A Brief History of the Pentagon: Prospects of Economic Conversion

A Brief History of the Pentagon: Prospects of Economic Conversion

After researching the history and impacts of America’s military-industrial complex, this article examines the prospects of transitioning focus to federal social spending, alongside the social, political, and economic ramifications of such reform.

Part III: Prospects of Conversion

Almost sixty years after Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech, the United States’ annual defense budget has easily surpassed half a trillion dollars. The impacts of which are incredibly complicated, though my first two essays began to uncover the danger in excessive military spending. After studying the initial development of the military-industrial complex and its impacts throughout the past century, this essay questions the viability of converting from military to social spending. Perhaps a portion of the money spent on defense could be better utilized on healthcare, education, or other social services that mend inequalities and improve the American quality of life. This inquiry is guided by three central questions about the current state of military spending; ‘is it necessary?’, ‘is it popular?’, and ‘what are the ramifications of conversion?’. These are large and complex questions; however, the analysis of spending databases, public polling, and academic journal entries allow their answers to become more apparent. Studying the prospects of conversion is vital to using the government to minimize social inequality, rather than launching another Vietnam-type occupation.

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, as many Americans felt their interests and values were being threatened by Communist forces abroad, they believed that the nation required the most dominant military possible to conquer those with different views from spreading their ideology. However, as the Cold War tensions came to an end, there was widespread anticipation of a reduction in overall military expenditure. Such assumptions were incorrect, as quickly evident by U.S. military actions in the Middle East as early as 1990. Defense spending continued to increase, though now it was justified to combat terrorism rather than Communism. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush conducted the most ambitious nation-building effort since the Marshall Plan. The U.S. military toppled the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan while providing aid to repressive regimes such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Military expenditure increased at the most dramatic rate since World War II, with the defense budget raising over $200 billion in the next ten years (to $805 billion in 2011). So far, the result of these actions has been instability and (according to a Brown University study) at least 500,000 deaths. Nearly twenty years after 9/11, sixty years after Eisenhower’s farewell speech, and over seventy years after the creation of the Department of Defense, the United States military continues to devote vast amounts of taxpayer money on armistices used in wars of conquest and regime change.

To begin assessing the prospects of conversion, we must first clarify whether the current amount of military spending is actually necessary to protect America’s national security. To answer this question, it is crucial to factor how the American military is currently being utilized. Most diplomats believe that the United States military should serve many roles simultaneously, such as maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent and protecting the nation from attack. Many Americans also wish for the United States military to serve not only as protection for our country but for others as well. According to this grand strategy, the United States should be deployed in all areas of the world simultaneously to spread democracy, oppose peer competitors with armed force, and maintain an extensive system of alliances and military bases. The degree to which America practices this costly military strategy is unique to the United States, explaining how a single nation accounts for one-third of all global military spending.

It is worth noting that, although this strategy helps maintain American influence abroad, it is not necessary to keep the United States safe given the limited number of real threats to the country and our expansive military. The strategy has also led to many U.S.-conducted regime changes in foreign nations, such as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Not only have these wars been incredibly costly, but they have also been counterproductive as well. Overthrowing the governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not resulted in peaceful democratic governments, but rather instability and chaos that creates additional threats. Rethinking this grand strategy could fundamentally change how the United States engages with the world. America will always be deeply engaged with other nations, but this could be primarily done through trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange rather than military responses. Without rethinking America’s hands-on military role throughout the world, it would be challenging to minimize the defense budget, and transition that money and focus on domestic issues.

Secondly, we must ask if minimizing the current defense budget is the popular decision that would satisfy most Americans. Polls conducted on the subject often discover military spending to be a divisive source of controversy within the American population. A Gallup poll conducted February 1-10, 2018 (just before Congress passed President Trump’s $75 billion increase in military spending) discovered that 34% of Americans believe too little is being spent on the military, while 33% reported “too much” and 31% said “About right.” Meanwhile, only 13% of respondents on a separate question told Gallup that the military is “Stronger than it needs to be,” and 39% responded, “Not strong enough.” A similar Gallup poll conducted a year later asked the same question found a similar result; Americans admire a mighty military yet are divided on whether they are willing to pay for it. In the 2019 version of the report, only 25% of respondents believed that the United States is spending too little on the military. The report also found a correlation between the trends of increasing military spending and a declining number of Americans wishing to spend more on the military. Only once did a majority of respondents (51%) say defense spending was too little – in 1981, as Ronald Regan took office under the promise of increasing defense spending. This polling suggests that the public highly approves of the military and wishes it to be powerful, yet they aren’t convinced that more military spending is necessary – especially as the defense budget continues to increase.

