August 4, 2008

Today is the birthday of the United States Coast Guard. Some would call them the nation’s finest sea going service, but there can be no doubt that they are the oldest. Piracy and general lawlessness in international waters created a need for a means to protect the vital economic interests of the fledgling government. Allow me to take a little time to educate you about the history, law enforcement practices and other little known facts about the United States Coast Guard on their anniversary.

Old Trade Routes

First things first, it wasn’t always called the Coast Guard. The organization was founded by the genius framer of the constitution and treasury, Alexander Hamilton, as the Revenue Cutter Service. The operative word in that old name was revenue, meaning the production of monetary profit through shipping. Alexander Hamilton happened to be the Secretary of the Treasury, and the old Revenue Cutter Service established by him in 1790 was directly under his control.

Hamilton was a New Yorker. In addition to writing the Federalist Papers, the primary tool for interpreting the implied powers of the Constitution of the United States, he also started the New York Post. You could not find a more powerful man from the state of New York at the time, as he was the only signer from that state at the Constitutional convention in 1787. It might surprise you to note that New York had already emerged as the primary port of choice for international shipping from the original colonies and the wealth that it brought was of great interest to Hamilton. The New York Bank that was also founded by Hamilton quickly began to finance the growth and development of the metropolis in order to mirror the booming trade.

One of Hamilton’s first acts as the Secretary of the Department of Treasury was to initiate a whiskey tax. One has to understand the history of the United States to recognize that this was a major coup because it reinforced implied powers and a strong central government which had been previously met with resistance by the original colonies. (Not more than four scores later we would fight a war over those very same issues.) Perhaps it was his original ties to the Caribbean that made Hamilton see the financial gains that could be had from both taxing one of the biggest imports, and at the same time facilitating importation. Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis, which was one of the original sugar stopovers of the Spanish, Dutch and British and a hub of triangular trade.

Encoded to be Clandestine

Sugar, and more importantly molasses, is the primary ingredient of whiskey. Access to quality sugar cane and the refineries used to process it into sugar vastly limited the ability to produce the all important alcoholic byproduct. Without whiskey, how could you pay your Navy? What would you drink when the drinking water of the day wasn’t safe –and it often wasn’t? Even farmers converting their excess grains to whiskey in their private distilleries were affected and eventually caused a federal response to their rebellions in 1791. All the while newly federalized ships called cutters, the fastest of the day, were roving the Caribbean in search of vessels trying to escape the tariff by slipping into southern ports unnoticed. Of course the Revenue Cutters Services’ practice of the time was to seize the cargo and the crew until restitution was made.

The United States Code 14 section 89 states in part, “The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States. For such purposes, commissioned, warrant, and petty officers may at any time go on board of any vessel subject to the jurisdiction, or to the operation of any law, of the United States, address inquiries to those on board, examine the ship’s documents and papers, and examine, inspect, and search the vessel and use all necessary force to compel compliance.” Young officer candidates know this mantra and are quick to point out their ability to act as law enforcement on the high seas. In fact the Coast Guard Academy boils it down to the acronym SEASII, or “seas two”, for Search, Seizure, Examination, Arrest, Inspection and Inquiry.

This is the crux of the implied power that makes the United States Coast Guard a military agency unlike any other in the world. Normal military powers are only enacted in times of War or as in recent times, at the will of an overreaching President. The United States Coast Guard only needs to be within the jurisdiction of the high seas to engage in activities that could be viewed by foreign nations as an act of war. Complicating matters is the fact that the focus of the old Revenue Cutter Service remains in the United States Coast Guard despite the obvious change in name. That is to say that if there were no monetary gain to be had, it is a pretty sure bet that the United States Coast Guard wouldn’t exist. The use of taxation as a means to regulation exposes the dichotomy of government nature as an entity that looks out for the overall well being of constituents while at the same time turning a profit should they choose not to look after themselves.

Combining Forces

Relate the knowledge to the high taxes on tobacco today. The tariff on alcohol guaranteed access to international trade through the regulation of the importation – deportation deficit that is important in mercantilism and capitalism, alike. The model that was originally applied to alcohol, even after prohibition, has been modified to accommodate completely illegal narcotics. There is of course no legal tax on the importation of illegal narcotics, unless you consider seizing drugs from vessels and later redistributing them a wholesome enterprise heretofore engaged by the United States government. Through no great stretch of the imagination, the United States Coast Guard works diligently, day and night, to prevent illegal narcotics from coming in the country and can only manage to actually stop less than 2% from infiltrating American borders. The paltry numbers indicate to some that it is less of an enterprise in prevention as it is an enterprise of skimming profits from the sale of illicit material.

Of course, today, the United States Coast Guard cannot be totally engrossed in the international drug trade due to other, more pressing engagements, like the current campaign in the Middle East. As a part of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard is an integral part of the U.S. Customs and is readily available to enforce whatever government policy is wished by the executive branch of government. Often the policies aren’t entirely for monetary gain, but rather an extension of the more dubious United States foreign efforts. (The chief of which seems to be preventing the immigration of Haitians and other dark undesirables into the United States.) The United States Coast Guard rolls on in the 21st Century still largely ignored as the powerful entity that assists in driving the national economy and certain questionable national interests. If the government is the mob, then the United States Coast Guard isn’t the hit man, but rather the dumb muscle of goons that walks around for show.

Every now and again, the muscle might get lucky and come upon a big score of some kind of their own, but they are in place largely because a show of strength often works wonders in the leverage department. The dividends that the Coast Guard pays now are in the form of projecting fear and intimidation towards rival nations that might be basing their economies on the subversion of American culture. Put the Coast Guard in conjunction with the other military services, like the Marine Corps or Navy and you get an even more formidable entity to tangle with. Signalman First Class Douglas Munro was the only Coast Guardsman to receive the Medal of Honor when he led the rescue of 500 Marines from Guadalcanal during the pacific campaign of World War II.

Little Known Coast Guard Facts

Another notable Coast Guardsman was Alex Haley, one of the few black folks to ever be in this historically white military service. (The Coast Guard boasts the lowest minority rates of membership out all of the armed services.) Alex Haley enlisted at the tender age of eighteen as a Mess Boy, and rose to the rank of Journalist Chief Petty Officer during his twenty years in the sea going service. Haley was the first black Chief Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard and the first ever Chief of journalism that the Coast Guard had. Today there is a Medium Endurance Cutter named after Alex Haley that makes its home port in Kodiak Alaska.

In 1990 the United States Coast Guard officer corps was comprised of less than .2% African-americans which prompted them to begin a national initiative to increase minority numbers in their leadership structure. Originally called the Minority Officer Recruiting Effort, or MORE program, it recently ended in abject failure when it was discovered that most of the officers commissioned through the program had little interest in remaining with the service. Less than one percent of the officers commissioned are of African-american descent. The prestigious Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut fared equally as poor, graduating only one African-american in its last class of the millennium in 1999.

Admiral Thad Allen is the current Commandant of the Coast Guard, the highest ranking officer in the service. Admiral Allen has presided over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, for which the Coast Guard received accolades for their rigorous response despite obvious shortcomings by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The Coast Guard also shares a birthday with Louis Armstrong, romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelly, and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

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