William Kamman

Near the turn of the twentieth century, Secretary of War Elihu Root told a Chicago audience: "We are a peaceful, not a military people, but we are made of fighting fiber and whenever fighting is by hard necessity the business of the hour we always do it as becomes the children of great, warlike races." Theodore Roosevelt's admonition, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," says it more succinctly, and the great seal of the United States with an eagle clutching both an olive branch and thirteen arrows expresses the idea symbolically. The history of the United States offers many examples of the nation at peace and war, speaking softly while carrying a big stick. But does one characteristic dominate?

Although the nation's rise to imperial size and world power during the twentieth century may suggest military influence, historians do not agree among themselves. Samuel Flagg Bemis, a distinguished diplomatic historian, described manifest destiny as a popular conviction that the nation would expand peacefully and by republican example; it was not, in his view, predicated on militarism. During the expansionist period (excepting the Civil War), the army and navy were small and there was no conscription. Dexter Perkins, another distinguished historian of the same generation, would agree with this interpretation. The United States completed its continental domain, he said, with less violence than usually accompanies such expansion. Perkins believed that Americans have only reluctantly recognized the role of power in international affairs and that they desire a reduction of armaments compatible with national security. Undoubtedly influenced by Cold War events, particularly intervention in Vietnam, many writers have challenged such interpretations. Dissenters such as J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, saw a trend toward militarism in foreign policy arising after 1945, when extreme emphasis on defense and anticommunism led to a national security state with huge military budgets, increased executive power, and greater commitments abroad. Others maintain that militarism emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, when—according to historian Gabriel Kolko—Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson "scaled the objectives of American foreign policy to the capacity of American power to extend into the world." Still others discern imperialism broadly defined as a goal of American policy from the very beginning and suggest that recent military events are the logical culmination of trends over two centuries.

Militarism, like its frequent handmaiden, imperialism, is an avowedly distasteful phenomenon to Americans. The term can be broadly or narrowly defined and may be tailored to circumstances. Noah Webster defines militarism as predominance of the military class or prevalence of their ideals; the spirit that exalts military virtues and ideals; the policy of aggressive military preparedness. In his history of militarism, Alfred Vagts distinguished between militarism and the military way, the latter referring to the legitimate use of men and matériel to prepare for and fight a war decided on by the civilian powers of a state. Militarism does not necessarily seek war and therefore is not the opposite of pacifism; in its spirit, ideals, and values it pairs more precisely with civilianism.

Although most nations offer examples of militarism, the attitude is most often associated in the American mind with Prussia and Wilhelmian Germany. Expressions of militarism and policies reflecting it were clearly discernible in the Germany of that time. The writings of the historian Heinrich von Treitschke and of General Friedrich von Bernhardi seemed representative of a general view that war was natural and right; and Otto von Bismarck, called to lead the Prussian king's struggle for army reform without parliamentary interference, emphasized power at the expense of liberalism, once telling the parliamentary budget commission that iron and blood, not speeches and majority decisions, settled the great questions of the day. For a time the Prussian nobility regarded the army as their almost exclusive opportunity for power and rank and sought to discourage the rise of bourgeois elements in the officer corps. Loyalty was to their noble class for the maintenance of its privileges. With his swashbuckling manner, Kaiser Wilhelm II epitomized German militarism for Americans, and the 1914 invasion of Belgium—despite a treaty guaranteeing that nation's neutrality ("just a scrap of paper" and "necessity knows no law" said Berlin)—represented the immorality of German militarism and its refusal to accept any constraints.


Coffin, Tristram. The Armed Society: Militarism in Modern America. Baltimore, 1964. Recounts the growing military influence.

Donovan, James A. Militarism, U.S.A. New York, 1970. Suggests a cut in military manpower and reduction in defense appropriations as the best means for controlling militarism.

Ekirch, Arthur A., Jr. The Civilian and the Military. New York, 1956. Notes the importance of antimilitarism in American history but sees the penetration of militarism through the technological implications of modern warfare and perpetual mobilization in the post-1945 world.

