The World According to Dwight

President Eisenhower's farewell speech was as much a paean to fiscal conservatism as any kind of attack on the "military-industrial complex."

This January marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, the speech that launched the phrase “military-industrial complex” into the English language. It will no doubt be an occasion for critics of military spending to decry not only massive wartime expenditures in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also nuclear-weapons programs that have outlived their original targets, and burgeoning weapons sales abroad. Indeed, it has become fashionable in recent years—for example, in the 2005 documentary Why We Fight—to draw a straight line from Eisenhower’s warning about the “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” to the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, through to the antiwar opponents of George W. Bush.

Those historical associations have their place. They risk distortion, however, to the extent that they present Eisenhower’s warning about the acquisition of military power solely as a concern over the nature and scope of martial authority, the fear that America could become, to use another favorite Eisenhower phrase, a “garrison state.” Eisenhower did have that fear, but the military-industrial complex is, well, more complex. A more thorough reading of the farewell address yields a view of Eisenhower’s concern that connects him as much with the New Right as with the New Left—namely, that the military-industrial complex was to be feared as a representative of Big Government that would rob America of a democratic future because it would lead to massive public debt.

It may not be as well remembered today as the phrase “military-industrial complex,” but Dwight Eisenhower was a lifelong believer in a balanced budget, often at his own political cost. Throughout his presidency, he and his administration struggled with a fundamental challenge of the Cold War: Was there such a thing as spending too much money on defense? Consensus opinion held that the Soviet Union was willing to spend whatever it took to build a global military machine, unconstrained by concerns for its citizens. Powerful Eisenhower advisers, notably Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, believed that the United States had to make a similar no-limit commitment in order to compete.

But Eisenhower strongly felt that bankrupting America in the name of military defense would defeat defense’s entire purpose; we would end up destroying democracy in order to save it. Unlike many of his successors, Eisenhower’s fiscal conservatism was not lip service; he presided over a government that could actually spend less than the previous year, and he did it more than once.

Congress’s most hawkish members—it seems impossible to us now, but they were primarily Democrats—considered Eisenhower’s desire to restrain military and overall government spending to be irresponsible and downright dangerous. And after the Sputnik launch in 1957 and the near-simultaneous release of a report showing America on the wrong end of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, Congressional demands for greater military spending proved too loud to resist. Much to Eisenhower’s dismay, the Republican Party platform of 1960 abandoned the idea that some restraint on military spending was necessary, insisting instead that “there must be no price ceiling on America’s security.”

This was very much the backdrop for the farewell address, which was composed by speechwriters Malcolm Moos and Ralph Williams shortly after John Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Yes, the speech warns of the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that] is new in the American experience.” But in portions of the speech that are much-less-often cited, Eisenhower explained what made this mammoth so frightening: its unrestrained growth and enormous cost. Eisenhower insisted that Americans “must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow.” Again, there was no point in spending so much for the military if the result was to wreck the American economy and system of free enterprise: “We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

Thus, when read in its entirety, Eisenhower’s farewell address is as much a paean to fiscal conservatism as it is any kind of attack on the military. And curiously, once America’s involvement in the Vietnam War grew in the mid- to late 1960s, Pentagon critics who cited Eisenhower’s speech as their inspiration forged a rhetoric that is strikingly similar to that used today by the Tea Party and other fiscal conservatives; only the target is different.

For example, a 1969 essay by Richard Kaufman, an economist working for Senator William Proxmire, labeled the military-industrial complex “a real Frankenstein’s monster,” and said that “society has already suffered irreparable harm from the pressures and distortions” that it created. The monster was too complex and powerful to be tamed with procurement reform, GAO investigations, or watchdog committees. “The only way to change the game,” Kaufman concluded, “is to cut the budget.”

“Starve the beast” is, of course, the same argument that many conservatives today make about the federal government as a whole. A characteristic myopia of contemporary politics means that the people who are very concerned about the size and expense of the military tend not to complain as loudly about the size and expense of government, and vice versa. It is a testament to Eisenhower’s farewell speech that half a century later, it still provides support to both camps.