The USO was formed in response to a 1941 request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who determined it would be best if private organizations handled the on-leave recreation of the rapidly growing U.S. armed forces. Roosevelt's call to action led six civilian agencies to coordinate their civilian war efforts and resources to form a new organization—the USO (United Service Organizations). The six civilian agencies were the Salvation Army, Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board. Today, as always the USO is a private, nonprofit organization, supported entirely by private citizens and corporations.
Throughout World War II, the USO was the channel for community participation in the war effort. In more than 3,000 communities, USO centers were established to become the GIs’ "Home Away from Home." Between 1940 and 1944, U.S. troops grew from 50,000 to twelve million, and their need for a variety of services grew accordingly. USO facilities were quickly opened in such unlikely places as churches, log cabins, museums, castles, barns, beach and yacht clubs, railroad sleeping cars, old mansions, and storefronts.
From 1941 to 1947, USO Camp Shows presented an amazing 428,521 performances. In 1945, curtains were rising 700 times a day to audiences as large as 15,000 and as small as 25 on outposts all over the world. More than 7,000 entertainers traveled overseas. By war's end, the USO could claim that more than 1.5 million volunteers had worked on its behalf.
The USO had all but disbanded by 1947. But in 1950, when the U.S. entered the Korean War, the USO regrouped and eventually opened 24 clubs worldwide. Once again, USO Camp Shows performed thousands of times for battle-weary troops and for wounded GIs in the Evac hospitals in Japan.
The turbulent 1960s were full of challenges for the USO. For the first time in its history, USO centers were located in combat zones. The first USO in Vietnam opened in Saigon in 1963. The seventeen centers that were opened in Vietnam and six in Thailand served as many as a million "customers" a month.
In the early 1970s, when the draft ended, the need for the USO was questioned. In 1974, prompted by a report of United Way of America's Committee on National Agency Support (CONAS), United Way of America and the Department of Defense conducted a major review of USO programs and services.
They visited USO operations and military bases around the world and concluded, "If there were no USO, another organization would have to be created. Isolation of the military from civilian influences is not, we believe in the interest of this nation."
Thus, the USO was launched into a new era of peacetime service. New programs were called for to meet new needs, and the USO responded. For the first time, the USO helped military personnel make the transition to civilian life. The USO’s international headquarters moved from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1975, firmly establishing it as an international agency serving U.S. armed forces worldwide.
The USO's close association with military leadership was reemphasized in 1987, with the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding between the USO and the Department of Defense. The agreement names the USO as a principal channel representing civilian concern for the U.S. armed forces worldwide, under the auspices of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense. It authorizes the USO to play an active role in coordinating local civilian community resources and fostering general civilian interest in the welfare of U.S. armed forces personnel and their families.
The year 1990 found the United States embroiled in a confrontation with Iraq that challenged American troops in new ways. Our service members found themselves deployed in the desert for at least six months at a time with little recreation or contact from home.
The Persian Gulf War also challenged the USO to meet the needs of our troops in unique circumstances. The USO immediately responded by opening three new centers in the Middle East and establishing the USO Mobile Canteen program. Mobile Canteens are four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicles that have refreshments, books, magazines, video and compact-disc players, and resources for recreational activities. USO workers drove the vans to wherever the troops were deployed to provide some relief from the heat and boredom.
On the home front, the USO established the Family Support Fund and Desert Storm Education Fund to support military families who suffered hardship from the deployment or death of military personnel. After the troops returned, USO sponsored a Yellow Ribbon Summer, which included several special events to benefit active duty members of the armed forces and their families.
The USO currently operates more than 120 centers worldwide. USOs in ten countries and 21 states use the services of some 33,571 volunteers, including members of the World Board of Governors, the USO's governing body, and those who dish up Thanksgiving dinners to USO guests.
In 2004, the USO sent 51 Celebrity Entertainment tours to 22 countries, entertaining more than 377,802 service men and women.
No matter where American service families are stationed, their concerns are similar to any American family. The USO operates 84 Family Centers to help military families adjust to new surroundings with information on child-care co-ops, employment opportunities, parenting, nutrition, budgeting and recreational programs.
Today, USO Celebrity Entertainment shows are effective morale boosters and remain an important part of USO's offerings. Even in peacetime, entertainers provide a much-needed break in the midst of duty tours overseas.
Because of the USO, the world is witnessing history-making events at a record pace, events that are sure to influence the very nature and mission of America's military. At least one thing is certain: the USO will diversify and change over time—as it has for more than sixty years—in order to fulfill its mission to U.S. military personnel and their families "Until Every One Comes Home."