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Ike’s Military-Industrial Complex, Six Decades Later

As Eisenhower predicted, there is no balance left, as U.S. policy is reduced to who we threaten, bomb, or occupy next.
Dwight Eisenhower

January 17 marks the 59th anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation. After eight years in the White House, just three days before John F. Kennedy would be sworn in as his successor, Ike went on national television and touched on many topics, from promoting the economy to working with Congress.

Yet the heart of his speech was a finely chiseled critique of what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex.” This criticism was all the more remarkable, of course, because Eisenhower had been a career military man. Having graduated from West Point in 1915, he had served in the U.S. Army for more than three decades, through two world wars, ultimately rising to the rank of five-star general.

Yet on January 17, 1961, Ike said: “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.” He continued: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.”

By then 70 years old, Ike was no born-again pacifist. He quickly added of the military’s enlarging, “We recognize the imperative need for this development.” That imperative, of course, was the Cold War, the seemingly permanent eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of two countries, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., each glaring at the other with ideological hostility tipped with nuclear technology.

In response to the Soviet threat, Ike had maintained the Cold War structures he had inherited from his predecessor in the Oval Office, Harry Truman. In fact, throughout the 1950s, defense spending hovered around 10 percent of GDP (by comparison, the current percentage is less than four).

In addition, Ike’s America maintained substantial garrisons in Western Europe and Japan. At the same time, and more precariously, U.S. troops, advisers, and operatives fanned out across the globe, including to Lebanon, South Vietnam, and Iran.

In his speech, Eisenhower made no apology for his role in the further freezing of the Cold War. Yet he still urged caution as to the potential ill effects of cold warring on the home front: “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

Then came the money sentences: “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.”

Those three key words, “military-industrial complex,” rocketed through the national consciousness. Eisenhower had long been a popular figure on the center-right; in addition to his leadership role in World War II, he had written a best-selling memoir and had won two national landslides in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections—even as the left had dismissed him. Yet now, with those three words, Eisenhower gained the proverbial “strange new respect” among intellectuals, who mostly leaned left. Indeed, the phrase “military-industrial complex” has become a favored catchphrase for leftists, anti-militarists, and anyone else looking for evocative shorthand.

In fact, we all need a phrase that captures the immensity of the military establishment. The budget of the Department of Defense (DoD) for fiscal year 2020 will be about $718 billion; DoD directly employs 1.3 million men and women in active duty, as well as more than 700,000 civilian employees. (Another 800,000 serve in the National Guard and reserves.)

In addition, millions more work for the DoD as private-sector vendors, from those who build ships and airplanes to the contractor who was killed near Kirkuk, Iraq, on December 27.

Indeed, the huge Pentagon budget doesn’t fully capture the true scale of the military-industrial complex. To get a better measure, we should also include portions of other agencies harboring substantial military elements, including the CIA, NASA, and the departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and Energy (the last of which manages the nuclear stockpile).

As Eisenhower cautioned in his speech, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” So yes, Eisenhower was a vigorous leader in the Cold War competition, yet at the same time he was a citizen before he was a soldier, rightfully concerned with protecting our small-r republican institutions from “unwarranted influence.”

During his time in the White House, the 34th president demonstrated his prudence. As historian Walter M. Hudson recently noted in The American Interest, after the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957—thus opening up a newer and higher frontier to geopolitical competition—Ike did not respond with a big defense buildup. He boosted NASA, of course, yet skipping past the Pentagon, he also pushed for a substantial increase in federal aid to education.

In other words, the old Army man was thinking about the future, when struggles, and perhaps wars, would be waged with spaceships and computers, as opposed to infantrymen and tanks. Hudson explains Ike’s thoughtful budget priorities as follows: “Ike’s decision was consistent with his ‘Great Equation’ strategy that long predated Sputnik’s blips. Running for the presidency in 1952, he set forth the formula to his friend Lucius Clay: ‘Spiritual force multiplied by economic force multiplied by military force is roughly equivalent to security. If any one of those factors fell to zero, or nearly so, the resulting product does likewise.'”

In Eisenhower’s “Great Equation,” we can see a strategic mind at work: American strength must rely on more than just weaponry; the nation needed to maintain as well its economic and spiritual health. Long before the term was coined, Ike was a believer in “soft power”—as well as, of course, the “hard power” of firepower.

Six decades later, we must ask ourselves: is the Great Equation still in place? As a nation, are we maintaining all the components of power—military, economic, and spiritual—in proper balance? And as we search for the right answer, we might pause over one subtlety in the Eisenhower equation: per the rules of multiplication, if any one of the three components falls to zero, then the product is zero, regardless of the size of the other two components.

So today, as we think about the Greater Middle East, where the U.S. is involved in a half-dozen conflicts, are we satisfied that all of our equation components—including the meta-component of wisdom—are being properly understood and utilized?

Many argue that, in fact, U.S. policy has been reduced to just one component—the military. That is, whom can we threaten, bomb, or occupy?

This over-militarization of policy was ably chronicled in Dana Priest’s 2003 book, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military. The author describes a Pentagon that had grown so powerful bureaucratically that it had overwhelmed the State Department—and nowhere more so than in the Middle East.

This disparity starts with visuals: the generals arrive in style, swooping in on military aircraft, resplendent in their uniforms, greeted by the pomp and circumstance of salutes and reviews, bearing PowerPoints of cool new weapons systems to buy and perhaps use. By contrast, unadorned Foreign Service officers tend to plunk along on civilian flights, typically talking only of caution and mediation.

As a result, the center of policy gravity for the Middle East has shifted from Foggy Bottom to the five-sided building across the Potomac, and from there to Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, and from there to myriad Centcom outposts 7,000 miles distant. As they say, if you’re a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail—and the Pentagon is one big hammer.

We can observe that this militarization had been building up long prior to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which began two presidencies ago. Indeed, the militarizing process has been both deep-rooted and bipartisan. And this, of course, is the sort of long-term transformation that Eisenhower warned against.

The argument here is not for a cut in the Pentagon’s budget or for an increase in the State Department’s budget. Instead, we need something more fundamental—a national conversation about true national security. As Ike said in that fabled address, “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.”

Assuring that security and liberty “may prosper together”—Eisenhower’s message is as important today as it was then.



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