Cut defense spending? What Would Coolidge Do?

While the new Congress brings in a group of conservative freshmen (and -women), they seem to remain conflicted as to whether the military should be included in spending cuts of any significance, renewing the tug-of-war between fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. Writing on reason.com last November, Peter Suderman noted that while many conservative individuals and organizations (such as Coolidge fan Sarah Palin, AEI and the Heritage Foundation) stood squarely against military spending cuts,  Ron and Rand Paul, both early advocates for cutting defense, were being joined by other Republican notables such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen.-elect Pat Toomey.

For what it’s worth -and notwithstanding the completely different scenario the U.S. finds itself in today vs. the 1920s- it should be very clear that if Calvin Coolidge were in the White House today, and faced with the present budget crisis, he would not hesitate to cut, squeeze and trim the military budget just like any other part of the bloated federal government.

Here’s an extended quote from his address at the 12th seminannual meeting of the Business Organization of the Government, given January 29th, 1927:

The public debt has a direct connection with the question of military preparedness. To the extent that we are able to reduce our public debt and to eliminate the vast charges of interest thereon, to that extent are we adding to our military preparedness [emphasis added] (…).

(…)Aside from the many and other more important reasons, we should, from a financial standpoint alone, refrain from any gesture which could possibly be construed as militaristic. There are in the nation people who advocate policies which would place us in a militaristic attitude. There are others who beguile themselves with a feeling of absolute safety and preach a doctrine of extreme pacifism. Both of these are dangerous to our continued peace and prosperity. What we need, and all that we need, for national protection is adequate preparedness. (…)

I am for adequate military preparedness. It is a question to which I always give the most serious thought in my recommendations to the Congress in the budget message. As Commander in Chief of the Army and of the Navy, the Chief Executive of this nation has an emphatic responsibility for this phase of our welfare. As a nation we are advocates of peace. Not only should we refrain from any act which might be construed as calling for competition in armament, but rather should we bend our every effort to eliminate forever any such competition. (…) Surely the best interests of all are found in directing to the channels of public welfare moneys which would otherwise be spent without reproductive results.”

Again, it goes without saying that times are vastly different today. The 1920s were the aftermath of the most disastrous military conflagration the world had seen up to that time, most potential rivals and foes were in disastrous shape economically and militarily, and thus calls for disarmament were mostly favorably received by the public.The U.S. faces a much more diverse and robust array of potential rivals, though few actual enemies.

But it is my conviction that Calvin Coolidge would be just as appalled by the iron grip of the “military-industrial complex” (as decried by president Eisenhower in his farewell address) on the nation’s treasury as he would be by the ballooning budget deficit. Given his laser-like focus on constructive economy in government, it is inconceivable that he would leave the military budget untouched. His priorities were clear: budget consolidation first, military spending second. In fact, many years before Eisenhower’s famous remarks, Coolidge expressed his view of the inordinate sway of the military over the budget in a newspaper column on May 11, 1931:

Some years ago careful investigations were made by General Lord, Director of the Budget, in an attempt to stabilize military expenses at about half a billion dollars.  So much opposition arose in the Congress that little progress was made. The Army and Navy now cost about seven hundred and twenty-five millions. Instead of a reduction there has been a rather steady increase in appropriations. The interests involved have become firmly intrenched in Washington.

The Sage of Baltimore

In a recent post over at reason, associate editor Damon W. Root takes advantage of the recently published new edition of H.L. Mencken‘s 6-volume Prejudices to praise the famous journalist and critic. As Root documents, and as any reader of Mencken’s works will find, the “Sage of Baltimore” was a foe of Progressivism, denouncing the prototypical Progressive as “one who is in favor of…more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.” Accordingly, he despised in particular the illiberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

Mencken, it is worth adding here, was largely friendly to Coolidge, saying he “has a natural talent for the incomparable English language,” although his assessment of the 30th president changed over time: where he had predicted, in 1927, that Coolidge would be “ranked among the vacuums; it would be difficult to imagine a more obscure and unimportant man,” he directed high praise indeed at the “vacuum” when he wrote in his 1933 obituary,

“We suffer most when the White House bursts with ideas. With a World Saver [Wilson] preceding him (I count out Harding as a mere hallucination) and a Wonder Boy [Hoover] following him he begins to seem, in retrospect, an extremely comfortable and even praiseworthy citizen. His failings are forgotten; the country remembers only the grateful fact that he left it alone. Well, there are worse epitaphs for a statesman. If the day ever comes when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Cal’s bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.”