Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told his senior advisers in the Oval Office of the White House, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.” Several months later, he issued his famous warning about the military-industrial complex.
Now the United States finds itself in a cul-de-sac, with no way out of increased military deployments and expenditures, and no evidence that President Obama has a firm hand on the national security tiller.
A central problem for the nation is the increased power and influence of the Pentagon over the foreign and national security policies of the United States.
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No president since Eisenhower has fully understood the Pentagon’s dominant position in military and security policy. Armed with his knowledge and experience as World War II’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Eisenhower made sure that he could not be outmaneuvered by his military advisers, particularly on such key issues as the Vietnam War and tensions with the Soviet Union.
However, his immediate successors thoroughly bungled the decision-making process. President John F. Kennedy never understood that the Pentagon anticipated the failure of the CIA in Cuba in 1961 and expected to use its air power to finish the job.
President Lyndon B. Johnson knew that Vietnam was a fool’s errand but failed to challenge the pleas from the Pentagon for more force and additional troops – or the strategic views of the Rostow and Bundy brothers.
By contrast, Eisenhower ignored the hysteria of the bomber and missile gaps in the 1950s, claimed by Senators Stuart Symington and Kennedy as well as by such key advisors as Paul Nitze.
Nitze had unnecessarily heightened concerns about U.S. security in National Security Council Report 68 (known as NSC-68) in the late 1940s, and he was the chief author of the overwrought Gaither Report, which called for unnecessary increases in the strategic arsenal.
Eisenhower ignored these advocates 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 started no wars and was willing to settle for a stalemate in ending the Korea War.
Eisenhower clashed with the military mindset from the very beginning of his presidency. He knew that his generals were wrong in proclaiming “political will” as the major factor in military victory.
A five-star general, Eisenhower would have shuddered when four-star General David Petraeus, like so many military commanders of recent decades, proclaimed last week that U.S. political will is the key factor for success in Afghanistan.
How Much is Sufficiency?
Eisenhower knew that military demands for weaponry and resources were always based on inexplicable notions of “sufficiency,” and he made sure that Pentagon briefings on the Hill were countered by testimony from the national security bureaucracy.
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 SALT I agreement in 1972, Kissinger countered conservative and military opposition to SALT and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with two questions they could never answer: What is strategic sufficiency? What would we do with strategic sufficiency if we had it?
In his Farewell Address in 1961, Eisenhower warned that the United States should not become a “garrison state,” but nearly 50 years later we have developed a garrison mentality with unprecedented military spending; continuous military deployments; hyped fears about “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 made sure that the Pentagon and the Dulles brothers, who were in command at the State Department and the CIA, respectively, did not over-reach with the U.S. role overseas.
Finally, although Eisenhower signed off on some aggressive, even violent, CIA operations, such as in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and the Congo in 1960, he did not authorize the more grandiose actions that characterized later presidencies, the likes of Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs; Johnson’s Vietnam; Reagan’s Grenada; Bush II’s Iraq; and now Obama’s Afghanistan.
Eisenhower opposed and reversed the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, and withstood criticism for not assisting the Hungarian uprising weeks later. Thirty years after the fact, President Ronald Reagan joined in criticizing Eisenhower’s restraint regarding Hungary.
With the possible exception of President Richard Nixon, no recent president has understood the military mindset and was willing to limit the military’s influence. Democrats, such as Kennedy, Johnson and Bill Clinton as well as Republicans such as Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush deferred too readily to the military; devoted too many resources to the military; and often resorted to the use of power instead of diplomacy and statecraft.
Now President Obama has found himself in a position where the military wields far too much influence on Capitol Hill; controls too much of the depleted U.S. Treasury; and has the leading policy voice on both security and diplomatic issues.
Obama proclaims Reinhold Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher. But he would do well to take heed of the philosophy and advice of Eisenhower, who had a far better understanding of America’s infatuation with military power.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
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