American Military Strength Abroad

February 15, 1980

Report Outline
New Emphasis on Defense
Evolving Commitment Overseas
Future Military Challenges
Special Focus

New Emphasis on Defense

Decline of U.S. Military Commitments

Declaring that the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “could pose the most serious threat to peace” since World War II, President Carter, in his third State of the Union address, called for a renewed U.S. commitment to national defense. In blunt language, Carter warned the Soviets to stay out of the oil-producing region of the Persian Gulf. Any attempt by an outside power to gain control of the area, he said, “would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter did not specify at what point and under what conditions military force would be used.

In the parlance of international power politics, the president has “drawn the line.” But many defense analysts believe that the United States would be hard-pressed to stop the Soviet Union from crossing it. The problem is logistical. Defending the Persian Gulf, as Carter has pledged to do, means being prepared to put troops on the ground at any critical moment. Yet lacking friendly bases in the area, the United States is severely limited in its ability to block a Soviet advance.

Between 1945 and 1965, the Defense Department maintained or had access to over 2,300 military installations around the world. Since then, for various reasons, including political differences with host governments, more than 600 of those bases have been deactivated or abandoned. The steady reduction in America's foreign military presence — from 1.2 million troops in 1968 to 458,000 in 1979 — often is cited as a factor in this nation's perceived weakness abroad. Some suggest the decline in U.S. overseas forces also has invited a new wave of Soviet adventurism, particularly in the troubled Middle East. “One shudders to think of what might have been the American reaction to [recent] communist takeovers in Asia and Africa at the height of the cold war,” wrote Donald S. Zagoria. “Many of our allies and friends are worried … by these developments and by the apparent lack of a U.S. response to them.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Military Bases
Sep. 30, 2016  Closing Guantanamo
Feb. 15, 1980  American Military Strength Abroad
Sep. 14, 1960  Foreign Bases: Declining Asset
Jan. 30, 1957  Future of Overseas Bases
Jul. 09, 1951  Overseas Bases
Jun. 16, 1944  Outlying Bases
Feb. 16, 1939  American Naval and Air Bases
Defense Budget