The debate over arms sales began in earnest during the interwar period following World War I. Prior to 1914, the United States exported relatively small quantities of munitions, and the private firms that dominated this traffic were subjected to few restraints by the government. In 1915, however, the United States began to produce vast quantities of weapons for foreign consumption—by one estimate, U.S. military exports rose from $40 million in 1914 to $1.3 billion in 1916 and $2.3 billion in the succeeding nineteen months. At first, this remarkable effort was lauded as a significant contribution to the Allied war campaign; but later, as the immense scale of the carnage in Europe became known, many people concluded that the arms makers' desire for profit was itself a cause of conflict.
As the guns were stilled in Europe, world leaders set out to create a new international order based on consensus and negotiation—a task that was assumed to require curbs on the global arms traffic. Although the United States did not join the League of Nations, fearing that membership would result in periodic entanglement in overseas conflicts, it did participate in a League‐sponsored Disarmament Conference (1932–37) aimed at reducing global arms production. At the same time, antiwar organizations like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom campaigned for a public investigation into the munitions trade. Critical books and articles—most notably The Merchants of Death (1934), by Helmuth Engelbrecht and Frank Hanighen—further aroused public opinion. Finally, in 1934, Congress established a Munitions Investigating Committee under the leadership of Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota to consider charges that American and European arms producers had conspired to instigate World War I in order to stimulate the demand for weapons.
The Nye Committee, as it was called, revealed that U.S. arms manufacturers often spread tales of imminent hostilities in order to play one buyer off against another; it failed, however, to demonstrate that they had conspired to ignite World War I or force the United States into the war. Although the investigation did not result in any legal action against American arms merchants, it did contribute to the mood of isolationism then sweeping the country, and helped ensure passage of the Neutrality Act of 1935 (which compelled the president to impose an arms embargo on nations at war).
Although widely popular, the Neutrality Act and other expressions of isolationism appeared increasingly constrictive to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazis in Germany began their quest for world domination. Roosevelt argued against repeal of the arms embargo in early 1939, but reversed his stance in September, when Germany invaded Poland. Two months later, when Congress repealed the embargo, Roosevelt authorized a series of “cash and carry” sales of U.S. arms to the European democracies. In 1940, he proposed a more ambitious program of arms transfers, under which the U.S. government would lend, lease, or donate military equipment to the nations fighting Adolf Hitler. Our goal, he told the nation on 29 December 1940, is to make America “the great arsenal of democracy.”
Ultimately, it was the commitment of American soldiers, rather than of American weapons, that was to turn the tide of war in Europe and the Pacific. But U.S. arms transfers under the Lend‐Lease program (1941–45) enabled America's Allies—including the Soviet Union—to hold out for two years of unrelenting combat while American troops were trained for combat. All told, some $50 billion worth of U.S. military equipment was furnished through this program, representing a vital contribution to the Allied victory.
The Cold War and Beyond.World War II was not followed, as World War I had been, by a wave of popular revulsion against American arms makers. Instead, U.S. military industries were viewed as a major source of America's overall strength. Thus, when U.S. allies in Europe began to feel threatened by growing Soviet aggressiveness, most members of Congress were prepared to support a new round of arms transfers along the lines of the Lend‐Lease program. After the famous “Truman Doctrine” speech of March 1947 by President Harry S. Truman on the need to resist Soviet expansionism, Congress voted $400 million in emergency military aid to Greece and Turkey. This outlay was soon followed by similar grants to other likely targets of Communist action, producing a stream of conventional military equipment to overseas friends and allies that was to continue undiminished for forty years. (Except for some technical assistance to Britain and France, the United States has not exported nuclear weapons or technology to any foreign country.)
In the first few decades of the Cold War, U.S. arms aid was largely furnished to the NATO countries in Europe and to key allies in Asia and the western Pacific (notably Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Nationalist China). Between 1950 and 1967, the United States supplied friendly countries with $33.4 billion in arms and services under the Military Assistance Program (MAP), and another $3.3 billion worth of surplus weaponry. The U.S. government also sold these countries $11.3 billion worth of military equipment through its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program—but the emphasis, in those early years of the Cold War, was on direct military assistance, not on sales.
Although the basic premise of American arms programs—to bolster the defenses of U.S. allies facing a military threat from the Soviet bloc—did not change over the years, many aspects of these programs were significantly altered. Whereas initially the bulk of U.S. weaponry was funneled to the industrialized powers of Europe and the Pacific, by the 1960s an increasing portion of it was being supplied to Middle Eastern and Third World countries. The primary impetus for this shift was the apparent Soviet success in using arms transfers to establish military links with Egypt (beginning in 1954), Syria (in 1955), Iraq (in 1958), and other developing countries. In order to combat the growing Soviet presence in the Middle East and Asia, Washington began supplying vast quantities of arms and ammunition to its own friends and allies in these areas—thereby stimulating fresh Soviet arms transfers to its allies, and so on, in what was to become an ongoing pattern of U.S.‐Soviet competition.
At first, most of the U.S. and Soviet arms aid went to the Middle East. In the early 1960s, however, Washington began to focus considerable attention on Southeast Asia, where Communist insurgents had grown increasingly strong. As part of its effort to combat these guerrillas (and their supporters in North Vietnam), the United States provided $18 billion worth of arms and military equipment in 1965–75 to the governments of Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, and Thailand. Substantial aid was also provided to South Korea and the Philippines in return for their agreement to supply troops for the U.S.‐led counterguerrilla campaign in South Vietnam.
