The Return of the “Military-Industrial Complex”

David Lewis Schaefer, Professor of Political Science, College of the Holy Cross

In what was probably the most foolish utterance he made as President, Dwight Eisenhower, in his final address to the nation before he left office, offered a warning, authored by Johns Hopkins political scientist and speechwriter Malcolm Moos, about the supposed threat of a “military-industrial complex” to our nation’s liberties and well-being. The implication was that the growing size of America’s defense industries, in response to the Cold War and the ever-increasing cost of advanced military technology, would give those industries an unwarranted influence over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. In other words, in their pursuit of profit, defense contractors would use their influence to push the government to spend billions on unnecessary weapons systems, and might even push the government into needless wars, just to gain from added sales.

Neither the President nor Moos – an international-relations theorist who argued for the need to combine “realism” with “idealism” but was far from a military expert – ever offered evidence to support this claim. And if anything, the conduct of American defense policy following the end of the Vietnam war (which has never been shown to have resulted from the influence of defense industries) indicated the opposite: during the 1970s, the Defense Department cut back on the production of nuclear missiles, supposedly to alleviate Soviet fears of American superiority, and thus persuade the Soviet government to cut back on its own missile production. Unfortunately, contrary to those hopes, the American cutback seemed only to stimulate increased Soviet missile production. In the puzzled words of U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown, “when we build [missiles], they build. And when we don’t build, they build.” It was only with the ascent to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, who launched a much-needed military buildup, including planning for an anti-missile defense program that the Soviets would have been unable to rival, that premier Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to back down, ultimately leading to the dismantling of the Soviet empire. (Reagan’s ostensibly “moderate” Democratic opponent in the 1984 Presidential election, Walter Mondale, had voted against every defense budget that came up during his years in the Senate: no defense allocation, including under the Carter years, was ever low enough to satisfy him.)

But over the long run, democratic peoples continually forget the harsh lessons of history. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the suspicion that arms manufacturers, far from supplying the tools necessary for America’s defense, are really wasting taxpayer money (which could otherwise be used for heightened domestic spending), and even increasing the danger of conflicts, keeps recurring. Since the end of the Cold War, military expenditures, as a percentage of the Federal budget and of the nation’s gross national product, have steadily declined – the product of a so-called “peace dividend.” While the decline was interrupted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall military arsenal was allowed to decline, even as China’s buildup grew. Perhaps because of the decline, Vladimir Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine, apparently confident that there would be no effective response.

Although Putin’s calculations so far have turned out to be mistaken, China’s have not. And the suspicion, propagated by media like the New York Times, that America suffers from a bloated and unnecessary military budget, remains. In an echo of Ike’s parting words, Senator (and almost-2016 Democratic Presidential nominee) Bernie Sanders explained his vote against the increased defense allocation by remarking how “strange” it was that even as the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, “concerns about the deficit and national debt seem to melt away under the influence of the powerful military-industrial complex.” Needless to say, Sanders never expressed such budgetary concerns regarding the trillions of domestic spending he supported over the past two years.) 

The roots of this attitude can be traced to the deliberations of the Nye Committee, officially known as the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, a Senate committee chaired by North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye from 1934 to 1936, which investigated the financial interests that supposedly underlay American entry into World War I, along with the profits made by American munitions firms in selling their wares to the Western allies even before America’s joining the war. 

 No one who is the least familiar with the agonizing that President Woodrow Wilson went through before deciding on a declaration of war against Germany in 1917, following the resumption of unrestricted German submarine warfare against American shipping, can take seriously the claim that his decision, ratified by the Senate, was the result of the influence of a “military-industrial complex.” However, the Nye Committee’s findings are credited by historians with having led to popular disaffection with the notion of military preparedness, convincing many Americans that our entry into the war had  not been the result not of a noble defense of America’s honor and the freedom of the seas, but rather of greedy financiers and arms-makers. It helped to encourage isolationism, disarmament, and what emerged as gross unpreparedness when World War II came. Paralleled by blindness and pacificism in Britain and France, including the attempted “appeasement” of Adolf Hitler by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, the result was what Chamberlain’s clear-sighted successor, Winston Churchill, called “the unnecessary war,” with all its horrors. The Second World War should have taught free peoples the truth of the ancient adage that the best way to preserve a nation’s peace is to prepare for war. 

