How conservatives ignored, and liberals misconstrued, Eisenhower’s warnings about military spending.
Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military Industrial Complex
by James Ledbetter
Yale University Press, 280 pp.
During the first 150 years of its existence, the United States maintained a small standing army, mobilized additional personnel to fight the few wars declared by Congress, and then sent most of the men home when the war was won. Americans had little need for a large military, as the framers of the Constitution had hoped.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the United States created a massive military geared toward intervention overseas. Critics charged that the permanent national security state went hand in hand with the rise of the imperial presidency and the steady erosion of the power of Congress and the courts. Others warned of the loss of individual liberties under a “garrison state.”
No president worried more about this fundamental change in the nation’s character than Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower governed from the perspective that a nation’s security was directly tied to the health of its economy. He believed that if military spending rose too high it would ultimately undermine U.S. security, which he saw as a product of bothmilitary and economic strength. Eisenhower also worried that a permanent armaments industry was fundamentally altering the relationship between citizens and their government.
He spoke of this many times, both in private correspondence and in his public speeches. But in May of 1959, writes James Ledbetter in his book Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military Industrial Complex, speechwriters Malcolm Moos and Navy Captain Ralph E. Williams met with the president’s brother, Milton, to begin planning for an Eisenhower valedictory speech. In Moos’s words, Eisenhower “was striving to reach tomorrow’s conscience, not today’s headlines.”
They succeeded. One line in particular has captured a place in the public’s consciousness. The departing president warned his countrymen to be on guard against a “military-industrial complex” acquiring “unwarranted influence” in the halls of power. People typically refer to the farewell address as the “military-industrial complex speech.” Fifty years later, it is counted as one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century.
It is ironic, notes Ledbetter, that Eisenhower would be remembered for any speech, let alone one concerning the military and society. The general-president was known more for his syntactical challenges and malapropisms than for his stirring oratory.
Ledbetter, editor in charge at Reuters.com, provides a readable and well-informed argument for why the speech delivered on the evening of January 17, 1961, was different. The book explores the speech’s history, and also looks forward, explaining why Eisenhower’s warning about an unhealthy conjunction between the federal government, business, and the military still resonates.
“The very utility of the phrase” military-industrial complex (MIC), admits Ledbetter, “comes at the cost of a precise, universally accepted definition.” He applies a straightforward one—“a network of public and private forces that combine a profit motive with the planning and implementation of strategic policy”—but he explains that “the idea of the MIC became for many a kind of standing populist receptacle for dissatisfaction.” The “elastic interpretation of the MIC,” Ledbetter writes, has yielded “some fairly exotic results.”
It is understandable, he continues, “why critics of the MIC have wanted to invoke Eisenhower’s authority, or why his presumed prophetic wisdom appears that much more admirable every time a critic finds another pernicious aspect of the MIC.” It is also unfortunate. Eisenhower was no liberal—far from it. And yet the embrace of the MIC by progressives and the antiwar left has overshadowed the elements of Eisenhower’s speech that should appeal to conservatives. As a result, Ike has nearly been written out of the history of the Republican Party.
But now Eisenhower is back. National figures from President Obama to Defense Secretary Robert Gates have invoked Ike’s words, especially his argument that the nation’s fiscal health is a national security concern, to draw support for their policies. Ledbetter shows why his relevance persists.
Ledbetter begins by placing the MIC within a broader intellectual and historical context, noting that some arguments along these lines have been conspiratorial, bordering on hysteria. During the Senate Munitions Inquiry hearings of 1934–36, North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye claimed that President Woodrow Wilson and the “merchants of death” had subverted American interests and wasted thousands of American lives on a pointless and unnecessary war. According to Ledbetter, “historians have accepted … with little fuss” Nye’s claim “that the United States entered World War I for largely economic, as opposed to military or strategic, reasons,” but his charges went well beyond what the then-available evidence could support. As such, Nye’s most politically inflammatory charges proved “highly controversial” and “helped derail [his] committee’s work.”
The successful prosecution of World War II with support from the same industry that Nye had railed against provided a big boost to the MIC. In January 1944, Charles Wilson, the former president of General Motors and executive vice president of the War Production Board, called for the armed services and private businesses to work together, and to not be impeded “by political witch hunts, or thrown to the fanatical isolationist fringe tagged with a ‘merchants-of-death’ label.”
Eisenhower shared these sentiments. (What, after all, was the alternative? That business and the military not work together in wartime?) Ike proved that he was no Gerald Nye by making Wilson his first secretary of defense. Although Eisenhower’s farewell address tapped into some of the same concerns invoked by Nye in the 1930s, the president’s notions about the MIC were more sophisticated than Nye’s. He also approached the problem from a very different philosophical foundation.
Take, for example, Eisenhower’s concerns about protecting private property rights and individual liberty. Ledbetter traces this to the early 1930s, when then Major Eisenhower was assigned to the War Policies Commission, a panel created by Congress to explore the relationship between profit and war. “The removal of the element of profit from war,” Nye asserted in November 1934, “would materially remove the danger of more war.”
Ike doubted that this was true. He also recognized that separating profits from military industry would be detrimental to efficiency and corrosive to American values. To Eisenhower, the nationalization of private industries could only be justified in cases of dire national emergency. It would be unconscionable during peacetime.
Instead, Eisenhower aimed for balance. He worried that a failure to reconcile means (resources, public will) and ends (strategic goals) would pose as great a threat to the nation’s security as did the Soviet menace. “[O]ur system,” he said, “must remain solvent, as we attempt a solution of this great problem of security. Else we have lost the battle from within that we are trying to win from without.”
He reiterated this philosophy in his first State of the Union address in February 1953: “Our problem,” he explained, “is to achieve adequate military strength within the limits of endurable strain upon our economy. To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.”
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