For the past 50 years, U.S. Southern Command has worked to build regional and interagency partnerships to ensure the continued stability of the Western Hemisphere and the forward defense of the U.S. homeland.
Honduran soldiers operate a mortar for members of the 82nd Airborne Division during a Task Force Dragon/Gold Pheasant exercise, March 1988. President Reagan deployed U.S. forces to Central America during the 1980s. (Source: Department of Defense, NARA)
2013 marked the 50th anniversary of SOUTHCOM. Learn more about our half-decade of service with a look at our history including timeline, photos and archived news. See More
A descendent of U.S. military units dispatched to Panama in the early 20th Century, U.S. Southern Command’s history as a unified military headquarters began during World War II when U.S. planners established the U.S. Caribbean Defense Command.
During the 1950s, the command’s responsibility shifted from U.S. military missions in the Caribbean basin to operations focused, primarily, in Central and South America. In 1963, U.S. authorities gave the command its current name, U.S. Southern Command. Below is a brief overview of our history, starting with the early Caribbean Defense Command days.
Located in Panama, the U.S. Caribbean Defense Command also established military training missions in Latin America; distributed military equipment to regional partners through the Lend Lease program; and opened U.S. service schools to Latin American soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
At the height of the war, U.S. military planners assigned 130,000 uniformed personnel to duty stations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Roughly half of those forces were under the direct control of the U.S. Caribbean Defense Command.
In 1947, U.S. strategists adopted a national security plan that transformed the wartime headquarters into the U.S. Caribbean Command. Beyond defending the Panama Canal, it assumed broad responsibilities for inter-American security cooperation in Central and South America. Yet during the 1950s, defense officials also removed the Caribbean basin from the U.S. Caribbean Command’s area of focus. In the event of a global war with the communist powers, they reasoned, U.S. Atlantic Command, based in Norfolk, Va. needed the Caribbean basin to conduct hemispheric antisubmarine operations.
By 1960, the U.S. Caribbean Command — not engaged in the Caribbean — carried a name that incorrectly described its geographic interests, Central and South America. The John F. Kennedy administration, therefore, changed the name to U.S. Southern Command on June 6, 1963.
During the 1960s, the U.S. Southern Command mission involved defending the Panama Canal, contingency planning for Cold War activities, and the administration of the U.S. foreign military assistance program in Central and South America. In particular, U.S. Southern Command personnel undertook civic-action projects with partner nation forces to accelerate regional development.
Yet during the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended disestablishing the command to trim the U.S. military presence abroad. For political reasons, the command narrowly survived, albeit with limited responsibilities and resources.
In the 1980s, internal conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere rekindled U.S. military interest in Latin America. The Ronald W. Reagan administration, in turn, revitalized U.S. Southern Command.
When the Cold War ended, the command, like other U.S. military organizations, entered a period of dramatic change. In rapid succession, U.S. Southern Command embraced counter-drug operations, expanded its area of geographic focus to include the Caribbean, and enhanced its capacity for humanitarian missions. In September 1997, U.S. Southern Command moved to Miami with revised priorities, objectives, and capabilities.
50 Years of Cooperation
Explores the history of UNITAS exercise (PDF)
Highlights of U.S. military engagement in the region during the past century (PDF)