The military-industrial complex is a nation’s military establishment, as well as the industries involved in the production of armaments and other military materials. In his 1961 farewell address, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned the public of the nation’s increasingly powerful military-industrial complex and the threat it posed to American democracy. Today, the United States routinely outspends every other country for military and defense expenditures.
EISENHOWER AND THE MILITARY
Eisenhower’s two terms as U.S. president (1953-61) coincided with an era of military expansion unlike any other in the nation’s history. Rather than draw down its troops, as it had after World War II, the U.S. military kept a large standing army after the Korean War ended in 1953, and maintained a high level of military preparedness due to the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Private companies that after past wars had gone back to civilian production kept manufacturing armaments, producing increasingly sophisticated weapons in an arms race with the Soviets.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his own experience with war, Eisenhower worried about the nation’s military growth, and the escalation of the Cold War, throughout his presidency. He tried to cut budgets for military services during his presidency, upsetting many in the Pentagon.
As one Eisenhower biographer, David Nichols, told the Associated Press in 2010: “The military wanted a lot more than he was willing to give them. It frustrated the Army. He thought about it all the time.”
EISENHOWER’S FAREWELL ADDRESS
Eisenhower didn’t coin the phrase “military-industrial complex,” but he did make it famous. On January 17, 1961, three days before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as his successor, Eisenhower delivered a farewell address in a TV broadcast from the Oval Office.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” the 34th president warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
According to Eisenhower, the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” and he feared it would lead to policies that would not benefit Americans as a whole—like the escalation of the nuclear arms race—at great cost to the nation’s well-being.
In addition to the Department of Defense and private military contractors, Eisenhower and his advisers also implicitly included members of Congress from districts that depended on military industries in the military-industrial complex.
Though dangerous, Eisenhower considered the military-industrial complex necessary to deter Soviet Union from aggression against the United States and its allies. But he urged his successors in government to balance defense and diplomacy in their relations with the Soviet Union, saying: “We must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
Some have claimed that Eisenhower intended to say “military-industrial-congressional complex,” in order to explicitly call out Congress for its role in the growth of the military industry, but that he struck out the final term at the last minute to avoid offending lawmakers.
But according to James Ledbetter, author of Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex, evidence points away from this theory: A draft of the speech dated almost a month before it was delivered included the phrase “military-industrial complex” intact.
Still, it was clear Eisenhower and his advisers did see at least some members of Congress playing a role in the dangers the military-industrial complex posed to the public.
Eisenhower and his fellow conservatives also viewed the growth of the military-industrial complex as part of a broader expansion of federal power that began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.
MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX TODAY
Since Eisenhower delivered it in 1961, his farewell speech has come to be a touchstone for those with concerns about unchecked military expansion, and the continuing close ties between private military contractors, members of the military establishment and the federal government.
The United States regularly spends far more on its military than any other country, though its defense spending is usually a relatively small percentage of the nation’s total gross domestic product (GDP), compared with some other countries.
According to a 2014 report by the Council of Foreign Relations, in the years after World War II, national defense spending as a percentage of GDP ranged from a high of 15 percent in 1952 (during the Korean War) to a low of 3.7 percent in 2000. Military spending rose sharply again the following year, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to the U.S. government declaring a global war on terrorism.
Military expenditures, which are included in the discretionary spending category in the federal budget, include a base budget for the U.S. Department of Defense as well as additional spending on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) and the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
In fiscal year 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. government spent some $604 billion on national defense, which made up 15 percent of its total spending of about $3.95 trillion.
By contrast, a two-year budget deal passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in February 2018 approved some $716 billion for defense spending in fiscal year 2019, compared with $605 in non-defense domestic spending.
Christopher Ball, “What is the Military-Industrial Complex?” History News Network (August 2, 2002).
James Ledbetter, “50 Years of the Military-Industrial Complex,” New York Times (January 25, 2011).
“Papers shed light on Eisenhower’s farewell address,” USA Today/Associated Press (December 12, 2010).
Drew DeSilver, “What does the federal government spend your tax dollars on?” Pew Research Center (April 4, 2017).
Dinah Walker, “Trends in U.S. Military Spending,” Council on Foreign Relations (July 15, 2014).
“Trump Signs 2-Year Spending Pact,” NPR (February 9, 2018).