Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
“You can kick this old service around, tear it to pieces, scream from the house-tops that it is worthless, ought to be abolished or transferred to the Navy, have the people in it fighting among themselves and working at cross purposes and it bobs up serenely bigger and stronger than ever.”
Cmdr. Russell R. Waesche, Sr., 1935
As the quote by World War II Commandant Russell Waesche indicates, the evolution of the United States Coast Guard provides a truly unique study in organizational history. This August marks the 228th birthday of an agency that has endured through the absorption of other agencies along with their missions, personnel, offices and assets. In spite of reorganizations and departmental transfers, the service has expanded in range and mission set. Throughout it all, the Coast Guard has been shaped by national and world events, wars and all forms of maritime disasters, so that the Coast Guard’s motto, Semper Paratus “Always Ready,” seems appropriate now more than ever.
The organizational model of the Coast Guard resulted from several federal agencies. Congress established the service’s original predecessor agency, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, in 1790 at the insistence of first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton started the service with a fleet of 10 small sailing vessels, each one assigned to an East Coast seaport. A local customs collector oversaw each cutter’s operation and the collectors received their orders directly from the secretary of treasury. In addition to its original mission of law enforcement, the 1800s saw Congress assign the service the missions of defense (in time of war) and search and rescue. However, until the 20th century, the service remained a civilian agency militarized only in time of war.
Within 100 years of its founding, the Revenue Cutter Service began to develop a global reach. As the U.S. expanded from East Coast to Gulf Coast and on to the West Coast, revenue cutters populated regional ports, such as New Orleans and San Francisco. By 1867, cutters had begun cruising Alaskan waters and the Spanish-American War sent them as far away as southwest Pacific. With the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, cutters began regular patrols in various parts of the Pacific. With this territorial growth came an increase in missions, including fisheries enforcement and humanitarian response.
The second federal service that helped form the Coast Guard was the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Established by Congress in 1878, the Life-Saving Service incorporated a system of 12 districts to administer its boat stations, which numbered 183 by 1881. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson merged the Life-Saving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. The new service became not only the nation’s foremost search and rescue agency, capable of coastal lifesaving operations and high seas rescues; it became an official U.S. military service.
The early 20th century saw the Coast Guard grow in scope and geographic reach. By 1915, the service had begun to conduct the International Ice Patrol, which located dangerous icebergs afloat in navigable waters of the North Atlantic. In World War I, the service came under Navy control. The war expanded the Coast Guard’s area of responsibility well beyond U.S. territorial waters. The service’s new cruising grounds included the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and adjoining bodies of water, such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. In 1937, Congress placed responsibility for domestic icebreaking with the Coast Guard, a mission that would expand to international waters during World War II.
World War II accelerated change within the Coast Guard. In 1939, the war erupted in Europe and Franklin Roosevelt’s administration moved the Lighthouse Service from the Commerce Department into the Coast Guard. By absorbing the Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard adopted the aids-to-navigation mission. Once again, the service came under Navy control for wartime operations. In 1942, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation moved as a temporary measure from the Commerce Department to the Coast Guard, adding marine safety to the service’s growing list of missions. At war’s end, the service returned to its place within the Department of Treasury after contributing 250,000 men and women to the war effort.
The postwar years saw the Coast Guard undergo dramatic changes. In 1946, the wartime adoption of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was made permanent. In 1965, the Navy dropped its icebreaking mission making the Coast Guard the only federal agency providing domestic and polar icebreaking services. The year 1967 saw Lyndon Johnson’s administration move the Coast Guard from the Department of Treasury to the new Department of Transportation. That same year, Congress tasked the Coast Guard with regulating and administering bridges built over navigable waterways.
In the late 20th century, international environmental, economic and political developments created new missions for the Coast Guard. During this period, the frequency of major maritime oil spills grew dramatically adding the maritime environmental response mission to the service’s growing list. Political upheaval and poverty in the Caribbean began driving illegal aliens to U.S. shores increasing the need for migrant interdiction in Coast Guard’s 7th District. In addition, the rapid growth of illegal narcotics smuggling by sea drove the need for highly trained boarding teams known as Law Enforcement Detachments, which specialized in interdicting drug smuggling vessels. Late in the 20th century, the service also added an airborne drug interdiction unit called the Helicopter Interdiction Squadron.
The beginning of the 21st century brought unexpected changes to the Coast Guard. The September 2001 terrorist attacks led to several alterations in the service’s organizational structure. In 2002, the service began establishing Maritime Safety and Security Teams in major ports and later founded specialized Maritime Security Response Teams. In 2003, the Coast Guard left the Department of Transportation to become a cornerstone agency within the new Department of Homeland Security. Including the wartime transfers to and from the Navy, it was a record sixth time that the Coast Guard had changed agencies. In addition, for the first time, homeland security had become an important part of the service’s overall mission.
In 1790, Alexander Hamilton established a small fleet of coastal law enforcement vessels to patrol off East Coast seaports. Over the next 228 years, the service experienced rapid growth in its geographic area of responsibility, mandated missions, and organization through mergers with other maritime services, reorganizations, and transfers from one federal agency to another. These frequent changes demanded remarkable flexibility and resourcefulness of the Coast Guard. The service has lived-up to its motto Semper Paratus by adapting and evolving to meet the nation’s changing needs emerging as a global responder known and respected at home and abroad.