The Military-Industrial Complex

James A. Huston

Probably no presidential farewell address since that of George Washington in 1796 has had a greater impact or more lasting quality than that of Dwight Eisenhower in 1961. Washington's is remembered mainly for his warnings against political factions and foreign alliances. Eisenhower's is remembered for his warning against the military-industrial complex. Coming from Eisenhower, who had risen through the military ranks and was assumed to be a "friend of big business," the words surprised listeners but also carried great weight. Apparently the term itself may be attributed to him.

In mid-December 1960, Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, had suggested the idea of a farewell address. Eisenhower turned to one of his special assistants, Malcolm Moos, a young political scientist from Johns Hopkins University, to draft the speech, and worked closely with him in preparing the text. The president's closest economic advisers were not aware of the contents of the speech until they heard it broadcast.

Speaking to the nation on radio and television on the evening of Tuesday, 17 January 1961, Eisenhower said the following about the MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL complex:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence— economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

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.

At a press conference the next morning, Eisenhower expanded on the military-industrial complex theme. In response to one question he said:

It is only a citizenry, an alert and informed citizenry, which can keep these abuses from coming about. And …some of this misuse of influence and power could come about unwittingly but just by the very nature of the thing, …almost every one of your magazines, no matter what they are advertising, has a picture of the Titan missile or the Atlas or solid fuel or other things, there is …almost an insidious penetration of our own minds that the only thing this country is engaged in is weaponry and missiles. And, I'll tell you we just can't afford to do that. The reason we have them is to protect the great values in which we believe, and they are far deeper even than our own lives and our own property.

Eisenhower's main concern was that military industries would exert an undue influence on government policy. Munitions makers were likely to encourage warlike policies in the interest of their own profits. Beyond that, Eisenhower saw a danger that individual companies might influence military strategy by their advocacy of their own weapon systems. Further, a great conglomerate of military industrial power might threaten individual liberty.

The main concern of others, like Seymour Melman, an industrial engineer and economist at Columbia University, has been that government policy, concentrating on the development and maintenance of a big military industry, would have an unfortunate impact on the national economy.

Indeed, Eisenhower shared the concern about the economic cost of maintaining large armaments. In an address before the American Society of Newspaper Editors on 16 April 1953, he had called for control and reduction of armaments. He said that if an unchecked armaments race continued, "the best that could be expected" would be:

a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the people of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms …is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of sixty thousand population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than eight thousand people….

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.


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See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Arms Transfers and Trade ; Foreign Aid ; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy .

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