The United Service Organizations, popularly known as the USO, was chartered on February 4, 1941, in order to provide recreation for on-leave members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. The idea of coordinating civilian volunteer efforts on behalf of the rapidly growing armed forces was first proposed, in 1940, by General George C. Marshall.
At the recommendation of President Franklin Roosevelt, the task was put in the hands of existing public service organizations. The USO, Inc., was organized by representatives of five private social service organizations: the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the National Board of the YWCA, the National Jewish Welfare Board, and the National Catholic Community Service. A sixth organization, the Travelers Aid Association of America, joined in March 1941.
During World War II, the USO boasted as many as 739,000 volunteers and operated more than 3,000 recreational clubs. Set up quickly in churches, museums, barns, railroad cars, storefronts, and other unlikely locales, USO clubs were places for both lively social activities and quiet contemplation. Some came to dance and watch movies, others to write letters and find religious counsel. Perhaps the best-known center was New York's Stage Door Canteen, celebrated in the film "Stage Door Canteen" starring Katharine Hepburn and Groucho Marx. The Hollywood Canteen was one of the largest and featured entertainment by film stars such as Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, and Bob Hope.
The USO was disbanded in 1948, then reorganized during the Korean War and expanded considerably during the Vietnam War. It continues to provide services to members of the armed forces and their families.