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David Miller

Militarism and Civil Liberties

(Fall 1956)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.4, Fall 1956, pp.139-140.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Civilian and the Military,
by Arthur A. Ekirch.
Oxford University Press, New York. 1956. 339 pp. $6.50.

It is Mr. Ekirch’s thesis that, contrary to the traditional conception of the evolution of American democracy, we have actually been witnessing, since 1776, a gradual but steady deterioration of personal liberty in the United States.

And this is true, in his view, despite the unquestioned broadening of formal political democracy during the same period.

The present volume is a documentation of this thesis by way of a thorough, even elaborate, history of militarism and anti-militarism in the US.

From the very start of our history there was no fooling the American citizen about the true nature of this debate. In the persistent struggle around “standing army vs. militia,” Madison argued bitterly against a standing army and the inevitable officer caste as precursors of despotism! The widespread hostility to the reactionary Society of Cincinnati was grounded in a sophistication born of revolutionary experience.

Similarly, with the utmost care Ekirch reveals how clearly American democrats have always recognized the sham use of “preparedness” and other defensive slogans as excuses to press for military appropriations in preparation for aggressive war. The huge “defense” expenditures urged upon Congress by Alexander Hamilton, who hoped for a war against the French Revolution in the 1790s, find their direct successors today in “defense appropriations” aimed against modern revolutions. Similar cries for defensive armament were raised by the War Hawks prior to the aggressive War of 1812; in 1848, before the war against Mexico; and again just prior to the Spanish-American War.

After World War I, Wilson and his Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaders of the interventionist wing of US capitalism, pushed naval construction to a point greater than that of Japan and England combined – and this in a period when Japan alone tripled her naval forces. In 1935 Roosevelt, in the name of “defense,” again instituted a naval program greater than that of Japan and England combined.

It was the ingrained American hostility to and suspicion of a standing army that was responsible for the constitutional provision guaranteeing the right to bear arms, just as it sparked the ardent, long-successful emphasis on a voluntary state militia as the democratic alternative to a standing army. In fact it was not until 1903 that the federal government gained substantial control over the state militias. Until World War I, all wars, including the Civil War, were fought for the most part by individual volunteers and members of state militias. (States could and did withhold troops if they were ill-disposed to the military operation, as was the case in 1812 and 1848.)

Nor was awareness lacking among our ancestors of that primary use of armies – intervention in the domestic class struggle. In fact, this was probably the most important single source of opposition to a standing army in the early days, bearing in mind the popular Shay’s and Whiskey rebellions. That both the poor farmers and the urban-planter coalition were conscious of the class character of the army is more than amply documented.

Ekirch also demonstrates that from their earliest manifestations, in 1828, the political and economic labor movements were vigorous and articulate opponents of militarist proposals for the draft or other service, and opposed defense budgets, state or federal. Not until 1916 did they surrender their hitherto implacable opposition, when Gompers came out for Wilson’s “preparedness.” Today, in the author’s view, the decline in individual liberty due to the mounting role of the army in society (to mention only one area), is proceeding at a vastly accelerated tempo.

The new role of the United States as aspirant to total world power, the permanent war economy, the consequent increase in persecution of radicals and anti-militarists, are all of a piece to him.

Ekirch’s scrupulous scholarship, his determined effort to view American history within the framework of a meaningful, naturalistic pattern, command attention in a period such as ours, so rich, above all else, in pure apologetics.

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Last updated: 21 April 2009