An army that had resisted breech-loading rifles and cannon, automatic rifles, machine guns, motor trucks, and airplanes has now, since World War II, done a complete about-face. Now anything old is likely to be discarded. Certainly, improved weapons and equipment are desirable. But the military-industrial complex has betrayed an almost "Detroit mind-set" in developing new models every year or so. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the constant quest for novelty is due in part to the activities of researchers and industrialists anxious to maintain the flow of research and development dollars and anxious to keep production lines going. This was a major factor in keeping defense budgets high. When people looked forward to a "peace dividend"— funds that might be available for other purposes—after the pullout from Vietnam, they were disappointed to find that there was little of a peace dividend. All kinds of new weapon systems were waiting to eat it up.
A more serious consequence of a powerful military-industrial complex is the drain that a permanent defense industry on a large scale creates on the national economy. Many people accept the myth that a big defense industry brings prosperity. They point to the economic well-being of a community that is dependent on a local defense industry. They point out that it really was World War II that brought the United States completely out of the Great Depression. There is some truth, of course, to those contentions. Defense industries do provide an economic shot in the arm. But in the long run, and for the country as a whole, defense industries on a big scale can only be a drain on the actual or potential economic wellbeing and strength.
A healthy partnership between the military establishment and private industry was sought from the early days of the nation. In more recent years, this has been actively cultivated as demands for national security have required a greater industrial base. It has been in the interest of corporate profits and individual careers as well as in the interest of national defense. At times, there have been evidences of costly mismanagement and of collusion, conspiracy, and even fraud. But for the most part the growth of what has come to be known as the military-industrial complex has been benign. Gaining a kind of momentum of its own, it has grown to have unfortunate consequences in spite of itself.
The greatest military rival of the United States in the post–World War II period was the Soviet Union. It devoted a large share of its resources to military production (from 9 to 10 percent of gross national product). By 1990 its economy was in chaos. The greatest economic rival of the United States, Japan, devoted a small share of its resources to defense (less than 1 percent of GNP). Its economy was flourishing at a high level.
Related to the question of prosperity and economic well-being is the broader question of the long-range strength of the nation. Military expenditures, stimulated by the military-industrial complex to unnecessarily high levels over extended periods of time, actually can pose a threat to national security. This was the concern that Eisenhower expressed in his address of 16 April 1953 and in other speeches early in his presidential term. It was a concern that General Douglas MacArthur expressed during the same period: "In final analysis the mounting cost of preparation for war is in many ways as materially destructive as war itself."
The problem is to maintain a balance between overcommitment beyond capabilities of the armed forces and overextension of the military at the expense of the domestic economy. For example, after World War II, Great Britain was facing military commitments beyond its resources and had to call upon the United States to fill the gap. Arnold Toynbee wrote, on the other hand, that the ancient Assyrian Empire fell of its own military weight. And in the Peloponnesian War, the overextension of its military effort in the expedition to Sicily was the undoing of Athens.
In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a provocative study published in 1987, Paul Kennedy warns that overextension in military commitments has been a critical factor in the decline of great powers over the past five centuries. He concludes:
Yet the history of the past five hundred years of international rivalry demonstrates that military "security" alone is never enough. It may, over the shorter term, deter or defeat rival states (and that, for most political leaders and their publics, is perfectly satisfactory). But if, by such victories, the nation over-extends itself geographically and strategically; if, even at a less imperial level, it chooses to devote a large proportion of its total income to "protection," leaving less for "productive investment," it is likely to find its economic output slowing down, with dire implications for its long-term capacity to maintain both its citizens' consumption demands and its international position….
We therefore return to the conundrum which has exercised strategists and economists and political leaders from classical times onward. To be a Great Power—by definition, a state capable of holding its own against any other nation— demands a flourishing economic base…. Yet by going to war, or by devoting a large share of the nation's "manufacturing power" to expenditures upon "unproductive" armaments, one runs the risk of eroding the national economic base, especially vis-a-vis states which are concentrating a greater share of their income upon productive investment for long-term growth.
An irony of modern war is that to preserve victory, the victors must maintain a large military establishment. At the same time, they force a strict limitation of arms on the late enemies. This permits the latter to devote their resources to expand their economies, and then they forge ahead of the victors economically.
But a major development of the last half of the twentieth century was the spread of lowintensity conflict with the support of international trade in arms. As John Keegan put it in A History of Warfare (1993):
The Western-style militarisation of the new independent states of Asia and Africa in the four decades after 1945 was as remarkable a phenomenon as it had been with the non-warrior populations of Europe in the nineteenth century. That it had many of the same doleful effects—overspending on arms, subordination of civilian to military values, superordination of self-chosen military elites and even resort to war—could be expected. It was equally to be expected that most of the hundred or so armies brought into being after decolonisation were of little objective military worth; Western "technology transfers," a euphemism for selfish arms sales by rich Western nations to poor ones that could rarely afford the outlay, did not entail the transfusion of culture which made advanced weapons so deadly in Western hands.
Yet, African rebels and irregulars and government forces came to inflict casualties upon each other in appalling numbers.