A century ago, on 30 June 1920, Major General John Archer Lejeune was appointed the 13th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. He would become one of the most iconic Commandants in Marine Corps history, celebrated for reorienting the service toward operating with the Navy for its advanced base mission after the Great War. He crafted a Marine Corps birthday message in 1921 that is still read each year by Marines around the world on 10 November. There is Camp Lejeune, a major Marine Corps base and the home of II Marine Expeditionary Force, in North Carolina and Lejeune Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Major General Lejeune’s prominence in Marine Corps memory shows no sign of receding. The challenges that the Corps faces today, namely educational reforms and shifting focus back to naval operations, are remarkably similar to the ones Lejeune tackled a century ago, which makes his Commandancy more relevant than ever.
Much has been written about Lejeune’s military career and his impact on the combat readiness of the Marine Corps while he served as Commandant.1 Much less, however, has been written about how he also worked hard to endear the Marine Corps to the American people.2 It is important to remember that Lejeune considered the Marine Corps a warfighting establishment and an institution that elevated Americans’ lives through healthy living, education, and the inculcation of military virtues. Without this side of his history, Lejeune’s real significance cannot be fully understood or appreciated.
A Marine Leader
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels picked Lejeune to be the Corps’ highest ranking officer because his record as a leader and combat commander was second to none. A class of 1888 graduate of the Naval Academy, Lejeune was part of the first generation of Marine officers to be commissioned from Annapolis. He led Marines on board the USS Cincinnati (C-7) during the Spanish-American War, commanded a battalion of Marines in Panama in 1904, and led a regiment at Vera Cruz in 1914, with recruiting duty and various staff and fleet assignments in between.3
His 1909–10 stint at the Army War College proved to be a crucial turning point in his career. While there, he developed professionally and intellectually and earned the respect of Army officers, which eventually led to his most prestigious command: the U.S Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in the Great War.4 Lejeune led the division, composed of soldiers and Marines, through the major U.S. Western Front offensives of 1918, including St. Mihiel, Blanc Mont, and the Meuse-Argonne.
Some Marine officers had more medals (Brigadier General Smedley Butler earned two Medals of Honor) and more expeditionary experience (Brigadier General Eli K. Cole served in the Philippines, Panama, and Haiti). But Lejeune’s command of the 2nd Division in World War I put him above the rest in combat leadership and command prestige. Congressman Thomas Butler, Brigadier General Butler’s father and a prominent member of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, wrote to Lejeune: “We are going to have a Marine Corps and it is to be commanded by a real soldier. . . . I am pleased with your appointment.”5
Enlistments and Education
One of Lejeune’s primary long-term goals as Commandant was to organize and train Marine expeditionary forces to join the U.S. fleet in its annual maneuvers.6 Under his tenure the Marines would hone their advanced-base seizure and defense capabilities, which is what Lejeune and other officers had been advocating since before the U.S. entry into World War I.7 But when Lejeune took office, the Marine Corps faced significant postwar manpower cuts that risked rendering it incapable of performing its various duties. By 1920, the Corps had shrunk to just over 16,000 Marines, even though it was authorized by Congress to have 25,000.8 Six days after his appointment as Commandant, Lejeune wrote, “I am anxious to see the Corps brought up to its full permanent strength at as early a date as possible.”9
Because military readiness for expeditionary duty and operations with the fleet were his long-term goals for the Marine Corps, recruiting to fulfill those roles became his immediate concern. The Marines of the recently formed East and West Coast Expeditionary forces would need to be highly trained to work in concert with the fleet. Therefore, recruiters placed higher premiums on physical, mental, and intellectual abilities among potential recruits. To attract those recruits in peacetime, however, required a nuanced approach, for which Lejeune was prepared.
