Men at Arms? The Regrettable Story of Our Military Manpower

March 1, 1960

Reprinted from Columbia University Forum

Americans, someone has said, are ruthlessly practical concerning physical objects and hopelessly sentimental concerning human beings. One would think so, considering the eagerness with which we have pushed the development of new weapons and space missiles and our stolid reluctance to change obsolete policies on mili­tary manpower.

Whatever deficiencies there may be in our weapons are deficiencies of implementation, not concept. All things considered, the United States has moved ahead rapidly in its production of new machines of war. But despite con­stant reiteration of the cliché that “man remains the basic factor in war,” manpower policy has only slowly adjusted to the requirements of the cold war. The result has been curious: intercontinental missiles and thermonuclear bombs tied to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas and practices by which we find, teach, and maintain people to man them.

The strategy we have adopted in the cold war is funda­mentally a dual one of deterrence and containment. To carry out such a strategy, we need: (1) a massive deterrent force, equipped with nuclear weapons, missiles, and long-range jet bombers, protected by an adequate continental defense system, and strong enough to deter a major Soviet attack on the United States or Western Europe; and 2) “brush-fire” war forces either highly mobile or deployed at likely danger spots, and adequate in their strength to deter or quickly repulse local aggressions.

The maintenance of these forces demands three things of our military manpower policy: First, far more men under arms than we have traditionally maintained in peacetime(though fewer than we have had to mobilize in either of two world wars.); this because of the multiplication of our geographical commitments and the variety of contingencies that we must be prepared to deal with.

Second, the maintenance of these armed forces at a degree of readiness without precedent in our history. In the past, the United States has had months and years to prepare its armies for war. Never again. The reaction time for a retaliatory and air defense force must now be measurable in hours, and soon in minutes. The ability of local war forces to deter an attack or quickly to repulse one requires them to fight or to move at a moment’s notice. Consequently, military policy must give first priority to existing ready forces.

Third, a far greater technical competence is required of the men in our armed forces than ever before. In the eighteenth century, virtually every farmer knew how to use a musket, and a group of farmers could easily be transformed on short notice into a company of infantrymen. Today, civilians are much less military, and the military are much more technical. Training a fighting man is an expensive and time-consuming task, requiring months and in some cases years. A trained officer or an enlisted man skilled in a technical specialty represents an investment of thousands of dollars. Once he is trained, the real inter­est of the government lies in keeping that man in service for as long as he is useful.

If, in the eighteenth century, civilian life prepared men for military service, military service today has the effect of preparing them for civilian careers.

Fulfilling the above three requirements for modern warfare should produce a professional, reasonably sized, com­bat-ready military force composed of officers and enlisted men skilled in their trade and pursuing military service as a lifetime career; a reduction in the number of short-term and part-time soldiers; a reduction of Reserve forces; less dependence on the draft; and an increase in the status and popular prestige of the military career.

Why have we been unable to accomplish these ends and meet these realistic requirements? To begin with, Americans in and out of government have long cherished the tradition of a small standing army supplemented in emergencies by large numbers of civilians called to the colors. Lacking an aristocratic tradition or threatening neighbors, our American business society has seldom seen much need for professional military men and has attached little value to the military earner. Such attitudes are slow to change. The have been correctly reflected in the pay levels and living conditions of the members of the armed services.

The “citizen soldier” concept has refused to die despite its lack of relevance to the military needs of the mid-twentieth century. And it has been actively defended in Congress by the potent influence of the National Guard and Reserve organizations. Moreover, when the military dollar must be stretched to the limit, Reserve forces always appear to be much cheaper to maintain than Active forces. The confused picture which we have had of the nature and seriousness of the Russian threat has led us to rely upon temporary expedients, such as the draft, and to post­pone facing the question: What sort of military manpower policy is required by the cold war

Since World War II, our manpower policy has taken two sharp turns and ended nowhere. Here is what happened to universal military training (UMT) and what might be called the “massive Reserve” movements.

In 1945 and 1946, governmental leaders almost unanimously agreed on the desirability of universal military training in peacetime. Previously, there had been no system for training citizen-soldiers. UMT was to make the old—the very old—idea of a small standing army and a large citizen reserve a workable reality. The proposal most commonly supported was for six months’ or twelve months’ training followed by varying lengths of time spent in the Regular services, the National Guard, or the Reserves. The assumption behind this proposal was not, perhaps, unreasonable in 1946—that any future war would probably be similar to World War II. UMT seemed one way to appreciably shorten the time required for mobilizing and putting into action vast armies of citizen-soldiers.

