Comparing Presidents: The Military

This post looks at national defense, specifically the size of the active duty military, and spending on defense (as a share of the federal budget and as a percentage of GDP), going back to Ike’s term. Data on military personnel from 1952 to 1959 comes from this DoD site (sadly, the link doesn’t seem to be active and I can’t find another one), data from 1960 to 2005 is available from the DoD by way ofthe Statistical Abstract of the United States, dollar figures for spending on defense and the federal budget are available from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget Table 3.1, and GDP comes from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget Table 1.2.

Some charts…

Some tables to match…

What do we learn from this? First, only three administrations – JFK/LBJ, Reagan, and GW increased the size of the active duty military… and GW did so by a smidge. Given Republican complaints about Clinton shrinking the military (and he sat in the middle of the pack in that regard), you’d think GW would have tried to increase the size of the active duty military quite a bit. Looks like at this rate, they’ll be able to continue criticizing Clinton for shrinking the military for administrations to come. (In fairness to GW, my guess is that the active duty military is now a much smaller part of the fighting force – all the two-weekend-a-month-folks doing 15 months in the Sandbox and stoplossed so they’ll do it again can attest to that, plus there are all the military contractors. The really big shrinkage in the military took place after the end of Vietnam, and in Ike’s term (i.e., after Korea). JFK/LBJ’s ramp-up makes sense – Vietnam was a proxy war against the Soviets. Reagan’s ramp-up… well, there was the Cold War posturing, the cutting and running in Beirut, and Grenada.

By the numbers, one would think GHW did a good job if you value the military. He managed to do a pretty successful job in Panama and defending our friendly despots in Kuwait against Saddam in Gulf War 1 while still shrinking the size of the military and cutting spending. Contrast that with GW… the biggest spending increases by far (twice Reagan’s, in fact, as a percentage of GDP). Clearly ill-defined badly-planned missions with tap-dancing goals are costly. That said, as a share of the budget (and of GDP), spending on the military is still much lower than in the tail end of WW2 & Korea years.


Update… Table 3 originally was a repeat of Table 2. Thanks to reader Mark Hessel for pointing out the error.