This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience….
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 the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…. (Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961, farewell address).
We have become so drugged by politicians that we often fail to reflect on the power of their words. Seeing books on library shelves with titles like “Speeches of Great Americans” culls up in our minds Readers Digest, the History Channel, Sunday morning sermons, and all the hyperbole that passes for political discourse in the 21st century. Every once in a while though, a politician says something that is rich with theoretical insight and inspiration and begs for action.
When President Eisenhower gave his final address to the nation on January 17, 1961, 50 years ago, he warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence” of a military/industrial complex. He originally included the word “academic” but later eliminated it, for reasons of length. He was alerting Americans to the breadth and scope of military power over the world and American society.
The President’s words constituted a shocking challenge to the soon-to-be Kennedy era defense intellectuals who criticized the outgoing president’s reluctance to spend more than the $40 billion he invested on the military. Even Eisenhower’s direct orders to subordinates to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and Guatemala’s President Jacob Arbenz in 1954 and his declaration of the Middle East as a free-world sanctuary was not interventionist enough for the 1960s theorists and practitioners of “modernization,” “development,” and “democracy.”
Although Eisenhower warned us about the military/industrial complex he could not foresee the dramatic impacts of America’s drive toward empire on foreign policy and public life.
He only dimly saw the changes that would occur in the techniques of empire. The expansion of the use of CIA money and American intelligence and military forces engineered the creation of brutal military coups. Military advisors revamped armies and repressive police forces in countries threatened by revolutionary change. In the 1980s in the face of an increasingly skeptical public, the United States used “low intensity conflict,” that is, covert operatives, to train anti-government reactionaries to fight against regimes out of favor in places such as Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. And then to mollify domestic critics, the U.S. initiated the privatization and outsourcing of the military as an adjunct to the more than 700 U.S. military bases in more than 40 countries that exist today. Most recently, high tech weapons, including unmanned but armed aerial vehicles, are used to kill people without endangering U.S. soldiers. Technological advances and the globalization of U.S. violence continue.
Eisenhower was unalterably opposed to the militarization of the U.S. economy. While he was willing to allot $40 billion in 1950s currency, he resisted the demands from Beltway liberals and defense contractors to double military spending. By the 1960s, half of the federal budget began to go to the military and one in ten workers derived wages from defense contracts. And that continues, but with less public criticism.
Finally, Eisenhower spoke to the militarization of American culture. The university became a research arm of the complex. Students were taught about the virtues of military “readiness,” the threat of “communism,” the problem of how “human nature” leads to perpetual war, and, more recently, the endless danger of “terrorism.” Virtually every large corporation, producing such products as toothpaste, toys, breakfast cereal, medications, automobiles, electronics, or energy, is steeped in military contracts. The public airwaves, the Internet, movies, and sports are laced with war, violence, killing, and competition. As Eisenhower put it: “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved: so is the very structure of our society.”
What another great American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in reference to the military/industrial complex and the Vietnam War seven years after President Eisenhower’s dramatic statement still holds today:
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967).
Harry Targ writes historical analysis and is the author of several books.