Each election year, Americans are bombarded with Republican claims that the Democrats are weak on defense, and only the GOP can protect America. Historically, however, the Republican Party has been pathetically weak on national security – so bad in fact, we came close to losing more than one war.
After the end of the American Civil War, the Republican Party opposed maintaining an army of any appreciable strength. As soon as the war ended, the GOP-controlled Congress reduced the U.S. Army to a bare shadow of its wartime strength. They did this despite the fact that a very clear and present danger existed at the country’s southern border. At that point in history, the much larger French Army occupied Mexico. French dictator, Napoleon III, openly harbored a desire to wrestle control of France’s former Louisiana Territory back from the United States.
Nevertheless, Republicans repeatedly cut the army’s strength. Throughout the late 1800s, during which the GOP held virtual one-party rule, the American army’s strength dropped to 27,000 regular troops. What troops we did have were poorly trained and poorly armed. While the rest of the world’s armies were adopting modern magazine-fed repeating rifles, the U.S. Army was still armed with archaic single-shot Springfield “Trapdoor” rifles, many of them simply remanufactured from Civil War muzzle loading guns.
During the Indian Campaigns of that period, many of the Native American tribes were better armed than the average army regiment. Col. George Custer and the men who met their fate with him at the Little Bighorn did so not only because they were outnumbered, but they were out-gunned, too. Armed with their single-shot Springfields, Custer’s men could not match the intensity of fire offered by Sitting Bull’s forces, many of whom were armed with repeating rifles like the Henry, the Spencer, and the Winchester.
Out Gunned by the Spaniards
Many of our troops were still armed with Trapdoors during the Spanish American War in 1898. Those who were issued modern Krag-Jorgensen magazine-fed, bolt-action rifles complained that because of the lack of funds for ammunition, the army had disabled the magazines, requiring soldiers to reload the weapon after every shot. The rifles also still used black power, which reveal the shooter’s position with a massive cloud of smoke.
The Spanish Army, on the other hand, was armed with state-of-the-art Mauser repeating rifles and rapid firing Maxim machine guns, both firing smokeless powder. The only rapid fire weapon our troops had were Civil War-vintage Gatling Guns.
The American Navy didn’t fare much better under Republican rule. In 1881 the London humor magazine Puck described the U.S. Navy as a force of "three mud-scows supplemented by a superannuated canal-boat." It wasn’t much of an exaggeration.
The GOP-controlled Congress funded a naval shipbuilding program that began in 1890 and continued throughout the end of the century. But the funding they provided for training ship crews was so meager, sailors were rarely able to practice their gunnery. As a result, during the Spanish American War, U.S. naval gunnery was pathetic. At the Battle of Manila Bay, American ships fired a total of 4,959 shells of various sizes. They scored only 72 hits. At the Naval Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the U.S. Navy fired 1,300 shells; only 25 found their mark.
In his memoir of the Spanish American War, Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican himself, condemned his own party’s failure to support the army and navy with adequate funding. In the end, the U.S. won the Spanish American War only by the courage of its soldiers and sailors, and the fact the Spanish never wanted to fight a war over Cuba in the first place.
TR tried to improve American military power during his presidency, but his policies were largely reversed by his own party after he left the White House.
When a European war broke out in 1914, it was the isolationist Republican Party that led the movement to keep America out of it. It would be up to a peace-loving Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, to see the dangers posed to this country by a collapse of Britain and France and build up our military in preparation to sending them “over there.” Still, America’s military equipment was so limited that the bulk of US troops in WWI were armed with British Enfield rifles, French-made Chauchat machine guns, and French- and British-built aircraft.
When Republicans again controlled the government in the interwar years, U.S. military strength again shrank and stagnated. Important legislation passed in 1920 established the framework for an improved, professional army. However, because Republicans controlled both houses from 1920 to the early 1930s, lack of appropriate funding prevented the reforms from being fully implemented. The U.S. Army so stagnated that some career officers remained junior officers like lieutenants and captains for nearly their whole careers.
Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow Democrats in Congress began the rebuilding of the American military in the 1930s, despite opposition from isolationist – and in many cases, pro-fascist – Republican legislators.
Establishment of the Defense Industry
World War II was followed by years of decline in conventional forces, as the atomic bomb was considered the weapon of the future. Outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, however, brought with it the need for a massive buildup of conventional American forces and equipment. When US manufacturers balked at retooling for war, President Harry Truman made a momentous decision that would impact the U.S. for the rest of history – with passage of the Defense Production Act of 1950, he created the defense industry.
Once the defense industry became a permanent form of business in the United States, the Republican attitude to military spending changed. From that point on, the pro-corporation Republican Party would push as much money as possible to the defense contractors.
But spending on the defense industry doesn’t necessarily equate to making America strong. Massive defense spending during the Reagan administration did little more than triple our national debt and turn the U.S. from a creditor nation to a debtor nation. With defense manufacturers overcharging million of dollars for such follies as “crash-proof” coffee makers and the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense system, there was literally little money left for maintenance.
As a result, some older Navy ships were unable to leave port due to mechanical breakdowns. Entire squadrons of aircraft reportedly were cannibalized for spare parts. I served in a Navy reserve ground combat unit that, despite being part of the country’s Rapid Response Force, had no weapons; Reagan had sent them to El Salvador and there was no money to buy replacements.
Defense from Terrorists
In 1999, the Clinton administration received a single warning of a pending Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. President Bill Clinton immediately placed the country’s entire law enforcement apparatus on alert. As a result, the so-called Millennium Plot was thwarted when the intended bomber was caught trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada.
In 2001, the Bush administration received some 40 separate warnings from American and foreign intelligence agencies that Al Qaeda was planning an imminent attack. George Bush ignored all of them. On September 11, more than 2,000 Americans paid the price for Bush’s national security incompetence.
Less than two years later, in March of 2002, Bush told reporters he was no longer concerned with finding the organizer of that attack, Osama Bin Laden. Bush eventually closed down the CIA office dedicated to tracking and capturing or killing Bin Laden. Two useless and unnecessary wars later, the Al Qaeda mastermind was still at large when Bush left office in 2008.
It would be left to Bush’s Democratic successor, Barack Obama, to reopen the search for Bin Laden and launch the covert operation that finally made him pay for his treachery.
Today, American voters are asked to choose between President Obama, who was too young to serve in Vietnam, but whose grandfather served with Gen. George Patton in Europe during WWII, or Mitt Romney, who spent three years in France on a Mormon “mission” to avoid the same Vietnam draft he had earlier protested in favor of, and whose father and grandfather never served.
Obama’s two girls are too young now to serve in the military, but Romney’s sons are of age during a time of war. Have any of them served? No. According to Mitt, they are serving their country by trying to get him elected.
So much for Republican prowess on national security.