Ike’s Farewell address fifty years on

Warren Coats Contributor
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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.

Second, the influence of the military-industrial complex affects our decisions to got to war. In recent decades, the balance of power between the State Department (including public diplomacy and foreign aid) and the Department of Defense has shifted dramatically in favor of the DOD. The amount of money that the DOD loses track of each year is greater than the State Department’s entire budget. U.S. military officers get more attention abroad than U.S. diplomats. Moreover, the financing of the wars this horrible imbalance helps draw us into is increasingly outside the regular budget (supplemental appropriates) and paid for by borrowing rather than taxing. This fact, plus the all-volunteer military, which I worked hard to help bring about forty years ago and which was meant to be a peace-time military, also means that the public is rather disengaged from and less concerned about decisions to send our sons and daughters to far-off places to fight. In short, decisions to go to war are made in the face of the failure of seriously underfunded diplomatic efforts and without the public confronting and paying the full costs involved. It’s a small wonder that we are almost always at war.

The mindless chant of a few neoconservatives that the defense budget must be off limits is being rejected by more thoughtful conservatives, Tea Partiers, and liberals.

Our budgetary bias toward the military-industrial complex and the overuse of military force has not strengthened our security. Ike liked quoting the number of school houses or bridges that would need to be sacrificed to build an additional fighter plane or battleship when evaluating the best allocation of the government’s and the country’s scarce resources. To remain strong, our resources must be put to their best use. If the public and their representatives confront the full costs of war, and if more resources support the use of our diplomatic tools, there will be fewer wars, our economy will grow stronger, and we will be more secure.

Eisenhower counseled that, “Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” To resist the dangers to liberty of a large and permanent military-industrial complex when our situation in the world requires it, Ike advised that “It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.” As always, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003, where he led technical assistance missions to central banks in more than twenty countries. His most recent book, “One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” was published in November 2007. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago and lives in Bethesda, Md.