07 January 2011

The 'Military-Industrial Complex' at Fifty

The new American Conservative marks the fiftieth anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address, which falls on January 17. The address is famous for Eisenhower's coinage of the term "military-industrial complex" and his warning against its potential influence over government and politics. The magazine is again atypical among American conservatives in sharing the former general's concern. It reprints the address in full and follows it with a "symposium" of five essays on the subject. Here are the relevant paragraphs of Eisenhower's speech:

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. 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.

The speech can be found in its entirety here and in several places online. It should be noted that Eisenhower doesn't want to wish the "complex" away. He acknowledges its necessity, but that very necessity makes necessary the vigilance he urges upon Americans. The President's worry was that it would become the master rather than the tool of political leaders. His speechwriters, as Robert Schlesinger notes in one of the accompanying essays, reflected Eisenhower's concern that "what the Communists have always said about us may become true." What the Communists, and others, had said for decades was that wars were instigated by the military-industrial complexes of other countries and empires, by "merchants of death," as a Congressional committee once called armaments manufacturers, who encouraged war in order to profit from it. As one of Eisenhower's staff noted during the address's gestation, "We must be careful to insure that the 'merchants of death do not come to dictate national policy."

In another essay, paleocon libertarian Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. dismisses Eisenhower as a hypocrite who issued his warnings after he'd already let the horse out of the barn, so to speak. Rockwell notes that Eisenhower enabled the rise of the military-industrial complex by his commitment to the Cold War, which he reaffirmed in the farewell address. The President had described international Communism as "a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method....the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration." All of the above may have been true about Leninist Bolshevism, but as far as Rockwell is retrospectively concerned, the danger Eisenhower described was so much bunk; the USSR and a Warsaw Pact were never so serious a threat as most Americans believed during the 1950s. Rockwell believes that the threat was built up by successive Democratic and Republican regimes to justify the military-industrial complex as a "peacetime socialism" program designed to enrich certain big businesses. His reading of Eisenhower's address lacks nuance; he seems incapable of imagining that Ike may have felt ambivalent about what he had called into being. Bill Kauffman elaborates on this point by discussing Eisenhower's personal influences, from his mother's Mennonite pacifism to a nationwide concern over the emergence of a "power elite" after World War II. Kauffman quotes from Eisenhower's memoir to reiterate his "uneasiness about the effect on the nation of tremendous peacetime military expenditures," -- an unease, Kauffman adds gratuitously, largely unshared by modern Republicans.

In the most provocative essay, political scientist Michael C. Desch argues that Eisenhower's worries were misplaced. American interventionism after World War II was driven, he claims, not by a self-interested military-industrial complex, but by American liberalism. Desch doesn't refer to whatever a Democratic caucus might call liberalism, or to belief in a welfare state, but to a bipartisan commitment to the advancement of "liberty" around the world articulated most strongly by Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, which followed Ike's farewell by three days. According to Desch, here's the problem:

The problem with American liberalism...is that it has a tendency toward excess in opposite directions: on the one hand, liberalism underestimates the difficulty of transforming the world in its own image because liberalism assumes that it is the natural culmination and aspiration of humanity -- that it is, as Francis Fukuyama would later put it, 'the end of history.' On the other hand, liberalism contains a deep fear of the non-liberal -- whether a
Commnunist/nationalist rebellion in Southeast Asia in the 1960s or an Islamicist rival today -- and fosters the sense that America could never survive in the face of such opposition.

Desch argues that a "military-industrial complex" interpretation of the invasion of Iraq fails even if you broaden the definition of the complex to include the oil companies. "It was, after all, the American oil industry that was most opposed to sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s, and the oil patch was hardly clamoring for war after 9/11," he writes. Instead, the "liberalism" of George W. Bush and his civilian advisers tipped the nation toward war, while the "liberalism" of Barack Obama keeps the country mired in Afghanistan. It's unfortunate that the Conservative didn't adopt a round-table format for this issue, since a debate between Desch and Rockwell would probably prove quite entertaining.

Finally, Patrick J. Deneen reminds readers that Eisenhower's farewell also warned against the potential for menace in a "scientific-technological elite." The President was troubled by scientists' increased dependence upon government contracts and "the power of money," which might make them collaborators with an "elite" that might make public policy its "captive." Here his concern seems to have been that corporate and government influences might smother free inquiry in the sciences. Deneen, however, reads this section of the farewell as a warning against scientific hubris. Deneen's concern seems to be that the rise of a "scientific-technological elite" would lead to "the demise of the university's historic role in providing reflective cautions about the pursuit of forbidden knowledge." Though he avoids many of the usual rhetorical giveaways, Deneen strikes me as the sort who shivers in constant fear of "Brave New World" or the advent of a "culture of death." While Eisenhower himself warned vaguely against losing our "political and spiritual heritage" through "plundering for our own ease the precious resources of tomorrow," Deneen mostly reads his own anxieties between the lines of the President's text, whether they're there or not.

The essays are a mixed bag representing an admirable diversity of opinion typical of The American Conservative itself. Whatever the editors' views on domestic policy or the Tea Parties, the magazine remains committed to building an anti-war, anti-interventionist consensus across partisan and ideological lines. It may be the one place where that concern hasn't diminished in priority since the invasion of Iraq -- or especially since the election of President Obama. The new issue happens to advertise on its back page a new anthology of American anti-war writing with the tag, "How a Coalition of Citizens from the Political Right and Left Can End American Empire" and admiring blurbs from Ron Paul and Ralph Nader. For an ostensibly conservative journal, the Conservative seems downright utopian sometimes -- but don't hold that against it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What exactly is "forbidden" knowledge and who, exactly, is it that forbids such knowledge?