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The Most Expensive US Conflicts From 1950-2020

May 8, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, otherwise known as V-E Day. It is a celebration of Nazi Germany’s surrender after a grueling, roughly six-year war that involved 30 countries and claimed more than 70 million lives. Not only did World War II come with a devastating cost of life, but it was also the most expensive battle in U.S. history — totaling $4.7 trillion.

Thankfully, no U.S. conflict since has cost as much, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been cheap either. America has been involved in five full-fledged wars since WWII and all have cost, at a minimum, about $100 billion. But which one has been most expensive for taxpayers?

By analyzing the Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Iraq War and the ongoing War in Afghanistan, GOBankingRates found each war’s peak year of spending, cost as a percentage of GDP and total cost at the time and in 2020, accounting for inflation. Discover the true cost of war and the effects major conflicts have on America’s economy.

Last updated: May 7, 2020

Nutter/US Army / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Korean War

The Korean War, sometimes known as “The Forgotten War” for its lack of media attention, officially began on June 25, 1950, and marked the beginning of the Cold War. It was a conflict between the anti-communist, America-backed Republic of Korea (present-day South Korea) and the communist, Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (present-day North Korea). President Harry S. Truman said in a radio address to Americans on April 11, 1951, “In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third World War. … The communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world. If they were to succeed, the United States would be numbered among their principal victims.”

Though it lasted just three years, the Korean War claimed nearly 5 million lives, with 40,000 of those being American. Further, more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers were injured.

The war ended on July 27, 1953, when the feuding countries signed an armistice that created a new boundary between North and South Korea. It also gave South Korea 1,500 more square miles of land and created a demilitarized zone 2 miles wide. This zone still exists today.

Naval Historical Center / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost Back Then

Contemporary cost of war: $30 billion

Related: This Is How Much a Major War With North Korea Would Cost Us

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

Signal Corps Photo / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost in 2020 Dollars

Cost of war adjusting for inflation: $290,016,853,933 ($290 billion)

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

Corporal Peter McDonald / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

When the U.S. Spent the Most

Peak year of wartime spending: 1952

US Army / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

How Much the War Cost in Its Peak Year

Cost of war during its peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 4.20%

U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Defense Budget During Peak Wartime

The defense budget during the war’s peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 13.20%

U.S. Marines / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is one of the longest, most complicated conflicts in U.S. history. It dates back to WWII, when Japan invaded Vietnam, eventually withdrawing but leaving its choice, Emperor Bao Dai, in charge. It wouldn’t end until 1976, when North and South Vietnam were unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — and even then, violence continued sporadically for years. The Gulf of Tonken, My Lai massacre, Kent State and Agent Orange are just some of the horrific touchstones of the war.

The U.S.’s involvement took place officially in 1955, a year after Vietnam split into two territories. It would continue through four presidential administrations — those of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. President Johnson gave the most financial aid and military support to the Vietnam War, despite anti-war movements erupting stateside, and mutinies, mass desertion and violence between soldiers and officers occurring overseas. What’s more, soldiers began deteriorating both physically and mentally, with increased cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and drug abuse.

In 1968, newly elected President Nixon began what he called “Vietnamization,” which meant withdrawing U.S. troops from the region while giving South Vietnam what they needed — both in training and weaponry — to handle the ground war. The Vietnam War didn’t end until five years later, when a peace agreement was signed. Still, battles between North and South Vietnam continued.

In total, the war took more than 3 million lives, 58,000 of which were American soldiers. Shockingly, more than half of those who died were civilians of Vietnam.

U.S. Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost Back Then

Contemporary cost of war: $111 billion

Also See: The Best and Worst Decades for America’s Money

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost in 2020 Dollars

Cost of war adjusting for inflation: $532,542,100,372 ($533 billion)

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

When the U.S. Spent the Most

Peak year of wartime spending: 1968

USAF / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

How Much the War Cost in Its Peak Year

Cost of war during its peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 2.30%

Abbie Rowe / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Defense Budget During Peak Wartime

The defense budget during the war’s peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 9.50%

Staff Sgt. Vance / United States Marine Corps

Persian Gulf War

On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, ordered the invasion and annexation of Kuwait. In response, two-thirds of the 21 countries in the Arab League, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, asked the United States and its allies to intervene.

The United Nations Security Council demanded Hussein withdraw his forces from Kuwait, but Hussein refused. Thus began the U.S.’s involvement in the Persian Gulf War on Jan. 17, 1991. Thirty-nine countries ended up joining the Allied coalition against Iraq and its defenders.

The war was kicked off with an air offensive led by the U.S. known as Operation Desert Storm. Its goal was to devastate Iraq’s air force, communication networks, weapons plants and other vital targets. Once the barrage of attacks was complete, all that was left to do was to defeat the Iraqi military on the ground. It took just four days to defeat the Iraqis and liberate Kuwait.

