January 14, 2011
On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a farewell address that has since become known for its prescient discussion of the encroaching impact of the “military-industrial complex.” Ike was the last commander-in-chief born in the 19th century, but his speech foretold of an era that would continue on into the 21st century.
Eisenhower said in his nationally televised speech, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
To understand the greater context of the era in which this speech was delivered, and to get a better sense of why Eisenhower called for a sense of balance in American life, I spoke with Martin Collins, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.
What did President Eisenhower talk about in his farewell speech?
The focus was on understanding this changed character of American society that occurred in the early Cold War –from the end of World War II to the end of his administration– that saw the expansion of expenditures on defense. The other aspect of the farewell address was to relay his gratitude and respect for having served in the office for eight years and that he was looking forward to returning to life as a citizen.
What inspired him to make this speech?
To take the speech at face value, he was moved to recognize the transformation of the role of the military in American life over the entirety of his career. He entered military service in 1911 and in essence concluded it as commander-in-chief in 1961. What he was pointing to was that vast change in the role of the military in American life over that period, specifically the changes that occurred after World War II. We looked at our confrontation with the Soviet Union and made a political judgment that we would permanently mobilize to be able to respond to that Soviet threat. This came to be called the Cold War. Eisenhower was reflecting on the build-up of the military after the start of the Korean War in 1950 and that really peaked at the time he came into office in early 1953. During that eight years of his tenure was the most dramatic expression of our commitment to supporting the military, relatively to other aspects of American society.
It’s hard to appreciate the scale of military spending during the 1950s. Now, our miltary spending, as large as the absolute number is, is 4 to 5 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). During the 1950s, it changed between 15 to 10 percent of our GDP. It was a significantly larger part of our economic structure. From Eisenhower’s perspective it was way larger than the pre-World War II period when we were talking about one percent of GDP. He was seeing this radical transformation from a very different perspective from where we see it today.
From a sheer financial point of view, during his presidency, military expenditures by the government constituted about 60 to 70 percent, sometimes more, of the entire federal budget. So it’s not like it is today, where it’s significant, but not as much as it was in the 1950s.
He was president during the so-called bomber gap? What was that?
In this post-World-War-II moment there was a tremendous emphasis on the development of new technologies, particularly those that would augment or lead to the creation of new or improved weapons. A central concern was the development of the US nuclear arsenal. There was tremendous emphasis on electronics and on development in aviation in the move from piston to jet engines. There was interest in the development of ballistic and guidance missiles. The idea was that if you were going to compete against the Soviets and deal with the existential threat of nuclear warfare, we needed to be continually pushing these technological boundaries.
In the mid 1950s, there was a concern that we had fallen behind in the development of jet bombers. It was presumed that the Soviets had gotten the jump on us and developed a jet bomber called the Bison that could travel intercontinental distances (and deliver nuclear weapons onto U.S. soil.) At that time, the United States was developing two of these, one was the B-47 and the other was the B-52, which is still in service today in the U.S. Air Force.
In 1957, the Soviets demonstrated their ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, and then a few months later, in October, used that same missile to launch Sputnik. The U.S. had not yet successfully launched an ICBM, or a satellite, the question of the “missile gap” arose. Eisenhower was in possession of reconnaissance footage, provided by specially designed aircraft like the U-2 aircraft, which seemed to indicate that there was no Soviet superiority in missile technology. But because Eisenhower wanted to protect the secrecy of this program, he did not use it against his political critics who were talking about this “missile gap”, and that continued into the presidential campaign of 1960, when Kennedy used that as a talking point to assail the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon.
People now see this speech as a warning of sorts. Is this an accurate reading?
An important aspect of Eisenhower’s thought, which seems striking, given his standing as a preeminent leader in the US military over nearly 50 years, was the idea of “balance.” There should be a balance between a civil society and the role of the military; between the role of government and the role of corporations; between things that government needed to do to execute the Cold War and the liberties of individuals. The concept of balance was fundamental to Eisenhower’s perception of the country and to his idea of governance as a president.
He had built up and stimulated the idea within the American public that this threat was existential. This question of how one balances the kinds of concerns he raises in his farewell address, you can see during the course of his presidency, he could never find that place in which that balance was perfectly achieved.
What was the reaction to the speech at the time?
The reaction was fairly muted. The concern of Cold War expenditures and their affect on American life was something that was much discussed throughout the 50s; Eisenhower’s speech was not the first expression of this. Sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote a book in 1956 called The Power Elite and it looked exactly at the kinds of questions that Eisenhower addressed. Mills’ notion of The Power Elite was to look at this intersection between military leaders, industrialists, politicians and people in universities who had all come together in new ways as a result of the Cold War and to ask whether that was a good thing.
And what happened to this conversation once Kennedy became president?
The debate transformed into, among other initiatives, the commitment to undertake a very large space program. That was not an explicitly military undertaking, but it was a Cold War undertaking that required the marshalling of our national resources on a vast scale. Much like Eisenhower, Kennedy was attempting to respond to the demands of the Cold War and saw the Soviet Union as the critical issue before him as President. These abstract political questions were very much in the air, but clearly secondary.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.