmented by World War II historical manuscripts and other unpublished material. In 1946 the division acquired from the Military District of Washington policy-making and staff duties for, and in 1949 full responsibility for, historical properties, including a large collection of Army and captured enemy war art. The redesignation of the division as the Office of the Chief of Military History (OCMH) in March 1950 reflected the expansion of the agency's mission.

Work on the World War II books was proceeding intensively when the United States unexpectedly entered the sudden conflict in Korea in June 1950. A quickly established field history program, manned largely by reserve officers called to active duty from academe, produced valuable unpublished monographs. Most of the reserve officers returned to civilian life after the war. OCMH began a series of major narrative volumes, of which five ultimately would be published in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. The office's major efforts remained focused on World War II.

As OCMH steadily completed the bulk of the World War II work in the 1950s and early 1960s, the size of the history staff decreased, even as Army and public calls for historical support and information increased. It was a time of generally static budgets. Organizational streamlining terminated OCMH's status as a Special Staff agency and brought it under the direct supervision and control of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations in 1956, as part of an effort to reduce the number of agencies reporting to the Chief of Staff.

In conjunction with a general reorganization of the Army's headquarters and major continental commands in 1962, the Chief of Staff directed the Chief of Military History to take steps to ensure effective coordination and supervision of all of the Army's history efforts. OCMH absorbed some of the functions of the historical offices of the Army's abolished technical services, while various commands established new historical offices. The result was an improved balance in historical coverage of the Army. In October 1962, Army Regulation 870-5, the first consolidated governance of all of the service's historical activities, was issued. Fiscal year 1963 saw the first issuance of the annual Army Historical Program, which encompassed the historical activities of OCMH and major commands and agencies.

During this period, the demands of the Army Staff for special studies began to increase as the United States became more involved in Vietnam. With President Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement in July 1965 of plans for Army expansion and for large deployments to Vietnam, OCMH stepped up its attention to the conflict. By the end of 1966, the office had developed a tentative plan for a multivolume history of the Army's role in Vietnam, and work on the series began in earnest in the 1970s. The number of volumes fluctuated with the course of the war and with changing perspectives afterwards. Five volumes have been published, and nine others are in progress. Unlike World War II and the Korean War, during and after which field historians wrote many detailed monographs, the Vietnam War did not result in the production of a rich lode of studies upon which to base a multivolume history. Two-man military history detachments in Vietnam concentrated more strictly on collecting information and helping units prepare operations reports that stressed lessons learned. OCMH assisted the detachments and in turn benefited from them by giving some of their commanders (most of whom were reserve officers) orientations before deployment and by assigning points of contact in OCMH for those deployed. The office also sponsored the deployment of military and civilian artists to record images of the war.

OCMH added a significant historical resource to its organization during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army Military History Research Collection, which was established at the Army War College in June 1967, became a Class II activity of OCMH in January 1970. Creation of the collection provided a repository for extensive library materials of great historical value that otherwise would have been dispersed as installations closed and as Army libraries necessarily made room for recent accessions. In addition, the collection served as a needed center for the acquisition and preservation of the personal papers of leading military figures. All of these materials are of great value to military and civilian scholars writing Army history. In October 1985, control of the Military History Institute (as the collection had been renamed in 1977) shifted from the Chief of Military History to the Commandant of the Army War College in order to facilitate command and control as well as resource management. The realignment into two separate agencies underlined the unique mission of each and improved service to the field, since each entity could now respond directly to requests for its specialized types of historical assistance.

Meanwhile, OCMH in June 1973 became the Center of Military History (CMH), a field operating agency under the general staff supervision of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations (later the Deputy Chiefof Staff for Operations and Plans). CMH retained that status until March 1989, when it was redesignated a field operating agency under the proponency of the Office of the Chief of Staff, Army.

Organizationally, the 1970s saw one major addition to CMH. In 1978 the Center absorbed the Army Medical Department's Historical Unit, which had published dozens of volumes of clinical and administrative history of World War II. CMH continued to publish volumes in the two series. A total of forty-five of these books has appeared to date.

Several major trends emerged in CMH in the 1980s. Early in the decade, the Center began to give the Army museum system more direct staff supervision, including museum assistance, management and acquisition of historical artifacts, improvement of conservation standards, and professional training. Along with that new emphasis, the start of planning for a National Museum of the United States Army and the need to ensure the Army's compliance with laws governing the nation's material culture caused CMH to devote significantly more personnel to material culture functions. In 1983 the staff support and reference functions were consolidated in a new division, as CMH placed greater stress on providing the Army Staff and the Secretariat with historical perspective designed to aid in decision-making. Finally, field and international programs grew. The Center increased its guidance and support to major and subordinate command historical offices and to Army-wide military history education and leader development activities; conducted staff rides; and maintained liaison and exchange programs with counterpart military history offices abroad.

Beginning with the invasion of Panama in 1989, the Center has deployed uniformed historians in contingency operations. CMH historians collected documents and did oral history interviewing there and in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Haiti. A historian is now deployed to Bosnia. In addition, the Center sent Army artists to record contingency operations, including the service's role in disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992.

All of these operations, but most especially the Persian Gulf War in 1991, brought the staff support function to the fore as CMH historians turned out short-suspense information papers on demand. CMH provided well over a hundred papers to the Pentagon and to the Army in the field during the buildup and the operations of DESERT STORM.

On 22 March 1995, the Deputy Secretary of Defense appointed the Army as the executive agent for the declassification of all Persian Gulf War operational records. In May 1995, CMH became the office of primary responsibility for this project within the Army and is proceeding with the mission. The Center is also involved in planning for the implementation of Executive Order 12958, regarding declassification more generally.

In 1995 CMH passed the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the Historical Division— a milestone in the central historical office's history—virtually without remark. Yet there was an observance in spirit. For the people of the Center of Military History expended considerable effort during the year helping to commemorate the Army's role in the climactic events of World War II. They celebrated their own anniversary by doing what they have always always done: serving the United States Army.

Terrence J. Gough, Chief, Staff Support Branch, Research and Analysis Division, has been a historian with the Center since 1979.


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Last updated 9 May 2006