Standing armies were viewed with great suspicion by the Founding Fathers, who knew their influence could result in unnecessary wars and the corruption of the Republic when military leaders pushed into civilian governance. The Roman and European experiences were viewed as cautionary tales to be avoided. Seeing the US as relatively free of enemy border states and insulated by oceans, Alexander Hamilton argued for a strong navy but no standing army which could more easily be misused internally. The Founding Fathers understood that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, would necessarily need relatively free rein in wartime, but feared expansion of the President’s power over civilian life if war was a regular occurrence. They hoped to retain a limited government and a free citizenry of gentleman farmers and merchants as long as possible, and feared the Federal government would grow too large if involved in extensive wars. But the blessings of US isolation should allow growth free of the wars and power struggles of old Europe. Or so they thought.
The first great total war in the US, the Civil War, pioneered some of the mechanized death that later horrified Europeans in World War I. Trench warfare, repeating rifles, aerial bombardment (from balloons), and submarines were first used, and the barbaric strategy of destruction of civilian property and industrial base refined by such luminaries as General Sherman in his March to the Sea:
Sherman himself estimated that the campaign had inflicted $100 million (about $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars) in destruction, about one fifth of which “inured to our advantage” while the “remainder is simple waste and destruction.” The Army wrecked 300 miles (480 km) of railroad and numerous bridges and miles of telegraph lines. It seized 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules, and 13,000 head of cattle. It confiscated 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of fodder, and destroyed uncounted cotton gins and mills.
But the great armies of the Civil War were demobilized when it ended and the Army and its spending shrank back to the low levels of pre-Civil War days, though the size and scope of the federal government was permanently increased as a result of the war’s decisive establishment of the Federal government’s primacy over State autonomy.
President Wilson, after winning re-election during World War 1 in 1916 with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war,” called for a declaration of war against Germany after US merchant ships were sunk by German submarines. Also contributing to US outrage was the Zimmerman Telegram, an intercepted German invitation to Mexico to join the war on the German side, with the promise of return of former Mexican territory in the US West for their help. As a result public opinion shifted, and Congress declared war on Germany.
In hindsight, was US entry into World War I actually necessary for defense of the US? Probably not. The Mexican government evaluated the German offer and concluded that war against the US would be ruinous. American merchant shipping was supporting the British and allied forces, and while the German sinking of US ships in neutral waters was a violation of international law, having a legal casus belli alone would not previously have drawn the US into all-out war.
After the declaration of war, Wilson’s administration acted quickly. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed by Congress after only 73,000 men volunteered, and 2.8 million men were drafted to expand the Army from its pre-war 120,000 men. After the war, the armed forces again were downsized and the draft ended, yet the military remained larger than before the war as the US took on more overseas roles.
The pattern of reluctant involvement was repeated in the runup to US entry to World War II, with US neutrality weakened by support for Allied defense and finances via lend/lease in 1941 and full entry into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942. The US had started to build up its forces with the first peacetime draft in late 1940 and FDR needed to bring public opinion around toward joining the war on the Allied side. Japanese attacks in Hawaii and the far east led to the US and other Allies declaring war on Japan, and the players in the conflagration were set.
But one of the Allies in the war effort, the USSR, was becoming the primary danger to the West even as the Allies cooperated with the Soviets to defeat the Axis powers. WWII segued into the Cold War without a break, as the Soviets occupied the eastern half of Europe and set up puppet Communist states to form what came to be called the East Bloc. Meanwhile in China, the Communists under Mao evicted the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek and took over complete control of mainland China. The US, as the unchallenged and undamaged great power left standing in the West, never fully demobilized, with the strategic game of containment of the Soviets already underway and the defense of Western Europe left largely to the US until Europe could be rebuilt.
The graph below tells the tale of the upward ratchet of the size of peacetime forces as the US developed into a world power. After the peak of the Civil War and the similar peak for WWI, peacetime military forces had doubled in size relative to GDP from the 1880s low. After WWII, forces remained continuously higher as the Cold War required large occupying forces in Europe and the Far East. After smaller peaks for the Korean War and Vietnam, the draft was abandoned and a volunteer army (more expensive, but of higher quality) took over, and the advanced technology weaponry required to stay ahead of the rest of the world took up much more of the budget. The end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the opening of China to capitalist trade and industry reduced the need for standby forces and the number of military personnel continued to decline slowly, with the less labor-intensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan barely stopping the decline.
The Founders would have been interested in how decisions were made to go to war as the US became one of the world’s great powers. Isolationism and pure defense might have left the US without allies in a dangerous world full of enemy states — or peaceful and prosperous while other powers weakened themselves in destructive warfare. Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle was set in a world where FDR had been assassinated before the war and isolationists successfully kept the US from joining the Allies — but after the Axis victory, a weakened US was defeated by the German nuclear bombing of Washington, DC, and occupied by Germany and Japan. Such a chilling scenario is implausible, but fear of defeat by an aggressive totalitarian state drove military spending for decades.
President Obama has mentioned the concept of the “war of necessity” vs the “war of choice” — after the book War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars by George HW Bush advisor Richard Haass. Exactly when US interests are threatened enough to justify a mass armed response is never easy to decide, and an increasingly globalized world makes threats by stateless groups in faraway failed states more credible, as in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Defense from now on may require less conventional armed forces and more intelligence, rapid-response forces, and remote or automated weapons, with autonomous drones and fighting vehicles on the not-so-distant horizon.
 OMB numbers via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_military_personnel_and_expenditures.png
 And there’s an excellent adaptation into a miniseries by Amazon Studios: see “The Man in the High Castle” – Pilot Episode.. The book is here.
 War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars by Richard Haass.
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations
[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations, available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]
Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”
Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.
More reading on the military:
Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour
On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:
Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism
The greatest hits from SubstrateWars.com (Science Fiction topics):
Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare