Debunking the Myth of the Military Industrial Complex and the Need for a Strong Military Budget

The idea of a military-industrial complex originated with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned in his farewell address of the increasing coziness between the state and vendors of war.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence economic, political, and even spiritual is felt in every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower’s words were apropos for the time. Military spending accounted for roughly 10 percent of American GDP in 1961, a staggering figure considering that the Second World War had been over for more than 15 years and the Korean War for nearly a decade. It was a time of relative peace, and yet big bucks for the defense industry. Since then, however, defense spending has steadily declined as a proportion of GDP, albeit with a few occasional upticks; by 2016 it had shrunk to just under 3.2 percent. In fact, it has only exceeded 5 percent four times since 2001, despite America’s involvement in two wars, and several war-like entanglements, over that period.

While these wars and engagements were certainly expensive in terms of real dollars, the steady decline of defense spending as a percentage of total economic output puts the lie to the idea of an all-powerful defense industry controlling the country’s purse strings. And while one can certainly make the argument that the federal government spends too much money on instruments of war and that that money is not always utilized efficiently the military’s shrinking fiscal footprint in terms of GDP should be celebrated, not disingenuously demonized.

But blind partisanship has made this particular truth inconvenient, so the leftist (and sometimes libertarian) effort to discredit the defense industry continues apace. A simple Internet image search for “defense spending meme” reveals numerous charts and diagrams purporting to show federal defense spending dominating the federal budget at the expense of nearly everything else.

These infographics are so prevalent, in fact, that left-leaning websites Politifact and have stepped in to point out the obvious fallacy that plagues them: They only reference “discretionary” spending, or what Congress spends via appropriations bills, which accounts for roughly one-third of the total federal budget. “Mandatory” spending — mostly on entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and the SNAP food-stamp program — accounts for the lion’s share of the budget. In 2015, for instance, defense spending consumed 54 percent of the discretionary spending, but only 16 percent of all federal spending.

Though I like Ike, his warning was way off the mark: the Democratic-entitlement complex is the real Leviathan threatening the integrity and spirit of America. In fact, while defense spending as a factor of GDP has steadily declined, welfare and entitlement spending has ballooned to nearly four times what it was when Ike began his second term. Social Security and Medicare alone consumed nearly three times more money than defense last year.

And that’s the good news. While advances in technology, and hopefully policy, may well continue to increase the efficiency of America’s defense spending, the costs of the entitlements beloved by Democrats are only set to increase. By 2047, the CBO projects that Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of all non-interest federal spending.

Don’t get me wrong: There is certainly plenty of room to streamline defense spending and reduce bureaucracy and backscratching in the Pentagon’s contracting processes. But furthering belief in an all-powerful military-industrial boogeyman serves no one, particularly given the current climate.

History has demonstrated time and time again America’s need for a robust, capable defense that nevertheless knows its own limits. Unfortunately, Trump has inherited a historically deficient military — a recent Heritage Foundation analysis rated America’s armed forces “marginal” — and a dangerous, fast-changing geopolitical landscape. Threats abound, from Russia to China to North Korea to ISIS, and Trump has pledged to increase military spending accordingly.

But that’s just good defense policy; it’s not the result of some sinister conspiracy.

The United States did not have a large defense industry for most of its history. Because threats were episodic rather than continuous, the traditional practice was to mobilize the commercial economy for war production when danger arose, and then demobilize when it had passed.

That all changed with the coming of the Cold War, because threats remained elevated for 40 years and policymakers decided the nation must be ready for war on short notice. So a sprawling defense sector dedicated to making advanced weapons came into being, which President Dwight Eisenhower memorably described in his farewell address on January 17, 1961, as the “military-industrial complex.”

That phrase became the basis for endless conspiracy theories about the undue influence that arms merchants supposedly exercised over government decisions. The theories typically argue that senior military officers, industry executives and key members of Congress collude to drive up weapons spending and distort national priorities.


Despite his military background — or perhaps because of it — President Eisenhower worried about arms makers and their supporters in government exercising undue influence.

Having spent my entire adult life working with the industry, I can testify to the fact that the conspiracy theories are not groundless. However, they are almost always an exaggeration of reality, and that has become more true with time. Today, the notion that a military-industrial complex is calling the shots in Washington has become laughable.

The federal budget only claims 22% of the economy, and defense in turn represents a mere one in every seven federal dollars (14% of the federal budget). Do the math, and it turns out that all that money Washington spends on the military only amounts to about 3% of the economy.

Furthermore, most of the defense budget is not spent on weapons, it is spent on items like military pay and benefits, training, maintenance and the like. The amount of money set aside for developing and procuring military equipment in the budget agreement Congress reached last week is $197 billion — a third of the $593 billion defense budget, and barely 1% of GDP (which stands at $19 trillion).

Granted, this may represent close to a tenth of all U.S. manufacturing, given the way so many industries have fled the U.S. for Mexico and Asia. But how much of a problem can the “military-industrial complex” be when it only represents 1% of the economy? Healthcare is 17%, but nobody refers the “healthcare-industrial complex.”

President Eisenhower may have had a valid point when he warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” The U.S. had never had a big peacetime defense industry before his administration, and military spending claimed 9% of the economy — and 52% of the federal budget — the year he made the remark.

That was pretty typical for the Eisenhower years, and Ike worried constantly about excessive military spending damaging the economy. Moreover, weapons spending was 44% of the defense budget in 1961, reflecting the fact that personnel costs were low thanks to conscription. But that changed with the coming of the All Volunteer Force in 1973, a Richard Nixon innovation fashioned at least in part to defuse opposition to Vietnam War policies.

After 1973, the military had to compete in the job market for skilled labor, and compensation increased accordingly. As the cost of military pay, healthcare and retirement benefits rose, the portion of the budget available for buying weapons declined. Ronald Reagan was the last big spender on military technology, with money for development and procurement totaling 46% of the defense budget at the height of his buildup in 1986.

That was nearly 3% of an economy that in inflation-adjusted terms was about half the size it is today. After Reagan, though, the Cold War ended and weapons spending went off a cliff. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney killed a hundred major weapons programs between 1989 and 1992. So the “military-industrial complex” shrunk by two-thirds, and became a much smaller factor in the nation’s economic life.

It has remained relatively small to this day, thanks to the fact that no matter which party controls the White House or Congress, military personnel and readiness always get funded ahead of weapons. With healthcare costs continuing to rise and military outlays capped by Congress since 2012, there just isn’t much money for buying weapons. As I often point out, the amount of money the Army gets for weapons each year is a fraction of what Americans spend on beer or cigarettes.

This probably isn’t going to change much under President Trump because he hasn’t made any moves to recruit the eight Senate Democrats he needs for the super majority of 60 votes that repeal of budget caps would require. With proposed tax cuts likely to balloon deficits and infrastructure spending waiting in the wings, there won’t be much funding in the defense budget for new weapons once personnel and readiness are covered.

So the idea of a military-industrial complex shaping federal priorities has become more myth than reality, the artifact of an era now long gone. Defense companies still lobby and they still do well by their shareholders, but they have ceased being the industrial colossus they once were. Trump might be well advised to spend more money on weapons as a way of stimulating manufacturing — the money will get spent here rather than overseas — but the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of is history.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be amazed at the way in which his term “military-industrial complex” has been abused. For example, Bill Moyers recently contended on his PBS show that the military-industrial complex was made up of those who “call for war … and then turn around and feed on the corpse of war.”

