Eisenhower’s Lament

Spurred on by a new release of documents from the archives, the past few weeks have witnessed a renewed interest in the military-industrial complex (MIC), the term forever associated with Dwight David Eisenhower.

Or, at least, that should be the case. Eisenhower – the West Point graduate, career military officer, and hero of World War II – was one of the first to ever use the phrase, in a televised Farewell Address to the nation on January 17, 1961. Over the years, however, the MIC has become a mantra for progressives and left liberals, usually used in tandem with an assault on private enterprise, writ large, or as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory that equates crony capitalism with market economics. The left’s capture of the term has enabled too many on the right to dismiss it out of hand.

That is unfortunate. Dwight David Eisenhower was no liberal; far from it. And though the neoconservatives have attempted to expunge Ike from our collective memory, it is appropriate that his legacy is enjoying yet another revival. For what it’s worth, I’ll be doing my small part, at a half-day conference next month, and throughout 2011, to offer a perspective on the military-industrial complex that might appeal to devotees of limited, constitutional government.

This work will focus not just on Ike’s farewell address, but also on one of his first public addresses, the Chance for Peace Speech, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953. Taken together, the speeches highlight two of Eisenhower’s enduring concerns: opportunity costs, money spent on the military cannot be spent elsewhere; and the political and social costs of the United States becoming a garrison state, the creation of a permanent armaments industry, Ike feared, had already precipitated major changes in the nation’s economy, and threatened to change the nation itself.

Speaking in January 1961, during one of the darkest periods of the Cold War, Eisenhower viewed the MIC as a necessary evil. He viewed the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its sometime communist allies as sufficient justification for maintaining a large standing army, and a vast and technologically advanced Air Force and Navy. He also presided over a dramatic expansion of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and realized (belatedly) that he had far too little control over those weapons and the men tasked with using them.

But I suspect that the permanence of the MIC would be most disturbing to President Eisenhower, were he with us now. 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.

Here’s hoping that many Americans will rediscover Eisenhower, and take heed of his warning, starting in 2011. They could start by supporting efforts to refocus our military on a few core objectives and reduce the Pentagon’s budget.