How conservatives ignored, and liberals misconstrued, Eisenhower’s warnings about military spending.
Another worry, also expressed in the farewell address, was that too many Americans were becoming dependent upon the largesse of the federal government. Eisenhower predicted that this would discourage people from scrutinizing growing state power too closely. To put it crudely, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. The end result is lots of push on the part of people who benefit from massive federal spending, and relatively little push-back from those who pay. Public choice theorists call this the problem of concentrated benefits, diffuse costs.
In short, Eisenhower’s critique was fundamentally conservative. Ike appreciated the need for a strong military, but hoped that society would weigh these requirements against other considerations, especially the danger inherent in shifting resources from the private economy to the federal government.
The fundamental conservativism of Eisenhower’s critique was lost almost immediately after the speech as some within the antiwar left cast the military-industrial complex as evidence of the inherent flaws of modern capitalism. Anyone who invoked Eisenhower’s warning, or even echoed the general-president’s words, might find themselves lumped together with the likes of C. Wright Mills and Tom Hayden.
Meanwhile, other liberals played a crucial role in the expansion of the MIC. Some of the most outspoken critics of Eisenhower’s approach to national security were Keynesian economists such as James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who objected to Ike’s fiscal conservatism. Liberal critics of Eisenhower’s approach to national security in the late 1950s were objecting chiefly to his attempt to strike a balance between private consumption and public investment—they thought the balance was weighted too heavily toward the former. They hoped that the federal government would play a far more aggressive role in fostering full employment, and they saw military spending as a potential engine for economic growth. Hence the concept, not always uttered in a pejorative way, of military Keynesianism, whereby the Pentagon’s budget becomes a thinly veiled jobs program.
Whereas the Keynesians thought this a useful by-product of a large national security state, Eisenhower viewed it as a threat to the Republic. Later scholars would call it the Iron Triangle. The persistence of an enormous military budget can be explained, in part, by the fact that defense workers protect their jobs by supporting politicians who steer money to their employers and by punishing those who do not. Military Keynesianism gives domestic politics a larger role in defense budgeting at the expense of international politics.
The MIC has created powerful, entrenched constituencies that always oppose reductions in military spending. “Many weary policy analysts,” Ledbetter notes gloomily, “have concluded that military spending is simply the socially acceptable form of industrial policy in the United States.” This loose alliance of the military with the business community and workers employed, directly or indirectly, by the military makes it likely that the Pentagon will prove as resistant to reform in the next few decades as it has in the past five.
It is axiomatic that defense spending rises during periods of great stress and public anxiety. Eisenhower faced down calls for massive spending increases after the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. After 9/11, Washington went one step farther, creating a new department ostensibly dedicated to the defense of the homeland. Some taxpayers might have been excused for believing that that was the job of the U.S. Department of Defense.
But Washington’s response to 9/11 shouldn’t surprise. The foreign policy elite tends to equate spending on national security with security itself. It follows that those who place fiscal considerations ahead of the demands of the military necessarily threaten national security.
In the late 1950s, Democrats (and a few Republicans) assailed Eisenhower on those grounds. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, Missouri’s Stuart Symington, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, and a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, knocked Eisenhower for constraining the military’s budget and allowing fiscal considerations to shape the nation’s strategic objectives. They charged that the president was forcing the nation to fight the Cold War with one arm tied behind its back, and that his decision to shift resources out of the Army, especially, limited the nation’s flexibility to engage in land wars in Asia. Eisenhower responded by noting that he had no desire to replay the Korean War, and was confident that the nation’s nuclear arsenal provided a credible deterrent to Soviet aggression.
It “rankled Eisenhower,” Ledbetter writes, “that Democrats and their allies in the military and intelligence communities were inflating and distorting military issues for political gain.” He reserved special scorn, however, for industry trade journals. The feeling was mutual. In the opinion of the editors of Aviation Week, Eisenhower’s economizing amounted to “sacrific[ing] the relative position of the U.S. and the Soviet Union … in favor of enjoying a few more years of the hedonistic prosperity that now enfolds our country.”
This was more than a case of name-calling and political point-scoring. It ultimately boiled down to far more momentous questions about the nation’s purpose, and the nation’s priorities. “By 1959,” Ledbetter explains, “Eisenhower had begun to see private military contractors as a self-interested, malign actor in the budget process.” For the weapons manufacturers, the weapons were the end in themselves. For Eisenhower, the weapons were merely a means to an end, an end that combined security in the present day with the nation’s long-term fiscal health, which was an equally valid concern.
Such sentiments might strike many modern readers as eminently sensible, but today’s neoconservatives, the intellectual descendants of the liberal hawks of the late 1950s, reject the suggestion that America’s fiscal circumstances require us to rethink our strategic ends. They are dismissive of deterrence and often, it seems, of basic geography. They say that we Americans can only be safe if the whole world is safe; that democracy in North America depends upon democracy in Southwest and Central Asia. They call for the U.S. military to drain the swamp, and would commit the nation to open-ended state-building crusades wherever terrorists might poke up their heads. Whenever a petty despot with a megaphone seems poised to seize control of any plot of land, the neocons are the first to call for intervention, though they are loath to do the fighting themselves.
Not much has changed, in other words, since Eisenhower uttered his fateful warning.
Eisenhower was not naive. He correctly anticipated that the military-industrial complex’s influence over politics would be difficult to break. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans today spend more on the military than at any time since World War II, and more than twice as much—in inflation-adjusted dollars—than when Ike left office. The general-president clearly failed to convince his fellow Americans of the need to limit the military’s growth. For all practical purposes, the MIC won.
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