Monday, June 8, 2015

Presidents, Congress, and Armies

The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States were fearful of large standing armies, legislatures that had too much power, and perhaps most of all, a powerful executive who might be able to wage war on his own authority.  All were objects of concern because of the dangers each posed to liberal democracy and a free citizenry.

While it is often impossible to “gauge accurately the intent of the Framers,”  it is nevertheless important to understand the motivations and concerns of the writers with respect to the appropriate relationship between civil and military authority.

The Federalist Papers provide a helpful view of how they understood the relationship between civil authority, as represented by the executive branch and the legislature, and military authority.

Hamilton and Madison thus had two major concerns: (1) the detrimental effect on liberty and democracy of a large standing army and (2) the ability of an unchecked legislature or executive to take the country to war precipitously.

These concerns drove American military policy for the first century and a half of the country’s existence.  Until the 1950s, the maintenance of a large military force by the United States was an exceptional circumstance and was restricted to times of war.  Following every war up to and including World War II, the military was quickly demobilized and reduced to near pre-war levels.

However, following the re-mobilization required by the Korean War, the U.S. decided, for the first time in its history, to maintain a large standing army in peacetime.

American attitudes toward its military force have varied widely. Before the Civil War, with the exception of some Generals, soldiers were generally not seen as major players in American politics. Sailors were never seen as important. The Civil War brought out a surge of support for soldiers getting to vote, but that quickly died out upon the southern surrender at Appomattox. 

Another surge of interest occurred during World War II. As was the case during the Civil War, partisan politics drove that surge. Republicans hoping for soldier support for Lincoln were behind most of the soldier vote legislation in the 1860s. Democrats hoping for soldier support for FDR were behind the legislation during World War II. As with the Civil War, once the war ended, so did support for soldier voting.

It was only with the decision to maintain a large standing army in peacetime during the Cold War did political support for members of the military, and American citizens living overseas being able to vote easily in elections. Progress has been made, but problems remain. 

The Soldier Vote by Donald S. Inbody will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in November 2015.