"The Marine Corps' Long March": Modernizing the Nation's Expeditionary Forces in the Aftermath of Vietnam, 1970-1991
The United States Marine Corps was an institution in crisis in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Six years of war had taken a toll on personnel and equipment. Racial violence was a common occurrence and desertion rates were at an all-time high. Discipline in the ranks was so poor that many officers doubted the service's readiness for future conflicts. For their part, civilian policymakers questioned the Marine Corps' continued usefulness as a tool of national policy. In addition, equipment was worn and outdated. The service's doctrine was similarly antiquated. Thus, the early 1970s were a time of organizational strain, unprecedented public criticism, and internal debate over the future direction of the Marine Corps.Over the next two decades, Headquarters Marine Corps implemented a series of reforms that produced a significant increase in military effectiveness. First, in the early 1970s, leaders focused on eliminating institutional racism and reducing criminal behavior through sound personnel policies. Next, Headquarters Marine Corps clearly articulated the service's value to the nation and played a central role in the formation of the Rapid Deployment Force. In the 1980s, force modernization was the focus of effort. The service used the increased defense spending of the Carter and Reagan years to replace nearly every weapon system in its arsenal. Finally, a series of doctrinal changes were implemented in the late 1980s to tie the entire program together. By the 1990s, the Marine Corps had reestablished itself as the nation's premier force-in-readiness. It was able to rapidly project combat power to a degree previously unimagined during peacetime.This project draws on archival sources to examine the organizational, technological, and doctrinal changes initiated by the Marine Corps in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I argue that the origins of the modern Marine Corps are to be found in the ashes of Vietnam. An appreciation of the reforms undertaken during this critical period is essential to understanding the service in the 21st century. This study also addresses the implications of a revitalized Marine Corps for the country and for American foreign policy. In the process, it sheds light on the benefits and shortcomings of the All-Volunteer Force, the steadily rising cost of defense acquisitions, and changing attitudes towards the role of force in American diplomacy.
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