Fifty years ago, Dwight Eisenhower delivered what has become, with the possible exception of George Washington’s departing speech, the best-known presidential farewell address in U.S. history. In his valedictory, Ike famously warned against “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” That final phrase entered the political lexicon almost immediately, signifying the notion that a permanent ruling class, encompassing the Pentagon and its corporate suppliers, was on the verge of controlling the American government, even in peacetime.
To caution against the defense industry’s outsize power made good sense, of course, and overblown Pentagon budgets that divert funds from other needs remain an onus and a scourge. The persistence of a powerful peacetime war apparatus has helped to foster a misplaced deference to military authority throughout our culture.
But as a recent wave of anniversary pieces has reaffirmed, Eisenhower’s speech itself has come to be romanticized all out of proportion to its merit, and the reasonableness of straightforward critiques of Pentagon spending cannot account for the mad embrace of Eisenhower in recent decades by anti-war leftists and so-called realists. (Both groups once brimmed with contempt for this steely Cold Warrior.) In our time, fulminations against the military-industrial complex have become a lazy, hackneyed, histrionic reflex, while Ike has implausibly morphed from martial hero and hard-line anti-Communist into a prophet of peace, a cousin of Norman Cousins. Worst of all, the faddish zeal for the speech has fed the spurious notion that wars occur not because we choose them but because shadowy, faceless forces have railroaded us into them.
In his excellent new book Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex,James Ledbetter (who is a former Slate staffer) labels this last idea “the Merchants of Death thesis.” (Though Ledbetter admires the farewell address more than I do, his book, which I blurbed, is a balanced, rigorous, and fascinating intellectual history of the speech.) The thesis was born of an overreaction to World War I. Although the United States and its allies of course won that war, it wrought terrible carnage, and the peace negotiations tragically failed to bring the stability and democracy that President Woodrow Wilson had envisioned. Americans, disillusioned, looked for comforting solutions to explain how they could have so eagerly backed the war.
One escape hatch from responsibility was the idea that arms makers pushed America into it. Because the Allies had lacked Germany’s manufacturing prowess, they needed American firms to supply them with weapons. So arms merchants were blamed for having encouraged or even engineered the hostilities. By the mid-1930s, as tensions built anew in Europe, isolationist sentiment in the United States surged, along with new fears of the armaments industry. Polemicists wrote alarmist books, including one titled Merchants of Death, with a foreword from Harry Elmer Barnes, a respected historian whose isolationism later overflowed into a Holocaust denial. In 1934, North Dakota Sen. Gerald P. Nye led an investigation into the World War I munitions makers. His ally, Sen. Bennett Champ Clark, the son of 1912 presidential aspirant Champ Clark, finally exacted revenge on his father’s old rival, claiming that Wilson had deviously schemed to bring America into war.
The “merchants of death” idea was not only ugly in spirit (even arms makers don’t deserve to be slandered) but also factually wrong. Although the causes of any war are complex, and the Kaiser’s Germany did regard America’s aid to the Allies as provocative, the traffic in arms was far from decisive in pushing the United States into the conflict. Most troubling, the idea that sinister forces took America to war against the public’s interests or wishes became a trope ripe for abuse. It was enlisted to buttress the case for the appeasement of Hitler, and even during more recent, ill-advised wars—notably Vietnam and Iraq—critics poisoned the discourse and dashed their credibility by using merchants-of-death language to evade the painful truths that the public had supported those conflicts, too. The thesis allowed its proponents to retreat into an unearned innocence: a grand theory of global conflict that pinned the blame for wars that go badly on forces outside the public’s control, rather than on the American people and their elected leaders.
If the cult around Ike’s farewell address has transformed the military-industrial complex from an outsize special interest into an octopus-like evil, it has also misleadingly recast Eisenhower—a lifelong internationalist and military man—as a veritable peacenik. This misreading of Eisenhower and his foreign policy reached its apogee in the fear-mongering anti-Iraq-war documentary of 2005, Why We Fight, which invoked Ike as though he were Cindy Sheehan. One commentator in the film stated, “I would think Eisenhower must be rolling over in his grave.”
