Foreign war did not make America a garrison state


FEAR that a country’s foreign policy could distort its internal social order is a constant fear, in the United States and elsewhere. Usually this takes the form of the claim that war or imperialism will trigger the militarization and regimentation of society in the country, turning the homeland into what political scientist Harold Lasswell, in an influential 1941 article, called “The Garrison State”.

The perception that the national social order can be shaped by a country’s interactions with the rest of the world is correct and deeply important. Oddly, however, this subject has been neglected in mainstream Western political philosophy. Typically, Western political philosophers have promoted an ideal political regime, usually a slightly idealized version of theirs – polis for Aristotle, bureaucratic monarchy for Hegel, liberal democracy for John Rawls. Questions of war, diplomacy and trade were thought after the fact.

But there is a minority tradition, exemplified by thinkers like Machiavelli, with his distinction between republics for expansion and preservation, and German historian Otto von Hintze, which emphasizes the interplay between world politics and internal political structures. This approach is also found in Alexander Hamilton’s argument from Realpolitik for the necessity of a union between the American states which had separated from Great Britain. In Federalist Number 8, claiming that rival postcolonial confederations in North America would become militarized because of mutual fear, Hamilton explains the different internal constitutions of liberal Britain and the autocratic continental powers based on their respective geopolitical environments:

The Kingdom of Great Britain falls under the first description. An island situation and a powerful navy, largely protecting it against the possibility of foreign invasion, supplanted the need for a large army in the kingdom. … This special bliss of the situation has, to a large extent, helped to preserve the freedom this country enjoys to this day, despite widespread venality and corruption. If, on the contrary, Great Britain had been situated on the continent and had been obliged, as it would have been, by this situation, to make its internal military establishments coincide with those of the other great powers of Europe, she, like them, would in all probability, by now, be a victim of the absolute power of one man.

For generations, Americans opposed to foreign wars have warned that they could result in the conversion of American society to a garrison state. But there are other ways in which foreign policy can undermine the economic, political, and social foundations of a democratic republic like the United States, to the point of becoming a different kind of regime. There are two other categories of American nightmares that can be discerned in addition to the garrison state. One is what I call the tributary state; the other, the company of the castle.

The garrison state is a regime which sacrifices internal freedom in order to preserve national independence. The dependent State pursues the opposite strategy; he sacrifices national independence to preserve domestic freedom. Unlike the two, the castle society does not choose between national independence and domestic freedom; neither does he succeed. Indeed, state institutions are so weak or corrupt in a castle society that it is appropriate to describe it as a “society” rather than a modern, institutionalized and bureaucratic state. Government institutions are too weak to protect individuals even from endemic crime or terrorism on the country’s own soil, forcing individuals and associations who can afford it to withdraw to their own secure enclaves or to engage forces. private security. In such an almost anarchic society, such as that of the Far West or Al Capone’s Chicago in the United States, there may be no formal restrictions on individual liberty, but in the absence of an efficient and effective police force. ‘an uncorrupted justice system, personal and commercial freedom are hardly possible. The castle society category includes many countries which are colloquially described as “failed states”.

The four regimes – the democratic republic, the garrison state, the tributary state and the castle society – can be envisioned using a diagram, with one axis representing national independence and the other axis representing civil liberty:






Democratic Republic

Tributary state


Garrison state

Castle Company

IN the 20th century, opponents of American intervention in major power struggles in Europe and Asia frequently argued that U.S. involvement would inevitably turn America into a garrison state. In response, proponents of US intervention in world wars and US participation in international alliances rebutted this argument, arguing that failing to intervene to prevent the German conquest of Europe would force the United States to defend itself in constantly becoming militarized and mobilized.

After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson argued that the United States should participate in the League of Nations, an international system of collective security, in order to create a concert of power that could prevent future conflicts between great powers. The alternative would be an endless cycle of world wars, in which the United States, whether participating or remaining on the sidelines, would have to be continuously armed and mobilized. In this case, Wilson told an audience in St. Louis in 1919:

We have to be physically ready for anything. We must have a large standing army. We must make sure that every man in America is trained in arms. We have to make sure that there is enough ammunition and rifles for an army, that is, a mobilized nation… And you know what the effect of military government is on social issues. You know how impossible it is to carry out social reform if everyone is to be under the orders of the government. You know how impossible it is, in short, to have a free nation if it is a military nation and under military orders.

The Roosevelt administration and its allies made a similar argument that defeating Nazi Germany and its allies in the short term would avoid the need to permanently convert the United States into a besieged “American fortress” in the Western Hemisphere. by the German and Japanese Empires. Douglas Miller, an American diplomat, warned that in a world dominated by Axis empires: “We should be an entire nation of ‘Minutemen’, ready to rush to arms at the first sight of an invasion. Lewis L. Douglas, Roosevelt’s former budget manager, said, “Retreating into the hurricane cave here means, ultimately, establishing a totalitarian state at home.” ”

The same theme informs NSC-68, the 1950 Truman administration state document that laid out what became the strategy of containment towards the Soviet Union, rejecting the alternative strategies of the dependent state and the state. garrison, without using those terms.

As the Soviet Union mobilized Eurasia’s military resources, increased its relative military capabilities, and increased its threat to our security, some would be tempted to accept “peace” on its terms, while many would seek to defend states. – United by creating a regimented system which would allow a large part of our resources to be allocated to national defense. In such a state of affairs, our national morale would be corrupted and the integrity and vitality of our system would be subverted.

The purpose of the Cold War containment policy was to prevent the Soviet bloc from gaining such relative power that Americans would be forced to choose between their national autonomy and their domestic freedom. According to NSC-68: “Essentially, the fundamental objective [of American strategy] is to ensure the integrity and vitality of our free society, founded on the dignity and worth of the individual.

Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, made the same point in his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the American people on January 17, 1961: “In government councils we must guard against the acquisition of unjustified influence, sought or not, by the military-industrial complex … We must never allow the weight of this combination to endanger our freedoms or our democratic processes.

Eisenhower’s speech is often misinterpreted by those who claim that “war profiteers” control the government and invent fictitious threats to enrich themselves and empower themselves. But that’s not what Eisenhower argued. In the previous paragraphs, he argues that the military-industrial complex, dangerous as it is, is a necessary response to genuine foreign threats like the Soviet Union:

A vital element in maintaining the peace is our military establishment. Our weapons must be powerful, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor is tempted to risk their own destruction … But now we can no longer risk the emergency improvisations of national defense, we have been forced to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.

Generations of libertarian right-wing isolationists and radical left anti-interventionists have caricatured Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and their successors as militarists. But these policymakers themselves have argued for limited defensive militarization and American participation in world wars and the cold war as a strategy less threatening to civil liberty and political pluralism than a defensive mobilization without end in besieged United States in North America by Eurasian empires. From their perspective, the two wars against Germany and the Cold War against the Soviet Union were temporary preventive wars. Their aim was to prevent Imperial and Nazi Germany and the USSR from establishing direct control or gaining informal domination over the major industrial nations of Europe and East Asia. They conceded that a few years of the World War and a few decades of the Cold War would distort civil liberty and democracy in the United States, but to a much lesser degree than would happen in an isolated and permanent American fortress.

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