President Dwight Eisenhower could have chosen any number of pressing topics to talk about to the American people in his farewell address from the Oval Office. There was the ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union, of course, as well as the beginnings of the manned U.S. space flight program and the construction of a massive interstate highway system that would radically change our daily life and habits.
But Eisenhower took a broader view in his January 1961 address, just before he handed the reins of power over to John Kennedy. In the televised speech, Ike delivered an ominous and unexpected warning about what he called “the military-industrial complex.”
Before Eisenhower’s mention, most of the public had never heard the term, which was confined to policy wonks and government briefings.
The phrase refers to the relationship between the nation’s Armed Forces and the various industries that manufacture weapons and equipment for it, and the aggregated power they wield in society. (Part of that complex is here in Greater Cincinnati: GE Aviation, which produces military jet engines in Evendale.)
Referring to World War II, Eisenhower said, “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 statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications …
“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.”
Whoa. No doubt, TV viewers were surprised.
Remember, this was at a time when the United States faced a growing threat from the Soviet Union and its satellites, and nuclear war was a very real possibility.
There were civil defense drills in elementary schools and many families had underground fallout shelters in their backyards, for all the good it would do them.
Ike was no peacenik, dove or whatever other disparaging term was in vogue at the time to describe anyone who opposed unfettered military spending and an adventurous foreign policy. The former general was a military man through and through, having trained all of his life for a career in the U.S. Army and weened on its culture and traditions.
Yet here was the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe telling the public to be wary of excessive military spending. It does make sense: Who would know better than a top commander about how the military truly works?
Flash-forward nearly a half-century later, though, and it’s obvious we didn’t heed the warning.
If you listen to the federal government’s shady accounting tricks, defense spending only amounts to 20 percent of the budget, just behind the the cost of Social Security, Medicaid and other mandatory entitlement spending. But that doesn’t include the national debt, most of which was incurred for military reasons, and related costs.
A more honest accounting shows defense spending accounts for the vast majority of the federal budget. Roughly 36 percent ($965 billion) is allocated for current military operations. This includes not only the Defense Department’s budget but also the military portion from other departments’ budgets.
Additionally, another 18 percent ($484 billion) is allocated for past military spending, which includes veterans’ benefits and the interest on the national debt created by military operations.
Combined, that’s 54 percent of federal expenditures.
In fact, U.S. military spending — including the Defense Department plus spending on nuclear weapons — is equal to the military spending of the next 15 nations combined, according to the War Resisters League.
Does this gargantuan amount of spending make us safer? No. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, all it took was a relatively inexpensive and simple plan by 19 hijackers to inflict terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Imagine, for a moment, if just 1/10th of our defense spending — or $96 billion — were redirected for education, housing or infrastructure in our own nation. Much more than that could be safely redistributed, but let’s start small.
Actual Defense Department spending did drop by 36 percent between 1985 and 1998 in the post-Cold War era. But it’s climbed by about 3 percent each year since 2001, statistics show.
There are hundreds of companies that are civilian defense contractors, employing millions of people. On top of that, there are 1.47 million people on active duty in the military and another 1.45 million in the reserves.
These days, any sizable cut in military spending is not opposed based on need but rather its economic impact. We’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent on war and preparing for war to keep our economy afloat.
Stephen M. Walt, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, states that significant defense cuts wouldn’t affect safety or U.S. influence in the world.
“Would similar cuts today produce a dangerous shift in the structure of world politics and invite all sorts of nasty regional instability? I don’t think so,” Walt wrote. “If the U.S. cut defense by 20-30 percent (an enormous reduction), it would still be devoting roughly $400 billion per year to keeping Americans safe.
“Our national security spending would still be six times larger than China’s, 10 times larger than Russia’s and a whopping 40 times larger than Iran’s. And because many militarily consequential powers are U.S. allies, its actual position is even better than those crude comparisons suggest.”
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) agrees.
“The math is compelling: If we do not make reductions approximating 25 percent of the military budget starting fairly soon, it will be impossible to continue to fund an adequate level of domestic activity even with a repeal of Bush’s tax cuts for the very wealthy,” Frank said last year.
In the old “guns versus butter” debate, guns have won, and we need to sell off a few.
Let’s face it: Most politicians don’t have the guts to make changes. Where is Eisenhower’s “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” when you need it?
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