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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
World War II had already given the nation a massive bureaucratic state; the Cold War kept it intact. The National Security Act of 1947 ensured that the large defense establishment formed in World War II would also endure more or less permanently. It established the triumvirate that shaped U.S. security policy throughout the Cold War: the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and what became in 1949 the Department of Defense. So large a peacetime security establishment would have been unthinkable before 1939. Everywhere Hamilton’s vision of government was triumphant, Jefferson’s in full retreat.
Harold Lasswell, a prominent scholar, warned in 1950 that the Cold War might turn the United States into “a garrison-police state” dominated by specialists on violence. The litany of Cold War repression by the federal government during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—the Taft-Hartley Act, the McCarran Internal Security and Immigration acts, the McCarthy allegations, the purging of China experts in the State Department, the blacklisting of American writers and film producers—at least partly vindicated his viewpoint. The worst abuses ceased after the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954, but federal repressive activities continued throughout the Cold War. One by-product of increased state power was the proliferation of background investigations for federal employees, uniformed service personnel, and industrial and transport concerns linked with national security. During World War II an estimated 100 federal employees were dismissed and 30 resigned as a result of background investigations; from 1947 to 1956 there were 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 security-related resignations. By 1958 some 9.8 million Americans were subject to background investigations, loyalty oaths, or security-clearance procedures. There was nothing even remotely comparable in American history prior to 1945.
If any conflict of the Cold War era marked an exception to the pattern of federal power growing stronger as a result of war, it was the war in Vietnam. The long-term effects of the war, especially after the fall of Saigon in 1975, were politically debilitating: Executive power was eroded, the American polity divided, and national self-confidence badly shaken. The later years of the war witnessed the worst domestic disorder in the United States since the Civil War. Acutely aware of the potential of Vietnam to undermine its reform agenda, the Johnson administration tried valiantly to escalate slowly, keep the war limited, and hide its true costs from the public. The war and the Great Society were not entirely unrelated events, however; the architects of both—Johnson, his cabinet, and his top advisers—embodied a supreme statism, the spirit of American invincibility that had reigned since 1945, a can-do confidence in the capacity of government to accomplish anything, whether ending poverty at home, creating safe hamlets in Vietnam, or waging counterinsurgency with search-and-destroy missions, bombing raids, and infiltration-detection devices.
In the early years of the war, particularly 1965 and 1966, public and congressional support for the war remained fairly high; the imperial Presidency instigating the most far-reaching welfare reforms in the nation’s history was not yet weakened by the war and may even have been strengthening by the tendency of power to flow to the Presidency during wartime. The vote by which the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed (416-0 in the House; 98-2 in the Senate) and Johnson’s phenomenal legislative record in the Eightyninth Congress that followed (181 measures passed out of 200 requested) reflect a Presidency at the apex of its power in both foreign and domestic affairs. It was only after the Tet Offensive, in 1968, when popular support for the Vietnam War plummeted, that Executive power and social reform were seriously undercut. More than twenty years later the nation’s phenomenal success in the Persian Gulf War could still only partly erase the loss of national self-confidence left behind by the war in Vietnam. It is a singular reminder of how war can weaken a state as well as strengthen it.
Throughout American history two visions of government have competed: the Hamiltonian vision of a strong, centralized, militarily powerful state and the Jeffersonian vision of a limited one, where human liberty is the highest ideal. Periods of war have favored the former vision; periods of peace, the latter. Yet as far as the growth and development of the national government are concerned, the long-term impact of America’s wars has clearly proved dominant. Indeed, in considering the expansion of the federal government and the enormous accretion of state power since the Civil War, it is tempting to conclude that the Hamiltonian vision has triumphed unconditionally.