U.S. Coast Guard
Identification: U.S. maritime military and civilian service
Date: Founded on August 4, 1790
Significance: The United States Coast Guard is a unique multimission, maritime agency categorized as one of five branches of the U.S. armed forces. Its major role is to protect the nation’s ports and waterways or any maritime region, including international waters, as required or requested to support national security. The Coast Guard specifically looks to protect the public, the environment, and governmental interests by maintaining safe waterways.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is tasked with enforcement of maritime law, mariner assistance including search and rescue, and national security of all major waterways, particularly coasts and ports; and interstate bodies of such as lakes, streams, and rivers within the United States; and sometimes in international waters.
The Coast Guard’s history can be traced back to August 4, 1790, when the first Congress, under the encouragement of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, authorized the construction of ten vessels to enforce tariff and trade laws while attempting to prevent smuggling, thus predating the nation’s first official navy by eight years. Through the early twentieth century, the Coast Guard was known as the Revenue Marine and Cutter Service, until it received its present name in 1915 under an act of Congress combining the maritime service with the new mandate of life-saving operations. This new single maritime armed service would now dedicate its efforts to saving lives at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws. Over time as the country grew, more responsibilities were given to the Coast Guard, including operation of the nation’s lighthouses and former tasks of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, including merchant marine licensing and merchant vessel safety.
Mission and Roles
The Coast Guard has always been the smallest of the five U.S. military branches. In 2009, it had just over 40,000 active-duty members, roughly 8,000 reservists, and close to 37,000 civilian and auxiliary employees. However, the Coast Guard is unique because of its vast mission. For example, in times of peace, the Coast Guard can operate as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, serving as the nation’s front-line organization for enforcing laws at sea, protecting the marine environment, and saving lives. In times of war, or under the executive order of the president, the Coast Guard can become part of the Department of the Navy. In fact, since 1790 the Coast Guard has participated in every major war or conflict in which the United States has been involved.
The Coast Guard provides unique services to the nation because of its distinctive blend of military, civilian law-enforcement, and humanitarian capabilities. The Coast Guard has five specific roles as they pertain to the American public: search and rescue (SAR) pertaining to recreational boating, commercial fishing, and transportation; homeland security related directly to protection of waterways, ports, and coastlines from enemy combatants; environmental protection of the nation’s coasts, waterways, sea habitats, and wildlife; maritime mobility, which is associated with ensuring safe passage of cargo for economical purposes; and maritime law enforcement and security, which focuses on enforcement of water-related federal laws dealing with the smuggling of aliens, illicit drugs, or counterfeit products as well as illegal fishing and boating operations.
Although the Coast Guard carries out all the aforementioned roles on a daily basis, the role of law enforcement and security has been deemed one of its most vital responsibilities. Aside from saving lives at sea on a daily basis, the Coast Guard has played a vital role since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in protecting and patrolling the nation’s ports, coastlines, rivers, and other bodies of water. On average each day, the Coast Guard apprehends seventeen illegal immigrants; seizes one thousand pounds of illegal drugs; boards, inspects and searches roughly two hundred commercial and recreational vessels; and escorts roughly twenty boats that are either passenger vessels, military cargo ships, or boats carrying hazardous or toxic wastes. Because of the security changes instituted after the 2001 attacks, the Coast Guard has become one of the largest active law-enforcement agencies in use in the United States.
Paul M. Klenowski
- Beard, Tom. Coast Guard. Seattle: Foundation for Coast Guard History, 2004. Provides the definitive story of the Coast Guard. Packed with unique historical facts and firsthand accounts of former “Coasties,” this book is an excellent reference for those interested in learning more about the Coast Guard as both a military branch and an agency that serves the general public in various capacities.
- Bonner, Kit, and Carolyn Bonner. Always Ready: Today’s U.S. Coast Guard. St. Paul, Minn.: MBI, 2004. A concise look at the evolving mission and goals of the Coast Guard. In particular, specific detail is offered about the role the Coast Guard has carried out for the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Above all, the book is appropriate as a reference for understanding the varying missions of the Coast Guard.
- Krietemeyer, George E. The Coast Guardsman’s Manual. 9th ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2008. This book is issued to new recruits as they enter boot camp for the Coast Guard. Offers a readable history of the Coast Guard, highlighting everything from its military roles to enforcement of maritime law and search and rescue missions.
- Ostrom, Thomas P. The United States Coast: 1790 to the Present. Rev. ed. Oakland, Oreg.: Red Anvil Press, 2006. Detailed historical overview of the Coast Guard told fromthe viewpoint of a former member. Provides insight into the significance of the Coast Guard and its various roles in protecting U.S. waterways.
- Phillips, Donald T., and James M. Loy. Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on Leadership. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. Offers a detailed look into how the Coast Guard has set a standard for creating young leaders.
- Rasmussen, R. Kent. “Coast Guard, U.S.” In Magill’s Guide to Military History, edited by John Powell. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2001. Concise history of the Coast Guard by a former Guardsman that pays special attention to the service’s changing roles and its participation in national military conflicts.
See also: Border Patrol, U.S.; Coolies; Drug trafficking; Haitian boat people; Homeland Security, Department of; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Patriot Act of 2001;Transportation of immigrants.