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© Frank


The Partisan Politics of National Security

by Chris Capozzola
March 23, 2020

This interview with Chris Capozzola, MIT professor and author of Bound by War: How the United States and the Philippines Built America’s First Pacific Century, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Could you start by introducing yourself?

Chris Capozzola | My name is Chris Capozzola. I'm a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I teach 20th-century US political and military history.

I want to talk about the politicization of the military. More specifically in this time period between World War II and Korea – when we see a real shift in Democrats' and Republicans' stance on the military.

I’m glad to have a chance to share this history, because I think most Americans in the 21st century take for granted that Republicans are the party of national defense, national security, and a big military, and that Democrats are the party against that. This was not always the case.

In the 1930s, we saw the reverse. The Depression was underway and war looming in Europe after the rise of Hitler. As president, Franklin Roosevelt was committed to creating an active place for the United States in the world, and understood the military as crucial to his goal.

Roosevelt faces opponents. Some within the Democratic party think of entering World War I as a mistake, and don't want to repeat it. The Republican party is concerned that expanding the US military would commit the US to being more active in geopolitical conflict , which might strengthen the Presidency at the expense of Congress, or the states, or the people.

Roosevelt has to navigate that tension as the war's really looming.

Once we enter World War II what happens?

In some ways, the debate about a military build up and aid for allies is intense and ongoing until December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor brings that debate to an end. During the war, there was bipartisan support for the war effort and for most efforts to expand federal power over the military. 

It helps FDR with the effort that he had been making in domestic politics to expand federal power. I always like to say that the Democrats won World War II. They convinced the American public that a strong federal government that provides for its citizens and is deeply engaged in the world is the solution to their problems.

If you took a snapshot of America in 1945, Democrats were the ones who were stronger on defense and Republicans were the ones on the back foot.

What is the context behind this Democratic position?

I think for many Democrats were from two directions in this time period.

On the domestic side, they are supporting Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. They really believed that an active federal government, at the national level, will do more for ordinary people to get them out of the Depression. They also remember Woodrow Wilson and his legacy at the end of World War I. Wilson was a Democrat. He wanted to bring the US into the League of Nations, but he was defeated, mostly by Republicans, but also by some Democrats. With Roosevelt, Democrats are pushing for the US to join the United Nations, and for the United States to establish NATO. They do not want to retreat from international affairs after World War II in ways that they had after World War I.

And after the war is over?

No one quite knows what the military should look like after World War II is over.

The military had expanded dramatically. 24 million men and women served during World War II. Everyone knew that it was not going to stay that big, but there were also new technologies – the atomic bomb, and the makings of what would eventually become the Air Force in 1947. No one really knew what kind of Army was needed. No one really knew if we should still have a draft. The draft was brought to an end after World War II. There were new policies for veterans, like the GI Bill, which was adopted in 1944. It was an effort both to reward veterans, and also to get them to show up at the polls and support politicians who supported veteran initiatives.

Everything was up in the air in 1945, importantly including, America's relationship with its wartime ally, the Soviet Union. The Second World War has created a very cautious alliance between the US and the Soviets against Germany, and that alliance just falls apart as the Cold War replaces the Second World War. As the Cold War emerges, you see a shift in terms of the parties and politics of national defense and national security.

What’s the shift?

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans support Communism. Neither party wants to see the Soviet Union succeed. Both parties agree that Communism is a threat to the American way of life. However, they don't necessarily agree on how to approach the issues, and between 1948 and 1950 the Democrats are taking the heat for any setback in the war against Communists. Harry Truman, a democrat, is the president. As the Chinese Communist party under Mao's control is consolidating its power, Truman is charged with losing China. Republicans use Communism to critique the Democrats, and that becomes a central way that Republicans have challenged Democrats on national security. 

It begins in 1949 with China, and to a large extent, it never really ended.

Ever since then, Republicans have generally been pushing for stronger anti-Communist measures, and larger military forces, and the Democrats have been put on defense.

The next war the US enters is Korea. What’s the partisan response then?

That's why this period from 1949 to 1950 is so intense, because you have the Chinese Civil War and the Chinese Revolution that leads to a Communist victory. You also have news that the Soviets have the atomic bomb. 

And then, in June of 1950, out of nowhere, North Korean troops, allied with the Communists, invade South Korea. The South Korean government is established and  supported by the United States. Suddenly, the Cold War becomes real.

