Defense Spending

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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: