The Red Army from the time of its formation through its incarnation as the Soviet Army and to the time of its collapse was forever fighting wars. From 1917 to 1922 the Red Army fought numerous civil wars for Soviet dominance of Russia, as well as the Polish-Soviet War to mop up the residual Polish state following the First World War.
But by 1922, the Soviet communists realized that a large army taxed the ambitions of the new Soviet state and so reduced the Red Army to a standing army of 800,000.
Leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, would take this small army and build it to a strength of 29 million at the end of the Second World War. This massive army would after the Second World War become the Soviet Army which would be reduced to a leaner 11 million man army.
As the burden of maintaining a large land army grew, the Soviet Army shrunk to between 2.8 and 5.3 million. The final collapse of the Soviet Union occurred when the cost to the people of the Soviet Union of maintaining and equipping this army left them without consumer goods and in some cases necessities.
What is the key lesson of Stalin’s expansion of the military?
The first lesson, one supposes, is that war is not merely an instrument of the state but an instrument of the military. Stalin’s Soviet Union was perpetually at war. The Red Army battled Ukrainian insurgents, and was involved in the Spanish Civil War, the war in China, and fought with Japan. Before joining the Allies in the Second World War, the Soviet Army invaded Poland, partitioning it with Germany, and invaded Finland, with worse than mixed results. By the time of the German invasion of Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army was 6,000,000 men or more of whom a majority of whom were captured or killed by the invading army. The Red Army and then the Soviet Army served as a base of power for Soviet tyranny. And war was a means for the Red Army and the Soviet Army to demonstrate their importance to tyrannical power.
What can we as Americans learn from it?
Following the First World War, the United States promptly de-mobilized. The material prepared for war was scrapped and the United States Army was quickly reduced to a small corps of officers and enlisted men around which a larger army of citizen soldiers could later be built.
When the Second World War arrived, on December 7, 1941, the United States Armed forces numbered about 1.8 million. Four years later, in at the end of the war in 1945, the United States armed forces numbered approximately 12 million.
Following the Second World War, the United States armed forces were again demobilized, and by 1950 the core strength of the United States Army was about 600,000 men. With mobilization for the Korean War and the Vietnam War the armed forces of the United States numbered between 2.6 and 3.5 million. And following the Cold War the United States armed forces came down in strength to about 1.5 million men, the level it has remained for almost three decades.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned in his farewell address of a growing “Military-Industrial Complex” which threatened the liberties and prosperity of Americans. He meant that the military and the industries that supplied it had become their own interest group in American politics. The military and the industries supporting it promoted policies, and yes, wars, which served the interest of the military and the interests of power.
Abraham Lincoln, in his Lyceum Address, noted that “We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory…” He meant, among other things, that the United States is blessed to have a territory protected by two oceans and to have very little in the way of neighboring military threats.
It was this territorial advantage, as was noted in Federalist 29, which allowed the United States unlike European powers, to dispense with standing armies.
It is important to take pride in the patriots that serve our country in uniform. It is equally important to not conflate that pride with an empty nationalism that needlessly feeds a large military, a lesson Joseph Stalin teaches us.
Eric Wise is a partner in the law firm of Alston & Bird.