The Challenge of the
Coast Guard’s Creation
By ERIC DUBAY
This year marks the centennial of the Act to Create the Coast Guard, which was approved by the
House of Representatives on Jan. 20, 1915, and signed
into law eight days later. This act consolidated the U.S.
Revenue Cutter Service (RCS) and the U.S. Life-Saving
Service (USLSS) into a new military service.
However, this act almost did not come to pass, and
the Coast Guard as we know it today could have turned
out very differently due to bureaucratic struggles.
The idea to create a coast guard as an organization that
would retain the resources of the RCS under the auspices
of the Department of the Treasury originated during the
administration of President William Howard Taft. Taft
appointed a commission in 1911, placing many of the
maritime police and safety organizations under scrutiny.
These organizations included the USLSS, the U.S.
Lighthouse Service and the Steamboat Inspection
Service. They all performed singular functions, yet were
found to be similar enough that a merger under the
Department of Commerce and Labor was considered.
Because the RCS already was a multifunctional organization, the commission suggested dissolving it and redistributing its resources and responsibilities, figuring that
another existing service could just as easily perform the
same functions at a lower cost. It was projected that $1
million could be saved each year by disbanding the RCS.
This commission’s recommendations constituted the first
real threat to the modern Coast Guard’s formation.
Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh opposed
the dissolution, as the Treasury had held responsibility
for the RCS since its creation in 1790. He devised an
alternative plan, which he proposed to the president on
Feb. 28, 1912: combine the RCS and the USLSS into one
He worked with RCS Captain-Commandant Ellsworth
P. Bertholf and USLSS head Sumner Kimball on a bill to
merge the services with Treasury sponsorship, but the bill
languished during the lame duck months of the Taft
administration. Efforts to pass the bill continued once
Woodrow Wilson entered office, albeit slowly.
The second real threat to the modern Coast Guard’s for-
mation lay in the specter of inaction. The Treasury for-
warded the bill to the Senate’s Committee on Commerce
on May 26, 1913, where it sat until Feb. 27, 1914. The
Senate then passed an Act to Create the Coast Guard and
sent it to the House of Representatives on March 12, where
it was in great danger of being ignored. Not only was 1914
an election year, but World War I broke out in Europe by
fall, so the House was focused on other matters. President
Wilson had to personally intervene, writing letters in
December 1914 to help finally push the bill through.
Even after the Coast Guard became a full-fledged
military service, its survival was questionable shortly
after the events of World War I, during which it acted
under the Navy’s command. Although the Coast Guard
was intended from the beginning to operate as part of
the Navy during wartime, and be returned to the
Treasury during peacetime, many preferred the serv-
ice’s retention by the Navy. In fact, many who preferred
retention were officers in the Coast Guard itself.
As the service had existed for only about four years
by 1919, half of which had been spent under the Navy,
these officers did not feel a great deal of attachment to
it. In addition, the benefits of the naval officer corps
came with more guarantees.
Among the attempts to merge the Coast Guard with
the Navy was the Campbell Bill, written by Coast
Guard CAPT Frank L. Austin and introduced by
Pennsylvania Representative Guy E. Campbell in
January 1919. This legislation would have essentially
terminated the Coast Guard and transferred all assets
to the Navy. The effort ultimately failed due to the per-
sistence of the Secretary of the Treasury Carter Glass
and his successor David F. Houston, as well as Bertholf.
Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has taken on a multitude of challenges during peace and war, living up to
its motto: “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready). ■
Sources: Robert Erwin Johnson, Guardians of the Sea:
History of the United States Coast Guard 1915 to the
Present, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, Md. (1987): Dennis
L. Noble, That Others Might Live: The U.S. Life-Saving
Service, 1878-1915, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, Md.
(1994): C. Douglas Kroll, Commodore Ellsworth P. Bertholf:
First Commandant of the Coast Guard, Naval Institute
Press: Annapolis, Md. (2002): Stephen H. Evans, The United
States Coast Guard 1790-1915 (With a Postscript: 1915-
1950), Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, Md.
Eric Dubay is a senior attending George Mason University and an
intern with the Naval Historical Foundation. The author thanks
the Coast Guard History Office for assistance with this article.