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June 2024
23min read

After every war in the nation’s history, the military has faced not only calls for demobilization but new challenges and new opportunities. It is happening again.

Not many people appreciate a military base closing. Like the shutting of a factory, it can devastate nearby towns, throwing thousands of people out of work. Merchants face losses and even bankruptcy as sales fall off. Home-owners put their houses on the market at distress prices and sometimes simply walk away from their mortgages. Even long-established military centers are not immune; the current round of closings includes the Mare Island Naval Base near San Francisco, which has operated since 1854.

Yet today’s base closings involve more than the end of the Cold War, more than the Pentagon’s present downsizing. They represent a turning point, as our military leaders work to redefine their missions and to establish new roles. Nor has this been the only such turning point. Time and again during the past two centuries our leaders have faced similar issues.

We mark our military history by remembering our wars. Yet the peacetime military has also seen its marks and milestones, many of which have had little to do with wartime events. At such times the military has taken on major new tasks, introduced novel ways of fighting, or grown greatly in significance in the nation’s life. With the Pentagon facing a new time of change, it is appropriate to recall the earlier moments when our armed forces grappled with similar peacetime challenges.

When George Washington was President, our Army faced the most basic of issues: What could it do? How could it serve the nation? The answers began to emerge very quickly, and those answers would shape the Army for more than a century. The place where they emerged was Ohio.

On paper the nascent government of the United States held title to the Northwest Territory, the present Midwest, following the Revolutionary War. But real power within this region still was in the hands of Indian tribes, egged on by the British. To oppose them, the territorial governor, Arthur St. Clair, had no more than a scratch force of soldiers “purchased from prisons, wheelbarrows and brothels at two dollars per month.”

In 1791 he put together an army of fourteen hundred such men, leavened with a modest number of regulars, and led them northward from what would become the city of Cincinnati. Early in November the Indians took him by surprise. Many of his troops fled in panic, leaving the wounded to the scalping knife. All the regimental officers died trying to stem the rout, along with twenty-seven women who had accompanied the regulars and fought beside them. St. Clair himself survived, but with eight bullet holes in his clothing.

When the news reached the East Coast, Congress promptly went into action. It passed a law in March 1792 reorganizing and strengthening the federal Army, and followed it in May with another that sought to establish standards for the state militias. A more useful response came from President Washington, who called on a wartime comrade, Gen. Anthony Wayne, to command the new force. Wayne certainly needed the job; he had failed as a planter, had run up large debts, and had missed winning a seat in Congress because of election irregularities.


His impetuosity had won him the name Mad Anthony during the war, but in this new assignment he took his time. He trained his men thoroughly, using the drill of Baron von Steuben, who had marshaled the raw levies of 1776 into an effective fighting force. Wayne put particular emphasis on marksmanship and knowledge of field fortification. When the time for battle came, in August 1794, he had only 2,643 men under arms, barely half the number authorized, but he was ready.

Near present-day Toledo, Ohio, at a place called Fallen Timbers, a large force of Indians hid within a tangle of stormdowned trees. Wayne’s infantry fired a volley into the underbrush, then charged with fixed bayonets while dragoons and Kentucky mounted riflemen circled both flanks. One Indian later said that he “could not stand up against the sharp ends of the guns.” The victory was complete, with the enemy losing at least twice as many men as the Americans.

For the nation Fallen Timbers marked a milestone. The subsequent peace treaty ceded most of Ohio to American control, while opening the Ohio River as a major route to the West. And for the peacetime Army, that same battle marked another milestone. It established this force’s principal role: fighting Indians.

This work was vital to the national interest, yet it required no more than a few thousand troops, which America could readily support. But although we would maintain no large standing army, we would retain a cadre of seasoned leaders, able to mold recruits into a first-rate force in time of necessity. Then, with the danger successfully handled, the Army could lapse anew into somnolence. We would pursue this policy virtually to the eve of World War II.

At sea, however, matching means and ends was less straightforward. Naval power had been important during the Revolution; a French fleet, operating at the mouth of the Chesapeake, had opened the way to the victory at Yorktown in 1781. But warships were costly, and after the war America abandoned any thought of maintaining a fleet in being.