Ike coined the term in his 1961 farewell address to the nation, but with a very different purpose. He warned about the potential influence of a large complex, but his larger point — elaborated below — was that America was “compelled” to maintain an extensive, effective standing armaments industry. Critics forget that part.

The address was short — only 1,900 words — but Eisenhower made two explicit points: The Cold War was caused by communist aggression, not the greed of US defense contractors, and the existence of the military-industrial complex was vital, not insidious.

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three-and-a-half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for, the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of the federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

These passages describe the state of America’s economy at the time of Eisenhower’s speech. He saw his 1961 ‘MIC’ as part of an “imperative need” even though at the time, the US was spending more on “military security” than what the “US Corporations” ‘netted’ every year. (Which when you think about it, is not that surprising. Military Security is a whole sector of public spending. ‘Net’ profits are a small subset of the private sector.) By the time we complete ‘Part 2’ it will be obvious that not only did Eisenhower’s feared Military-Industrial Complex NOT materialize, his 1961 MIC atrophied into a shadow of its former economic presence. This real history unfolded not just through the relatively flattened or declining GDP proportions of military spending, but came about just as much, or more, through the growth of other parts of the economy.

Instead of the mythical Military-Industrial Complex, America’s defense has been and is still (perhaps too tenuously these days) supported by what we will refer to as a ‘National Defense Infrastructure’. From here on forward in these ‘MIC Myth’ posts I shall refer to the ‘MIC-that-never-happened’ as the Military-Industrial Complex (‘MIC’) and the MIC that actually came into being as the National Defense Infrastructure (‘NDI’).
We now proceed with the first half of the discussion…

Current Defense Industry Economic Impact: The Defense Industry Share of the Economic Pie.

We’ve been looking for the Mythical MIC for some time now, and once again it has failed to appear among the real powers-that-be in America’s economy. Following my past posts’ lead, here’s what the MIC’ looks like within the perspective of the Fortune 500.

No Military Industrial Complex Here

No MIC here.

The little blue scratches in the plot of this chart and the next are ‘defense revenues’ of the ‘biggest’ defense companies. As has become our custom, let’s zoom in closer to see the top Fortune 100 companies more clearly.

For completeness, I have also included the only non-publically traded company with significant ‘defense’ revenues in the position they would hold if they were a public company. 
This chart actually displays some useful details. First, the biggest company with significant defense revenues (a Global Top 100 Defense company) is General Electric, but GE’s defense revenues are almost insignificant compared to the company’s non-defense revenues. In fact, only Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, could be unquestionably characterized more as ‘defense companies’ than just ‘non-defense companies with defense business interests’ in the Fortune 100.

If one wants to be concerned about concentration of economic power, take a look at Berkshire Hathaway.

Over half the companies in the Fortune 100 took in MORE non-defense revenues than Lockheed Martin’s total income, and any two non-defense companies on the Fortune 100 list, even those companies smaller than Lockheed Martin, took in more revenue than Lockheed Martin. I observe here that each of the top 3 largest companies at the top of the Fortune 500 took in more revenue than ALL of the defense revenues brought in by the U.S. Global Top 100 Defense Companies on the Fortune 500 list, and the fourth company on the Fortune 100, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, had revenues equal to about 86% of the defense revenues of those same Global Top 100 Defense Companies on the Fortune 500 list.

A Global, More Encompassing Perspective

In the past, I’ve focused on data sources that relied on contract awards to identify the ‘big boys’ in the American ‘Defense Industry’. This year, I took a different tact and extracted data for all listed American companies in the “Global” Defense 100: i.e. the US Companies that are among the biggest defense companies in the world. This obviously excludes state-run industries that do not report revenues, found in places like the PRC and NoKo. But then, their industries are hardly direct participants in the US economy.

The breakdown by country of the Top 100, illustrating the distinction between defense and non-defense revenues is shown here:

The US company revenues dominate the list. Note that even the ‘World Top 100’ defense revenues tail off to almost undetectable levels once the top few counties’ contributions are counted. To make it easier to see the non-US revenues, here we exclude the US total to show ‘the rest’ of the world’s Global Defense 100 economic impact:

There are minor ‘quirks’ in this breakdown, such as tiny Netherlands shows up as a major defense player due to the Airbus Industries consortium being headquartered there, and there is a possibly-significant portion of BAE Systems US-based businesses being rolled into the UK totals, but what is important to us is the overall scale, and relative proportions of defense and non-defense revenues. This will later be put into the greater perspective.

The breakdown by country of the Defense 100 finds 48 U.S companies on that list Sorted by percentage of revenues from ‘defense’, with reliance on defense revenues from most to least and bottom to top we see:

Most of those companies are remarkably ‘small’ in size when measured against all other companies and industries.

Revenues for the biggest US Defense ‘Defense’ Companies

Twenty-One (21) of those 48 U.S. ‘Global Top 100 Defense’ Companies don’t even make it into the Fortune 500 ranks. And if Non-Defense revenues are taken away from the total revenues, more than three quarters (37!) of those 48 U.S. defense companies on the ‘World Top 100 Defense’ list would not even make it on the Fortune 500 list. All but Lockheed Martin and Boeing would drop out of the Fortune 100, and those so-called defense ‘giants’ would be hanging on somewhere near the bottom of the Fortune 100 list.

Defense as a part of the GDP: 1960 vs 2013

We now return to Eisenhower’s speech, and the world that existed during that time Does the economic impact on the U.S economy by the defense industries bear any resemblance to the 1959–1961 era?

The short answer is NO.

Here is a ‘snapshot’ of Government spending as a percentage of GDP running from the end of the Korean War through to 1965:

Percentages of GDP for Government Spending in the Eisenhower Era

Note that the percentage of the GDP attributable to ‘Non-Defense Federal’ spending rose only about 1% overall in that time-frame. ‘Defense Federal’ spending expressed as a percentage of the GDP actually declined from ~16% of the GDP to less than 10% of the GDP. ‘State and Local Government’ increased ~2.5% over the same time-frame. This is the ‘kind’ way to view the changes. An equally valid and ‘less kind’ observation would also note that the percentage of the GDP attributable to ‘Non-Defense Federal’ spending increased by about 30%, the percentage attributable to ‘Defense Federal’ decreased by about 40% and the percentage attributable to ‘State and Local Government’ spending increased nearly 41%. True, the percentage increases were for relatively small numbers for ‘Non-Defense Federal’ and ‘State and Local Government’, but those small numbers can and do compound over time. The two most important things to take away from the chart above are:

  1. Even at the time of Eisenhower’s farewell address, ‘Defense’ spending was in decline as a percentage of the GDP, and thus was in decline as a relative influence on the total economy.
  2. Federal Non-Defense spending and State and Local Government spending were becoming larger factors of influence on the total U.S. economy.

The second point will become of greater interest a little later in our discussion.

Here is a graph comparing defense spending and personal spending (including investments) for the same time frame as percentages of the GDP:

Defense Spending Was Not Eating into Personal Spending in the Eisenhower EraJust looking at this snapshot one would have to wonder just what Eisenhower was so worried about? But if we consider the state of the world at the time, what we as a nation had gone through since the prelude to WW2, and what Eisenhower was facing as the Cold War intensified, it is easy to see what his fears were about. Expanding that snapshot in time to 1935–1960, we see what Eisenhower and his contemporaries had experienced and remembered all too well.

