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Defense Spending

July 2024
16min read

Because it is February, members of Congress will shortly have in their hands the proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1. It promises to be the largest financial, outlay in our history, and the arguments have already begun that certain portions of it must be cut. If the past is any guide, much of the criticism will center on the defense budget. For while certain analysts maintain that the current level of military spending is barely adequate to support the nation’s dejenses and that savings must come from the government’s social programs, others hold that the Department of Defense has received a disproportionate share of federal moneys over the last twenty-eight years and that if cutbacks are required, the defense budget is the place to begin. We present here a review of military spending and how it has grown.

Accustomed as we are to seeing ourselves as a peaceloving people—“we Americans,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “are not destroyers, we are builders”—it is always sobering to confront our historic infatuation with war. To a greater degree than we are perhaps aware, ours is also a martial history, and tokens of that military past are everywhere around us—not simply remembered in the soldiers’ and sailors’ monuments that stand in every city and town. Our national symbols are almost all connected with war: from the Spirit of 76 and Washington crossing the Delaware to the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. So, too, is much of our art (Remington, say, or the early Winslow Homer), our music (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camp songs of the Civil War, or Sousa’s marches), our literature ( The Red Badge of Courage, The Naked and the Dead ), and our holidays (Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day). Our heroes also—though they have often been chosen for qualities going beyond the soldierly—Washington, for example, or Lee, Pershing, and Eisenhower. If nothing else, the precision marching of our high-school and university bands reminds us that the military tradition has been central to our growth as a nation.

That this should be the case is remarkable, for the Founding Fathers developed a profound distaste for war and military ways, and among the many lessons they took from their reading of the past was the assurance that a standing army and a free people were incompatible. As Benjamin Franklin warned in 1784, “an Army is a devouring monster.…It seems to me that if statesmen had a little more arithmetic, or were more accustomed to calculation, wars would be much less frequent.”

Franklin wrote at a time when the United States had a government barely worthy of the name, no foreign connections to speak of, and except for eighty guards no army at all. Some months earlier the last of the Continental units from the Revolution had been disbanded, and like others among his contemporaries Franklin hoped they would never be called to arms again.

But within a year of his writing, his hopes were dashed. Indian troubles along the frontier required the formation of the First American Regiment—three companies of infantry, totalling seven hundred men. They were drawn as volunteers from four states, and although nominally under state control they were nonetheless a federal army raised and financed by Congress.

At no time since have we been without a formal military organization. The results are striking:

  • •In the two hundred years since 1775 we have spent a total of thirty-five years fighting major wars—that is, roughly one year of war for every 5.7 years of our existence as a nation.
  • •In addition we have fought more than a hundred limited campaigns, including the quasi-naval war with France in 1797-99, the Barbary Wars, the Indian wars of the nineteenth century, the Philippine Insurrection after 1899, and various Latin-American expeditions through 1965.
  • •In the last thirty years we have been involved in twenty-five major international crises, not counting Korea or Vietnam, in which American forces were placed on standby alert (as in the Middle East last year) or in which we supplied arms, matériel, and military advisers (as in the Greek civil war of 1946-49) or intervened directly (as in Lebanon in 1958).
  • •The cost of these military activities over two hundred years is conservatively estimated at two trillion twentytwo billion dollars through fiscal 1974. This represents roughly 56 per cent of all federal outlays since 1789.
  • •In the last twenty-eight years, beginning in 1946, we have spent in excess of $1.3 trillion on national security alone; this compares to $1.6 trillion spent by the federal government for all nonmilitary goods and services since 1789.

The plain fact is that an extraordinary part of our national energy and wealth in recent years has been devoted to war or to the prevention of war, and the immediate future is not likely to bring any significant change. In the current fiscal year (now six months old) we will spend more than $100 billion for national security and veterans’ benefits, at a per capita cost in excess of $450. Between sixty and sixty-five cents of every federal tax dollar will go to the military—a figure that has remained relatively constant through the last fifteen years. This money will support a worldwide military establishment numbering 2.1 million men and women, a “ready reserve” totalling 915,000, salaries and benefits for 1,028,000 civilian employees, as well as some 3 million additional wage earners in defense industries. It will maintain more than 450 major and 1,600 minor military posts in the United States and her possessions and about 300 major bases and 2,000 minor posts, including units protecting embassies, in 119 nations overseas.

