Transforming the Military Amidst Austerity: The 1970s and the All Volunteer Army in Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Part I)


In 1974, in the wake of the nation’s retreat from Vietnam and the institution of the all volunteer military, President Gerald Ford and Congress agreed to end the long-standing G.I. Bill. It cost too much, critics suggested, particularly in an era of austerity. Moreover, veterans no longer needed it. In the context of a volunteer force, many argued, soldiers would make careers of the military and the adjustment to civilian life in peace time would not be so severe as to warrant the costly provisions of the bill. Needless to say, army leaders sharply disagreed, warning that the number and quality of recruits would decline. “I told you I could make the volunteer army work, but I never told you I could make it work without the G.I. Bill,” Secretary of the Army Bo Calloway told his DoD superiors in 1974.[1] Despite Calloway’s protestation and those by many other army officials, by 1976, the G.I. Bill had ended.

With the introduction of the volunteer army, Calloway and others worried that without the G.I. Bill securing middle-class, educated soldiers would prove increasingly difficult. Moreover, these concerns carried a notable racial element with them; without the bill, the armed forces would depend too heavily on black recruits. In actuality, the number of white recruits did increase during this period, just not as much as their African American counterparts. In the case of the latter, wrote sociologist Charles Moskos, soldiers “from the least educated sector of the white community” had replaced their middle-class predecessors. So as the 1970s ended, the army consisted of significantly greater numbers of minorities and poorly educated, working-class whites.

Nor was it simply the failure of the U.S. conflict in Vietnam alone that concerned military leaders. During the war, due to protests about African American and Latinos soldiers disproportionately being sent to the front, the army wanted to avoid overrepresentation.[2] By 1975, the army’s percentage of African Americans’ ascensions into service had risen from 14 percent to 23 percent.[3] As a result, the military faced a skeptical Congress and public that believed the quality of recruits had declined while the army’s percentage of black soldiers rose to over 30 percent.

Other related problems also bedeviled the military. Highly publicized struggles regarding racial discord, insubordination, crime on overseas bases and reports of increasing numbers of non-high school graduates in the armed services’ ranks – 28 percent of FY 1975 ascensions lacked a secondary diploma – raised questions about quality.[4] A 1980 norming scandal, that allowed for greater numbers of low-scoring recruits into the services, confirmed what skeptics had argued: quality had declined, not improved.[5]   By the late 1970s, the military’s proportion of problematic enlistees had become a serious problem both in terms of public relations and internal organization. Indeed, this “new military” troubled many Congressional members and even the broader public.[6]

During his 1981 confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger commented on the military’s travails, telling Congress the nation needed “to regain the respect and the honor and the appreciation that I think we should all feel for people in the uniformed services. This used to be the feeling of the country…” Therefore, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he brought with him a promise to expand military spending. Indeed, Reagan not only increased funding, but supported a reinstitution of the G.I. Bill known popularly as the Montgomery G.I. Bill (MGBI), its namesake being Congressman Sonny Montgomery (D-MS). Though celebrated for returning legitimacy to service, the MGIB only resulted in moderate increases in recruitment. Rhetorically, the promise of college tuition proved more valuable symbolically than it did as an actual policy. “For the army, even if the G.I. Bill failed by the numbers – which its leaders did not concede,” notes historian and Rutgers professor Jennifer Mittelstadt, “it nevertheless succeeded in symbolism. No data ever showed that the educational benefits produced more than minor gains in recruiting higher quality soldiers, nor that the bill was cost effective.”[7]

In fact, even as Congress debated the MGIB, the army’s use of bonuses and educational benefits, provided through what was known as the Veteran’s Education Assistance Program (VEAP), had already resulted in increased recruitment; between 1982 and 1983, the army outperformed its objectives in this area and 80 percent of new recruits held high school diplomas as compared to about 50 percent in the mid-1970s. Reagan’s increase of military pay by over 14 percent in 1981 helped, as did a notable downturn in the economy at the time.[8]

