Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex Speech

After World War II and the development of the Cold War with the Communists, the nature of America’s foreign defense system changed dramatically. Unlike after previous wars when the United States armed forces were dramatically reduced to “peace time status,” after WWII America kept a large standing army. Moreover, with the onset of nuclear bombs and jet planes and the need to always be one step ahead of the Russians, defense weapons became more and more sophisticated and costly. These factors lead to ever-increasing military budgets.

At the end of his second term President Eisenhower gave a departing speech on national television regarding “The Military-Industrial Complex” (MIC), a term Eisenhower coined to describe the cozy relationship between “the defense establishment”–the three branches of our armed services-and the manufacturers of defense armaments- “the armaments industry.” The concept includes the entire network of contracts and flows of money and resources among individuals as well as corporations and institutions of the defense contractors, private military contractors, The Pentagon, the Congress and executive branch. Eisenhower recognized that since the end of World War II, the nation’s budget was pouring a huge and ever increasing proportion of its wealth into arms spending. Eisenhower feared that with so much money involved, there was a great temptation for those involved to engage in improper, illegal schemes in the granting of governmental contracts. He was also concerned that increasing defense spending could bankrupt the country, leaving the U.S. weaker, not stronger. Eisenhower used his credentials as an experienced military leader to warn the nation to be diligent in policing the process and to reassure the nation that the defense budget did not need to be increased as much as some wanted. Another concern was the possibility that as the military and the arms industry gained power, they would be a threat to democracy, with civilians losing control of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower said:

“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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. 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.”

Eisenhower’s speech resonated with the American public; it served to make the “Military Industrial Complex” (MIC) a target of public criticism over the ensuing decades. Critics of the MIC have indicted 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. 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 to root out these problems, there have been no fundamental changes in the MIC’s operation.

Although he never used the term, Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” (1963) is very critical of the people and institutions that make up “The Military Industrial Complex.” Dylan acknowledged that in writing the song he was influenced by President Eisenhower’s speech: “In an interview, published in USA Today on September 10, 2001 Dylan linked his song to Eisenhower’s speech, saying: ‘Masters of War’ … is supposed to be a pacifistic song against war. It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.” The song highlights the problems with a society that is greatly influenced (“controlled”?) by a “Military Industrial Complex.” Dylan’s attitude toward the MIC is reflected in the line “That even Jesus would never Forgive what you do.” https://youtu.be/JEmI_FT4YHU

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good

Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Historians, who initially had little regard for Eisenhower as president, later came around to a more positive assessment. Eisenhower employed a “hidden hand” as president, keeping out of the limelight but remaining engaged in every decision. Eisenhower made many mistakes at home and abroad and he left problems that would vex future presidents, including his immediate successors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Still, he titled the memoir of his presidential years Waging Peace, and that’s just what he did. He worked hard to keep the peace and succeeded in avoiding cataclysmic war. What was most significant about the Eisenhower years is what he prevented. “Many terrible things that could have happened, didn’t,” wrote biographer William Ewald.