When Eisenhower stated:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment…

He and others were remembering what it took out of the civilian economy to mobilize and mechanize for WW2, and he knew we were headed into new and uncharted territory

On top of the (obviously) huge impact on the economy that defense spending had between 1936 and 1945, we also see a slight hiatus in defense spending levels coming down from WW2, to increase slightly in support of the Korean War and then the early Cold War, Ike knew that the Korean War caused a haitus in Post-WW2 economic growth and by 1960, personal spending had still not returned to pre-Korean War levels. He feared this might go on or get worse. He feared a future that, as we are now illustrating, did NOT happen.

Eisenhower himself had tried to reduce Defense Spending by moving away from ‘expensive’ conventional forces via his ‘New Look’ strategy, but quickly (in ‘political’ measures of time anyway) realized he had to back well away from replacing conventional forces with nuclear forces as much as he had originally planned. By the time Kennedy took office, the buzzword had become “Flexible Response” with a marked re-emphasis on conventional forces (I touched on this back and forth in policy and how it affected the tactical force structure somewhat here). But also by the time Kennedy took office, the American economy was clearly moving beyond being a defense-driven one and it was personal spending that was on the rise. Interestingly, neither Vietnam and the war in Southeast Asia nor the much misunderstood ‘Reagan Buildup’ caused more than an economic ‘blip’ in the ‘defense spending’ vs’ personal spending’ timeline:

And all the while, the GDP itself was growing by leaps and bounds, uninterrupted (at least until 2009, when the bookkeeping rules changed) :

This growth in GDP was not just all due to inflation either. ‘Chained’ to 2009 Dollars, the GDP still shows pretty much the same steady increase over time:

Relative percentages of GDP is a good way to show relative impacts on the total economy, but this could still have meant relative shares of a shrinking or stagnant economy could be hiding behind those percentages. In absolute GDP dollars, what was the private sector of the economy doing?

It was growing, and growing far faster than Defense Spending:

So Where Might We Find Growth in Government Spending?


After WW2 we began to see a near inexorable rise in State and Local Government spending, pausing only for the Carter “Malaise” and perhaps the current (2009 and on) economy, while defense spending as a percentage of the GDP since the Korean War consistently declined to the current levels. Non-defense Federal spending appears to have just loped along at about the same level. But there is something hidden in the State and Local Government GDP contribution. That hidden something is Federal funds transferred to the State and Local ‘pots of money’ yet not accounted for as Federal spending in the GDP.

I rarely find Cokie Roberts useful, but in 2009 she provided the impetus for Politifact to check something she said on the Oct. 4, 2009 episode of This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

“You know, right now, 40 percent, 40 percent of GDP is state, local, or federal money. I mean, that’s an incredible number. So that, you know, adding more [government spending] to that, I think, is going to … distort things even more. And the public is so concerned about it.”

Politifact took up the challenge to test Ms. Robert’s numbers, and related this bit to its readers:

Marc Goldwein, an economist with the New America Foundation, framed the conundrum in this mind-bending fashion: “What percent of GDP is made up of government spending is a different question from what government spending equals as a percent of GDP.”
That’s because when a government “transfers” money — such as through Social Security — it is shifting money around rather than spending it directly. “This can have real and large effects on GDP, but it does not directly impact GDP, since tax and transfer policies simply take money that one person could be using for consumption or investment and give it to another person to use for consumption or investment,” he said.

So hidden ‘off the GDP books’ and in transfers to state and local governments is a large chunk of money above and beyond the official Federal GDP contributions (BTW, Politifact found Robert’s claim for 2009 “Mostly True” (within ~5%).

How much is ‘hidden’ from the GDP federal (overwhelmingly non-defense) numbers over time? I’ve not found ‘hard data’ to plot, but I have found significant snapshots of data and other indicators.

First, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides this handy graphic:

This shows a fairly constant 4–5% of the GDP tied up in Federal grants to state and local governments from 1980–2010. This tells us the Federal Government gives away money to the states and localities that is about equal to the current federal spending levels on defense.

Another CBO (2013 chart of 2011 data) chart gives us a snapshot of how those Federal ‘grants’ are ‘apportioned’:

Thus we can see there is quite an ‘economy’ all in itself sitting ‘off the GDP books’, and only some trivial subset of the ‘other’ category goes to ‘national defense’. All of the rest is ‘non-defense’.

At the ‘State’ level, these funds show up as significant portions of the State General Fund. from

If the US Government were an official criminal enterprise, this might reasonably be viewed as a money laundering operation.

So we can now state that while State and Local Government spending has been increasing, it is clear that one of its driving forces is the Federal dispensation to the states and localities above and beyond what is found in the Federal GDP contributors.

“War for Profit” is a myth. Arms Manufacturers actually hate war

Some say that war is the result of arms manufacturers pushing nations into conflict so they can sell more weapons. This is absolutely untrue. The one group of people who hate war is arms manufacturers, if for no other reason than nations always always disarm after hostilities are concluded. For arms manufacturers it’s feast or famine, and every feast is always followed by a famine

Don’t believe me? Just look at American defense spending from World War II to the present.

This is a kind of natural law. After the American Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 to April 11, 1783), the US let its military capabilities decline to the point that we were completely unprepared for the War of 1812, with an army of only 12,000 men. By the Black Hawk War (May–August 1832), the US Army had been reduced to 6000 men with no cavalry units.

At the beginning of the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846, to February 2, 1848), the US Army was 5500 men strong. Many commanders had entered service in the War of 1812 and were therefore too elderly to function. Army companies had as few as twenty-two soldiers.

In the 1850s the US Army grew to 16,000 men, and by the end of the American Civil War (April 2, 1861 to April 9, 1865), it numbered one million. When the Spanish-American War (April 25, 1898 to August 12, 1898) began, the US Army was down to 25,000. The American Expeditionary Force had four million men on November 11, 1918, the day World War I ended. In 1924 Congress reduced the size of the US Army to 110,000.

And so on and so on and so on, all the way up until the present day. Right before World War II, the US Army trained its troops with fake weapons such as wooden machine guns.

They used broomsticks as rifles, threw beer cans instead of hand grenades, and drove around in jeeps or trucks with a signs on the sides that said “TANK.”

People like to talk about President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. They deliberately distort his warning against the undue influence of the “military-industrial complex.” Here’s the context of his warning.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence economic, political, even spiritual is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Eisenhower’s warning was heeded. There’s no “military-industrial complex.” Again, look at our defense spending.

If arms manufacturers had the influence that people claim, the chart would look like this.

People need to understand something: The military has a fixed budget. In the US, wars are funded with “supplemental appropriations,” which liars will tell you are “tickets to unchecked spending.” This a total falsehood. What happens is that the appropriations are always taken out of the peacetime defense budget in the future. The military knows this, so it carefully picks and chooses its weapons. I’ll give you an example.

The American main battle tank (MBT) is the M1 Abrams.

It’s made by General Dynamics. In February of 2001, the US Army gave General Dynamics a contract to build 1150 M1A2 tanks with a system enhancement package (SEP). This is the SEP.

