The Dustbin of History: The Military-Industrial Complex

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were ...

According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values — fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession — lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome’s doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.

Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.

Has U.S. politics shifted to the right? The domestic records of two 20th-century Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, remove any doubt. Nixon took stands that would make him an isolated leftist among modern Democrats. He enforced (albeit grudgingly) school busing and racial-quota hiring plans, established the Environmental Protection Agency, redirected federal funds to state and municipal welfare programs, and tried to enact a "guaranteed annual income." Eisenhower sent troops to make sure schools were integrated and enacted public-works programs on a scale not seen since his time: For transportation, the interstate highways. For public health, the polio-vaccine campaign. For education and science, the flow of federal funds to local schools after Sputnik. The only Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt with a comparably liberal record of accomplishment is Lyndon Johnson, with Medicare and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Yet Eisenhower’s most celebrated "liberal" statement, indeed the only statement of his that endures, has been misinterpreted through most of the last generation. In his farewell address, delivered a few days before John Kennedy took office, Eisenhower gave his famous warning against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." The phrase entered the lexicon, and at least within the little tribe of speechwriters it ensured the fame of its creator, Malcolm Moos. (Some accounts say that Ralph Williams, a Navy captain detailed to the White House, was also involved.) But only in the last few years have the implications of the military-industrial complex again taken on Eisenhower’s original meaning.

In his speech, Eisenhower stressed the novelty of the large, permanent defense establishment, which had been created to fight World War II and then expanded because of the Cold War, and the open-endedness of its potential effects. "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience," he said. "The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government." But most historians suggest that Eisenhower’s principal concern was budgetary. That is, the military itself, its allied contractors, and the appropriators in Congress all shared an interest in trumpeting potential perils and then building weapons to offset them. Eisenhower had been particularly soured by the "missile gap" controversy of the late 1950s — the bogus suggestion that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in strategic missiles and therefore needed to build fast to catch up. Eisenhower’s sensitivity to this issue was the more acute since Kennedy had campaigned hard on the "missile gap" as a symbol of Republican failures.

As Eisenhower’s phrase entered popular usage over the next decade, its shadings changed. When people warned about the influence of the military-industrial complex in the 1960s, they usually were talking about an increased risk of actually going to war. The human symbol of this concern was Gen. Curtis LeMay. In the 1940s, he had directed the firebombings of Tokyo that killed as many people as the atomic bomb did in Hiroshima. In the 1950s, as head of the Strategic Air Command, he recommended the use of nuclear weapons against China to end the Korean War. Later, he drew up plans for a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, as Air Force chief of staff, he recommended a nuclear attack on Cuba to remove the Soviet missile bases, and he later criticized Kennedy for taking the cowardly path of a naval blockade. (He ended his public career as George Wallace’s running mate, in 1968.)

It was with men like LeMay in mind that Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey wrote their influential early-1960s novel about a military coup, Seven Days in May. During the Vietnam era, the military-industrial complex was a shorthand reference to the interests that presumably kept profiting from the war. Brown and Root, building those bases in the jungle? Dow Chemical, with its napalm? The view of the war industries as warmongers reached its peak in the early 1990s with Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. In the climactic scene, the shadowy figure played by Donald Sutherland explains that, of course, Kennedy had to be killed, because if he had lived he would have pulled out of Vietnam and the big industrialists wouldn’t have made so much money.

Vietnam was crucial in the history of the military-industrial complex, but not in the way Stone’s film indicated. The oft-discussed Powell doctrine was part of the military’s response to Vietnam. Its stated purpose was to keep the military from being misused, but a side effect was to make the use of military force less likely. Through at least the last decade, the more that military commanders have had to say about a decision, the less likely the United States has been to send troops. The debate leading up to the Bush administration’s Iraq decision is the latest illustration.

With a more cautious approach to troop commitment, the military-industrial complex has returned to the situation that worried Eisenhower: it doesn’t matter whether weapons are used (or usable), as long as they are bought. The military budget is, of course, growing rapidly. Two years ago, the United States spent as much on the military as the next eight countries combined. Last year, as much as the next 15 combined. This year, as much as the next 20. Yet it is hard to match the pattern of spending to the nature of new threats. Consider the F-22 Raptor fighter plane, which was designed in George H.W. Bush’s administration. Each plane will cost well over $100 million, perhaps twice that much. The expense is mainly for measures that would allow the aircraft to penetrate a Soviet air defense system that disappeared more than a decade ago.

Since the United States has ended up with so much more imposing a force than any adversary, perhaps the complex should be thanked rather than criticized? Well, no, for exactly the reasons that Eisenhower foresaw: "economic, political, even spiritual." The economic problem is that the federal government no longer has enough money to throw around without a plan. The political problem is the distortion of the process of public choice. Pentagon budget analyst Franklin Chuck Spinney uses the term "political engineering" to describe the parceling out of defense subcontracts to the districts of influential members of Congress. The more senators and representatives are dealt into the arrangements, the harder it is for them to exercise independent judgment.

The most profound source of concern may be what Eisenhower called spiritual: the corrupting effect on the uniformed military by their alliance with contractors. Most career soldiers leave the service by their mid-40s. A tiny handful last until their mid-50s, and nearly all the retirees look for a second career. Far and away the most lucrative opportunities are with defense industries. Knowing that their careers will end this way, soldiers face difficult decisions while still in uniform. Two valuable recent books, Path to Victory by Maj. Donald Vandergriff and Boyd by Robert Coram, consider the distortions of today’s military career path.

The United States is back where Eisenhower started, with a renewed appreciation of the problem posed by a military-industrial complex — and recognition of his advice that "[o]nly an alert and knowledgeable citizenry" could bring it under control.

James Fallows is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His most recent book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, co-authored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, is the basis of a forthcoming HBO movie. Twitter: @JamesFallows