50 years later, Eisenhower’s grim warning on military profit rings true

By Daniel Tencer
Monday, January 17, 2011 22:31 EDT
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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.”

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  • Anonymous

    To enlighten further the great liberal genius that flourishes here on this website: Let it first be known that while Eisenhower was a decent military commander, (a great one never would have commenced the Normandy invasion, which slaughtered so many soldiers unnecessarily in a near botched operation) he was a terrible president!

    In another 50 years from now, the Chinese will be not only the most powerful country capitalistically, but militarily as well. While it is idealistically humane to profess the evils of military might, which would be wonderful in a utopian world, realistically speaking folks, “the barbarians will always be at the gates;” the Barbarians being human kind, who do not share our great liberal wisdom and simply want to conquer us in one way or another.

    Delusions, such as I’ve read on this web site, to the contrary, are exactly what will let the barbarians in the gates to massacre us. And little liberal pantywaists will be the first to run and hide in the sewers, like the vermin they are, to our great nation.

    Retired USMC Captain (anonymous)

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting that Marjan Asi, in her burqa, acts as commentator here. Boy if that doesn’t say it all about you all! The truth is, Mr. Idiot Bush Jr. should have nuked Osama in the Afghan mountains, two weeks after the 911 attacks, instead of wasting time in Iraq. That would send the message load and clear. Fight terror with terror, instead of lifting their skirts and licking their sphincters as you liberal chaps would propose. (And forget your delusional building 7 ideas, and get back on your meds.) The pentagon was attacked too… remember?) Yea! It’s all a Big Brother’s plan about suppressing the liberties of US citizens. Is that paranoia I smell? Woops… better increase your dosage, and grease the wheels on your shopping carts!
    Retired USMC Captain anonymous

  • Anonymous

    Yes, and she donated it all back to veterans organizations. Did you forget that part, or are you simply exercising yellow journalism here? Perhaps your history professor didn’t explain what yellow journalism is. Look it up!

    Retired USMC Captain anonymous

  • Anonymous

    Brillient usage of the English language!

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant ussage of English

  • Anonymous

    So are tornados

  • Anonymous

    so are tornados!

  • Anonymous

    So are Tornados

  • Anonymous

    “”In war there is no substitute for victory.” – General Douglas MacArthur
    That’s the man you want for Commander-in-Chief, Pixy.
    Eisenhower never saw a day of combat in his life … He was a political figure, and former desk jockey, not a combat soldier who saw men die beside him, but instead he read statistics, the most harrowing being Omaha Beach, his biggest blunder and near failure, pressured by Joe Stalin to take action on the western front. Then what did Stalin do after the war, and what sparked the cold war and nuclear arms race? Still think Ike was great? Let us say decent and leave it at that. You are just asking for another politician who will serve your liberal agenda, and for that any monkey will do.

  • Anonymous

    It was industry that won the great wars sonny, not idealism.
    And your facts are delusional.

  • Anonymous

    Too bad she couldn’t have used some of that money to buy back the lives of some of the 58,169 service men and women who were killed in that useless and senseless conflict over nothing–sorry, for freedom and democracy and third world serial capitalist dictatorships!

  • Anonymous

    Sonny? How old are you? I see that 77 in your name, that the year you were born? Anyways, I wasn’t talking about any war with the comment you replied to. But, American industries played both sides of the fence. There is documentation on these facts. Look them up. History taught in schools wraps everything in a nice and easy package to swallow. History is also written by the winners and the only people that win in a war are the people who make bullets. Some historians pull back the curtain and look at the sordid underbelly of the business of war. You may have wanted to look some info up before universally dismissing me. It’s all a coordinated effort for profit and power at the expense of young men and women.