50 years later, Eisenhower’s grim warning on military profit rings true
The term “military-industrial complex” entered the American lexicon 50 years ago today, when President Dwight Eisenhower warned of its dangers in an unusually frank farewell speech to the nation.
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Ike said in a televised address on January 17, 1961. “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.”
The president added: “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.”
(Read Eisenhower’s entire speech here.)
For years, that warning — issued by a hero of World War II and a Republican president — was heralded by anti-war activists as a sign that “the very structure of our society” was indeed threatened by the merger of weapon-making and profit.
And in 2011, as the US — with some 5 percent of the world’s population — spends nearly half of all the money spent in the world on defense, the warning seems prescient to some — and perhaps even too tame for others.
At The Independent, Rupert Cornwell argues that Ike had it right.
Adjusted for inflation, US national security spending has more than doubled since Eisenhower left office. Year after year, the defence budget seems to rise – irrespective of whether the country is actually fighting major wars, regardless of the fact that the Soviet Union, the country’s former global adversary, has ceased to be, and no matter which party controls the White House and Congress.
But while Cornwell argues that things could actually be worse — the US spends about 4 percent of its GDP on national security, compared to about a third for the Soviet Union prior to its collapse — others argue that the US’s situation has outgrown even what Eisenhower imagined.
The military-industrial complex “has become a ‘Permanent War State,’ with the power to keep the United States at war continuously for the indefinite future,” writes Gareth Porter at FireDogLake.
Porter argues that the military-industrial complex suffered two significant setbacks in the years since Eisenhower — one in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the US turned against a disastrous Vietnam War and demanded a less militarily active foreign policy, and another in the 1980s and 1990s, when the fall of Soviet communism allowed for a “peace dividend” in the form of reduced defense spending.
But that ended with two historical events, Porter argues: The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War and the expansion of US military presence in the Middle East, and 9/11, which provided “the biggest single boon to the militarist alliance.”
From that point on, Porter argues, the US’s military might broke free of almost all constraints:
The CIA sought and obtained virtually unlimited freedom to carry out drone strikes in secrecy and without any meaningful oversight by Congress.
The Pentagon embraced the idea of the “long war” – a twenty-year strategy envisioning deployment of U.S. troops in dozens of countries, and the Army adopted the idea of “the era of persistent warfare” as its rationale for more budgetary resources.
The military budget doubled from 1998 to 2008 in the biggest explosion of military spending since the early 1950s – and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary federal spending.
The military leadership used its political clout to ensure that U.S. forces would continue to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the premises of its strategy were shown to have been false.
But not all is lost, Porter argues: Just as US public opinion turned against defense spending in the past, so too can it turn against it today. “The only thing missing from this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically to demand an end to the Permanent War State,” he writes.
At The Independent, Cornwell suggests a different solution.
“George H.W. Bush was the last commander-in-chief to have tasted war and its horrors. His son famously had not, and – perhaps to make up for it – gave the military everything it wanted, and more. So maybe there is only one answer. America should elect a general as commander-in-chief. Like Dwight D. Eisenhower.”