62 years ago, US President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell address. After eight years in office, Eisenhower used his final words as president to deliver a very specific warning. The expanding US defense establishment, he claimed, had become entangled with private industry in a way that was completely unprecedented for the United States and the world. This military-industrial complex, as he named it, would distort every US political institution and even threaten democracy itself.
Eisenhower’s farewell speech is now the most famous address of his career, and the concept of the military-industrial complex has proven important decades later. Below are four excerpts from his speech that anticipated the challenges we face today.
1. “Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime.”
Eisenhower was a lifelong military man whose career spanned both world wars. In his lifetime, scientific and technological advances resulted in unprecedented mass destruction, completely transforming the nature of war.
However, what preoccupied Eisenhower at the end of his presidency was not just the transformation of war, but also the transformation of peace.
In times of war, the United States has always recruited private industry and dedicated vast resources to defense. But, prior to the 20th century, peace meant a return to ‘normal.’ After World War II, however, the private defense industry remained as a permanent part of the economy, and baseline defense spending never returned to previous peacetime levels.
This remains our reality today. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the most expensive wars in US history. But now, after both wars ended, the defense budget has not gone down – in fact, it has risen to record-high levels.
2. “This 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.”
The United States spends more now on defense than it ever has – more than the next eight countries combined, four of which are close US allies.
But defense spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum; each dollar spent on defense is a dollar that could instead be spent on healthcare, on education, on sustainability. How can we find more resources every year for the Department of Defense, the only federal agency that can’t even pass an audit, but we cannot find the money to pay for hungry children to eat lunch?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” ‘The federal budget is an expression – perhaps the most concrete and measurable expression – of the values and priorities of the United States. What the federal budget expresses today is an insult to human dignity.
3. “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.”
The defense sector is one of the most powerful industries in politics. During the 2022 election, the industry spent $101 million in lobbying and contributed over $18 million to political campaigns. Most of that money flows to politicians – both Republican and Democrat – who sit on the committees that determine annual defense spending.
It is clear how high the stakes are for the defense industry: private contractors can expect to receive a big chunk of whatever spending Congress earmarks for defense. Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, for-profit defense contractors have received as much as half of the $14 trillion that the Pentagon has spent on defense.
The defense industry often uses its influence to lobby for policies contrary to US interests and values. In September 2021, members of Congress tried to limit US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is using US weapons to sustain a brutal war in Yemen. UNICEF has called the ongoing war in Yemen “one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.” But weapons manufacturers spent millions lobbying Congress and the White House to allow arms sales to continue. The measure to limit arms sales was defeated. Saudi Arabia, ostensibly a US ally, has since supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
4. “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 initially planned to give his farewell address before Congress. Ultimately, however, he delivered his warning about the military-industrial complex to the public.
If Eisenhower suspected that Congress would not be able to stand up to the growing military-industrial complex, he was right. Despite the increasingly partisan dysfunction on Capitol Hill, one bipartisan consensus seems iron-clad: the defense budget must rise.
The conventional wisdom is that cuts to the Pentagon’s budget will be punished by voters for being ‘weak on defense.’ But the evidence doesn’t stack up. All 85 congressional representatives who supported a cut to the defense budget won re-election in 2022, including several in competitive districts. Politicians who write blank checks for the Pentagon might be afraid of their donors, not their constituents.
Congress has long failed to perform its oversight responsibilities over the military-industrial complex. As Eisenhower feared, the powerful machine of money and interests has redefined security to mean whatever creates the most profit, circumventing democratic norms to do so. Only an “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” will be able to hold Congress accountable.