The prospect of an exit from Iraq and Afghanistan has sparked rumblings on Capitol Hill that it’s time to cut the defense budget. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says, “I’m pretty certain cuts are coming — in defense and the whole budget.” Defense Secretary Bob Gates is already pushing to cancel some big-ticket programs and to wring savings out of the existing budget.
If there were ever evidence that it’s impossible to learn from history — or at least that it’s difficult for politicians to do so — this is it. Before they rush to cut defense spending, lawmakers should consider the consequences of previous attempts to cash in on a “peace dividend.”
After the American Revolution, our armed forces shrank from 35,000 men in 1778 (plus tens of thousands of militiamen) to just 10,000 by 1800. The result was that we were ill-prepared to fight the Whiskey Rebellion, the quasi-war with France, the Barbary wars and the War of 1812 — all of which might have been averted if the new republic had had an army and a navy that commanded the respect of prospective enemies, foreign and domestic.
After the Civil War, our armed forces shrank from more than a million men in 1865 to just 50,000 in 1870. This made the failure of Reconstruction inevitable — there were simply too few federal troops left to enforce the rule of law in the South and to overcome the ruthless terrorist campaign waged by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Segregation would remain a blot on U.S. history for another century.
After World War I, our armed forces shrank from 2.9 million men in 1918 to 250,000 in 1928. The result? World War II became more likely and its early battles more costly. Imagine how Hitler might have acted in 1939 had several hundred thousand American troops been stationed in France and Poland. Under such circumstances, it is doubtful he would ever have launched his blitzkrieg. Likewise, Japanese leaders might have thought twice about attacking Pearl Harbor if their homeland had been in imminent danger of being pulverized by thousands of American bombers and their fleet sunk by dozens of American aircraft carriers.
After World War II, our armed forces shrank from 12 million men in 1945 to 1.4 million in 1950. (The Army went from 8.3 million soldiers to 593,000.) The result was that ill-trained, ill-armed draftees were almost pushed off the Korean Peninsula by the North Korean invasion. Kim Il Sung was probably emboldened to aggression in the first place by the rapid dissolution of America’s wartime strength and indications from parsimonious policymakers that South Korea was outside our “defense perimeter.”
After the Korean War, our armed forces as a whole underwent a smaller decline — from 3.6 million men in 1952 to 2.5 million in 1959 — but the Army lost almost half its active-duty strength in those years. President Dwight Eisenhower’s New Look relied on relatively inexpensive nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union and its allies, rather than a large, costly standing army. The Army that was sent to Vietnam was not prepared to fight guerrillas — an enemy that could not be defeated with a hand-held Davy Crockett nuclear launcher.
After the Vietnam War, our armed forces shrank from 3.5 million personnel in 1969 to 2 million in 1979. This was the era of the “hollow army,” notorious for its inadequate equipment, discipline, training and morale. Our enemies were emboldened to aggression, ranging from the anti-American revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We are still paying a heavy price for the Iranian Revolution, with Iran on the verge of going nuclear.
After the end of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War, our armed forces shrank from 2.1 million personnel in 1989 to 1.3 million in 1999; the Army went from 769,000 soldiers to 479,000. The result: an Army desperately overstretched by its subsequent deployments. Part of the reason too few troops were sent to stabilize Iraq in 2003 was that senior officials thought there simply weren’t enough to go round.
We are still suffering the consequences of the post-Cold War drawdown. The Navy is finding it hard to fight Somali pirates, police the Persian Gulf and deter Chinese expansionism in the Western Pacific. The Army and Marine Corps are forced to maintain a punishing operational tempo that drives out too many bright young officers and NCOs. The Air Force has to fly decades-old aircraft until they are falling apart.
It might still make sense to cut the defense budget — if it were bankrupting us and undermining our economic well-being. But that’s not the case. Defense spending is less than 4 percent of gross domestic product and less than 20 percent of the federal budget. That means our armed forces are much less costly in relative terms than they were throughout much of the 20th century. Even at roughly $549 billion, our core defense budget is eminently affordable. It is, in fact, a bargain considering the historic consequences of letting our guard down.
Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.