The M1A2 SEP contains an embedded version of the US Army’s Force XXI command and control architecture; new Raytheon Commander’s Independent Thermal Viewer (CITV) with second generation thermal imager; commander’s display for digital colour terrain maps; DRS Techologies second generation GEN II TIS thermal imaging gunner’s sight with increased range; driver’s integrated display and thermal management system.

Sounds like arms manufacturers would make a lot of money, huh? Well, in 2004 the army canceled the M1A2 SEP contract with General Dynamics. Instead of 1150 tanks, only 300 were produced by 2006. What happened between 2001 and 2004?

A little thing called Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 19, 2003 to December 15, 2011).

But-but-but I thought war enriched the arms manufacturers!

Nope. Not unless the military is given unlimited money, the way it was during World War II. And that will never happen again. Every bomb dropped, every artillery shell fired, every pistol round expended has to be replaced, but the pool of funds for the military remains the same or is being cut. You know who has the real power in the US?

The politicians have always had the power, and the politicians always will have the power. As they should. We don’t want the military honorable people though they are in charge. The military exists to deter or kill our enemies. That’s their function. Politicians run the country. If we elect incompetent, corrupt buffoons, that’s our fault, not theirs.

American arms manufacturers have seen their domestic sales drop by 4 percent since 2011, but international sales have grown by 9 percent. That increase is short term, as it always is in the arms industry. After the various wars in the Middle East are over, the market will sharply decrease. Here’s the projection for the American defense budget in seven years.

Down by almost one third.

Whether you support or oppose any war, the one thing you don’t need to worry about is that arms manufacturers are pulling the strings. The ideal situation for those who sell weapons is world peace, and the best way to ensure world peace is for everybody to have a powerful military. Armed forces budget for wear and tear and replacement of munitions. That keeps arms manufacturers in business. Wars ruin everything, including the arms-manufacturing industry.

What do these companies have in common? Republic, Winchester, Vickers-Armstrong, Consolidated, Convair, Vultee, Douglas, Hamilton Standard, Hughes, North American, US Wheel Track Layer Corporation, Higgins, Avro, Johnson Automatics, Mauser, and Nakajima.

They’re all legendary arms manufacturers that went out of business.

It’s immoral to keep pulling the rug out from under the men and women of the armed forces because people feel that manufacturing weapons is evil. Even worse than being immoral, it’s suicidally irrational.

Time to stop with this majestic, indestructible irrationality. There’s more than enough of that going around.


In summary, we have shown:

  1. The feared Military-Industrial Complex never materialized.
  2. The Defense Industry is relatively minute compared to the rest of the world’s and U.S. industrial base.
  3. Personal Spending as part of the GDP has risen constantly over time, even when inflation is accounted for.
  4. Defense Spending to support the National Defense Infrastructure has declined as a percentage of the GDP since 1953.
  5. As a percentage of GDP and in absolute dollars, only State and Local Government spending has grown consistently over time since the end of WW2.
  6. Defense spending has only increased in dollars, not as a proportion of the GDP, and at lower rates than all other forms of government spending over time since 1953.
  7. Much of what State and Local Governments are increasingly spending actually involves spending significant Federal ‘Non-Defense’ dollars off the record as far as GDP books. That money which is ‘laundered’ through the State and Local Governments, overwhelmingly goes to ‘Health Care’ and ‘Income Security’.

What if the United States had a Military Industrial Complex?

US Military Spending as % Of GDP

During the peak of the Defense Industry in the United States, Defense Spending was 41% of the GDP. At the time of Eisenhower's Farewell Address it was 10%. Today it is 4% of the GDP. Quite some “Military Industrial Complex” huh?

1945:41% of GDP

1961:10% of GDP

2017:4.30% of GDP

US Military:1945 vs Today

US Navy 1945:

6,768 warships

28 aircraft carriers

23 battleships

71 escort carriers

72 cruisers

232 submarines

377 destroyers

70% Of the World’s tonnage of ships


US Navy 2017

415 Warships

19 Aircraft Carriers

8 Frigates

63 Destroyers

70 Sumbarines

13 Patrol Craft

11 Mine Warfare Vessels

431,802 Sailors

United States Military 1945

12,209,238 Soldiers

United States Military 2017

2,363,675 Soldiers

You get the point. If the US truly had a MIC, its defense spending would look more like this, same with active duty soldiers. Now yes, America may not have had a 12 million standing army because most of those soldiers were drafted, however 38% weren’t, and that alone is 6,332,000 soldiers. The largest army in the world.

Here’s America’s spending history from its earliest days to present

America Spends more on Welfare than defense

Relative to the size of the U.S. economy (which is to say, as a share of GDP) we have cut military spending to barely a third of what it was in 1957, from 9.8 percent of GDP then to 3.3 percent of GDP now. Even though we were spending three times as much on national defense in 1957 and even though we had lower taxes (17.2 percent of GDP then vs. 17.7 percent of GDP today) we ran a budget surplus. It’s usually described as a “modest” surplus, but at 3.4 percent of GDP, the budget surplus of 1957 was proportionally larger than military spending is in 2015.

So, where’d the money go? Feel free to consult the historical data yourself, but the short answer is: welfare spending.

The broadest budget categories are national defense, human resources, physical resources, net interest, other functions, and undistributed offsetting receipts. National defense, net interest, other functions, and undistributed receipts are pretty self-explanatory; human resources includes welfare and health-care programs, entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, and education spending. Physical resources means things like energy development, transportation, natural resources maintenance, environmental conservation, and community- and regional-development programs, the “infrastructure” we’re always going on about.

Interest on the debt today is almost exactly the same as it was in 1957; it is exactly the same as what it was in 1953: 1.3 percent of GDP. In 1957, we spent 1 percent of GDP on physical resources; today, we spend a bit less, 0.8 percent of GDP. Other functions constituted 1.6 percent of GDP in 1957, today down to 1.1 percent of GDP. Undistributed receipts is nearly unchanged, up 0.1 percent of GDP.

That leaves us with the welfare category, the only area of federal spending that has grown significantly relative to the size of the U.S. economy. In 1957, it was 3.9 percent of GDP — not insignificant, to be sure; that’s a slightly larger figure than our present-day military spending. But welfare entitlement spending in 2015 is 15.2 percent of GDP. Which is to say, broadly defined welfare spending alone is equal to 86 percent of all the federal taxes that are going to be collected this year. Most of that is Social Security, health-care spending, traditional welfare, and federal education spending, which has grown substantially despite the fact that most education spending happens at the state and local level.

Recap: In GDP terms, we spend about a third on the military today compared to what we spent in the late 1950s. We spend almost exactly the same on interest on the debt. We spend 20 percent less on energy, transportation, the environment, and natural resources. And we spend almost four times as much on welfare. Again, that is in GDP terms, and our economy is a heck of a lot bigger than it was in 1957. As a share of all federal spending, welfare has gone from 23 percent of spending to 73 percent of federal spending. In constant-dollar terms, we spend 17.5 times as much. In nominal-dollar terms, we spend 150 times as much.

In Defense of the US Military Budget

There are a series of questions which focus on the US military budget, often pointing out that it is larger than the next ten countries’ combined. Or the questions asked if the US military budget and bases in other countries create instability in the world. Or, typically from Americans, why does the US spend so much money to be the world’s policeman?

