Eisenhower's Paradoxical Relationship with the "Military-Industrial Complex"

Article excerpt

Dwight D. Eisenhower's parting advice to the American people about the dangers of "misplaced power" being exerted by the "military-industrial complex" became an indelible part of the national vocabulary. Eisenhower spoke in response to what he viewed as cynically generated hysteria about a nonexistent "missile gap" set off by Sputnik in October 1957 and the opportunistic leaking of a report primarily written by Paul Nitze for a presidential advisory panel. (1) The exaggerated claims about Soviet superiority in missile technology gave the Democrats what Eisenhower considered "a useful piece of demagoguery" to exploit in the 1958 and 1960 elections. Seeking to reassure an agitated public, the president had repeatedly cautioned against overreaction and argued for the need for tight controls of military expenditure but failed to win the rhetorical battle against his critics. The farewell address constituted his final effort to "warn the nation, again, of the danger in these developments." This analysis situates the speech in conjunction with a hawkish strand of contemporary conservatism while making use of recent additions to the documentation to explore the inspiration for the speech and Eisenhower's paradoxical relationship to its core concept (2) (Divine 1993; D. Eisenhower 1961, 1965; Henry 1994; McDougall 1993; Prebble 2003; Snead 1999; Tulis 1987).

Eisenhower's farewell address has attracted attention from scholars of rhetoric, the role of presidential speechwriters, the rhetorical presidency, and proponents of the warfare state thesis. Charles Griffin credited Malcolm Moos and Ralph Williams, two presidential speechwriters, with the primary authorship of the speech, viewing Eisenhower's role as a carefully calibrated rhetorical performance of what Fred Greenstein labeled his "hidden-hand presidency." Martin J. Medhurst has traced the concept to Eisenhower's concerns and those of Bryce Harlow, one of his more influential aides, that the inexperienced John F. Kennedy could not restrain the advocates of excessive military spending. Medhurst also pointed to the influence of Washington's farewell address upon the speech. Other scholars and commentators have uncritically appropriated the concept of the military-industrial complex without examining its original meaning. The proponents of the warfare state thesis have produced a one-sided interpretation of the more complex and nuanced concept in Eisenhower's original formulation. These interpretations either fail to move outside the White House staff to investigate other sources of inspiration or reduce its core concept to a simple opposition to the complex (Baack and Ray 1985; Cook 1962, 1964; Fallows 2002; Hartung 2001; Greenstein 1994; Griffin 1992; Litfin 1974; Medhurst 1994a, 1994b, 1994c; Melman 1970; Nelson 1971; Parry-Giles 2002; Pursell 1972).

Historians have given relatively scant attention to the speech. Robert A. Strong briefly referred to it in his discussion of the "apparent contradictions" in Eisenhower's policies. H. W. Brands briefly referred to the speech's themes in a perceptive analysis of Eisenhower's allocation of "enormous power over fundamental decisions to an elite of scientists, engineers, and defense bureaucrats" as a result of his "New Look" strategy. Paul Koistinen, Roger W. Lotchin, and Bruce Brunton have traced the complex back to World War I or the late 19th century thus challenging the speech's claim of its Cold War origins. Kerry Irish's examination of Eisenhower's experience in the War Department in the early 1930s provides useful insights into how the future president's views developed but does not carry the discussion forward to their final form. James Ledbetter's recent book-length study extensively documents the evolution of Eisenhower's views on the military-industrial complex but gives little space to the textual and rhetorical evolution of the speech itself (Brands 1989; Brunton 1988; Irish 2006; Koistinen 1967, 1980, 2004; Ledbetter 2011; Lotchin 1979; Strong 1987). …