However, during Washington’s second term, the issue of sea power came anew to the forefront, as commerce raiders from France and the Barbary Coast menaced our shipping. As with the Indian threat, here was a challenge that we could not meet with our available resources, and in 1794 Congress passed the first naval bill, calling for construction of six frigates. “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution , emerged as a flagship within this modest fleet.

In the Royal Navy a frigate was a fighting ship with a single gundeck. The Constitution and her sisters conformed to this design, mounting forty-four guns, but in many respects these vessels were on a par with Britain’s standard seventy-four-gun ships of the line. They were similar in size, superior in speed, and their hulls of live oak had an extraordinary ability to stand up to gunfire. No less an authority than Lord Nelson was impressed, declaring in 1803 that “I see trouble for Britain in those big frigates from across the sea.”


These warships indeed would distinguish themselves in single combat, but when the United States went up against the first team, in 1812, the best it could do was to hold its own. Naval actions on Lakes Champlain and Erie preserved our northern border, but despite several attempts, we failed to take Canada, and when the British took the offensive, they seized Washington, burning the Capitol and White House.

The peace treaty of 1814 left our country intact, about as much as we could have hoped for. Fortunately Britain did not press its advantage. Instead, during the following few years, the crown sponsored two initiatives, both of which strongly favored our interests. The first came in 1817, when the Rush-Bagot Agreement demilitarized the Great Lakes. The unfortified border that resulted was earnest of a British intention not to use Canada as a springboard for a future invasion.

The second initiative grew out of Britain’s hostility toward Spain, an enmity that antedated the Armada. Spain had been a key ally of Napoleon, furnishing many of the ships that had fought Nelson at Trafalgar. Seeking to weaken this foe, the British foreign minister, Lord Canning, saw his opportunity in the work of Simon Bolivar. A Spain without colonies would be less formidable, and those ex-colonies, as newly independent states, were offering fine trading possibilities to Britain’s merchants.

Canning therefore proposed that Britain and America go “hand in hand” in opposing any Spanish effort at reconquest. John Quincy Adams, President Monroe’s Secretary of State, was cool. He saw no threat to Latin America from across the seas, and he believed that such a joint effort could stymie any U.S. opportunity to annex Cuba. He advised Monroe to act alone, rather than as “a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war,” and in December 1823 the President issued his famous doctrine. By itself it was rather fatuous; we were in no position to fight a naval war with Spain. But Monroe’s policy, issued in concert with Canning’s, marked a turning point. It meant that throughout virtually the entire hemisphere our interests and those of Britain would coincide.


With the coming of general peace, our Navy drifted into desuetude. Our peacetime military policies were set: a minimal navy and an army around ten thousand strong that would put its emphasis on fighting Indians. Nevertheless, the U.S. Army marked those years with a growing professionalism, and the rise of that professionalism stood out as another milestone.

Its center was West Point. Founded in 1802, the Military Academy spent its early years as a technical school of no great distinction. Indeed, its graduating students were not even required to serve in the Army; many of them took their government-paid educations and rejoined the civilian world, where they could find good use for their knowledge of bridges and roads. But all this changed after 1817, and quickly. For in that year Maj. Sylvanus Thayer took office as West Point’s superintendent.

An Academy man himself and a veteran of the recent war, Thayer was President Monroe’s personal choice for the post. He weeded out “Uncle Sam’s bad bargains” (the unpromising students), insisted that all cadets had to live solely on the Army stipend —no money from home—and forbade them to leave the post without his permission. He divided the classes into small sections, in which cadets had to demonstrate daily that they knew the course material. He also set up an ongoing competition, ranking the cadets into class standings, with the choicest military assignments reserved for those at the top. Demerits for minor offenses could easily outweigh brilliance in class; as Cadet Ulysses S. Grant put it, “Any special excellence in study would be affected by the manner in which he tied his shoes.”

Thayer strongly admired Napoleon and took inspiration from his Ecole Polytechnique. He broke decisively with the standard university curriculum that placed heavy emphasis on Greek and Latin. Instead he built West Point as a true school of engineering, an outstanding one that set a standard for other universities to match. Thayer’s protégé Dennis Mahan was also an ardent follower of the French. In teaching principles of military leadership, Mahan instructed his cadets to seize the offensive, to maneuver and advance with speed. In the classroom he was as formidable as a thirty-six-pounder. Years after leading his march to the sea, General Sherman still shuddered to think of the times when Mahan had caught him unprepared.

