Old tanks, creaking ships and 40-year old missiles. The U.S. today is asking first-rate soldiers to fight with second-rate equipment. With our ballooning national debt, how did defense spending, which is essential to national security, get left out? What we are witnessing today has an eerie similarity to the disrepair of the U.S. military in the 1930s—also a time of massive federal spending for everything else but the defense of the nation.
In 1935, with Hitler and Stalin on the move, Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, pleaded with Congress to give him enough money to “stockpile” a 30-day supply of ammunition for only 100,000 soldiers. U.S. weapons were antiques, notably the 1903 bolt-action Springfield rifle. The Army had fewer than 80 automatic rifles in its arsenal. And American tanks available for training were hard to steer and looked more like armored trucks than offensive weapons. If the American soldier of the 1930s needed a blanket or other supplies, he had to rummage around in warehouses full of dilapidated boxes from World War I.
The rest of the armed forces was in similar shape. When World War II began, 90% of the ships in the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy had been built before 1922. And the Army Air Corps was still flying poorly designed aircraft of the 1930s, often referred to as “flying coffins” by the men who piloted them. Why was the military in such bad shape? Because President Roosevelt was spending a smaller percentage of the national budget on the military in 1939 than he was in 1933. Instead, FDR was spending on his New Deal: not on new tanks, but new payments to farmers not to produce, and payments for the Works Progress Administration to build roads in key states needed for an election victory. FDR discovered he could win easy reelection in 1936 without tanks in his arsenal, but not without pork for the voters in key states.
In 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland, Gen. George Marshall warned Americans on a national radio broadcast that developing new weapons and getting them to the soldiers in the field often took two years or more. But most of his warnings went unheeded until June 1940, when the German Wehrmacht rolled over Holland, Belgium and France.
Thus, 18 months later, when the U. S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, American fighting men had to use inferior arms in short supply. For example, when American soldiers in the Philippines fired mortars at the attacking Japanese, the explosives were of such poor quality (13 out of 17 shells failed to explode) that the Japanese captured one of the mortars, filled it with flowers, and placed it in the middle of the battlefield, taunting the Americans. Likewise, American hand grenades in that battle often proved to be useless. Thousands of Americans died unnecessarily due to FDR’s negligence. Fortunately, once Roosevelt gave the green light to U.S. manufacturers, they had enough time to make guns, tanks, planes and ammunition to win the war. But in a nuclear age, can we count on that happening again?
Our fighting men today must work with equipment designed 30 to 40 years ago. The Abrams tank still serves as the Army’s primary battle tank, but it began service in 1980. The U.S. Air Force’s fleet of C-130 cargo planes was introduced earlier than that, and many of its bombers and refueling aircraft are even older. The ships of our Navy have seen heavy use since the wars in the Middle East. The USS Enterprise was commissioned no less than 50 years ago. We now have fewer ships in the U.S. fleet than we did on 9/11.
Let’s not repeat the mistakes of 1941. American liberty is still important enough to defend vigorously, and our fighting men and women deserve modern weapons for that task.