Once again, Truman, a Democratic president, gets the blame for Korea. The US experiences some military victories, but a lot of defeat. Very quickly, the war in Korea becomes a stalemate between the Communist and non-Communist forces. This makes it harder and harder for Truman to say that the Democrats have the right answer on defense.

What's the public Republican stance on Korea?

It’s two-fold. There's certainly bipartisan support for stopping Communism and for supporting American troops and allied troops in Korea. But there are also plenty of Republicans who want to take the war efforts a step further.

Truman doesn't want the war to get big because he knows it would start to affect the economy. It might require drafting large numbers of American soldiers, and he knows that the war is not that popular. Also, Americans don't quite understand the stakes of this war - its complicated and far away. It's not clear to Americans why this is part of American interest.

There are plenty of Republicans who are angered by Truman's limited war strategy. Including General Douglas MacArthur, who starts publicly advocating a much more aggressive war, even while he's serving in uniform under Truman.

A wing of hard-core pro-military conservatives consolidates around the Korea issue. They maintain that position through Vietnam, through the end of the Cold War, and to some extent, even to today.

Certainly through Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the electorate respond to the transition?

I think the transition happens during the Korean War, but I think we can see it playing out for the average American voter over the course of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. 

Kennedy made moves to bring us into Vietnam, and Johnson, of course, expanded the war. He does this, in part, because he felt that, as a Democrat, if he did't send American troops to Vietnam, he would be seen as weak on defense. He feared that he would look as bad as Truman did for having lost China and Korea. Over the course of the Vietnam War era, you start to see the emergence of an anti-war position within the Democratic party. Senator Eugene McCarthy, a critic of the Vietnam War, challenges Johnson during reelection. .

This is where the Vietnam War is different from the Korean War. With the Korean War, there is a bipartisan consensus that the war needs to happen, that the Communists need to be stopped, and that Americans need to beat them -there was just division about who had the better plan. By the end of the Vietnam War, there is an anti-war wave in the Democratic Party, and that will remain an important force. It was critical of Reagan's Cold War policies. It was critical of the War in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and continues to be a voice today.

I think that a lot of us take for granted that Democrats are opposed to foreign interventions, or opposed to war, or opposed to a big military. That view only consolidated in the wake of Vietnam.

Do you think there’s a clear Democratic line on military engagement or intervention post-Vietnam?

I don't think so. In fact, you see deep divisions within the Democratic party today and in the last 10 or 15 years about when to use military force. Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright felt military intervention was necessary in the late-90s in Kosovo. Some of President Obama's advisors advocated a greater involvement in the war in Syria. But Obama's hesitation to committing US troops to Syria, reflected the ongoing reluctance within the Democratic party to engage in large-scale military commitments abroad.

What looks to some critics of the Democratic Party as indecision is in fact, actually a reflection of division. The party doesn't have a clear stance on the military in the 21st century.

It seems that there are similarities in this in terms of the Republican narrative. Since Korea, the GOP has been strong on defense, big on military. President Trump and a rising white nationalist sentiment seeks a return to isolationist conservatism. On the left, Senator Sanders moves towards pacifism. Actionably, how different are those stances?

I would make a distinction there. One wing of the Democratic Party has a clear spokesman in Senator Sanders – an anti-interventionist who would actually seek to reduce American troop strength, reduce the number of US missiles. President Trump, for all his talk has made few moves. And in the moves he has taken are anti-interventionist nor do they reduce the size of the military. Instead, he is simply shifting from multilateralism towards unilateralism. 

Unilateralism is about going it alone. This is what President Trump calls "America First." There was, in fact, an organization in the 1930s called "American First," which sought to oppose international treaty commitments, the League of Nations, and multilateral forces. In that sense, Trump is not inventing something new. He's tapping into a very old strand in the Republican Party, the kind of thing that was right there in the 1930s, and that Franklin Roosevelt had been fighting against when he was trying to get us ready to fight Germany and Japan.

There is a hyper-clear difference in motive and context. But what’s the difference in terms of orders?

The difference would be very visible in military size and its power. President Trump has made no moves to reduce troop strength, to reduce troop presence at overseas bases.I think that an anti-interventionist president from the Democratic Party would make those moves. That's the difference between a reductionist approach, or even a disarmament approach, and a shift towards unilateralism.

Does this say anything about party ideas around hegemony or global order? 

