The evolution of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has mirrored the nation it serves. One of the most enduring themes of the two-century history of the Army Corps of Engineers is that as technology has developed, USACE has embraced it, reflecting its advance in the systems and facilities it has constructed to meet America’s challenges. Whether facing natural disasters or realigning military infrastructure, USACE has always built to order.
“The Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time,” said John Lonnquest, chief of the USACE Office of History. “What it has done has changed based on what the nation needs.”
In the 20th century, the United States’ needs grew exponentially. A burgeoning economy, population, and sense of ambition dictated the construction of a civil and military infrastructure to support it all. America’s maturation as a nation and as a world power was inextricably linked to the water.
Missile and Space Programs
Coastal fortifications mark not only the first military construction projects taken on by USACE, they also signify its role in building the bulwarks of homeland defense. By the 1950s, heavy masonry and gun emplacements had long been superseded. The world had entered the nuclear age, and defending the country required a response to new technology.
Though the Nike missile program had its origins in World War II, its development was spurred by Soviet deployment of the atomic bomb and the Korean War. It became the world’s first successful, widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Nike missiles were a “last ditch” line of air defense for selected areas within the continental United States, held in reserve in the event that Air Force long-range fighter-interceptor aircraft failed to destroy any attacking bombers at a greater distance from their intended targets.
Between 1954 and 1958, USACE built 265 Nike missile batteries, largely along the East and West coasts. Washington, D.C., was protected by no less than 16 such batteries. However, at the same time the Nike program was taking shape, a new technology, long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear warheads, emerged as a mainstay of the nation’s strategic deterrent. The Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBM programs required numerous launch and housing facilities, construction of which USACE began in 1957. Over the next 15 years, USACE would build 1,200 long-range missile facilities in an effort whose urgency was paramount.
“It was round-the-clock work,” USACE’s chief historian explained. “We had well over 20,000 people working away in all kinds of weather. One of the things that got John F. Kennedy elected in 1960 was the so-called ‘missile gap’ that the Air Force and Corps of Engineers rushed to close. The program was pushed full-bore, with contractors pouring concrete in North Dakota in wintertime.”
The intense pace and scope of ICBM infrastructure construction gave USACE valuable experience in building facilities with characteristics that would suit another national challenge, Lonnquest stated.
“When the nation decides to develop a civilian space program, the Corps of Engineers is probably the world’s foremost missile engineering firm. NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] turns to the Corps to build all of its missile test and deployment facilities.”
Doing so eliminated the need for NASA to establish its own construction organization. USACE built NASA facilities all along the Atlantic Coast, including the Kennedy Space Center. Owing to the size of the Saturn booster and other spacecraft and launch equipment, USACE also built locks and canals linking NASA facilities together for water transport.
The Big Dam Era – Postwar Civil Works
Postwar USACE civil works were in many respects a continuation of the building boom of the 1930s. Nothing better exemplifies USACE’s role in ambitious civil works projects than the dams it built during the 1950s and ’60s.
The postwar boom was accelerated by two additional factors. The Flood Control Act of 1938 had authorized a raft of big dam projects but local funding requirements remained onerous, curbing the start of many projects. In 1941 and 1944, Congress passed legislation lowering the financial contribution local authorities were required to provide.