A ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ Cabal? Hardly.
By Mark Stout
It’s been fifty years to the week since outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his famous Presidential farewell speech. But what exactly made the speech so memorable?
You may already know the answer: it was the ominous sounding and now middle-aged caveat about the “military-industrial complex.” And just what did Ike have to say?
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
The aforementioned military-industrial complex (as it is most commonly explained) implies the presence of a death-dealing cabal of military and defense industry illuminati and brings to mind other enduring and menacing warnings such as “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” “If you only knew the power of the dark side,” and “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!” Why does America end up in wars that are ultimately unpopular? Well, since these wars can’t be attributed to the foibles of political leadership or the changeable will of the people, it must be the military-industrial complex. For what it’s worth, ponder if the military-industrial complex might not also be responsible for crop circles, reality television, and slow download speeds as well…
Yes, the military-industrial complex phrase has become an undead zombie sound bite thrown around with a total lack of context even as it stubbornly refuses to fade from view. Accordingly, the key to better understanding the phrase is the context of the farewell speech itself and even more so, the circumstance of Eisenhower’s life and the geopolitics of the early 1960s.
From the perspective of Ike’s life, chronic war perhaps seemed to be the normal state of the world. Ike had seen an America involved in World War I and lived through the Great Depression. He saw American warfighting power devastated in the Pacific by the unexpected Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and other military installations.
Later in World War II, he observed America provide the manpower and materials needed to win the war in Europe and then saw U.S. airpower devastate Japan with the war-winning scientific know-how of our atomic weapons. Ike saw the menacing threat of Communism emerge in full bloom in post-war Europe and Asia, to include war on the Korean peninsula. By the time he became president, Eisenhower had seen more than his fair share of death, destruction, and mayhem.
Given those experiences and before he ever spoke of the military-industrial complex, it’s no wonder Ike’s farewell speech first reminded Americans of the existential threat from Communism. To the U.S., this threat was best exemplified by the Soviets, whose nuclear weapons and delivery systems would imperil the very existence of much of the world. Ike offered that:
We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.
While the “indefinite duration” Eisenhower warned of was over in a scant three decades, the concerns associated with this threat explained why America’s nuclear weapons count went from roughly 1,000 to about 23,000 under his watch and why Ike embraced an assertive foreign policy which included the use of CIA direct action. Eisenhower pursued this muscular national security strategy because the world had become more dangerous and was changing at a dizzying pace as he explained:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
And by the way, it wasn’t just the military-industrial complex that Ike was considering. Forgotten are all sorts of inconvenient Eisenhower warnings from his farewell address, including the government-academic association, that cozy relationship between government and academia.
…the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.
Federally subsidized peace, ethnic, or gender studies, anyone? Or perhaps some federal financing to prove manmade ‘climate change’? These ivory tower examples lead directly to another of Ike’s enduring truths: an American society without reasonable and prudent fiscal constraints would be headed towards the dustbin of history.
As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.
It is always fitting to consider the national security costs and benefits of a large, capable standing military and such issues are considered every year in the run-ups to the President submitting his proposed budget to Congress where monies are actually appropriated. In fact, a late draft of Ike’s farewell speech used the phrase “military-industrial-congressional complex,” a description that was pared down not for just for stylistic fashion but also to avoid offending the legislative branch with its plainspokenness.
Today, disfavored elements of the DoD budget are sometimes held up as providing little tangible return towards America’s national security or even as a source of outright waste. While pork and fiscal foolishness may be evident, consider this: even if the entire DoD budget were to cease to exist, America would still be looking at annual federal deficit spending of around $800 billion. While scapegoating a faceless military-industrial complex might make for a great distraction, the United States faces other huge governance problems that turn DoD’s shortcomings into something of a rounding error.
Consider that in 1961, U.S national defense spending was over half of all federal expenditures. Today it’s about 30 percent. Back in the day, defense spending was about 10 percent of our gross domestic product; today it’s about half that. Finally, in 1961, the United States had about 2.5 million active duty military members with a national population of about 180 million people. Today we have around 1.5 million active duty military with a national population of about 310 million people.
So while it’s not inappropriate to ponder sound bites–including the ones I’ve used–take them with a grain of salt and it their full context. Ike warned of much that bears watching beyond the threat of the ominous military-industrial complex, and while his record as a prophet isn’t perfect, it is darn good.
Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s Air Force Space and Cyber Strategy Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.