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LOVELACE: Cutting the defense budget: A history

U.S. pattern of unpreparedness

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The past year has seen both cries for cutting the defense budget at home and renewed violence abroad. With the economy continuing to decline, and the deficit continuing to rise, it is almost inevitable that the defense budget will continue to shrink. This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Throughout its history the United States has habitually, and foolishly, cut troop strength at the conclusion of its wars, and thus been unprepared when new conflicts emerged. With the debates over the defense budget and sequestration threatening to reduce U.S. troop strength even further, Congress would be well advised to look to history and remember that similar cuts have cost the United States dearly in most of her wars.

Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have debated how much money the military should consume in peacetime. At the end of the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s Army was disbanded, and when the War of 1812 began the United States was little better prepared than the 13 Colonies had been three decades earlier. Six years after the War of 1812 ended, the Army was smaller than before the conflict began. The Mexican War (1846-1848) required the United States to recruit 50,000 volunteers to supplement its tiny regular Army. The high casualties sustained at the beginning of both wars was partly a result of America’s unpreparedness before the conflicts began.

Similar problems continued into the second half of the 19th century, beginning with the Army’s unpreparedness to fight the Civil War. This was symbolized by the advanced age of the first Union Army Commander, General Winfield Scott, who had commanded troops during the War of 1812. After the country was reunited, the Army retracted again from over one million down to 57,072 soldiers. On the eve of the Spanish American War, the Army’s strength was just 29,000 officers and men compared to 80,000 Spanish troops stationed in Cuba. At the end of the conflict, the Army’s 209,000 troops were quickly cut by half.

Thus, the 20th century caught the United States unprepared to fight global wars. When World War I broke out in Europe, the Army’s strength numbered just under 100,000. After the Armistice, the Army went from 2 million men to 148,000 by 1922. The military prepared for World War II by training with trucks as tanks and throwing tin cans to simulate grenade practice. The United States would pay for its unpreparedness with huge initial disasters in the Pacific and against the German Army in North Africa. The end of World War II sent the military into a steep dive, and by the time the Korean War began the Army numbered only 593,000.

In the years following the Korean War, however, America was not totally unprepared for future conflicts. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the Army remained at approximately one million men until 1971. Therefore, the United States was not totally lacking in man power up to and during the Vietnam War. Yet with the removal of troops from South East Asia, the defense budget was cut once again. Fortunately, the 1980s saw the largest peacetime buildup in American history, which left the country well prepared to fight the First Gulf War.

Nevertheless, the 1990s saw the return to the traditional American pattern of cutting the defense budget and regretting it later. On Sept. 11, 2001, war came again to an ill-prepared United States and stayed for over a decade. In that time the Defense Department had to explain why soldiers were sent to Iraq without bulletproof vests and in unarmored humvees. Sometimes they had to explain this to the very people who had slashed the peacetime defense budgets that would have paid for the missing equipment.

The United States has often reduced its military at the end of a war, and this has led to costly defeats. Ill-preparedness does not necessarily mean that the United States will lose a war, but it does come at a cost paid in soldiers’ lives. Before cutting the defense budget, Congress would be well advised to remember the history of the United States and not cut too deeply into the nation’s armaments. 

Alexander Lovelace is a graduate student in military and American history at George Washington University.

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