10/10/2014 09:12 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

Why We Need More Military Spending

Back in February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel suggested shrinking the American army to pre-World War II levels. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey found this idea outmoded in the modern world. In recent months, a wave of criticism crested as the multiple threats in the Middle East and conflict between Russia and Ukraine make Hegel's idea seem hopelessly outdated.

But there are deeper historical reasons why Hegel's suggestion should not be adopted. Many Americans, for whom history is a distant shore, do not remember that the failure of the United States in 1914 and 1939 to be ready for the two world wars was costly for both Americans and especially the world.

While World War I started in August 1914, a militarily and economically unprepared United States entered the war only in April 1917. With 190,000 men in its army, the United States was able to send a mere 175,000 soldiers to Europe in 1917. Only at the end of the war, in September 1918, did it engage in significant fighting in France.

The result? Almost 10 million soldiers died, Europe was shattered for a generation and a revanchist Germany under the Nazis after 1933 led the world into another even more devastating world conflict. Had the United States been ready for war in 1914, the Entente would likely have won the war with 4-5 million American soldiers in Europe in 1915 or early 1916, far fewer casualties and a clear cut defeat of Germany.

The impact of American lack of preparedness for World War II was worse. In 1940, while Germany had over 6.5 million soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the American army had less than 270,000 men. The United States spent less than 2 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on the military. General Eisenhower later recalled that the American army, with no armored divisions until 1940, was dumbfounded by the power of the German blitzkrieg in Poland, France and Russia.

Dragged into the war by Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American military engaged 1 percent of all German divisions in Operation Torch in North Africa in 1942 and perhaps 10 percent of all German divisions in the Italian campaign of 1943. Only in June 1944 in Operation Overlord, almost five years after the beginning of the war, did the United States and Great Britain invade German-occupied France.

Perhaps 50-60 million people died in the war as a result of American military weakness and lack of economic preparedness. An early, strong American military intervention would have saved tens of millions of lives and prevented the Soviet domination of half of Europe. The weak American intervention (290,000 fatalities) helped foster the Cold War as the Soviet Union, with great sacrifice (27 million military and civilian fatalities) and massive economic damage, bore the major brunt of the fighting. The Soviet Union in 1944 and 1945 took over Eastern and Central Europe in 1944 and 1945 and became a superpower that challenged the United States in the Cold War for 40 years.

The factors that allowed the United States the luxury of slumbering while major threats developed overseas in 1914 and 1939 no longer exist. Our natural allies England and France are no longer great powers but part of the European Union which, with limited military spending (less than 2 percent of GNP), is reluctant to get involved in military conflicts. Russia, our ally in both wars, is now a potential enemy.

The seemingly invulnerable barriers of 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean to the east and 5,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean to the west, which protected the United States from foreign invasion from 1815 to the 1950s, no longer exist. In a world of jet planes, supersonic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, geography no longer is fate. No more will we face an enemy like Nazi Germany, which, when Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, could dominate Europe but not kill a single American.

The isolationism of the United States before 1940 is long gone. The new world of instantaneous communication has destroyed the isolation of Americans from the world.

With the end of the post-Cold War era, there are potentially serious future threats to American security. The rise of a powerful China and resurgent Russia are globally serious while regionally powers like Iran and North Korea could threaten American security. All could have weapons capable of attacking the United States by 2020, not even to speak of rogue groups like ISIS.

We must be prepared with a military capable of protecting us, our values and our allies, in the 21st century -- or else.