Ben Hebard Fuller was born in Michigan in 1870, and educated at Annapolis. Fuller’s first important assignment was to the Philippines in 1899, reflecting a new era in U.S. foreign policy and correspondingly new types of military deployment. Fuller’s career also coincided with William Fullam’s controversial vision of a totally new role for the Marines. Over the next two decades, Navy officers and Marine officers would debate whether the USMC was mainly a police force onboard and in port, or whether it would assume activities on land – activities larger than merely the occasional landing party.
In 1928, Fuller had been promoted to the position of assistant commandant and brought into USMC headquarters. A document entitled “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia” had been prepared and would dictate much of the USMC’s training and planning over the next decade – leave the Marines amazingly well-prepared for the outbreak of WWII.
By contrast, the First World War had seen Marines used as infantry, apart from any amphibious landing. Ben Fuller saw no action in WWI, being posted elsewhere. Although his lack of combat experience probably slowed his advancement through the ranks, he was seen as valuable and ultimately promoted in part because of his extensive training – in institutions like the Naval War College and the Army’s Field Officer’s Course – which made him a capable tactician, strategist, and theoretician.
Historian Merrill Bartlett has written a hagiographic account of Ben Fuller’s career in the USMC. Bartlett’s panegyric takes the form of a reappraisal – Bartlett falls into the noble tradition of historians who ask their readers to rethink the ‘standard account’ – seeking to rehabilitate Ben Fuller as a significant and praiseworthy Commandant of the USMC from 1930 to 1934. Inter-service power politics, which Fuller faced, are notoriously thorny, but even more so for the Marines, who stand not only vis-a-vis the Army, Coast Guard, and Air Force, but also occupy an internal status within the Navy which places them technically ‘under’ Navy command.
Among the reasons for which President Herbert Hoover appointed Fuller to be Commandant was that Fuller’s classmate from Annapolis was Chief of Naval Operations, and that the two could be expected to work well together. “But Fuller stood firm every time the admirals attempted to gain ground at the expense of the Marine Corps, and he never hesitated to take issue with” his old friend from the academy days, as Bartlett writes.
During Fuller’s career, the USMC not only retained “traditional duties in support of the Navy at sea and ashore, but also” adopted “new missions as colonial infantry, an advanced-base force, and finally an amphibious-assault force.” Under Fuller’s command, the USMC’s role “as a subsidiary of the Navy” ended. Fuller’s steadfast advocacy before Navy high command was central to the USMC’s increased independence.
In 1933, Fuller had restructured the deployment of Marines within the Navy, and restructured the chain of command; he ordered the officers to develop amphibious landing techniques, which would be important in WWII. In this same year, the Navy authorized increased manpower for the Marines, and procured equipment according to the USMC specifications instead of Navy specifications; these steps were the fruit of Fuller’s advocacy.
In the previous years, there had been considerable dispute about the roles of Marines vis-a-vis the Navy, and their role vis-a-vis the Army. The Army was eager to form a monopoly on aircraft, and so the USMC aircraft were linked closely with Navy aircraft to prevent them from being absorbed into the Army. Likewise, the Marines were defined as being
responsible for the seizure and defense of advanced bases; subsequent operations ashore would then pass to the Army. Planners argued that the Marines should only be employed as an adjunct to the Army if necessary, because in any likely scenario the Marine Corps would be busy supporting the fleet. Prophetically, the Director of the War Plans Division posited that Marine Corps air assets should always remain an integral part of naval aviation and never operate as a separate component; otherwise, it would open the way for criticism from the Army Air Corps.
Through 1931 and 1932, the economic conditions of the country combined with the schemes of the famous and infamous General Douglas MacArthur to cut the USMC to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 to 16,000 men. MacArthur believed that the USMC “should be limited to the traditional duties aboard ship.” MacArthur’s trademark ego would allow no place a for a significant Marine Corps to compete with his Army. It was from these depths that Fuller would lift the Corps.
One wonders about the relative impact of two factors in strengthening the USMC: Fuller’s advocacy for more manpower and better equipment, versus FDR’s view that the military could be a “make work” program for unemployed civilians and boost production through procurement of equipment.
Ben Fuller died in 1937, and was buried beside his son, who had died in WWI.