Politics & Policy

The ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ at 50

Isolationists like Ike, for all the wrong reasons.

Fifty years ago today, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation. With the exception of George Washington’s speech, most presidential farewell addresses have been unmemorable affairs. But Eisenhower’s has had the greatest impact, all because of one phrase: “the military-industrial complex.”

Eisenhower used the term only once in the speech, warning that the nation “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.”

In an earlier draft of the speech, Eisenhower’s used the clunky phrase “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Eisenhower took out “congressional” so as not to upset those on Capitol Hill.

In the years that followed, Eisenhower’s speech took on a life of its own. The Left has been especially eager to appropriate the Republican general’s words for political purposes.

Attacks against the “American Empire” go hand-in-hand with attacks on the “military-industrial complex.” The idea that corporate interests and secret cabals have pushed the country into war has gained credence, especially in the last decade, and Eisenhower’s farewell address is often used as Exhibit A in such conspiracy theories. The speech is the central focus of the 2005 antiwar documentary Why We Fight.

Some on the anti-war Old Right have also rediscovered Eisenhower — an irony considering that the Old Right were big supporters of Robert Taft and used to dislike Eisenhower for his internationalist foreign policy and unwillingness to roll back the New Deal.

The American Conservative has a symposium hailing Eisenhower’s farewell speech. “Ike’s Last Stand” features a drawing of Ike standing athwart — in the style of the protester at Tiananmen Square — a tank festooned with corporate logos such as Shell, 3M, IBM, and Boeing.

There are a number of problems with these interpretations. First, the speech, when read in its entirety, is not the denunciation of militarism that many people think it is. Earlier in the speech, Eisenhower talks about the Cold War. “We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method,” explained Eisenhower. “Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration.” These are hardly the words of someone upset over Cold War militarism. 

A large peacetime military was something new in American history. Eisenhower feared the possibility of a garrison state and was right to be concerned. He was not calling for a pulling back of overseas engagements or a unilateral ceasefire in the Cold War. Nor was he calling for the destruction of the “military-industrial complex,” but rather “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.” Americans needed to be vigilant about these new forces in society. That seems like reasonable advice, but hardly the stuff of an anti-war activist.

Second, Eisenhower’s concerns over the “military-industrial complex” have much more to do with his green-eye-shade Republicanism. Large armies and vast overseas commitments cost money. Eisenhower understood that and was concerned about fiscal responsibility. America, he said, “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 asking 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.”

Concerned with fiscal restraint, Eisenhower (and secretary of state John Foster Dulles) crafted a “New Look” foreign policy. Central to that idea was “getting more bang for the buck” in terms of defense spending. That meant emphasizing nuclear weapons over more costly conventional forces. The Eisenhower administration would advocate a policy of nuclear “brinkmanship” and “massive retaliation” to deter any enemy.

A more reasonable interpretation of Eisenhower’s farewell address, then, is to see it as a warning against wasteful Pentagon spending and procurement policies, a lesson that both parties should heed in these coming days of fiscal austerity.

Third, fans of Eisenhower’s farewell address ignore Ike’s actual record as president. Eisenhower showed no hesitancy to exert U.S. power around the world. He initiated American support for South Vietnam and placed the first U.S. military advisers there, coined the term “domino theory,” implied that the U.S. might use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War, approved CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala, sent U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1958 to support a pro-Western government, approved measures to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba and train Cuban exiles for the mission, and faced down China over control of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait.

Eisenhower was no warmonger, but he was a responsible Cold Warrior with few qualms about exerting U.S. influence around the globe. The idea of Eisenhower as pacifist or as helpless pawn of the military-industrial complex just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

In reality, the intellectual foundation of the current obsession with the “military-industrial complex” is not really Eisenhower’s speech (although it provides bipartisan political cover). It rests with Sen. Gerald Nye’s committee in the 1930s to investigate the munitions industry. The Nye Committee argued that the “merchants of death” who profited from war — arms manufacturers, industrialists, and bankers — were responsible for U.S. entry into World War I.

Although there is little evidence to support that theory, the Nye Committee had a deep impact on an already isolationist public, leading Congress to pass a series of Neutrality Acts in the 1930s designed to make sure that big business did not drag the country into another war.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was no isolationist, nor did he buy into the theories of the Nye Committee. He was a complex and sometimes contradictory political and military figure. On this 50th anniversary of his farewell address, we would do well to remember that and resist the temptation to turn Eisenhower into an anti-imperialist pacifist, a kind of five-star Gore Vidal.

– Vincent J. Cannato is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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