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What is the history of the Green Berets?

With Memorial Day fast approaching, it is worth examining the history of our armed services, including the modernization of the military  during the Cold War. This excerpt from The U.S. Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know by John Prados explains how the Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, evolved during President John F. Kennedy’s term.

How did President Kennedy change Special Forces?

President Kennedy showed himself to be very concerned about the ability of the United States to meet challenges at the brush-fire level, short of conventional war. Counterinsurgency became a watchword in the Kennedy administration. Indeed, at the topmost level of government Kennedy created a subpanel of his National Security Council, the Special Group (Counterinsurgency), specifically dedicated to monitoring US efforts in this field and providing impetus to new policy and technological initiatives. Kennedy aides encouraged the creation of a “counterinsurgency seminar” that would impart knowledge of the problems of brush-fire contingencies to officials across government, and the White House paid attention to its attendance and performance statistics. Kennedy aides, among them Walt W. Rostow, exhibited specific concern regarding Special Forces. Rostow spoke at the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg and arranged for President Kennedy to visit there.

John F. Kennedy went to Fort Bragg on October 12, 1961. The day is renowned in Forces’ lore as the moment when Special Forces was awarded the Green Beret. Armies throughout the world distinguished themselves, and even their particular units, with berets of varied color and design, something the US military had resisted. From the early days of Special Forces the A-Teams had adopted “unauthorized” forms of headgear including (but not limited to) berets, but these had always been unauthorized. Theoretically a trooper could be disciplined for being caught wearing one. The exotic headgear had mostly been used away from base and the eyes of senior officers. By the time Kennedy came to Fort Bragg most Special Forces had the berets, still officially illegal. The top Special Forces commander, Brigadier General William P. Yarborough, took a chance and received his president and commander in chief wearing a green beret. Jack Kennedy, a twinkle in his eye, saw the hat and asked, “Those are nice. How do you like the Green Beret?” Yarborough replied, “They’re fine, Sir. We’ve wanted them a long time.” Upon returning from his trip President Kennedy sent a thank you message that said, “I am sure that the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead.”

Ever since then Army Special Forces have been known as the Green Berets. Not only did Kennedy officially approve them, he used nearly identical language in his memorandum. Air Force Special Forces soon followed suit and adopted berets for their unconventional warfare units. Later the Army Rangers would be distinguished by red berets. After 9/11 berets were adopted for all army forces, with certain combat arms identified by color like the Rangers and the Special Forces. Here the Green Berets made a naming and fashion statement for the entire US military.

But the armed services did more than change hats. President Kennedy’s emphasis on limited wars and counterinsurgency led to a host of changes. Kennedy reprised his compliment to the Green Berets in an April 1962 letter “To the United States Army.” The army got the message. Officials hastened to assemble and print a slick pamphlet, Special Warfare, U.S. Army: An Army Specialty, released shortly thereafter. Among other things the book reprinted the president’s letter and Walt Rostow’s speech at Fort Bragg, and had Secretary of the Army Elvis J. Stahr Jr. saying, “I expect commanders to draw upon this material in their training … for proficiency in Special Warfare is an indispensable requirement for the effective soldier and combat leader in today’s Army.” Not to be outdone, the US Marines released their own selection of readings on counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare.

The moment came when Special Forces, like US intelligence, could really be called a “community.” The navy and air force both got serious about unconventional warfare. The seamen supplemented their underwater demolition teams with Sea, Air, Land, or SEAL teams, with one created on each coast in January 1962. In Florida, at Eglin Air Force Base, that service created a mixed attack-transport-military advisory capability in its 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron, familiarly known as “Jungle Jim.” It reprised the air commandos of Burma fame, forming the First Air Commando Wing, which traced its lineage directly to the World War II formation with this number. Both the wing and a Special Air Warfare Center were created at nearby Hurlbut Field in April 1962. The army and air force both established special warfare staff at the Pentagon level.

By far the largest personnel growth took place in the Green Berets. All three existing Special Forces Groups were built up to their full strengths of about 1,500 soldiers. Four new groups appeared, a new provisional group for the Far East (which would become Fifth Special Forces in Vietnam), the Eighth Group in Panama and oriented to Latin America, and at Fort Bragg the Third and Sixth Groups, focused on Africa and the Middle East respectively. New groups were also added to the Army Reserve and National Guard. To staff all these forces far more people were required. The Special Warfare School began to graduate many more volunteers (“wash out” rates fell from nearly 90 percent to about 70 percent), producing many more Green Berets—over three thousand annually compared to about four hundred previously. For the first time, to meet its 1965 manpower goals Special Forces accepted army recruits on their first term of service. That meant the army stopped insisting that the Green Berets be composed entirely of highly experienced soldiers. Within a few years that standard had expanded further to include draftees. A Pentagon report to President Lyndon Johnson in early 1965 tabulated army special warfare forces at 11,343 as of November 30, 1964.

The original Green Beret concept of fomenting resistance to an occupying enemy also widened in the counterinsurgency era. Now Green Berets assisted host country armed forces to combat guerrilla threats by means calculated to win the hearts and minds of indigenous populations. The Berets already helped train foreign troop units and mobilize local fighters. Now they aimed to help increase the efficiency of governments. The idea of increasing public acceptance for a government through civil affairs became a new technique. This meant improving village and regional infrastructures and local conditions by means of medical services and construction work. Psychological warfare efforts aimed to cement the public’s support. Special Forces added civil affairs groups, psychological warfare battalions, and engineer detachments. Augmenting the intelligence resources necessary to serve this variety of missions brought the addition of intelligence detachments and radio spies, elements of the Army Security Agency, the army’s radio intelligence service. The old Special Forces “group” suddenly morphed into a “special action force.” Four groups—those focused on Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East—acquired this status.

Innovation did not confine itself to organizations. Special Forces interest resulted in the development of new techniques and technology as well. Not satisfied with standard US Army issue, Special Forces sought the best equipment for its operators. If that meant Swedish submachine guns, German-made hiking boots, or extra-large backpacks, so be it. Special Forces had the funds and outside-of-channels contracting authority to procure what they needed. Some of this stuff was quite exotic, such as the rocket belt that carried a Green Beret through the air to land in front of President Kennedy for the climax of his Fort Bragg visit. More practical was the technique evolved for an aircraft snatching a man from the ground without landing, an innovation of interest to both the Forces and the CIA. The SEALs developed underwater sleds capable of transporting a half-dozen swimmers. All were popularized in James Bond movies of the 1960s.

Probably the most remarkable Special Forces technology initiative was its early adoption of the Armalite AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a lightweight but powerful gun. As the M-16, this became the standard weapon for the US armed forces during the later part of the Vietnam War. After teething troubles in Southeast Asia, it not only survived to become the service weapon for many armed forces and paramilitary groups across the globe, but remains today (in its M-4 variant) the regular armament of the US military, including Special Operations Forces.

Image Credit: Photo by The U.S. Army. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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