January 17, 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the nation in which he warned of the dangers of the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. I think he would be shocked to see how this influence has grown over the past half century and how it has manifested in the country’s immense military budgets, the nuclear arms race, our permanent war footing, the failure to achieve meaningful disarmament, and the illegal wars the US has initiated. In addition to all of this, there is the influence of the military-industrial complex on the media, academia, the Congress and the citizenry. It has also ensnared US allies, like those in NATO, in its net. Eisenhower believed that the only way to assure that the military-industrial complex can be meshed “with our peaceful methods and goals” is through “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.”
Eisenhower was 70 years old when his term as president came to an end. He had been a General of the Army and hero of World War II, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, and for eight years the president of the United States. His Farewell Address was, above all else, a warning to his fellow Americans. He stated, “The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” He worried about what this conjunction would mean in the future, famously stating, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Eisenhower feared that this powerful complex would weaken democracy. “We must never,” he said, “let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” He felt there was only one force that could control this powerful military-industrial complex, and that was the power of the people. In Eisenhower’s view it was only “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that was capable of defending the republic “so that security and liberty prosper together.”
What kind of report card would President Eisenhower give our country today if he could come back and observe what has transpired over the past 50 years? For starters, I believe he would be appalled by the enormous increase in influence of the military-industrial complex. Today the military receives over half of the discretionary funds that Congress allocates, over $500 billion a year for the Department of Defense, plus the special allocations for the two wars in which the country is currently engaged. The Department of Defense budget does not take into account the interest on the national debt attributable to past wars, or the tens of billions of dollars in the Energy Department budget for nuclear arms, or the funds allocated for veterans benefits. When it is totaled, the US is spending over a trillion dollars annually on “defense.”
Surely Eisenhower would be dismayed to see how many national institutions have been drawn into and made subservient to the military-industrial complex, which some would now refer to as the military-industrial-Congressional-academic-media complex. Every district in Congress seems to have links to the complex through jobs provided by defense contractors, putting pressure on Congressional representatives to assure that public funds flow to private defense contractors. At the same time, academia and the mainstream media provide support and cover to keep public funds flowing for wars and their preparations.
Near the end of his speech, Eisenhower lamented that he had not made greater progress toward disarmament during his time in office. He said, “Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative.” It was true then, and remains so today. He continued, “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment.” Indeed, there was reason for his disappointment, since the number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal increased under his watch from approximately 1,400 in 1953 to over 20,000 in 1960. I suspect that he would be even more disappointed today to find that the US has not been more proactive in leading the way toward disarmament and particularly nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War.
Fifty years ago, Eisenhower feared the threat that nuclear war posed to the world and to our country, and expressed his desire for peace: “As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war – as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years – I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.” He recognized that much remains to be done to “reach the goal of peace with justice.” That was true when Eisenhower made his Farewell Address and it remains true today.
We would do well to reflect upon the deeply felt concerns of this military and political leader as he retired from public service. He prayed “that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” That was his vision, and he passed the baton to us to overcome the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. Our challenge is to exercise our power as citizens of a democracy and to use that power to attain a more peaceful and nuclear weapons-free world.