The years of the Cold War, when the US was a clear power on one side and the Soviets on the other, are maybe more of the exception than the rule. In the years before the Second World War there were multiple competing powers: Britain, Germany, the United States was rising. As we move into the 21st century, I think we’re looking at a more multipolar world again. The US will certainly be a strong power, but so will China, so will Russia, so will various European powers. 

I think as that multipolar world plays out, and as Americans start to understand that, they will want leaders who can help them navigate that. A lot of Americans, of every political viewpoint, are still operating under a Cold War mindset. They are imaging that we will always live in a bipolar world, but we probably won't, and we might already not.

Do you think, politically, on the right and the left, we need to acknowledge US standing internationally?

Yes. I think there's also a space in between that's actually quite larger. It's something that critics on both the right and the left call, "The Washington Consensus," which is a shared bipartisan viewpoint that the United States should be the most powerful force in the world, that it will work through multilateral institutions where it holds a disproportionate power, and that this will keep the United States the force that determines, that sets the rules, of the global game.

That's the most common opinion, the one held in the middle by most of both parties. That idea isn't at the front of people's mindsets right now, in part because it's not the viewpoint of our current president, but it hasn't really gone anywhere. It certainly is part of the day-to-day operation of both civilian and military institutions.

Do you think the politicization of the military is inherently bad? 

The politicization of the military is always bad, in the sense that it is bad for democracy in general.

In part, what people who live in democratic nations should want is for their military to look like their citizenry, to have a sense that there are shared interests, shared values, shared experiences, and when push comes to shove, shared sacrifices. 

That's part of what makes a democratic military democratic. By design military institutions are hierarchical and insulated from partisan politics and, to some extent, from democratic accountability. We have to trust them, and we trust them most when we feel like they represent us and that they reflect us.

Over the last 40 years or so, there has been a divergence in who serves in the US Armed Forces. This is, in large part, a product of the institution of the all-volunteer force in 1973, the end of the draft, as well as broader trends toward inequality: both inequality in terms of wealth, but also education and job opportunities particularly for young people in the 18-to-30-year-old range. This has basically made it less and less likely that all Americans will serve.

This is something that all Americans should be concerned about, and I'm not sure that there's a clear solution to it. I'm not sure that bringing back the draft is a solution to that. It certainly wouldn't give us the highly-skilled, professional, high-tech Army that we have now. It's not clear we should unmake the Army we have now just to solve social problems that are external to the Army itself.

There's a quote I think of often and will butcher, that is maybe misattributed to Thucydides, that says, "The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Do you feel like historically there was a lesser divide because the draft or size of the wars, or is this a reflection of rhetoric over time?

I think it's a reflection. I mean, certainly, the draft was the mechanism, but it wasn't the cause, if that makes sense. 


The service in the US Armed Forced by large swaths of the male population was caused by the draft. But the US Armed Forces have changed, and would have changed even if we kept the draft. We are an incredibly technologically advanced military right now that does best when people join and stay for a long time to learn skills. But as they do stay in the US military, they start to develop its own values, and when those values start to diverge from the values of the population that doesn't serve, then those differences get accentuated.

But I'm not surprised that only 1% of Americans have served in the US Armed Forces. I always compare that statistic to the fact that only 1% of Americans are farmers, but we still eat every day. But you might also say, "Well, we don't live as close to the land today. We don't understand our land. We don't understand our food." I think that same disconnect is sort of happening with the military.

We don't necessarily understand the choices that the military makes, we don't understand the service that they do on a daily basis. I'm not sure we can undo either our food system or our defense system, but we should think about what kinds of indirect effects they're having on our society.

I feel bad asking historians to predict the future, but I’m going to anyway. Where do you think we go from here?

Well, yes, you're right. Historians don't like to predict the future. But when we are asked to, we know one way to get it right every time, which is to say, "This too shall change." I really do think that is the case.

I think that's shown very clearly in just how rapidly the partisan politics of national security have changed in the past.

When some sort of demographic shift happens, or, God forbid, some kind of military crisis happens, they could shift rapidly again. 

The tasks of the US Armed Forces will also change in the future. We tend to think that large land wars with hundreds of thousands of infantry soldiers are over, but they might not be. There will be other crises, particularly related to global public health, to the global climate emergency, to natural disasters. That may require a different kind of military, and it would probably require different ways of thinking about who serves in it.