Yet, the MGIB served not only as a symbol of the military’s return to a respected place in the American mind, but also as a means to undercut civilian social welfare programs, particularly those that Reagan’s New Right movement believed wasteful or inappropriate. “Reagan coupled his advocacy of the bill with his attack on the nation’s higher education programs for civilian youth – the Guaranteed Student Loans and Pell Grants,” writes the Rutgers professor. “From 1981 through 1985, Reagan’s domestic policy team, his Department of Education, and some members of the Department of Defense (DoD) promoted the G.I. Bill as leverage in their fight to cut federal aid to college students.”[9] Contributing to Reagan’s efforts, military officials and Congressional supporters presented educational assistance from the MGIB as more deserving than federal aid to civilians. “[A]t least we are getting some obligation from somebody,” Congressman Montgomery noted.[10] In other words, funding college education for deserving service personnel made sense; doing the same for civilians did not.

Admittedly, with the MGIB, one might ask whether the reinstated legislation operated purposefully as a symbolic nod to military service. Sure, it might not have actually done what military officials claimed it did – increase middle class recruitment or even recruitment in general – but it did emboss the military in the sheen of middle class respectability through the promise of a college education. It also provided rhetorical ammunition in the public discourse to support enlistment. These are valid points worth debate, but if one takes a step back and examines Mittelstadt’s larger arguments, the frequency with which political, economic, and social trends intersect with military policies in the AVF era, it seems hard not to make connections. Influence runs in two directions. Society influences the military but the military can also be used to influence society.

From the Going Home of the Yankees (American Landscape) series. Photo by Yeon J Yue via

The Thumbnail Historiographical Overview

Over the past two decades, policymakers and scholars have increasingly turned their attention to the now forty-three year old all-volunteer force, or AVF. In 2006, Bernard D. Rostker, a Rand Institute fellow, produced a thorough policy-based assessment of the all-volunteer military in I Want You! The Evolution of the All Volunteer Force. Three years later, in America’s Army: Making the All Volunteer Force (2009) Beth Bailey provided a social history of the army’s 1973 transformation, paying close attention to issues of race, class, and gender in its development over its then three and half decades of existence. Catherine Lutz, Andrew Myers, and Carol Lynn McKibben have examined the army’s history and influence on the communities of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, and Seaside, California respectively; these works examined its longer post-WWII role rather than focusing exclusively on the AVF. In addition, sociological studies focusing on the transformed military have also emerged in greater numbers. For example, sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler’s 1996 work, All We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, examined the army’s achievement in creating what many believe is the best model of racial integration by a large institution, public or private, in the nation.

In The Rise of the Military Welfare State, Mittelstadt adds a new perspective, the ways in which the all-volunteer military reflected, interacted with, and has been influenced by and influenced the nation’s social programs and policies over the past four decades. As demonstrated by President Reagan, the policies established to support the volunteer army did not exist in a vacuum, nor did they solely reflect the interests of the military but were both shaped by and helped shape America’s shift toward an increasingly deregulated, free-market-based, privatized economy. Moreover, Mittelstadt captures the demographics and social welfare policies that have arisen to address the shifts that have unfolded internally in the army due to its 1973 transformation.

Since the introduction of the all-volunteer policy, the army has attempted to maintain recruitment levels while the characteristics of its service personnel have changed. When the number of families proliferated in the 1970s and 80s, new programs eventually emerged to address the greater numbers of spouses and children attached to servicemen and women, particularly the stresses associated with a military lifestyle such as frequent moves, deployments, and in regard to lower enlisted men and women, low pay. If one were to divide Mittelstadt’s book, and by extension the Army’s last four decades, into thirds, it would look something like this:


  • 1973-1980 – transition to its new, more free-market-based volunteer model and adjustment to the greater racial diversity and increasing numbers of families, while simultaneously attempting to rehabilitate its image in the wake of the Vietnam War and amidst economic retrenchment
  • 1980-1992 – expansion of social welfare services to address the proliferation of service households and increased wages and benefits to service personnel as the Army returned to a hallowed position in the public consciousness while enjoying higher levels of funding. During this period, the military emphasized a sort of paternalism for personnel and families, offering social services as support and reaching a high water mark in this regard.
  • 1992- present – the contraction of the army, as the Cold War receded, coincided with the privatization of services and contracting to the private sector. Though deployments increased under this model, service personnel and families were now expected to solve their own problems with less support from military programs. Corporate methods and business structures were implemented to achieve better efficiency and do more with less.

