America’s Warfare State Revolution

by | Apr 3, 2015


It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the warfare-state revolution that transformed the federal government and American society after World War II. The roots of America’s foreign-policy crises today, along with the massive infringements on civil liberties and privacy and the federal government’s program of secret indefinite incarceration, torture, assassination, and extra-judicial executions can all be traced to the grafting of a national-security apparatus onto America’s federal governmental system in the 1940s.

Certainly, the seeds for what happened in the post-WWII era were sown prior to that time, specifically in the move toward empire, which, interestingly enough, occurred during the same period of time that Progressives were inducing Americans to abandon their system of economic liberty and free markets in favor of socialism and interventionism in the form of a welfare state and regulated economy.

I’m referring to the year 1898, when the US government intervened in the Spanish American War, with the ostensible aim of helping the Cuban and Filipino people win their independence. It was a false and fraudulent intervention, one that was actually designed to place Cuba and the Philippines under the control of the US government. The result was a brutal war in the Philippines between US forces and the Filipino people, along with a never-ending obsession to control Cuba, one that would end up becoming a central focus of the national-security state.

A national-security state and an empire certainly weren’t among the founding principles of the United States. In fact, the revolution in 1776 was against an empire that the British colonists in America no longer wanted to be part of. They were sick and tired of the endless wars and ever-increasing taxes, regulations, and oppression that come with empire and overgrown military establishments.

In fact, there was a deep antipathy toward standing armies among the Founding Fathers. The words of James Madison, the father of the Constitution, reflect the mindset of our American ancestors:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

For more on how 18th- and 19th-century Americans felt about standing armies, see my article “The Biggest Threat to American Liberty.”

What about foreign interventionism? The speech that John Quincy Adams delivered to Congress on the 4th of July, 1821, entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy,” expressed the sentiments of our predecessors. Adams pointed out that there were lots of bad things in the world, things like tyranny, oppression, famines, and the like. He said though that America would not send troops to slay these monsters. Instead, America would build a model society of freedom right here at home for the people of the world. In fact, if America ever became a military empire that would engage in foreign interventionism, Adams predicted, it would fundamentally change the character of American society, one that would look more like a society under dictatorial rule.

That’s not to say that 19th-century America was a libertarian paradise with respect to warfare, any more than it was a libertarian paradise in general, as I pointed out in my article “America’s Welfare-State Revolution.” But the fact is that there was no overgrown military establishment, no CIA, no NSA, no conscription, no foreign interventionism, and no foreign aid (and no income tax, IRS, Federal Reserve, and fiat money to fund such things).

There was a basic military force but in relative terms it wasn’t very large. There were also wars, such as the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Mexican War, and many military skirmishes, but with the exception of the Civil War, the casualties were relatively low, especially compared with such foreign wars as World War I and World War II.

Moreover, it was an established practice to demobilize after each war. That is, a permanent war machine and perpetual war were not built into the system. War and military interventionism were the exception, not the rule.

That all changed with the embrace of a national-security establishment after World War II. In his Farewell Address in 1961, President Eisenhower observed that the national-security state — or what he called the military-industrial complex — constituted an entirely new way of life for the American people, one that entailed what amounted to a new, permanent warfare-state branch of the federal government, consisting of an overgrown military establishment, a CIA, and an NSA, along with an army of private-sector contractors and subcontractors who were feeding at the public trough on a permanent basis.

Most significantly, Ike pointed out that this national-security apparatus constituted a grave threat to the liberties and democratic processes of the American people.

This revolutionary transformation was justified in the name of “national security,” which have become the two most important words in the American lexicon, notwithstanding the fact that no one has ever been able to define the term. The warfare-state revolution would be characterized by an endless array of threats to national security, beginning with communism and communists, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and others, and later morphing into Saddam Hussein, terrorism, terrorists, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and even the Muslims.

In the process, Adams proved right. By grafting a totalitarian-like structure onto America’s federal governmental system, the United States began displaying the characteristics of a dictatorial society.

Assassination, torture, rendition, secret prisons, medical experiments on unsuspecting Americans, the hiring of Nazis, indefinite detention, partnerships with criminal organizations and foreign dictators, coups, sanctions, embargoes, invasions, undeclared wars, wars of aggression, and extra-judicial executions. When any of those types of things occurred in the 19th century, they were considered exceptions to the system. Now they have become permanent parts of the system.

And look at the results of this gigantic warfare-state transformation: ever-increasing infringements on liberty and privacy, ever-increasing spending, debt, and taxes, and ever-increasing anger and hatred toward our country. Yes, all the things that characterized the British Empire that British colonists revolted against in 1776. How’s that for irony?

Meanwhile, like with the welfare state, modern-day Americans continue to remain convinced that their system of government has never changed in a fundamental way. They continue to play like their governmental system is founded on the same constitutional principles as when the country was founded. It is a supreme act of self-deception.

The truth is that America has now had two different governmental systems: One without a national-security apparatus and one with it. It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer as to who was right and which system was better in terms of freedom, privacy, peace, prosperity, and harmony.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • Jacob G. Hornberger

    Jacob George Hornberger is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a Libertarian candidate for president in 2000 and 2020. He is the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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