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Opposing Standing Armies: A Great American Tradition

It was only after World War I that we became comfortable with a permanent military.
Army boots

The founding fathers were almost completely averse to standing armies and believed they posed a dangerous threat to American liberty.

In contrast to the Navy, the Constitution stipulates that appropriations for the Army can’t be made for longer than two years. Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the main architects of the Bill of Rights, went so far as to declare that a standing army is “the bane of liberty.” And in his 1989 book The Present Age, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet quipped that “most of the time the Continental Congress acted as if it was more afraid of a bona fide American army coming out of the war than it was of a British Victory.”

Prior to World War I, with a few notable exceptions such as the Civil War, the U.S. maintained a very small standing army, believing that decentralized state militias were the best way to defend the homeland.

These days, however, it seems one is more likely to find a dodo bird walking down the street than a politician inveighing against a standing army. No doubt the very idea seems laughably obtuse, if not flat-out insane. But the truth is that such a view has been the norm throughout most of American history.

Before we can explore the consequences of a large standing army, we have to ask: what should be the goal of our nation’s defensive strategy? The founders believed it was to defend vital national interests that are necessary to preserve our existence. Yet most of our military operations since World War II have strayed outside this narrow criteria.

The U.S. is perhaps the most strategically secure state in the history of the world. We are the only great power in our hemisphere, and no one else on earth is capable of projecting enough power over the oceans to existentially threaten us. Yet judging by our military spending and obsession with security, one would think we possess the geostrategic position of Poland in 1939.

As Cato senior fellow John Mueller argues in an essay called “Embracing Threatlessness,” the only true external existential threat the United States could face would be if a “super-Hitler” were to emerge and secure Eurasian hegemony. And Mueller says such a possibility is so remote that we don’t need our vast military to defend against it. In the unlikely event of a super-Hitler, he contends, we’d have plenty of time to prepare for him. Instead, Mueller argues that a much reduced force would be more than capable of dealing with the relatively minor threats we face that don’t rise to the level of existential.

Aside from being unnecessary, having a giant military provides much temptation for misuse and abuse by those in power. The U.S. would not be able to engage in far-flung crusades to turn the Middle East into a shining bastion of democracy—which have only succeeded in driving Iraq into the arms of Iran, fomenting the spread of slave markets in Libya, and sparking a humanitarian crisis in Yemen—if it did not have vast legions under its command.

Beyond removing temptations toward nation-building, greatly shrinking the size of the standing army would also be a boon to liberty here at home. The founders worried that a large standing army would lead to tyranny. It seems they had good reason to. Congressman Eric Swalwell, a former Democratic presidential candidate, once vaguely threatened that if citizens revolted against his gun confiscation plans, the federal government would nuke them. “It would be a short war,” he declared.

The truth of the matter is that without a federal army, no politician will be waging war against his own citizens. Removing even that possibility could greatly aid in reducing domestic tensions, about which a recent poll by the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University found that “the average voter believes the U.S. is two-thirds of the way to the edge of a civil war.”

Those who want to scale back our military should have hope. Around the country, state legislators are introducing “Defend the Guard” acts that essentially prohibit the state from deploying their National Guard units overseas at the request of the federal government unless there has been a full-on declaration of war. Such bills have been introduced in Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wyoming, and West Virginia, with more expected.

Unfortunately, none have advanced very far (the Wyoming bill failed in February, even with Senator Rand Paul campaigning in person for its introduction into the legislature), but their proliferation clearly demonstrates that there is a growing demand to shrink the federal administration of the military and restrain its out-of-control militarism. As is to be expected, this demand does not have much traction at the federal level. Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute has documented the ways in which the military has previously blackmailed the states into killing similar resistance.

That being said, there is no doubt that the founders resisted the establishment of a large permanent standing army. It seems their fears have proven all too prescient. Perhaps going forward, advocates for a restrained U.S. foreign policy will be able not only to articulate the sensible reasons the founders held this belief, but also put forward concrete plans to change the status quo.

Zachary Yost is a Foreign Policy Fellow with Young Voices and a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him @ZacharyYost.