Flickr / Leonard Witzel No country for old planes: decommissioned U.S. aircraft in Arizona

Defense on a Diet

How Budget Crises Have Improved U.S. Strategy

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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.


After World War I, the United States pared back its military spending from over 17 percent of GDP in 1919

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