For the 44 per cent of our population born since Harry Truman left office in 1953, the presence of a peacetime army of this magnitude will seem entirely normal. But in fact its existence and its impact on our society represent a distinct departure from an American way of life that had its roots in the colonial period and lasted until World War II .

Beginning with the Declaration of Independence, in which George in was condemned in four separate clauses for misusing military power, and continuing through the drafting of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers displayed a deep-seated distrust of a standing army and all it represented. “Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a body distinct from the rest of the citizens,” Samuel Adams warned in 1776. “They have their arms always in their hands. Their rules and their discipline is severe. They soon become attached to their officers and disposed to yield implicit obedience to their commands. Such a power should be watched with a jealous eye.” From the outset of the Revolution Congress placed the generals in a subordinate position, from which they have never escaped. As John Adams told Horatio Gates, “we don’t choose to trust you generals, with too much power, for too long [a] time.” Since then ultimate military authority has always rested in the civil arm: first with the President as Commander in Chief and next with the constitutional prohibition on army budgets for longer than two years.

Civilian control is the first great principle of American military policy and perhaps more than any other thing has been responsible for mitigating the otherwise oppressive effects that might have come from our preoccupation with war. Except for the abortive Newburgh Addresses in 1783, which threatened an officers’ mutiny—and which in fact merely prove the rule—we have never been even close to a military coup d’état, a condition among major powers in modern times that we share only with England.

So effectively was this principle embedded in the American system that to all intents and purposes the military was removed from the political sphere entirely, and whatever weight the generals carried in Congress came—and comes—from their acknowledged expertise as servants of the Republic rather than from any threat to use the forces they command to achieve their ends. And those who have succeeded to the Presidency are no exception. Indeed, the record suggests that the professional soldiers in the White House, like Washington and Eisenhower, were often tougher on military budgetary requests and more jealous custodians of civilian control than some of their colleagues who had followed a civilian route to the executive office.

Over the years no officer class emerged as a potent force in American life; and except in the South, where the chivalric tradition accorded them a status denied them elsewhere, peacetime officers, especially, enjoyed neither special privilege nor prestige in the civilian world. Nor have soldiers’ organizations like the G.A.R., the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Legion posed a particular threat to our constitutional processes. Mass—not class—groups, openly nonelitist, they have pursued political action essentially for improved pensions and veterans’ services and not for the overthrow of the government.

In the absence of a powerful military caste the American military tradition down to the present has been pervaded by what Henry Steele Commager calls the amateur spirit. Born in the legends of Lexington and Concord, bolstered by the Battle of New Orleans, and reinforced by nearly every war since, the “minuteman” or “Cincinnati” myth holds that Americans will eagerly rally in time of war to defend the state, that untrained though they may be, with virtue, God, and innocence on their side they will easily subdue the finest professional troops thrown against them.

Firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—and to a degree justified in a frontier society where virtually every man had a weapon at hand and knew how to use it—the myth had two significant effects on our military policy down to World War II . The first was to keep the professional army at minimal levels of manpower and readiness, and it became axiomatic that American troops entered each successive war with the weapons and tactics of the last. At a time when government spending in all areas was low, military spending until 1939 hovered around 1 per cent of the gross national product. (In recent years it has gone as high as 10 per cent.)

The second effect of the myth is still with us and, perhaps as much as any single factor can, explains the opposition that was mounted against the war in Vietnam, as opposition was mounted earlier against the war with Mexico and the war with Spain. Throughout our history we have had a deep social and psychological tradition that ours are defensive wars and that unless the defensive character of any war can be unequivocally demonstrated, the nation will not unite behind it. De Toqueville, for instance, was convinced that democracies expect a moral content in their wars because right, not might, must prevail. It is no accident that General Eisenhower titled his memoirs of the Second World War Crusade in Europe . And it well may be that President Johnson’s significant failure after 1965 was his inability to convince his countrymen that such a crusade was now to be mounted in Southeast Asia. For despite the record of American military involvement since the nation began, the perception prevailed that we were a peaceful people and, on balance, had consistently used our power for just and moral ends.

