A fiscal conservative, Dwight Eisenhower had been concerned about the growing size and cost of the Pentagon since becoming president in 1953. Following the July 1953 end of the Korean War—and despite the Cold War heating up—Eisenhower significantly decreased his military budget each year, dropping from an initial high of $488 billion to $379 billion when he left office.
Most troubling to the five-star general was what he saw as an encroaching web of contractors and businesses specializing in military equipment and materiel, which he feared had already solidified into “a permanent armaments industry.” As Bret Baier, the author of “Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission,” told the Daily Beast, Ike had begun laying the groundwork for his speech almost a year beforehand, but continued to make changes in the days—and minutes—leading up to January 21, 1961, event. Earlier drafts of the speech—there were nearly two dozen in all—had referred to the new nexus as a “military-industrial-scientific” or “military-industrial-congressional” complex, illustrating how far Eisenhower believed its reach already extended.
Eisenhower’s planned address was also a departure in tone and context from many of his predecessors, who preferred to look backwards in a victory lap-like revisiting of their administration’s greatest hits. Ike, like America’s first general-turned-president, felt compelled to offer his countrymen a not-so-subtle warning he believed they should heed. So, as George Washington had cautioned of the potential dangers to a new nation from both foreign alliances and domestic political factionalism, Eisenhower would now warn against the threats posed by this new military establishment.
He began the primetime address by conceding the importance of maintaining America’s military preparedness, noting how flat-footed the nation had been in the lead up World War II, which had forced an “emergency improvisation” as the war against the Axis Powers loomed. He also admitted that Cold War tensions precluded wholesale cutbacks in defense spending.
Then, shifting to the crux of his argument, Eisenhower stated that this immense military establishment was a new phenomenon for the United States, and that its “total influence–economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of federal government.” Going so far as say that this new establishment was a “potential enemy of the national interest,” he warned that it could very well weaken or destroy the very liberties, institutions and principles it was designed to protect, as the role of diplomacy and military restraint was replaced by a public policy deeply beholden to military and business interests.
The response to Eisenhower’s speech, one of the most famous presidential addresses in history, was divided. While many listeners agreed with the president’s warning that a militaristic mindset had taken hold in both government and business, other were shocked that someone as steeped in military history as Ike was would turn so decisively against these traditions. For Eisenhower, though, it was precisely this background that made him the only man in America who could believably deliver the warning. Who better a messenger than the man who led the country to victory in Europe in World War II and presided over both the end of the Korean War and some of the Cold War’s hottest moments?
In the decades following the speech, as the United States found itself mired in the Vietnam War and U.S. military spending began its seemingly inexorable rise, an old general’s warning on the potential threats of military might still retains its powerful resonance.