With the destruction of western Europe and the decline of Great Britain as a balancer of European power, the door to American retreat in the face of any new totalitarian threat closed. The challenge seemed to come from the Soviet Union, and this challenge as perceived by Americans has largely determined American foreign and military policies since 1945. Wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union had always been a marriage of convenience, although some hoped the social, economic, and political differences could be smoothed over to allow a peaceful working relationship after the war. Disagreements over Poland and Germany soon revealed the incompatibility of American and Soviet postwar goals. By 1947 the Truman administration was convinced that the world was polarized between the United States and the Soviet Union, and to protect itself the United States must preserve the balance of power against Soviet expansion. Truman came forth in broad rhetoric to tell the American people that the United States would support "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Not long after, the diplomat George F. Kennan in his "X" article in Foreign Affairs provided an analysis of Russian behavior and prescribed a response in the form of "a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." On these appraisals the U.S. government based its foreign and military policies and over the years perhaps went far beyond what Truman and Kennan had intended. In his Memoirs, Kennan regretted his failure to make clear that he was not talking about "containment by military means of a military threat" and his failure to "distinguish between various geographic areas." Later reference to containment to explain American involvement in Vietnam disturbed Kennan. Certain areas of the world were more important to the United States, he said, and the world situation had changed since 1947; there was no longer only one center of communist power.
Although the major change in American defense policy came with the Korean War (1950–1953), even before that conflict there was much of the temper of the war years. Despite rapid demobilization of U.S. forces after World War II, they were still larger than during any peacetime in American history; the military budget was many times the 1940 level; President Truman was pushing for universal military training; and the United States was heavily armed, with a monopoly on the atomic bomb.
Nonetheless, Truman was reluctant to raise defense spending above $15 billion, much to the concern of military leaders and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. On the eve of the Korean War, a committee of State and Defense Department officials described in a plan (NSC 68) the potentially rapid economic and military growth of the Soviet Union and emphasized the need for strength if there were to be any successful negotiations with the Soviet Union or any agreement on arms regulation. According to Paul Hammond, it was a program calling Americans to rise to the occasion by giving more effort and resources to prevent further deterioration of the strategic situation of the United States. The Korean War provided the impetus for the administration and public to accept the call: the national security budget shortly went above $40 billion and the number of military personnel on active duty more than doubled.
Events occurring and attitudes established during the five years after the end of World War II set a pattern for response to subsequent challenges to American foreign and military policies. Supporters argued that reliance on well-prepared armed forces supplied with the latest weaponry and stationed around the globe was a deterrent to war, while critics perceived it as an example of militarism little related to the defense needs of the United States and, as in Vietnam, sometimes disastrous.
Many conditions acceptable for achieving victory during World War II have been denounced as militarism in the postwar era. Believing that the war was essential for the achievement of legitimate national goals, most Americans accepted industrial mobilization, strong and sometimes secretive executive leadership, large armed forces, large military budgets, and the use of whatever weapons were available. From the beginning of the Cold War, however, there have been many dissenters who doubt any international danger and question the military and foreign policies designed to counter communist aggression.
Probably the most cited example of militarism in American life is the military-industrial complex—an alliance between the military establishment and the companies supplying weapons and matériel used by the armed forces. The relationship was not new during World War II, but huge postwar defense budgets and the great dependence of some companies on government orders brought lobbying activities to new heights and saw substantial increases in the number of former military men on corporation payrolls. Add to this intellectual, political, labor, and geographic interests in various research projects or companies whose operations represented thousands of jobs, and there emerges a vast constituency to influence defense decisions. Defense spending for research and development also has had great impact on the nation's universities. The historian Stuart W. Leslie has described how large contracts from the military have influenced academic scientific research and maintained or established new laboratories under university management. The science and engineering departments did the research, consulted, and trained the graduates for work that was in demand by the defense establishment with the result, as Leslie says, that the military was establishing the scientific priorities.
In his Farewell Address of 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against unwarranted influence from the industrial-military complex. Many critics of the complex disagree with much of American foreign and defense policy since 1945 and fail to see any challenge requiring a large military response. The sociologist C. Wright Mills saw a greater penetration of military men in the corporate economy, which seemingly had become a permanent war economy, while Gabriel Kolko argues that the military establishment is only an instrument of civilian business leaders who seek strategic and economic objectives. Many of the critics reveal the old animosity toward munitions makers who peddle their wares that soon become obsolete and necessitate a new round of even more sophisticated and destructive weapons. Modern weapons are many times greater than needed to destroy an enemy, but the nation's security is less than ever before. Failure to achieve international control over weapons, for which some critics blame America's lack of suitable initiative when it had a monopoly of the atomic bomb, continued the wasteful arms race and increased chances for their use—an unthinkable event, or so it seemed until Herman Kahn's Thinking About the Unthinkable (1969).