That conviction remains, but like other elements of our military tradition that were nurtured in a world neither technologically complex nor especially intrusive on the United States, it has undergone a shift in emphasis.

Nineteen thirty-nine is the watershed year. Until then our active-duty forces had been kept to relatively modest levels—an average of 276,000 in the decade after 1930, a little more than one tenth our current strength. But as war clouds gathered in Europe the general staff persuaded a reluctant Congress to authorize a total of 335,000 men in the Army, Navy, and Marines. It was the second largest peacetime force in history (the force in 1921 was slightly larger); and if its size stirred some concern, the public took comfort in the knowledge that no soldiers were stationed on foreign soil, the nation had no military treaties of any kind anywhere in the world, and for the moment the threat of peacetime conscription was only talk. The armedservices budget stood at $1.3 billion—again a record—representing slightly more than 15 per cent of the total federal budget of $8.8 billion and a little more than 1 per cent of the gross national product. Veterans’ benefits cost $417 million. Except for some small shipyards no industry in the country was dependent upon the military for survival, and according to one story (probably apocryphal) the Navy that year was prevented from hiring a civilian chemist because it already had one on its payroll.

Despite the threat of war in Europe (by late summer it had begun) and the increase in forces, America was singularly unprepared. Speaking to the American Historical Association in December, General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, said bluntly that the military’s readiness for effective action was less than 25 per cent because of manpower and equipment shortages. Modernization, he added, was long overdue. (In the full-scale all-army maneuvers the next year some units were observed using iron pipes labelled “cannon” and trucks bearing signs as “tanks” because the real things were in short supply. In the budget hearings for 1940 the House Appropriations Committee cut the armed-services budget by 10 per cent across the board, refused to consider a proposed air base in Alaska, and removed all but 57 of the 166 planes Marshall requested for the Army Air Force.) If Marshall was frustrated, his lot was no different from that of any other peacetime officer, because Congress had traditionally—and too often belatedly—opened the nation’s treasury to the military only in the event of war.

In 1939 America was firmly wrapped in a blanket of isolation, a majority of the public confident that war in Europe was no concern of ours. For two centuries we had been sustained by the “two-ocean concept“—that the continent was protected from invasion by the vastness of the Atlantic and the Pacific—and were certain that should an enemy force appear, millions of American men would rush to arms.

By the end of World War II , however, our political and geographic isolation was at an end, changed forever by nuclear and rocket technology and altered by the profound shifts in the balance of power the war had produced. The martial legacy of the Revolution was, by itself, no longer enough to defend the nation from attack. For the first time in our history we continued military conscription in peacetime and maintained armed forces at levels upward of 1.4 million men and women a year. We abandoned the tradition of unpreparedness and took as our first principle the necessity to be ready for any eventuality. As our second principle we adopted the primary lessons of World War II : that modern wars were won by logistics and supply, that hardware as much as manpower carried the battlefield, and that research and development of ever more powerful weapons systems was the key to victory. In short, we resolved to apply the elements of American industrial and scientific technology to the conduct of war.

In addition, we joined these new principles of warfare to a sharply altered foreign policy. The two-ocean concept that had been so long the controlling feature of our diplomacy was dead; and where we had once worked strenuously to avoid entanglement with other nations, we now actively sought to lead what we called the free world. Beginning with the Marshall Plan for economic recovery in war-devastated Europe and the Truman Doctrine for military assistance in Greece and Turkey, we constructed a network of alliances, signed mutual-assistance pacts, and spread ourselves through the world until, by 1974, we were joined to nearly fifty other nations in defense commitments.

