The American Warfare State: The Domestic Politics of Military Spending

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arj-77-book-reviewAuthor: Rebecca U. Thorpe

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Copyright Date: 2014

Hard/Softcover/Digital: Available in all three media, 245 pages

ISBN: 9780226124070 (Softcover)

ISBN: 9780226123912 (Hardcover)

ISBN: 9780226124100 (e-Book) Available online at

Reviewed by: Professor Trevor Taylor, Cranfield University, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom


Most observers would recognize that the size and shape of the U.S. defense budget is determined by more factors than the perceived threats to U.S. security and the endorsed strategy to manage them. This important book focuses largely on one consideration: the concern of members of Congress with defense-related employment in their constituencies.

The broad propositions of the work are that during World War II, defense production became more central to the U.S. economy and moved into new regions. Not least among these were rural areas with few economic opportunities. After 1945, there was a failure to cut defense spending on a significant scale, and more areas became structurally dependent on defense-related jobs. With defense contractors increasingly aware that congressional representatives support programs that bring jobs to their districts, subcontracting on major programs has been spread farther across the country. The resultant wider constitutional consequences are that Congress has largely given up its constitutional role as a second center of decision making regarding the size of the defense budget and whether the United States should commit to the use of military force.

The author has researched diligently in search of statistical correlations to support her arguments, particularly regarding voting patterns and the geographical dispersion of subcontracts. She has assembled a significant evidence base showing that “the shared threat of economic hardship affects legislative voting on targeted and generalized weapons spending” (p. 106).

Although the following points are not made by the author, U.S. defense contracting appears to have some parallels with the “juste retour” principle, whereby the proportion of contracts under a particular program awarded to firms from a given country is in proportion to the funding that country has contributed to the program. This principle tends to operate on collaborative weapons programs in Europe and even with offset demands made by many arms purchasing states. Legislators in many states prefer to see the pain of defense procurement spending reduced by ensuring such expenditures generate as much local economic benefit as possible.

The work is not without flaws: in particular, the ongoing sequestration experience is not analyzed and the author does not venture into big questions that the book’s core arguments will suggest to some readers. Is the division of powers advocated by Founding Father James Madison appropriate in the modern age when speed of decision or credibility of commitment may be of greater importance? How serious was the Soviet/Communist threat after 1945 that gave public justification for the continued defense effort? Is it an inevitable feature of the capitalist system in the United States that some rural areas will remain underdeveloped compared with other areas of the country? Linked to all this is that the book is short on prescriptions for improving the situation, and there is no discussion of the defense industrial “conversion” efforts that occurred in Europe and elsewhere after 1990. Instead, the book is focused on building, in a terse style, a few significant arguments and effectively reinforces the broad point that defense acquisition is as much about politics as it is about management techniques.

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