Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Marine Corps, US from Philip's Encyclopedia

Branch of the armed forces that is a service within the Department of the Navy. It consists of c.196,000 personnel and conducts land operations connected with naval manoeuvres.


Summary Article: Marine Corps, U.S. from Encyclopedia of Military Science

The U.S. Marine Corps is a very unique military organization that has been at the forefront of American defense and national security for more than 235 years. While modeled off of the Royal Marines, the U.S. Marine Corps has become distinctive in terms of its size, the strength of its institutional culture because of its historical achievements, its relationships to the other U.S. military services, and its continuing central role in American force structure and power projection capabilities. This entry discusses the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, the corps' distinctive culture, and differences—sometimes rivalry—between the Marine Corps and the other services.

Origins and Early Decades

The U.S. Marine Corps traces its origins to November 10, 1775, when the Continental Congress created the Continental Marines as an adjunct force to the Continental Navy. The Continental Marines fought throughout the American Revolution, primarily as sharpshooters in the masts of Continental naval vessels during ship-to-ship engagements, landing parties in small-scale amphibious operations, and shipboard security guards for naval vessels and bases. All of these missions were fairly typical for marine forces in the 1700s and were modeled on missions from the Royal Navy and Marines, on which the Continental Navy was modeled.

Like the Continental Navy itself, the Continental Marines were disbanded at the end of the Revolution in 1783 and not resurrected again until the Quasi-Naval War with France (1798–1801). After that time, the marines were never again disbanded, though they were threatened with it on several occasions over the next century and a half. Performing largely the same missions as during the Revolution, the marines in the Quasi-War, the War of 1812, the Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War found themselves in each major engagement the United States took part in during the antebellum period, but they also took on additional roles as required. At the insistence of their longest serving commandant, Brevet Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, the marines took on any and all missions that kept them in the national spotlight, gained the favor of politicians, and prevented the U.S. Army from having them disestablished as a “second army.” Such a mixture of pragmatism and flexibility has been a hallmark of the corps' existence throughout its history. Under Henderson, the Marine Corps survived these “doldrums” and took part in similar types of missions during the American Civil War, when there also existed a Confederate Marine Corps modeled on its prewar Yankee forefather.

Surviving the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Historical image of a marine battalion in front of Commandant's House at the marine barracks, Washington, D.C., 1864.

The Marine Corps, like the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, endured another period of national, political, and budgetary neglect during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, numbering no more than a few thousand at best, relegated to similar missions as before the Civil War, and constantly seen as a wasteful duplication of the army. Again taking on any and all missions that pleased its political masters—including strike breaking—the Marine Corps survived to be able to take part in the Spanish-American War and began Progressive Era reforms for the increased professionalization of its officer corps. The Spanish-American War saw the marines primarily again in naval adjunct roles but also helping man gun turrets on new armored battleships and cruisers. Moreover, senior political and military authorities began dimly recognizing by the end of that war that there was the need for the United States to have a force that could seize and defend bases outside of the Continental United States. This recognition by American politicians of the need for a force that could participate in an amphibious warfare role combined with the obvious need for the United States to have light military forces for duty in places such as Central America and East Asia. The latter duty resulted in the Marine Corps writing one of the first manuals on irregular warfare, the Small Wars Manual, the predecessor to many of the counterinsurgency doctrines of the later 1900s and early 2000s. All of these duties combined again allowed the marines to survive, to grow into a larger force, and then to take part in some of the bloodiest trench warfare when the United States entered World War I in 1917. These missions also allowed Marine Corps leaders such as Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune to continue thinking about amphibious assault as a potential mission for the marines.

Finding Amphibious Assault and the Pacific War

This kind of thinking was even more vital after 1919. Although the marines had gained great fame in battles such as Belleau Wood, the marines' role in trench warfare also allowed the army to once again argue that the Marine Corps was a wasteful duplication of the army. Lejeune and his protégé, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Ellis, therefore focused on the navy's plans to fight Japan in the Pacific and began portraying the marines not so much as a naval adjunct for guarding ships and bases but as a full-blown amphibious assault force that specialized in that type of warfare as no other branch did. This focus within the navy's sea control mission afforded the marines, especially officers such as Major (later General) Holland Smith, the opportunity to begin developing amphibious assault techniques and technology in the 1920s and 1930s, to begin practicing those types of exercises before the start of World War II, and even to write amphibious assault doctrine into documents such as the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations (1934).

