Ike Reconsidered: How Conservatives Ignored, and Liberals Misconstrued, Eisenhower's Warnings about Military Spending

By Preble, Christopher | The Washington Monthly, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Ike Reconsidered: How Conservatives Ignored, and Liberals Misconstrued, Eisenhower's Warnings about Military Spending


Preble, Christopher, The Washington Monthly


Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military Industrial Complex

by James Ledbetter

Yale University Press, 280 pp.

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During the first 150 years of its existence, the United States maintained a small standing army, mobilized additional personnel to fight the few wars declared by Congress, and then sent most of the men home when the war was won. Americans had little need for a large military, as the framers of the Constitution had hoped.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the United States created a massive military geared toward intervention overseas. Critics charged that the permanent national security state went hand in hand with the rise of the imperial presidency and the steady erosion of the power of Congress and the courts. Others warned of the loss of individual liberties under a "garrison state."

No president worried more about this fundamental change in the nation's character than Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower governed from the perspective that a nation's security was directly tied to the health of its economy. He believed that if military spending rose too high it would ultimately undermine U.S. security, which he saw as a product of both military and economic strength. Eisenhower also worried that a permanent armaments industry was fundamentally altering the relationship between citizens and their government.

He spoke of this many times, both in private correspondence and in his public speeches. But in May of 1959, writes dames Ledbetter in his book Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military Industrial Complex, speechwriters Malcolm Moos and Navy Captain Ralph E. Williams met with the president's brother, Milton, to begin planning for an Eisenhower valedictory speech. In Moos's words, Eisenhower "was striving to reach tomorrow's conscience, not today's headlines."

They succeeded. One line in particular has captured a place in the public's consciousness. The departing president warned his countrymen to be on guard against a "military-industrial complex" acquiring "unwarranted influence" in the halls of power. People typically refer to the farewell address as the "military-industrial complex speech." Fifty years later, it is counted as one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century.

It is ironic, notes Ledbetter, that Eisenhower would be remembered for any speech, let alone one concerning the military and society. The general-president was known more for his syntactical challenges and malapropisms than for his stirring oratory.

Ledbetter, editor in charge at Reuters.com, provides a readable and well-informed argument for why the speech delivered on the evening of January 17,1961, was different. The book explores the speech's history, and also looks forward, explaining why Eisenhower's warning about an unhealthy conjunction between the federal government, business, and the military still resonates.

"The very utility of the phrase" military-industrial complex (MIC), admits Ledbetter, "comes at the cost of a precise, universally accepted definition." He applies a straightforward one--"a network of public and private forces that combine a profit motive with the planning and implementation of strategic policy"--but he explains that "the idea of the MIC became for many a kind of standing populist receptacle for dissatisfaction." The "elastic interpretation of the MIC," Ledbetter writes, has yielded "some fairly exotic results."

It is understandable, he continues, "why critics of the MIC have wanted to invoke Eisenhower's authority, or why his presumed prophetic wisdom appears that much more admirable every time a critic finds another pernicious aspect of the MIC." It is also unfortunate. Eisenhower was no liberal--far from it. And yet the embrace of the MIC by progressives and the antiwar left has overshadowed the elements of Eisenhower's speech that should appeal to conservatives.

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