It is not true the Army shut down after Appomattox. It only seemed that way.

The Mexican War gave many West Pointers their first opportunities for wartime command, and Gen. Winfield Scott, who led the drive on Mexico City, regarded their contributions as decisive: “I give as my fixed opinion, that but for our graduated cadets, the war between the United States and Mexico might, and probably would, have lasted some four or five years, with, in its first half, more defeats than victories falling to our share.”

The shapers of the next war also received their commissions at the Point: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, Grant, Sherman, Beauregard, and many others. Most of them had come up under Mahan, a man who never saw a battle but whose teachings and writings defined the manner in which much of the Civil War was fought. Mahan had praised the “dashing bold hussar,” and Lincoln went on to measure his generals against this standard. He had to, for none was more dashing and bold than Lee.

It is not true that in the wake of Appomattox the United States Army went out of existence. It only seemed that way. During the war 2,666,999 men served at one time or another, and close to 1,000,000 stood ready for duty at its close. Within six months some 800,000 of them were back home. In 1866 Congress set the strength of the peacetime Army at 54,302 officers and men (which still was three times the authorized strength in 1860), and in 1870 it cut the number to 30,000. During the next three decades the true strength was generally lower; America had a permanent Army less than half the size of Belgium’s.

This force stayed active in Indian wars, but for most career soldiers the dominant theme was boredom. On isolated posts scattered across the West, life was a routine of inspections and dusty marching in close-order drill to the bark of a sergeant. The sun was merciless in summer. New faces were rare. Many of the men took to drink.

With no foreign foe at hand, and the Indians retreating to their reservations, there was reason enough to wonder whether the nation even needed an army. The situation at sea was similar. The U.S. Navy had not spent the century collecting barnacles; it showed the flag in overseas ports, and Commodore Perry opened Japan to the outside world. Then, to fight the Confederacy, the Union built a fleet that was mighty indeed—626 vessels, nine times the prewar total, among them 65 powerful ironclads.

But after that war our strength at sea declined as precipitously as our power on land. Ironclads were laid up and left to rot, and converted merchant ships returned to civilian ownership. The Navy retreated from steam power to sail, which was much cheaper. Indeed, when a ship carried both sails and a steam engine, the captain had orders not to use the latter unless he could justify his reason for doing so. By 1880 we had only a few ships capable of regular cruising, and virtually none in a condition to fight.

America was, in effect, at the mercy of any naval power that cared to fire a shot across our bow. Such a situation was insupportable, and the 188Os saw the beginnings of change, as three steel cruisers joined the fleet. In 1890 Congress voted funds for three new battleships, and British observers declared the resulting vessels a match for their country’s best.

That same year brought another milestone in the history of our peacetime military; Little, Brown & Company published The Influence of Sea Power on History . The book sparked the rise of our modern Navy. It came at a time when our burgeoning steel industry gave us the means to build a powerful fleet and growing overseas interests gave us reason to think we could use it. The historian Barbara Tuchman has described it as one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century, standing on a par with Darwin’s Origin of Species and Marx’s Das Kapital .

The book’s author was Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the Naval War College and the son of West Point’s formidable Dennis Mahan. Mahan the elder had urged officers to study the history of land battles so as to learn and master the tactics that could lead to victory. Mahan the younger steered a similar course, but his concern lay with grand naval strategy. Drawing on the history of major navies, he gave definition to the concept of sea power: that whoever could control the sea would master the overall situation.

At home and around the world, Mahan’s message fell on receptive minds. It was a time when the power of steel and steam was at flood tide, when the British sun was at its zenith. Imperialism flourished alongside its cousin militarism. In 1894 Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote that “I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan’s book and am trying to learn it by heart. It is a first class book and classical in all points. It is on board all my ships and constantly quoted by my Captains and officers.” Theodore Roosevelt, too, became a Mahan disciple.