Recruiting poster, World War I era, 1917.

Accordingly, the Pacific war was a watershed and even godsend for the marines. Their pioneering of amphibious warfare doctrine, techniques, and technologies meant that the Pacific war was seen by the American public and politicians as a “Marine Corps war,” much to the chagrin of the army. The fact that the marines largely taught the army in the Pacific how to carry out these types of operations—even though the latter service outnumbered the marines by a ratio of four to one during the war—added even more to the public's image of the ground phases of the war as largely Marine Corps operations. The marines did not waste this opportunity either, capitalizing on the publicity gained from their role in battles such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima to score major lobbying victories with Congress, the media, and the public, in-roads that would help the corps greatly in the immediate postwar period.

The Cold War and Beyond

One problem the corps had in 1945, however, was that it had grown during the war to six divisions and four aviation wings, and it truly did look like a second army to a budget-conscious Congress. In the postwar battles in Washington, D.C., over such controversial issues as defense unification, roles, and missions, it was not even clear if the navy, under assault by the Army Air Forces, might not offer up the marines for elimination as a way to keep naval aviation from U.S. Air Force control. In the end, however, senior and mid-grade Marine Corps officers were able to use their clout with the public and influential members of Congress to get roles for the marines written into the various national security acts of the early Cold War.

The Cold War, however, presented a doctrinal challenge to the marines since the primary enemy, the Soviet Union, did not have much of a fleet and did not have outlying bases that would need to be seized and defended. The navy did, however, very quickly create the origins of what would later be called the Maritime Strategy, whereby it would project American naval power toward and into Soviet territory in areas such as the Mediterranean Sea, the western Pacific, and later (by the 1970s and 1980s) the North Atlantic. Where the navy went, the marines accompanied, even developing their own mix of forces for Arctic operations in Norway and strikes into the northern Soviet Union. In addition, the marines continued to guard naval bases and to provide internal detachments on large naval vessels such as aircraft carriers and cruisers, but their primary duty, just as in the interwar period, was as a light infantry and quick reaction force for political crises such as in the Dominican Republic in 1965. Even more so, these “light” infantry duties turned into heavier force operations in Korea and Vietnam, but always with an emphasis on quick response by the marines so as to continually differentiate the corps from the army. Operations and exercises in Korea, Vietnam, Norway, and later Panama, Kuwait, and Iraq, however, led the marines to need armor, field artillery, tactical air, and combat engineers in a major way, so the marines were always concerned about a harsh budgetary climate perhaps leading to calls for their disestablishment as a “second army.”

The marines were fortunate in that each time they seemed to look like a maritime copy of the army, operations came along that allowed their particular role to shine. For instance, in the Persian Gulf War, the marines were used as amphibious decoy forces to keep the Iraqis busy in Kuwait while U.S. and coalition forces carried out the “left hook” into the desert to envelop Iraqi forces. While the marines were not thrilled with this type of decoy mission and were truly prepared to carry out an amphibious assault, the success of the mission nevertheless added to Marine Corps prestige. In the Global War on Terrorism, the marines have integrated themselves into the navy's “From the Sea” Strategy and “New Maritime Strategy” and have argued that marines deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are actually the ground force power projection of the American naval power. Time will tell, however, if this type of strategy allows the marines to survive what will probably be very lean budgetary times for the early 21st century American military as a largely deindustrialized United States deals with major domestic economic problems. Given that the marines were well inland in Iraq and Afghanistan with heavily mechanized forces trying to perform both conventional and counterinsurgency missions that the U.S. Army is also performing, it may be difficult for the marines to continue to argue that they are so distinctive. It is doubtful, however, that calls for the marines' disestablishment would really lead anywhere given the corps's high popularity with the public as the embodiment of American military virtues as well as the Marine Corps' utility in the Defense Department's latest strategy oriented toward the People's Republic of China, Air-Sea Battle.