Opponents of postwar policies frequently centered their attacks on the president and his almost exclusive direction of foreign policy and his broad use of powers as commander in chief. According to critics, presidents have exaggerated foreign dangers and secretly committed the United States to other countries, entangling the nation in war in violation of the Constitution. Broad use of executive power from Washington's declaration of neutrality, through James K. Polk's occupation of disputed territory, Lincoln's reinforcement of Fort Sumter, Franklin D. Roosevelt's destroyer-base deal, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra deal appears often in American history. The American people and their historians generally praise and admire (at least in historical perspective) the strong, active executive, but the Vietnam War and Watergate revelations caused a reexamination of presidential use of power. Some writers who supported presidential prerogative but became disillusioned in the later years of the Vietnam War have been at pains to distinguish which presidents faced real emergencies and were justified in wielding their authority. The distinction is difficult.
Critics also note Defense Department influence in foreign policy decisions as another example of militarism. During the John F. Kennedy administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff at first opposed a comprehensive test ban treaty because it might reduce American vigilance and finally gave support only with extensive safeguards. During the Cuban missile crisis, the Joint Chiefs advised an air strike against Cuba, and earlier they had seemed at least tacitly to support American participation in military operations against Fidel Castro. Often cited are the optimistic and frequently misleading military reports of progress in Vietnam, reports that suggested victory was within reach with a little more effort. Acceptance of the idea that only the military people had the facts made effective challenging of Pentagon estimates difficult even for the sometimes skeptical President Kennedy. According to reporter David Halberstam, Kennedy's failure to match his growing inner doubts with his public statements would have made his successor's task extremely difficult even if President Lyndon B. Johnson had been less accepting and admiring of his military advisers.
No one can deny the widespread emphasis on military preparedness, the evident abuse of power by agencies created to improve American defense, the questionable American presence in Southeast Asia, and myriad other examples of militarism in American life. Reluctance to maintain a large standing army has given way before international realities that no longer allow the United States the cheap security described by the historian C. Vann Woodward. There have been attempts to maintain civilian control, and the Korean War is a case in point. The controversy between Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur over limiting the conflict to the Korean peninsula ended in victory for the president. While the people might wildly welcome MacArthur home and while they might be bemused by the concept of a limited war, they wanted little of his plan to broaden the war; nor were there many ready to accept MacArthur's belief that military men owe primary allegiance to the country and the Constitution rather than those "who temporarily exercise the authority of the Executive Branch." General MacArthur won a brief, emotional victory—his New York tickertape parade bested Charles Lindbergh's almost two-to-one in paper tonnage—but it was General Eisenhower, with his promise to go to Korea to seek an early and honorable end to the war, who won the votes and became the soldier-hero president. His willingness to please the fiscally conservative Robert A. Taft wing of the Republican Party and his search for a strong military policy compatible with a sound, growing economy—a concern not new with Eisenhower—was no surrender to militaristic thinking. In fact, he feared that a prolonged military program might lead to a garrison state, and he wished "to keep our boys at our side instead of on a foreign shore," even though some American troops remained abroad. At times, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles engaged in militaristic rhetoric, but policy remained generally cautious, although "massive retaliation," "going to the brink," and "liberation" were added to the slogans "containment" and "aiding free peoples everywhere"—slogans that undoubtedly affected popular thinking and allowed people to accept policies or actions without serious consideration. Involvement in Vietnam, where these policies and actions merged and gradually escalated, had no willing hand or perceptive mind to limit it until the commitment was very large. It was a self-perpetuating and self-deluding conflict without clear purpose, entangled in personal and national pride. Yet popular sentiment and journalistic and historical accounts of the war reveal a lively antimilitaristic feeling that challenged authority and induced eventual withdrawal.
For some Americans the end of the Vietnam War dispelled fears of militarism. Others suggested only abandonment of American economic expansionist goals as seen in the open door, or open world, policies would reverse conditions feeding militarism. For still others, greater congressional supervision of foreign and defense policies, limiting executive initiative, was needed.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union by the early 1990s understandably encouraged greater questioning of America's military and related policies that had been in place for over half a century. For many Americans the certainties posed by the fascist and communist threats were no longer present to bolster long-held assumptions. Ever since 1940 the United States had been preparing in varying degrees for one war or another. Was it not time now to enjoy a peace dividend? The question presumed that the new circumstances were strong arguments for change. There were reductions, but not to the extent that many critics hoped. By 1998 defense spending was 12 percent below the average level from 1976–1990. There was downsizing of military personnel, down to about 1.4 million in 1996. There were base closings, approximately seventy by 1998, but all proposals were strongly fought because of feared effects on local economies. Defense Department plans to cut military reservist positions ran into congressional roadblocks for similar reasons. These changes represented a halting, rather grudging trend. Michael Sherry, writing in the mid-1990s about America's "militarization," a more broadly defined and perhaps vaguer concept than the classic "militarism," believed that the main rationale for militarization disappeared with the Cold War and that America would probably drift away from its militarized past without a clear or formal indication that it was doing so.
