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Happy Anniversary to the Military-Industrial Complex

January 18, 2011

Yesterday (Monday, January 17th) was the 50th anniversary of the first use of the term “military-industrial complex.”  It was first used by Dwight D. Eisenhower in his last address to the U.S. public as president, and organizations across Washington D.C. have been hosting events over the past week to reflect on the meaning and lasting impact of Eisenhower’s words.  My colleagues and I have been busily attending many of these events, from Busboys and Poets to the Cato Institute.   The swirling sentiments of frustration and opportunism from peace activists combine with stern forebodings from fiscal conservatives and libertarians to make not only for strange bedfellows in the campaign for a reprioritized federal budget, but also – for me – necessitates a lengthy blog post (though I’m sure this is not the only one!) to sort out what, exactly, Ike meant to warn us about and who, exactly, his speech belongs to.

As a five-star general in the army, Eisenhower’s words on waging and avoiding war were some of the most poignant of his presidency.  He understood, perhaps better than many, the costs of war:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

Those words are from his famous “A Chance for Peace” speech, made on April 16, 1953 – early in his presidency.  At that time, a popular theory called “military Keynesianism” went against Ike’s zero-sum approach to military spending – the newly booming war industry was creating bombers and schools, destroyers and new homes, alike.  The ‘revolving door’ – the habit of some powerful people to profitably rotate between law-making, lobbying, and managing industry – had just begun turning, and Ike, in his hands-off, free-market approach, feared to meddle.  The ballooning number of nuclear warheads (1,000 when Ike was elected in 1952, and 24,000 in 1961 when he left office) is an example of how the revolving door, a new public sense of American imperialism, and the perceived – and widely discussed – threat of the Cold War gave birth to an industry that profits from war and the threat of war, and is built to answer the whims of an unaudited Pentagon.

Eisenhower saw and resented the immense spending on the military, the strategic handling of media and public opinion, and the profits some were making from exacerbated international threats. “Yet,” as professor, retired career officer, and war critic Andrew Bacevich points out,

“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.”

In his “Farewell Address,” which we remember today, President Eisenhower warned the American public of the real threats they face.

America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.  Conflict [is] now engulfing the world.  We remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course towards permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs, balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage, balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between action of the moment and the national welfare of the future.

I hope you, as I do, draw inspiration from these words in the face of what would be Eisenhower’s continuing horror: an increasingly unbalanced and unstable national economy, a rapidly revolving door between military lobbyists, military contractors, retired military officers, and lawmakers, grossly irrelevant spending on killing machines, and America’s unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We can no longer pretend that military Keynesianism is the truth – there is only so much money coming into the federal budget from the taxpayers, and allowing the Pentagon to go on, unrestricted, means that money to answer the crises of poverty, poor health care, and housing is simply not there.

At one of the events I went to last week, one of the presenters claimed that peacenik progressives have hijacked (yes, he even used that word) Ike’s speech and his term, “military-industrial complex.”  He believed that all Eisenhower meant was the need for fiscal conservativism and budgetary restraint.  These people are our friends and allies in the campaign to cut the Pentagon budget, but to me they miss the wider context and meaning of Eisenhower’s prophesy: war is never the whole answer, and often it isn’t the answer at all.  Spending on war is theft, and the national hegemony of an industry that needs unending war to flourish is a theft of our democracy.

So what is there to do?  Well, the first step seems simple: let’s cut the Pentagon budget.  One of the other speakers I heard last week also urged for a more educated and involved electorate – ‘go to school for ‘national security studies,’ he said, ‘and don’t let military officials and party politics dominate the national conversation on the role of the military in our international and public life.’  Finally, get more informed about today’s military-industrial complex.  Reading Bill Hartung, Andrew Bacevich, and Larry Korb might be a good place to start, but as my colleague Sandy Robson put it, sitting in Busboys and Poets after the talk ended, “yeah, talking is good – writing is good.  But what we really need to do is organize.” Let’s not wait another 50 years; the window of opportunity is now.

3 Comments leave one →
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