In the United States vaulting ambition brought the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, as well as the war with Spain. The contrast with 1812 is instructive. That early war had left us in imminent peril, with our nation under the guns of the Royal Navy. We then had every reason to pursue a naval build-up for our own defense, and with our growing population and economic strength we could easily have done so during subsequent decades. It was British diplomacy, not a lack of means, that forestalled this. But during the 189Os we built a capable fleet, not because we had to but because we wanted to. Then, with the ships in hand, we set out to use them.

The following decade saw the height of our navalism. Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House and proceeded to spend those years acting as if he were Navy Secretary. We now had major interests in the Philippines, the central Pacific, Panama, and the Caribbean. To protect them, we would need ships, and when Japan annihilated a Russian fleet at Tsushima in 1905, it was clear that here was a navy that would bear the closest watching. Roosevelt responded apace. When he took office in 1901, our Navy was receiving its ninth battleship. When he left the White House in 1909, we had twenty-five in commission and six more on the way. Nor was this the end of the matter. In 1916 Woodrow Wilson won passage of an act that had the deliberate aim of building “a navy second to none.” It was to match the strength of Britain’s powerful fleet.

Why did we do it? Why, in a time when Army strength still was stagnant, did we force ourselves into the ranks of the world’s great sea powers? The reasons ran deeper than the influence of Mahan or even of Roosevelt, for our naval build-up was not the work of a single administration or even of one decade. It spanned thirty years, from the naval legislation of 1890 to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. During those decades the world’s principal powers were caught up in a naval arms race, and this race had a life of its own. At times it could even go against a nation’s own interest.


This was particularly true for Germany. For years Germans had been powerful on land while Britain ruled the waves, and the two nations had found it easy to stay out of each other’s way. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, in which Prussia seized Paris and tore away Alsace-Lorraine, the British stood aside; this was none of their concern. But in 1897 Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, with the kaiser’s full support, launched a program of naval construction that deliberately aimed to rival Britain’s.

Bismarck had opposed such a policy, knowing that it would dissipate his country’s resources while adding an enemy. Wilhelm did not listen. He saw little value in British neutrality, as he later would see little to seek in America’s. The results were predictable: Britain intensified its own naval build-up, entered into alliance with France, and prepared to blockade Germany in the event of war. This meant that Germany would have been a stronger power without a navy than with one, for as long as Britain remained neutral, the kaiser’s armies could have fought any Continental enemy without having their country’s seaborne commerce disrupted. Now, with both German and Japanese naval power on the increase, Roosevelt and his successors had to keep pace.

Following World War I the Washington Naval Conference took form as the first serious effort at arms control. It ratified the pre-war build-up, setting a ratio of strength in capital ships at 5:5:3 for Britain, the United States, and Japan. These limitations forced the scrapping of much American tonnage: eleven major warships under construction, including the battleship USS Washington , 76 percent complete; four modern battleships; and fifteen older ones that dated as far back as 1898. Even so, the postwar cutbacks brought a curious imbalance. With Britain weakened in victory and Japan as rampant as before, our Navy was to maintain a high level of strength. But facing no such threat on land, our Army swiftly declined to the rank of seventeenth in the world. Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Romania, Spain, and Yugoslavia all were stronger. Indeed, we would have been weaker still had we not had overseas possessions to garrison.

From 1890 to 1921, we were caught up in a naval arms race with a life of its own.

During the two interwar decades our Army strength hovered around 130,000. (The British had lost nearly half that number, killed or wounded, in a single day, at the opening of the Battle of the Somme.) The Pentagon lay in the future; instead the Navy and War departments, along with the State Department, shared the mansard-roofed office building that lay directly across West Executive Avenue from the White House. Here stood the center of American power, such as it was. Within it life was very casual.

That avenue was open to the public; you could park there, in view of the Oval Office. If you were to meet the Secretary of State, he might greet you at the door. The Army’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had only a single aide, Maj. Dwight Eisenhower. Ike often had to go up to Capitol Hill to meet with congressmen, and MacArthur had the Army’s only limousine. Ike never got to ride in it. Instead, when heading to the Hill, he would walk down the hall, fill out a form, and receive two streetcar tokens. Then he would stand outside on Pennsylvania Avenue and wait for a trolley.

