Is the U.S. Army Really Shrinking to Pre-World War II Levels?

Conor Friedersdorf exposes the misleading claim that the Obama administration’s military budget will shrink the army to “pre-World War II levels.”

“Will our national defense be roughly as strong as it was right before we fought Germany and Japan, as a casual reader might assume? Not even close. What about the Army taken in isolation? No, that isn’t accurate either.”

The military in 1940 totaled 458,355 (no Air Force yet) and “sufficient as a base from which to declare war on Japan and Germany in 1941, ramp up personnel, and win that war.”

Today, the military totals 1,369,532, with just the Marine Corps and Air Force alone at 523,425 people.

“Circa 1940, the U.S. had a grand total of zero nuclear weapons. Today the U.S. has 5,113 nuclear warheads, [at least] 7,494 drones, including 161 Predators,” and ten aircraft carriers (compared to the one of its closest military rival).

“The military is orders of magnitude bigger and stronger than it was in 1940. That’s true even if every proposed personnel cut gets through Congress.”

And let’s not forget about American military strength relative to the rest of the world. The BBC’s graphic clearly illustrates the disparity.

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  • Delphine

    The last sentence of the article says, “So how is it that this happened?” I eagerly scrolled down for an answer. But that was all.

  • Lorehead

    The U.S. Army or the armed forces in general are not shrinking to their 1940 levels. They are, however, not going to be as big as they were during a total war with mass conscription, or during the Cold War. And that makes sense, because both World War II and the Cold War are over.

    • Ygorbla

      More to the point, what ultimately won us both World War II and the Cold War was not our standing army but our industrial base, which we could (in WWII) rapidly shift to war footing and which (in the Cold War) meant that the Soviet Union could never keep up in the long term.

      Even from a military standpoint, our money would be better spent on infrastructure and education to support long-term growth and encourage full employment; building tanks and planes only gives us temporary military force (which will rust and be wasted if it’s not used within its operational lifetime), while focusing on infrastructure and education gives us a stronger base if the country ever has to move to full war footing, and is ultimately worth much more in a protracted conflict anyway.

      (The reason why tanks and planes continue to be built in such huge numbers despite this is solely because they serve as pork for congressmen, allowing them to divert public money to their districts without concern for whether the spending is militarily or practically useful in the long run.)

      • Lorehead

        As for the Cold War, the anti-Communists were always ridiculous for believing every unflattering thing about Communism, simultaneously, which led them to believe both that it was a terrible economic system doomed to fail on its own, and that we needed a heroic leader and a big military to defeat it. Certainly, someone who believes that the Soviet Union only collapsed because it foolishly got into an arms race, unlike China, which is still Communist today, should be warning America about its wasteful defense spending. If, that is, those beliefs are logically consistent and not just excuses for nationalism.

        As for World War II, one big difference that calls for a larger army than we had at the start of 1940 is that, today, our troops are highly-trained volunteers, not conscripts we throw into a war of attrition because we figure we can absorb some early defeats. One big difference that calls for a smaller army is nuclear weapons. Not only will no one ever invade us, any power advanced enough to be a real threat has more dangerous ways to attack us than Japan did.

  • shawn duncan

    now if we can shrink the government down to ww2 size.

    • Unsphexish

      If any Republican representatives or senators want to voluntarily relinquish their seats in the name of “government shrinkage” that’s fine by me.

  • Kristan Overstreet

    First: 1940 isn’t a good benchmark, because 1940 was the year the draft was instituted in preparation for World War 2. 1939 would be a better benchmark. Second, rather than using an absolute number of servicepeople as a benchmark, we should compare the ratios of servicepeople to the general population. (Example: in 1860, just before the American Civil War, the Army and Navy combined numbered roughly 20,000 servicepeople out of a population of about 33,000,000, or 1:1650.)

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