As to whether the US military budget or its bases around the world contribute to global instability, the opposite is true, in fact.

The world is more peaceful now than ever before.

Why the World Is Not Falling Apart

War declining worldwide, studies say

And why is this happening? Money. (Yep, the reason most people site as being the source of all evil, is actually the key to bringing about peace.)

Peace on Earth? Try Free Trade among Men

The Gross world product is $78 Trillion which means there is a lot of reason for the US tax payer to fund the security of such trade.

The US military provides stability to global markets.

The presence of US military forces in foreign countries (such as South Korea and Japan among others) deters aggression. It limits the amount of saber rattling and in some cases the actual violence that a belligerent nation may want to cause.

The same can be argued for the US being party to the NATO alliance which provides protection to the Baltic States. (While they have concerns that the rest of NATO would come to their aid, most nations accept that the US will honor its NATO Article V responsibilities.) So while Russia may be making a lot of noise in Georgia and Ukraine (two non-NATO nations), it does not act overtly aggressive toward Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.

South Korea and Japan are two of the largest and most modern economies on the planet right now. The fact that they don’t have to worry about North Korea (or to some extent China) means they don’t have to invest more of their money in defense and that their stock markets don’t crash every time KJU decides to rattle his saber.

Since North Korea has a nuclear weapon, the ROK might decide they too need one in order to benefit from MAD. Unfortunately, this could lead to a regional arms race which would drive Japan to also developing their own nuclear weapons or at least missile defense (currently provided by the US). Very quickly, these arms races would drive Japan and the ROK out of the top 10 of all economic powers. This in turn would slow the global electronics market and the automobile industry. It is unlikely these nations would decide they did not need some form of defense from North Korea (and eventually from one another given their history). So this doesn’t impact just Japan and Korea, this will have implications for global trade.

Northern Europe plays a significant role in certain internet enterprises. Knowing they are generally safe from Russian intervention, keeps their markets stable as well.

The US Navy’s primary mission is defense of “the global commons” in the form of the world’s waterways. By deterring aggression in the South China Sea, keeping the Straits of Hormuz open, and leading counter-piracy operations off the coast of Africa, the US Navy provides stability to the world’s shipping lanes allowing for global commerce.

If the US Navy doesn’t lead this effort (and I’m not claiming we do this alone), then everybody gets to protect their own waterways. For those nations with major naval forces, their businesses will earn a huge advantage. If a country doesn’t have a strong navy and doesn’t have good treaties with someone who does, then hopefully they’ve got good rail lines that go through friendly countries. Otherwise, they may have to look inward for all of their business dealings. US protection of the world’s waterways is done without expectation of reciprocation. No matter how strong or weak a nation’s economy or military is, they get to benefit from this protection. No US Navy means those waterways become accessible only to those nations who can afford to defend them. This becomes a tremendous economic burden which must be passed on to consumers. This limits global trade but it will most significantly impact the smaller, developing nations.

The US Air Force has a similar mission with regards to space where the USAF managed, operated, and maintained GPS constellation allows for the more efficient flow of commerce around the world. The communications satellites it also supports keeps the world’s information networks alive and well. The good news is, now everyone has the option to switch over to GLONASS if they so choose. Granted the European experience with natural gas lines from Russia might temper that excitement but there are options. So if the US decided to stop supporting the world’s need for GPS, Russia could step in.

History indicates this could be costly, could lend itself to providing leverage to Russia. The US provides GPS to everyone without cost. Without threat of turning it off if you don’t play nice. Again, this requires someone else to pick up the economic burden of supporting this. The US has the resources to do so without charging anyone else for the service. Not many other countries can claim the same, so eventually there may be costs incurred if the US chooses not to do so. And again, those costs will eventually work their way down to the consumer which means a slowing of global trade, particularly with smaller nations.

Another key aspect of the US military is support to disaster relief. Whether it is an earthquake in Tibet, a hurricane in Haiti, or floods and landslides in Pakistan, the US military provides the significant logistical support required to get aid to those areas.Many countries contribute support to such efforts. They provide money or supplies or forces. But very, very, very few of them can get all of those resources to where they are needed. Very few countries have the ability to open airfields in post-disaster areas. Fewer still have the ability to create airfields in the middle of nowhere, rapidly. And when fresh water is the most important thing you need, there are few resources better than a US warship parked off your coast able to produce an unending source of fresh water.

None of this cheap. All of it MUST be done. There are no options for the above needs to go unmet. So who else is better positioned to pay for this? Yes, the military is very expensive (individual operations, not as much). But what would be the cost if the US military did not do these things? Sure, they would still need to be done. Someone would have to do them, or more likely, band together to do them, but at what costs to each of those individual economies and then on the global market place itself? Given that trade off though, what would the impact then be on the individual American’s ability to make money in his/her chosen profession?

There is quite a bit more to the US military than just making war. And the money spent on “US Defense” is actually spent on global trade.

The looming battle over the defense budget could produce a useful national discussion about American foreign and defense policy. But we would need to begin by dispensing with the most commonly repeated fallacy: that cutting defense is essential to restoring the nation’s fiscal health. People can be forgiven for believing this myth, given how often they hear it. Typical is a Foreign Affairs article claiming that the United States faces “a watershed moment” and “must decide whether to increase its already massive debt in order to continue being the world’s sheriff or restrain its military missions and focus on economic recovery.”

This is nonsense. No serious budget analyst or economist believes that cutting the defense budget will aid economic recovery in the near term — federal spending on defense is just as much a job-producing stimulus as federal spending on infrastructure. Nor, more importantly, do they believe that cutting defense spending will have more than the most marginal effect on reducing the runaway deficits projected for the coming years. The simple fact is, as Alice Rivlin recently observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” and even if one assumes that defense spending continues to increase with the rate of inflation, this is “not what’s driving the future spending.” The engine of our growing debt is entitlements.

So why are the various commissions, including the Rivlin-Domenici commission, as well as members of Congress, calling for defense cuts at all? The answer boils down to one of fairness, and politics. It is not that cutting defense is necessary to save the economy. But if the American people are going to be asked to accept cuts in their domestic entitlements, the assumption runs, they’re going to want to see the pain shared across the board, including by defense.

This “fair share” argument is at least more sober than phony “cut defense or kill the economy” sensationalism, and it has the appearance of reasonableness. But it is still based on a fallacy. Distributing cuts equally is not an intrinsically good thing. If you wanted to reduce the gas consumption of your gas-guzzling car by 10 percent, you wouldn’t remove 10 percent of your front and rear bumpers so that all parts of the car shared the pain. The same goes for the federal budget. Not all cuts have equal effect on the national well-being. Few would propose cutting spending on airport security, for instance. At a time of elevated risk of terrorist attack, we don’t need to show the American people that airport security is contributing its “fair share” to budget reduction.

Today the international situation is also one of high risk.

• The terrorists who would like to kill Americans on U.S. soil constantly search for safe havens from which to plan and carry out their attacks. American military actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere make it harder for them to strike and are a large part of the reason why for almost a decade there has been no repetition of September 11. To the degree that we limit our ability to deny them safe haven, we increase the chances they will succeed.