The struggles over UMT from 1943 through 1952 were an instructive example of the political processes of American democracy. UMT was energetically supported by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, by the professional military leaders of Army, by veterans and patriotic groups, and by a fairly consistent sixty to seventy percent majority of the general public (according to public opinion polls). Offhand, it would seem that this combination of Administration, military, and popular approval should have sufficed to see UMT enacted into law. But the oppo­sition, consisting of farm, labor, church, and women’s groups was simply too influential in Congress. UMT came close to adoption in 1947 and 1948 and again in 1951 and 1952, but each time this coalition succeeded in defeating it.

Ironically, the nation was prevented from adopting a military manpower policy ill-suited to its needs by a num­ber of civilian groups who were unconcerned with strategy and hostile to military requirements—who were, in some cases, strongly pacifist.

The shift from UMT toward the idea of massive Reserves began in 1952. In July of that year Congress passed the Armed Forces Reserve Act, designed to prevent a repetition of the inequities by which well over a million young men who came of age between 1946 and 1950 had escaped military service entirely while thousands of their older brothers who had served in World War II were recalled to fight in Korea. The act authorized a Ready Reserve of 1,500,000. It presupposed, however, the existence of UMT, which Congress had killed four months earlier. Without UMT, the only major source of men for a trained Reserve remained the veterans of Active service. The 1952 Reserve Act thus solved nothing.

A new Administration and the Korean armistice ob­viously required a new, look at Reserve policy, and in 1953 President Eisenhower asked the National Security Train­ing Commission to study military manpower needs. The Commission’s report in December 1953, entitled significantly “Twentieth Century Minutemen,” was an eloquent restatement of the traditional goal of a large and effective Reserve of citizen soldiers.

The Commission, made up largely of civilians and headed by Julius Ochs Adler, vice president of the New York Times, argued persuasively that our choice was either to maintain large standing forces, exorbitantly expensive and “dangerous to democratic institutions,” or to have a small Active force supplemented by a large citizen Reserve. Only the latter was in accord with American tradition, the Committee insisted, and emphasized the point with a salvo of quotations from Washington and Jefferson on the virtues of the citizen militia. Our slow and disorderly mobilization in the last three wars was attributed to our not having had an effective Reserve system. In the next war, said the report, with time at a premium, the repetition of previous follies would be disastrous.

Accordingly, the Commission recommended a comprehensive program, the point of which was that eventually all young men not drafted into the Active forces should be required to receive six months’ training followed by seven and a half years in the Reserves. In practical effect, of course, this was universal military training—with the emphasis shifted from training to the availability of Reserves.

Throughout 1954, the NSTC report was debated in the Department of Defense. Finally, in December of that year, Secretary Wilson unveiled the Administration’s National Reserve Plan, which turned out to incorporate the most important of the NSTC recommendations. The Administration’s spokesmen made clear that behind their support of the massive Reserve idea was a desire to reduce military expenditures: Reserves were supposed to be cheaper than Active forces. The costs of one man on active duty, the Administration estimated, equaled the costs of ten Re­servists. Simultaneously with the presentation of the Na­tional Reserve Plan to Congress, the Administration recommended a military budget which would have cut 350,000 men from the Active forces.

“The strength of the Active forces,” Admiral Radford told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “has been determined largely in conjunction with our plan for the Reserve components.” And when General Ridgway pro­tested that the cut, left the Army unprepared to carry out its commitments, Secretary Wilson replied blandly that: “Reserves are the key to the solution of the Army’s problem. … Even if the millions of Reserves or veterans are not properly trained, they could be regrouped or formed into effective Reserves pretty quickly.”

Besides tradition and the desire to reduce expenditures, a third influence shaping the Reserve Forces Act was the attitude of Congress. Although the Reserve bill went through a tortuous legislative process and was weakened in many respects, the final law preserved the concept of a large Reserve and the essence of the Administration’s plan. Congress has supported the “citizen-soldier” long and faithfully and has been historically sympathetic to the needs of the Reserves. Reserve organizations, such as the National Guard Association and Reserve Officers Association, carry great weight on Capitol Hill. Congressmen cannot afford to forget the interests of the Reservists in their constituencies. As Representative Overton Brooks, the principal congressional sponsor of the Reserve Act, declared, referring to the drill pay received by the members of the Ready Reserve:

“… a large Reserve means more money in the local community—money which is classified as ‘spendable.’ It is that kind of money … which the Reservist is more inclined to spend freely on the local economy rather than computing it in the overall family budget. The amount involved is something over $25,000 per year for every 100-man unit.

