Commentary Magazine

In the Shadow of the Garrison State by Aaron L. Friedberg

In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and its Cold War Grand Strategy
by Aaron L. Friedberg
Princeton. 351 pp. $21.95

By now, most of us have a pretty good idea of how it is that democracy triumphed over dictatorship in the great strategic competition of the 20th century. But the fact remains that few could have predicted such a result.

Democracy, being an inherently weak form of government, was believed by many serious students of politics to be at a grave disadvantage in any protracted struggle with a totalitarian state. Not only were dictatorships more aggressive, they were also thought to possess certain natural strategic assets: centralized decision-making, a greater scope for long-term planning, the knack of keeping secrets, and above all a greater ability to extract resources from society to feed their military machines. Little did we anticipate that the Soviet Union’s textbook advantages would prove in the long run to be its undoing. Nor would we have thought that America’s repeated reluctance to match the USSR in an all-out military mobilization would be one key to our success.

Only now are scholars beginning to focus on these realities, which take us beyond the familiar debate between hawk and dove, militarist and antimilitarist, that occupied so much attention during the cold war. In his lucid and meticulously documented study, In the Shadow of the Garrison State, Aaron L. Friedberg, a professor of international affairs at Princeton, advances the original argument that one particularly powerful factor in shaping the American response to the cold war was democratic “antistatism.” Moreover, this ethos—the well-known popular and business hostility to “big government”—turned out, in Friedberg’s view, to be a crucial strategic asset. It served to moderate the American military response to the Soviet challenge while at the same time helping to preserve the economic, technological, and cultural vitality that proved so crucial to victory.



The roots of the American anti-statist tradition are to be found in two sources that Friedberg traces in some detail. One of them is the Constitution, a document imbued with what Samuel Huntington has called an “antipower ethic.” Not only were the framers intensely suspicious of power, but their wariness was reinforced by a need to accommodate their Anti-Federalist opponents—those cantankerous ideological ancestors of today’s libertarians and antigovernment conservatives. This distrust of state power, already deeply ingrained in American political culture, was then further strengthened by the second factor Friedberg adduces: the rise of capitalism and the ideology of “free enterprise.”

By the mid-to-late 19th century, powerful cultural, intellectual, and economic forces thus combined to act as a brake on the growth of government. Although the American state did expand, it was only in response to definite crises—either war or major socioeconomic instability or both. And after each crisis—whether the Civil War, the upheavals of the Progressive era, or World War I—antistatist forces quickly reasserted themselves to compel a retrenchment in government’s role.



At the end of World War II, the time was again ripe for such a retrenchment. Americans were fed up with Washington. The war, notes Friedberg, had

brought more Americans than ever before into direct contact with the federal government, whether as taxpayers, draftees, suppliers of goods and services, or clippers of ration coupons. The results, not surprisingly, were frustration, irritation, and the rapid evaporation of whatever enthusiasm for a more powerful central state remained from the early days of the New Deal.

It was in this climate that the Republicans took over Congress in the landslide victory of 1946 with the simple slogan, “Had Enough?”

Alongside such popular sentiments there emerged a challenge to statism of an intellectual nature. Friedrich Hayek’s libertarian classic The Road to Serfdom, first published in Britain in 1944, became an American bestseller. In influential writings, Princeton professor Edward S. Corwin warned that the unusual concentration of power in the executive, driven by the New Deal and war, was doing violence to the separation of powers. And everybody worried about the bomb, with intellectuals of the day like George Orwell commonly viewing atomic weapons as strengthening the hand of the state against the citizen.

Finally, there was the postwar reawakening of the American business lobby, which, among other things, campaigned vociferously for a rollback of federal encroachments and a reaffirmation of “free enterprise.” One postwar leaflet circulated by the National Association of Manufacturers actually characterized the American Revolution as a rebellion against “government planners” in London.



Friedberg’s account is valuable in bringing these wider and often very influential voices into the history of early cold-war strategic debate. For together they created a climate in which, despite mounting international crisis, sharp increases in U.S. defense spending were made unlikely if not impossible. Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress lobbied for tax cuts, while President Truman fretted about budget deficits that he considered, in Friedberg’s words, “not only dangerous, but positively immoral.”

Neither the Berlin crisis nor the Soviet test of an atomic bomb led to a major military countermobilization on the American side. Fried-berg makes a convincing case that even NSC 68—the famous 1950 document used by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and policy planner Paul Nitze to press Truman for a defense upsurge—did not suffice to change the administration’s course. American remobilization came only with the onset of war itself. It was the Soviet-sponsored North Korean aggression, rather than any initiative by Washington policymakers, that created what liberal historians later lamented as the American “national security state.” And even then, as Friedberg notes, the initial wartime “spike” in defense spending was extraordinarily short-lived.

In this connection, Friedberg also casts important light on President Eisenhower’s contribution to American grand strategy. Although the Truman administration is rightly credited with the international institution-building that gave shape to the “free world”—in particular, the Marshall Plan and NATO—Eisenhower bore larger responsibility for the American “strategic synthesis,” a formula shrewdly designed to combine military strength with long-term economic sustainability. As a fiscally conservative Republican conveniently draped in the mantle of wartime generalship, Eisenhower ensured adequate military spending but turned back internal requests for major defense increases with the warning that America might become a “garrison state.” According to Friedberg, the long-term effect of this synthesis—over the length of the cold war, the portion of American GDP devoted to defense averaged a moderate but healthy 7.5 percent—was a posture strong enough to deter the Soviets yet not so robust either to drive toward general war or to run the American economy into the ground.

And there were other dividends. The eventual rejection of a state-centralized approach to defense planning—the spurning of ambitious industrial policy proposals, the use of private contractors rather than government arsenals to procure most weapons, the preservation of independent scientific and research communities in the face of pressure for government control—permitted the private sector to bring its own synergy to bear on the American defense effort. And this, in turn, encouraged broader evolutionary trends, driven especially by progress in technology, that likewise favored democracy.

Back in 1949, the former wartime science czar Vannevar Bush wrote prophetically:

The philosophy that men live by determines the form in which their governments will be molded. Upon the form of their government depends their progress in utilizing the applications of science to raise their standard of living and in building their strength for possible war.

Bush, a conservative, understood that technology actually gave democracies certain strategic advantages—if only democracies could learn to be true to themselves.



Though Friedberg’s close analysis focuses on the period 1945-1960, it provides a framework that also illuminates subsequent events. It is noteworthy, for instance, that America’s brief period of “unbridled statism”—the Great Society and Vietnam-war years under Lyndon Johnson—ushered in a period of protracted strategic eclipse. Ronald Reagan, of course, eventually managed to restore American strategic fortunes, but his inability or unwillingness to reconcile the strategic and antistatist sides of his program led to explosive budget deficits.

One could wish that Friedberg had provided more such comparative or historical examples to amplify his broader generalizations about the nature and strengths of democracy. But that is just a quibble with a truly estimable book. In the Shadow of the Garrison State helps us understand how American democracy brought us strategic success—and how that success can be sustained.


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