We are lucky to have the Gallup organization and its polls going back for decades, thus giving us longitudinal surveys that reveal a lot. This week they released a poll showing a continued plurality of Americans saying we spend too much for military purposes. These new numbers reenforce my own prediction that Congress will not reverse the Obama administration's proposed defense cuts, just as it failed to save defense spending from the automatic sequester cuts last year.
But look at the historical trends. At the height of the Vietnam war in 1969, over half the people thought we were spending too much on defense; only 8% said too little. Only in the late 1970s did the "too little" figure exceed "too much." That sentiment peaked at the start of the Reagan administration and dropped sharply by 1982, probably driven by concerns over nuclear weapons programs and evidence of wasteful spending [$600 hammers and $2,000 coffee makers for airplanes]. The "too much" sentiment peaked in 1990, as the cold war ended, then gradually declined until events like the U.S. embassy bombings and problems in the Balkans in the late 1990s. The 9/11 attacks led to an increase in those wanting to spend more, but the budget cutters surged as the Iraq war went sour and remain stronger than those who want increases.
Congress tends to follow this opinion, boosting defense when the public is in favor, and cutting back when that sentiment grows.