The military-industrial complex was and is a time-bomb.
In hindsight, it seems President Eisenhower was delivering more of a prediction, than a warning, when he spoke of a “military-industrial complex” in his short (15:44) farewell address, on January 17, 1961.
Ike, soft-spoken and modest, was not the kind of person who would have pretended to know what the future holds. But it seems evident now, after 50 years of serving his country – from West Point in 1911 through his second term as President ending in January 1961 – that Eisenhower may have known more than he realized.
Having witnessed the Nazi war machine, the use of nuclear weapons (a decision he opposed) to bring an end to the war with Japan, and the rise of the Soviet Union, Eisenhower recognized that we had entered an era unlike any before. “American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well,” he said. “But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
Calling for “good judgment” and “balance” (a word used 9 times in his address), Eisenhower counseled that we “must not fail to comprehend” the “grave implications” of imbalance, and special interests. “We must learn,” he said, “how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.“
If Eisenhower’s words were understood, they most definitely were not heeded.
The military-industrial complex was and is a time-bomb. Its explosive body is made up of thousands of defense contractors itching to rake in profits for themselves, and their shareholders. Its fuse is the weak and inferior minded politician, he who speaks of “peace and freedom” but who is forever angling for historical recognition which, in the American tradition, means finding a war.
Caught in the middle is the American patriot. The men and women who, when called to war, put aside their contempt for politicians and big government, and proudly serve. Risking their lives to fight for the cause – a cause that is often concocted by the very individuals and institutions the patriot distrusts.
Historians will debate the reasons and rationale for America’s long history of wars, but since the Korean War, and the beginning of the era of the military-industrial complex, every major military encounter by the US has been a failure. Most notable and catastrophic among these are Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq.
Courtesy of our political and business elite, the decision to go to war with Vietnam was based on a lie: in particular the incidents at Tonkin Gulf on August 4, 1964.
Yes, there was an encounter between the USS Maddox and three North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2nd. But what was alleged to have been a bigger and more aggressive attack on August 4, never happened. This fact was confirmed 41 years later by the NSA in 2005.
On signing the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 10, 1964, several senior officials including Defense Secretary McNamara – and likely President Johnson – knew the attack of August 4 was a myth. A year later Johnson would say privately: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Yet, so determined was Johnson to find a war, that within 30 minutes of learning of the August 4 incident he decided to retaliate – bombing North Vietnam the next day. There was no threat to America, so no reason to act with haste. But, like we saw in Iraq, the desire for war triumphed over reason and good. The “intellect and decent purpose” called for by Eisenhower was negated by an overwhelming psychological imperative for war. Like a wild boar in heat, one thought and one thought alone prevailed.
Johnson’s War on Poverty at home didn’t offer the recognition he could derive from a war abroad. So he traded building life up for taking it down. Vanity, combined with the sway of outside influence and big money, proved too tempting an exchange for millions of lives, and billions of taxpayer dollars. In the end, the American patriot, along with the enemy they faced in Vietnam, would bear the ultimate cost of Johnson’s ego.
Nothing was learned from Vietnam, as any effort to expose the very evils Eisenhower warned of ran contrary to the interests of those in power, and contrary to a population disinterested in the realization of its defeat. Instead, a wall was built, enabling the glare of patriotism to blind us from seeking the truth.
However, not far from the wall, one can find the truth engraved on the National Archives Building. It reads: “what is past is prologue.”
We didn’t heed Eisenhower’s advice, or the lesson of Vietnam, and were bound to repeat it. And that we did in Iraq, with a brashness unlike any evidenced before or during the Vietnam war.
Today Eisenhower’s message should resonate louder than ever. Isn’t it time we listen to this genuine patriot and true American hero?