Argumentation and Empire, Defense Budget Edition

January 22, 2013, 8:06 pm

AmericanizationI’m going to pick on Jill Lepore a bit, not because I necessarily disagree with her larger point, but because she elides a few things in a way I think awkward. Lepore argues that the US military, is and has been for a long time, too large. She is making Eisenhower’s “military-industrial” complex case, updated for the global war on terror. But she makes some interesting claims:

Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year—more, in adjusted dollars, than at any time since the Allies were fighting the Axis.

This is true, but misleading. The budget has grown, but so has the GDP, meaning that the defense budget, as a share of the American economy, is lower than at any time since before World War II with the exception of the 1990s. But, fair enough, Lepore’s making the point that the defense budget is quite large, and that’s absolutely true. Lepore then jumps from the founders to World War I and World War II, and bemoans the lack of demilitarization after World War II:

A peace dividend expected after the Allied victory in 1945 never came.

That’s an…odd…claim, at best. Using the measure Lepore first introduced (adjusted dollars), the defense budget went from over $800 billion dollars in 1945 to under $200 billion in 1947. It stayed under $200 billion for the rest of the decade, jumping back up for the Korean War, but staying around $300 billion for the rest of the 1950s. That’s not nothing, but, at worst, it’s still one-third the World War II budget. That seems to be to be something of a peace dividend and one that Lepore slides over.

Instead, Lepore introduces another measure:

In the nineteen-fifties, at the height of both the Korean War and McCarthyism, the United States’ foreign policy had become the containment of Communism the world over, and military spending made up close to three-quarters of the federal budget.

Okay, scary number. I’m not sure what her source is, though, as it seems only marginally accurate. Defense spending peaked at nearly 75% of the federal budget in 1951 (during the Korean War), but then trailed off steadily all the way down to 58% in 1959. I suppose that could be considered “close,” but it, again, obscures the dramatic drop in spending post-World War II. By changing her measure, Lepore has argued the opposite of what actually happened, post-World War II.

Lepore then works her way through the Cold War, developing her theme of a defense budget run amuck. The peace dividend of the 1990s existed, but not for long, Lepore points out, and everything changed on 9/11.

In 2001, military spending, as a function of the over-all American economy, was, at six per cent, the lowest it had been since the Second World War.

Whoops! Here we have another measure of defense spending. The actual number is about 3.5%, but 2001 was indeed the lowest defense budget since before World War II. That spending certainly rises after 2001, but never actually reaches 6% in the decade-plus since. Note, for comparison, that defense spending reached 40% of GDP during World War II, 15% during Korea, and 10% during Vietnam. What is remarkable about military spending in the post 9/11 era is how little of it, compared to the size of our economy, the US has actually done. We’ve fought two distant wars on the relative cheap.

(Breaking away for a moment from budget-related issues, I note that Lepore approvingly quotes Andrew Bacevich’s formulation:
“During the entire Cold War era, from 1945 through 1988, large-scale U.S. military actions abroad totaled a scant six…Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, they have become almost annual events.”

I suppose it depends on how you define “large-scale” but there seem to be a lot more than that in the Cold War.)

This is obscured in Lepore’s argument, as is the overall pattern of American defense spending since World War II. Let’s choose a single measure, and stick with it. Here’s US defense spending from 1940-2014 as a percentage of GDP:

Usgs line

This shows a much more complicated picture: American defense spending dropped dramatically post-1945 (there was a peace dividend), bounced up for Korea and Vietnam (though never to WWII levels) and then trickled down to 2001, rising only marginally for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We simply haven’t spent that much–measured against the size of our economy–on our 21st century martial adventures. In fact, what this looks like is nothing more than an imperial power tending to its empire. Neither the Romans or the British, at the heights of their empire, spent that much on it, instead relying on a relatively inexpensive imperial constabulary to do it. That allowed them empire on the cheap, something that we are managing now as well.

In fact, this current trend fits in quite nicely with the whole history of American imperial adventures. In the 19th century, when the imperial possessions the US was conquering were on the same continent, the conquest could happen by settlement, informal forces (check out the military meaning of “filibuster“), and the occasional use of federal armies. The annexation of Texas in the 1840s only came at the end of its conquest by Americans through immigration and informal war. The Mexican-American War of 1846 only cemented and put a stamp on that acquisition. And so the official defense budget, during the 19th century, remained relatively low (excepting the Civil War, of course), even as the US took over a continent. It’s only when the US started going abroad, at the turn of the 20th century, that something resembling a standing and permanent force was required to patrol the Caribbean and fight wars in Cuba and the Philippines. As US imperial influence spread further, the cost to keep it there went up as well, and that does more to explain the post-World War II bump in the budget than anything else.


The US started off as an imperial power and has remained an imperial power throughout its history. The location and execution of that imperium is pretty much all that has changed. This is not something particularly imposed on the American public. That public heard strong voices in the post-World War II period, including Robert Taft, advocating for a pull back, and almost universally rejected those voices in elections, as Lepore notes. Despite Eisenhower’s military-industrial speech, Americans have been extremely comfortable with their own military actions, usually only tiring of them when they went on much longer than expected (Vietnam) or were grossly mismanaged (Iraq). As much as America being an empire, Americans have been an imperial people.

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