On January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower delivered the following warning in his farewell address to the nation: “The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…In the councils of government, we must guard against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, of the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower insisted that this military-industrial complex should never be allowed to “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

For a former Supreme Allied Commander, this was a startling observation. For a native of Abilene, Kansas, it was not. Eisenhower reflected the traditional concerns of many Americans that pursuit of security abroad might lead to the creation of a “garrison state” at home. For conservatives (and for Eisenhower himself), excessive military spending and government controls for the sake of national security might reinforce the worst aspects of the administrative state. This would ultimately break the back of the American economy and undermine limited government. Liberals had a different set of concerns. Resources devoted to defense would crowd out spending for education, health care, the environment, and other human needs. For them, the threat was not too much government but rather the climate of fear generated by the Cold War, which led to McCarthyite excesses and the suppression of civil liberties.

In what is possibly the most significant study of post-World War II American defense policy since Samuel Huntington’s benchmark account, The Common Defense, Aaron Friedberg argues persuasively that the United States did avoid the extremes feared by both the right and the left. Friedberg’s work is valuable not only because of his careful analysis of the “interior dimensions” of American grand strategy during the Cold War, but because he raises questions of national security, governmental power, and individual liberty that remain with us today.

According to Friedberg, a professor of international relations at Princeton University, the American republic was born, in part, as a reaction against the trend toward ever-larger concentrations of state power and military might then taking place in Europe. The American experiment was successful for roughly 150 years largely because of geographic isolation from the wars of Europe. This insularity ended with the Second World War. That war, and the threat of conflict with the Soviet Union from 1945 onward, produced new pressures for the creation of a powerful central state. Those pressures were met, and to a large degree counterbalanced, by strong anti-statist influences that were deeply rooted in America’s founding. The power-creating mechanisms put into place during the first 15 years of the Cold War can best be understood as the product of a collision between these two sets of conflicting forces.

Friedberg considers what could have happened if political pressures to increase government power had been dominant. Without the anti-statist constraints in the early years of the Cold War, the United States might well have embraced excessive centralization; higher taxes and economic controls; a full-blown industrial policy that included central planning, expanded tariffs, subsidies, and preferences; public rather than private production of weapons; and a centralized, public role in technology development. In short, American defense and economic policy would have come increasingly to resemble that of the Soviet Union—as would American government and society.

On the other hand, had anti-statist forces completely dominated, Washington might have resumed its traditional policy of peacetime de-mobilization and minimal nuclear deterrence, thus encouraging the Soviet’s aggressive and expansionist aims. Yet anti-statist constraints appear also to have contributed, in part, to the Cold War’s eventual outcome. By preventing some of the worst, most stifling excesses of statism, these countervailing tendencies made it easier for the United States to preserve its economic vitality and technological dynamism. In the end, America maintained domestic support for a protracted strategic competition and stayed the course in that competition better than its supremely statist rival. Friedberg concludes that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and their successors, successfully struck a balance between the necessity for central strength and the desire for domestic freedom.

The success of this policy in ending the Cold War, however, suggests that more substantial American pressures on Moscow during the 1940s and ’50s might have brought about the same end much earlier; and that the anti-statist pressures cited by Friedberg were actually counterproductive. Churchill, for one, had repeatedly called for Western efforts to bring about a political show-down with the Soviets. Of course, if war had occurred—and it was impossible to rule out this possibility at any point during the Cold War—prior restraints on defense spending would have seemed parsimonious indeed.

There is much room for debate here. Perhaps it actually required decades of attrition to bring the Soviet regime to the breaking point. Friedberg indicates that the strategic approach of the United States may have arrived at a happy medium, then, by focusing on quality rather than quantity. The persistent and deeply ingrained U.S. propensity for pursuing technological advantage gave the American defense effort a dynamism that seems over time to have imposed real and significant burdens on the Soviet Union. This relentless search for technological superiority was not pointless or dangerous as the left maintained: to the contrary, Friedberg writes, the well-intentioned efforts of Western diplomats and arms control experts to slow or stop the advance of military technology may have been misguided and counterproductive. Perhaps if they had succeeded the Cold War would still be going on.

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Friedberg’s judgment contrasts nicely with the common wisdom in the academy, that the United States did indeed create a garrison state in its excessive and aggressive attempts to deal with the Soviet Union. For instance, Michael Hogan’s influential A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945-1954 argues that although the outcome could have been much worse, “under the balance that they [Truman and Eisenhower] achieved, the American people had to limit federal funding for housing, education, and other social investments that had been neglected during the war. They also had to live with the intrusion of military influence into civilian affairs, with an increasingly imperial presidency, with higher taxes than most thought desirable, and with persistent budget deficits and additions to the national debt.” The title of another standard account, by Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, captures this viewpoint perfectly: We All Lost the Cold War.

Even for those who believe we won the Cold War, however, the original concern remains on the table: did patriotic impulses to defend the country through a more expansive foreign policy and military strategy serve to reinforce the concentration of governmental power called for by Progressivism and the New Deal? The evidence compiled by Friedberg indicates that these were distinct political agendas. The Great Society was not necessarily related to the fiscally and strategically ambitious “flexible response” national security posture advocated by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

There is an even deeper dimension. Friedberg rightly notes that anti-statist influences are not always and unreservedly positive; America needs its Hamiltons as well as its Jeffersons. But statist and anti-statist elements are not only part of the American political tradition; they are deliberately incorporated—and balanced—in the constitutional structure of the regime. The Constitution provides for strong and effective powers in certain critical areas, the common defense being perhaps foremost. For the Founders, insecurity and weakness posed a greater threat to liberty than many of the aspects of what might then have been called the national security state, such as standing armies. As noted in the Federalist Papers, there is no certain way to limit the size and character of external threats, and thus no means a priori to prescribe limits to defensive measures. To do so would leave the country vulnerable to predatory powers—and actually erode republican government, if statesmen were compelled to violate the law or the constitution in order to ensure survival. To be sure, high levels of defense spending, the demands of military organizations and the like can become dangerous, but only if the entire structure of limited, constitutional government is otherwise eroded.

In any case, those who agree that the United States won the Cold War without sacrificing its promise of republican government, and that this was a good thing, can surely concur with Friedberg: “In contemporary academic discourse, anyone who seeks to explain the outcome of the Cold War in terms of unique American characteristics risks being called a ‘triumphalist.’ If by this term is meant someone who believes that the United States was destined inevitably to defeat the Soviet Union, or that its eventual victory was a reflection of the inherently superior intelligence of its leaders or the greater intrinsic toughness of its people, then I must reject the label. But if the term refers to someone who not only rejoices in America’s Cold War success, but sees in it proof of the practical strengths as well as the moral virtues of the American regime, then I am an unrepentant triumphalist.”