Some conservative, free-market observers viewed Reagan’s use of the MGIB as wasteful. Pay military personnel more and reduce its share of social welfare programs, they argued. As noted by Mittelstadt, Reagan believed he could expand social welfare to the most deserving service personnel and families, while weaning those he saw as undeserving civilians off of the same. However, though Reagan used this expansion of social welfare within the army to reduce it in the civilian sector, it would be under President Bill Clinton, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War dissipated, that some of the army’s most aggressive efforts to cut back spending internally and embrace private sector business models would accelerate.

Indeed, even if historians like Michael Sherry argue that no “modern president understood the substance of militarization more poorly, presented its appeals more beguilingly, and diminished its primacy more decisively,” Reagan funded the AVF and his larger national defense program lavishly. Increased military spending had begun under President Carter, but Reagan personified it. “Defense is not a budget item … you spend what you need,” he told his staff; this spending, admits Sherry, contributed to ending the recession of the early 1980s.[11] Instead, the business-oriented Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, perhaps influenced by Reagan and the New Right’s broader emphasis on free enterprise and reduced government regulation, would do much more to chisel away at the military’s social programs. Reagan might have used the military as a political foil to enact cuts elsewhere, but he did raise pay twice and expanded social welfare supports during his administration.

In the first part of a three part series on Mittelstadt’s new book The Military Welfare State, ToM examines how the newly instituted AVF transformed and expanded in a decade market by economic malaise, distrust of government, and political uncertainty. Part II explores the influences of feminism and Christian evangelicalism on the expanding social welfare programs of the military. Though seemingly at odds, wives organized effectively helping to craft more responsive programs to meet the needs of the army’s ever proliferating numbers of military households while, simultaneously, Christian evangelical leaders threaded their own messages into many of these same programs—many of which promoted traditional male leadership and gender roles.

Finally, in Part III, using Desert Storm and the first Iraq War as the departure point, we look at how the very success of wives, social welfare policies, and female soldiers collided with worries about dependencies and the feminization of the force to contribute to the privatization of support services in the army. With a retreating Cold War, reduced spending, and the dual rhetoric of welfare reform and free markets in the civilian sphere, military officials of the 1990s embraced policies that their 1970s and 1980s peers would have viewed as an anathema.   In our final post on the book, we will also offer an appraisal of Mittelstadt’s new work, though as one might imagine, spending three posts on it suggests we believe it to be of great value.

The 1970s

Unsurprisingly, transforming the army in a decade of cultural malaise, economic retrenchment, political scandal, and a military reeling from its experience in Vietnam proved challenging. The Gates Commission, organized under President Richard Nixon, laid the groundwork for what would result in the AVF. Military officials chafed at the commission’s conclusions, even producing counter reports such as Project Volunteer in Defense of the Nation (PROVIDE), which pushed back against purely “economic” solutions. “The old Army leadership adage ‘Take care of your people and they will take care of you’ was never more true,” Secretary of the Army Martin Hoffman told Congress. “The assurance that when … in a combat environment or separated from family that the Army will provide for medical care, commissary and exchange privileges, assistance with personal problems and benefits, is probably more important to the individual member than the actual compensation.”[12]

The army found ways to blunt the efforts of free market advocates by adopting and promoting what Mittelstadt describes as a “model of masculine familialism,” which, as epitomized by Hoffman’s comments above, meant “diminishing the role that money and markets could play in accounting for the sacrifices and loyalty” required of military service.[13] Service personnel seemed to agree, citing “benefits and supports” like health care, housing, and commissaries and PX’s (known as base exchanges, they sell consumer goods and services to enlisted personnel, veterans, and others connected to the military) as the most important factors in reenlistment and recruitment.[14]

