Eisenhower and the Pentagon
What would the general-turned-president make of US military spending?
A while back, I wrote something that touched on the long — but largely forgotten — American tradition of maintaining a relatively tiny military during peacetime and rapidly scaling up in the event of war. It’s a tradition that ended when the Second World War was followed not by peace and the expected diminution of the military — FDR intended the Pentagon, built in 1941, to be converted into the federal government’s archive — but by the Cold War. The constant threat of major war at a moment’s notice meant the American military had to remain in a constant state of readiness. And so it did. And has, ever since.
I want to elaborate on that here because it’s such a basic fact of the post-war world and the International order it created that it goes unnoticed and undiscussed. As a rule of thumb, when big, obvious things go unnoticed and undiscussed, mistakes are made. As George Orwell wrote, “to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.”
The best place to see what is in front of one’s nose in this case is Dwight Eisenhower’s final speech as president, delivered on January 17, 1961.
We face a hostile ideology — global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle — with liberty at stake.
… A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
This is all standard Cold War rhetoric. But notice that the last two lines could have been spoken by any modern American president — including those in power after the end of the Cold War. In mainstream, contemporary politics, the idea that America’s military must always be capable of smashing anyone, anywhere, any time, isn’t discussed. It’s a given — like saying policy should encourage economic growth job creation.
But for Eisenhower, it was the furthest thing from a given. Eisenhower entered West Point in 1911, when America’s military was tiny. He was a young officer when it grew to massive size to fight and win the First World War, and he was one of the career soldiers who remained in the military when it was drastically cut in the 1920s. He witnessed — and helped lead — its expansion in 1940 and 1941, when war loomed, and the massive surge that followed America’s entry into the war in December, 1941.
For Eisenhower, possessing a giant standing army in peacetime was a choice. And, in most circumstances, a bad choice.
Eisenhower may have been a lifelong military man, but he was no militarist. As president, he sought to cut military budgets. Even in the teeth of the Cold War, Eisenhower always saw spending on the military as a necessary evil.
Ike wasn’t a good orator. He said little that was memorable during his presidency. But in 1953, speaking to an audience of newspaper editors, Eisenhower delivered this line for the ages:
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.
So how did Eisenhower square that view with his insistence that the American military must be “mighty” and “ready for instant action”? By seeing the latter need as a temporary aberration, a consequence of the current “cold” conflict with the Soviet Union that would, someday, end. Then the military could be cut drastically and America could get back to normal.
For Eisenhower, the ultimate goal which all policies must aim for was a peaceful international order. And disarmament.
As he said in his farewell address:
Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose difference, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war — as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years — I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.
Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But, so much remains to be done. As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance along that road.
But between the present and that ultimate goal, Eisenhower warned, there was a new danger.
The unprecedented requirement of maintaining a large military in peacetime had created powerful new scientific, technological, military, and economic interests.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
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.
Along with Eisenhower’s line about weapons being theft, the phrase “military-industrial complex” was Ike’s lasting contribution to American political discourse. But I’m not sure what effect it had, beyond providing a handy label for the collection of powerful people and organizations with an interest in keeping military spending high. Eisenhower identified something new, and contrasted it with what he considered normal and healthy. But what Eisenhower considered normal and healthy — a small peacetime military with a modest budget — was forgotten long ago.
As you may recall, the Cold War ended. But the temporary aberration of a giant peacetime military did not end with it. The Pentagon was not converted to an archive.
This is American military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product, which is the way the data are usually presented by those interested in maintaining the status quo, or increasing military spending:
That’s a long, reassuring decline. And we’re near the bottom of the slope now. So what’s the problem?
This chart is misleading. While spending as a function of GDP is an important metric — it says a great deal about capacity to pay — it mostly reflects growth in the American economy, not military spending. And more basically, guns fire bullets, not bullets-per-unit-of-GDP. In measuring military preparedness, dollars spent is what most counts.
Here is American military spending using constant (inflation-adjusted) dollars.
Imagine you knew nothing about American history. You read Eisenhower’s speech. I tell you that the Cold War ended peacefully. Then I ask you to show me on this chart when the Cold War ended. Could you?
There are three substantial declines. The biggest of them, as a percentage drop, is the one at the end of the 1960s. So you would probably guess that’s when the Cold War ended — and then wonder what dire emergencies compelled America to vastly increase military spending in the 1980s and 2000s. You might also wonder why spending never even came close to returning to the level where it was immediately following the Second World War and prior to the escalation caused by the Korean War and Cold War.
Now try this thought experiment: The ghost of Dwight Eisenhower floats down from a cloud, golf club in hand. “How are things going?” Ike asks.
Good news, you say. The Cold War ended when the Soviet Union crumbled three decades ago. America is at peace today.
Then you tell Ike that the Pentagon’s budget is almost double what it was when he left office.
Question: Would Eisenhower’s reaction be confusion, astonishment, anger or some mix of all three?
To be sure, there was indeed a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War. It’s the 28% decline in military spending in the 1990s. But even at its lowest point, military spending in that post-Cold War era was higher than it was in the Eisenhower era, when the American military stood ready to fight World War Three at the drop of a hat. And of course, even that modest “peace dividend” was erased by the subsequent massive increase in military spending prompted by … a handful of terrorists. Armed with box cutters.
Al Qaeda was hardly the Red Army but key people in the White House decided it made perfect sense to treat it as if it was. And then invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. And massively increase military spending across the board. In one of history’s bleaker ironies, one of those individuals — Vice President Dick Cheney — had been the Secretary of Defense who had started the cuts in the 1990s.
Today, the interminable brush fires in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally over. And yet — even before Russia invaded Ukraine — the United States is now spending far more on the military than the it spent in 1968, when it was neck-deep in the Vietnam War and had to be prepared to fight the Soviets at a moment’s notice.
Is there some other imminent threat that accounts for this? Here’s American military spending compared with Russia and China.
Dwight Eisenhower had a good, clear explanation for his unprecedented levels of peacetime military spending. So what is the good, clear explanation for why the United States is spending so much today?
I have zero expertise in this field and I’m genuinely curious. Is there an answer?
I can imagine factors that must, unavoidably, push up the numbers. Modern military technology is more complex and more expensive. Keeping up with technological advances may require much more funding than it did in the past. Scaling up the military may take more time than in the past, demanding a larger permanent force.
But could funding at least be pushed down to the level it was in 2000? The world hasn’t changed that much since then, has it? Even that relatively modest cut would save more than $200 billion a year. I can think of a few good uses the United States could find for $200 billion a year at a time when education and infrastructure are crumbling, healthcare is patchy, and American life expectancy — even before Covid — is declining for the first time in more than a century.
But this isn’t even really up for discussion. The vast majority of Americans seem perfectly content to keep spending far more money on the military than they did at a time when the military constantly stood on the cusp of World War Three. Maybe they’re right to be. As I said, I am claiming no expertise here.
But I find it bewildering that so few bother to even ask these questions.
Anyone who believes, as Eisenhower did, that military spending is only ever a necessary evil — that it is “theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” — would constantly ask these questions.
But the humane spirit of Dwight D. Eisenhower seems much diminished in modern America.
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