Really? Would Eisenhower have opposed the Iraq war? It’s impossible to guess how any figure from the past would feel about today’s issues. But we do know that Ike, a staunch believer in the domino theory, supported the Vietnam War under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In 1964, Eisenhower said that to quit the war would mean “a tremendous loss of prestige—the loss of the whole subcontinent of Southeast Asia”; the next year he declared, “In Vietnam, the way the president is conducting operations is very good indeed for the United States.” These defenses of LBJ’s intervention came at the moment his ideas about the military-industrial complex were starting to gather their cultlike following.
Eisenhower’s fears about standing military power never outweighed his conviction that it was necessary. As Ledbetter writes, Ike was, “by any definition, a leading figure in that complex.” He loved the army and devoted his life to it. Within the Republican Party, his great accomplishment was to drag the rank and file into the age of internationalism with his triumph over Robert Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination, which isolated the isolationists in the GOP.
In the geopolitics of the 1950s, moreover, Eisenhower was a Cold Warrior nonpareil. His Secretary of State John Foster Dulles belittled containment and talked with George W. Bush-like braggadocio of what he called “liberation” or “roll back”—an active program to free countries under Soviet domination. Dulles never quite pulled that off, but he did create a new American foreign-policy doctrine of “massive retaliation,” the readiness to use nuclear weapons against conventional attacks. During Eisenhower’s years in the White House, the nation’s nuclear arsenal swelled from roughly 1,000 warheads to 23,000.
Nuclear diplomacy was part of Eisenhower’s “New Look” foreign policy. So, too, was the brave new world of CIA-led coups and assassinations. It was Eisenhower whose CIA deposed the leaders of Iran, Guatemala, and possibly the Belgian Congo. The Eisenhower administration also planned the Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, which John F. Kennedy was left to carry out. These ruthless operations of Ike’s may not have required a multibillion-dollar industry, but they hardly exemplified the anti-interventionist politics that today’s farewell-address enthusiasts tend to share.
What united all these parts of Eisenhower’s foreign policy was not any pacifistic streak but a cramped, green-eyeshade parsimony—a desire to wage the Cold War on the cheap. Reared with old-fashioned values about thrift, Eisenhower tried to cut the Defense Department budget not because he wanted to scale back America’s military profile or role in the world but because he wanted to save money.
As Ledbetter’s book shows, Eisenhower had estimable motives too. He feared America might become a “garrison state,” as the lingo of the day had it, limiting civil freedoms in the name of one military crisis after another. He resented the skill with which Defense Department brass finagled congressional leaders. Even his obsession with balancing the books, though a product of a pre-Keynesian worldview, had the virtue of keeping him alert to Pentagon bloat. And his warnings about military overreach were couched, it’s usually forgotten, in passages insisting on the need for a military of unprecedented size, which Eisenhower called “a vital element in keeping the peace.”
Despite these modest origins, the speech and its key snippets were quickly quoted out of context and enlisted in all manner of anti-war screeds. They provided an authoritative-seeming foundation for baseless conspiracy theories. There were plenty of good reasons to oppose the Vietnam War, but when anti-war extremists, invoking Ike, claimed that weapons-makers such as Dow and Honeywell were prolonging the fighting to line their pockets, they mainly served to discredit their fellow dissenters. Similarly, the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq was best opposed on its merits; the shrill claims that Dick Cheney’s previous service at Halliburton was somehow to blame only undermined the war’s critics.
In 1985, Ralph Williams, one of Eisenhower’s speechwriters, said he was “astonished” at how much attention the military-industrial-complex sound bite had received. Its “true significance,” Williams maintained, “has been distorted beyond recognition.” Ike’s limited expression of concern about defense-industry growth became, Williams argued, “red meat for the media, who have gleefully gnawed on it for twenty-five years.” We can now double that figure to 50.
Eisenhower’s speech deserves to be studied, but in its complete context. If the farewell address is invoked merely to argue against extravagant military spending or to stand up against limits on civil liberties in the name of war, then count me as a fan. When it’s used—as it all too often is these days—to build the case for a conspiratorial, demonic system that bulldozes the American people into going to war or malevolently prolongs the fighting for reasons of profit, then it should be called out for what it is: the seedbed of some of the nastier rhetoric to infect our politics in recent times.