Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex": His farewell address has been completely misunderstood.

The history behind current events.
Jan. 14 2011 6:57 AM

Beware the Military-Industrial Complex

Eisenhower's farewell address has been completely misunderstood.

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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."

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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.

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.