The Tyranny of a Standing Military

In 1787, while addressing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on his view of aJAMES-MADISON-550x439 standing military, James Madison said, “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”  He wasn’t alone. Well before James Madison addressed the Constitutional Convention, Samuel Adams admonished, in 1776, that a standing military was “always dangerous to the Liberties of the People.”  The first standing military in the history of the United States is a legacy of the Cold War (1947-1991) and it is now time to revisit the ‘buzz’ from the 1700s.

Madison, a proponent of a strong central government, is the last person I would have

even Years War - The Battle of Wilhelmstahl, 24th June 1762, in North West Germany

even Years War – The Battle of Wilhelmstahl, 24th June 1762, in North West Germany

suspected of opposing a standing army. What I lacked, of course, was context; the Revolutionary War. The British Monarchy was forced to double its debt to finance the Seven Years’ War. Sounding familiar? During the late 1760s, over half of the British tax revenue generated was dedicated to pay the interest on that debt. The Dutch bankers who financed the war smiled, but the people of Great Britain were taxed to the limit; they were enslaved by the cost of war. Living on less than half of the tax revenues generated was painful for Parliament so they began to pursue other sources of income. Hu-umm, the colonies in the New World were far away and could certainly foot part of the tax bill and ease the burden at home. Over a ten year period, Parliament passed a series of acts to increase tax revenues to maintain the standing military (in the opinion of the revolutionaries). To add insult to injury, The Quartering Act meant that the colonists had to provision and house the very troops that enforced the king’s policies at the end of a bayonet[1]. The new taxes and the coarse, profane drunkards that filled the ranks of the regular (standing) British Army in the colonies enraged a vocal, active minority and voilà, the American Revolution was born.

To their credit, Monroe and the other authors of The Constitution attempted to prohibit a standing military, other than the Navy. The Navy was supposed to protect commerce byNavy keeping the sea lanes open and free of pirates. That more or less worked for about 170 years. Armies were raised, wars were fought, and the armies stood down. It almost worked at the end of the WWII hostilities. The demobilization in 1947 resulted in a postwar low of $10 billion in real military spending. Enjoy that number, it is the last time you will see it! The Cold War was about to start and, with it, the beginning of the standing military and the enslavement of the American people.

By 1947, under the Truman administration, the seeds of the cold war were sewn. The American people, however, had other priorities. There appeared to be a growing awareness of Soviet aggressiveness, according to the polls of the time. Those same polls also reflected that most Americans were still not ready for another major overseas venture like opposing Russia. In November 1946, the Republicans gained control of Congress by promising a return to the good old days.. “We are not the British Empire” said they[2]. A crisis was needed to justify additional money for defense and the 1947 clashes over Greece and Turkey just didn’t cut it. Britain was close to bankruptcy and requested that the U.S. assume its role with the two countries.  At that time Truman, in accordance with the Truman doctrine, wanted to keep Greece and Turkey out of the hands of the Soviets by sending aid for military spending.  Greece was in the middle of a nasty civil war so was particularly vulnerable to communism, in Truman’s opinion. Truman argued that, because of the historic rivalry between the two nations, both nations had to be funded equally. Eventually, the Republican congress sent $400 million but no military support.

Luckily, a crisis availed itself when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Communists takeover Czechoslovakia in 1948

Communists takeover Czechoslovakia in 1948

Lieutenant General Lucius Clay, military governor of the U.S. Zone in Germany, fanned the fire with his telegram warning that war between the United States and the Soviet Union might occur “with dramatic suddenness”. Congress was quick to approve over $3 billion when President Truman called for a supplemental defense appropriation. Truman’s re-election speech denouncing the Soviets for their “ruthless action” and their “clear design” to dominate Europe was the opening salvo of the Cold War, a state of permanent national emergency and military readiness. The standing military was here to stay. Just in case we, the people, needed reminding of how bad things were in the world, the Berlin crisis began in mid-1948, NATO was formed in 1949, and, in 1950, the outbreak of the Korean conflict kept the need for military spending at the forefront. By 1952, military spending authorization was over $180 million normalized to 1982 dollars.

In 1965, Vietnam ramped up, supported by the domino theory. By 1973, Viet Nam was not

In this Sept. 21, 1966 file photo, U.S. Marines emerge from their muddy foxholes at sunrise after a third night of fighting against continued attacks of north Vietnamese 324 B division troops during the Vietnam War.  AP / Henri Huet

In this Sept. 21, 1966 file photo, U.S. Marines emerge from their muddy foxholes at sunrise after a third night of fighting against continued attacks of north Vietnamese 324 B division troops during the Vietnam War. AP / Henri Huet

sustainable, but by then we’d spent $1.6 trillion and lost countless lives. There were down-sizing of forces after both Korea and Viet Nam but the military was, in both cases, left standing. The Cold War was declared over in 1991 and, yet, the military stands. In 2012, the military budget, which funds Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, now reporting to the Department of Homeland Security, was $553 billion[3]. The conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan were funded through other appropriations with a 2011 estimated cost of approximately $3.7 trillion[4] and more lives lost.  We are being enslaved by the debt of a standing military.

Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and Iran are examples of conflicts that could not have happened, how they happened, without a standing military. These conflicts fall under Madison’s characterization of Rome’s use of its standing military, “…Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended...”.  When the military must be ‘called-up’, the Prescient and Congress are forced to air the issue during the light of day and the citizens have the opportunity to express their opinion. That is as it should be.

Mother and Father, Mary and Frank Moore before deployment in 1942

Mother and Father, Mary and Frank Moore before deployment in 1942

I can sit here and write this piece today because my father and mother, along with 16.1 million[5] others fought in WWII. My relatives, along with yours, have fought in every war and conflict this nation, the U.S., chose to engage, including both sides of the Civil War. It is not about the individual soldiers who left their homes and family to fight and, sometimes die, at the behest of their government. It is not about whether or not there is a draft or an all-volunteer force. It is about whether or not those soldiers get to put down their weapons and return home to their families. Since a standing military became the norm in the U.S., the government has enforced its will on all nations it touches through direct or indirect threat. We, the people who pay the bills, are not immune from the explicit or implicit threat of the military machine. Throughout history a standing military has become too seductive for power brokers to resist, today is no exception. While I understand that The Constitution has become an emotional icon, the ideas are fresh. The U.S. was great once, it could be again but not as long as there is a standing military and an advancing empire. If nothing else, the cost will consume the nation’s creative energy and still its motive power.


[1] The historical novel Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes is well-researched and provides an interesting view of the pre-revolutionary period through the opening salvos.

[2] Stephen E. Ambrose, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938, 4th rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), pp. 71, 79-82, 93-94.

[3] Department of Defense; Fiscal Year 2012;

[4] Trotta, Daniel (29 June 2011). “Cost of war at least $3.7 trillion and counting”. Reuters.

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