Much of the opposition to President Obama’s choice of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel to become secretary of defense has focused on his apparent hostility to Israel and his seeming indifference to a nuclear-armed Iran. As serious as these issues are, Hagel’s Senate confirmation ought also to focus on his approach to our defense needs.
In September 2011, Hagel told the Financial Times that the Defense Department was “bloated,” adding: “The Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically in a long time.” The question is, will Hagel do so? The danger is that he will see his appointment as a mandate for cutting defense spending regardless of strategic considerations.
In thinking about Hagel as secretary of defense, it is useful to look at a precedent: President Harry Truman’s appointment of Louis Johnson as secretary of defense in early 1949. Truman was committed to a drastic reduction in defense expenditure in order to fund his domestic program, essentially a continuation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. When the first secretary of defense, James V. Forrestal, argued that in light of emerging threats, defense budget cuts were too deep, Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him with Johnson, whom most historians regard as a partisan hack.
As Truman’s hatchet man at the Pentagon, Johnson had the job of implementing the president’s commitment to drastic defense cuts for their own sake, independent of the threat environment. Truman saw the defense budget as what was left over after subtracting the cost of domestic programs from total government tax receipts.
Furthermore, both Truman and Johnson fell victim to the hubristic belief that they could foresee the future. The cornerstone of the Truman-Johnson defense posture was that the U.S. atomic monopoly (which the Soviets broke in August 1949) constituted an adequate defense against all external threats, reducing if not eliminating the need for conventional forces. Even the issuance of NSC-68 in early 1950, which delineated the threat posed by dthe Soviet Union with its newly acquired fission bomb, did not deter Truman and Johnson from their budget-driven approach to defense.
Johnson was especially hostile to the Navy and the Marine Corps. In December 1949, he told Admiral Richard L. Conolly, “The Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [Omar] Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”
This particular battle culminated in the “revolt of the admirals” that same month, when a number of high-ranking naval officers, including the chief of naval operations, Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, were either fired or forced to resign. But other officers toed the official line, even though their services, while not targeted to the extent that the naval services were, still faced substantial cuts. In 1948, JCS chairman Bradley had stated that “the Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.” But a year later, Bradley publicly supported Johnson’s decisions. Army chief of staff General Lawton Collins went so far as to claim in testimony before the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee that the reduction of Army force levels made it more effective.
Of course, Johnson was wrong. There was an amphibious landing less than a year later at Inchon, which broke the back of the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Johnson was blamed for the lack of readiness on the part of the U.S. troops that were initially sent to Korea—and his tenure as secretary of defense came to an abrupt end shortly after the outbreak of that conflict. But the effects of the budget and doctrine debates of the late 1940s lingered, adversely affecting inter-service relations for years.
There is no question that the defense budget can and should be cut. The danger is that President Obama has appointed Hagel for the same reason that Truman appointed Johnson: to take an axe to the Pentagon in order to free up money for the president’s expanded welfare state. But strategy, not budget cuts for their own sake, should drive defense spending and force structure.
A defense secretary like Louis Johnson is surely not the best choice to lead the Pentagon during a time of austere budgets. But this is what we are likely to get with Hagel. While both former secretary of defense Robert Gates and the incumbent, Leon Panetta, have warned that substantial defense cuts will adversely affect national security, Hagel, like Johnson in 1949, seems to relish the opportunity to gut the defense budget without regard to geopolitical realities.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and author of Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.