The history of arguments against an over-reaching military go back to at least the first world war, when Senator Gerald P. Nye called those in power “merchants of death” for supporting a war that helped few or no American interests beyond pumping money into the military economy. Nye believed the cart could pull the horse with the munitions industry pushing for more war. “The removal of the element of profit from war,” said Nye in January 1934, “would materially remove the danger of more war.” Nye’s focus was on keeping America out of war and saving American lives, but implicit in his words is the idea that reduced war spending reserves funding for other projects or emergencies.
Historically, the most notable proponent of the smaller, streamlined military was Dwight Eisenhower. President Eisenhower, a conservative Republican and former general, took up the theme in his 1953 State of the Union address. “Our problem is to achieve adequate military strength within the limits of endurable strain upon our economy,” he said. “To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.” What use is it to have a powerful military when the nation goes bankrupt? Ike practiced what he preached. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957, Eisenhower fought back against cries to increase spending for space exploration, recognizing that the space race was little more than a symbolic extension of the Cold War.
Eisenhower picked up on what Nye had warned about a generation earlier, and grew to see military contractors as “a self-interested, malign actor in the budget process,” according to author James Ledbetter. And on January 17, 1961, he made his most memorable speech wherein he warned that we must be on guard against a “military-industrial complex” (MIC) having “unwarranted influence” over our nation’s power. Eisenhower was conservative in the true sense of the word — he understood the need to keep the federal government from growing, including the Pentagon budget. This was a man who, when Commander-in-Chief, quickly ended our exploits in Korea and considered “defense” to include the construction of an interstate highway system — something that has benefited the country’s citizens and aided in our economic growth. The best national security is financial security.
JFK, a Democrat, turned Eisenhower on his head and raised Pentagon spending from $45.3 billion in 1960 to $52.1 billion in 1962, during an official time of peace. The space budget was also multiplied from $400 million in 1960 to $5 billion in 1965 under the pretext of beating the Communists. Thus space, which ought to be seen as science, was an unofficial extension of the military budget because we could use our enemies to justify our expenses. The Commies beat us to space, but they could never beat us to the moon. (Today, NASA is funded through the Defense Department, and receives approximately $18 billion.)
A decade later the outlook would shift again, but only very briefly. In 1977, following the Vietnam conflict, President Jimmy Carter began his presidency with what historian Michael Sherry called “a determination to break from America’s militarized past.” For example, he canceled the construction of B-1 bombers. However, the dream died with the election of Ronald Reagan. Increased defense spending in the Reagan years brought the MIC back into prominence. Whether a Republican or Democrat has occupied the Oval Office, the defense budget has grown ever since.
State Department veteran and Russian diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in his preface to Norman Cousins’ 1987 book The Pathology of Power, “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.” We know, of course, that the fall of the Soviet Union did nothing to stop our military growth and it was revealed that the Cold War was an excuse and not a reason for such growth. New excuses were quickly invented: Iraq, Kosovo, terrorism and more. Kennan, like many times before, was right. We do not have a military in order to protect us, but we exaggerate or invent threats in order to have a military.
Defense spending increases often fuel private, rather than national, interests. President Clinton loved to use aircraft manufacturer Boeing as an example of commercial success. He had to be aware of the irony, knowing full well that Boeing would have gone bankrupt without federal subsidies that exist to this day. A series of cables show how US diplomats and senior politicians have intervened on the company’s behalf to help boost sales. In 2007 and 2008 the company benefited from over $10 billion in long-term loan guarantees, helping finance the purchase of their commercial aircraft in countries including Brazil, Canada, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. By pushing for a “defense” loan or subsidy, we have funneled money into private hands, expanding business operations worldwide. In essence, we are paying Boeing and others to create more goods and services for us to purchase — we are paying for everything twice.
By the time of the Bush Administration, the ghost of Eisenhower had been excised completely from the White House. President Bush responded to 9/11 in a number of ways, including expanding the federal government by creating an entirely new department: Homeland Security. Instead of working under existing powers for defending our country such as the Department of Defense, more were created, increasing spending yet again and likely making information sharing an even bigger headache than it was already known to be. One could argue that hiring more people to defend the country is a sound investment, but creating arbitrary cabinet positions and expanding bureaucracy is not easily explained. Yet, it has happened, and even the most useless government jobs have a way of justifying their existence.
Eisenhower had pointed out there was a difference between spending on security and security itself. This lesson has not yet been learned, as our financial crises have damaged the country in a far greater way than terrorists ever could. While America is not, in the words of Governor Scott Walker, “broke”, it is certainly in a great deal of debt and financial instability. The housing bust is not a distant memory, nor is the rampant unemployment over. The falling of two towers will stick in our minds forever, but even that catastrophe pales in comparison to millions of Americans out of work, losing their homes and not able to afford medical bills. Our greatest enemy is our own foolish spending and short-sighted policy.
The 2011 Federal Budget has $1.4 trillion allocated for military expenditures, and only $1.13 trillion on all social programs combined (Social Security, low income housing, food stamps, etc.). While those who argue we spend too much on welfare are probably correct, the claim that welfare is the primary drain on our economy is dead wrong. Americans spend more on the military than any time since World War II, and more than twice as much — even when adjusted for inflation — as we did in 1961. We spend more than the next ten countries combined, while having only a small fraction of the world’s population. All this, and a border consisting of two oceans and two friendly nations — not exactly a threatening wilderness. Journalist Chris Hedges wrote, “The United States is becoming a militaristic state, dismantling its democratic freedoms and gutting its social services in the name of national security.” Hedges is wrong — we are not “becoming” such a state, we are already there.
And yet there is hope. Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has proposed a $78 billion trim to defense spending over 10 years, which was deemed “modest” by the Associated Press. I would call it a whisper on a scream, as I would argue for more than his ten-year amount each year, but this was still a bold step for Ryan to take. On April 18, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich spoke out against our spending priorities, saying, “At a time when our nation continues to experience significant economic hardship, we continue to drive the Pentagon’s budget through the roof and continue trillions in long-term spending for war. It seems that the United States has plenty of time to impose itself onto the business of other nations, but little time to take care of things here at home. We invest in war instead of investing in Americans by helping with job creation, universal health care, clean energy, and early childhood education.” Eisenhower could not have said it better himself.