The phrase “military-industrial complex” was coined by President Eisenhower in his farewell address to the nation in 19611. In this address, Eisenhower spoke of the deterrence value of military strength:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
Simultaneously, he warned of the potential danger in the growing relationship between the military establishment and the defense industry:
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.
The phrase “military-industrial complex” describes the intertwined relationship between the military establishment and the defense industry that emerged during the Cold War. This relationship was and is characterized by mutually-reinforced growth. The defense industry relies on the military for contracts and the military relies on Congress for funding. Thus industry lobbying of Congress to maintain and increase defense spending grows the political and economic power of both military and industry.
The origins of the military-industrial complex can be traced back to the post-World War II period, when the United States emerged as a global superpower and faced a new threat in the form of the Soviet Union. The Cold War led to a massive expansion of the military establishment and the development of new technologies, including nuclear weapons, missiles, and advanced aircraft. During this period, the defense industry grew rapidly as companies such as Boeing, Lockheed, and General Dynamics competed for government contracts. The defense industry became a major contributor to the American economy, with billions of dollars in government contracts providing jobs across the country as well as profits for companies and their shareholders.
As the military establishment and the defense industry became increasingly intertwined, concerns began to emerge about the potential for corruption and the influence of the defense industry on government policy. Thus Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex:
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry 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.
In the decades since Eisenhower’s warning, the military-industrial complex has continued to evolve and expand. The phrase itself has become a useful2 shorthand for the entanglement of corporate interests with government and policy-making more broadly.
One of the most significant risks of this relationship is the potential for it to lead to the prioritization of corporate profit over public welfare, such as the lobbying of politicians by defense contractors to secure lucrative government contracts and the influence of defense industry executives on policy decisions related to national security and military spending.
Another criticism of the military-industrial complex is the impact it can have on the economy. While defense spending can create jobs and stimulate economic growth in certain industries, it can also divert resources away from other sectors of the economy, leading to a lack of investment in areas such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Additionally, the reliance on military spending as a source of economic growth can lead to a dangerous cycle of increasing defense spending to maintain economic stability, even when it is not necessary for national security.
The military-industrial complex can also contribute to a culture of militarism, where the solution to problems is seen as being a military one. This can lead to the neglect of non-military solutions to problems and the proliferation of militarized conflict, which can have devastating consequences both domestically and abroad.
One of the key arguments in favor of the military-industrial complex is that it can lead to technological innovation and progress. Military-funded research and innovations are very often applied to other areas of society, such as healthcare or transportation. Much of this research may not have been conducted without military funding. Eisenhower noted this fact as well, and included it as yet another risk of the military-industrial complex:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.
The United States has the most powerful military in the world, a fact that is extremely valuable to our nation and allies. It is an invaluable deterrent against potential aggressors, it puts weight behind NATO, it ensures freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace, it backs up our diplomatic efforts and our leaders’ words. Yet the influence of the military-industrial complex on our nation’s priorities and policymaking cannot be ignored, and Eisenhower’s speech is as relevant today as it was in 1961.