Although Washington was prepared to provide arms at no cost to its allies in Southeast Asia, it was not prepared to do so in other areas where key allies were capable of paying for their military imports. In order to stimulate overseas purchases of U.S. munitions—thereby diminishing America's balance‐of‐payments deficit and recouping some of its investment in weapons research—the Nixon administration barred grant aid to the industrialized countries and aggressively marketed U.S. arms through the FMS program. This new emphasis on military sales was first directed toward the states of Western Europe (which had by then recovered from the destruction of World War II) and later extended to the wealthier nations of Asia and the Middle East.
The continuing U.S. quest for allies and the growing emphasis on military sales soon led to a particular focus on Iran, then ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Eager to enhance his nation's regional power position while maintaining close relations with Washington, Shah Pahlavi ordered $20 billion worth of U.S. arms between 1970 and 1978—at that time a record for military purchases by a developing nation. Iranian arms purchases were so massive that many in Congress became troubled by the scale of the U.S. sales program and its potential for abuse. Indeed, a 1976 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that U.S. arms sales to Iran were “out of control.” This report, and others like it, led Congress—for the first time since the 1930s—to impose significant restrictions on U.S. arms exports (under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976).
The more restrictive approach favored by many in Congress was then adopted by President Jimmy Carter when he assumed office in 1977. Arguing that the uncontrolled spread of conventional weaponry “threatens stability in every region of the world,” Carter announced a policy of “arms restraint” on 19 May 1977. During the next three years, he imposed a “ceiling” on the dollar value of U.S. arms exports to non‐NATO countries. But growing tensions with Moscow (prompted, in particular, by the Soviets' 1979 invasion of Afghanistan), coupled with the growing U.S. military commitment to Israel and Egypt, led Carter to abandon the ceiling in 1980.
Ronald Reagan, who became president in 1981, repudiated what remained of Carter's arms restraint policy and authorized stepped‐up military aid to threatened allies abroad. “This Administration believes that arms transfers, judiciously applied, can complement and supplement our own defense efforts,” Undersecretary of State James Buckley explained in May 1981. In addition to aiding established U.S. allies through normal military channels, the Reagan administration (or elements thereof) also conducted clandestine arms transfers to Iran (then supposedly subject to an American embargo for its role in the Iran‐Iraq War of 1980–88) and to anti‐Communist insurgents in Nicaragua (after 1984 barred by Congress from receiving U.S. aid)—an endeavor that, when exposed in 1986, resulted in the scandal known as the “Iran‐Contra Affair.”
Throughout this period, U.S. arms exports were largely governed by Cold War priorities and a desire to reap the economic benefits of military sales. Between 1981 and 1990, the United States sold $110.3 billion worth of arms to foreign buyers—far more than in the previous thirty years combined. But, once again, international events were to call these policies into question. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, employing a massive array of imported weapons, many policymakers concluded that it was necessary to impose multilateral controls on the arms trade. With the support of President George Bush, representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the “P‐5” powers) met in various locales in 1991–92 to develop mutual restraints on conventional arms exports.
Although initially supportive of the P‐5 talks, President Bush drove them into limbo in September 1992 by announcing the sale of 150 F‐16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan—a move that prompted China to withdraw from the negotiations, which have not reconvened since. Bush then announced a number of other major transactions, raising U.S. arms exports to record levels. In approving these sales, Bush asserted that military exports were as important to the American economy as they were to American national security—an argument that had never been made so explicit before.
As a candidate for president, Bill Clinton had voiced concern over the growth in American arms exports. Once in office, however, he embraced the more pragmatic stance initiated by his predecessor, arguing that arms sales were vital to U.S. economic health. On 17 February 1995, he announced a “Conventional Arms Transfer Policy” that specifically identified economic concerns as a factor in arms export decision making. This announcement was followed by a series of major military sales to long‐standing U.S. clients, including Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Although, in the mid‐1990s, American policymakers generally favored a relaxed policy on arms transfers, the historic U.S. concern over the moral aspects of such exports had not disappeared altogether. Many peace and religious organizations continued to argue that arms sales undermined American values and interests by enhancing the repressive capabilities of authoritarian governments, by fueling local arms races, and by encouraging states to seek military rather than negotiated solutions to their disputes with others. These concerns surfaced in a number of legislative proposals introduced by sympathetic members of Congress, and in occasional newspaper editorials. Whether they will have any impact on future policy remains to be seen, but such efforts are likely to continue as a significant feature of the national debate over foreign policy.
[See also Arms Control and Disarmament; Lend‐Lease Act and Agreements; Neutrality Acts; Weaponry, Air Force; Weaponry, Army; Weaponry, Naval.]
George Thayer , The War Business, 1969.
Robert E. Harkavy , The Arms Trade and International Systems, 1975.
Andrew J. Pierre , The Global Politics of Arms Sales, 1982.
Paul Y. Hammond, and David J. Louscher, et al. , The Reluctant Supplier: U.S. Decisionmaking for Arms Sales, 1983.
Michael T. Klare , American Arms Supermarket, 1984.
Keith Krause , Arms and the State: Patterns of Military Production and Trade, 1992.
Edward J. Laurance , The International Arms Trade, 1992.
William D. Hartung , And Weapons for All, 1994.
Michael T. Klare