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The Warfare State
A scholar searches across two centuries to discover the main engine of our government’s growth—and reaches a controversial conclusion
July/August 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 4
Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835 that America had no neighbors and hence no enemies. Indeed, the New World Republic was the ultimate island power, with the Atlantic Ocean providing a protective moat nearly a hundred times as wide as the English Channel. The German philosopher Hegel, writing at about the same time as Toque, cited this isolation as one reason “a real State”—a powerful, centralized, European-style state—could never exist in America. Without constant threat, without the necessity of maintaining a standing army, the American republic was doomed to weakness and obscurity.
Hegel’s forecast of the American destiny was totally wrong, of course, but only because he could not foresee the remarkable extent to which the United States would become embroiled in wars, its isolation notwithstanding. Today, as we look back through more than two hundred years of history, it is clear that America’s wars have profoundly shaped its political course. War has been the primary impetus behind the growth and development of the national government, the lever by which Presidents and other national officials have bolstered the power of the state in the face of tenacious popular resistance. The United States has been at war for only thirty-four years, or about a sixth of its history. Yet during those wars or in their immediate after-maths, all but five cabinet departments and the vast majority of smaller agencies came into being. War made the American state.
One pattern has repeated itself plainly throughout American history: During war the national government grows strong and powerful; between wars it recedes in power and size, but never back to its pre-war level. The overall trend is upward.
War also helped forge an American nation. Our splendid isolation made the United States a natural sanctuary for generations of the most independent-minded, anti-statist Europeans and Asians, many of them fleeing war and despotism in their homelands. The diverse national and ethnic origins of the American people made the collective efforts entailed by war important in giving America a consciousness of itself as a unified nation. The historian Geoffrey Perrett argues that war for America was “a factor as important as geography, immigration, the growth of business, the separation of powers, the inventiveness of its people, or anything else” in shaping a unique American identity. War united Americans of diverse origins both on the battlefield and on the home front. It is no coincidence that every constitutional extension of the suffrage in American history—the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments—took place during or right after a great war.
Five wars in particular shaped the political destiny of the United States: the War of Independence, the Civil War, the two world wars, and the Cold War, which includes the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Other wars—the War of 1812, the war with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, and the Persian Gulf War—had lesser, but not insignificant, effects on the institutions and form of American government. And one pattern has repeated itself plainly throughout American history: During war the national government grows strong and powerful; between wars it recedes in power and size, but never back to its pre-war level. The overall trend is thus upward, with war the principal engine of growth. The remarkable effect of war on the rise of the American state is best illustrated by looking at the five conflicts mentioned above and contrasting their impact with that of the intervening years of peace.
The American War of Independence was only one event in a much larger American Revolution that took place between 1754 and 1801. Historians in recent decades—led by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood—have interpreted the Revolution largely in ideological terms. But ideas alone could not give birth to an independent state or cause an unalterable breach between the colonists and their fellow Britons. It was the coming of war with Britain that radicalized the propertied elites who led the Revolution, and war that infused the ideals of pamphleteers and philosophers into the hearts and minds of yeoman farmers, militiamen, and Continentals. Without the war there would have been no larger Revolution.
Before the war the ties of the individual colonies to their motherland was at least as strong as their ties to one another. Bloodshed rapidly dissolved the former and strengthened the latter. The unifying effect of the war became evident early in the selection of George Washington, a Southerner, to head American forces initially dominated by militias from the North. Meanwhile, reliance on the poorly trained and ill-disciplined militias of the several colonies proved politically divisive and militarily disastrous. As late as December 1776 Washington thought that Americans were wavering in their loyalties “as much owing to the want of an Army to look the Enemy in the Face, as to any other cause.” Fed up with the poor discipline of his troops, Washington pleaded for creation of a truly professional army, a body of well-drilled regulars who would remain in service for the duration of the war.