The American Warfare State The Domestic Politics of Military Spending
by Rebecca U. Thorpe
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-12391-2 | Paper: 978-0-226-12407-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-12410-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.001.0001


How is it that the United States—a country founded on a distrust of standing armies and strong centralized power—came to have the most powerful military in history? Long after World War II and the end of the Cold War, in times of rising national debt and reduced need for high levels of military readiness, why does Congress still continue to support massive defense budgets?
In The American Warfare State, Rebecca U. Thorpe argues that there are profound relationships among the size and persistence of the American military complex, the growth in presidential power to launch military actions, and the decline of congressional willingness to check this power. The public costs of military mobilization and war, including the need for conscription and higher tax rates, served as political constraints on warfare for most of American history. But the vast defense industry that emerged from World War II also created new political interests that the framers of the Constitution did not anticipate. Many rural and semirural areas became economically reliant on defense-sector jobs and capital, which gave the legislators representing them powerful incentives to press for ongoing defense spending regardless of national security circumstances or goals. At the same time, the costs of war are now borne overwhelmingly by a minority of soldiers who volunteer to fight, future generations of taxpayers, and foreign populations in whose lands wars often take place.
Drawing on an impressive cache of data, Thorpe reveals how this new incentive structure has profoundly reshaped the balance of wartime powers between Congress and the president, resulting in a defense industry perennially poised for war and an executive branch that enjoys unprecedented discretion to take military action.


Rebecca U. Thorpe is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. She lives in Seattle.


“Rebecca U. Thorpe offers the most compelling argument I have seen for Congress’s diminished role in the domestic politics of war during the last half-century. It’s an argument moreover that no one has advanced so persuasively or meticulously. The American Warfare State constitutes an essential contribution to ongoing debates about the domestic politics of war.”
— William Howell, University of Chicago

"When President Eisenhower first warned of the dangers posed by the warfare state, too few Americans paid attention. Now, in this carefully argued and entirely persuasive monograph, Rebecca U. Thorpe explains how that state operates and why it persists. In updating Ike's warning, she performs a great service. Perhaps this time we'll heed it."          
— Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

“In this first-rate study of the political economy of defense spending from World War II to 2008, Rebecca U. Thorpe asks why military expenditures in the postwar era ceased to follow historic patterns of contraction after wartime and have remained consistently high even during periods of relative international calm. Her answer focuses on the migration of defense contracting to homogeneous economies in rural and exurban areas that depend disproportionately on the flow of defense dollars. Through innovative tracking of budget outlays to local economies, Thorpe has revealed the connection between constituency interests and DOD budgets that most political observers believed to exist but that had eluded previous researchers.”
— Linda L. Fowler, Dartmouth College

“[Thorpe’s] book makes an especially successful and important contribution to the large literature on the ‘military-industrial complex’ dating back to even before President Dwight Eisenhower coined the term in his 1961 Farewell Address. . . . The American Warfare State makes a significant step forward in research on the politics of US military spending. Its emphasis on the reliance of some rural areas on defense contracting and the role of distributive politics in furthering executive independence is especially helpful. . . . The patterns of civil, political, and military relations Thorpe has identified so astutely are likely to remain operative for a long time to come.”
— Michigan War Studies Review

“[Thorpe] provides an integrated analysis explaining not only US military spending but also the increasing power of the presidency and the reversal of America’s long-standing aversion to large military forces. . . . This is an important study. . . . Highly recommended.”
— Choice

“In The American Warfare State, Thorpe attempts to answer what she calls ‘the fundamental puzzle’ of American politics: ‘why a nation founded on a severe distrust of standing armies and centralized power developed and maintained the most powerful military in history.’ The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Thorpe traces the creation of a permanent war economy back to World War II, when war production expanded into new locales, especially the suburbs of major cities and the agricultural or underdeveloped areas of the South and West.“
— Cato Journal

“Scholarship on the constitutional and political roles of Congress and the American presidency regarding war powers continues to thrive. Thorpe’s well-researched new book, The American Warfare State, adds to the literature by focusing on Congress’s influence on federal military spending and its role in the rise of a military-industrial complex. . . . Thorpe generates numerous findings that should open doors to additional research paths for scholars regarding the growth of the military establishment. . . . Overall, this book represents an important contribution, and it will be of interest to congressional, presidency, and public policy scholars.”
— Congress and the Presidency

“A valuable contribution to our understanding of how the division of war-making powers between the US Congress and the president intended by the framers of the American constitution has so badly eroded since the Second World War. [Thorpe] makes a strong theoretical case that, for a century and a half, Congress’s power to authorise or not authorise war rested on the fact that America had no sizable standing army, no full-scale armaments industry and no large stockpiles of modern weapons, such as cruise missiles or drones, that a president could use to initiate hostilities without dispatching troops. She also develops and applies a refined statistical model to demonstrate how the spread of military-dependent congressional districts has undermined the constitutional balance. . . . If her model holds up, it will represent a major research breakthrough. Coupled with her sophisticated constitutional analysis, it makes The American Warfare State required reading for anyone interested in this fundamental issue.”
— Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies

The American Warfare State makes important interdisciplinary contributions to scholarly understanding of post-1945 Ameri­can politics and foreign policy making.”
— Journal of American History

“Thorpe’s book takes us through the origins of the American military in the debates of our founding fathers.... She has written an important book. You should read it.”
— Capt. John Byron, USN (Ret.), Foreign Policy

"The American Warfare State does exactly what a groundbreaking book should do: It provides new evidence and analysis in a cogent argument, and leaves readers mulling new questions, provoked by its findings, about larger implications and future research agendas in American politics."
— Perspectives on Politics


