Why a strong defense is always needed, as illustrated by history lessons


The opponents of a strong defense continue to advocate deep defense cuts. They are reckless and irresponsible. They believe America doesn’t need a strong defense and that it can afford to deeply cut defense spending and not suffer any consequences. They’re wrong.

A strong, large military is ALWAYS needed, as is robust defense spending, which is needed to fund such a military. There is never a time when it is not needed.

The Founding Fathers understood this. George Washington has said that “timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it” and warned the public and the Congress against “the uncertainty of procuring a warlike apparatus at the moment of public danger.” James Madison famously asked, “How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?” For his part, in 1788, Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist #24:

Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. This situation and the vicinity of the West India Islands, belonging to these two powers create between them, in respect to their American possessions and in relation to us, a common interest. The savage tribes on our Western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbors. Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe. A future concert of views between these nations ought not to be regarded as improbable. The increasing remoteness of consanguinity is every day diminishing the force of the family compact between France and Spain. And politicians have ever with great reason considered the ties of blood as feeble and precarious links of political connection. These circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.

Today, I’ll explain on just one example why a strong military is needed: the example of the Barbary Wars.

The Continental Navy was disbanded in 1785 and all of its ships were sold or scrapped, while the Continental Army was reduced to just 600 men. America was left completely defenseless. The US soon learned, the hard way, that a strong military is always needed.

In 1794, after the US signed the Jay Treaty with Britain, the French considered that a treachery and began to harrass, assault, and confiscate American merchant ships. (There was no US Navy at the time.) So the Congress passed, and President Washington signed, the Naval Act of 1794, authorizing the creation of a US Navy, a US Marine Corps, and the construction of six warships (the US Navy’s original six frigates, including the USS Constitution). The six frigates were not completed, however, until 1797, and in 1798, a Department of the Navy was created to administer the Navy and the Marine Corps.

President Adams (1797-1801) said in 1798, “France is at war with us, but we are not at war with her.” This was about the Quasi-War with France. During that war, the US Navy captured 80 French ships (including one previously captured by the French). It proved its mettle. The French sued for peace by 1800.

But Britain considered signing the peace treaty with France to be an act of betrayal by the US and turned hostile against America. As long as the US was at a de-facto war with France, the Royal Navy protected American ships against both the French and the Moors (Barbary pirates). In 1800, America lost that protection.

The Barbary pirates have been harrassing American merchant ships since the 1780s. Until the US took military action, America’s response was always to appease them and to pay them the ransom they demanded. Weakness provoked aggression. Barbary pirates understood that they could push American merchants and politicians around; that they could demand anything, perpetrate any aggression, and America’s response would be appeasement and ransom payment. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20% of the U.S. government’s annual revenues in 1800. Fully one fifth! Imagine what could’ve been done if that money had been devoted to defense instead!

Or, as the Wikipedia entry on the subject says:

The war stemmed from the Barbary pirates’ attacks upon American merchant shipping in an attempt to extort ransom for the lives of captured sailors, and ultimately tribute from the United States to avoid further attacks, much like their standard operating procedure with the various European states. Before the Treaty of Paris, which granted America’s independence from Great Britain, American shipping was protected by France during the Revolutionary years under the Treaty of Alliance (1778–83). Although the treaty does not mention the Barbary States in name, it refers to common enemies between both the U.S. and France, which would include the Barbary States or pirates in general. As such, piracy against American shipping only began to occur after the end of the American Revolution, when the U.S. government lost its protection under the Treaty of Alliance.

This lapse of protection by a European power led to the first American merchant shipping seized after the Treaty of Paris. On October 11, 1784, Moroccan pirates seized the brigantine Betsey. This first act of piracy against the U.S. ended in a positive light, as the Spanish government negotiated the freedom of the captured ship and crew; however, Spain offered advice to the United States over how to deal with the Barbary States. The advice was to offer tribute to prevent further attacks against merchant ships. The US Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, decided to send envoys to Morocco and Algeria to try to purchase treaties and the freedoms of the captured sailors held by Algeria. Morocco was the first Barbary Coast state to sign a treaty with the U.S. on June 23, 1786. This treaty formally ended all Moroccan piracy against American shipping interests. Specifically, Article 6 of the treaty states that if any captured Americans, be it done by Moroccans or by other Barbary Coast states dock at a Moroccan city, said Americans would be set free and be under the protection of the Moroccan state. American diplomatic action with Algeria, the other major Barbary Coast state, was much less successful than with Morocco. Algeria began piracy against the U.S. on July 25, 1785 with the capture of the schooner Maria and the Dauphin a week later. All four Barbary Coast states demanded a sum of $660,000 compared to the limited allocated budget of $40,000 given to the envoys to achieve peace. Diplomatic talks to achieve a reasonable sum for tribute or for the ransom of the captured sailors struggled to reach any headway. The crews of the Maria and Dauphin remained in captivity for over a decade, and soon were joined by other ships captured by the Barbary States. In 1795, Algeria came to an agreement with the U.S. that resulted in the release of 115 sailors they held, at the cost of over $1 million. This amount totaled about 16 of the entire U.S. budget, and this amount was demanded as tribute by the Barbary States to prevent further piracy. The continuing demand for tribute ultimately led to the formation of the United States Department of the Navy, founded in 1798 in order to prevent further piracy attacks upon American shipping as well as to end the extremely large demand for tribute from the Barbary States.

Various letters and testimonies by captured sailors described their captivity as a form of slavery, even though Barbary Coast imprisonment was different from slavery practiced by the U.S. and European powers of the time. Barbary Coast prisoners were able to obtain wealth and property, along with achieving status beyond that of a slave. One such example was James Leander Cathcart, who rose to the highest position a Christian slave could achieve in Algeria, ending up as an adviser to the Algerian Dey, or king. Even so, most captives were pressed into hard labor in the service of the Barbary pirates, and struggled under extremely poor conditions that exposed them to vermin and disease. As word of the poor treatment reached back to the U.S., through freed captives’ narratives or letters, American civilians were pushing for direct action by the government to stop the piracy against U.S. ships.

(…) Jefferson reported the conversation to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, who submitted the Ambassador’s comments and offer to Congress. Jefferson argued that paying tribute would encourage more attacks. Although John Adams agreed with Jefferson, he believed that circumstances forced the U.S. to pay tribute until an adequate navy could be built. The U.S. had just fought an exhausting war, which put the nation deep in debt. Federalist and Anti-Federalist forces argued over the needs of the country and the burden of taxation. Jefferson’s own Democratic-Republicans and anti-navalists believed that the future of the country lay in westward expansion, with Atlantic trade threatening to siphon money and energy away from the new nation on useless wars in the Old World. The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20% of the U.S. government’s annual revenues in 1800.

America was weak and defenseless, so it was an easy target for aggressors.

But once President Jefferson decided to use the US Navy’s ships (including its six frigates) and the Marines, and deploy them to Tripoli, the game changed. America fought the two Barbary Wars (1801 to 1805 and 1805 to 1809) and defeated Berbery rulers, thus freeing itself from the duty to pay any ransom to them. The Berbery threat was eliminated.

The moral of this story is that: 1) weakness (e.g. a weak defense, or no defense at all) provoke aggressors and cause wars, while a strong defense prevents wars by deterring aggressors and defeats those few who are undeterrable; 2) America ALWAYS needs a strong military and can never afford to cut it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s