The controversial decision to issue the entire Army the black beret may have come into effect in 2001 but as far back as 1943, there were certain Army units wearing berets in order to enhance morale and esprit de corps. Today, the beret is such a common issued item, that it may be worth taking a brief walk back through the history of the beret itself.
The first use of the beret in the U.S. Army comes in 1943 when the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion (now Regiment) were made honorary members of the British First Airborne Corps during World War II, which included authorization to wear the maroon colored beret. British General Fredrick Browning commanded the British Airborne at the time, and the maroon color of the beret was chosen by his wife, the novelist Daphne du Maurier according to legend. Use of the beret was discontinued after the war but came back in the 1970s. In the aftermath of the social upheaval and national trauma associated with the Vietnam War, the Army was looking for a way to increase morale amongst the troops. Certain armor and cavalry units began wearing the black beret. Then in 1973, the 82nd Airborne brought back the maroon beret. However, at this time these uniform decisions were made at the unit level and were not authorized by the Army itself.
The Rangers have a slightly different trajectory with the beret. During the Korean War, Rangers were being trained at Camp Carson, Colorado. Captain Rudolphs Jones and Captian Charles Spragins, the commanders of the 11th and 10th Ranger Companies respectively, authorized the purchase and wearing of the black beret, symbolizing that most Ranger missions occurred at night. After the war, the Ranger companies were disbanded and the black berets days appeared numbered. During Vietnam, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) units later turned into Ranger Companies and many of these Rangers took to wearing the black beret, although it was still unauthorized by the Army. It wasn't until modern Rangers were formed in 1974 that the wearing of the black beret was officially authorized.
So what about the iconic green beret of Special Forces?
During World War II American commandos assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) served alongside French and British counterparts and in many instances, wore the same berets that they did. After the war, Special Forces was created and some original members had previously served in the OSS. Soon after, these soldiers began wearing various colored berets in the field during training exercises in Germany and Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Special Forces soldiers continued to wear the green beret until 1957 when the Fort Bragg post commander banned them. In 1961, the first commander of the Special Warfare Center, Brigadier General William Yarborough, arranged for President Kennedy to visit Fort Bragg where he then made a personal appeal to him. As a result, Kennedy approved additional funding for Special Forces and also authorized the wearing of the green beret.
By 1980 Rangers were authorized black berets, the Airborne was authorized the maroon beret, and Special Forces were authorized the green beret. And for a time, everyone was happy with this arrangement.
Travesty unfolded in 2000 when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki made a startling announcement that the black beret would become standard headgear for all U.S. Army soldiers. The Rangers went into an uproar, feeling that their history and tradition was being stolen from them. Despite a "Save Our Beret" campaign and official protests from politicians such as the Governor of Georgia, the 75th Ranger Regiment took off their black berets for the last time on January 27th, 2001 and replaced them with tan berets.
Special Forces recently had their own beret drama regarding the newly formed Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). The color of the SFAB beret was olive-green, very similar to the "rifle green" beret that Special Forces wear. There was already controversy because the SFAB was being given a similar mission to Special Forces, training foreign militaries, but the beret issue really got people riled up. To help alleviate the controversy, the SFAB changed theirs to brown.
The Army has a long and colorful history with berets going back 80 years, with the distinctive headgear signifying special capabilities and the unique role of the soldiers assigned to these units. Considering that the beret was always worn as a matter of unit pride and to encourage esprit de corps, it may come as no surprise that soldiers get upset when they feel that their unit history and traditions are tread upon.