When I despair at the shallow ranting on TV (I don’t have one, but it is always on at my dad’s), I am reassured by the quality of thinking going on in many of our think tanks here in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. An outstanding example was the all-morning discussion of President Dwight D Eisenhower’s farewell address Thursday at the CATO Institute. Ike’s granddaughter, Susan Eisenhower, introduced the two panels of experts on what Ike called the “military-industrial complex.” A lecture by any one of them would have been worth the drive into town. But here were all ten of them together: Andrew Bacevich, Charles Dunlap Jr., Lawrence Korb, Lawrence Wilkerson, Chris Preble (the organizer), Eugene Gholz, John C. Hulsman, Richard Betts and Ted Galen Carpenter. What a group. You can see the entire program here.
Eisenhower’s farewell address, delivered 50 years ago on January 17, 1961, was profound, prescient, and deeply conservative. It is well worth your time to reread it. Ike’s conservatism was not always well understood or appreciated by American conservatives at the time. But Ike clearly understood and defended the need to limit the size and scope of government and to make careful choices within those limits.
Eisenhower understood that our dominant position in the world reflected our economic and militarily strength. But Eisenhower was painfully aware that the more the military absorbed of our economic capacity, the less of such capacity we would have in the future. A careful balance is essential, which includes a careful balance among our tools of defense and statecraft in order to maximize our security at minimal cost. These tools include diplomacy, trade, foreign investments, and cultural exchange, as well as soldiers and weapons. Eisenhower’s cultural exchange program was probably the most cost-effective and beneficial contributor to our security that has ever existed.
The situation in which Ike delivered his farewell address was one in which the United States for the first time in its history needed to maintain a strong peace-time military. In the past the nation mobilized as needed for its defense and demobilized afterward (as we did after World War I). Ike reluctantly saw the need for maintaining a large military for the long haul of the cold war, and he knew that industries were needed to develop weapons and to supply and support a standing army’s needs. But he also worried about the dangers of having a large standing army. One of those dangers was the development of entire industries dependant on government contracts for their very existence. As he put it, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
Two implications of Ike’s warning deserve particular note. First, the judgment of security experts (be they Navy, Air Force, Army, General Dynamics, or Boeing) cannot help but be influenced by its implications (in the form of a larger budgetary share) for their respective services or firms. They may honestly seek the best interests of the nation but they cannot ignore the impact on their own piece of it. For instance, the Navy’s report on the threat of the Chinese Navy is far more alarmist than the CIA’s report on the same topic. The opening and closing (yes that happens sometimes) of military bases in the U.S. and the granting of contracts to build things in this congressmen’s district or that one’s affect the employment and well-being of individual communities and firms. Only a fool could think that this doesn’t influence government spending decisions and congressional support for them. Eisenhower worried that as the military-industrial complex grew, its influence over the budget would also grow, starting us down a slippery slope.