The National Guard Association in particular insisted that the Guard must be maintained as part of the nation’s first line of defense.” It consistently rejected the idea that the Guard be used for anything but combat—civil defense and home defense had been suggested. When Assistant Secretary of Defense John Hannah had murmured such suggestions in 1954, President Ellard A. Walsh of the NGA immediately replied that if Hannah or “anybody else for that matter believes that the Army National Guard can be built up and maintained by assigning it to a home-guard role in the national defense system, he has never been more mistaken in his life, and the entire National Guard, Army and Air, will resist to the utmost the imposition of any such concept.”

The Guard won its point. The result was the Armed Forces Reserve Act of 1955, which aimed to have a Ready Reserve (weekly drills, two weeks a year on active duty) of 2,900,000 men by 1960. Virtually all of these men were to be in organized units, trained and ready for immediate recall in an emergency. To fill this massive Reserve force, the Act obligated all men who volunteered for or were drafted into the active services to serve five years in the Active and Ready Reserves: a draftee spend­ing two years on active duty, for instance, would serve three years more in the Ready Reserves. In addition, the Act permitted 100,000 youths each year between the ages of seventeen and eighteen and a half to enlist in a special six months’ training program to be followed by seven and a half years in the Ready Reserves. The Act made Ready Reservists who failed to meet their obligations liable to recall to the Active forces and to court-martial.

By 1957, the epic aims of the Reserve Forces Act were still a long way from full realization. But progress toward them had been impressive. A million Reservists were attending weekly drills and summer camps. After a slow start, the six months’ training program was being flooded with eager young volunteers. Expenditures on the Re­serves, rising steadily from less than half a billion dollars in 1952, had reached about one and a quarter billion dollars. New armories and Reserve training centers were being built rapidly. In the National Guard alone, almost half a million men were organized into an imposing military force including: twenty-one infantry divisions; six armored divisions; nine regimental combat teams; nine armored cavalry regiments sixty-one field artillery battalions; nineteen armored field artillery battalions; 123 antiaircraft battalions; twenty-five tactical interceptor wings; and two tactical reconnaissance wings.

To these could be added the twenty-five divisions—ten designed for overseas combat—planned for the Army Reserve, the twenty-four troop carrier and fighter-bomber wings at the disposal of the Air Force Reserve, plus the 190,000 participating members of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserves. Compared with their predecessors, the Reserves of 1957 indeed justified the NSTC’s boast that they were “a success.”

Only one problem went unanswered. Just what relation did this burgeoning force have to the military requirements of the cold war? True, a small number of National Guard interceptor squadrons and antiaircraft battalions kept on an “alert” status were useful in continental defense, but of what use, exactly, were the infantry and armor divisions? Did a million Reservists help deter Communist aggression in the Middle East or Southeast Asia? Were National Guard armories taking funds which might otherwise to into guided missiles

The unreal character of American Reserve policy was made all too clear by the fact that in 1955, when this country was busy building toward a quota of 2,900,000 participating Ready Reservists and thirty-seven Reserve divisions, the British sensibly planned to send only two, instead of eleven, Reserve divisions overseas in the event of an emergency. The other nine were to be reorganized for home defense and civil defense functions. Instead of converting Reserve infantry divisions to armor as we were doing, the British proposed to convert their two and a half Reserve armor divisions to infantry. (What use are tanks in civil defense?)

Instead of encouraging the formation of separate state guards for home defense as we did in 1955, Britain proposed to deactivate her comparable force, the Home Guard, its functions to be taken over by the revamped Reserve divisions. Later, in its 1957 White Paper on Defense, the British government announced the further disbanding of many units of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and its desire to shift its remaining two Territorial Army Divisions with overseas missions to home defense duties. These divisions had been earmarked for NATO, but, as the government said, in the event of an attack, they “would not be ready for action on the Continent in less than three months, which would be of little value.”