• American forces deployed in East Asia and the Western Pacific have for decades prevented the outbreak of major war, provided stability, and kept open international trading routes, making possible an unprecedented era of growth and prosperity for Asians and Americans alike. Now the United States faces a new challenge and potential threat from a rising China which seeks eventually to push the U.S. military’s area of operations back to Hawaii and exercise hegemony over the world’s most rapidly growing economies. Meanwhile, a nuclear-armed North Korea threatens war with South Korea and fires ballistic missiles over Japan that will someday be capable of reaching the west coast of the United States. Democratic nations in the region, worried that the United States may be losing influence, turn to Washington for reassurance that the U.S. security guarantee remains firm. If the United States cannot provide that assurance because it is cutting back its military capabilities, they will have to choose between accepting Chinese dominance and striking out on their own, possibly by building nuclear weapons.

• In the Middle East, Iran seeks to build its own nuclear arsenal, supports armed radical Islamic groups in Lebanon and Palestine, and has linked up with anti-American dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere. The prospects of new instability in the region grow every day as a decrepit regime in Egypt clings to power, crushes all moderate opposition, and drives the Muslim Brotherhood into the streets. A nuclear-armed Pakistan seems to be ever on the brink of collapse into anarchy and radicalism. Turkey, once an ally, now seems bent on an increasingly anti-American Islamist course. The prospect of war between Hezbollah and Israel grows, and with it the possibility of war between Israel and Syria and possibly Iran. There, too, nations in the region increasingly look to Washington for reassurance, and if they decide the United States cannot be relied upon they will have to decide whether to succumb to Iranian influence or build their own nuclear weapons to resist it.

In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the biggest problem in the world seemed to be ethnic conflict in the Balkans, it was at least plausible to talk about cutting back on American military capabilities. In the present, increasingly dangerous international environment, in which terrorism and great power rivalry vie as the greatest threat to American security and interests, cutting military capacities is simply reckless. Would we increase the risk of strategic failure in an already risky world, despite the near irrelevance of the defense budget to American fiscal health, just so we could tell American voters that their military had suffered its “fair share” of the pain?

The nature of the risk becomes plain when one considers the nature of the cuts that would have to be made to have even a marginal effect on the U.S. fiscal crisis. Many are under the illusion, for instance, that if the United States simply withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan and didn’t intervene anywhere else for a while, this would have a significant impact on future deficits. But, in fact, projections of future massive deficits already assume the winding down of these interventions.Withdrawal from the two wars would scarcely make a dent in the fiscal crisis. Nor can meaningful reductions be achieved by cutting back on waste at the Pentagon — which Secretary of Defense Gates has already begun to do and which has also been factored into deficit projections. If the United States withdrew from Iran and Afghanistan tomorrow, cut all the waste Gates can find, and even eliminated a few weapons programs — all this together would still not produce a 10 percent decrease in overall defense spending.

In fact, the only way to get significant savings from the defense budget — and by “significant,” we are still talking about a tiny fraction of the cuts needed to bring down future deficits — is to cut force structure: fewer troops on the ground; fewer airplanes in the skies; fewer ships in the water; fewer soldiers, pilots, and sailors to feed and clothe and provide benefits for. To cut the size of the force, however, requires reducing or eliminating the missions those forces have been performing. Of course, there are any number of think tank experts who insist U.S. forces can be cut by a quarter or third or even by half and still perform those missions. But this is snake oil. Over the past two decades, the force has already been cut by a third. Yet no administration has reduced the missions that the larger force structures of the past were designed to meet. To fulfill existing security commitments, to remain the “world’s power balancer of choice,” as Leslie Gelb puts it, to act as “the only regional balancer against China in Asia, Russia in eastern Europe, and Iran in the Middle East” requires at least the current force structure, and almost certainly more than current force levels. Those who recommend doing the same with less are only proposing a policy of insufficiency, where the United States makes commitments it cannot meet except at high risk of failure.

The only way to find substantial savings in the defense budget, therefore, is to change American strategy fundamentally. The Simpson-Bowles commission suggests as much, by calling for a reexamination of America’s “21st century role,” although it doesn’t begin to define what that new role might be.

Others have. For decades “realist” analysts have called for a strategy of “offshore balancing.” Instead of the United States providing security in East Asia and the Persian Gulf, it would withdraw its forces from Japan, South Korea, and the Middle East and let the nations in those regions balance one another. If the balance broke down and war erupted, the United States would then intervene militarily until balance was restored. In the Middle East and Persian Gulf, for instance, Christopher Layne has long proposed “passing the mantle of regional stabilizer” to a consortium of “Russia, China, Iran, and India.” In East Asia offshore balancing would mean letting China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others manage their own problems, without U.S. involvement — again, until the balance broke down and war erupted, at which point the United States would provide assistance to restore the balance and then, if necessary, intervene with its own forces to restore peace and stability.

Before examining whether this would be a wise strategy, it is important to understand that this really is the only genuine alternative to the one the United States has pursued for the past 65 years. To their credit, Layne and others who support the concept of offshore balancing have eschewed halfway measures and airy assurances that we can do more with less, which are likely recipes for disaster. They recognize that either the United States is actively involved in providing security and stability in regions beyond the Western Hemisphere, which means maintaining a robust presence in those regions, or it is not. Layne and others are frank in calling for an end to the global security strategy developed in the aftermath of World War II, perpetuated through the Cold War, and continued by four successive post-Cold War administrations.

At the same time, it is not surprising that none of those administrations embraced offshore balancing as a strategy. The idea of relying on Russia, China, and Iran to jointly “stabilize” the Middle East and Persian Gulf will not strike many as an attractive proposition. Nor is U.S. withdrawal from East Asia and the Pacific likely to have a stabilizing effect on that region. The prospects of a war on the Korean Peninsula would increase. Japan and other nations in the region would face the choice of succumbing to Chinese hegemony or taking unilateral steps for self-defense, which in Japan’s case would mean the rapid creation of a formidable nuclear arsenal.

Layne and other offshore balancing enthusiasts, like John Mearsheimer, point to two notable occasions when the United States allegedly practiced this strategy. One was the Iran-Iraq war, where the United States supported Iraq for years against Iran in the hope that the two would balance and weaken each other. The other was American policy in the 1920s and 1930s, when the United States allowed the great European powers to balance one another, occasionally providing economic aid, or military aid, as in the Lend-Lease program of assistance to Great Britain once war broke out. Whether this was really American strategy in that era is open for debate — most would argue the United States in this era was trying to stay out of war not as part of a considered strategic judgment but as an end in itself. Even if the United States had been pursuing offshore balancing in the first decades of the 20th century, however, would we really call that strategy a success? The United States wound up intervening with millions of troops, first in Europe, and then in Asia and Europe simultaneously, in the two most dreadful wars in human history.

It was with the memory of those two wars in mind, and in the belief that American strategy in those interwar years had been mistaken, that American statesmen during and after World War II determined on the new global strategy that the United States has pursued ever since. Under Franklin Roosevelt, and then under the leadership of Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, American leaders determined that the safest course was to build “situations of strength” (Acheson’s phrase) in strategic locations around the world, to build a “preponderance of power,” and to create an international system with American power at its center. They left substantial numbers of troops in East Asia and in Europe and built a globe-girdling system of naval and air bases to enable the rapid projection of force to strategically important parts of the world. They did not do this on a lark or out of a yearning for global dominion. They simply rejected the offshore balancing strategy, and they did so because they believed it had led to great, destructive wars in the past and would likely do so again. They believed their new global strategy was more likely to deter major war and therefore be less destructive and less expensive in the long run. Subsequent administrations, from both parties and with often differing perspectives on the proper course in many areas of foreign policy, have all agreed on this core strategic approach.

