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 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.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, many commentators blamed the U.S. military’s lack of preparedness on the defense budget cuts of the 1920s and on Washington’s seemingly naive faith in toothless arms control agreements. Generations of dispassionate scholarship, however, have painted a more accurate picture of the situation: the low level of U.S. military expenditures in the 1920s and early 1930s, viewed in the context of the times, neither compromised U.S. security nor thwarted significant technological innovation and organizational change. What left the United States unprepared for the gathering storm was a flawed threat perception and inept diplomacy in the years leading up to the war, aided and abetted by an isolationist Congress unwilling to support a more robust defense posture.

When a second global war did come, the paucity of the resources on hand actually forced U.S. policymakers to make tough but smart strategic choices. Germany’s rapid conquest of France in June 1940 rendered existing U.S. military plans obsolete, and Germany’s signing of the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Japan that September heightened the specter of a global totalitarian menace. Forced to improvise and prioritize, by November, the chief of naval operations, Harold Stark, came up with a strategic concept that would shape U.S. foreign policy for the next half century. After protracted wrangling among navy and army planners resulted in a series of contested war plans, Stark took the initiative and crafted his own memorandum to President Franklin Roosevelt. In it, he argued that the principal threat to U.S. security was German power. The United States could not allow Hitler to defeat the United Kingdom, assume dominance of the Atlantic, and buy time to assimilate the resources and manpower of northwestern Europe into the Nazi war machine. Preventing that outcome would have to become the top U.S. priority. At the same time, the United States would have to use diplomacy to avoid war with Japan, bolster British and Canadian military capabilities, and prepare for eventual intervention on the European continent.

The point here is less about the details of the strategy, which came to be called Plan Dog, than its genesis. In mid-1940, the United States had no strategic concept, no agreed-on war plan, and no mechanisms for effectively coordinating its military and foreign policies. Needing to make tough calls, Stark surveyed several strategic options, calculated means and ends, assessed priorities, and recommended the course of action he deemed most likely to achieve broad national security goals. His views resonated because they comported with the evolving thinking inside and outside the government about what the United States had to do to survive and prosper with its democratic institutions intact. Shortly before Stark penned his memorandum, Roosevelt warned that the United States must not become “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force. . . . Such an island represents to me . . . the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.”

Of course, Plan Dog left many questions unresolved, such as how much equipment should go to allies as opposed to domestic rearmament, how Japan might be accommodated or kept at bay while Germany was dealt with, and so forth. At the same time, the president resisted defining goals with precision, the secretary of state balked at coordinating diplomatic and military policy, and public opinion remained deeply divided until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. But a combination of austerity and crisis helped forge a core strategic concept, a new threat assessment, an appreciation of the indissoluble links between interests and values, and a calibration of priorities.


After World War II, the basic strategic concept hammered out by Stark in 1940 persisted. In 1945, some of the nation’s most eminent strategic thinkers collaborated on a Brookings Institution study on the formulation of a national security strategy. They concluded that it was essential to prevent any one power or coalition of powers from gaining control of Eurasia. “In all the world,” they added, “only Soviet Russia and the ex-enemy powers are capable of forming nuclei around which an anti-American coalition could form to threaten the security of the United States.” So the indefinite westward expansion of the Soviet Union could not be permitted, “whether it occurs by formal annexation, political coup, or progressive subversion.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff embraced this strategic thinking, as did most civilian officials. But the public at large was focused on demobilization and reconversion. President Harry Truman was eager to balance the budget and stifle inflation, as was his Republican opposition. So soon, another gap emerged between foreign policy goals and military capabilities, as the Joint Chiefs wanted resources to counter possible Soviet moves on Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, even as crises in Greece, Iran, and Turkey and a civil war in China focused attention on various peripheral areas as well.

Once again, austerity compelled a careful assessment of threats. Top officials forged a consensus that the gravest danger to U.S. security was not the likelihood of Soviet military aggression. The Soviets, they reasoned, were too weak economically to attack. As Ferdinand Eberstadt, the former director of the joint Army and Navy Munitions Board, wrote in 1946 to James Forrestal, his close friend and then secretary of the navy, “None but mad men would undertake war against us.” The greater threat was that the Soviet Union might exploit the widespread hunger, social strife, and political ferment that beleaguered most of Europe and Asia. As early as May 16, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote Truman that there would be “pestilence and famine in Central Europe next winter. This is likely to be followed by political revolution and Communist infiltration.” The next month, Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew warned the president that Europe was a breeding ground for “spontaneous class hatred to be channeled by a skillful agitator.”

