By James Fallows
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
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.