Still, while officers cherished the horses and battleships that had always been the keys to victory, advocates of air power were laying the groundwork for a new kind of warfare. Here stood another milestone for the peacetime military, for here lay the rise of technology. Gen. Billy Mitchell won headlines with his impassioned advocacy, but the Navy saw the most significant activity, as it commissioned the first aircraft carriers.

The original concept was British, with the first of the type, HMS Argus , joining the fleet two weeks before the armistice of 1918. The Washington Naval Conference went on to limit the size and tonnage of these vessels—though not because 1921 naval planners worried about carrier strikes. Rather, they were concerned that nations might build conventional fighting ships in the guise of carriers, then convert them later by mounting heavy guns.

Indeed, in both Japan and the United States, the first fleet carriers entered service thought similar conversions. The USS Lexington and Saratoga began their careers as hulls for 43,500-ton battle cruisers. Slated for scrapping as a result of the 1921 conference, they won reprieves when the government received permission to reconfigure them as carriers. As compensation Japan was allowed to convert the battle cruiser Akagi and the battleship Kaga .

It was unclear at the time just what these new ships might do, but in 1929 a leading American advocate, Rear Adm. Joseph Reeves, demonstrated that the Saratoga had the punch to knock out the Panama Canal. The canal was defended by heavy guns and land-based aircraft. Reeves ran his carrier through the night to take up position, then launched its planes for a dawn attack that caught the defenders by surprise while the Saratoga stood well out of the range of shore batteries. The umpires observing this exercise ruled that a real attack would have knocked out Miraflores Locks and disabled the canal.

The subsequent decade saw something of a replay of the naval arms race that had marked the century’s early years. In Japan Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto emerged as the outstanding advocate of naval air power. Under the strong hands of his colleagues, the rest of the Pearl Harbor attack squadron took shape: Soryu, Horyu, Shokaku, ZMZ-kaku . America’s response was at first measured; one of our earliest purpose-built carriers, the USS Yorktown , received its appropriation as part of a jobs bill, the National Industrial Recovery Act. However, we soon were seeking to match the Japanese, carrier for carrier, through regular naval appropriations. We didn’t succeed; at the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japan had a marked superiority. But we had enough to turn the tide at Midway, and after that the outcome was never in doubt.

For the Army a development of similar importance lay in the four-engine heavy bomber. The first, the B-17, came about because Boeing was down on its luck. The company had been part of a conglomerate that included United Airlines, which carried few passengers but plenty of airmail, all of it government-subsidized. In 1934 a federal law broke up this cozy arrangement, leaving Boeing to shift for itself. An Army competition for a new bomber seemed like the best opportunity in view.

The specification called for a “multi-engined” bomber. In the parlance of the time, that meant “twin-engined.” The company president, Claire Egtvedt, boldly elected to interpret the term to permit a four-engine aircraft, which would offer unprecedented size and striking power. His workers built a prototype, at company expense, and a flight crew took it for trials at Wright Field, a test center in Dayton, Ohio. It overshadowed its twin-engine competitors like a Duesenberg among Model A’s. Then disaster struck as this one-of-a-kind airplane crashed. An investigation quickly showed that the basic design was not at fault, but the Army was taking no chances; it gave the main contract to the competition. However, as a sort of consolation prize, it ordered thirteen of Boeing’s new bombers. By this slender margin the B-17 put its foot in the door.

The development proved epochal. The Germans and Japanese went on to fight their wars with only twin-engine bombers. The Luftwaffe used them in the Battle of Britain, and Hitler learned to his sorrow that such craft were good enough to start a major war but not to fight it to victory. By contrast, after 1940 the B-17 had the benefit of several years of experience in production, development, and service use. Well before Pearl Harbor we were exporting B-17s to Britain. The plane went on to play a leading role in the air attacks that flattened Germany’s cities. And with the B-17 in hand, Boeing’s designers went further with the B-29, which offered longer range and a heavier war load. In a matter of months, during 1945, fleets of these aircraft burned much of Japan to cinders.