Unable to afford all the tools they might want, U.S. policymakers decided that foreign assistance was more important than rearmament. Even Forrestal acknowledged in December 1947, “As long as we can outproduce the world, can control the sea, and can strike inland with the atomic bomb, we can assume certain risks otherwise unacceptable in an effort to restore world trade, to restore the balance of power -- military power -- and to eliminate some of the conditions which breed war.” He went along with then Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson’s desire to ask a subcommittee of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee to devise a comprehensive assistance program and determine priorities. Planners on the subcommittee used the perceived urgency of different situations as their chief criterion for assigning aid: Greece, Turkey, Iran, Italy, Korea, France, and Austria topped the list.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, crafted their own study of foreign assistance, based on both the potential recipients’ urgency of need and their future importance to U.S. national security. They recommended aid to the United Kingdom, France, and what would soon become West Germany, concluding, “The complete resurgence of German industry, particularly coal mining, is essential for the economic recovery of France -- whose security is inseparable from the combined security of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. The economic revival of Germany is therefore of primary importance from the viewpoint of United States security.” This thinking, which comported well with the initial studies by the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and with the views of many senior Foreign Service officers working on European affairs, set the backdrop for the making of the Marshall Plan.

Once again, austerity forced planners to think hard about priorities and tradeoffs -- about economic reconstruction abroad versus rearmament at home and about assigning importance to Western Europe and Japan, for example, ahead of China. If rebuilding Western Europe and co-opting former enemies such as Germany and Japan strained relations with Moscow and intensified the emerging Cold War, so be it.

George Kennan, who then headed the Policy Planning Staff, viewed Soviet decisions to launch the Cominform (an organization committed to spreading communism internationally) in 1947 and orchestrate a coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 as “quite logical” developments “in the face of increasing American determination to assist the free nations of the world.” Such moves heightened fears of war, but Kennan, Secretary of State George Marshall, and most of their colleagues at the State Department thought that prospect was still unlikely. So Truman called for the passage of universal military training, the temporary restoration of the draft, and prudent increases in defense expenditures, but he did not alter his determination to cap military spending, even during the Berlin blockade of 1948–49.

Across town, Forrestal, whom Truman had appointed as the nation’s first secretary of defense, grew more nervous. His military chiefs told him that the United States’ commitments now far exceeded its capabilities and that U.S. moves and Soviet countermeasures made war more likely. They were correct on both points. Yet Truman would not budge. Austerity meant that risks had to be managed, not eliminated. So the president bet that a major war would not erupt and decided to maintain his domestic priorities, co-opt former enemies rather than engage the new adversary, pursue foreign economic reconstruction instead of domestic rearmament, and focus on reconstructing Western Europe rather than getting entangled in China. When the military chiefs pushed back and Forrestal equivocated, Truman dismissed him.


The North Korean attack across the 38th parallel in June 1950 put an end to half a decade of scarcity in U.S. military budgeting. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States almost tripled its defense expenditures as a percentage of GDP and more than doubled its forces. Only a tiny percentage of this vast increase actually went to the conflict in Korea; most of it was to prepare for waging a total global war with the Soviet Union, following the logic articulated in April 1950 by NSC-68, a top-secret State Department study that advocated a major U.S. rearmament to contain Soviet expansion.

In 1953, however, the newly elected president, Dwight Eisenhower, made it clear that he did not think the buildup could be sustained. He argued that the foundation of military strength was economic strength and that the key to economic strength was fiscal solvency. A few months before the election, he wrote a close friend, “The financial solvency and economic soundness of the United States constitute the first requisite to collective security in the free world. That comes before all else.” He believed that defense expenditures had to be reined in and the budget balanced, and when he took office, he set about putting his ideas into practice.

Eisenhower quickly ordered a comprehensive reassessment of U.S. national security strategy in the form of the famed Project Solarium, perhaps the most thorough such reassessment ever undertaken. Task forces were created to argue for three different approaches. Eisenhower claimed to be impressed by elements of all three and instructed that they be integrated into a new comprehensive national security policy statement. In truth, the study produced no substantive change in the strategic concept of containment and no revision of the view that the United States had to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining control of the preponderant resources of Europe and Asia. But it reinforced Eisenhower’s determination that this objective be pursued with far more fiscal prudence than it had been during the Truman administration’s last years.

Eisenhower’s so-called New Look policy and the doctrines of deterrence and massive retaliation put a premium on airpower and atomic weapons. The president constrained the growth of conventional land forces and talked a lot about ratcheting down the U.S. troop commitment to NATO. At the same time, however, the president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, actually expanded U.S. commitments and formed new alliances.

