On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his prophetic warning about the military-industrial complex, anticipating the increased political, economic, military and even cultural influence of the Pentagon and its allies. Several weeks earlier, he had privately told his senior advisers in the Oval Office, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.” Several months after his inauguration in 1953, he warned against warfare that had “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
In the spring of 1961, I was part of a small group of undergraduates who met with the president’s brother, Milton Eisenhower, who was then president of Johns Hopkins University. Milton Eisenhower and a Johns Hopkins professor of political science, Malcolm Moos, played major roles in the drafting and editing of the farewell speech of January 1961. The actual drafter of the speech, Ralph E. Williams, relied on guidance from Professor Moos. Milton Eisenhower explained that one of the drafts of the speech referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional complex” and said that the president himself inserted the reference to the role of the Congress, an element that did not appear in the delivery of the farewell address. When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: “It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.”
In addition to the Congress reference, an entire section was dropped from the speech that dealt with the creation of a “permanent, war-based industry,” with “flag and general officers retiring at an early age [to] take positions in the war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.” The president warned that steps needed to be taken to “insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.” The section also warned against any belief that some “spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and President Barack Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan certainly come to mind.
Although the cold war ended two decades ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, recent presidents have found no way out of increased military deployments and expenditures, nor have they challenged the national security influence of the military. No president since Eisenhower has genuinely understood the dangers of the Pentagon’s increasing influence over our national security policy. Eisenhower made sure that he was never outmaneuvered by his military advisers, particularly on such key issues as the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, which his immediate successors thoroughly bungled. President John F. Kennedy never understood that the Pentagon anticipated the failure of the CIA in Cuba in 1961 and hoped to use its air power to achieve success. President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to challenge pleas from the Pentagon for more force and additional troops in Vietnam until it was too late.
Unlike Kennedy and Johnson, Eisenhower ignored the hysteria of the bomber and missile gaps in the 1950s, as well as the unnecessarily heightened concerns about US security in the National Security Council report NSC-68 in the late 1940s and in the Gaither Report in the mid-1950s, which called for unnecessary increases in the strategic arsenal. Eisenhower ignored the many Democrats and Republicans who advocated for increased defense spending and even cut the military budget by 20 percent between 1953 and 1955 on the way to balancing the budget by 1956.
Eisenhower clashed with the military mindset from the very beginning of his presidency. He knew that his generals were wrong in proclaiming “political will” the major factor in military victory and would have shuddered when General David Petraeus proclaimed recently that political will is the key to US success in Afghanistan. Eisenhower knew that military demands for weaponry and resources were always based on inexplicable notions of “sufficiency,” and he made sure that Pentagon briefings to the Congress were countered by testimony from the intelligence community.
Henry A. Kissinger was one of the rare national security advisers and secretaries of state who understood Eisenhower’s point of view. During the ratification process for the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT I) agreement in 1972, he countered conservative and military opposition to SALT and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with two questions opponents of arms control could never answer: what is strategic sufficiency, and what would we do with strategic sufficiency if we had it?
Eisenhower warned in his farewell address in 1961 that the United States should not become a “garrison state,” but, nearly fifty years later, we have developed a garrison mentality with unprecedented military spending, continuous military deployments, exaggerated fears with regard to “Islamo-terrorism” (and, now, cyberwars) and exaggerated aspirations with regard to counterinsurgency and nation-building. Eisenhower understood that it was the military-industrial complex that fostered an inordinate belief in the omnipotence of American military power.
Eisenhower knew the limits and constraints on use of force and did not fall prey to the type of planning that led to Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, Johnson’s Vietnam, Reagan’s Grenada, Bush II’s Iraq and now Obama’s Afghanistan. He started no wars and wisely settled for a stalemate in Korea. He stood alone in heavily criticizing the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, and he ignored criticism for not assisting the Hungarian uprising weeks later.
Finally, Eisenhower understood that too much spending on defense would weaken both the economy and national security. “Every gun that is made,” Eisenhower said, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies … a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Ironically, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev made the same charge in a speech in 1977, a move that signaled Moscow’s interest in detente with the United States – a signal that the Carter administration ignored.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of President Richard Nixon, we have not had a president who understood the military mindset and was willing to limit the influence of the military. Democrats such as Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton as well as Republicans such as Reagan, Bush I and Bush II have deferred too readily to the military. They devoted too many resources to the military and often resorted to the use of power instead of diplomacy and statecraft.
The twin military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, where failed counterinsurgency strategies have cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, should lead to a serious national security debate to prevent the mistakes of the past two decades. Such a debate should include subjects that aren’t susceptible to a military solution, such as nationalism, religious fundamentalism, ethnic violence and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan immediately come to mind.
Currently, Obama must deal with a military that wields far too much influence on Capitol Hill and within the intelligence community, controls too much of the US economy and has the leading policy voice on security issues. Our economy will continue to suffer if we don’t reduce the rising costs of defense ($800 billion), intelligence ($80 billion) and homeland security ($45 billion) in order to make essential investments in education, transportation, and research and development. In his first two years as president, Obama too often catered to the interests of the military. Now he must begin the task of demilitarizing US national security policy. In doing so, he would do well to heed the philosophy and advice of Eisenhower, who stood alone in countering America’s infatuation with military power.