President Donald Trump’s recent warning about the influence of the defense industry has sparked comparisons to Dwight Eisenhower’s assertion that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” When Eisenhower spoke those words in his 1961 farewell address, he believed that the massive growth of America’s peacetime armed forces had given them and the defense industry enough power that they could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” It was a warning against the broad threat that the defense establishment posed to American society, a threat comparable in many respects to those posed by other parts of big government.
A more narrow, and more common, critique holds that the defense industry influences American decisions to go to war. In the 1920s and 1930s, American politicians and pundits alleged that arms manufacturers conspired to drive the United States into World War I. This view was popular on the Left, as evidence of the evils of capitalism, and on the Right, as evidence of the evils of government spending.
One of the most famous critiques of the defense industry to emerge during the interwar period, Merchants of Death by H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, disputed the idea that arms manufacturers bore responsibility for starting the war. “The arms industry did not create the war system,” they wrote. “On the contrary, the war system created the arms industry.” They traced the origins of war to “the prevailing temper of peoples toward nationalism, militarism, and war” and “the civilization which forms this temper.”
The charges Engelbrecht and Hanighen leveled against the arms industry stood the test of time better than those of other critics, as most historians would come to reject the notion that arms manufacturers had influenced the decision of President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress to go to war. Their idea that war could be eliminated by removing the “prevailing temper of peoples toward nationalism, militarism, and war” has stood up less well. No passion for nationalism, militarism, or war caused Bill Clinton to go to war in Somalia or Barack Obama to intervene in Libya’s civil war. Ironically, the greatest obstacle to war in recent times has been a product of the arms industry—the nuclear weapon.
While there is scant evidence to suggest that the arms industry has dragged the United States into wars, the broader dangers of the military-industrial complex foreseen by Eisenhower have, to some extent, come to pass. Through large networks of supporters in the executive and legislative branches, defense companies have at times excelled at overcharging the government and stifling competitors. They have developed surveillance capabilities that unscrupulous politicians have employed to spy on other Americans.
As Eisenhower knew, such problems could not be eliminated altogether, but they could be held down. The solution that Eisenhower offered, in a less-quoted passage from his farewell address, remains relevant today. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” said Eisenhower, “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.”