What Does WWII Have To Do With Military Spending

By David Swanson, September 16, 2020

“I’m going to perform a magic trick by reading your mind,” I tell a class of students or an auditorium or video call full of people. I write something down. “Name a war that was justified,” I say. Someone says “World War Two.” I show them what I wrote: “WWII.” Magic![i]

If I insist on additional answers, they’re almost always wars even further in the past than WWII.[ii] If I ask why WWII is the answer, the response is virtually always “Hitler” or “Holocaust” or words to that effect.

This predictable exchange, in which I get to pretend to have magical powers, is part of a lecture or workshop that I typically begin by asking for a show of hands in response to a pair of questions:

“Who thinks war is never justified?”


“Who thinks some sides of some wars are sometimes justified, that engaging in a war is sometimes the right thing to do?”

Typically, that second question gets the majority of the hands.

Then we talk for an hour or so.

Then I ask the same questions again at the end. At that point, the first question (“Who thinks war is never justified?”) gets the vast majority of the hands.[iii]

Whether that shift in position by certain participants lasts through the next day or year or lifetime I do not know.

I have to perform my WWII magic trick fairly early in the lecture, because if I don’t, if I talk too long about defunding militarism and investing in peace, then too many people will have already interrupted me with questions like “What about Hitler?” or “What about WWII?” It never fails. I talk about the unjustifiability of war, or the desirability of ridding the world of wars and war budgets, and somebody brings up WWII as a counter-argument.

What does WWII have to do with military spending? In the minds of many it demonstrates the past and potential need for military spending to pay for wars that are as justified and necessary as WWII.

I’ll discuss this question in a new book, but let me sketch it out briefly here. Over half of the U.S. federal discretionary budget — the money the Congress decides what to do with each year, which excludes some major dedicated funds for retirement and healthcare — goes to war and war preparations.[iv] Polls show that most people are unaware of this.[v]

The U.S. government spends vastly more than any other country on militarism, as much as most other major militaries combined[vi] — and most of those are pressured by the U.S. government to buy more U.S. weapons[vii]. While most people do not know this, a majority does think that at least some money should be moved from militarism to things like healthcare, education, and environmental protection.

In July 2020, a public opinion poll found a strong majority of U.S. voters in favor of moving 10% of the Pentagon’s budget to urgent human needs.[viii] Then both houses of the U.S. Congress voted down just that proposal by strong majorities.[ix]

This failure of representation should not surprise us. The U.S. government hardly ever acts against powerful, wealthy interests simply because a majority favors something in poll results.[x] It’s even very common for elected officials to brag about ignoring polls in order to follow their principles.

To motivate the Congress to change its budgetary priorities, or to motivate major media corporations to tell people about them, would require a lot more than giving the right answer to a pollster. Shifting 10% out of the Pentagon would require huge numbers of people passionately demanding and protesting for a much larger shift than that. The 10% would have to be a compromise, a bone tossed to a mass movement insisting on 30% or 60% or more.

But there’s a big hurdle on the way to building such a movement. When you start talking about a major conversion to peaceful enterprises, or nuclear abolition, or the eventual abolition of militaries, you run headfirst into a surprising topic that has very little to do with the world you currently live in: WWII.

It’s not an insurmountable hurdle. It’s always there, but most minds, in my experience, can be moved to some degree in under an hour. I’d like to move more minds and to make sure the new understanding sticks. That’s where my book comes in, as well as a new online course based on the book.

The new book lays out the case for why misconceptions about World War II and its relevance today should not be shaping public budgets. When less than 3% of U.S. military spending could end starvation on earth[xi], when the choice of where to put resources shapes more lives and deaths than all the wars[xii], it matters that we get this right.

It ought to be possible to propose returning military spending to the level of 20 years ago[xiii], without a war from 75 years ago becoming the focus of the conversation. There are far better objections and concerns that one might raise than “What about WWII?”

Is a new Hitler coming? Is a surprise recurrence of something resembling WWII likely or possible? The answer to each of those questions is no. To understand why, it may help to develop a better understanding of what World War II was, as well as to examine how much the world has changed since WWII.

My interest in World War II is not driven by a fascination with war or weaponry or history. It’s driven by my desire to discuss demilitarization without having to hear about Hitler over and over and over again. If Hitler hadn’t been such a horrible person I’d still be sick and tired of hearing about him.

My new book is a moral argument, not a work of historical research. I have not successfully pursued any Freedom of Information Act requests, discovered any diaries, or cracked any codes. I discuss a great deal of history. Some of it is very little known. Some of it runs counter to very popular misunderstandings — so much so that I’ve already been receiving unpleasant emails from people who haven’t yet read the book.

But virtually none of it is seriously disputed or controversial among historians. I have sought not to include anything without serious documentation, and where I am aware of any controversy over any details, I have been careful to note it. I don’t think the case against WWII as a motivation for further war funding requires anything more than facts we can all agree on. I just think those facts lead very clearly to some surprising and even disturbing conclusions.

