February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
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.