What Ike Got Right
December 15, 2010, 5:00am

By JAMES LEDBETTER – The New York Times

LAST week the National Archives released a trove of drafts and notes that shed new light on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned America about the “military-industrial complex.”

The release comes just in time for the speech’s 50th anniversary next month. And so while scholars and historians use these documents to scrutinize the evolution of the speech’s famous phrase, it’s worth asking a broader question: does America still have a military-industrial complex, and should we be as worried about it as Eisenhower was?

By one measure, the answer to the first question is yes. Over the past 50 years there have been very few years in which the United States has spent less on the military than it did the year before.

This has remained true whether the country is actively fighting a war, whether it has an obvious and well-armed enemy or whether Democrats or Republicans run the White House and Congress. Despite regular expectations that the United States will enjoy a peace dividend, we continue to spend more on the military than the countries with the next 15 largest military budgets combined.

Such perpetual growth seems to confirm Eisenhower’s concern about the size and influence of the military. It used to be, he said, that armies should grow and shrink as needed; in the Biblical metaphor of the speech, he observed that “American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.”

But World War II and the early cold war changed that dynamic, creating what Eisenhower called “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” It is not a stretch to believe that this armaments industry — which profits not only from domestic sales but also from tens of billions of dollars in annual exports — manipulates public policy to perpetuate itself.

But Eisenhower was concerned about more than just the military’s size; he also worried about its relationship to the American economy and society, and that the economy risked becoming a subsidiary of the military. His alarm was understandable: at the time the military represented over half of all government spending and more than 10 percent of America’s gross domestic product.

Today those figures are not quite as troubling. While military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been going up as a result of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall trend since 1961 is substantially down, thanks to the tremendous growth in America’s nonmilitary economy and the shift in government spending to nonmilitary expenditures.

Yet spending numbers do not tell the whole story. Eisenhower warned that the influence of the military-industrial complex was “economic, political, even spiritual” and that it was “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” He exhorted Americans to break away from our reliance on military might as a guarantor of liberty and “use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

On this score, Eisenhower may well have seen today’s America as losing the battle against the darker aspects of the military-industrial complex. He was no pacifist, but he was a lifelong opponent of what he called a “garrison state,” in which policy and rights are defined by the shadowy needs of an all-powerful military elite.

The United States isn’t quite a garrison state today. But Eisenhower would likely have been deeply troubled, in the past decade, by the torture at Abu Ghraib, the use of martial authority to wiretap Americans without warrants and the multiyear detention of suspects at Guantánamo Bay without due process.

Finally, even if the economy can bear the immediate costs of the military, Eisenhower would be shocked at its mounting long-term costs. Most of the Iraq war expenses were paid for by borrowing, and Americans will shoulder those costs, plus interest, for many years to come.

A strong believer in a balanced budget, Eisenhower in his farewell address also told Americans to “avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow.” Too many of today’s so-called fiscal conservatives conveniently overlook the budgetary consequences of military spending.

Eisenhower’s worst fears have not yet come to pass. But his warning against the “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” is as urgent today as ever.

James Ledbetter is the author of the forthcoming “Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex.”