The Coast Guard began its history as the Revenue Cutter Service. This Service was created in 1790 at the recommendation of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury. Congress established this fleet of ten small sailing vessels to stamp out smuggling and piracy along the coasts of the United States. Revenue Cutter Service officers had permission to board all vessels that entered United States waters and to examine their cargoes. From 1790 until 1798 - when the Navy was reorganized - the Revenue Cutter Service served as the Nation's only naval force. The Service saw its first wartime activity from 1798 to 1800, when it cooperated with the Navy in fighting French privateers. The Service also fought during the War of 1812.
For many years private organizations operated the only lifesaving services on the Atlantic coast. In 1831, the Revenue Cutter Service began its first winter cruising to aid seafarers and ships in distress. In 1837, Congress authorized the use of public vessels to cruise the coast in rough weather and help mariners in distress. In 1848, Congress funded the construction of lifesaving stations to be staffed by volunteers. In 1871, the Government took over the stations and formed the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which was operated by the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1878, the Life-Saving Service became an independent bureau of the Department of the Treasury. The Revenue Cutter and Life-Saving Services were combined as the United States Coast Guard in 1915. The Federal Lighthouse Service became a part of the Coast Guard in 1939. The Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Coast Guard in 1942.
On April 6, 1917, after the United States entered World War I against Imperial Germany, the Coast Guard's more than 200 officers and 5,000 enlisted men were ordered into action alongside the Navy. The Coast Guard served in the thick of the action, escorting cargo ships and screening transports from German submarines.
World War II saw the Coast Guard serving as a specialized branch of the Navy. The Service was responsible for handling and stowing explosives and other dangerous cargo, and for protecting vessels and port facilities from fire, negligence or damage. The Coast Guard also furnished weather reports, provided cutters for convoy escort duty, and staffed many Army and Navy vessels. It took part in every Pacific and European landing operation.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary was formed in 1939. During World War II, its members offered their boaqts and their services to the Coast Guard without pay. They wore uniforms and served under military discipline while on active duty. The Coast Guard Reserve was established in 1941. During the War, about 7,100 Reserve officers and about 135,000 enlisted men were on active duty in the Coast Guard.
In 1957, thre cutters, Storis, Bramble and Spar, were the first U.S. ships to sail through the Northwest Passage, the deep water passage across the top of North America. In 1967, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to the newly created Department of Transportation.
From 1965 to 1972, during the Vietnam War, Coast Guard squadrons patrolled the coastal waters of South Vietnam. The 56 cutters were assigned to prevent the flow of North Vietnamese troops and equipment from North Vietnam to South Vietnam.
In 1972, Congress passed the Ports and Waterways Safety Act. This legislation directed the Coast Guard to establish regulations governing the construction of oil tankers and other ships that would carry polluting substances in United States waters. The legislation also authorized the Coast Guard to develop vessel traffic control systems to help prevent accidents in crowded harbors and waterways.
In 1989, the Coast Guard headed the cleanup of nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil that spilled into Prince William Sound in southeastern Alaska. The oil spill - the largest in North American history - occurred after the U.S. tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in the Sound. In 1991, the Coast Guard served in the Persian Gulf War. From 1992 to 1994, it stopped nearly 100,000 migrants fleeing Cuba and Haiti from entering the United States illegally.