Opponents like to paint the Democratic Party as pacifists who want to dismantle the military, but the party's political relationship with the US Navy tells a much different story.
It has become popular in recent years to suggest that the United States Democratic Party is somehow a party of peace – comprised of pacifists who are only interested in dismantling the military. This story is obviously useful to party opponents who want to claim the pro-military, pro-soldier mantel, but it's a story that doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny or historical examination.
Far from being the party of peace, the Democratic Party has long been a bastion for the military. More to the point, Democratic politicians, especially in the south, have a special relationship with the US Navy. Most every coastal southern state has a major naval base, from Jacksonville, Florida to Corpus Christi, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama. These major naval bases were the result of strenuous lobbying on behalf of influential Congressmen, but this relationship benefited everyone involved since these politicians weren’t just looking a heartfelt thanks from the Navy.
What they were really after were the money and jobs which came with these bases. Bases, factories, airstrips, and research labs each brought millions of dollars in construction funds and a permanent military presence. These facilities could uplift a community virtually overnight, and it changed countless southern districts from poor agriculture wastelands into budding centers of industry and technology. And this was the real secret of the relationship between southern Democrats and the Navy.
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Jacksonville’s Economic Uplift
Two examples of these southern politicians came from Jacksonville, Florida. Like many Floridian cities in the 1930s, Jacksonville struggled to keep up with the rest of the economically depressed south. Though many of the New Deal programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act targeted the south, they did little to help the state out Florida. But in 1939, a new kind of money flooded America: rearmament funds. Thanks to the wars in Asia and Europe, the Roosevelt administration broadly, and the Navy specifically, sought to build new factories, laboratories, airstrips, and ship bases.
Politicians in the south lined up to sell their communities to the Navy. In Florida's 3rd district, Representative Millard Caldwell, a Democrat, came up a unique pitch to sell Jacksonville to the Navy. He pulled together ten former servicemen, all located from his district, and brought them to Washington.
In performances that echoed Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, they sold the Navy not just on the strategic benefits of Jacksonville, but the social and economic benefits to rescuing the city. The influential position of Caldwell, who was one of a number of powerful southern Democrats and could make or break Roosevelt's New Deal and rearmament programs, surely helped the veteran's sales pitches. It is also important to remember that Congress, not the Navy, ultimately has final say on when and where its funds are spent. So, in 1940 the Navy agreed to build a major airstrip in Jacksonville, which began operations in 1941.
Caldwell finished his final term in January 1941, but he would continue as a prominent southern politician after World War Two. First as Governor of Florida and then later within the Truman administration as head of the Civil Defense Administration. As head of Civil Defense, Caldwell was well placed to distribute funds across the United States for programs, and which communities he privileged should come as no surprise.
Democratic Party Support for the US Navy Continues
However, federal spending in Florida's 3rd district didn’t dry up with the departure of Caldwell. His Democratic successor, Robert Sikes, brought yet another base to the Jacksonville area, the Naval Station Mayport. Sikes served in Congress for twenty-two years (with a year and half pause in 1944 when he served in the Army). During that period, the airfield at Jacksonville and the station in Mayport became two of the largest Navy bases on the East Coast. Taken together, the Jacksonville area is second only to Norfolk in terms of on base personnel. With a bit of careful management, advertisement, and good old Congressional shenanigans, bases like Jacksonville snowballed in size and importance, always attracting more jobs and more money.
Jacksonville's strong military presence, fostered by Caldwell and Sikes, is one in dozens of examples that show how Democrats far from oppose the expansion of the military. Instead, they fought for bases and facilities in their own districts. Obviously, these projects meant jobs and development for their otherwise barren districts but these trends weren’t limited to just dollars and bases.
The twin examples of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are instructive here. Johnson especially, in his time as Speaker of the House, succeeded in funneling huge amounts of money to his district and the district of his allies. As president both he and Kennedy, like Roosevelt before them, sought to use this spending for tangible goals. While we might criticize wars like the one in Vietnam, they fail to demonstrate any keen pacifist conviction on the part of the Democratic Party. They're not the only ones, either. As an anti-Communist Democrat, Senator Henry 'Scoop' Jackson from Washington state famously criticized Richard Nixon for being too soft on Russia. What it all suggests is that when dollars need to be spent and ships need to be put to sea, Democrats are just as in love with the military as their Republican counterparts.