Posted by Anita Folsom
On March 1st, $85 billion in cuts both to military and domestic programs will take place, unless Congress acts. Not everyone is alarmed by this possibility. Representative Steve Scalise (R., La.) says, “The most important thing is we finally cut spending in Washington.”
On the other hand, Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense, has warned that such cuts to defense spending would make the United States a second-rate power.
All of this talk about cuts for military spending is happening while the spending for entitlements is at record levels. Has this ever happened before?
Yes, during the first two terms (1933-1941) of President Franklin Roosevelt. As my husband Burton Folsom and I describe in FDR Goes to War, Roosevelt spent lavishly on social programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Agriculture Adjustment Administration (AAA), and National Youth Administration (NYA). At the same time, he slashed military spending. FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had spent about 16% of the federal budget on defense. Roosevelt cut that percentage to 8.2 in 1934. Defense spending wouldn’t again reach 16% of the federal budget until 1940.
As a result of FDR’s cuts, by 1935 military supplies were so low that General Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, spoke on Capitol Hill, pleading for enough funding to supply bullets for 100,000 soldiers. The U.S. Army was smaller than the armies of most European countries, including the Netherlands.
Why did Roosevelt follow such a dangerous path? Because spending on the military didn’t win him as many votes as did his spending on social programs. The WPA, for example, was a gold mine of dependable voters for Democrat candidates. One official in New Jersey even answered the phone at the local WPA office, “Democratic headquarters.”
Roosevelt and his staff studied voting patterns in swing states and funneled federal monies to specific districts. For example, in New York City just days before one federal election, the AAA announced that each school age child would receive free milk. Across the country, WPA funds poured into areas where more votes were necessary for a Democrat victory.
FDR built up such momentum about how he was “helping” the American people that he managed to get reelected again and again, even with high unemployment and a weak military. In 1936, unemployment still stood at 16.6%; yet, Americans by the millions voted for another four years of FDR as president. In 1940, unemployment was over 14%, but FDR maneuvered to be re-elected, partly because of the war in Europe.
In 1941, many chickens came home to roost. Thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and marines were caught in the Pacific when Japan attacked that December. Our forces were using antiquated weapons because of years of defense cuts. Thousands of those Americans died in battle and in prisoner-of-war camps.
During World War II, many of FDR’s social programs were finally dismantled. Congress ended the WPA and NYA, for example, citing the war emergency as making them of little value. But Congress couldn’t go back in time to strengthen our military and provide quality armaments to our fighting men at the beginning of the war. That would take time. A weak military needs time to re-arm and train. Perhaps we should remember that lesson today.