State of the Union January/February 2011

The Tyranny of Defense Inc.

In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower famously identified the military-industrial complex, warning that the growing fusion between corporations and the armed forces posed a threat to democracy. Judged 50 years later, Ike’s frightening prophecy actually understates the scope of our modern system—and the dangers of the perpetual march to war it has put us on.

During the Eisenhower years, military outlays served as a seemingly inexhaustible engine of economic well-being. Keeping the Soviets at bay required the design and acquisition of a vast array of guns and missiles, bombers and warships, tanks and fighter planes. Ensuring that U.S. forces stayed in fighting trim entailed the construction of bases, barracks, depots, and training facilities. Research labs received funding. Businesses large and small won contracts. Organized labor got jobs. And politicians who delivered all these goodies to their constituents hauled in endorsements, campaign contributions, and votes. Throughout the 1950s, unemployment stayed tolerably low and inflation minimal, while budget deficits ranged from trivial to non-existent. What was not to like? As a result, Pentagon budgets remained high throughout the Eisenhower era, averaging more than 50 percent of all federal spending and 10 percent of GDP, figures without precedent in the nation’s peacetime history.

For its beneficiaries, girding for war was a gift, and one they expected would never stop giving. The presumption that military capabilities qualifying as adequate today would surely not suffice tomorrow—the Reds, after all, weren’t standing still—generated a ceaseless quest for bigger, better, and more. Every ominous advance in Russian capabilities offered a renewed rationale for opening the military-spending spigot. Whether the edge attributed to the Soviets was real or invented mattered little. The discovery during the 1950s of a “bomber gap” and later a “missile gap,” for example, provided political ammunition to air-power advocates quick to charge that the nation’s very survival was at risk. Alarm bells rang. Congressional committees summoned expert witnesses. Newspapers and magazines nervously assessed the implications of these new vulnerabilities. Ultimately, appropriations poured forth. That both “gaps” were fictitious was beside the point.

None of these developments—the excessive military outlays, the privileging of institutional goals over the national interest, the calculated manipulation of public opinion—met with Eisenhower’s approval. Knowing at the time that the United States enjoyed an edge in bomber and missile capabilities, he understood precisely who benefited from threat inflation. Yet to sustain the illusion he was fully in command, Ike remained publicly silent about what went on behind the scenes. Only on the eve of his departure from office did he inform the nation as to what Washington’s new obsession with national security had wrought.

In 1961, as in 1953, his central theme was theft. This time, however, rather than homes or schools, Ike suggested the thieves might walk off with democracy itself.

The Cold War, he emphasized, had transformed the country’s approach to defending itself. In the past, “American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.” But this reliance on improvisation no longer sufficed. The rivalry with the Soviet Union had “compelled” the United States “to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” As a consequence, “we annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.”

The “economic, political, even spiritual” reach of this conglomeration was immense, Eisenhower explained, extending to “every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” Although the president could not bring himself to question explicitly the need for this shift in policy, he warned of its implications. “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved,” he said. “So is the very structure of our society.” With corporate officials routinely claiming the Pentagon’s top posts, and former military officers hiring themselves out to defense contractors, fundamental values were at risk. “In the councils of government,” Eisenhower continued,

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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

Having defined the problem, Eisenhower then advanced a striking solution: ultimate responsibility for democracy’s defense, he insisted, necessarily rested with the people themselves. Rather than according Washington deference, American citizens needed to exercise strict oversight. Counting on the national-security state to police itself—on members of Congress to set aside parochial concerns, corporate chieftains to put patriotism above profit, and military leaders to hew to the ethic of their profession—wouldn’t do the trick. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Reaction to the president’s speech was tepid at best. The headline in TheBoston Globe reported “Ike Says Farewell After Half Century in U.S. Service” and left it at that. With the country agog over Jack and Jackie, the mood of the moment did not invite introspection. Eisenhower’s insistence that citizens awaken to looming danger attracted little attention. His valedictory qualified, at the time, as a one-day story.

So Ike departed, but military metaphysics survived intact and found particular favor in the upper echelons of the next administration. On the campaign trail, Kennedy had promised higher defense spending, enhanced nuclear capabilities, and a reinvigorated confrontation with Communism. Once in office, he proved as good as his word.

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Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

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