The Drift of Values

April 1, 1986

The little red booklet, lying among other curiosities in an antique shop, was still in good condition after forty years. Only its ideas had been overtaken by time.

Its preface recalls the values of a different era: “We on the home front tighten our belts, do without, make the most of what we have. But we are fortunate. Our sacrifices are small compared to those made every minute of the day by our fighting men…Above all else, we must make our everyday efforts on the home front worthy of the great deeds they are performing on a hundred far-flung battle fronts.”

The booklet is a guide for wartime living It tells how to make ice cream without sugar and offers suggestions for meat-stretching menus. It was published during World War II, at a time when movie stars served in uniform and when ordinary citizens endured rationing, brought bonds, planted victory gardens, and saved scrap metal for defense production. The fighting forces were reminded constantly that their nation was behind them. Defeat of the Axis took years of this sustained commitment and mobilization, but there was a broad consensus for the worth and necessity of the effort.

Such a spirit of sacrifice and national unity would not be seen again in the forty years that followed the war. The emergence of nuclear weapons had changed the basic nature of armed conflict, and the new threats to national security were different, more ambiguous, and seemingly less immediate. But values were changing, too. The nation became richer and more comfortable in its consumerism. The oil crises of the 1970s should have taught us — but apparently did not — how suddenly our well-being can be jolted by events abroad. The ominous rise of Soviet military power does not arouse a fraction of the alarm that Hitler once inspired.

It isn’t just a question of money, although log-range budget trends do reflect the drift. Americans in 1986 are on the verge of convincing themselves that the defense program is not only unaffordable but also largely to blame for the federal deficit. Currently, defense consumes less than seven percent of the gross national product, compared with 8.3 percent in 1961. Even after the “recovery” of the past five years, defense in FY ’87 will represent a smaller percentage of total federal spending than it did from 1951 to 1972. If the budget burden is unbearable, then the explanation must be elsewhere.

The budget debate is only a symptom of an evolution in popular attitudes. The public wants the national interests protected, but it also wants the national interests protected, but it also wants to put some distance between itself and the job to be done. It may support a military operation — provided it is brief, relatively bloodless, and successful. But citizens do not want to involve themselves personally in the effort.

In his annual report to Congress this year, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger repeated a list of conditions that he felt should be met before US forces are committed to combat. The most controversial of these — and the one for which he took the most criticism when he first voiced the proposition in a 1984 speech — is that troops sent to fight in foreign lands should have some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and Congress.

Depending on how one interprets “reasonable assurance,” Mr. Weinberger’s idea may be impractical. Taken to the extreme and applied inflexibly, it would tell an adversary exactly how much aggression will be tolerated without a military response. But in another sense, it is impossible to imagine the Secretary of War needing to make such a point in 1944 — or his being attacked for saying that the nation owes moral support to its forces in battle.

Americans today are not asked to make sacrifices for national defense on anything remotely near the scale of World War II. In the all-volunteer era, most of them aren’t even asked to serve directly.

What has been asked is their concurrence that a share of the nation’s wealth, approaching the share allocated in the first year of the Kennedy Administration, be made available for defense. And although it isn’t an absolute condition, it would help the troops to know that they will not be dispatched casually to die in some small, dirty war that their fellow citizens didn’t care much about anyway.

It is to the shame of a great nation that this may be too much to ask.

It is also fortunate that a different set of values was in effect forty years ago. Otherwise, Hitler would have taken us.