The ever-increasing cost of supplying weapons to Ukraine so as to defeat Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion (the first major land war in Europe since the end of World War II), combined with the rising threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan (and possibly points beyond), has finally focused Congressional attention on the need to beef up our long-decaying military arsenal. Those threats, along with the continually growing nuclear and missile buildup of the North Korean dictatorship, finally led  Congress to authorize a military budget of approximately $858 billion, or $45 billion more than what President Biden had requested. According to an assessment by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the result would be an inflation-adjusted increase in the Pentagon budget of 4.3 percent a year over the past two years, in contrast with a real-dollar increase of less than one percent annually between 2015 and 2016. The magnitude of the military threats that the U.S. now faces led even the  Times, not normally sympathetic to such matters, to devote its lead story this past December 18 to a largely favorable account of the reasons for the buildup.

But the headline of the Times story gave away the  Times editors’ apparently deeper concern regarding the increase. It read “Bonanza for Arms Makers As Military Budget Soars.” In other words, as in past years, the Times appeared most inclined to focus attention not on the need to compensate for our rapidly-declining military (the fleet shrinking in numbers even as China’s fleet grows; failure to upgrade our nuclear arsenal while China increases its own; dependence on aging bombers; recruitment difficulties faced by the Army), but on the risk that the buildup will excessively enrich arms manufacturers. 

At present a majority of Congress and of the American people support the Biden administration’s continued efforts to assist Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, a struggle in which America has a direct stake. But as a recent Wall Street Journal column by former Treasury official Howard Adler points out, this administration (and, it should be added, a majority of Congress) seem unwilling to face the need for making hard choices between “guns and butter,” and the necessity of prioritizing defense spending over giveaways like the administration’s attempted $400 billion student-loan forgiveness program, or the runaway domestic spending in the last-minute 2022 “omnibus” spending bill. (In that bill, Democrats, having already authorized trillions in often-superfluous domestic spending during the Biden administration’s first two years, extracted nearly $800 billion more as the condition for voting for needed increases in the defense budget.) 

Over recent years, Congressional Democrats have repeatedly extracted still-higher domestic expenditures as the ”price” that advocates of increasing the Pentagon’s budget must pay – as if the military were just one interest-group among many, rather than the bulwark of the people’s lives, liberties, and ability to pursue happiness. Meanwhile, as Senator Tom Cotton argues in his new book Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power, Democrats in recent decades have saddled the military with tasks unrelated to the national interest, such as promoting global LBGTQ rights, that divert it from its core mission (just as, I note, the Defense Department has wasted funds during the Obama and Biden presidencies on “woke” gender-sensitivity training). At the same time, a growing isolationist wing among Republican politicians, led by Donald Trump and Senator Josh Hawley, calls for an outright withdrawal of military support for the Ukrainian government. This would  deny (as Chamberlain once did) the dependence of Western freedom on blocking the expansion of an aggressive dictatorship against some “faraway” country (in Chamberlain’s case, Czechoslovakia). 

It will always be the case that defense contractors profit from heightened military spending, just as firms providing the services financed by the Biden Administration’s ostensible COVID-relief, anti-poverty, and anti-inflation policies have profited greatly as a result. And just as the latter policies have led to a significant amount of corruption, it is likely that the Pentagon suffers from a considerable degree of administrative bloat (hence presidential candidate John McCain’s unsuccessful proposal in 2012 to reduce its administrative expenses by one-quarter). The number of generals in our reduced army has mushroomed. Such problems call for continued and thorough Congressional oversight.  But in the face of the mounting dangers that America and her allies face from aggression by foreign dictatorships and terror groups, potential “bonanzas” earned by defense firms are a far lesser  concern. 

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