The Commandant promoted the Corps as an institution that uplifted young men’s lives mentally, physically, and morally. While commander of Marine Barracks, Quantico, he had established a vocational training program for Marines stationed there. Now, as Commandant, he created the Marine Corps Institute (MCI), a correspondence school with educational and vocational courses for enlisted Marines. According to one advertisement, the idea “is not to build up a class of men merely for work while in the Marine Corps, but to really educate them so that when their terms of enlistment have expired they can go back to civil life benefited by the broad education they have received while in the service.”10
Brigadier General Butler at Quantico and the Marine Corps Publicity Bureau in New York City promoted this aspect of the service’s mission throughout the early 1920s. Advertising educational benefits to young men allowed Marine recruiters to get off street corners and into major public events such as the 1923 Chicago Vocational and Trade School Exposition.11
Lejeune consolidated Marine Corps officer schools at Quantico, as well. His decision to locate the company and field grade officers schools there is one of the more significant of Lejeune’s reforms because it turned Quantico into an intellectual hub that would produce the influential Tentative Manual for Landing Operations and Small Wars Manual in the mid-1930s. He valued enlisted and officer education as essential to military readiness and combat efficiency. But he also saw its having a deeper purpose for the nation. Namely, it showed that “the Corps is a great school for the training of American citizens, in which men have the finest kind of opportunity to serve our country with efficiency and fidelity in peace and in war.”12
The idea of educating its force became a staple of the 20th-century Marine Corps and beyond. Lejeune defined the relationship between officers and their men as “that of teacher and scholar” and made enlisted Marines’ mental, physical, and moral development the responsibility of their commanders.13 The fostering and continuation of this relationship remain key tenets of Marine Corps University schools at Quantico to this day.
Focus on Physical Fitness
While the MCI and the officers’ courses sharpened Marines’ minds, Lejeune and Butler made sure to promote physical fitness within the Corps. They believed Marine physical training toughened and hardened men’s bodies and improved their athleticism. And nothing advertised Marine athleticism quite like the Quantico Marines football team. Manned by former college football players such as Frank Geottge, Harry Liversedge, and John W. Beckett, the Devil Dogs racked up significant wins against Georgetown University, the Virginia Military Institute, and the Third Army Corps in the early 1920s in front of large civilian and military crowds and journalists.
Major Joseph Fegan wrote, “Publicity of this character cannot be purchased—it is not on the market.”14 Football also encouraged esprit de corps and teamwork among the men. “Last, and most important,” Fegan argued, “it develops physically the young man; it makes him a better citizen; it makes him more able to combat hardship, but does it all in a less irksome way than if it were done in a military fashion.”15
The Corps’ recruiting and public relations efforts under Lejeune yielded positive results. When he took office, the Marine Corps increased from 16,061 men to more than 22,000.16 In fact, recruiters had to turn away many more applicants than they accepted. In 1920, the Corps took only 12,588 enlistees out of 51,359 total applicants. Two years later it was 9,499 out of 52,986, and 8,964 out of 48,597 for the fiscal year ending in June 1923.17
Promoting and Defending the Corps
The education and physical fitness initiatives were not simply recruiting ploys. Lejeune saw a direct link between them and combat efficiency. He believed that the smarter, tougher, and more courageous and dependable the Marine, the more efficient he was on the battlefield. Lejeune worked to demonstrate this to the American people in a variety of ways. After a series of mail robberies, the Commandant oversaw the tasking of Marines to guard the U.S. Mail from November 1921 to March 1922. The effort put thousands of sharply dressed and heavily armed Marines in public view. The four Civil War reenactments conducted by the East Coast Expeditionary Force between 1921 and 1924 cast Marines as efficient, ready, and reliable to throngs of civilians, politicians, and journalists. The Culebra, Puerto Rico, landing exercise conducted with the Navy in the winter of 1923–24 did much the same. It appeared that young American men who became Marines were working hard to become efficient sea-soldiers.18
Reports of Marine misconduct on Hispaniola plagued his early years, however. When newspaper reports of Marines “indiscriminately” killing natives in Haiti surfaced, Lejeune investigated.19 He and Butler claimed to find only a few isolated incidents of Marine wrongdoing. Lejeune publicly defended his Marines to the press and before the subsequent Senate investigation. He stated that some Marines made mistakes and courts-martial had been doled out, but “it has been and is the duty and aim of the Marine Corps authorities here and in Haiti to work solely for the interests and advancement of Haiti and the Haitian people.”20 Allegations of murder, rape, and torture of Haitians and Dominicans constituted the most significant public relations disaster in the Corps’ history up to that point. Lejeune consistently claimed, however, that the great majority of Marines behaved honorably on the island.