The result, of course, has been a steadily rising military budget. But there have been other, more subtle changes as well. For the first time in our history a significant number of industrial complexes, wholly dependent on the military for contracts and survival, have come into existence. At the present time between 4 and 6 per cent of our civilian work force is employed in defense industries. Since 1960 more than half of all scientific research and roughly 60 per cent of all scientists employed in the private sector have been financed, entirely or in part, by Defense Department funds. Adding in the members of the armed forces and the civilian employees assigned to Defense (who constitute, by the way, 39 per cent of the federal bureaucracy), this means that slightly more than 10 per cent of all persons employed in the United States currently owe their jobs to the military. Equally significant, some twenty-five states receive between 8 and 12 per cent of their gross income from defense-related industries or from the presence of large defense installations.

In 1975 the greater part of federal aid to education at the primary and secondary levels will go to 4,600 school districts in federally “impacted” areas, that is, districts where some two million children—the bulk of them in service families—live on federally owned and hence untaxed property. Not part of the military budget, the $340 million thus expended by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare is nonetheless in large part a hidden cost of our current military establishment. And as Jack Raymond of the New York Times has pointed out, the economic penetration of the military extends even to the nation’s florists: the American Battle Monuments Commission, which maintains twenty-three military cemeteries on foreign soil and three memorials in the United States (at a cost in 1975 of $5.4 million), spends some $10,000 a year from trust funds to decorate graves and monuments.

Direct military spending since World War II exceeds 11.3 trillion. In the last fifteen years this translates to an average 8.9 per cent of the gross national product and, linked to veterans’ benefits, to an average 40 per cent of all federal outlays. In the same fifteen-year period the United States alone accounted for between 36 and 42 per cent of the world’s total military expenditures. (The best guess is that the Soviet Union annually spends upward of 10 per cent of its G.N.P. on the military and that it accounts for more than 25 per cent of the world’s expenditures for defense. Comparisons are difficult, however, and often misleading, because the economies of the United States and Russia are not directly comparable; the Russian budget practices are different from our own, and many military expenditures we report—notably in research and development—go unreported in the U.S.S.R.)

Behind this enormous spending lie four strategic concepts that have been developed since 1945 to reduce the country’s vulnerability to attack as a result of technological change and to meet the requirements of our postwar activist foreign policy. Foremost among them is the concept that we must simultaneously be prepared to defend against an all-out nuclear attack and, given that contingency, to respond with massive retaliation. The key is the creation of a nuclear arsenal so vast and a delivery system so awesome that no enemy would dare to launch an all-out effort—to produce, in short, a nuclear stand-off by matching or exceeding the Soviet Union in missile and nuclear capability. Now described in the macabre argot of the military as the MAD program (for Mutual Assured Destruction), this concept is perhaps best symbolized by “Looking Glass,” an instrument-packed C -135 that flies twenty-four hours a day, with a full general on board at all times, from the Strategic Air Command base at Omaha. It is linked directly by radio to both the Pentagon and the White House and in the event of nuclear attack would become the command post for retaliation. At that point “Looking Glass,” according to the Defense Department scenario, would begin the “Doomsday Flight.”

The second concept is based on the premise that a nuclear stand-off exists but that the possibility of limited tactical use of nuclear weapons remains. Thus in the fiscal-year 1975 budget Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger proposed that attention be given to FTO (Flexible and Selective Targeting Options)—also known as Counterforce—at a start-up cost of $310 million. What is called for is a refinement of existing missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads to pinpoint specific limited targets—Soviet missile silos, for example—and the development of more flexible weapons than we now possess.

Of lesser importance strategically but expensive nonetheless, the third concept calls for the development of elaborate and technologically complex defensive systems like the DEW line (Distant Early Warning Line), composed of radar and other electronic detection devices, and the aborted ABM , or Antiballistic Missile System.

Finally, the postwar military remained firmly committed to a massive land force, distinguishable from its pre-World War II counterpart by greater mobility and increased firepower from improved conventional weapons. Such an army would be prepared to fight limited “brush-fire” actions, be flexible enough to move rapidly by air to somewhat larger conflicts in a matter of days, and at the same time be equipped to undertake the huge land wars of the past. Consequently it was essential to maintain both a sizable standing army of professionals and a ready reserve in the National Guard.