Marine Corps Culture and Performance

From the very start of its history, the Marine Corps developed a distinctive military culture. This could be seen in the 1900s, in particular, since the marines emphasized their own service or corporate history as a central part of their culture and identity building. The marines, in fact, made the most of their history much earlier than the other services, perhaps not only out of desperation and a means to illustrate that they were unique and therefore worthy of being retained but also because this strong sense of history and tradition became part of the training, the leadership, and the “mystique” of the marines. Other things set the marines apart early on as well. Unlike the U.S. Army—which did accept African American soldiers during the American Revolution and even integrated them into the ranks at that time—the marines from the beginning refused to enlist African Americans, other minorities, or women. This parochialism continued without the slightest change until presidential orders in World War II forced the service to accept limited number of female and minority recruits.

Much more than institutional racism, however, defined Marine Corps culture. Again, from the very beginning of the corps' existence, the marines were highly selective about enlistees, including the physical size and health of the recruits. The fact that the marines remained the smallest service (and still is, with the exception of the U.S. Coast Guard) meant that it could maintain that selectivity into the present. Marine Corps selectivity went beyond physical requirements, however, and still does. U.S. Marines from all eras talk about the marines endowing a special kind of confidence and esprit de corps in terms of training, leadership, and even the distinctive uniform. Eugene Sledge, a mortar man in the 1st Marine Division at Peleliu and Okinawa, talks at length in his wartime memoir about the particularly difficult training that he endured as a recruit trainee that he argues prepared him for the extraordinarily traumatic combat that he endured. Many other marines from World War II echo Sledge's comments, while wartime memoirs of U.S. Army personnel talk about how their training was very often counterproductive to the actual conditions they encountered in combat.

Moreover, postwar records show that the marines had a decidedly lower percentage of battle fatigue casualties than any other service, something again that is typically attributed to training, leadership, and the esprit created by the mystique of the corps. Comparisons to other services are interesting in that members of the U.S. Navy typically become attached to their ships, U.S. Air Force personnel obviously become attached to their aircraft, and members of the U.S. Army typically talk about their leaders or perhaps units. Marines, however, have had these kinds of attachments to their entire service. At significant times, of course, this distinctiveness has led to intense interservice rivalry between the marines and the other services, both officially between leaderships and unofficially in the field and off duty. The marines have often been seen by other services as obviously very competent but also arrogant and clannish, and their image and prestige with the public and with politicians have often been resented.

It has also, however, led to a unique relationship with the Marine Corps Reserve. Long before the Pentagon started talking about a Total Force Policy and that kind of integration between active and reserve forces became a reality, the marines were living this idea by having their Reserve forces conduct real-time training during both weekend and summer drill sessions, by making sure that large numbers of Reserve personnel had prior active service, and by having the 4th Marine Division (Reserve) assigned missions that they trained for on a regular basis during peacetime and would fulfill in case of mobilization. Reports about the competence of the Marine Corps Reserve units differed markedly on a number of occasions with those of the National Guard forces, especially during the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars, when the latter typically took months of training to be brought up to speed with their active-duty counterpart units, while Marine Corps Reserve forces deployed with minimal preparation time.

Rivalry has at times been significant with the U.S. Navy as well. To a certain extent, Marine Corps history has been one of being tied to the navy's “apron strings.” Since the marines grew out of the U.S. Navy, both in 1775 and 1798, and since the marines have always been and still are part of the Department of the Navy, the marines have often been seen, or marines have often felt, to some extent, like the servant of the Fleet. This attitude could be seen when marines were charged with guarding naval bases and providing internal security detachments on naval vessels, something that continued on some American naval vessels until the late 1990s. Of course, in the Age of Sail, marines were also on board to quell potential mutinies, and so they were widely despised by sailors. In the late 1800s and the 1900s, marine detachments continued to have an internal security function, but in a more contemporary context of serving as orderlies to commanding and flag officers, providing small landing parties for expeditionary operations, and guarding nuclear weapons onboard Cold War–era warships. Recently, there is even some discussion of returning marines to smaller warships because of their skill in the antipiracy operations that are becoming so central to U.S. Navy deployments.

