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Was Eisenhower Right?

Updated on November 16, 2015

Was Ike Right?

When President Dwight David Eisenhower made his farewell address on January 17, 1961, the President gave a warning to the nation to be aware of impending changes in our government and economy. In his speech, a new phrase, “the military-industrial complex” (MIC) was invented to describe the new conditions that were causing these changes within our system. This phrase, over the past 50 years, has been interpreted in different ways and has evolved to have new inclusions. The actual definition of the MIC came in the days when the MIC was in its early stages of growth while, the definition we know today became more inclusive as the growth of the MIC spread over time.

The first issues with private companies and the U.S. military arose during the Civil war when many military suppliers were charging more and more for different items. The same issues arose earlier in American history during the French and Indian war, before the United States was founded. These sorts of issues became more intense in 1894 when the American naval fleet was being upgraded. These ships were to be some of the first modern ships in American history. In order to get the steel necessary to create the armored plates, the Navy decided to pay the Carnegie steel company and 2 other companies to create the armored plates for them in a contract for 95.6 million dollars. When the ships were built, the Navy was accused of paying one million dollars in kickbacks to contractors because the steel companies created ships that went faster than was asked for. Eventually it was discovered that the steel companies were not giving good quality steel to build the ships with and the armor plating was deemed faulty. After a hearing, the steel companies were fined 140,000 dollars in penalties.

The First World War created a growth in the idea of making money off of war. With this war, Americans saw the first emergence of “preparedness campaigns” by nationalistic leagues (that were formed by munitions companies) that were designed to convince American citizenry of the need for an arms buildup. Attacking these campaigns were a few congressmen, one of them being a man named Clyde Howard Tavenner (IL, Dem), in the House of Representatives, spoke out against the dangers that the munitions companies posed. He believed that government owned manufacturers should meet the military’s needs so to create an atmosphere where there is not a group of competing companies creating wars for profit and increasing demand for their goods. Tavenner and his ally, Henry Ford (Ford Motor Company), accused the munitions companies of taking the country to war in order to make a profit. In his words:

“Their business is to supply for gigantic profit the wherewithal for the peoples of the earth to enjoy a monopoly of throat cutting and tearing people limb from limb. As for themselves, they do not engage in price cutting warfare. Their game is purely profit making. They start the ball rolling by making nations distrustful of one another, and then in inducing them to over prepare for war. Does anyone doubt that if the European nations had not been so over prepared for war they would have been so willing to enter it?”

Ford believed that the only way to fix the situation was to take the aspect of profit out of war. Eventually, America entered the war but, after the war, the League of Nations would see the evils of privatization of munitions and armaments and adopt Article 8 of the League of Nations statutes, which cited the, “evil traffic of munitions”.

Between World War I and World War II there were many theories and literature out discussing the effects of private industry profiting off of war. These “muckraking” books were not only released in the United States, they were also translated into multiple languages and sold throughout the world. The books had several similarities that seemed to create a way to identify how the munitions companies endanger the country. These included, armament manufacturers that operated outside the law or any form of international accountability; they whip up war panics in order to create profit; they justify their reasoning by being patriotic when in fact, they undermined national security, and; they engage in manipulative business practices. All these factors would later be heavily incorporated into many contemporary historians’ theories on the MIC.

In 1934, Gerald P. Nye, a senator from North Dakota, created a committee that would become synonymous with the fear of the MIC. Though the term “military-industrial complex” was years away from being used, much of society in the 1930’s had a supreme uneasiness with the idea that the munitions industry was making money off of death. Much of this mentality was due to the passive thought that arose from the ashes of WWI and literature such as “Merchants of Death” that was read during the time. Nye investigated the munitions industry and government officials involved with the industry. The committee found that the munitions industry resorted to “unusual approaches” by “bribery of government officials and friends of the government officials in order to secure business”[6]. President Roosevelt publicly stated that he was in support of the Nye Committee but secretly, Nye and Roosevelt did not get alone all that well. Nye believed that Roosevelt wanted to steal his investigation. This was mainly because Roosevelt began to form his own committee that was made up primarily of military personnel. Eventually, Nye’s investigation began to slow and most of his investigation was just filled with charges that could not be proven fully. Nye accused the “powerful interests” of slowing down the investigation. Eventually, in January 1936, Nye accused the former President, Woodrow Wilson, who had passed on years before, of lying about knowing that the allies during WWI had made plans to carve Europe up. This initiated outrage from congress and Nye was not taken seriously throughout his continued investigation.