[i] Here’s a PowerPoint I’ve used for this presentation: https://worldbeyondwar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/endwar.pptx

[ii] In the United States, in my experience, the leading contenders are WWII, and in a distant second and third place, the U.S. Civil War and the American Revolution. Howard Zinn discussed these in his presentation “Three Holy Wars,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i39UdpR1F8 My experience roughly matches polling done in 2019 by YouGov, which found 66% of Americans polled saying that WWII was completely justified or somewhat justified (whatever that means), compared to 62% for the American Revolution, 54% for the U.S. Civil War, 52% for WWI, 37% for the Korean War, 36% for the First Gulf War, 35% for the ongoing war on Afghanistan, and 22% for the Vietnam War. See: Linley Sanders, YouGov, “America and its allies won D-Day. Could they do it again?” June 3, 2019 https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/06/03/american-wars-dday

[iii] I’ve also done debates with a West Point professor on whether war can ever be justified, with polling of the audience shifting significantly against the idea that war can ever be justified from before the debate to after. See https://youtu.be/o88ZnGSRRw0 At events held by the organization World BEYOND War, we use these forms to survey people on their change in opinion: https://worldbeyondwar.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/PeacePledge_101118_EventVersion1.pdf

[iv] National Priorities Project, “The Militarized Budget 2020,” https://www.nationalpriorities.org/analysis/2020/militarized-budget-2020 For an explanation of the discretionary budget and what isn’t in it, see https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending

[v] Occasional polls have asked what people thought the military budget was, and the average answer has been wildly off. A February 2017 poll found a majority believing military spending was less than it actually was. See Charles Koch Institute, “New Poll: Americans Crystal Clear: Foreign Policy Status Quo Not Working,” February 7, 2017, https://www.charleskochinstitute.org/news/americans-clear-foreign-policy-status-quo-not-working It’s also possible to compare surveys in which people are shown the federal budget and asked how they would change it (most want big shifts of money out of the military) with polls that simply ask whether the military budget should be decreased or increased (support for cuts is much lower). For an example of the former, see Ruy Texeira, Center for American Progress, November 7, 2007, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/reports/2007/11/07/3634/what-the-public-really-wants-on-budget-priorities For an example of the latter, see Frank Newport, Gallup Polling, “Americans Remain Divided on Defense Spending,” February 15, 2011, https://news.gallup.com/poll/146114/americans-remain-divided-defense-spending.aspx

[vi] Nations’ military spending is displayed on a map of the world at https://worldbeyondwar.org/militarism-mapped The data comes from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), https://sipri.org U.S. military spending as of 2018 was $718,689, which clearly excludes much of U.S. military spending, which is spread over numerous departments and agencies. For a more comprehensive total of $1.25 trillion in annual spending, see William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger, TomDispatch, “Tomgram: Hartung and Smithberger, A Dollar-by-Dollar Tour of the National Security State,” May 7, 2019, https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176561

[vii] Nations that import U.S. weapons are displayed on a map of the world at https://worldbeyondwar.org/militarism-mapped The data comes from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), http://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/values.php

[viii] Data For Progress, “The American People Agree: Cut the Pentagon’s Budget,” July 20, 2020, https://www.dataforprogress.org/blog/2020/7/20/cut-the-pentagons-budget By 56% to 27% U.S. voters favored moving 10% of the military budget to human needs. If told that some of the money would go to the Centers for Disease Control, the public support was 57% to 25%.

[ix] In the House, the vote on Pocan of Wisconsin Amendment Number 9, Roll Call 148 on July 21, 2020, was 93 Yeas, 324 Nays, 13 Not Voting, http://clerk.house.gov/cgi-bin/vote.asp?year=2020&rollnumber=148 In the Senate, the vote on Sanders Amendment 1788 on July 22, 2020, was 23 Yeas, 77 Nays, https://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=116&session=2&vote=00135

[x] Martin Gillens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” September 2014, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B  Cited in BBC, “Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy,” April 17, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746

[xi] In 2008, the United Nations said that $30 billion per year could end hunger on earth. See the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The world only needs 30 billion dollars a year to eradicate the scourge of hunger,” June 3, 2008, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2008/1000853/index.html This was reported in the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/04/news/04iht-04food.13446176.html and Los Angeles Times, http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/23/opinion/ed-food23 and many other outlets. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has told me that number is still up to date. As of 2019, the annual Pentagon base budget, plus war budget, plus nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy, plus the Department of Homeland Security, and other military spending totaled well over $1 trillion, in fact $1.25 trillion. See William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger, TomDispatch, “Boondoggle, Inc.,” May 7, 2019, https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176561 Three percent of a trillion is 30 billion. More on this at https://worldbeyondwar.org/explained

[xii] According to UNICEF, 291 million children under age 15 died from preventable causes between 1990 and 2018. See https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/starts-with-u/health-for-children

[xiii] According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), U.S. military spending, in constant 2018 dollars, was $718,690 in 2019 and $449,369 in 1999. See https://sipri.org/databases/milex

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.