Lastly, we must analyze the implicit impacts that conversion would have on the economy. We know that our military spending far surpasses the necessity to protect our nation, and spending increases are generally unpopular though incredibly divisive. However, defense spending is not merely just a method for producing weaponry and generating profits; it has been the primary catalyst to stimulate the economy since the 1940s. Economist Menard Keynes showed that any massive increase in government expenses could stimulate an economy. The war industry has served this role since World War II, so it would be an ambitious project transitioning the central sector. Aside from transitioning jobs to the social services and possibly halting the “spin-off” technology sold in the private sector, conversion would also have countless unpredictable economic impacts. Therefore, a conversion may entail more than merely transitioning spending priorities, but structurally altering the current system entirely. Scholar Noam Chomsky frequently discusses the subject in his lectures, often taking a radical stance against both conversion and the system as we know it.

“Look: this system was designed, with a lot of conscious and intelligent thought, for the particular purpose that it serves. So, any kind of ‘conversion’ will just have to be part of a total restructuring of the society, designed to undermine centralized control … So, the first thing simply has to be creating both a culture and an institutional structure in which public funds can be used for social needs, for human needs.” (Understanding Power, 2002)

Another quote by famed Professor Seymour Melman further explores the ambition of conversion:

“The problem of conversion from military to civilian work is fundamentally different now from the problem that existed after World War II. At that time, the issue was reconversion; the firms could and did go back to doing the work they had been involved in before the war. They could literally draw the olds sets of blueprints and tools from the shelf and go to work on the old products. At the present time, the bulk of military production is concentrated in industries, firms, or plants that have been specialized for this work, and frequently have no prior history of civilian work” (The Defense Economy, 1970).

Ultimately, minimizing the defense budget is a much more complicated task than it may appear. Our military isn’t merely just a defense unit for the United States; it is a global force seeking to maintain an extensive system of alliances and military bases. This dynamic accounts for the fact that the United States almost pays more on its military than the following eleven defense spenders combined. This incredible strength is not necessary for the safety of the United States, though it is required for America’s foreign policy objectives. Polls show that Americans are incredibly divided on this manner, and most are torn between their respect for the military and their unease with large-scale federal spending. Without rethinking our strategies and goals as a military superpower, the defense budget will not shrink anytime soon– especially with the contracting and lobbying dynamics in Washington that encourage the continuation of rapid spending increases. Because of this power dynamic, significant cuts to defense spending are unlikely as they would undermine centralized economic and political authority. Many analysts, including Professor Noam Chomsky, believe that this dynamic cannot be confronted without a massive change in both culture and institutional structure. Although spending conversion could result in a peaceful and more equal society, the information I have gathered over the past three essays indicates that Professor Chomsky is likely correct. A successful conversion would require more than merely transitioning spending priorities; it would necessitate a more significant political movement involving military budget reductions, re-industrialization, and infrastructure renewal. The prospects of the popular mobilization necessary for this reform are doubtful, though not impossible.







Works Cited


Chomsky, Noam. “The Military-Industrial Complex.” Understanding Power: 

The Indispensable Chomsky, The New Press, 2003, pp. 70-76.


Crawford, Neta C. Watson Institute at Brown University , Nov. 2018, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Human Costs, November 8 2018 CoW.pdf.


Dumas, Lloyd J. “Economic Conversion: The Critical Link.” Bulletin of Peace Proposals, vol. 19, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1–10. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/44481368.


Newport, Frank. “Americans Not Convinced U.S. Needs to Spend More on Defense.” Gallup.com, Gallup, February 28. 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/228137/americans-not-convinced-needs-spend-defense.aspx.


Newport, Frank. “The Military’s Positive Image and the Defense Budget.” Gallup.com, Gallup, September 4 2019, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/248153/military-positive-image-defense-budget.aspx.


Posen, Barry R., and Andrew L. Ross. “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy.” International Security, vol. 21, no. 3, 1996, pp. 5–53. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2539272.

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