U.S. Northern Command: For Students

The 1700s

"To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions."

- Article 1, Section 8, Clause 15,
Constitution of the United States

Because the common defense of the New World was so crucial, our forefathers explicitly stated in the preamble of the Constitution that defense was a basic government obligation.

As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. General George Washington, on July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, took command of his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that was to last six grueling years. The revolution against the mother country was fought on the land and seas of the new world. The Army and the Navy provided homeland defense.

President Washington interpreted "common defense" as defeating a foreign invasion and defending against Indians.

Military forces -- and this included the state militias -- were raised to defend the country against England, France and Spain.

The 1800s

"... that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

- President Abraham Lincoln
Gettysburg Address

Throughout the 1800s, Congress authorized the military to build and staff forts and harbor defenses, and to build steam ships. Americans viewed the Navy as America's first line of defense. Many of the brightest graduates of the U.S. Military Academy became engineers and built forts to defend the U.S. from foreign enemies.

The War of 1812

The ongoing British impressment of American seamen from 1803-1812, and the seizure of cargoes, forced President James Madison on June 1, 1812 to ask Congress to declare war.

The young nation was not prepared to fight; its forces took a severe trouncing. The British entered Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol. But a few notable naval and military victories, capped by General Andrew Jackson's triumph at New Orleans, convinced Americans that the War of 1812 had been gloriously successful.

On The Frontier

The U.S. Army patrolled the frontier with soldiers protecting settlers and trade routes. In many cases, the Army acted as "frontier cops." This mission would continue through the 1890s.

After the Civil War

The Reconstruction Era saw changes in homeland defense. The Army occupied and policed the South. It propped up courts and protected former slaves, and soldiers had arrest powers. Reconstruction ended in 1876. The passage of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 removed civilian law enforcement powers from the military.

The Spanish-American War

During the six-month war, the U.S. Navy defeated Spanish fleets off Cuba and in Manila Bay. The United States gained the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

Americans were shocked as they perceived the thousands of miles of undefended coasts. In the years following, money poured into building new port defenses.

A Navy able to keep the sealanes open became a necessity.

The 1900s

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

- President Franklin D. Roosevelt

World War I

After several attempts to broker peace failed, and five American ships in neutral waters were fired upon and sunk, President Woodrow Wilson called upon Congress to declare war in 1917.

During the war, aircraft patrolled ports looking for German and Japanese subs. Navy destroyers patrolled sealanes and pursued enemy aircraft.

World War II

America reacts and prepares for Continental Defense.

Until the nation went to war in December 1941, the primary and basic concern of the United States government, and the military, was for the safety of the continental United States. The military guarded the harbors and air, protected the nation against internal disturbances, and protected vital non-military installations. During the war, the U.S. military guarded the rest of the western hemisphere against military attacks by the Axis Powers.

As a result, the United States adopted a new national policy of hemisphere defense.

Cold War

The safety Americans felt due to their isolation between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans evaporated. Air power entered the homeland defense equation. The advent of nuclear weapons further threatened the skies over America.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was formally established in 1958 by Canada and the United States to monitor and defend North American airspace. The NORAD Agreement was first signed by the governments of Canada and the United States on May 12, 1958, and has been renewed for varying periods since that time. Although there have been eight NORAD renewals since 1958, the basic text of the Agreement has been revised substantially only three times, in 1975, 1981 and 1996.

During the Cold War era, students were taught air raid drills and Americans build shelters. Homeland defense began to be viewed as civil defense.

With the exception of NORAD, Americans began to view the military as assets to defend U.S. interests in distant lands and no longer the U.S. shores. Wars broke out throughout the world.


The U.S. began to view homeland defense as the responsibility of the federal government. Meanwhile, the military fought wars abroad, and stood by to help if called.

In the late 1960s, factions began hijacking planes and assaulting innocent civilians. The response was not military, but centered on law enforcement. Sky marshals protected airliners. FBI agents investigated hijackings and threats. Justice Department counterterrorism programs were established.

The 21st Century

"We have got a long way to go to secure the homeland, to defend freedom and to defeat this enemy. And it's important for the American people to understand that... we now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us, and this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently."

- President George W. Bush

Homeland defense has come full circle as a result of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

While the threats to America have evolved and changed, the military has again been tasked "to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions," per Article 1, Section 8, Clause 15, of the Constitution of the United States.

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and as authorized by President George W. Bush, the Department of Defense established U.S. Northern Command to consolidate under a single unified command those existing homeland defense and civil support missions that were previously executed by other military organizations.

USNORTHCOM attained initial operational capability on Oct. 1, 2002, and full operational capability on Sept. 11, 2003.

NORAD, meanwhile, shed its Cold War image as a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The focus on aerospace threats from outside the borders of Canada and the United States now includes domestic airspace. The highly skilled men and women of this bi-national military organization use ground-based radar, airborne radar, satellites, fighter aircraft, proven command structures and intelligence capabilities to enforce control in the skies over the United States. The commander of USNORTHCOM also serves as the commander of NORAD.

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