Military Spending

Posted to on February 23, 2004

(This was originally a submission to Revolution magazine in New Zealand)

At the end of the Vietnam war, U.S. citizens heard about a "peace dividend" for the first time. Although military expenditures were reduced by approximately 25 percent between 1973 and the end of the decade, there were no benefits for poor or working people. This period was marked by increasing attacks from Nixon's successor Gerald Ford and then by Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president whose most famous quote is "We have learned that more is not necessarily better, that even our great nation has its recognized limits and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems."
Soon after the election of Ronald Reagan, military spending rose dramatically. At the end of his first term, it was exceeding the amount spent during the height of the Vietnam war. By all accounts, pressure from the USA on the Soviet Union to react to initiatives such as the Strategic Defensive Initiative (Star Wars) was one of the major factors leading to the collapse of state socialism. Reagan's Vice President said "We were right to increase our defense budget. Had we acted differently, the liberalization that we are seeking today throughout the Soviet bloc would most likely not be taking place." NY Times columnist agreed that Reagan's buildup "seemed to impress the Soviets as a challenge that they might not be able to meet."
After the rise of Gorbachev and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, hopes rose again about the possibility of a peace dividend. In fact, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney did order the military to cut $180 bn from the budget for 1992-94, about a 6 percent reduction, but his boss George Bush decided that the savings were to be used almost exclusively to reduce the Federal budget deficit .
Under Clinton, military spending decreased somewhat from the previous administration but only modestly. But by the time he left office, it was up to the same levels as under Bush the elder, namely just under $300 bn per year. Under Bush Jr. spending has increased sharply. In 2002 it was up to $360 bn, just slightly below Reagan era figures. For 2004, the amount requested from Congress is $400 bn--this does not include a supplemental request of $35 bn for the occupation of Iraq. This exceeds Reagan's largest, at a time when Soviet Union was still supposedly a threat to the USA. Now that it no longer exists, it is all the more irrational to be wasting billions with a rising unemployment rate and declining social indicators.
There still are a couple of Communist bogeyman left but the more reputedly dangerous of the two--North Korea--spends about 1/300 of the USA on its military and Cuba less than half of that. Notwithstanding this, they are represented along with Iraq as threats to the security of the USA. (Iraq's expenditures were about the same as North Korea's.)
Right now the USA accounts for more than 43 percent of military expenditures worldwide. It nearly doubles the amount spent by Japan ($41 bn), Great Britain ($35 bn), Russia ($29 bn), Germany ($23 bn) and China ($14.5 bn) combined.
Defense contractors have been ecstatic. Ronald Sugar, the chief executive of Los Angeles-based defense company Northrup Grumman, recently said he saw "very significant growth in sales and earnings" as a result of the hikes in budgets. It should come as no surprise that Donald Rumsfeld was an ex-director of a General Dynamics subsidiary and that Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy defense secretary, was as a consultant to Northrop.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to fully analyze what drives this profligacy, we can certainly say that it reflects the need of a declining empire to maintain its control over vast areas of the world. In a December 6, 2003 conference on Imperialism held at Columbia University, both Peter Gowan and David Harvey explained US military spending as compensating for a loss of economic power. Hegemony, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, would seem to grow out of the barrel of a gun.