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Near the end of an April 15, 2014 town hall meeting in his district, Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner listened to a constituent cite something on the Internet about the resignation of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
"There’s no truth meter on the Internet," remarked Sensenbrenner, a Republican elected to Congress in southeastern Wisconsin since 1978.
Respectfully, we beg to differ on that.
A remark earlier in the town-hall session by Sensenbrenner about Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s plans to downsize the Army’s troop strength caught our attention.
"With respect to the president’s budget proposal, there the recommendation was that we have an Army of fewer personnel than we had before Pearl Harbor," Sensenbrenner said when asked about survivor’s benefits. "That’s ridiculous and outrageous."
Let’s put that one on our Truth-O-Meter.
When we asked Sensenbrenner spokesman Ben Miller for backup on the historical comparison, he referred us to the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget request for fiscal year 2015. It quoted the Quadrennial Defense Review 2014.
That five-year plan says the active Army will reduce its "end strength" to between 440,000 and 450,000 personnel. The current active-duty figure is about 520,000, Army spokesman Troy Rolan told us.
The Times piece said that "cuts proposed by the Obama administration would result in the smallest Army since just before the World War II buildup." The AP report said the active-duty Army would shrink to the "smallest number since 1940, when the nation was gearing up to enter World War II."
But Sensenbrenner didn’t say Hagel’s plan would result in the smallest Army since before the war buildup.
He said it would be smaller than the pre-war troop complement.
Before the U.S. buildup got cranked up, the Army had 188,000 troops in mid-1939 and 264,000 in mid-1940, official Army figures show.
So Hagel’s plan for 440,000 active troops would still be larger than that, contrary to what Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner’s phrasing looks better if you limit the comparison just to the 1941 period right before Pearl Harbor.
But the troop numbers from 1941 include the U.S. buildup that began in 1940 in the wake of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. By late August 1941, active-duty Army personnel totalled about 1.6 million.
If Sensenbrenner was using 1.6 million as his comparison point, he couldn’t confine his outrage to the Obama/Hagel Army of 450,000, because every Army since 1952 has been smaller than 1.6 million.
Troop levels ebb and flow, as you might expect, around major wars. After the World War II peak of 8.3 million, the Army’s numbers fell dramatically, then blipped up to 1.6 million during the Korean War. After another drop, the number ramped up to 1.475 million during the Vietnam War before levelling off at about 775,000 from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.
The Army’s size fell significantly throughout the 1990s to 479,000 before slowly ticking up to 571,000 after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As America has drawn down troops in those nations, the Army’s strength has dropped to the current 520,000.
So, with the proposed reduction, the Army would be just below where it was before the Sept. 11 attacks.
There’s another angle to consider here: the difficulty in comparing a 1940 Army to today’s model.
We asked military historian Lance Janda of Cameron University in Oklahoma to assess Sensenbrenner’s comments.
Janda called the comments "terribly misleading, implying as they do a sort of similarity between the technology, force structure, threat environment, and federal budget reality in 2014 and the one in 1940 that simply does not exist."
In terms of weapons systems, communications capabilities, speed of deployment, radius of action, and overall destructive potential, Janda said, the U.S. is light years beyond where it was prior to World War II.
"In 1940 our Army and army Air Corps were relatively small and our Navy was one among several powerful navies around the world," Janda said. "Today, the United States Navy and Air Force have no peers."
Travis Sharp, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonprofit think tank, wrote that size of the force often does matter, but "since the 2014 Army is not going to fight in the 1940 strategic environment, comparing them does not help us decide what to do today."
"While interesting," Sharp wrote, "the comparison to 1940 is not particularly useful."
"Today's Army is vastly more capable, even at a fraction of the headcount," John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, told us.
Hagel, in announcing the budget reductions in February 2014, called them difficult and not without added risk.
Hagel said the cuts assume the United States no longer becomes involved in large, prolonged stability operations overseas on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department reported. But he said the smaller force still would be capable of decisively defeating aggression in one major war "while also defending the homeland and supporting air and naval forces engaged in another theater against an adversary."
Still, some analysts, including Sharp, have expressed concerns about repercussions on the battlefield and beyond if the active-duty complement falls to 440,000 without appropriate contingency planning.
"Prioritizing technology over size has a strategic logic and conforms with historical practice," wrote Sharp. "Despite this logic, focusing on high-tech modernization without simultaneously implementing policies to regenerate ground forces quickly should a crisis erupt constitutes strategic negligence of the highest order."
PolitiFact National checked a statement similar to Sensenbrenner’s in January 2012. The speaker was Mitt Romney.
The Republican presidential candidate said that the U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because "our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947."
The claim earned a Pants on Fire rating. The numbers were close to accurate, but experts said it was wrong to assume a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. And the comparison of today’s military to its predecessors in 1917 or 1947 was deemed ridiculous.
Sensenbrenner said that President Obama’s budget proposed "an Army of fewer personnel than we had before Pearl Harbor."
The congressman doesn’t read as much into the numbers as did Romney.
But he flubbed the historical comparison pointed out by others, and experts say it’s a limited and potentially misleading comparison in any event.
We rate the claim False.
Wisconsin Eye, video of town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, April 15, 2014
U.S. Army Public Affairs, "Historical Strengths of the Army," provided April 28, 2014
PolitiFact.com, "Mit Romney says U.S. Navy is smallest since 1917, Air Force is smallest since 1947," Jan. 18, 2012
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Defense Department wants to cut ship orders from Marinette Marine," Feb. 24, 2014
New York Times, "Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level," Feb. 23, 2014
Email interview with Lance Janda, associate professor of history, Cameron University, April 22, 2014
Interview with Ben Miller, press secretary, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, April 22, 2014
Email interview with John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, April 28, 2014
Interview with Troy Rolan, Army spokesman, April 28, 2014
Congressional Research Service, "Army Drawdown and Restructuring: Background and Issues for Congress," Feb. 28, 2014
Newsmax, "GOP Slams Obama Plan to Cut Military to "Pre World War II Level," Feb. 24, 2014
The Atlantic, "Opponents of Pentagon-Budget cuts Just Played the Entire Media," Feb. 25, 2014
Washington Post, "Pentagon blueprint would cut Army size as military adjusts to leaner budgets," Feb. 24, 2014
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