At almost the same time, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army was telling Congress of the Army’s plans to ship National Guard divisions to Europe six months after the outbreak of war.

In the spring and summer of 1957, just as the Reserve program was hitting its stride, an economy wave engulfed the Defense Department. However dubious its other benefits may have been, it did force a second look at the Reserve buildup. Too late, it was recognized that the Reserves were less a way of saving money than an omnivorous consumer of it. The Reserve campaign was directly affecting the readiness of the Active forces. Speaking of the influx of volunteers into the six months’ training program, Secretary of the Army Brucker declared: “This load will overtax the capabilities of the training establishment, which in turn will require that we place an increased training burden upon our strategic Army forces at a sacrifice of over-all combat readiness.”

Budgetary reductions plus the post-Sputnik preoccupation with outer space led the Administration to reverse its Reserve policy. Given the popularity of the “citizen-soldier” concept, however, this was easier to announce than to accomplish. In the budget presented to Congress in January 1958, the Administration proposed to reduce the strength of the Army National Guard from 400,000 to 360,000 and to make comparable cuts in the Army Reserve. Within a matter of days the pages of the Congressional Record smoked with outraged protests from local Reserve organizations, governors, and congressmen. Overton Brooks’s House Subcommittee on Reserve Policy listened to the anguished cries of several governors, and the House adopted a resolution condemning the cuts. The Appropriations Committees were not to be outdone in their devotion to the citizen-soldier, and, finally, in what President Eisenhower described as an “unprecedented” action, Congress wrote mandatory minimum strengths into law: The Army Reserve had to be maintained at 300,000 men and the Army National Guard had to be kept at 400,000.

At the same time, the Administration was backing down on another front. In line with the proposed budgetary cuts in the Reserve and with the desire to streamline the Reserve structure anyway, the Army announced in March of 1958 a plan to eliminate six Guard and four Reserve divisions, reduce and consolidate many smaller units, and change the remaining twenty-seven divisions into “pentomic” units with fewer men and more nuclear weapons. The Guard Association immediately took umbrage, and the Army compromised on a plan which would keep all twenty-seven Guard divisions in existence while reducing the strength of sixteen of them.

The battle over the size and shape of the Reserves was renewed in the Eighty -sixth Congress. The President an­grily demanded the repeal of the mandatory minimum strengths for the National Guard and Army Reserves and again recommended cuts in their personnel. The results of his pleas, however, will in all likelihood be very little different from those of 1958.

The point, however, remains what it was. Massive Reserves, like UMT, and so much else in our manpower policy have little place in a world of nuclear retaliation and brush-fire wars. At the same time that the costs of the Reserve program were mounting in 1957, the Administration delayed, for budgetary reasons, acting on the recommendations of the Cordiner Committee for a revised and higher pay scale for the Regular forces. In 1958, this legislation was brought out and approved by Congress. It represents one step—but only a first one—toward the creation of a set of inducements which may eventually enable the services to obtain and to retain, by voluntary means, the men they need. Continued progress toward a nuclear-age force will, however, undoubtedly require the steady reduction of our eighteenth-century citizen-soldier force. The age of the nation-in-arms, of citizen-soldiers, and—hopefully—of total war is over.

Deterrence and containment demand ready professional forces. A thoroughly new approach to the organization of military manpower is in order, one in which Reserves, pay, enlistment and recruitment and the draft are com­bined into a twentieth-century manpower policy which is relevant to our current strategic needs.

The status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory it is, however, will not be changed easily. Last spring, when Senator Case proposed to establish a Commission on Military Manpower to make a thorough investigation of the entire subject, his colleagues voted him down decisively. Obsolete ideas and vested interests are still entrenched on Capitol Hill. Clearly, the Pentagon will have to assume initiative and the President assume leadership before changes can be made. Manpower policy cannot indefinitely remain out of step with the rest of our military program. Continuation of a policy appropriate to the last war can only enhance the likelihood of a new one.

Associate Professor of Government at Columbia University, Samuel Huntington is Associate Director of Columbia’s Institute of War and Pease Studies. A frequent writer on military affairs, he is the author of The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Harvard University Press, 1957. He holds a doctorate from Harvard, was previously associated with the Brookings Institution and the Harvard Defense Studies Program, and has lectured at the Air War College, the Naval War College, the Army War College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. The above article originally appeared in the spring issue, 1959, of the Columbia University Forum.