During World War II, the United States was pretty close, if not at, full employment. The wartime economy boomed with the need to manufacture weapons and other materials for the war effort. This time was so great, after the war, many conspiracy theorists began to suggest that Roosevelt made a deal with Japan to get us into the war in order to create jobs and growth for the post-depression economy. There is not one shred of evidence to hold up that suggestion, but one thing is certain: the wartime economy came and it never left. During the late 1940’s there was a small disarmament but that was short lived. A new threat was looming on the socio-political horizon and that was communism.

It should be noted that before President Eisenhower’s speech in January 1961, the MIC didn’t have a formal name. There were only references to the privatization of different aspects of the military’s tools for operation. There were also many different theories about how the privatization of these areas would affect the nation or in some cases, other nations as well. Some of the examples are listed below.

1.) The Merchants of Death Thesis: a theory that states that arms dealers/contractors start wars in order to create a profit for themselves.

2.) The War Economy Thesis: States that the production of arms and the growth of the arms industry slowly can become intertwined into a nations economy to where the nation depends on war materials production in order to sustain economic prosperity.

3.) The Garrison State Thesis: States that eventually large societies of the future will be more militarized and create a nation where the rights and liberties as well as democracies of the populous would be infringed upon.

4.) The Technocratic Elite Thesis: States that as Americans depend more and more on technology, the nation would eventually be controlled and dominated by a bureaucratic class.

These theories had evolved before Eisenhower’s original statement which was a part of the Farewell Address to the nation. Though it took a few years, many connections to the new theories of the past and the new term “Military-Industrial Complex” begin to show themselves. The war in Viet Nam began to revive interest into the speech that Ike made only 3 years previously. With the Viet Nam war came different conspiracy theories and social resistance to the war.

President Eisenhower’s Belief Regarding the MIC

The reasoning behind Ike’s Farwell Speech was to make Americans aware of what the cold war was doing to the military. This war was creating a way for the military to grow. Eisenhower saw the growth and knew exactly what was going on. He had been a part of the military his whole life and actually did plenty of research on the subject of the relationship between the munitions companies and the military. It should be understood that Eisenhower’s Farwell Speech is a major factor in the understanding of the military-industrial complex because of the nature, experience and the path of Ike’s own life that led him to the conclusions of that famous speech.

Surprisingly, Ike was actually raised by parents that taught him strict Christian beliefs. In these beliefs, he was raised as a child to know that war was sinful. Not only did this fuel his pacifism, but he also witnessed the horrors of the holocaust camps while liberating them, and even had to sign hundreds of death certificates during World War II. He realized the devastation that war brought and had a huge respect for human life.

Due to this pacifism, Ike was never really understood by many in the White House or in the legislature. He was often seen as antimilitary when in reality, Ike knew the need for defense but did not see the need in purchasing so much defense that the citizens of the nation go without schools, parks, hospitals or roads. In a quote from his “Chance for Peace Speech” that he delivered on April 16, 1953, Ike stated:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

Eisenhower saw that the spending for military items was growing and getting incredibly out of control. He believed that national security was important but not at the cost of our children and grandchildren’s future. His speech was a speech designed to warn the populace of the influence of the military upon the branches of government. He wished to warn his fellow Americans of the possibilities that were at hand, given the military and the private sector were permitted to grow their influence within the branches of our government system.