As the number of families attached to service personnel increased, housing and other supports gained greater importance. For example, commissaries in Hampton Roads provided a vital service according the numerous military spouses that contacted House Armed Services Committee member and Norfolk Congressman G. William Whitehurst (R-VA). Though commissaries proved imperfect, with long lines and limited items noted many military wives, in the context of inflationary America they also provided much needed savings. “Many lower class airmen and their families will suffer greatly if the commissary is made self-sufficient,” Air Force wife Mrs. Tom Denind pointed out. “Many now just barely make ends meet, and in this time of recession when everyone suffers from high prices the commissary is one of the benefits that is greatly appreciated.”[15]

Senator William Proxmire
Senator William Proxmire

Unfortunately for military personal and households, the expansion of benefits alarmed many members of Congress, perhaps most notably two Democrats from Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire and Congressman Lee Aspin. “Everybody should get some fringe benefits,” Aspin noted in 1976, “but there’s a point at which they get out of hand. Federal benefits and military benefits are way past this point.”[16] An acolyte of Proxmire and having cut his political teeth in fights over government waste, Aspin would later serve as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton during which time the government’s efforts to privatize and limit social welfare supports would accelerate.

Even local leaders in military dependent cities like Virginia Beach in the Hampton Roads region of southern Virginia sometimes expressed concern. By the early 1980s, amid recession and reduced urban revenues, Hampton Roads officials expressed doubts about commissaries. “In an urban area there is no need for tax exempt gas sales [or] … commissaries,” Virginia Beach City Manager George Hansbury told an audience. “If we can get rid of those benefits with the military buying for all their friends, and have the military pay reasonable salaries,” the city could make up deficits from reduced federal funding.[17]

In general, the cost of maintaining a standing army during the Cold War, the largest peacetime military in U.S. history during the 1950s, cost a great deal of money. Unsurprisingly, spending on manpower in the post WWII period had expanded. From 1964 to 1973, manpower spending ballooned from 42 percent of the total DoD budget to 56 percent; if one isolated pay and allowances during the same period expenditures increased by $22 billion. The post-1973 army witnessed similar expansion, despite the fact the army had shrunk by a million soldiers.[18] Yet one could argue, without conscription or a draft, luring Americans into the military would always require economic incentives. Having crafted an effective advertising approach during the 1970s (a process documented very effectively by the aforementioned Bailey) the accompanying economic trauma of the decade, and favorable coverage in media outlets like Esquire, the New Yorker, and elsewhere trumpeting the army’s fringe benefits made enlistment a much more attractive proposition.[19]

Enlisted personnel and their advocates reacted strongly to efforts by Aspin and others to chip away at benefits. Many cited the intangible difficulties of military life: deployments which disrupted family life, frequent moves which prevented wives from holding long-term employment or having careers, and the “difficult transition from military to civilian life.” They had supporters in Congress as well, such as Barry Goldwater. “It’s hypocrisy … for Congressmen who are enjoying so many tax subsidized extras to begrudge the few left to service people,” the Arizona Senator sniped.[20] As one group of service personnel and civilian army workers wrote to the Army Times: “The active military, retirees, and civil service personnel are tired of having to be sacrificial goats for the nation’s ills.”

Such comments inspired a push within the military and by organized labor outside of it to unionize military service, as Mittelstadt demonstrates in her discussion regarding the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and its brief and unsuccessful attempt to incorporate service personnel into its membership. Considering the faltering economy and the declining place of unions in the American mind and workforce, debates comparing army service and working in the private sector proliferated. Though hardly definitive, several smaller studies suggested enlisted personnel viewed unionization with great interest. Even those that found organized labor unattractive told elected officials that a failure to ensure benefits and pay would result in unionization.

