Monday, August 04, 2008

How The United States Embraced a Standing Army

Standing armies are not--no matter how loud the neo-cons shout--necessary to the preservation of a free people. In fact, they are the enemy of free people. The following is an essay that I wrote on how Americans moved from fearing a standing army to embracing one.

Hear Them Calling, You and Me, Every Son of Liberty [1]:
The Democratization of American Military in the Decade Following World War II

That totalitarian states such as Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics should possess massive standing armies surprises no keen observer. Governments based purely upon coercion—and bent ultimately upon territorial expansion—require a permanent military presence. Furthermore, under such governments, military life often echoes civilian life. The very trademarks of a good soldier—obedience, regimentation, and non-egoism—become the ethos of the people in general. However, democracies are purportedly different. The United States’ military machine of World War II was the product of necessity.

According to tradition, after vanquishing its German and Japanese enemies, the United States should have returned to a very small and internationally insignificant size and potency. However, the threat of communist expansion in Europe and Asia forced many Americans to reconsider the need for a ready and effectual military force at all times [2]. Basically, from an American military perspective, although World War II ended in peace between the Allies and the Axis, events soon unfolded to demonstrate that the U.S.S.R, while not engaged in full scale combat with the United States, posed a significant enough threat to declare the existence of a “Cold War.” Thus, the danger of communist expansion meant that the United States needed to maintain a standing army. However, to do so the United States government needed to change the military’s public image, “to make the army more compatible with a democratic nation.” [3] To this effect, the United States military embarked upon an extensive marketing campaign to alter its image, instituted a series of reforms to blur the dissimilarities between military service and democratic ideals, and ultimately achieved the blessing of popular opinion. These efforts were the culmination of the war effort, for they sought to secure the democracy of the United States, its allies, and ultimately the world entire.

Because a large standing army had no precedent in American history, military leaders such as General Dwight Eisenhower recognized the need for “public understanding, public support, and public action.” [4] This meant bolstering public opinion of the military in order that productive members of society would enroll in the armed forces or accept conscription. [5] To attract middle and upper-class Americans, advertisers marketed the military as an institution capable of instilling core democratic values and providing “educational and promotion opportunities, good pay, fringe benefits, and retirement pensions.” [6] As a cross between the Boy Scouts and corporate America, the military made itself less threatening and more respectable to middle Americans. As such, it became an acceptable vehicle to defend the Christian values, capitalist economy, and limited government of the United States against the atheistic, communist totalitarians.

The promotion of the military would most likely have been largely ineffectual had it not been for a series of major reforms aimed at realizing its proclaimed image. Among these reforms were tying promotion to merit rather than seniority, housing personnel off-base so as not to alienate them from civilians, offering wages competitive with private industry, abolishing racial segregation, and enhancing the rights of servicemen. [7] The military enacted many other reforms, but the ones listed presently demonstrate how the military actually sought to achieve its image rather than simply to declare it. Basing promotion upon merit echoed the ethos of the Protestant work ethic. Permitting military men to live amongst civilians announced that servicemen are no different from those not enlisted. Making military pay competitive with civilian wages and establishing an attractive retirement plan reflected capitalist profit-incentive. Eradicating Jim Crow practices finally assured that the United States was quite different in its racial policies than the Axis. Moreover, codifying new “standardized penalties imposed by commanders and court-martial boards” avowed that enlisted men would not have to live without the democratic values they served to defend. [8]

Opinion polls of the middle 1950s verify that the military succeeded in its wish to vaunt itself as an organization “to strengthen good citizenship in every military man, and to preserve within the military as much of his civilian life as possible.” [9] However, the real fear of communist aggression accounts for another reason people acquiesced to a standing army. Shortly after the war, the Soviets closed East Germany and, according to Churchill’s metaphor, an “iron curtain” had descended upon Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe. By 1949, the Soviets acquired atomic weapons of their own, communists triumphed in China, and North Korean communists invaded South Korea. In a way, the communists proved the United States’ need for a standing army as much as did the propagandists employed by the Pentagon. Americans soon realized that Stalin endangered the world as much as did Hitler and Hirohito.

In conclusion, the United States needed to maintain a large standing military in spite of the Axis’ cession, so the Department of Defense, advised by Major General James H. Doolittle sought to change the military in such a way as to make it “more compatible with a democratic nation.” The government succeeded in its endeavor to sway public opinion through a campaign of marketing and reform, bolstered by the real threat of communism. Historically, this represents a massive shift in American mentality, but the events of and following World War II were historic themselves. However, the changes in public opinion and military policy do not reflect a new post-war understanding of a democratic society, for the military portrayed its new image as the fulfillment of traditional American values. In essence, Americans did not become more militaristic, but the military became more American. In this way, it was a culmination of the Allied war effort to stamp out fascism and secure its social, political and economic ways of life.

[1] Lyrics from George M. Cohen’s “Over There!”

[2] Grandstaff, Mark. Making the Military American: Advertising, Reform, and the Demise of an Antistanding Military Tradition, 1945-1955, p. 299.

[3] Major General James H. Doolittle. Quoted from Ibid., 306.

[4] Quoted from Ibid., 301.

[5] Ibid., 302.

[6] Ibid., 304, 315.

[7] Ibid., 307.

[8] The quoted material is from Ibid., 308. The interpretation is mine.

[9] The quote is from the President’s Committee on Religion and Welfare in the Armed Forces, Ibid., 316. The information on opinion polls is from Ibid., 321-323.

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