The Military-Industrial Complex - Control of the complex

Granted that the national security of the United States requires a substantial military industry, a question remains: How can the unfortunate consequences of a powerful military-industrial complex—the kind of conglomerate of special economic and military interests against which Eisenhower warned—be alleviated? One measure might be that favored by Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, that is, nationalization of the armaments industry.

Jan Christian Smuts, a distinguished South African soldier and statesman who served in the British war cabinet (and who sometimes is regarded with Woodrow Wilson as a cofounder of the League of Nations), in December 1916 circulated his draft of a constitution for a league of nations. Its paragraph 17 stated:

That all factories for the production of direct weapons of war shall be nationalized and their production shall be subject to the inspection of the officers of the council; and the council shall be furnished periodically with returns of imports and exports of munitions of war into or from the territories of war into or from the territories of its members, and as far as possible into or from other countries.

Why, it can be asked, should a private company such as General Dynamics, most or all of whose business is with the government, be private? It has been shown that defense contractors often show less profit than comparable companies in civilian production, but with little or no risk, why should their profits be as great? Jacques Gansler estimated that in 1967 just four firms held 93 percent of the contracts for satellites, nuclear submarines, missile guidance systems, space boosters, aircraft fire-control systems, inertial navigation systems, jet aircraft engines, helicopters, and fighter, attack, transport, and tanker aircraft. This concentration became even more pronounced over the next twenty years. The number of military contractors and subcontractors of all types fell from 138,000 in 1982 to fewer than 40,000 in 1987.

Government ownership and operation would eliminate the need for any profit at all and reduce the pressures on the government for big defense spending for the benefit of a company. Of course, it would not eliminate this kind of pressure altogether. As we have seen, locales and political leaders apply pressure for defense orders in their areas whether the facility concerned is government or private, and subsidiary industries that benefit from defense production still would urge those expenditures that would benefit them indirectly.

There are those who contend that government industrial facilities would be less efficient and more costly than private concerns. That is not necessarily true. The Springfield and Harpers Ferry armories were effective in producing high-quality rifles at lower cost than private factories; government navy yards have been effective in building ships (sometimes they were more costly because they paid higher wages and granted more paid holidays than private shipyards); the government's Philadelphia clothing factory has been effective; an army depot has been effective and far less costly than private contractors in overhauling tank engines.

In the development of ballistic missiles in the 1950s the army probably did as well in terms of cost and effectiveness at its Huntsville (Alabama) Redstone Arsenal as the air force did with its favored private contractors. In the end, the air force won out in that competition, some allege on account of politics, and thus gave a great boost to the private military industry of southern California.

Wartime still might require the conversion of civilian plants to military production. But that is a different matter. A thriving automobile factory has no real stake in converting to tanks or aircraft, and it would be reconverted to the civilian production when the immediate need had been met. Another approach might be to prohibit the export of armaments. This usually brings the rejoinder, "Well, if we did not sell arms to other countries, someone else would." The answer to that is, "So be it; at least we would not be putting advanced American weaponry into the hands of potential enemies."

A further step toward reducing undue influences of the military-industrial complex might be a more complete separation of government-sponsored research and development from those who have an immediate stake in the production of the items concerned. In any case, control must depend upon effective and sympathetic leadership at the top, in the White House and in the Pentagon.

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