Gaddis, John Lewis, and Paul H. Nitze. "NSC 68 and the Soviet Threat Reconsidered." International Security 4 (spring 1980): 164–176. Comments on NSC 68, one by a historian of the Cold War and the other by the document's principal author.

Gholz, Eugene. "The Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Cold War-Era Defense Procurement: A Challenge to Military-Industrial Complex Theory." Journal of Cold War Studies 2 (winter 2000): 35–75. Questions whether the military-industrial complex protected its industrial components from going bankrupt by an examination of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954. Cambridge and New York, 1998. Describes how America prepared to fight the Cold War and tried to preserve traditional values and institutions.

Ignatieff, Michael. Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond. New York, 2000. Looks at the NATO action in Kosovo as a virtual war where technology allowed it to be fought with no deaths on the American side and was thus less than fully real to the United States. The author attempts to explain "why nations that have never been more immune from the risks of waging war should remain so unwilling to run them" by his examination of the new technology and the morality governing its use.

Kagan, Donald, and Frederick W. Kagan. While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today. New York, 2000. Fears that the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century was emulating England in the 1920s in defense policy.

Knoll, Erwin, and Judith Nies McFadden, eds. American Militarism 1970. New York, 1969. A dialogue among politicians and intellectuals who bemoan then current trends in military and foreign policies and doubt if they are defending the basic values of American society.

Kolko, Gabriel. The Roots of American Foreign Policy. Boston, 1969. Emphasizes that the growing military establishment is a result of political policy not its cause.

Lauterbach, Albert T. "Militarism in the Western World: A Comparative Study." Journal of the History of Ideas 5 (1944): 446–478.

Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. How the Truman administration coped with legacies of World War II and took steps to contain the Soviet Union but at costs higher than necessary.

Leslie, Stuart W. The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford. New York, 1993. The influence of the Cold War on American scientific research. May, Ernest R. "The U.S. Government, a Legacy of the Cold War." In Michael J. Hogan, ed. The End of the Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications. Cambridge and New York, 1992. Does not look with regret at the militarization of American government during the Cold War but questions how this government structure will fare in the post–Cold War period.

Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study of American Military History. New York, 1958.

——. American Military Thought. Indianapolis, Ind., 1966. An anthology.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York, 1956. Sees a unity of the power elite based on the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organizations.

Perkins, Dexter. The American Approach to Foreign Policy. Rev. ed. New York, 1968. Suggests that Americans on the whole have not been imperialistic and have not surrendered their essential liberties and democratic customs to demands of war.

Shaw, Martin. Post Military Society: Militarism, Demilitarization and War at the End of the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia, 1991. An examination of the concept of post-military society, bringing not necessarily the end of militarism but the possibility of peace, and, despite contradictions, a period when militarism is less dominant of society.

Sherry, Michael S. Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar Defense, 1941–45. New Haven, Conn., 1977. An examination of military planning to shape post–World War II policies and attitudes.

——. In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s. New Haven, Conn., 1995. A history of militarization, "the process by which war and national security …shaped broad areas of national life."

Speier, Hans. "Militarism in the Eighteenth Century." Social Research: An International Quarterly of Political and Social Science 3 (1936): 304–336.

Sprout, Harold, and Margaret Sprout. The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776–1918. Princeton, N.J., 1969.

Vagts, Alfred. A History of Militarism, Civilian and Military. Rev. ed. New York, 1959.

Weigley, Russell F. Towards an American Army: Military Thought from Washington to Marshall. New York, 1962.

——. "The American Military and the Principle of Civilian Control from McClellan to Powell." Journal of Military History 57, no. 5, special issue (1993): 27–58. Suggests that the principle of civil control of the military in the United States has an uncertain future.

Yarmolinsky, Adam. The Military Establishment: Its Impact on American Society. New York, 1971. Describes the influence of the military in nonmilitary areas.

Yergin, Daniel. Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. Boston, 1977. Development of U.S. policy influenced by what the author terms the Riga axioms and the Yalta axioms—one distrustful, the other cooperative.

See also Containment ; Continental Expansion ; Department of Defense ; Imperialism ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Military-Industrial Complex ; Nationalism ; Presidential Power ; Public Opinion .

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