While Americans like Sherry might approve the trend but prefer a more deliberate course, others worried that the country was becoming complacent in the face of future dangers. In 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen was concerned about a widening gap between America's civilian and military cultures and the possible effect on the well-being of the United States as well as the international community if the American people did not understand and support the military that helped to ensure global stability. The historians Donald Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan, in a study comparing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century with England in the 1920s, suggest that as England was unwilling then to prepare properly for defense, the United States seventy-five years later might not be maintaining sufficient armed forces to pursue an active foreign policy aimed at preventing war. The Cold War and its end, they argue, disguised America's continuing interest as a world power in maintaining peace and stability in an increasingly fluid and still dangerous international community.
These views of America's military and diplomatic policies and the dangers they pose for its democratic nature and its security are speculative. Finally, any control of militarism rests with the people and their traditions. Democracy is not always reliable, for a warfare economy has many constituents and overzealous patriotism may lead to uncustomary actions. American tradition is firmly on the civilian side. Americans have not easily accepted the martial virtues emphasizing authority and subordination, and, at least in theory, they have accepted beliefs in freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Nonetheless, civilian supremacy as a basic tenet in America's civil-military tradition is not above challenge in the country's history, even in recent years. The Truman-MacArthur controversy, while often cited as a victory for civilian dominance, was possible because other prominent military leaders supported Truman, and, as noted by the historian Ernest May, Congress and the public sided with one set of military leaders instead of another. The military historian Russell F. Weigley has suggested that the principle of civilian control in civil-military relations may need reexamination. He cites post–Cold War examples involving General Colin L. Powell, who publicly questioned U.S. interven tion in Bosnia while the George H. W. Bush administration was debating the use of armed force there and later was critical of president-elect Clinton's campaign proposal on admitting homosexuals to the military. Weigley also notes that General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, after retirement, was critical of aspects of Gulf War diplomacy. These examples followed the Vietnam War era when civil-military relations were strained by various policy constraints not to the liking of the military. Weigley concludes that the traditional civilian dominance may have an uncertain future. Obviously, tradition is not immune to erosion.
The historian Howard K. Beale believed that Theodore Roosevelt's more ominous predilections were restrained by democratic tradition, respect for public opinion, fear of political defeat in elections, concern for the nation's well-being, acceptance of a cautious middle-of-the-road approach to problems, and a sense of the worth and dignity of the individual. These traits continue to have support from an American consensus. When American policy seems to veer too far from democratic traditions, opposition grows, particularly if there is no clear relation between policy and national security and, in the case of Vietnam, if there are continuing demands for men and matériel. Withdrawal from Vietnam did not alter the general trend of American foreign and defense policy, and the militarism that critics saw as part of it remained, but the end of the Cold War brought new, if still somewhat uncertain, directions.
Complicating the outlook may be the evolution of technology allowing development of more sophisticated and precise weaponry. Examples include use of cruise missiles or other "standoff" weapons destroying clearly defined targets without widespread damage and casualties while preserving no-fly zones over Iraq or intervening in Kosovo. Does such conflict, called "virtual war" by Michael Ignatieff in referring to Kosovo, mean that this type of violence becomes more acceptable to people reluctant to go to war? If American servicemen operate their weapons out of harm's way and there are no body bags shown on evening television or if society is not called upon to mobilize, will there be less attention paid to such military action?
Technological innovation in warmaking and attempts to restrict casualty lists as much as possible are not new. One reason expressed for use of the A-bomb was that it might obviate the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands and the anticipated loss of American lives. What is new is the extensive television coverage since the Vietnam War and its effect on public opinion. American military leaders and politicians may be concerned not only about their own casualties but also about civilian casualties on the other side and appearing too aggressive, thus losing public support. Fighting a virtual war has many complications and unresolved political, military, and moral issues, as Michael Ignatieff describes in his book, and there is no reason to believe that the United States will retain exclusive control of the new weapons. In the face of rapid international political and technological changes, what remains for the United States is to strive to maintain the credibility of its arms in the context of its democratic traditions.