Deploying Federal Troops in a War at Home Would Make a Bad Situation Worse

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the George Floyd Uprising intensified in Minneapolis on Friday and Saturday, President Trump asked Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper for options to deploy federal troops to the city. He signaled to Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, “We have our military ready, willing and able if they ever want to call our military, and we can have troops on the ground every quickly.” Military Police soldiers from Fort Bragg (North Carolina), Fort Drum (New York), Fort Carson (Colorado), and Fort Riley (Kansas) were ordered to be ready to deploy for crowd and traffic control duties, if the state National Guards could not quell the unrest.

On Monday, Trump put Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley “in charge,” lambasted state governors, and said he would soon order active-duty federal troops into U.S. cities to “quickly solve the problem for them.” He also indicated that he would soon be deploying active-duty military forces in the District of Columbia, where he has the direct authority to do so.

Although the National Guard has often been used against civil rebellion, deploying federal military forces within the U.S. is a drastic and historically rare move. I’ve studied the history and geography of U.S. military interventions from the “Indian Wars” to the Middle East, and have documented only a handful of times that Army, Marines, or federalized National Guard forces have been used against U.S. citizens over the past century. For Trump to take such a profound leap would be an admission, as Gov. Walz stated, that a conflict at home is being equated to an “overseas war.” Sending in soldiers trained for combat will only make a bad situation worse, by launching a war at home against domestic dissent.

The Insurrection Act of 1807 governs the President’s ability to deploy the active-duty military within the U.S. to put down rebellion. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limited the federal government’s power to use the military to enforce civilian laws, constricting the military to a role supporting state and local police authorities. Interestingly, the limitation was put in place partly due to the white supremacist rollback of Reconstruction, as President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops occupying the former Confederacy since the Civil War. The Act still allows the President to deploy forces in the U.S. under congressional authority (derived from the Insurrection Act), if a state cannot maintain so-called “public order.”

Wars against Indigenous and Mexican resistance

U.S. military forces fought the so-called “Indian Wars” as foreign interventions on the soil of Indigenous nations, to forcibly incorporate them into (or keep them within) the United States. These included the 1862 war against the Mdewakanton Dakota (Santee Sioux) in Minnesota, which ended in the execution of 38 Dakota men.

The Army’s last major Indian War was against the Lakota Nation, culminating in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of about 300 civilians, for which the soldiers were awarded Medals of Honor. Later interventions were directed against the Leech Lake Ojibwe in 1898 (using soldiers just returned from the Philippines), and the Muskogee (Creek) in Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1901. U.S. naval forces also backed the 1893 settler overthrow of the U.S.-recognized Kingdom of Hawai’i.

During the Mexican Revolution, U.S. Army troops were also involved in fighting Mexican rebels who crossed the border, in the 1915 Plan of San Diego raids into Texas, and Pancho Villa’s 1916 raid into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 (triggering the Pershing Expedition deep into Mexico). Although these were interventions on U.S. soil, they were not directed primarily against U.S. citizens.

The “Indian Wars” were rekindled in 1973, when FBI and other federal agents besieged Lakota community activists joined by the American Indian Movement (AIM) at the Wounded Knee massacre site, where two Native resisters were killed in firefights. Phantom jets from nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base conducted surveillance overflights. The 82nd Airborne was put on alert, but an FBI request for 2,000 Army troops was turned down by Colonel Volney Warner, and the 72-day siege ended without a second massacre. (AIM still exists, and is this week leading neighborhood patrols to protect the Minneapolis Native community, as an alternative to police or military violence.)

During the 2016-17 confrontations at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline, North Dakota National Guard troops were deployed, and TigerSwan private security contractors (who had worked with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan) spied on the water protectors. Although there was no obvious direct use of federal military forces, it is not always clear which agencies operated surveillance planes and drones.

Deployments against strikers and veterans

Army troops have also been sent in to crush strikes by U.S. workers. During the 1894 Pullman rail strike in Chicago, troops killed 34 strikers. In Idaho, troops intervened against striking silver miners in northern Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene region in 1892, and occupied the area in 1899-1901. Troops were deployed against striking West Virginia coal miners in 1920-21 (including the first aerial bombing of U.S. citizens); the conflict inspired the film Matewan.

In 1932, during the Depression, Army soldiers were deployed against World War I veterans demonstrating in Washington for early payment of the government bonus for their service. General Douglas Macarthur led the light-tank assault on the “Bonus Army” veterans and their families; 55 veterans were injured and their shantytown burned to the ground.

African American civil rights and white backlash

By far the most common use of federal troops in the U.S. has been related to African American civil rights, and the white backlash against those rights. A series of racial confrontations and pogroms in the 20th century involved state National Guard troops, but it was not until World War II that federal troops were directly used. In June 1943, white rioters in Detroit protested a Black housing project and white workers went on strike against promotions of Black workers in local industries. The tension led to a cascading series of rumors, violent clashes, and shootings, resulting in the deaths of 34 people—25 African Americans (18 at the hands of police), and nine whites. Although most of the rioters were white, police arrested four times as many African Americans. President Roosevelt deployed Army tanks and 6,000 troops, who stayed in the city for weeks, as violence also erupted in New York and military bases in Britain.