List of Tables and Figures

Preface and Acknowledgments

Part I. Theoretical and Historical Overview

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0001

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0002
[presidential war powers, constitution, ratification, standing armies, budgetary control, military draw-downs, inter-branch conflict]
This chapter examines the constitutional framers’ distrust of standing armies and provides a historical overview of inter-branch conflict in military affairs. Constitutional ratification debates reveal an understanding that Congress’ budgetary control would limit peacetime armies and prevent presidents from exercising force independently. For most of the nation’s history, Congress abided these concerns by increasing military spending in preparation for specific wars and dismantling the military after the conflict was over. Until World War II, presidents had to convince Congress to appropriate additional funding to go to war; Congress retained important leverage over how these funds would be spent; and legislators promptly downsized the defense budget at the end of the war. While earlier presidents took advantage of periodic defense investments and directed minor military operations independently, Congress’ military draw-downs consistently limited executive authority over matters of war and defense. (pages 24 - 44)

Part II. World War II and the Politics of Defense Spending

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0003
[military mobilization, pork barrel, rural, defense , inadvertent]
Chapter three documents the extension of World War II military mobilization from large cities with preexisting aircraft industries to smaller towns adjacent to the home plant and throughout the agrarian Southern region. The geographic expansion of defense activity to rural and semi-rural areas outside of central cities provided jobs and infrastructure in places that previously lacked industrial economies, contributed to new migration patterns, and inadvertently gave rise to the rural defense pork barrel that emerged during and after the war. Although no one deliberately set out create economic dependence on wartime investments, this became an unintended consequence of a national mobilization strategy where multiple actors pursued their own independent goals. (pages 47 - 66)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0004
[military spending, expansion of benefits, economic development, costs of war, war debt]
This chapter applies mapping techniques and illustrates the flow of defense dollars from the onset of the Cold War to the first decade of the twenty-first century. The data show that military spending has systematically spread out into more sparsely populated areas, serving in part as an economic development tool in areas that lack diversified economies. The geographic expansion of benefits flowing from defense contracting coincided with policies that shift the most devastating costs of war onto a minority of soldiers who volunteer to fight, future populations of taxpayers who will inherit the nation’s war debts and foreign countries where U.S. wars take place. This political environment makes it easier for congresses and administrations to push for greater levels of defense spending and exercise force abroad without fear of electoral reprisal. (pages 67 - 92)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0005
[Disproportionate, economic reliance, defense dependence, rural, urban, weapons spending, congressional politics]
Chapter five introduces a new theory of disproportionate economic reliance in congressional politics. The theory suggests that more rural areas with less diverse economies experience greater dependence on the defense spending they receive than densely populated, urban areas with an equal number of defense facilities. Drawing on a novel dataset of the nationwide locations of major defense contractors, the analysis uncovers new evidence that local economic reliance on defense suppliers is a key driver of military spending preferences in the U.S. House of Representatives. Local defense dependence encourages representatives to support various types of weapons spending, regardless of the partisan and ideological divisions that typically characterize congressional behavior. Evidence also indicates that local economic imperatives reinforce partisan positioning in Congress and may strengthen ideological beliefs systems favoring American military hegemony. (pages 93 - 108)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0006
[defense contracting, subcontracts, economic reliance , rural, symbiotic]
Elaborating on evidence presented in chapter five, this chapter examines whether economic reliance on weapons suppliers influences the politics of defense contracting. The analysis moves beyond existing research by tracking the distribution of prime defense contracts to major subcontracting locations. New evidence shows that local economic reliance on weapons suppliers is one of the most important factors leading members of Congress to join defense committees with jurisdiction over weapons spending. Defense subcontracts disproportionately flow to these economically dependent, rural districts during critical dissemination stages—even though defense industry headquarters receive the bulk of prime contract dollars. The results suggest a symbiotic relationship among key players. Spreading defense benefits widely helps sustain more economically vulnerable areas while increasing political demand for weapons systems. (pages 109 - 124)

Part III. You and Whose Army? Expansive Presidential War Powers

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0007
[spending power, reliance, war, economy, imbalance]
This chapter investigates Congress’ inability to exercise its spending power to limit a contentious military operation in the post-World War II era. Building off evidence presented previously, the chapter shows that members representing districts with a disproportionate stake in a war economy are more likely to support war and war spending than their colleagues and partisan allies. Local economic reliance helps explain why some members opposing the president’s party authorize open-ended military ventures and refuse to end unpopular wars, despite public opposition and divided government. While legislators have always been reluctant to limit appropriations in order to curtail an ongoing military operation, economic reliance a military economy exacerbates the political obstacles that anti-war coalitions in Congress must surmount. Congress’ inability to restrict war spending is not simply a result of institutional weakness, but is also a consequence of a larger structural imbalance. (pages 127 - 160)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226124100.003.0008
[weapons spending , state-building, executive, resources, secrecy, private sector]
Chapter eight examines patterns of congressional weapons spending and executive state-building in the post-World War II era. Just as legislators have relinquished their historical budgetary control over the military in favor of uninterrupted defense spending, presidents have structured a national security establishment to more effectively monopolize the resources that Congress appropriates. Presidents insulate military technologies and intelligence information within executive agencies, direct military activities covertly and organize new departments to carry out their national security policies. The hierarchical structure of the executive branch incentivizes presidents to capitalize on the stream of resources that Congress provides. Presidents also pursue strategies that require ongoing executive secrecy and draw on the private sector to perform traditional military functions. These tactics exacerbate information deficits in Congress, reduce effective legislative oversight and make it easier for presidents to carry out their military policies independently. (pages 161 - 178)

9. Conclusion: The Warfare State