The survival of democracy from 1946 to 1989
12:00 AM, May 22, 2000 • By VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
Was the price of victory in the Cold War the creation of a "garrison state" in the United States? Did we have to create "Fortress America," which signaled to liberals a dangerous militarization of American society, even as conservatives worried about a new federal octopus whose tentacles increasingly strangled personal liberty and free enterprise?
Not really, argues Aaron Friedberg in his engaging revisionist history of American society during the Cold War, In the Shadow of the Garrison State. Given the enormity of the Soviet challenge and the growing complexity of the twentieth-century battlefield, Friedberg believes that America remained surprisingly true to its allegiance to personal freedom and individualism. The real wonder, he adds, was not the growth in the defense budget between 1945 and 1990 (though the rise of domestic spending in fact far outpaced military expenditures), but that it rose so slowly. Indeed, Friedberg goes further still, suggesting that it was because the American struggle was waged largely by enterprising individuals, and not state bureaucracies, that we won and the Soviets lost.
To prove his case, Friedberg looks at fifty years of defense budgets, the size of the draft, the nature of industrial production, and the growth of government-sponsored research and development. His conclusions are startling: Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, defense outlays as a percentage of gross national product remained remarkably modest and static at below 10 percent -- despite occasional spikes during the Korean War, the Sputnik crisis, and Vietnam.
Moreover, taxes were cut as often as they were raised. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy alike repeatedly pruned back -- often in the face of fierce congressional opposition -- military requests for new programs and weapons. Even before the draft was dismantled on June 30, 1973, the rise in deferments and the military's relatively modest demands meant that there was little chance that Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six would actually be drafted. The share of eligible young men drafted fell from 6 percent in 1953 to less than 0.5 percent by 1960. In other words, we won the peace with just about the right degree of military preparedness and kept true to our heritage in the process.
But surely the military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower himself warned against, was a real threat to the republic? Actually, hardly at all, Friedberg believes. Local resistance thwarted vast plans for industrial dispersal. High tariffs to protect the arms industry were rare. Most good weapons programs were not the dividend of federal research centers or national arsenals. Navy yards, for example, gradually lost their hold on fleet construction. In fact, in historical terms, the government in the Cold War bought a much greater percentage of its weapons from private suppliers than at any time in its history, and quite consistently selected privately produced arms over its own in-house arsenal designs -- as the M-16 rifle, the Pershing missile, and innumerable types of fighter aircraft attest. Nor was military research centralized by the federal bureaucracy, but rather bid out to private universities and laboratories on a competitive basis. The result was that there was nothing in America anything like the huge monolithic military-industrial complexes common in Soviet Russia and China.
Friedberg offers several reasons America remained true to its traditions even in the face of the Soviet peril: the Founders' system of government checks and balances, the citizenry's deeply ingrained distrust of federal government, and the reactionary antics of states-rights advocates and populist agitators. But Friedberg also points to heroic individuals who warned that we could defeat the Soviet Union and in the process still lose our liberty, by creating our own totalitarian state here at home. Friedrich Hayek and the phenomenal success of his book The Road to Serfdom in the late 1940s loom large, as do warnings from the likes of George Orwell and Lewis Mumford. Hard-nosed cabinet members in the Eisenhower administration, Charles Wilson and Rowland Hughes, remained cool in the face of frequent national hysteria and consistently tabled proposals for state intervention in arms production and control of American industry.