“We must depend in every time of national peril, in the future as in the past, not upon a standing army, nor yet upon a reserve army, but upon a citizenry trained and accustomed to arms. We should encourage such training and make it a means of discipline, which our young men will learn to value.”

-President Woodrow Wilson

cmtc1Military Readiness

Military readiness in the age of terrorism is a hotly debated topic.  Concerns of force reductions, budget cuts, and the lack of suitable military recruits confront military and political leadership every day.  From the tone of the debate, it would almost seem that these difficulties are being experienced for the first time.  However, a review of history would show that America was having remarkably similar debates almost one hundred years ago prior to America’s entrance into World War I, and then again in the lull between the Great War and World War II.

The Preparedness Movement

The Preparedness Movement was a group of Americans, led by former President Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, that advocated for a build-up of American forces during the beginning of World War I.  The movement didn’t necessarily advocate for the build-up as a prelude to war, instead they advocated from a purely defensive position, arguing that the German army and navy were far superior to America’s.  One of the key positions of the movement was universal military training, including mandatory military service for all males.  The original Preparedness Movement failed in many of its goals, as the military budget did not increase for several years, and universal service (not the same as the draft) was never implemented.

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An offshoot of the Preparedness Movement was the Plattsburgh camps, which were voluntary military training for military-aged males.  Volunteers that attended were trained in military skills but had to pay their own way and incurred no mandatory service time.  By 1916, graduates of the camps (which started as two camps but now numbered as many as twelve) had organized under the banner of the Military Training Camps Association, and managed to get funding inserted into the National Defense Act authorizing government funding for the camps.


During World War I, the camps were used as officers training camps for the active Army, but in the post-war era, the camps returned to their original purpose, training civilian males.  In 1920, the War Department formally budgeted and organized the training camps, with plans to train 11,000 men – applications were more than quadruple the open slots.  By 1924, as many as 86,000 men had completed one of these camps, now called Citizens’ Military Training Camps (CMTC).  The camps were targeted at males aged 17-24, and were conducted over the course of four years – one month each year.  Called Basic, Red, White, and Blue, the camps were completely paid for by the government, including all transportation, uniforms, and supplies.  The Basic course taught essential military discipline, and graduates could progress through the other courses, increasing their specialty knowledge in military branch skills such as artillery and infantry.  Graduates who completed all four courses could earn a commission as a second lieutenant, however, records for the time are incomplete and do not contain a complete listing of the number of attendees, graduates, and commissions from the camps.  It is estimated that over 400,000 men received training during the life of the CMTC, including Ronald Reagan, Chuck Yeager, and “Wild Bill” Guarnere.

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With the entry of the United States into World War II, the CMTC program ended, and the restructuring of the military in the early stages of the Cold War ended any further efforts at universal military training.

Photo credit Arkansas National Guard Museum
Photo credit Arkansas National Guard Museum

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About the author

Joel is an 11 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.