From the beginning this strategy was assailed as too ambitious and too expensive. At the dawn of the Cold War, Walter Lippmann railed against Truman’s containment strategy as suffering from an unsustainable gap between ends and means that would bankrupt the United States and exhaust its power. Decades later, in the waning years of the Cold War, Paul Kennedy warned of “imperial overstretch,” arguing that American decline was inevitable “if the trends in national indebtedness, low productivity increases, [etc.]” were allowed to continue at the same time as “massive American commitments of men, money and materials are made in different parts of the globe.” Today, we are once again being told that this global strategy needs to give way to a more restrained and modest approach, even though the indebtedness crisis that we face in coming years is not caused by the present, largely successful global strategy.

Of course it is precisely the success of that strategy that is taken for granted. The enormous benefits that this strategy has provided, including the financial benefits, somehow never appear on the ledger. They should. We might begin by asking about the global security order that the United States has sustained since Word War II — the prevention of major war, the support of an open trading system, and promotion of the liberal principles of free markets and free government. How much is that order worth? What would be the cost of its collapse or transformation into another type of order?

Whatever the nature of the current economic difficulties, the past six decades have seen a greater increase in global prosperity than any time in human history. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Once-backward nations have become economic dynamos. And the American economy, though suffering ups and downs throughout this period, has on the whole benefited immensely from this international order. One price of this success has been maintaining a sufficient military capacity to provide the essential security underpinnings of this order. But has the price not been worth it? In the first half of the 20th century, the United States found itself engaged in two world wars. In the second half, this global American strategy helped produce a peaceful end to the great-power struggle of the Cold War and then 20 more years of great-power peace. Looked at coldly, simply in terms of dollars and cents, the benefits of that strategy far outweigh the costs.

The danger, as always, is that we don’t even realize the benefits our strategic choices have provided. Many assume that the world has simply become more peaceful, that great-power conflict has become impossible, that nations have learned that military force has little utility, that economic power is what counts. This belief in progress and the perfectibility of humankind and the institutions of international order is always alluring to Americans and Europeans and other children of the Enlightenment. It was the prevalent belief in the decade before World War I, in the first years after World War II, and in those heady days after the Cold War when people spoke of the “end of history.” It is always tempting to believe that the international order the United States built and sustained with its power can exist in the absence of that power, or at least with much less of it. This is the hidden assumption of those who call for a change in American strategy: that the United States can stop playing its role and yet all the benefits that came from that role will keep pouring in. This is a great if recurring illusion, the idea that you can pull a leg out from under a table and the table will not fall over.

Much of the present debate, it should be acknowledged, is not about the defense budget or the fiscal crisis at all. It is only the latest round in a long-running debate over the nature and purposes of American foreign policy. At the tactical level, some use the fiscal crisis as a justification for a different approach to, say, Afghanistan. Richard Haass, for instance, who has long favored a change of strategy from “counterinsurgency” to “counterterrorism,” now uses the budget crisis to bolster his case — although he leaves unclear how much money would be saved by such a shift in strategy.

At the broader level of grand strategy, the current debate, though revived by the budget crisis, can be traced back a century or more, but its most recent expression came with the end of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, some critics, often calling themselves “realists,” expressed their unhappiness with a foreign policy — first under George H.W. Bush and then under Bill Clinton — that cast the United States as leader of a “new world order,” the “indispensable nation.” As early as 1992, Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson assailed President Bush for launching the first Persian Gulf war in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. They charged him with pursuing “a new world role . . . required neither by security need nor by traditional conceptions of the nation’s purpose,” a role that gave “military force” an “excessive and disproportionate . . . position in our statecraft.”

Tucker and Hendrickson were frank enough to acknowledge that, pace Paul Kennedy, the “peril” was not actually “to the nation’s purse” or even to “our interests” but to the nation’s “soul.” This has always been the core critique of expansive American foreign policy doctrines, from the time of the Founders to the present — not that a policy of extensive global involvement is necessarily impractical but that it is immoral and contrary to the nation’s true ideals.

Today this alleged profligacy in the use of force is variously attributed to the influence of “neoconservatives” or to those Mearsheimer calls the “liberal imperialists” of the Clinton administration, who have presumably now taken hold of the Obama administration as well. But the critics share a common premise: that if only the United States would return to a more “normal” approach to the world, intervening abroad far less frequently and eschewing efforts at “nation-building,” then this would allow the United States to cut back on the resources it expends on foreign policy.

Thanks to Haass’s clever formulation, there has been a great deal of talk lately about “wars of choice” as opposed to “wars of necessity.” Haass labels both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan “wars of choice.” Today, many ask whether the United States can simply avoid such allegedly optional interventions in the future, as well as the occupations and exercises in “nation-building” that often seem to follow.

Although the idea of eliminating “wars of choice” appears sensible, the historical record suggests it will not be as simple as many think. The problem is, almost every war or intervention the United States has engaged in throughout its history has been optional — and not just the Bosnias, Haitis, Somalias, or Vietnams, but the Korean War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and even World War II (at least the war in Europe), not to mention the many armed interventions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean over the course of the past century, from Cuba in 1898 to Panama in 1989. A case can be made, and has been made by serious historians, that every one of these wars and interventions was avoidable and unnecessary. To note that our most recent wars have also been wars of choice, therefore, is not as useful as it seems.

In theory, the United States could refrain from intervening abroad. But, in practice, will it? Many assume today that the American public has had it with interventions, and Alice Rivlin certainly reflects a strong current of opinion when she says that “much of the public does not believe that we need to go in and take over other people’s countries.” That sentiment has often been heard after interventions, especially those with mixed or dubious results. It was heard after the four-year-long war in the Philippines, which cost 4,000 American lives and untold Filipino casualties. It was heard after Korea and after Vietnam. It was heard after Somalia. Yet the reality has been that after each intervention, the sentiment against foreign involvement has faded, and the United States has intervened again.

Depending on how one chooses to count, the United States has undertaken roughly 25 overseas interventions since 1898:

Cuba, 1898
The Philippines, 1898–1902
China, 1900
Cuba, 1906
Nicaragua, 1910 & 1912
Mexico, 1914
Haiti, 1915
Dominican Republic, 1916
Mexico, 1917
World War I, 1917–1918
Nicaragua, 1927
World War II, 1941–1945
Korea, 1950–1953
Lebanon, 1958
Vietnam, 1963–1973
Dominican Republic, 1965
Grenada, 1983
Panama, 1989
First Persian Gulf war, 1991
Somalia, 1992
Haiti, 1994
Bosnia, 1995
Kosovo, 1999
Afghanistan, 2001-present
Iraq, 2003–2011
Libya, 2011

That is one intervention every 4.5 years on average. Overall, the United States has intervened or been engaged in combat somewhere in 52 out of the last 112 years, or roughly 47 percent of the time. Since the end of the Cold War, it is true, the rate of U.S. interventions has increased, with an intervention roughly once every 2.5 years and American troops intervening or engaged in combat in 16 out of 22 years, or over 70 percent of the time, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The argument for returning to “normal” begs the question: What is normal for the United States? The historical record of the last century suggests that it is not a policy of nonintervention. This record ought to raise doubts about the theory that American behavior these past two decades is the product of certain unique ideological or doctrinal movements, whether “liberal imperialism” or “neoconservatism.” Allegedly “realist” presidents in this era have been just as likely to order interventions as their more idealistic colleagues. George H.W. Bush was as profligate an intervener as Bill Clinton. He invaded Panama in 1989, intervened in Somalia in 1992 — both on primarily idealistic and humanitarian grounds — which along with the first Persian Gulf war in 1991 made for three interventions in a single four-year term. Since 1898 the list of presidents who ordered armed interventions abroad has included William McKinley, Theodore Roose-velt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. One would be hard-pressed to find a common ideological or doctrinal thread among them — unless it is the doctrine and ideology of a mainstream American foreign policy that leans more toward intervention than many imagine or would care to admit.

