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Defense on a Diet
How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. Strategy
MELVYN P. LEFFLER is Edward Stettinius Professor of History at the University of Virginia and a Faculty Associate at the Miller Center. He is a co-editor, with Jeffrey Legro, of In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11. This article is a condensed version of a paper presented to the Aspen Strategy Group, which will be published in its entirety in a forthcoming volume of the Aspen Institute.See more by this author
The United States is now in a period of austerity, and after years of huge increases, the defense budget is set to be scaled back. Even those supporting the cuts stress the need to avoid the supposedly awful consequences of past retrenchments. “We have to remember the lessons of history,” President Barack Obama said in January 2012. “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past -- after World War II, after Vietnam -- when our military policy was left ill prepared for the future. As commander in chief, I will not let that happen again.” Similarly, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Congress in October 2011, “After every major conflict -- World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the fall of the Soviet Union -- what happened was that we ultimately hollowed out the force. Whatever we do in confronting the challenges we face now on the fiscal side, we must not make that mistake.”
Contrary to such conventional wisdom, the consequences of past U.S. defense cuts were not bad. In fact, a look at five such periods over the past century -- following World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War -- shows that austerity can be useful in forcing Washington to think strategically, something it rarely does when times are flush.
THE WORLD WARS
After World War I, the United States pared back its military spending from over 17 percent of GDP in 1919 to less than two percent in 1922. The army was cut from roughly 3.5 million soldiers to about 146,000. And in 1922, the Five-Power Naval Limitation Treaty capped the navy’s tonnage in key categories and linked the United States’ construction of capital ships to those of the United Kingdom and Japan according to a 5:5:3 ratio (which changed to 10:10:7 after the London Naval Conference of 1930). The Great Depression then forced Washington to build even fewer ships than it was permitted.