By Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
As the oldest continuously serving sea service in the nation, it was established to enforce our new nation’s maritime laws and soon after to defend its coasts. If you guessed the U.S. Navy, then sorry, you won’t be competing in the final Jeopardy round, I’m afraid. The answer is the United States Coast Guard.
So why wasn’t the Continental Navy called upon to handle these duties? That fleet was disbanded following the end of the American Revolution in 1783. The U.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to fund a national navy, but nothing was done until threats from Barbary pirates initiated its reestablishment with the 1794 Naval Act. The U.S. Navy has been serving the nation for over 220 years.
The U.S. Coast Guard got its beginning 226 years ago today when President George Washington signed the Tariff Act. The new republic was struggling to pay the cost of fighting for independence. To replenish those spent coffers, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton suggested imposing a tariff on imports. The legislation included construction of 10 vessels to scout out smugglers trying to evade the import tax.
In 1790, the Revenue Marine sailing vessels were small to medium-sized and sported a single mast. Quick and agile, the ships were known as “cutters,” and they carried armed enforcers. The term “cutter” now describes the type of service of the boat, which is used for law enforcement of customs, border patrol or coast
The first 10 cutters, in order of launching, were: Vigilant, Active, General Green, Massachusetts, Scammel, Argus, Virginia, Diligence, South Carolina and Eagle. Their value in protecting the coast as well as snagging smugglers was not lost on Congress, and their duties expanded as often as their name for the next 126 years.
In 1915, the U.S. Life-Saving Service was merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to create the United States Coast Guard. Its new responsibilities included manning stations along the nation’s coastlines to rescue boaters who got into trouble in open water. Not forgetting their value as protectors, however, the legislation creating the merge reiterated the Coast Guard “shall constitute a part of the military forces of the United States.”
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt further widened the Coast Guard’s area of responsibility with the Lighthouse Service, which included maintaining maritime aids to navigation. The Coast Guard had become a one-stop sea service when it came to protecting the coasts, saving lives and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws.
The Coast Guard serves more than just the continental United States; the sea service patrols the United States exclusive economic zone, the largest in the world, which includes the East, West and Gulf coasts of the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, numerous Pacific Ocean islands and nations, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The U.S. EE zone encompasses 4.72 million square miles of coastlines and shipping lanes across three oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Although their main mission is to protect American coasts and the lives of people within those boundaries, Coasties have participated in every war and conflict, fighting alongside their Navy, Marine, Army and Air Force comrades, from the Quasi War to the D-Day landings at Normandy to fighting the war against terrorism in the Middle East.
“The U.S. Coast Guard is unique as it is maritime, military, and multimission,” explains Christopher Havern, an historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “As exemplars, the Coast Guard simultaneously engages in operations to ensure maritime security and conduct search and rescue while also being charged with the safeguarding of endangered marine species, protecting the environment, and interdicting illegal human and drug traffickers. To my knowledge there is no other organization that operates in a like capacity on the scale that the USCG does both nationally and internationally.”
And as a dual-natured, multimission service, the Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions to accomplish tasks in both the civilian and military realms, some of which the U.S. Navy is prohibited from performing, such as the interdiction of illegal drug shipments at sea, Havern said.
“The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the use of military forces, namely the Army and Navy, from engaging in domestic law enforcement activities,” he said. “As such, Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) conduct boardings from U.S. Navy ships to search vessels for drugs, illegal migrants and other contraband.”
USCG cutters also can approach Cuba as part of their law enforcement or other humanitarian missions without provoking hostile response; a similar action by a U.S. Navy vessel could be potentially interpreted as an act of war.
“So while both the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy are military, and maritime services with similar operational capabilities, they also have marked differences that make them distinct. As such, they should be viewed as being complementary in serving the nation,” Havern said.
There’s no question the military values the fight the Coast Guard brings to the battle. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Coast Guard became the flagship enterprise for the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Funding that was virtually nonexistent in the 20 years following Vietnam became available to establish the department and help the Coast Guard expand to fulfill its broadening responsibilities, especially in regard to combatting terrorist threats and disaster response, Havern noted.
But as with all of the other military departments, as the cost of fighting the war on terrorism continues to climb, the Coast Guard also has seen the effects of budget reductions.
“In the last few years the Coast Guard has had to come to terms with decreased levels of funding while still meeting the demands of its statutory missions,” Havern said. “Though a great challenge, the Coast Guard has continually worked to identify and institute efficiencies to ensure that it remains capable and “Always Ready” to accomplish its mandated tasks.”