Victory; jubilation; and once again the boys came home amid a massive demobilization. The Soviets stayed close to their wartime strength, while their line of farthest advance, extending from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, was so far forward that to march to the Atlantic, they would need little more than shoes. But that didn’t really matter; we had the bomb, and they didn’t. That was why as late as 1948, with Berlin under blockade and war seemingly imminent, President Truman could calmly persist in holding the entire military establishment to a total budget of only $14.4 billion. Significantly, this slim allocation drew little challenge in Congress, even though the Republican opposition was in control.


The wake-up call came during a single week, early in the autumn of 1949. On September 21, in Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Two days later Truman issued a blunt statement: “We have evidence an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.” That explosion blew away a major underpinning for our postwar policy, and together these two events put an end to the hope that the recent victory could bring a return to peacetime business as usual.

Truman’s response brought another milestone. He approved a National Security Council policy paper, NSC 68, that certainly deserves to rank among America’s great state documents. If NSC 68 still is little known, much of the reason is that it was secret. It stated that up to 20 percent of our gross national product would go to support the military and that the United States would resist communist threats to noncommunist nations anywhere in the world.

NSC 68 was a political document written to fit the times, yet it dealt with far more than the issues of the day. It ushered in the national security state, elevating the Pentagon to the center of our peacetime concern. This document thus broke decisively with the policies we had pursued since our earliest days, which had granted only the most minimal role to our peacetime armed forces. It would stand as the foundation for a regime that we had never before tolerated, one that would maintain a large and permanent military establishment in the absence of war. Yet it came forth in secrecy and little public debate. The threat that spawned it appeared that serious.

Two months after Truman initialed “approved” to NSC 68, we were at war in Korea. The stakes were clear: resistance to open communist aggression, security for Japan. However, these stakes did not require that we push northward and conquer all of North Korea. General MacArthur, the theater commander, wanted to; so did Syngman Rhee, president of South Korea. Through third-party sources Washington was receiving warnings that China would intervene if we did. Truman went ahead anyway and soon found that there was no hope of bringing the boys home for Christmas. Instead we were trapped in a war that we could neither win nor end. It took three years before the fighting ended in an armistice.

Today, with the Cold War over, we are in the midst of another era of sweeping change.

It is twenty-twenty hindsight to say that American forces should have gone no farther than the thirty-eighth parallel in Korea, leaving South Korean troops to seize a line from Pyongyang to Wonsan. Far more culpable was the work of John Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara a decade later. Kennedy’s willingness to “pay any price, bear any burden” expressed the purest essence of NSC 68 but not of American interests. The result was the war in Vietnam.

As in 1898, we had prepared for war in time of peace, and we were willing to fight a war because we were so well prepared for it. Certainly few could doubt that we were ready. We faced no shortage of manpower; a peacetime draft was the law of the land, even though such a thing was virtually unheard of in our history.

We had always had our arsenals and military bases, but now entire industries came to rely on Pentagon appropriations, along with important sections of the country. The aerospace industry fattened on those dollars, and as it grew, so did Southern California, its principal center. The South also benefited; its culture was strongly patriotic and pro-military to begin with, and it had the advantage of a host of powerful senior representatives and senators. The folks back home appreciated their work. They repeatedly re-elected such barons as Congressman Mendel Rivers, who brought home the bacon and then ran in the election under the slogan “Rivers Delivers.”

It was no new thing for a powerful force to stand at the ready, preparing for a war that it might never fight. Between the two world wars, for instance, our battleships spent most of their time in harbor as their crews chipped rust. But the Cold War was different; it put a strong emphasis on preparedness, and now there was enough money around to put real muscle into this policy. Fleets of bombers stood on alert, with part of the force remaining airborne at all times. Naval skippers vied to spend time at sea. Army divisions carried out maneuvers and exercises, including in time the annual Reforger operation, in which a powerful force would fly to Germany, match up with pre-positioned tanks and other equipment, and then go tearing around the countryside. Even the divisiveness of Vietnam did little to change this state of affairs. There was every reason to think it would go on ndefinitely.