Eventually, as Soviet strategic capabilities mounted, as the demands of U.S. allies became more insistent, and as revolutionary nationalist ferment spread, Eisenhower’s approach attracted more and more criticism. The budgetary constraints the president advocated could not persist when his basic strategic concept remained unchanged; as U.S. interests on the periphery grew and as U.S. claims about the credibility of its commitments became more frequent, the gap between goals and tactics widened.

In 1953–54, Eisenhower’s fiscal prudence was warranted, but his administration failed to adjust the country’s long-term strategy to accord with the austere budgets that the president deemed desirable. The actual budgets passed were never all that austere, in fact, and U.S. strategic capabilities mounted rapidly. But the gap between means and ends grew even more quickly, ineluctably leading to a new wave of expenditures, weapons, doctrines, and interventions during Eisenhower’s last years in office, and even more so during the 1960s.

In 1940–41, austerity nurtured an enduring strategic concept, and from 1946 to 1949, it bred a nuanced sense of threat perception and a sophisticated calibration of priorities. But in 1953–54, its consequences were more mixed. The New Look was designed to manage the widening gap between goals and tactics -- something that was feasible for Eisenhower, given his skills and stature, but harder for his successors, who had trouble juggling partisan politics, organizational pressures, mounting Soviet strategic capabilities, and the growing turbulence in the Third World.


Even as they conducted their far-reaching strategic reassessment in 1953–54, Eisenhower and Dulles essentially ignored one plausible way to bring U.S. ends and means into balance: using détente to try to ratchet down the Cold War. Eisenhower never ruled out negotiations; indeed, he showed interest in arms control and consummated a treaty with the Soviets in 1955 that reestablished the Austrian state. But he saw talking to adversaries as less important than negotiating and solidifying alliances with existing or potential friends.

Nearly two decades later, however, having come to office at the peak of a stalemated conflict in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, followed a different course. They, too, did not change the nation’s basic strategic concept; the Soviet Union remained the key adversary, and the strategy of containment was not abandoned. But facing financial constraints, they tried hard to find innovative ways of getting the Soviets to exercise self-restraint.

Nixon and Kissinger recognized that the world was changing. They dwelled on the evolution of multipolarity, the revitalization of U.S. allies in Western Europe and Northeast Asia, the intensification of the Sino-Soviet split, and the assertiveness of nationalist leaders in developing countries seeking to reconfigure the international economic order. They also wanted to extricate the United States from Vietnam with the country’s honor and credibility intact. But they were beleaguered by partisan acrimony, urban strife, racial tensions, inflationary pressures, gold outflows, and financial constraints at home. Although they outlined in detail the need for a prudent pursuit of interests in an international order characterized by the Soviet Union’s formidable strategic capabilities and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, they defined U.S. interests more ambiguously.

Their challenge was to design a strategy to balance Soviet power in a taxing political, fiscal, and legislative environment. They did not seek to reexamine goals; instead, they maneuvered to pursue existing goals more cheaply and efficiently. The Nixon Doctrine (which called on U.S. allies in Asia to provide for their own defense), détente with the Kremlin, the opening of relations with Beijing, covert actions in southern Africa, Chile, and elsewhere -- all these were efforts to bolster the United States’ allies, divide its adversaries, and contain Soviet power without getting trapped in new wars (something the public would not tolerate) or needing to reacquire strategic supremacy (something Congress would not fund). As Nixon put it in a memo to Alexander Haig, his deputy national security adviser, and Kissinger in May 1972, “All of us who have worked on [the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] problem know that the deal we are making is in our best interest, but for a very practical reason that the right-wing will never understand -- that we simply can’t get from the Congress the additional funds needed to continue the arms race with the Soviets in either the defensive or offensive missile category.”

Nixon and Kissinger did not close the gap between resources and commitments or between means and ends. But they improvised dexterously by engaging adversaries and handing over greater responsibility to allies. They retooled U.S. policy in order to continue pursuing the core elements of containment during an era of perceived decline, marked by turbulent politics at home and eroding strength and credibility abroad.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers knew that a period of defense cuts was inevitable. President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell understood that the public and Congress expected a peace dividend. They prepared to make necessary cuts -- including of more than a million military and civilian personnel -- as part of a coherent post–Cold War strategy. It was just such a strategy that Bush intended to announce in Aspen, Colorado, on August 2, 1990, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein suddenly invaded Kuwait.