Whatever the merits of any one of these programs, the Department of Defense did not concentrate on a single concept but has in recent years developed all four at once, choosing to maintain, for example, both a massive air force and a massive land army, though the existence of one may very well obviate the necessity of the other. The result has been a steady escalation of costs and a tendency to prepare for any contingency, however remote the possibility of its occurrence may be. Thus in the last fifteen years both the Air Force and the Army have independently developed missile systems, each of which by itself would have provided sufficient retaliatory power to meet the nation’s needs. Moreover, all services have developed some weapons systems that have proved to be unreliable or unworkable; the Snark subsonic missile, the Sky-bolt, the B -70, the B -58, and other systems have all failed to meet the expectations their proponents had promised—at a cost, according to a congressional estimate, in excess of $50 billion, a figure roughly equal to all military expenditures from 1789 to 1940 including the cost of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War I .

To be sure, current budget practices have reduced some of the waste and some of the duplication that marked defense spending in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Cost overruns in research and development reached levels of 200 and 300 per cent in the fifteen years after World War II ; by the end of the Kennedy administration overruns had been reduced to an average of 40 per cent in completed programs and to 90 per cent in development.

But what one writer calls modernization inflation remains. The current cost of building planes is fifteen to twenty times greater than in 1954, and although the new planes are technologically superior to the earlier ones, with greater firepower and greater effectiveness, there has been no reduction in the number of planes in an airforce wing. Similarly, the pre-World War II Navy was assigned fifteen capital ships in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921, which established the size of the world’s navies. In 1974 it continues to maintain the same number, but now they are aircraft carriers rather than battleships. These in turn are being replaced by nuclearpowered carriers, of which the last completed, U.S.S. Nimitz , cost $635 million. (The Eisenhower , currently being built, is estimated at $679 million; the unnamed CVN -70, still in development, is tentatively priced at $956 million.) Despite the greater speed and carrying capacity of these vessels, however, the Navy has no plans to reduce the size of its capital fleet. Indeed, supported by Jane’s Fighting Ships , the authoritative guide to the world’s navies, the Defense Department argues that the Russians are very close to achieving naval supremacy, if they have not already achieved it; and the chief of naval operations has warned that the reduction of the fleet from 434 major combat vessels, including submarines, in 1968 to 273 in 1975 has left us dangerously vulnerable.

Although every Secretary of Defense in recent years has argued that his budget is “austere”—as Mr. Schlesinger did in 1974—all have been ready to admit that no one can say with certainty what constitutes enough spending for national security. Each has been conscious of our worldwide commitments, ranging from the ring of armed forces around the Soviet Union to the possibility (for which we are prepared) of fighting two and a half wars—for example, a major conflict in Asia, a major war in Europe, and a “brush-fire” war somewhere else. Whether we should be so involved is a question only Congress can resolve, and thus far it has shown no disposition to face such hard questions as the necessity of maintaining more than 330,000 troops—and their 220,000 dependents—in Europe at an annual cost of more than $11 billion or the need for adding further to a nuclear capacity that according to Mr. Schlesinger is already so great that

even after a more brilliantly executed and devastating attack than we believe our potential adversaries could deliver, the United States would retain the capability to kill more than 30 per cent of the Soviet population and destroy more than 75 per cent of Soviet industry.

Until Congress systematically confronts the issues, the military budget will continue to mount, and unless mutual disarmament with the Soviet Union comes, we will annually expend upward of 6 per cent of our G.N.P. and 35 per cent of all federal outlays to support, as we do at the present time:

Perhaps the moneys could be better spent in other ways —but perhaps not, for the choices are not easy and they cannot be reduced to a simple “guns versus butter” argument. But on this one point the record is clear: twentyeight years of extraordinary military spending have yet to establish the sense of security the expenditures were expected to provide, and it seems that in a nuclear age money alone may not offer a lasting solution to the question of national defense.

The statistical sources for this article were: U.S. Bureau of the Census: Historical Statistics of the United States…Revised to 1962 and The Statistical Abstract…1974 ; U.S. Department of Defense: Report of the Secretary of Defense , selected years through fiscal year 1975; Executive Office of the President: The Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 1975 .

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