Title

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in American History

Document Type

Contribution to Books

Publication Date

8-2013

Abstract

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is America’s oldest and largest engineering organization. It is also the most controversial. Since 1802, when Congress created the Corps within the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the army engineers have brought science into government and extended the federal responsibility for natural resources. As the construction arm of Congress, the engineers managed some of the world’s most monumental construction. As the nation’s premier builders of water projects — dams, dikes, canals, harbors, hydro facilities, and navigation channels — the Corps promoted a systems approach that standardized construction, elevated the power of Congress, and professionalized public works. The story of the Corps rarely intersects with the traditional textbook history of the United States. Corps history, however, reveals many American themes. Beast and benefactor — praised as a nation builder, elsewhere denounced as an out of control bulldozer — the agency straddles deep divisions. In a bigger-is-better nation, the Corps had been grandiose. Yet the Corps is also at odds with American traditions. In a nation committed to private enterprise and states’ rights, the Corps has been denounced as a military agent of big-government centralization. Army engineering lent support to the grand construction projects that were the target of resistance to federal public works.

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