Militarism and Antimilitarism

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Militarism and Antimilitarism. The term militarism describes a society in which war, or preparation for war, dominates politics and foreign policy. Soldiers and military‐minded civilians become a governing elite dedicated to expanding the military establishment and inculcating martial values. Antimilitarism—militarism's opposite—is not the same as a pacifist resistance to all war. But, like pacifists, antimilitarists are hostile to the military and believe that, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “a large army in the midst of a democratic people will always be a source of great danger.”

Beginning with the colonists' aggression against the native Indians, Americans have frequently gone to war. But, if not historically a peace‐loving people, they have traditionally distrusted militarism. In accord with the English radical Whig tradition, they preferred an informal militia to a standing army. Thus, the Declaration of Independence asserted that George III “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.”

The Revolutionary War did not diminish American aversion to militarism. George Washington gracefully relinquished his command, while the new state and federal constitutions affirmed the supremacy of civil over military authority. Military power was divided between Congress, which had the sole power to declare war, and the civilian president as commander in chief of the armed forces. In the Civil War, although Abraham Lincoln assumed some aspects of military rule, the Union was preserved without a military dictatorship. Isolated from the strife of Europe, the United States during the nineteenth century enjoyed free, or near‐free national security, with a minuscule regular army and a small navy. Through the early twentieth century, America was celebrated as a haven of refuge for young men fleeing the wars and military conscription of the Old World.

The first major break in the liberal antimilitarist tradition of the American republic followed the Spanish‐American War. Under the new imperialistically minded leadership of Theodore Roosevelt as president, and Secretary of War Elihu Root, the army, with a General Staff and National Guard, was reorganized along the lines of the major military powers of Europe. Selective Service in World Wars I and II completed federal control; but conscription, though democratic in its rough equality of obligatory service, was opposed in peacetime as a bulwark of militarism.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the Cold War's Pax Americana, along with the enormous technological achievements of modern nuclear weapons, made possible a new type of militarism unrecognizable to those who looked for its historic characteristics. Militarism might now be clothed in a civilian uniform and imposed upon a people who accepted a permanent warfare economy as no more than a way to full employment and a welfare state.

Historically, Americans have preferred that the soldiers they have chosen as presidents exemplify civilian virtues. Thus, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a career army officer for most of his life, nevertheless in his farewell presidential address in January 1961 warned that America could be menaced by the rise of a military‐industrial complex. “We must never,” he declared, “let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Militia and National Guard; Pacifism; Peace and Antiwar Movements; War: Nature of War.]


Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr. , The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition, 1956; repr. 1972.
Marcus Cunliffe , Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775–1865, 1968; repr. 1993.
Michael S. Sherry , In the Shadow of War: The United States Since the 1930s, 1995.

Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.