"The long history of military spending in the United States begins with the establishment of the War Department, in 1789. At first, the Secretary of War, a Cabinet member who, from the start, was a civilian, was called the Secretary at War, a holdover from the Revolution but also a prepositional manifestation of an ideological commitment: the department was chiefly to be called upon only if the nation was at war. Early Americans considered a standing army—a permanent army kept even in times of peace—to be a form of tyranny. “What a deformed monster is a standing army in a free nation,” Josiah Quincy, of Boston, wrote in 1774. Instead, they favored militias. About the first thing Henry Knox did when he became George Washington’s War Secretary was to draft a plan for establishing a uniform militia. Beginning in 1822, congressional oversight was handled by two standing committees: one for the Army, the other for the Navy. A committee on the militia, established in 1815, was abolished in 1911—the militia itself having been essentially abandoned. Six years later, the United States entered the First World War, and the staggering devastation of that war raised both new and old fears about the business of arming men. In 1934, the publication of “Merchants of Death,” a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, contributed to the formation, that year, of the Senate Munitions Committee, headed by Gerald P. Nye, a North Dakota Republican. Not coincidentally, that was also the year Congress passed the National Firearms Act, which, among other things, strictly regulated the private ownership of machine guns. (Keeping military weapons out of the hands of civilians seemed to the Supreme Court, when it upheld the Firearms Act, in 1939, entirely consistent with the Second Amendment, which provides for the arming of militias.) For two years, Nye led the most rigorous inquiry into the arms industry that any branch of the federal government has ever conducted. He convened ninety-three hearings. He thought the ability to manufacture weapons should be restricted to the government. “The removal of the element of profit from war would materially remove the danger of more war,” he said. That never came to pass, partly because Nye was unable to distinguish his opposition to arms profiteering from his advocacy of isolationism, a position that had become indefensible. Not until the Second World War did the United States establish what would become a standing army. And even that didn’t happen without dissent. In May of 1941, Robert Taft, a Republican senator from Ohio, warned that America’s entry into the Second World War would mean, ultimately, that the United States “will have to maintain a police force perpetually in Germany and throughout Europe.” Taft, like Nye, was an ardent isolationist. “Frankly, the American people don’t want to rule the world, and we are not equipped to do it. Such imperialism is wholly foreign to our ideals of democracy and freedom,” he said. “It is not our manifest destiny or our national destiny.” In 1944, when Nye ran for reëlection, he was defeated. Taft three times failed to win the Republican Presidential nomination. The Second World War demonstrated the folly of their vantage on foreign policy. It also made it more difficult to speak out against arms manufacturers and proponents of boundless military spending. A peace dividend expected after the Allied victory in 1945 never came. Instead, the fight against Communism arrived, as well as a new bureaucratic regime. In 1946, the standing committees on military and naval affairs combined to become the Armed Services Committee. Under amendments to the National Security Act of 1947, which created the position of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the War Department, now housed for the first time in a building of its own, became the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, during Senate hearings concerning the future of the national defense, military contractors such as Lockheed Martin—which was an object of Nye’s investigation in the nineteen-thirties, and built more than ten thousand aircraft during the Second World War—argued not only for military expansion but also for federal subsidies. In 1947, Lockheed Martin’s chief executive told a Senate committee that the nation needed funding for military production that was “adequate, continuous, and permanent.” In the nineteen-fifties, at the height of both the Korean War and McCarthyism, the United States’ foreign policy had become the containment of Communism the world over, and military spending made up close to three-quarters of the federal budget. “Defense,” no less than “national security,” is a product and an artifact of the Cold War. So, in large part, is the budget for it."
— Jill Lepore: How Much Military Is Enough? : The New Yorker