On an evening in August 1914, as the British cabinet prepared for war, Sir Edward Grey, the foreign minister, stood with a friend in Whitehall and watched through a window as the lamplighters made their rounds. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

The war Grey saw gathering was every bit as fearsome as his worst imaginings could have made it, and its unprecedented destruction led to a punitive peace, a greater war, and a three-quarters-century struggle to maintain a Marxist state in Europe. Grey was right; a baby born that evening would have been seventy-five years old before the lights came on again. But in 1989 the lamps did come on, as communist dictatorships collapsed throughout Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall came down. During the next two years communism fell within the Soviet Union itself. Russia re-emerged, under its czarist flag and with borders astonishingly close to those of three centuries earlier. Almost as suddenly as in 1949, the world’s tectonic plates shifted; the basis for our policy disappeared. It was not true, after all, that the East-West struggle would hold an endemic and centuries-long character. Seventy-five years of war and threat of war were at an end; as in 1815, the world could look forward to a long peace.

Now, amid the early stirrings of this peace, we feel anew the old urge not to maintain large standing armies or extensive military establishments. As recently as 1986, at the peak of President Reagan’s build-up, the Pentagon took 6.5 percent of our gross national product. Within the present decade the percentage may fall to half of this. And as we look ahead to a prolonged era of peace, we ask again the old questions: What sort of military force should we support? What, finally, do we need?

In addressing these issues, a useful point of departure lies in noting that the greatest danger of war lies where volatile nationalism erupts within a region that is central to our interests. The Middle East represents the clearest example of such a region. For as far into the future as we can see, we must anticipate that America, Japan, and Europe all will rely on its oil.

This combination, joining volatility with vital interest, provides a historical context for the 1991 Gulf War. And that war offers more, for it stands as an example of the “nth-country problem”: In a world where the major powers all work for peace, a small nation, such as Iraq, may gain a wholly disproportionate level of importance by wielding military force that others are unwilling to counter.

Additional danger of American involvement may arise from local conflicts, such as the present civil war in Bosnia. Such small-scale wars do not directly engage our national interest. But they can powerfully engage the widespread belief that our nation is special, that we have a historical mission, and that we must intervene to lead the world to justice and right. This strain of militant idealism runs deep; President Wilson drew on it in 1917, and certainly we have not seen the last of his successors.

Short of outright war or intervention, our force levels will also show the influence of deterrence, of policies that can maintain an armed peace. Here too we may see new initiatives, and these could reflect a third theme: the desire of economically strong powers to build a commensurate military strength. The outstanding potential example is Japan.

That nation relies on a life line: a stream of tankers in continual motion, traversing ten thousand miles to reach the Persian Gulf. To ensure the safety of this traffic, Tokyo depends on the U.S. Navy. Yet Japan could readily take on a prickly nationalism, akin to that of France under Charles de Gaulle. Like the Philippines, which has recently demanded American withdrawal from Subie Bay, Japan could refuse continued U.S. naval presence at Yokosuka and instead set about building its own naval force.

Such a build-up would raise concern in the other regional powers, China and Russia. China remembers all too well the Japanese conquests of World War II. Russia, for its part, remains aware that it holds Vladivostok and the Far East largely through the thin thread of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Both powers, then, would find it highly prudent to match Japan’s build-up with similar naval programs of their own. And with the pot aboil in the northwest Pacific, we would increase our own regional forces, to intervene as an ally against any aggressor and to preserve the peace.


In restructuring our forces to meet such challenges, our peacetime military today confronts a new prospect. For a generation we have faced the need to fight and win a global war. But the new challenges are regional, representing a vastly lessened threat. We may define our ground and air forces in the light of the nth-country problem, as we plan to fight a future Saddam Hussein—or two at once, as the Pentagon proposes to be ready to do. Similarly we may structure our Navy so as to support such a regional war, while maintaining the peace in a separate region such as the northwest Pacific.

With this we have reached a new milestone. As we face it, we can recall the developments that have marked our armed forces during the past two centuries. We can remember the events that led us to build a minimal navy and an army suited largely for fighting Indians. Then came West Point and the rise of professionalism; the younger Mahan and the modern Navy; air power and the advent of modern technology; NSC 68 and that historical anomaly the national-security state.

Today we are in the midst of a similar moment of sweeping change, as we shift from an era of global threat to one of regionalism. We will no longer arm ourselves against a Soviet enemy that now is no more. But there are words of Plato that Britain learned during its century of relative peace and that we may learn anew in the next: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

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