The US military-industrial complex fifty years later

On January 17, 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned Americans that an emerging “military-industrial complex” would wield unhealthy and unwarranted influence – “economic, political, and even spiritual”—0ver their political life if it was left unchecked. 

The warning came in Eisenhower’s extraordinary farewell address to the nation, days before John F. Kennedy entered the White House. He described the unprecedented “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”[i]

A half century later it is clear that Eisenhower’s warning was both prescient and ignored. For what was unprecedented then remains unmatched today in the resources it consumes and the policy options it forecloses.

A globalized military-industrial complex now boasts more than 20 million men and women in uniform (another 54 million reservists are available), and with the arms and equipment they use, military forces cost some $1.5 trillion annually – spending that, adjusted for inflation, is now well over the highest levels of the Cold War era.[ii] Military industries, though concentrated in a few countries, are literally spread around the planet and sustained by, and in many cases dependent on, capital budgets of at least $400 billion annually.[iii]

But, as Eisenhower predicted, it is in the United States where this complex is most entrenched. US military spending, including the costs of current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is expected to reach at least $712 billion in 2011 – in real term a post-World War II high. If nuclear and other defence-related programs in other departments of government are added, including $122 billion for veterans, US military-related spending will reach $861 billion this year.[iv]

The Pentagon supports a network of suppliers and contractors to the tune of about $300 billion per year, and the industry relies on another $25 to $50 billion annually in export sales to other countries.

One arrangement that helps to assure a continued convergence of military and industrial interests and world view is the high incidence of retiring senior military officials signing on as senior executives of corporations doing mega-business with the Pentagon. Many, while working with Pentagon suppliers, also serve as paid consultants to the Pentagon. A recent major investigation by The Boston Globe elaborates at length on this “revolving-door culture,” pointing out that “from 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or executives.”[v]

The influence of that melding of military and industrial interests comes most clearly into public focus when, as is currently the case, there are prominent calls for spending to be brought under control and reduced. Eisenhower was not a conspiracy theorist, but he understood that when the gargantuan US military establishment became allied through shared interests to industrial elites, and was then supported by an intellectual army of strategic analysts and a national messianic spirit that understood America as destined to lead, it would have a profound impact on shaping American values and ambitions, and on models for global interaction.

So even though the US can already claim as much military capacity, measured in resources and technology, as all of the rest of the world combined, and even though its top military “rival,” China, spends only a fifth of what the US does on military preparedness, calls for military spending restraints in the US are predictably met with dire warnings of American vulnerability and the loss of American leadership in the world.

Newsweek headed its look at US Defense budget prospects with the heading, “The Risky Rush to Cut Defense Spending” – adding a tagline that “no one has figured out how to make cuts without jeopardizing security.”[vi] Polls show majority American support for defense spending cuts, but any “rush” to act on that has yet to materialize. Even after the recent announcements of cuts by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, spending on the core defence budget will continue to expand, if modestly, over the next few years[vii]  — indeed some analysts assume that Gates is using heavily publicized pre-emptive cuts (to the rate of growth) to forestall actual and significant cuts which he said would be “potentially calamitous.”  

Much of mainstream commentary in the US continues to lament “pressures across the board to reduce our level of expenditure at precisely a time when our challenges, at the very least, are getting more complicated.” They invoke everything from the dangers of North Korea, to the continuing gap in missile defence, to the political threats from Wikileaks to dramatize US vulnerability. Spending cuts are themselves understood as “attacks” – the Financial Times, speculating on the impact on defence industry stock prices of any cuts (by which they really mean slowed increases), referred to the need for debate on “the why, where, what and (against) whom” of defence spending cuts.[viii]

And when the tabloid press get involved the silliness is boundless. A new York Post column, referring to the Gates restraint package, put it this way: “Call it President Obama’s ‘conditional-surrender Pentagon budget’ – and bad news for the US economy.” And the Post ran it all under the headline, “Don’t let O disarm our military.”[ix]

As to the policy options that the military-industrial complex forecloses, we can again turn to Eisenhower and a speech from the early days of his presidency: “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 not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. [x]

The truth of that lament is confirmed in the current Republican House “principle” that any new spending must be paid for, not by tax increases or even closing tax loopholes, but by cuts to spending in other government programs. Since security spending is largely exempt from austerity measures, the cuts will be focused on discretionary social programs. Furthermore, any savings in defence spending are to be “reinvested” in other defence programs. The costs of tax cuts, on the other hand, are exempt from this pay-as-you-go rule.[xi]

The cost to other urgent programs is illustrated by the continued impoverishment of climate change programs. Increasingly identified as having serious security implications, US spending on climate change responses is increasing significantly – even so, defence spending dwarfs it at a ratio of 41 to 1.[xii] What the ratio should be is hard to say, but the comparison does have something to say about priorities – or at the very least it confirms that the environment-industrial complex has yet to infiltrate the centres of power in Washington.

Perhaps the most telling comment on priorities comes from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. Referring to “a billionaire military and a pauper diplomacy,” he says that “the U.S. military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service.”[xiii]

To say that military spending is sacrosanct is simply to acknowledge the truth of Eisenhower’s 1960s confession that the influence of the military-industrial complex is felt in every city, state, and federal government office, not to mention in every Congressional office and in quite a few University and Think Tank research offices.

(A shortened version of the above appeared in The Record of the Waterloo Region, 14 January 2011.)


[i] Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation, January 17, 1961. Available at:

[ii] The Military Balance 2010, The International Institute for Strategic Studies (London, 2010), p. 462f.

[iii] SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, p. 268.

[iv] Todd Harrison, “Analysis of the FY 2011 Defense Budget,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

[v] Bryan Bender, “From the Pentagon to the private sector,” the Boston Globe, 26 December 2010.

[vi] Douglas Schoen, “The Risky Push to Cut Defense Spending,” Newsweek, 8 January 2011.

[vii] Gprdon Adams and Matthew Leatherman, “A Leaner and Meaner Defense,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011, available at The Stimson Center.

[viii] John McDermott, “Defence stocks on the defensive against budget cuts,” Financial Times, 10 January 2011.

[ix] Arther Herman, “Don’t let O disarm our military,” New York Post, 10 January 2011.

[x] Dwight D. Eisenhower, from a speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1953. Available at:

[xi] Robert Greenstein and James R. Horney, “House Republican Rule Changes Pave the Way For Major Deficit-Increasing Tax Cuts, Despite Anti-Deficit Rhetoric,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 5 January 2011.

[xii] Miriam Pemberton, “Military vs. Climate Security: The 2011 Budgets Compared” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, October 25, 2010).

[xiii] Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Big (Military) Taboo,” The New York Times,” 25 December 2010.

This entry was posted in Defence and Human Security, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *