From the Archives (Issue #12): Why the Constitution Did Not Prevent the Military Industrial Complex

By Ivan Light

The Constitution was intended to prevent a standing army. It failed miserably. Progressives must seek a return to the framers’ intentions. (Ye Gods!)

It is now 52 years since President Eisenhower warned about the risk of an “unwarranted acquisition of power by a military industrial complex.” In that 52 years, we have witnessed the maturation of the Frankenstein monster that Eisenhower feared. In addition to undermining the civilian economy and infrastructure of the United States, the damaging consequences of our warfare state include prodigal waste of human lives through the prosecution of useless and even counter-productive wars, all initiated on trumped-up grounds by the executive branch with the tacit or explicit concurrence of Congress. The military monster thus created is still strong and dangerous, and, unless defeated, it threatens finally to destroy both our liberty and our prosperity.

Reflecting on this disaster, the existence of which is not breaking news, I asked myself whether the framers of the U. S. Constitution were aware of the risk of creating a permanent garrison state, and, if so, how the framers proposed to prevent it?

In answer to the first question, it is clear that the framers of the U. S. Constitution openly feared and hoped to prevent the existence of “standing armies in peacetime.” Their repugnance to standing armies arose in part from their study of Roman history, and their awareness of the disastrous consequences of standing armies in that history. However, their repugnance to standing armies also arose from their understanding of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, then only a century distant. To prevent the monarch from turning the armed forces against the British people, Parliament had lodged the entire legal right to raise and support armies in itself, stripping the monarch of this authority. Parliament jealously protected this exclusive authority over the military, considering it a bastion of British liberty. The framers of the Constitution intended that Congress should have the same exclusive and jealously safeguarded authority to raise, equip, and pay armies.

However, although the framers dreaded the creation of standing armies in peacetime, and hoped to prevent it, the U.S. Constitution has clearly failed to prevent the birth and metastatic development of the very warfare state the framers loathed. We have just what the framers hoped to prevent! How did this failure occur in the light of the framers’ firm and conscious resolve to prevent it? Although an academic question, even a hazy answer may suggest ways for contemporary Americans to extricate ourselves from the clutches of the military industrial complex.

Writing in the Federalist Papers (numbers 24, 25, 26, and 34), Alexander Hamilton ably explained to contemporary skeptics just why the proposed Constitution, which is now our Constitution, could be relied upon to prevent the fearsome growth of standing armies in peacetime. Hamilton did not dispute the grave risk of standing armies in peacetime; he shared that concern; he just argued that the proposed Constitution would suffice to prevent that dreadful outcome. One of Hamilton’s arguments was geographical in nature. Thanks to its geographical isolation, once the United States built a strong navy, the nation could rely on its navy to destroy invasion flotillas at sea. No foreign state could attack the United States by land. Therefore, since the United States would not need standing armies to prevent foreign invasions, there was no reason to fear the creation of standing armies in peacetime.

Hamilton, however, rejecting a standing army nonetheless wanted a standing navy. He reasoned that the United States would need a permanent and powerful navy to defend its international commercial interests. He observed that a standing navy would never turn against the people of the United States as might standing armies. A navy could not enslave the mainland. Hamilton was a strong supporter of the U. S. Navy for both reasons.

Hamilton’s was a convincing argument at the time, but it plainly did not anticipate that the commercial and political interests of the United States would someday eventuate in a world-spanning empire whose defense would require the projection of military power overseas, not just naval protection against invaders. Neither Hamilton nor the other framers envisioned the United States as an imperial power with worldwide geopolitical and economic interests to protect and advance if need be by military force. Had the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, or the Afghans launched invasion flotillas directed against our coasts, the U.S. Navy would indeed have protected the United States at sea just as Hamilton expected. But Hamilton did not anticipate that the United States would use its navy (and air force) to land ground troops in Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the pursuit of imperial ambitions. In effect, then, this geographical argument of Hamilton’s proved defective in the long run because the republic became an empire, and the Constitution was built for a republic.

Hamilton raised another argument intended to set at ease disquiet and uncertainty about the ability of the proposed Constitution to prevent the creation of standing armies in peacetime. Hamilton’s main argument depended heavily, as he himself acknowledged, upon the legislative history of Great Britain in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Parliament had stripped the monarch of authority over the military, and Americans should take their cue from this enactment, Hamilton declared. As long as the exclusive authority to raise, pay, equip, and maintain armies rested in the legislature, Hamilton argued, the American people need not fear standing armies in peacetime. That is, they need not fear that the executive would turn the standing armies against the people in a tyrannical usurpation of power as, indeed, we now witness in both Syria and Egypt. Under the proposed Constitution, Hamilton observed, the people elected legislators who alone had the authority to raise and maintain standing armies. The Legislature was expected jealously to guard all its powers against encroachment by the President under the separation of powers theory. Therefore, the people could rely on legislators to prevent a power-crazed or megalomaniacal executive from unleashing military violence against them.

Curiously, Hamilton did admit one exception that threatened his argument. If there should arise “a combination between the executive and legislative in some scheme of usurpation,” he acknowledged (Federalist #25), the consequences would be grave, and would include what he called trumped-up “provocations” intended to bait foreign nations into military responses. The foreign nation’s reaction to our provocations would then justify standing armies. In other words, by creating a permanent fear of external military aggression, the federal government could wheedle from the American people the authority and the resources to support a permanent warfare establishment. Here was a nasty potential problem, Hamilton conceded, which, if it could not be solved, would imply, said he, that voters should reject the

Constitution. Hamilton was so distressed by this possibility that, although a supporter of the Constitution, he would have preferred to see it rejected rather than accepted with a standing army.

Happily, Hamilton found and proposed a solution to the problem he posed. In his estimation, the likelihood of a combination of Congress and the President was exceedingly small. After all, he reasoned, such a legislative/executive combination would require time to mature, and it was exceedingly “improbable” (Federalist #26) that a legislature could persevere in such a self-weakening course over a lengthy time period. Even “one man, discerning enough to apprise his constituents of their danger” would suffice to terminate the odious collaboration of legislature and executive in standing armies in time of peace.

Hamilton was right in a limited sense but wrong in the big sense. We actually had the man Hamilton predicted. His name was Dwight David Eisenhower. But we also understand now, through bitter experience, that Eisenhower’s Cassandra warning was not enough to protect the United States against the unwarranted growth of a vast military industrial complex over five long decades. In fact, a protracted collaboration of the legislature and executive in the maintenance of standing armies is exactly what followed Eisenhower’s prescient warning. Congress surrendered its right to declare war, and ignored most recently the War Powers Act that limited the President’s authority to commit troops abroad. This long train of events proves that the dreaded legislative collaboration in abrogation of its own powers and authority was actually much more probable than Hamilton realized in 1784. We now know that Hamilton’s arguments were inadequate. The Constitution he proposed did not offer the people of the United States a secure protection against standing armies in peacetime.

The take-home message depends on one’s mood. If one is in a pessimistic mood, the sad reality of our healthy military industrial complex and sick economy reminds one of classical Greek tragedy in which a tiny flaw in the youthful protagonist contains the seed of his or her final destruction decades later. Moreover, also as in Greek tragedy, destiny overrules human contrivances. The framers hoped to avoid standing armies in peacetime, and tried to prevent that outcome, but, despite their intentions, their republic could not evade this tragic outcome.

On the other hand, if in an optimistic mood, we can take courage from the direction in which the framers wanted to go. Our military industrial complex is legal all right, but it is hostile to the spirit of the Constitution and to the plain intentions of the framers. Americans still treasure the wisdom and insight of the founders. The founders are on our side in this political fight, and progressive people should invoke the founders’ wisdom and intentions when debating this crucial issue of our times.