The Military-Industrial Complex

NPR, Ike’s Warning of Military Expansion, 50 Years Later

NPR, Ike’s Warning of Military Expansion, 50 Years Later

Contents:

Origins

Ike was an aide to Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur in the 1930s.  President Hoover asked MacArthur to draft a report about how to mobilize America’s economy and manpower in the event of a major war.  MacArthur delegated the task to Ike.  Ike wrote the report and focused on how the government and large, armament manufacturing corporations would work together.  This document became the War Department’s go-to source on how the peacetime economy would be converted to a wartime basis.  President Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall put into effect during WWII when they wanted to transform the US into an “Arsenal of Democracy.”  This was the beginning of America’s permanent large-scale standing military and what Ike would term the “Military-Industrial Complex.”  (Ledbetter, Unwarranted Influence)

Ike supported an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting war profiteering as a result of this report.  (Ledbetter, Unwarranted Influence)

The Cold War

The Truman Administration initially sought to demobilize the military after WWII, which the US had done after every previous war.  But Truman quickly came to grips with America’s new role as a global leader and the issue of containing the Soviet Union.  These required a large, standing military.  Truman initially tried to limit the peacetime military’s size.  But the administration approved a memorandum titled NSC 68.  This document described the Soviet Union as an existential threat and recommended quadrupling the military budget.  Truman authorized this request when the Korean War began.  The defense budget grew exponentially.  Ike brought this growth under control and cut military spending by 27% after the Korean War ended.  (Korb, A Historical Analysis of Defense Budgets)

Some critics, led by Senator Taft, wanted even more cuts to defense spending.  Ike ignored these arguments and did not allow a large-scale military demobilization once the Korean War ended.  A large military was still needed for the Cold War and America’s new role as a global leader.  He wanted to find the proper balance between the nation’s security and economic needs.  He called this balance the Great Equation.  (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)

Ike gave “The Chance for Peace” speech in April 1953, a month after Stalin died.  Ike was extending his hand to the post-Stalin Soviet leadership and said ending the Cold War was in the interest of both superpowers.  “Atomic war” was the worst-case scenario of a perpetual arms race.  The best case scenario was “a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.” (Eisenhower, The Chance for Peace)

The Soviet government was paralyzed following Stalin’s death; the arms race continued.  (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)

The Threat of Excessive Military Spending

Ike, a fiscal conservative, feared a large national debt and inflation.  His nightmare scenario was that the US would spend more on the military than it could afford out of fear and hostility toward the Soviets.  This would not be sustainable and would require the government to establish long-term wage and price controls, leading to government control of the economy and a dictatorship.  He called this potential outcome a “garrison state.” (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)

Ike thought that fiscal restraint and a balanced budget should be a part of America’s national security strategy.  There could be no defense for a country that bankrupted itself.  Treasury Secretary Humphrey said Ike was more afraid of deficits than of the communists. This mentality faced resistance in the military establishment.  Four Army Chiefs of Staff quit during Ike’s tenure over disagreements on defense spending. (Sestanovich, The Long History of Leading from Behind)

Ike’s efforts to simultaneously contain communism while balancing the budget led to the New Look, where Ike threatened to use nuclear weapons to deter Soviet aggression.  Nuclear weapons were cheaper than maintaining large conventional forces, letting Ike reduce the debt (find more on this topic under “Nuclear Weapons, the Arms Race, and the New Look” in the Foreign Policy Section).  (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)

This cheaper form of containment allowed the US to contain the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. This means Ike was a major architect of the West’s victory in the Cold War. 

Ike was effective at evaluating the defense budget.  He feared having too many foreign bases could become expensive.  He could also identify unnecessary spending projects, saying in one instance, “What do the marines need with an aircraft carrier?” (Mieczkowski, Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment)

Ike resented how each branch of the military overstated why their branch needed more spending.  They accused people of treason for not agreeing.  Ike recalled that the Air Force kept increasing the number of bomber groups it needed to keep the country safe.  (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)

This did not mean Ike did not appreciate the necessity of keeping the military up-to-date.  He knew military technology was always changing and that countries that did not update their militaries did so at their own peril. 

