President Eisenhower was the nation’s 34th commander-in-chief, who served from 1953-61. His phrase the “military industrial complex” is now a catch-phrase as the nation deals with a financial crisis of its own with the nation’s debt now at $14.2 trillion.
Tuesday night at the Newseum in Washington D.C., three panelists and moderator David Gergen discussed Ike’s speech. Panelists included journalists and writers Evan Thomas, James Fallows and Dana Priest. The event was simulcast at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.
Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, said Eisenhower’s use of the phrase “military industrial complex” was startling at the time. The phrase has given those on the left and right much to ponder and debate. He believed that many people were surprised that Ike, who had spent all of his adult life in public service and mostly affiliated with the military, would warn about too much spending for defense.
Before the panelists spoke, they watched the CBS News recording of Ike’s speech. The black and white speech lasted about 20 minutes.
Eisenhower stressed balance of public and private sectors, the need for consensus between Congress and the president, and a vision about what America could be in his speech. It had seven parts.
He noted the four major wars that occurred in the nation’s first 50 years, three of which included the United States. Ike wanted the nation to define how it used its power in the interest of world peace and human betterment.
Eisenhower remarked that America will likely always have enemies to its way of life. He warned of huge increases in newer elements of defense, development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture and a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research. All of those must be kept in balance with the private and public economy.
In his fourth tenant of the speech he discussed the military industrial complex.
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
“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. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
“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. Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.”
Gergen said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke this past May on the steps of the Eisenhower Library and he invoked Ike’s words into his speech, noting that 50 years later he was concerned about a growing defense budget in light of other priorities. Gates spoke about the appropriation process in which projects and weapons that were funded were not always ones that were essential for the nation’s defense.
The panelists praised the speech and said it was full of wisdom that could be applied today. Yet they also acknowledged in a couple of days where the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the speech given by Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, which was filled with optimism and unfulfilled dreams of the country.
Fallows said Ike’s words were surprising because understood the mindset of the Pentagon. He also knew that the growth of atomic weapons grew during his administration. Fallows said “Ike always had his eye on the horizon. He was not perfect. He was human, but he was pretty (sic) darned good.”
Priest spoke about the challenges of today. After Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attack, Congress gave a blank check to the Pentagon and led to unprecedented spending on military and intelligence programs. That lasted for nearly two years with minimal disclosure on spending in those areas. The growth in use of private contractors to assist in military and intelligence operations was unprecedented. She thought Eisenhower would have been distraught. The layers of program are unwieldy and largely remain unchecked.
Thomas said the country could use more elected leaders like Eisenhower to provide balance.
Thomas and Fallows believed that Ike’s speech over time was the one that would be more accurate.
The panelists also discussed whether Ike had thought of expanding the term military industrial complex to military industrial congressional complex or military industrial scientific complex. While there could be theories, in the end they thought Ike was most comfortable with military industrial complex.
They agreed that Eisenhower was not a “television” personality and while he was fascinated by new technology and TV, Ike was well-read and deliberate in his decisions.
Priest said that Ike understood the balance between the state department and military. She said today’s emphasis is on military operations and less on the state department, the traditional builder of relations between countries. She thought today’s modern presidents have less understanding of the culture of the military, which made Eisenhower impressive in speaking out about the military industrial complex.
Fallows said the assertion that Ike depended more on covert, CIA operations was not accurate. Eisenhower did use those operations but he was not obsessed with it.
Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, remembers the final days of his presidency. She said he was ready to become a private citizen and return to his rural roots on a farm in Gettysburg, Pa. She said he was fond of journalists. He had weekly news conferences and one of his last dinners in the White House was a private meal with journalists.
The event at the Newseum was sponsored by The Eisenhower Institute, Gettysburg College and the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.