Many don’t want to admit it, and the only thing as consistent as this pattern of American behavior has been the claim by contemporary critics that it is abnormal and a departure from American traditions. The anti-imperialists of the late 1890s, the isolationists of the 1920s and 1930s, the critics of Korea and Vietnam, and the critics of the first Persian Gulf war, the interventions in the Balkans, and the more recent wars of the Bush years have all insisted that the nation had in those instances behaved unusually or irrationally. And yet the behavior has continued.

To note this consistency is not the same as justifying it. The United States may have been wrong for much of the past 112 years. Some critics would endorse the sentiment expressed by the historian Howard K. Beale in the 1950s, that “the men of 1900” had steered the United States onto a disastrous course of world power which for the subsequent half-century had done the United States and the world no end of harm. But whether one lauds or condemns this past century of American foreign policy — and one can find reasons to do both — the fact of this consistency remains. It would require not just a modest reshaping of American foreign policy priorities but a sharp departure from this tradition to bring about the kinds of changes that would allow the United States to make do with a substantially smaller force structure.

Is such a sharp departure in the offing? It is no doubt true that many Americans are unhappy with the on-going warfare in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Iraq, and that, if asked, a majority would say the United States should intervene less frequently in foreign nations, or perhaps not at all. It may also be true that the effect of long military involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan may cause Americans and their leaders to shun further interventions at least for a few years — as they did for nine years after World War I, five years after World War II, and a decade after Vietnam. This may be further reinforced by the difficult economic times in which Americans are currently suffering. The longest period of nonintervention in the past century was during the 1930s, when unhappy memories of World War I combined with the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression to constrain American interventionism to an unusual degree and produce the first and perhaps only genuinely isolationist period in American history.

So are we back to the mentality of the 1930s? It wouldn’t appear so. There is no great wave of isolationism sweeping the country. There is not even the equivalent of a Patrick Buchanan, who received 3 million votes in the 1992 Republican primaries. Any isolationist tendencies that might exist are severely tempered by continuing fears of terrorist attacks that might be launched from overseas. Nor are the vast majority of Americans suffering from economic calamity to nearly the degree that they did in the Great Depression.

Even if we were to repeat the policies of the 1930s, however, it is worth recalling that the unusual restraint of those years was not sufficient to keep the United States out of war. On the contrary, the United States took actions which ultimately led to the greatest and most costly foreign intervention in its history. Even the most determined and in those years powerful isolationists could not prevent it.

Today there are a number of obvious possible contingencies that might lead the United States to substantial interventions overseas, notwithstanding the preference of the public and its political leaders to avoid them. Few Americans want a war with Iran, for instance. But it is not implausible that a president — indeed, this president — might find himself in a situation where military conflict at some level is hard to avoid. The continued success of the international sanctions regime that the Obama administration has so skillfully put into place, for instance, might eventually cause the Iranian government to lash out in some way — perhaps by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz. Recall that Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor in no small part as a response to oil sanctions imposed by a Roosevelt administration that had not the slightest interest or intention of fighting a war against Japan but was merely expressing moral outrage at Japanese behavior on the Chinese mainland. Perhaps in an Iranian contingency, the military actions would stay limited. But perhaps, too, they would escalate. One could well imagine an American public, now so eager to avoid intervention, suddenly demanding that their president retaliate. Then there is the possibility that a military exchange between Israel and Iran, initiated by Israel, could drag the United States into conflict with Iran. Are such scenarios so farfetched that they can be ruled out by Pentagon planners?

Other possible contingencies include a war on the Korean Peninsula, where the United States is bound by treaty to come to the aid of its South Korean ally; and possible interventions in Yemen or Somalia, should those states fail even more than they already have and become even more fertile ground for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. And what about those “humanitarian” interventions that are first on everyone’s list to be avoided? Should another earthquake or some other natural or man-made catastrophe strike, say, Haiti and present the looming prospect of mass starvation and disease and political anarchy just a few hundred miles off U.S. shores, with the possibility of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of refugees, can anyone be confident that an American president will not feel compelled to send an intervention force to help?

Some may hope that a smaller U.S. military, compelled by the necessity of budget constraints, would prevent a president from intervening. More likely, however, it would simply prevent a president from intervening effectively. This, after all, was the experience of the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both because of constraints and as a conscious strategic choice, the Bush administration sent too few troops to both countries. The results were lengthy, unsuccessful conflicts, burgeoning counterinsurgencies, and loss of confidence in American will and capacity, as well as large annual expenditures. Would it not have been better, and also cheaper, to have sent larger numbers of forces initially to both places and brought about a more rapid conclusion to the fighting? The point is, it may prove cheaper in the long run to have larger forces that can fight wars quickly and conclusively, as Colin Powell long ago suggested, than to have smaller forces that can’t. Would a defense planner trying to anticipate future American actions be wise to base planned force structure on the assumption that the United States is out of the intervention business? Or would that be the kind of penny-wise, pound-foolish calculation that, in matters of national security, can prove so unfortunate?

The debates over whether and how the United States should respond to the world’s strategic challenges will and should continue. Armed interventions overseas should be weighed carefully, as always, with an eye to whether the risk of inaction is greater than the risks of action. And as always, these judgments will be merely that: judgments, made with inadequate information and intelligence and no certainty about the outcomes. No foreign policy doctrine can avoid errors of omission and commission. But history has provided some lessons, and for the United States the lesson has been fairly clear: The world is better off, and the United States is better off, in the kind of international system that American power has built and defended.

As Haass and Roger C. Altman have correctly noted, “it is not reckless American activity in the world that jeopardizes American solvency but American profligacy at home.” The United States may be in peril because of its spiraling deficits and mounting debt, but it will be in even greater peril if, out of some misguided sense that our national security budgets must “share the pain,” we weaken ourselves even further.

There are costs and then there are investments.


There is not now, nor has there ever been pernicious and/or detrimental “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought” by a “military-industrial complex” in these United States. Eisenhower’s fears were never realized, or if you like, his ‘warning call’ headed off one ever coming into existence.

Instead, we have “sought or unsought” maintained a National Defense Infrastructure that to date has admirably supported the National Interest since WW2 without ever rising to being an unreasonable economic burden, much less a threat to the “structure of our society”.

Can the same be said for all other government endeavors?Probably not


This is a Repost, credits to the original Authors

Kevin D Williamson:

Greg S. Jones :

Special Marine Seargent Matt:

Loren Thompson: