At a time of war, scandal, and national disunity, people across the American family are increasingly wondering how we got here. 45 years ago this week, departing President Dwight Eisenhower gave us our answer.
It was in his 1961 farewell address to the American people that Eisenhower coined the phrase "military-industrial complex," an unholy alliance between the Pentagon and its contractors that he saw gaining "unwarranted influence" over public policy. Today, in more ways than we know, these words haunt us.
Ironically, fifteen years earlier, the heroic general of World War II had been an advocate of military-industrial cooperation. "The armed forces could not have won the war alone," he wrote to Secretary Stimson in 1946, "Scientists and business men contributed techniques and weapons which enabled us to outwit and overwhelm the enemy." As the 5-star General became President, he would learn firsthand that the power of this alliance was growing out of control, tightening its grip on even his own decision-making as President. "God help this country," a weary Eisenhower was overheard to say in the Oval Office, "when someone sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."
Over the years, the term "military-industrial complex" has been praised by some as prophecy and dismissed by others as the work of a zealous speechwriter. Eisenhower's meticulous scribblings over many drafts disprove the latter. Today, the power and influence of the military-industrial complex seem self-evident. Yet beyond this phrase, Eisenhower's remarkable farewell address is all but forgotten in a world he foresaw down to the last shell-casing.
At a time when a growing number of Americans are wondering how September 11 led to Shock and Awe and a war whose estimated cost may now exceed $2 trillion, Eisenhower cautions thus: "Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties."
As the path to Iraq saw the U.S. with arrogant impatience undermine the credibility of U.N. member states that opposed an expedited inspections timetable, Eisenhower reminds us of the importance, however flawed, of instruments of international cooperation: "Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield."
As proponents of the war on terror call for ever-increasing levels of defense spending, we are reminded that Eisenhower, facing the real prospect of intercontinental nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, remained committed nonetheless to the view that "disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative."
At a time when the rush to war seems now to have been engineered at least in part by unelected operatives working in the shadows of power at Think Tanks and other interest groups, Eisenhower warns of "the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power" arising from the "unwarranted influence" of such forces.
Recently, as scandals envelop Washington from Boeing to DeLay to Frist to Abramoff, Eisenhower reminds us that "the power of money is ever-present and is gravely to be regarded."
And now, as the Executive Branch asserts privilege to abridge the civil liberties of Americans in the name of prosecuting the war on terror, Eisenhower challenges us to remain vigilant: "We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
While all these concerns haunt our present condition, one phrase stands out from the rest: "the need to maintain balance in and among national programs." As we build bridges and print textbooks for the children of Iraq while our own children are uneducated and drowning in the streets of New Orleans, it becomes clear that Eisenhower has a notion of balance that embarrasses our own.
Perhaps it was his experience on the battlefield. Or even the values his pacifist mother instilled in him. Or maybe it was just plain-old Kansas common sense. Whichever, Eisenhower understood that a nation's defense is about more than just bombs. He understood that a country that allocates a disproportionate share of its wealth toward defense and away from other aspects of its national life is a country driven by an incomplete vision of national defense. In the final analysis, he understood that an uneducated country is an undefended country, that a country without adequate health care is an undefended country, that a country in debt is an undefended country, that a country without friends and allies is an undefended country, and above all, that a country whose people have lost faith in their leaders, is an undefended country.
"This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense," Eisenhower declared at an earlier time in his career. "Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
January 24, 2006