Into the 21st Century

Apart from conducting current operations in the Global War on Terrorism, the Marine Corps has been moving into new ground in terms of its leadership positions in the U.S. national security establishment. During the George W. Bush administration, General Peter Pace was the first marine to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then the first marine to hold the chairmanship of that body. In addition, the retired general James Jones became the assistant to the president for national security affairs (better known as the national security advisor) at the beginning of the Obama administration. These positions mark the pinnacle, at this point in U.S. history, of Marine Corps generals in high-level national security positions and demonstrate the degree to which the Marine Corps is taken much more seriously than it was before the Cold War by the senior national leadership.

It also demonstrates the historical development of senior leadership in the marines, which has been, like its institutional culture, somewhat distinctive. For instance, even today, the marines typically commission more officers from their enlisted ranks than the other services do. This is, in fact, an old tradition from the 20th-century Marine Corps. In the 1800s, the marines largely took their officers from civilian lifeor, by the late 1800s and afterward, from the United States Naval Academy. There has been a tendency in the 1900s, however, to commission officers from the ranks, a tradition that has continued into the post–Cold War era. There has also been, at least in previous times, friction between officers who were commissioned from civilian life or the Naval Academy and tended to serve long periods at Headquarters Marine Corps (so-called political marines) and those who came from the ranks and served primarily in the Fleet and the Fleet Marine Force (field marines). Given the modern-day commonality of educational experiences in commissioning programs and enlisted service, this friction has probably lessened, but the marines do continue to pride themselves on a style of aggressive leadership from the front that was exemplified by the former commandant general Alfred Gray, who had marines don battle dress uniforms on a regular basis to reinforce the idea of the corps as a fighting organization, not a military bureaucracy.

The Marine Corps currently numbers approximately 203,000 active-duty marines and 40,000 Marine Corps reservists. The marines are equipped with the latest small arms and heavy weapons, including tanks; amphibious assault vehicles; air defense, self-propelled, and stationary artillery; helicopters; and aircraft, the latter both of conventional and vertical/short takeoff and landing type. The marines are organized into Headquarters Marine Corps, the Operating Force, the Supporting Establishment, and the Marine Corps Reserve. In addition to their traditional military missions, the marines provide the guard detachments for nearly 150 U.S. embassies, consulates, and interests sections in more than 130 countries around the world. This force currently numbers approximately 1,000 marines, and this mission dates from the late 1940s. None of these missions will probably change very radically in the foreseeable future, though the marines, like the other services, may endure cuts from lean budgetary times in the near future.

See Navy, Department of

Further Readings
  • Cameron, C. (2002). American samurai: Myth, imagination, and the conduct of battle in the First Marine Division, 1941-1951. Cambridge University Press Cambridge, UK.
  • Caputo, P. (1977). A rumor of war. Ballantine Books New York, NY.
  • Hammes, T. X. (2010). Forgotten warriors: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the Corps ethos, and the Korean War. University Press of Kansas Lawrence.
  • Isely, J.; Crowl, P. (1951). The U.S. Marines and amphibious war: Its theory, and its practice in the Pacific. Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.
  • Keiser, G. (1996). The US Marine Corps and defense unification, 1944-47. Nautical & Aviation Baltimore, MD.
  • Millett, A. (1991). Semper Fidelis: The history of the United States Marine Corps. Free Press New York, NY.
  • Shulimson, J. (1993). The Marine Corps' search for a mission. University Press of Kansas Lawrence.
  • Sledge, E. B. (1981). With the old breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Oxford University Press New York, NY.
  • Smith, C. (2005). Marines in the revolution: A history of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783. University Press of the Pacific Honolulu, HI.
  • Ulbrich, D. (2011). Preparing for victory: Thomas Holcomb and the making of the modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943. Naval Institute Press Annapolis, MD.
  • Hal M. Friedman
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article
    Marine Corps, United States
    The Columbia Encyclopedia

    military corps that forms a separate service within the U.S. Dept. of the Navy. The commandant of the Marine Corps is a member of the Joint Chiefs of

    Full text Article
    United States Marine Corps (USMC)
    Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

    Separate military service within the U.S. Department of the Navy (see U.S. Navy), charged with providing marine troops for seizure and defense of a

    Full text Article
    United States Marine Corps
    Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History

    U.S. Marine Corps involvement in the Vietnam War began in April 1962 when marine helicopter units deployed to the Mekong Delta to lift Army of...

    See more from Credo