The Soviet Take on the MIC

The USSR believed that not only was the MIC a threat to them, but it was also a threat to communism, the American people and the world. In a report by Nikolai Novikov to the foreign minister Molotov, Novikov analyses US foreign policy by stating: The basic goal of this anti-Soviet campaign of American "public opinion" is to exert political pressure on the Soviet Union and compel it to make concessions. Another, no less important goal of the campaign is the attempt to create an atmosphere of war psychosis among the masses, who are weary of war, thus making it easier for the U.S. government to carry out measures for the maintenance of high military potential. It was in this very atmosphere that the law on universal military service in peacetime was passed by congress, that the huge military budget was adopted, and that plans are being worked out for the construction of an extensive system of naval and air bases.”

The USSR believed that the United States was already consumed by the MIC and that the American government was forcing war upon its people through manipulation and military production in an effort to intimidate other nations and control the world economy and foreign policy. This could be only due to the fact that the USSR was an enemy of the US and believed it to be imperialist.

Stalin also believed that the United States was using a military economy in order to project its power around the world and in Europe. Ideas like the Marshall Plan were seen as a plan for Empire building. Though Stalin saw this as a threat, he also though that it would fail by stating, “They are trying to offset their difficulties with the 'Marshall Plan', the war in Korea, frantic rearmament, and industrial militarization. But that is very much like a drowning man clutching a straw".

Though the USSR passed judgment on the US, the USSR actually responded to the threat of the United States by forming their own military-industrial complex. The Soviet MIC was actually more controlling that the American MIC. In an article entitled, “Soviet Industry and the Red Army Under Stalin: A Military Industrial Complex?”, from a professor of history at the University of Warwick (United Kingdom), Professor Mark Harrison comments by saying, “the USA has a military-industrial complex, the USSR is a military-industrial complex”. Harrison may have been referring to the fact that the budget for the USSR was usually around 15-20% of the countries GNP. Also, in 1988, 62% of Soviet engineering output was all military hardware while 6% was civilian13. The USSR was more consumed by a MIC then the US.

Looking at the historical record, one could say Eisenhower’s apprehension in regard to the MIC is justified. Many situations exist that are reasons for concern.

Ike lived through the Nye committee investigations and saw the effects of the munitions industry on our government. He also was a military man with experience and enough know-how to see the big picture. Our country is built on the ideas of freedom, which includes free trade and capitalistic ideology. It was only inevitable that in the race to make a buck, the buck would begin to be made off certain situations, even war. There is a threat to our nation. Gerald P. Nye, Clyde Howard Tavenner, Henry Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower saw this threat and called on Americans to open their eyes. It has been up to us to take the next step for decades.

[1] Jarecki, Eugene,“Why We Fight”, 2005

[2] “Unwarranted Influence”, James Ledbetter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), pg 19

[3] “Unwarranted Influence”, James Ledbetter, pg. 20

[4] “Unwarranted Influence”, pg. 21

[5] “Unwarranted Influence”, pg. 21-23

[6] Report of the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry (The Nye Report), U.S. Congress, Senate, 74th Congress, 2nd sess., February 24, 1936, pp. 3-13

[7]Nikolai Novikov, Report to Foreign Minister Molotov Analyzing US policy, September, 1946.

[8]Joseph Stalin, “Remarks on the Destructive Contradictions within Capitalism”, February 1, 1952.

[9]Mark Harrison, “Soviet Industry and the Red Army Under Stalin: A Military Industrial Complex?”(United Kingdom)

[10] “Time Magazine”, Soviet Union: Moscow’s Hungry Monster, May 19, 1991.


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    • badegg profile image

      Del Banks 6 years ago from Southern Appalachians

      I agree with Keith,this was a well researched and well written article. Very informative. I think that Ike was the last leader that really cared about this country.

    • KeithTax profile image

      Keith Schroeder 6 years ago from Wisconsin

      A well researched and written history lesson. We need more leaders like Ike, a politician with common sense. Ike got it. Now if our current leaders would rise to the same level.


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