- Historic Sites
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
- •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.