Military officials avoided directly denouncing the idea for fear of alienating working-class service members, but civilian proxies like Ford’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld castigated the idea, arguing the sacrifices of military service could never be compared to a regular job. “Can a combat infantryman possibly be compared with a computer programmer,” asked Rumsfeld. “It is insulting and demeaning to compare a combat soldiers, on duty call for 24 hours a day and potentially subject to death or injury with a 9 to 5 civilian.”[21] Others like the Secretary of the Fleet Reserve Association belittled the motives of organized labor. “I think they are looking after the enlisted man’s dues and muscle of his numbers to increase their effectiveness . . . I think it is a rip off of the military man.”[22]

Eventually, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AGFE) voted down the effort but this failed to end the debate. Service personnel used the unionization threat as leverage against proposed cuts to benefits. Indeed, in the late 1970s, the military expanded its benefits and social welfare programs. Talk of waste and excess faded. Even Aspin supported new benefits. Ironically, civilian workers, notably unions, experienced the opposite.

The Carter administration, notes Mittelstadt, demanded austerity from civilians but dug into government pockets to provide more spending for military personnel.[23] For example, in 1979 career personnel, most often senior enlisted members, received an 11.7 percent pay raise, reenlistment bonuses increased by 1/3 (going from $15,000 to $20,000), and the Variable Housing Allowance (VHA) was created; the latter reimbursed soldiers stationed in high cost areas.[24]

Service members found ways to negate the efforts of deficit and spending hawks like Proxmire and Aspin by deftly playing up the unionization as unions themselves rapidly lost footing. The fear and loathing that the idea of unionization elicited from more conservative politicians illustrates larger trends in U.S. culture at the time while also serving as a testament to one of Mittelstadt’s central arguments: as the social welfare state gradually dismantled benefits for civilians, within the military it had only just begun to expand. Interestingly, it would be under the watch of New Right standard-bearer Ronald Reagan that military social welfare programs reached their greatest heights—though not without the help of critical efforts by army wives, nor without facing counterefforts by evangelical Christians.

[1] Jennifer Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 96-97.

[2] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 98.

[3] Bernard Rostker, I Want You the Evolution of the All Volunteer Force, (Arlington, VA: RAND, 2006), 325.

[4] Bernard Rostker, I Want You: The Evolution of the All Volunteer Force, 274; Haynes Johnson and George C . Wilson, Army in Anguish, (Washington D.C.: Pocket, 1972).

[5] Ibid, 289-290

[6] Congress, Senate. Committee on Armed Services, Hearing of Caspar W. Weinberger to be Secretary of Defense, 97 Cong., 1 sess., 6 January 1981. Casper Weinberger readily admitted that Americans had lost respect for the American military. Weinberger expressed a need “to regain the respect and the honor and the appreciation that I think we should all feel for people in the uniformed services. This used to be the feeling of the country…” Senator John Tower suggested the very make up of the new military failed in part because of this diversity. “I don’t believe we can [build] it at the crossroads or the street corners.”; Congress. House. Select Committee on Armed Services, Drug Abuse in the Military, 97th Cong., 2 sess, 1 September, 1981, 149-151. Representative Robert K. Doran argued that the new brought in “young men and women into the service who are not going to cut it under a discipline system that they are totally unaware of because they have been crippled by their parents, or inner city situations where they haven’t adapted to discipline.” While Rep. Frank J. Guarini (NJ) accused returning overseas military personnel of travelling “all over the world and whatever their involvement with the military was and however sophisticated their habit of drugs became and they go back into the neighborhoods of our Nation and they contaminate those neighborhoods, is there a place that we know for sure that war are following up?”

[7] Jennifer Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 106.

[8] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 106, 108.

[9] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 95

[10] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 114.

[11] Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s, (New Haven, Conn; Yale University Press, 1995), 392, 400.

[12] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 35.

[13] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 36-37.

[14] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 37.

[15] Ryan Reft, “The Metropolitan Military: Navy Families and Housing in the American Sunbelt”, (PhD Diss, University California San Diego, 2014), 342-43.

[16] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 49.

[17] Reft, “The Metropolitan Military,” 370.

[18] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 50.

[19] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 52-53.

[20] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 55.

[21] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 66.

[22] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 67-68.

[23] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 70-71.

[24] Mittelstadt, The Rise of the Military Welfare State, 71.