Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed his concerns about it. Former President Donald Trump slammed it for never wanting to end wars. Libertarians and anti-war conservatives routinely warn about its immense influence in the broader political arena. This is the military-industrial complex. But what is it exactly, and does it pose a threat to the United States and the Republic? More importantly, does it still possess an enormous amount of power in the U.S. government today amid a war-wary public?
The Military-Industrial Complex: A Primer
The term military-industrial complex was first coined by former President Eisenhower in his January 1961 farewell address. It is a vast network of influential individuals, companies, and institutions that rely on war to generate profits, capture power, and advance specific ideologies. They typically lend their support to any proposal that maintains or expands military spending by the federal government, even if it is not in the nation’s best interests.
Despite the phrase being accredited to Eisenhower, many political observers had sounded alarm bells about a so-called iron triangle that includes politicians, bureaucrats, and military-related firms years before. From defense contractors to legislators seeking campaign contributions, this foreboding union dates back even before “I Like Ike” campaign buttons were handed to supporters.
Whatever the case may be, the military-industrial complex has remained a potent political force in both the U.S. and across the globe, especially since the war on terrorism started two decades ago.
The Eisenhower Connection
President Eisenhower was a retired five-star Army general who helped defeat the Axis of Power – Germany, Italy, and Japan – during the Second World War by leading the allies on D-Day. Suffice it to say, he knew something about the military apparatus.
After completing two terms in the White House, and while he was 48 hours away from handing the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to President John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower spoke directly to the American people and his successors. The 34th president pleaded with future leaders to establish a balance between diplomacy and a strong national defense. Although he conceded that the nuclear bomb was a sufficient deterrent to the nuclear holocaust, Eisenhower urged the country to be cognizant of the relationship between “the immense military establishment” and “a large arms industry.”
Eisenhower was worried about the resources perpetual military conflicts would drain from domestic priorities, whether it was funding education or building hospitals. He also highlighted its impact on the democratic process and foreign policy, recommending intellect and decency, not weapons, to settle differences.
Here is the one part of his speech that has garnered the most attention sixty years later:
“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. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Is the Republic Under Threat?
“Well, I’m the one that talks about these wars that are 19 years, and people are just there, and don’t kid yourself, you do have a military-industrial complex. They do like war. … I said I want to bring our troops back home. The place went crazy. You have people here in Washington, they never want to leave.”
The 21st century has been a time of never-ending regime-change wars. It started in Afghanistan, expanded into Iraq, and now the U.S. military is engaged in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Presidents have often discussed bringing troops home and ending these wars, but the plans are always postponed or do not work out as intended, resulting in the continuing battle. Plus, these engagements are costly, adding to the national debt and weighing on the public purse.
Are Forever Wars Forever?
The American people are anti-war. Over the last century, the public has been wary about participating in foreign excursions, from the First World War to the Second World War to potential war with Iran. Even if there is initial support for an armed conflict with boots on the ground, the enthusiasm quickly fades, as seen in Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and Iraq in the 2000s. Somehow the public is always thrust into a war they never wanted to be in, whether through propaganda or lies. The military-industrial complex is a permanent institution, but is its influence in public policymaking as impossible to escape?