Ike, Mlk And The Military Industrial Complex

Today is the 50th anniversary of US President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he popularized the concept of the “military-industrial complex.” It is also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Eisenhower and King would doubtless disagree on many, many issues. The danger of unaccountable power accumulating within the military bureaucracy and its private adjuncts was one matter about which they agreed.

Yet there’s currently a great deal of revisionism and obfuscation going on around these two historical figures, particularly concerning their views on war and economics.

Last week, the Defense Department’s top lawyer argued that King, who attacked the Vietnam War as an imperial enterprise and urged young American men to become conscientious objectors in a time of active conscription, would support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” [Defense Department general counsel Jeh C. Johnson] said.

Johnson’s remarks have blown up across the internet, so I won’t spend too much time picking apart his conclusions. Briefly, though, here is a snippet of a King speech on Vietnam:

For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam… Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization. …

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Colonialism. “Spiritual death.” Pretty strong words, there. But 40 years later, Johnson would have us believe, the Rev. Dr. King would have come around to the Joint Chiefs’ way of seeing things.

That quote of King’s segues nicely into the debate over today’s other American honoree, Eisenhower, a consummate military man who famously dreaded the Pentagon’s growing influence.

To hear some tell it, though, Eisenhower’s spiel about the military-industrial complex was a kind of public brain fart. At the National Review, Vincent J. Cannato uses quotes from less iconic parts of Eisenhower’s farewell address to argue that the president was “a complex and sometimes contradictory” figure who was “hardly…upset over Cold War militarism.”

The subtext, for NR readers, is, “Don’t worry about those anti-war lefties and the isolationist ‘Old Right’—we can still claim Ike would side with us in favor of permanent wars executed by private interests.”

For their part, Eisenhower’s descendants seem to think the farewell address was something more than an aberration. In another speech he made at the start of his term as President, Eisenhower offers an even more detailed critique of runaway militarism:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Slate history columnist David Greenberg offers a more capable contrarian argument about Eisenhower’s farewell address, although he fails to fully support his contention that it “has been completely misunderstood.”

Greenberg offers a brief recap of the so-called “Merchants of Death thesis,” which emerged after World War I to explain that complex and devastating conflict. The problem with scapegoating arms traders, Greenberg writes, is that the Merchants of Death thesis “allow[s] proponents to retreat into an unearned innocence: a grand theory of global conflict that pinned the blame for wars that go badly on forces outside the public’s control, rather than on the American people and their elected leaders.”

Greenberg’s point about the exculpatory nature of conspiracy theories is well taken. There is little doubt that a majority of the American public supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, at least initially.

Unfortunately, Greenberg goes on to more or less conflate critics of the arms trade and the military-industrial complex with Holocaust deniers, Nazi appeasers and conspiracy-minded cult members. He concludes:

If the farewell address is invoked merely to argue against extravagant military spending or to stand up against limits on civil liberties in the name of war, then count me as a fan. When it’s used—as it all too often is these days—to build the case for a conspiratorial, demonic system that bulldozes the American people into going to war or malevolently prolongs the fighting for reasons of profit, then it should be called out for what it is: the seedbed of some of the nastier rhetoric to infect our politics in recent times.

Is Greenberg suggesting that the profit motive never plays a role in starting or prolonging wars? That is clearly false. Is he implying that discussion of wartime profits should be off the table, because it can be used to supplement “nasty” rhetoric? By that logic, religious differences ought not to be discussed, either, because they can lead to hate speech. Just because some conspiracy loons rail against war profiteers, real or imagined, does not mean that anyone who speaks of war profiteering is a conspiracy loon. Nor does it follow that because certain conspiracy theories are ugly and false, the rampant conflicts of interest throughout the defense industry have no pernicious effects on policy.

I’ll give Greenberg the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he inadvertently overstated his case. Obviously, if it is taboo to discuss the economic processes through which “unwarranted influence” is accumulated, then the public has no way to guard against what Eisenhower called “the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”

As a journalist who seeks to encourage reasoned debate around these issues, I find it personally frustrating that discussions of the arms trade and war profits inevitably attract conspiracy loons of the sort Greenberg decries. Let me be clear: There is no secret “Death Merchant” cabal in Arlington, Virginia or anywhere.

Indeed, the truly dangerous thing about the profit motive, where it overlaps with matters of war, is that no conspiracy is required for a few to gain at the expense of many. Rather, countless individual economic interests organically combine to create a system that favors war over peace, and emphasizes capital-intensive weapons production over less-intensive but more beneficial projects, such as education.

This is a reality far more difficult to accept than some dark fantasy about the Bilderbergers.

The premise of this website is that arms dealers and military contractors ought to be covered at least as thoroughly any other Washington, DC special interest group. Yet over the past several decades, the arms industry has not received the scrutiny it deserves. In part, that’s because few other lobbies can so effectively wrap themselves in the flag.

This chart was made by Christopher Preble at the libertarian CATO institute. It shows how US military spending has grown as a share of the national economy over the past decade, while in other NATO countries, it has declined. In previous posts, I’ve detailed how an increasing percentage of that military spending is directed toward private contractors, while the funding for uniformed soldiers remains stagnant. The owners of these companies, many of whom face little personal risk in America’s current conflicts, are on the receiving end of what amounts to a massive wartime wealth transfer. If that’s not an accumulation of unwarranted influence, what is?