The subsequent crisis forced a postponement of the planning for retrenchment, but the administration returned to it after the Gulf War ended. The challenge was daunting. Officials knew they had to make cuts but did not want to cut as much as Congress and the public did. Yet everyone could see that for the time being, the international environment was remarkably benign. Without a global threat to guide them, Cheney and his planners stressed regional “challenges,” arguing that the overriding threat now was “uncertainty” or “unpredictability.”

In such an environment, they said, U.S. forces needed to be configured to allow the country to exert leadership and shape the future. This required capabilities to maintain nuclear deterrence, strengthen and enlarge alliances, establish forward presence, and project power -- especially in the Persian Gulf, the greater Middle East, and Northeast Asia. The country also had to preserve its ability to reconstitute a large and powerful military relatively quickly should the need arise.

As planners in the Pentagon designed the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, they retained two crucial concepts from U.S. strategy during the Cold War. The United States, they argued, had to “preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to [its] interests.” (The regions listed included Europe, East Asia, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and Latin America.) And they insisted that the United States needed defensive capabilities sufficient to create an international order conducive to its way of life -- much as previous officials had believed that a balance of power preponderantly favorable to the United States was critical to preserving democratic capitalism at home.

Given the austere domestic fiscal environment, the Bush administration’s strategic concept -- preparing for uncertainty, shaping the future, thwarting regional instability -- guaranteed another growing gap between means and ends. The United States did not face any peer competitors and would not for years or possibly decades to come. But so long as the administration’s goals were so ambitious, the United States’ threats so vague, and its interests so ill defined, U.S. capabilities would never be sufficient to address all the regional and humanitarian crises that would inevitably arise. By the end of the 1990s, the United States and its allies were responsible for almost 75 percent of global military spending, compared with six percent for China and Russia combined, even as many commentators lambasted the Clinton administration for paying insufficient attention to defense. Yet that administration, too, had embraced the core elements of Cheney’s regional defense strategy.


What lessons does all this history teach? First, that the negative consequences of defense austerity have been exaggerated. The United States did not leave itself vulnerable to attack during its retreat from a global presence after 1919. Given the absence of threats in the 1920s and the constraints on British, German, and Japanese forces until the mid-1930s, U.S. defense policies were not imprudent in the aftermath of World War I. Likewise, the limited defense budgets of 1946–49 did not cause the Cold War or stifle creative responses to looming threats. The rancorous domestic climate and austere budget environment that characterized the last years of the Vietnam War did not stymie creative adaptation, and there is no reason to believe that inadequate U.S. military spending triggered the Islamic Revolution in Iran or Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Nor did demands for a peace dividend after the Cold War prevent the first Bush administration from formulating a new strategy designed to sustain American hegemony.

The country did struggle with various problems during these times of budget cuts, of course. But those problems were rarely, or only partly, the result of austerity itself. Too often, officials clung to prevailing strategic concepts without fully reassessing their utility, reappraising their costs and benefits, reexamining threats and opportunities, or rethinking goals and tactics. The country’s worst military problems of the post–World War II era -- China’s intervention in the Korean War, the quagmire in Vietnam, the morass in Iraq -- had nothing to do with tight budgets.

The second lesson stresses the importance of having a coherent strategic concept, a clear assessment of threats, a precise delineation of interests and goals, and a calibrated sense of priorities. And in this regard, history shows that austerity can help rather than hurt, as it did in 1940–41 and 1946–49. Strategy in a time of austerity should emphasize an artful combination of initiatives to reassure allies and engage adversaries. Eisenhower and Dulles put much more stress on the former, and Nixon and Kissinger, on the latter, but reassurance and engagement are both essential, and good judgment is a prerequisite to configuring the right mixture of the two.

One reason austerity has gotten such a bad reputation is that other factors, such as bureaucratic and domestic politics, often enter the picture and cause Washington to cut the wrong things in the wrong ways or fail to perceive and respond to new challenges and opportunities. Turf battles and distrust -- and the sheer complexity of redirecting such a giant enterprise as U.S. defense and security policy -- have often undermined careful, comprehensive planning. But that happens in good economic times as well, probably even more so than in bad ones.

The truth is that the sort of austerity the Pentagon now faces is not all that severe. The United States currently spends more on its military than all its geopolitical competitors combined and will continue to do so even after the coming cuts have taken place. Defense spending will not be slashed but simply decline a bit -- or possibly just grow at a slower rate. This shift should not become a cause for despair but rather be treated as a spur to efficiency, creativity, discipline, and, above all, prudence. Past bouts of austerity have led U.S. officials to recognize that the ultimate source of national security is domestic economic vitality within an open world order -- not U.S. military strength or its wanton use. Relearning that lesson today would be a good thing indeed.

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  • 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.
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