We Have Done So Much with So Little for So Long, that Now We Can Do Anything with Nothing

U.S. Airforce? U.S. Navy? Marines? U.S. Coastguard? Hugh S. Johnson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a retirement party I heard the following humorous encomium:

She did so much, with so little, for so long that she is now able to do everything with nothing.

Would you please explore the history of this statement?

Quote Investigator: This expression is difficult to trace because it is highly malleable. In 1942 a precursor appeared in the syndicated newspaper column of former U.S. army officer Hugh S. Johnson. General Douglas MacArthur won praise from Johnson. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The plaudits he has so justly won by doing so much with so little have left a sort of impression that he is a military magician who can do anything with nothing.

By 1960 the expression emerged as a motto within the Tactical Air Command of the U.S. Air Force. The following passage discussed aerial refueling tankers: 2

The tankers being flown out of Langley were built in the early 1950’s, at the latest. Their refueling altitude is limited to under 30,000-feet, their refueling speed is less than 300 knots and their maintenance problems—because of age and high rate of usage — are sometimes almost more than can be met—although the tankers have a motto: “We have done so much with so little for so long, that now we can do anything with nothing.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1964 an article from the UPI news service noted that the slogan was being applied to fliers in the U.S. Navy: 3

“We have done so much for so long with so little that we can now do practically anything with nothing.”
This official slogan tells the story of the delivery boys of the Navy, the fliers of Squadron VR21 who still fly around the world in those old fashioned airplanes with the propellers.

In 1971 the “Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan stated that many Marines serving in Vietnam carried cigarette lighters with custom inscriptions. The article printed several examples: 4

Fighting for peace is like making love for virginity . . . Marines have done so much with so little for so long, that now we can do anything with nothing forever … For those who fight for it, life and liberty have a flavor the protected never know.

More elaborate statements were constructed by combining sayings that had evolved separately. For example in 1974 a Long Beach, California newspaper described the text of a sign hanging in the wheelhouse of a boat owned by Gill Poe who worked for Pacific Tow Boat and Salvage Company. Ellipses were in the original newsprint: 5

“We, the willing…led by the unknowing…are doing the impossible…for the ungrateful.
“We have been doing so much for so long with so little, that we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

In 2004 “CSO” magazine published an article about the U.S. Coast Guard which included an instance of the saying: 6

Coasties joked that since they were constantly being asked to do more and more with less and less, eventually someone would ask them to do everything with nothing. Only it never was entirely a joke.

In conclusion, QI believes that the saying originated and evolved within the U.S. military. A precursor was used in 1942 by columnist Hugh S. Johnson who had been a Brigadier General in the Army. The full motto was circulating in the U.S. Air Force by 1960.

Image Notes: Golden infinity symbol from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Blue silver null symbol from PIRO4D at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to James Jurdak whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. In addition, thanks to discussants Neal Whitman, Bill Mullins, Jonathan Lighter, Barry Popik, Stephen Goranson, James A. Landau, and Seán Fitzpatrick.)


  1. 1942 March 26, The Daily Pantagraph, MacArthur Must Be Saved From Friends by Hugh S. Johnson, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1960 March 6, Daily Press, Eye on the Eagle by Howard Gibbons (Daily Press Military Editor), Quote Page 3-A, Column 5, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1964 November 8, Rockford Morning Star, Prop Boys ‘Do Anything With Nothing’ (UPI News Service), Quote Page 10C, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1971 July 4, Detroit Free Press, Bob Talbert’s Detroit, Quote Page 11-A, Column 1, Newspaper Location: Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1974 November 5, Independent, Salty philosophy from rough sea,” by George Robeson, Quote Page B3, Column 5, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 2004 May, CSO: The Resource for Security Executives, Volume 3, Number 5, Same Ship, Different Day by Scott Berinato, Quote Page 28, Column 2, Published by CXO Media Inc. (Google Full View)