Underspending on the Military

Lately I have been listening to an excellent series of lectures, by Mark A. Stoler, on the subject of American diplomatic history. One of the points he brings up, following his lecture on Civil War diplomacy, is that the United States underspent on the military in the years after the war. For all the nation’s industrial and economic progress between the 1860s and 1900, the U.S. Government spent less than one percent of its Gross National Product on the army and navy.

Apparently rising powers tend to underspend militarily, “whereas declining powers tend to overspend militarily in a desperate attempt to defend their entire empire when they no longer have the economic power to do so.” (Here Stoler is drawing on the ideas of historian Paul Kennedy.)

I’m not even halfway through Stoler’s course, but I wonder: having come to appreciate a strong military between 1861 and 1865, why did the United States government let its military spending drop off to almost nothing? After conquering the Confederacy, did the U.S. believe it had nothing to fear from European powers? On one hand, we might reject such thinking as nothing short of foolhardy. The Spanish-American War and World War I, as it turned out, were looming ahead. But considering that the U.S. did not have to enter those conflicts, was it really so absurd to reduce military spending to a trickle? What economic gains might have been lost, during the second half of the nineteenth century, had the U.S. overspent on soldiers, guns, and warships?

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