Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex

A review of James Ledbetter, Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.  268 pp.  $26.00.

On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his final presidential speech, which turned out to be his most memorable by virtue of this warning: “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.” James Ledbetter makes this speech the fulcrum for his brief but carefully researched and smoothly written book on the military-industrial complex (MIC). He looks into Eisenhower’s past to discover how a five-star general arrived at this seemingly incongruous warning and traces how the idea of the MIC evolved after 1961 as it became grist for a variety of mills.

Ledbetter recognizes the MIC’s fuzzy meaning, but for purposes of his analysis he supposes that “we can approximately define MIC as a network of public and private forces that combine a profit motive with the planning and implementation of strategic policy” (p. 6). For virtually all scholars, it comprises the armed forces and the civilian military leadership, the relevant committees and leadership of Congress, and the private contractors who supply goods and services to the military. Many analysts also include lesser players, such as the leading universities, certain scientists and think tanks, veterans’ groups, certain labor unions, and local politicians whose jurisdictions include military bases or contractors’ facilities.

Although the MIC obviously has powerful and widespread supporters, it has always attracted critics, who indict it on several counts, including wasteful military spending, diversion of government spending from social programs, economic distortions, enlargement of military influence in American society, promotion of a culture of state secrecy, and suppression of individual liberties. Rather than extensively evaluating these criticisms, Ledbetter focuses on the changing idea of the MIC, assessing contemporary arguments about it in the light of criteria suggested in Eisenhower’s speech.

He finds antecedents in several notions advanced previously, including the merchants-of-death thesis, the war-economy thesis, the garrison-state thesis, and the technocratic-elite thesis. These theses retain some pertinence within the MIC thesis.

Ledbetter traces Eisenhower’s concern about military-economic relations back at least to 1930-31, when Ike participated in Army planning for industrial mobilization. Having studied industrial agreements, possible takeovers, and price controls, he was uneasy about such military involvement in the economy. Ledbetter concludes that the “importance of keeping a peacetime separation between business and the military would stay with him for the rest of his life” (p. 51). As president, Eisenhower continued to emphasize “the need for restrained military spending to preserve American economic liberty” (p. 61).

Soon after becoming president, Eisenhower gave his second-most-memorable speech, the “Chance for Peace” address, on April 16, 1953. Stalin had just died, and the president sought to move the United States toward a less menacing relationship with the USSR by proposing measures to promote greater cooperation and trust between the Cold War adversaries. He highlighted the great opportunity costs of ongoing large-scale military preparedness. “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” (p. 68). Although the “Chance for Peace” initiative bore no fruit and the Cold War assumed even more menacing dimensions after 1953, Eisenhower’s concern about its costly distortion of the U.S. economy clearly prefigured the concerns he expressed in his farewell address almost eight years later.

Ledbetter’s attempts to tie down exactly who coined the term “military-industrial complex” proved unsuccessful. Eisenhower’s chief speechwriter, Malcomb Moos, has often been credited, but even though he seemed to have been happy to let people think he had come up with the term, he never bluntly claimed to have done so. Ledbetter’s examination of successive drafts of the speech revealed no unambiguous evidence of who introduced it.

In any event, the term resonated with diverse political groups in the 1960s, including New Leftists inspired by C. Wright Mills’s analysis of the power elite, critics of wasteful military spending, such as Senator William Proxmire, and various antiwar groups. Eventually, the idea of the MIC merged into references to the “warfare state” and the “national security state.”

Over the years, many congressional investigations and other studies have been undertaken of Pentagon contracting and other aspects of military-economic relations in the United States. Serious problems―cost overruns, late deliveries, official and corporate corruption, crony-capitalist bailouts, de facto industrial policy-making, and many others―have been documented again and again. Despite repeated attempts ostensibly to root out these misfeasances and malfeasances, nothing fundamental ever changes in the MIC’s operation. Even now, more than twenty years after the USSR imploded and the Cold War ended, the United States spends more than ever on the military and does so as wastefully and nonchalantly as it did before, with no serious repercussions. Despite a long-standing statutory requirement that the Defense Department be audited annually, it never has been, and cannot be, owing to the sorry state of its financial records.

Ledbetter astutely concludes that “it is difficult to see how the United States would be sufficiently motivated to eliminate the MIC, let alone replace it with something superior.  . . . [I]t is nearly impervious to democratic reform” (pp. 202-03). As he notes, the root problem is not so much the wretched performance of contractors and the self-interested actions of implicated parties in Congress and the military as it is the stupendously wide scope of U.S. geopolitical ambitions. As long as the U.S. government continues to perceive a “vital” interest in nearly every place and nearly every dispute in the wide world, any hope of realizing Eisenhower’s dream of cutting the  MIC down to size and moving toward genuine disarmament and peace is doomed to disappointment.

[Acknowledgment: This review will appear in the Journal of Cold War Studies, published by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.]

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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