Debate promises: defense (1980)

October 18, 2016 Bryan Craig
Paul Drabot /

In the last two weeks, the First Year Project has taken a look at some promises made in past debates. Today, we look at Ronald Reagan’s efforts to increase defense spending.

On October 28, 1980, during the presidential debate, Ronald Reagan said:

“Mr. Stone, I have submitted an economic plan that I've worked out in concert with a number of fine economists in this country, all of whom approve it, and believe that over a 5-year projection, this plan can permit the extra spending for needed refurbishing of our defensive posture…”

In March of his first year, President Reagan introduced his budget for fiscal year 1982. He advocated spending cuts, but true to his word, he requested increased funds for the military. On June 4, 1981, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included an additional $6.9 billion for defense.

In his Ronald Reagan Oral history interview, Secretary of State George Schultz, says: 

“[W]e felt that they [Soviets] couldn’t keep up with us, but the idea of building up our military capability was not to outspend them but to provide ourselves with adequate defenses.”

In his autobiography, Reagan wrote: 

“Pentagon leaders told me appalling stories of how the Soviets were gaining on us militarily, both in nuclear and conventional forces; they were spending fifty percent more each year on weapons than we were; meanwhile, in our armed forces, the paychecks were so small that some married enlisted men and women were eligible for welfare benefits; many military personnel were so ashamed of being in the service that as soon as they left their posts, they put on civilian clothes.” (An American Life, New York: Threshold Editions, 1990, pp. 234-235)

In a larger sense, what role did increasing defense spending play in the president’s grand strategy? Historian Hal Brands discussed this in our 2014 Great Issues program: