Monday, December 22, 2008

From Colony to Superpower: Gilded Age Military

Rob's discussion of Herring's chapter this week revolves around why the United States so severely downsized their military after the Civil War. He points out (with real statistics!) how small the U.S. commitment to their military was compared with Germany, Britain, and France.

It's a good point. I do find the comment thread to his post slightly frustrating though. I think it's because most of the responses feel somewhat ahistorical. While I don't claim to have the complete answer, I think it's really important to consider how Americans thought about their government and their role in the world during these years.

In a New Yorker profile of Karl Rove from I think 2003, Rove talks about how he wanted to send government back to the Gilded Age. He's a hypocrite and liar of course; he only wanted to kill social programs while creating a gigantic military and apparatus for the government to spy on American citizens. But there's a reason Rove and Grover Norquist look back at the Gilded Age as an ideal--it was a period when you actually could drown government in a bathtub.

Certainly, as Rob rightfully points out, the U.S. had the capability to create a strong central government and powerful military. It had just done so in the Civil War. But Americans didn't want this on a permanent basis. The period between Polk and Theodore Roosevelt saw one strong president--Abraham Lincoln. The 19th century was dominated by a general contempt for government and never was this stronger than in the Gilded Age. Rather, business dominated American society. When the economy tanked in the period, as it did not infrequently, the federal government didn't turn to the Secretary of the Treasury to find the way out--it went straight to the robber barons. The Gilded Age was full of social problems, but no one looked to government to figure out what to do. It was assumed that politicians were corrupt, but even if they weren't, they didn't have the responsibility or even the right to get involved in American life. The president was intentionally weak; part of the reason Gilded Age presidents did nothing is because they thought it was inappropriate for presidents to spur legislation or play the leading role in American political life.

Americans had always been relatively hostile to even the most basic government functions. That Henry Clay's American System was greeted with so much antipathy is a sign of that--as if the proper role of government is not to build roads and other basic infrastructure. But for many 19th century Americans, even that level of government interference in their lives was too much. And when the government did take an activist stand, say with the 1862 Homestead Act, the basic response of Americans was to have the government pass the law and then get out of the way so that the people could use that land however they wanted. Moreover, the Homestead Act could only be passed after secession and in the face of a severely weakened Democratic Party, the more anti-government of the two parties.

Within this paradigm of business-oriented small government existed our military and foreign relations. Americans took seriously Washington's warnings about entangling alliances in this period, but as Herring states, the nation was never isolationist. While we might avoid official foreign treaties, we also wanted to trade our goods across the world. When we needed a military force, Americans just figured we could raise one among our own people. Certainly our small military was sufficient for dealing with Native Americans. We had raised a volunteer military during the Mexican War and taken half of their nation. Clearly the Civil War had proven the unreliability of this method of recruitment, but that could be seen as an outlier conflict for so many reasons.

With business dominating our interactions with other nations then, it made sense for business to lead the way in all parts of our foreign policy. It was business who forced the elimination of the Hawaiian monarchy and pushed those islands into the American orbit. It was business who began getting concessions from Central American nations to grow bananas. Since we believed that trade would lead to national prosperity, it made sense to many Americans that business would make a large standing army unnecessary.

Of course, none of this worked well for long. The Progressive movement sprang to life because government was not able to solve the problems that racked industrial America. Many of those problems came from the corporations running the country; eventually, this would lead to the newly activist presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. Similarly, this business model of foreign relations that did not rely on a strong military presence could not operate successfully against expansionary European powers or against the revolutionary movements that became increasingly common in the early twentieth century developing world. Ultimately, the real power of United Fruit in Central America was that they had the Marines at their beck and call. Certainly, business alone was not going to create the sprawling colonial empire that many Americans wished for by the 1890s. An activist government and a standing military both were a response to the failures of Gilded Age policy and Americans' increased desire for a more regulations and a stronger central government and international profile by 1900.

Again, I don't think I have provided a complete answer to Rob's question concerning why we had such a tiny military in the Gilded Age, but I think the basic outline here is helpful.