Ike favored having ten carrier groups, six to eight of which would be deployed at any one time.  (Mieczkowski, Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment)

Ike liked dealing with foreign leaders who had a military background.  They spoke a similar language and understood the cost of war.  (Life Magazine, The President and his Decision)

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.  This meant that they had won the first victory of the Space Race and, more importantly, could soon have an ICBM that could launch across the Atlantic.  A panic broke out across the US.  The administration organized a panel of scientists and military experts to assess the situation. The result was the Gaither Report, which reported that the US would not survive the decade unless the government built a series of fall-out shelters across the country and that the rest of the economy was put into military spending.  (Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years)

Ike thought this was an enormous overreaction. The Gaither Report recommended turning the US into a garrison state.  Secretary of State Dulles was the only member of the National Security Council to agree with Ike.  Ike rejected the report’s advice.  Someone leaked the report and Ike was nationally criticized.  It was the only time his approval rating went below 50%. Kennedy and other Democrats said Ike was being irresponsible and that they would have done it. Even his Army friends said he was wrong. This cost him political capital credibility in foreign policy.  He refused to increase military spending, and instead, convinced Congress to create NASA and invest in education as the nation’s response to Sputnik.  (Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years)

The Farewell Address

The New Look was not meant to be permanent.  Ike wanted to defuse the Cold War and stop the arms race, but Khrushchev exploited the U2 Incident to embarrass the US and ruined the Paris Summit.  Ike had failed to achieve a lasting peace; the large-scale military would continue.  He decided to make his concerns about the hazards of a permanent large military the centerpiece of his Farewell Address, which became the most important speech of his life.

Ike gave the Farewell Address on January 17, 1961.  Its text:

Good evening, my fellow Americans.

First, I should like to express my gratitude to the radio and television networks for the opportunities they have given me over the years to bring reports and messages to our nation. My special thanks go to them for the opportunity of addressing you this evening.

Three days from now, after a half century in the service of our country, I shall lay down the responsibilities of office as, in traditional and solemn ceremony, the authority of the Presidency is vested in my successor. This evening, I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen.

Like every other -- Like every other citizen, I wish the new President, and all who will labor with him, Godspeed. I pray that the coming years will be blessed with peace and prosperity for all.

Our people expect their President and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation. My own relations with the Congress, which began on a remote and tenuous basis when, long ago, a member of the Senate appointed me to West Point, have since ranged to the intimate during the war and immediate post-war period, and finally to the mutually interdependent during these past eight years. In this final relationship, the Congress and the Administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the national good, rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward. So, my official relationship with the Congress ends in a feeling -- on my part -- of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together.

We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that 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.

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. 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. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward 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 defenses; 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 the cost and hoped for advantages, balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual, balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future. Good judgment seeks balance and progress. Lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration. The record of many decades stands as proof that our people and their Government have, in the main, understood these truths and have responded to them well, in the face of threat and stress.

But threats, new in kind or degree, constantly arise. Of these, I mention two only.

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

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 we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations -- corporations.

Now 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. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, 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.

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

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, 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. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. 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 our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking 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.

During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations -- past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of disarmament -- of the battlefield.

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But so much remains to be done. As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance along that road.

So, in this, my last good night to you as your President, I thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for public service in war and in peace. I trust in that -- in that -- in that service you find some things worthy. As for the rest of it, I know you will find ways to improve performance in the future.

You and I, my fellow citizens, need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nations' great goals.

To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America's prayerful and continuing aspiration: We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its few spiritual blessings. Those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibility; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; and that the sources -- scourges of poverty, disease, and ignorance will be made [to] disappear from the earth; and that in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

Now, on Friday noon, I am to become a private citizen. I am proud to do so. I look forward to it.

Thank you, and good night.

The Farwell Address is a centrist manifesto.  Ike spoke of balancing rival considerations and priorities, such as, “a balance between current pressures and future goods… Between creature comforts and the maintenance of a national creative capacity depending upon individual initiative." (Eisenhower, The Farewell Address)

He warned of easy solutions.  The Cold War, and other problems, were long-term issues to be sustainably managed over time.  His life and career had trained him to check his impulses, to know what humans were capable of, and to “make our mistakes slowly.”  He placed his trust in reason, caution, and moderation.  (Brooks, The Road to Character)

The Scientific-Technological Elite is an often-overlooked subject of the speech.  Ike feared that federal domination of research would narrow the possible areas of scientific progress.  He feared government-funded research would detract from private universities and “tinkerers.”  (Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years)

Ike recognized that the Military-Industrial Complex had won WWII and would guarantee America’s victory in the Cold War.  He did not dislike the military and would not have approved of the conspiracy theorists that describe all wars as the result of a criminal arms lobby.  But he feared what too much defense spending would do to the national debt and the potential threat it posed to democracy.  Ike’s solution was a knowledgeable citizenry who would keep the Military-Industrial Complex in check, avoid bankrupting the economy, and play an active role in the world without engaging in unnecessary wars. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)