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 135,000 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 11, 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.
U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) does not maintain an archive of historical records for public review. Instead, SOUTHCOM transfers its historical files to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is responsible for making U.S. government records available to researchers. Individuals wanting to know more about the U.S. military experience in Latin America and the Caribbean should therefore consult NARA (SOUTHCOM's records at NARA II, Record Group 530). Researchers should also contact the U.S. military service libraries, such as the U.S. Army Military History Institute (Carlisle, PA) and U.S. Navy Department Library (Washington, D.C.). Those repositories have extensive material dealing with U.S. Southern Command, its predecessor organizations, and hemispheric security relations.
Most modern U.S. military and diplomatic records are located at NARA’s Archives II, College Park, Maryland. The historical collection is divided into hundreds of record groups (RG). The Records of U.S. Army Forces in the Caribbean (RG 548), Records of Joint Commands (RG 349), and Records of Inter-Service Agencies (RG 334) are most valuable. The Records of the Adjutant General (RG 407), Records of the Quartermaster General (RG 92), and other U.S. military collections also contain SOUTHCOM-related documents. In addition, the records of other U.S. government agencies, particularly the Department of State, have material on U.S.-Latin American security relations. The Records of the Department of State (RG 59) contain office and central files related to U.S. foreign policy; U.S. embassy and consulate records are located in the Post Files of the Department of State (RG 84). Researchers can learn more about NARA holdings, and search related finding guides, at the National Archives website (www.archives.gov).
Part of the National Archives system, the presidential libraries hold primary sources on U.S. foreign relations, including the U.S. military experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (Hyde Park, NY) has material on the Good Neighbor Policy and U.S.-Latin American cooperation during World War II. The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library (Atlanta, GA) has documents related to the Panama Canal Treaties. Scholars can link to these and other presidential library from the NARA website.
Finally, U.S. military service research centers possess a variety of primary and secondary sources on U.S.-Latin American military relations. Researchers can access the unclassified or declassified holdings of the U.S. Army Center of Military History (Washington, D.C.), U.S. Army Military History Institute (Carlisle, PA), Naval Historical Center (Washington, D.C.), U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency (Montgomery, AL), and U.S. Marine Corps History Division (Quantico, VA). U.S. military service records—the personnel files of former U.S. airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines—are located at the National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. Links to these and other repositories are provided below.
National Archives and Records Administration
National Personnel Records Center (Military Service Records)
Washington National Records Center
Library of Congress
U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency
Center of Military History
U.S. Army Military History Institute
Naval History and Heritage Command
U.S. Marine Corps History Division