Under Lejeune’s watch, the Marines would survive the controversy and investigations. Much credit for doing so should go to the Corps’ simultaneous recruiting and publicity efforts. Guarding the mail, reenacting Civil War battles, and promoting educational opportunities presented the American public with a prominent counternarrative. President Warren G. Harding, who had criticized the Woodrow Wilson administration and the Marines during the 1920 presidential election over conduct during the Hispaniola occupation, now sang their praises. “I shall not exaggerate a single word,” the President reportedly said to the Marines. “No commander-in-chief in the world could have a greater pride in, or a greater affection for, an arm of national defense, than I have come to have for you in this more intimate contact.”21
Lejeune’s many speaking engagements during his Commandancy also did much to shape public opinion of the Marine Corps. He believed that good strong character mattered most in life and that one could not be successful without it.22 “Our Corps is admired and beloved because of this constant fidelity to its trust, its unshakable loyalty to the Government, its unselfish service to the nation, its dauntless courage in battle, and its unwavering esprit de corps,” he said on the Corps’ 151st birthday in 1926.23
Fidelity, loyalty, unselfishness, and courage were virtues that made Marines men of strong character, and men of strong character were needed not only to defend the country but also to be productive citizens. These “military virtues constitute the very foundation of character building and are essential to right living whether our careers be within or without military service,” Lejeune asserted.24
The Corps would face more cuts in 1928 that Lejeune would have to accept.25 But his efforts to secure the goodwill of Congress and the American people helped keep the Corps manned enough to serve the nation’s needs. After more than eight years of working to secure that goodwill, Lejeune stepped down as Commandant and retired from the Corps in 1929.
Blueprint for the Future
The Marine Corps of 1920 faced challenges similar to the ones Marines face in 2020. Shifting away from protracted land campaigns with the Army and refocusing on becoming a striking force for the Navy with potential threats looming across the oceans is a set of problems Marines of both generations share. Lejeune’s work to reorient Marines toward operating with the Navy, his efforts to better educate the force, and his firm belief that the Corps should develop people mentally, physically, and morally provide a blueprint for today’s generation to follow.
But Marines never lose sight of what Lejeune understood all too well: The Marine Corps’ tomorrow is never truly ensured. Lejeune’s Corps was homogenous in terms of race and gender. It now is much more diverse, which will be a strength if Marines keep faith and spirit with each other. Lejeune believed this mattered in peace and in war. “There is no substitute for the spiritual in war,” he wrote. Marine hearts must “be afire with self-sacrificing love for each other, for their units, for their division, and for their country.”26
To keep this faith among themselves and with the nation they serve requires striving to be a bastion of not just military readiness but of honor, courage, integrity, fidelity, and loyalty. Lejeune believed these to be foundational elements of the ideal Marine’s identity, character, and value. He envisioned the Corps as an institution that should reflect the best values of society and produce good U.S. citizens. That, in part, is what endeared the Marine Corps to the American people a century ago. It will continue to be important going forward.
1. Joseph Arthur Simon, The Greatest of All Leathernecks: John Archer Lejeune and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2019), 64–145; Allan R. Millett, Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1991), 322–25; Merrill L. Bartlett, “George Barnett, 1914–1920,” in Commandants of the Marine Corps, eds. Allan R. Millett and Jack Shulimson (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004), 195–213.
