Jan 18, 2011

Fifty Years of Perma-War

Fifty years ago yesterday, three days before he left office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech to the American public and coined the term “military-industrial complex.” It was a remarkably prescient speech and since we’re now embroiled in two seemingly-endless wars, I thought this would be an appropriate time to recap what Eisenhower said.

Coming from a president who was elected largely because of his military background (he led the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II) and because he opposed a policy of "non-intervention" in Korea, his speech was a remarkable call to retain “balance” in our government and prevent military interests from dominating the political process. He noted that, for the first time, the United States had created a “permanent arms industry of vast proportions” in the early years of the Cold War. Until World War II war production had been accomplished by pre-existing civilian industries shifting focus, as the auto and airplane industries did to produce vehicles for the army during WWII. But after World War II the factories that had sprung up to create war materials never shut down. Instead, because the Cold War threatened hot war any moment, those production facilities, and the companies running them, became a permanent part of our military – and our economy.

“The total influence [of the military] -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government,” Eisenhower said. “We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….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.”

He warned in particular about the potential for military interests to influence our government so much that they “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” And indeed this has happened: military contractors like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Northrup Grummon help determine U.S. government policy through their lobbyists. Our wars get separate budgetary accounting from all other government programs, and those budgets are protected from cuts more than any other kind of government spending. As the Gulf Coast's residents struggled to pay their bills and keep their homes after last summer's oil spill, BP continued to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal military contracts.

Eisenhower further warned that, “as we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” Yet every day our deficit balloons and we refuse to pay today for the services our country needs now. We have, indeed, mortgaged our grandchildren’s future to pay more than one trillion dollars for two needless wars – while at the same time we refuse to pay for our children to get an education that will help them, and our country, prosper.

On an issue that I care about personally – the funding of our nation’s universities – Eisenhower was equally astute. He observed that as government research contracts increased exponentially in the Cold War era to fund scientific and military research, “the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever presentand is gravely to be regarded.” Even more ominously, he said, “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” And today we are seeing a major threat to academic disciplines that cannot bring in government research dollars for their universities – namely, the humanities. Funding for the humanities is dropping precipitously in universities across the country, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities face constant budget threats to their already miniscule appropriations. In the meantime, when military leaders announce budget cuts, it’s front page news.

It’s not often that I agree with proclamations of American exceptionalism, especially from the mouths of Republicans, but here’s one I can throw my weight behind: “America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” We must always remember that military and economic power can win us submission but not friendship around the world.

And, to conclude with Eisenhower’s words:
“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

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