President Bush called for a ceasefire on Feb. 28, 1991. Hussein was forced to accept peace terms which included an agreement to get rid of all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and an acknowledgment of Kuwait’s sovereignty. In the end, a relatively small 300 coalition troops were killed, while Iraq lost between 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers.

Though the war was considered a success by many, Hussein was still left in power and the tension between his regime and the U.S. would set the stage for the Iraq War in 2003.

US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost Back Then

Contemporary cost of war: $61 billion

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

US Army / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

What It Cost in 2020 Dollars

Cost of war adjusting for inflation: $115,602,165,932 ($116 billion)

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

PHAN Chad Vann / US Air Force

When the U.S. Spent the Most

Peak year of wartime spending: 1991

U.S. DOD / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

How Much the War Cost in Its Peak Year

Cost of war during its peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 0.30%

Defense Budget During Peak Wartime

The defense budget during the war’s peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 4.60%

SSG KYLE DAVIS / US Army

War in Afghanistan

There has been internal warring in Afghanistan since the 1970s, but the “War on Afghanistan” refers to the U.S.’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the nearly two decades of war that have ensued. The American government believed al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the terrorist attacks and that he was residing in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. When Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar wouldn’t hand over Bin Laden, the U.S. went to war. British allies joined U.S. forces right away, and special operations teams from Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark and more lent aid in the coming years.

Though the Bush administration would claim victory in 2003 with its infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner waving aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, it would be another seven years before Bin Laden was located and killed by American soldiers. The U.S. wouldn’t formally end the war until December 2014, at which time it became the longest war ever fought in U.S. history. And though 2014 is accepted as the official end of the war, the U.S. has remained an active presence in the region.

There are currently 12,000 U.S. troops occupying Afghanistan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, and the civil war in the area has been worsening. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of May 4, 2020, the War in Afghanistan has claimed about 2,300 U.S. military troops and wounded more than 20,000. More than 775,000 U.S. troops have been sent to Afghanistan — many repeatedly — since 2001.

Staff Sgt. William Tremblay / US Army

What It Cost Back Then

Contemporary cost of war: $778 billion

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

Pfc Boyd Cameron / Joint Combat Camera

What It Cost in 2020 Dollars

Cost of war adjusting for inflation: $785,480,037,707 ($785 billion)

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

U.S. Marines / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

When the U.S. Spent the Most

Peak years of wartime spending: 2010-2012

How Much the War Cost in Its Peak Year

Cost of war during its peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 0.64%

U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Defense Budget During Peak Wartime

The defense budget during the war’s peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 4.58%

Learn About: The National Debt Crisis — by Presidency

LCPL BL WICKLIFFE / U.S. Marines

Iraq War

Sometimes known as the Second Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War began in 2003 and officially ended in 2011. However, American troops remain in the region. Operation Inherent Resolve — the combat against ISIS — is ongoing and falls under Iraq expenses according to the Department of Defense.

The true motives behind the Iraq War are controversial at best. However, the official message given to the American public was that the Bush administration believed Iraq to be harboring weapons of mass destruction and saw its support of terrorist groups — which allegedly included al-Qaida — as a significant threat post-Sept. 11. This culminated in President George W. Bush demanding still-acting President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq. When Hussein refused, the U.S. began bombing.

The conflict with Iraq had two phases. The first was a brief war from March to April 2003 in which Iraqi military forces were defeated by the U.S., Great Britain and small forces from other countries. The second phase of the war was the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq and fight against rebel forces, which lasted until 2011.

The completion of phase one led President Bush to declare an end to major combat on May 1, 2003. Some seven months later, Hussein, who had gone into hiding, was captured. In June 2004, he was given over to Iraqi authorities and was put on trial for multiple war crimes. On Dec. 30, 2006, Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was executed.

According to the Department of Defense, between March 19, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2011, the U.S. lost nearly 4,500 troops and more than 32,000 were wounded in action.

LCPL KEVIN C. QUIHUIS JR, USMC / U.S. Marines

What It Cost Back Then

Contemporary cost of war: $838 billion

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

TSGT JOHN L. HOUGHTON JR., USAF / COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY

What It Cost in 2020 Dollars

Cost of war adjusting for inflation: $846,056,904,368 ($846 billion)

Find Out: US National Debt by Year Since 1900

Editor’s note: This cost estimate is solely for military operations. It does not include veteran benefits, interest on war-related debt or assistance to allies.

SPC. KIERAN CUDDIHY / U.S. Marines

When the U.S. Spent the Most

Peak year of wartime spending: 2008

U.S. Army / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

How Much the War Cost in Its Peak Year

Cost of war during its peak year (as a percentage of GDP): 1.00%

U.S. Marine Corps / Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Defense Budget During Peak Wartime