2. Colin Colburn, “Esprit de Marine Corps: Making the Modern Marine Corps through Public Relations 1898–1945” (Ph.D. diss., The University of Southern Mississippi, 2018), 195–213.
3. Glenn M. Harned, Marine Corps Generals, 1899–1936, 2d ed. (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 87–90.
4. Simon, The Greatest of All Leathernecks, 79.
5. Senator Thomas Butler to Lejeune, 6 July 1920, Papers of John A. Lejeune, Container 14, Reel 12, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. (hereafter Lejeune Papers).
6. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Paper prepared by Major General John A. Lejeune, and read by him to the Naval War College, April 3, 1925,” Lejeune Papers, Speeches and Writings File.
7. COL John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The Mobile Defense of Advance Bases by the Marine Corps,” Marine Corps Gazette 1, no. 1 (March 1916): 1–18; MAJ John H. Russell, USMC, “A Plea for a Mission and Doctrine,” Marine Corps Gazette 1, no. 2 (June 1916): 109–22.
8. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Report of the Major General Commandant of the United States Marine Corps,” Annual Reports of the Navy Department (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), 1055–56.
9. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, to LCOL Earl H. Ellis, USMC, 7 July 1920, Lejeune Papers.
10. Anonymous, “Marine Corps Institute Attains Magnitude of a University,” Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner, 4 July 1920.
11. O. C. Lightner to MGEN Wendell C. Neville, USMC, 24 March 1923, Office of the Commandant, General Correspondence 1913–38, RG 127, Entry 18, National Archives, Washington, DC.
12. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “The U.S. Marine Corps, Present and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 54, no. 10 (October 1928): 861.
13. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Relations between Officers and Men,” 14 August 1920, usmcu.edu/Portals/218/LLI/MLD/Fidelity/Relations%20Between%20Officers%20and%20Men.pdf?ver=2018-09-26-095744-880.
14. MAJ Joseph C. Fegan, USMC, “Athletics as Publicity,” Marine Corps Gazette 8, no. 1, (March 1923): 16.
15. Fegan, “Athletics,” 17.
16. “Extracts from Testimony of the Major General Commandant Before the Subcommittee on Appropriations on the Naval Appropriation Bill, 1922,” Marine Corps Gazette 6, no. 1, (March 1921): 88.
17. Marine Recruiting Bureau, Yearly Statement of Recruiting by Divisions, Districts and Stations (Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC, fiscal years 1920, 1922, and 1923). Copies of these reports found in Recruiting Subject Files, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico, VA.
18. Anonymous, “Impressive Ceremony,” The Sioux City Sunday Journal, 23 March 1924.
19. Confidential letter from MGEN George Barnett, USMC, to COL John H. Russell, USMC, 2 October 1919, Barnett Papers, Marine Corps Archives, Quantico, VA; “What Other Papers Say . . . Gen. Barnett’s Revelations as to Haiti Held Not an Understatement. Blot on the Administration . . .” The Washington Post, 16 October 1920.
20. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “To the Editor of The Nation,” The Nation, 24 July 1920, 101
21. “Harding Reviews Force of Marines,” The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY, 3 October 1921.
22. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Address Delivered to the Boy Scouts of Washington, D.C., at Central Highschool, on the Evening of February 14, 1925,” see also “Address to Midshipmen at the Naval Academy” (no date recorded), Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1924–25, Lejeune Papers.
23. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC, “Address Delivered by Major General John A. Lejeune, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, at Philadelphia, PA., on the 151st Birthday of the Corps,” 10 November 1926, Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1926–29, Lejeune Papers.
24. “Address Delivered by Major General John A. Lejeune, Major General Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps, at the Commencement Exercises of Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont, June 16, 1927,” Speeches and Writings File, Speeches 1926–29, Lejeune Papers.
25. MGEN John A. Lejeune, USMC (Ret.), The Reminiscences of a Marine (Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance and Company, 1930), 476–77.
26. Lejeune, Reminiscences, 307.