Federal troops were deployed during the civil rights era to enforce desegregation orders, against intransigent Southern governors who refused to racially integrate the schools. President Eisenhower famously sent Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to escort Black children safely to school past white mobs. President Kennedy federalized the National Guard to enforce federal courts’ orders to desegregate the University of Mississippi in 1962, and the University of Alabama and Alabama public schools in 1963. In 1965, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect civil rights marchers at Selma.

But in that same year, the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles signaled a wave of African American urban rebellions against economic inequality, judicial racism, and police brutality, causing repeated deployments of state National Guard troops. It was once again in Detroit, with its extreme segregation and nearly all-white police force, where federal troops were deployed. A July 1967 violent police raid on an African American club (whose patrons were celebrating the return of two soldiers form Vietnam) triggered a conflagration of violence that left 43 residents dead (33 African Americans and ten whites), and 1,189 injured. President Johnson sent in 4,700 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne to back up the police and 4,000 National Guardsmen.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 immediately triggered a wave of urban rebellions around the country that lasted up to two weeks, and the largest deployments of federal troops on U.S. soil since the Civil War. At least 21,000 federal soldiers were sent to cities around the country, 13,600 of them to Washington D.C. and others to Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities. Troop transport planes landed at O’Hare in darkened, combat conditions, and local soldiers were enlisted to guide military units around the city. There were more armed government forces (police and military) used in Chicago alone than in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. At least 43 people were killed in what became known as the “Holy Week Uprisings.”

Even Johnson acknowledged, “I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”

First Bush Administration

In September 1968, the U.S. Army published a classified plan known as Garden Plot projecting that “dissatisfaction with the environmental conditions contributing to racial unrest and civil disturbances” may require large-scale federal military interventions “to preserve life and property and maintain normal processes of governments,” laying the basis for a series of martial law-style plans for counterinsurgency at home.

These plans for local martial law were put into motion during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, first in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he sent 1,100 heavily armed Military Police to the island of St. Croix, which had been severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo. The storm damage exacerbated longstanding racial tensions, and the troops’ primary mission was not disaster relief, but suppressing looting (even if it was allowed by stores) and putting down a Black uprising. Although troops and military contractors have since been deployed to other hurricane-damaged regions, such as Florida in 1992 and Louisiana in 2005, they were sent in under state authority.

The largest deployment of federal forces after 1968 was during the Los Angeles Uprising, triggered by the April 1992 acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. Initial mass protests led to arson, looting, and racial violence over 32 square miles. As 10,000 National Guard troops were overwhelmed, Governor Pete Wilson used the Insurrection Act to request federal troops. President Bush federalized the National Guard, activated reservists at California military bases, and deployed 4,000 Army and Marine troops to set up checkpoints and back up police raids around the city. In one incident, a police officer confronting a shooter requested “cover” from the Marines, meaning to aim their weapons at the house, but the Marines instead unleashed 200 rounds in “covering” fire. In all, 63 people were killed in Los Angeles (including at least seven by police), and 2,000 injured.

The road from 9/11 and Ferguson

The 9/11 attacks in the George W. Bush Administration instantly demonstrated how, in its exclusive focus on overseas interventions, the Pentagon had never really prepared for the actual defense of the “homeland.” The PATRIOT Act and other laws intensified the militarization of law enforcement (equipping police with military weaponry and technology far beyond their needs), the use of private security contractors, military spying on antiwar groups, and the increasing use of some regular Army and Marine units along the U.S.-Mexico border. An 2006 revision of the Insurrection Act allowed the President to deploy troops as a police force during a natural disaster, epidemic, or terrorist attack, though it was reversed two years later.

The result of the so-called “Global War on Terror,” coupled with the continuing wars on drugs and undocumented immigrants, was a blurring of the distinction between wars abroad and the war at home. This trend became painfully evident by 2014 in the militarized, racist response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and many other cities. In 2020, as the George Floyd Uprising convulses the country during a pandemic and Depression, Predator drones (from Customs and Border Protection) conduct surveillance flights over Minneapolis, “Lakota” (!) and “Black Hawk” military helicopters fly low to disperse protesters in Washington, and President Trump designates anti-fascist groups as “terrorists” (perhaps to justify federal military involvement on U.S. soil).

Ordering rank-and-file soldiers into U.S. cities, to repress people in neighborhoods just like theirs, may not be as easy as Trump may think. Military discipline was difficult enough to enforce in Vietnam and Iraq, and will be harder in an American city. Soldiers have the right to refuse illegal orders to harm civilians. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (Article 92) establishes a duty to obey lawful orders, but also a duty to disobey unlawful orders to that are clearly contrary to the Constitution.

Veterans for Peace and About Face have already called for National Guard troops to stand down. If soldiers feel they are being given an unlawful order to harm or violate the rights of civilians, “I was just following orders” may not be an adequate legal defense. They can contact the G.I. Rights Hotline, or legally send an “Appeal for Redress” to their congressional representative that is protected under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. Military personnel know quiet, creative ways to “work-to-rule,” and share vital information about unlawful actions, to help slow down the madness. And if in doubt, they (as a few police have already done) can always kneel in solidarity or pray for guidance.

Note: this article has been updated.

Zoltán Grossman is a Member of the Faculty in Geography and Native American and Indigenous Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin in 2002. He is a longtime community organizer, and was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network alliance for tribal sovereignty. He was author of Unlikely Alliances: Native and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press, 2017), and co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012). His faculty website is at