“The Cost of Major U.S. Wars provides present day dollar figures (adjusted for inflation) for every U.S. war from the Revolution to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.”
ARMED CONFLICTS DO HARM to more than just the bodies and minds of those unfortunate enough to be swept up in them. They exact a devastating toll on nations’ finances as well. Need proof? Look no further than the staggering cost of the decade old War on Terror. The website Cost of War maintains a real time ticker that tracks in dollars the financial burden the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan have placed on the American economy. As of the moment of this publishing, the totals were:
Iraq War: $812.4 Billion
Afghanistan War: $626.5 Billion
But how does the financial impact of these two conflicts compare to other American wars in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries? Well, one defence budgetary specialist working for the U.S. Congressional Research Center crunched the numbers in 2010. The report, entitled Cost of Major U.S. Wars by Stephen Daggett, provides present day dollar figures (adjusted for inflation) for every U.S. war from the Revolution to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Here is what he discovered:
The War of Independence: $2.4 Billion
Between 1775 and 1783, the 13 colonies borrowed and spent a total of $101 million fighting for independence from Great Britain. This is the modern day equivalent of $2.4 billion – quite a bargain to establish a new country.
The War of 1812: $1.5 Billion
A generation after achieving nationhood, America went to war again with Great Britain, this time over maritime rights. The widely unpopular two-and-a-half-year conflict, which resolved little and very nearly led to the secession of the New England states, sapped the young republic’s treasury of $90 million, roughly the equivalent of $1.5 billion today. That was 2 percent of the country’s GDP at the time.
The Mexican American War: $2.3 Billion
Fought between 1846 and 1848, the war with Mexico for control of what is now Texas, Arizona, California and New Mexico cost Washington $71 million or $2.3 billion in today’s terms. That was about 1.4 percent of the U.S. GDP.
The Civil War: $59 Billion
The war to preserve the Union set the federal government back more than all wars to that point combined, and represented a staggering 11.3 percent of the northern state’s GDP. All told, the Civil War cost Washington more than $3 billion in the 1860s, which would represent $59 billion today. Add to that the cost of the war for the 11 Confederate states, which was $1 billion then, or about $20 billion in 2013 dollars. In fact, the four year conflict was 12 times more expensive than all the other American wars up to that point put together.
The Spanish American War: $9 Billion
The war with Spain in 1898 to 1899 came in at $280 million at the time, or just over $9 billion in 21st century currency.
World War One: $334 Billion
The Great War was entering its final year by the time America joined the fight against Germany. Despite that, the U.S. Treasury spent the modern day equivalent of $334 billion defeating the Kaiser or roughly 13 per cent of the American GDP. At the time, the commitment totalled the then mind boggling sum of $20 billion.
World War Two: $4 Trillion
America’s contribution to the First World War would pale in comparison with final tab for the Second World War. Washington spent more than a third of the nation’s GDP in the war’s final year (35 percent) and $300 million in 1940s dollars in total. Today, that would equal more than $4 trillion. Crushing the Axis cost the American people far more than all other U.S. wars before and since combined. See the chart below for a full appraisal.
Korea: $341 Billion
Between 1950 and 1953, the U.S. poured $30 billion into pushing the communists back over the 38th Parallel or just over 4 percent of the nation’s GDP at the time. That would represent $341 billion in today’s money.
Vietnam: $700 Billion
America’s war against Hanoi was a $111-dollar misadventure, which at its peak in 1968 represented 2.3 percent of the U.S. GDP. The war today would cost Washington about $700 billion, which is comparable to either of the wars in Afghanistan or Vietnam.
Persian Gulf War: $100 Billion
The six week air war and 100 hour ground campaign to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 set the U.S. taxpayer back a relatively modest $61 billion in 1991, just over $100 billion in today’s terms. The war represented only 0.3 of the nation’s GDP.
BREAKDOWN — Wartime Spending at a Glance
TO PUT THESE different dollar amounts in perspective, we summarized the data. The visuals speak for themselves: