The year was 1961. America’s General was stepping down. In his place, a King readied for coronation. President Eisenhower’s years in the spotlight were at an end.
The composition of JFK’s inaugural was filled with speechwriting lore. The words are immortal. Thus, it comes as no surprise that President Eisenhower’s farewell address, given three days earlier, went largely overlooked.
However, what began as a historical footnote has seen a renaissance. With each passing year, his words become increasingly prescient. The 29 drafts put in were apparently well worth the effort. Eisenhower began:
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.
There is certainly nothing surprising in this passage, but the tone changes. Eisenhower pivoted to the nexus of his address: military spending. More specifically, he was concerned with a new status quo that had emerged, including under his own leadership, following World War II. Specifically, spending on arms had become entrenched as an economic norm.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
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 speech is not a celebration of the past, but a warning for the future.
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.
We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
In short, Eisenhower says that a large defense budget is a critical element to maintaining peace. However, if allowed to get too large, it has the opposite effect. At a point, the “military-industrial complex” endangers the very liberties it is designed to protect.
The New Yorker recently took note of the prescience of the 34th President . As they note, the “web of power” Eisenhower warned us about has come to characterize the “wars from Vietnam to Iraq.”
Today’s reality is exactly as he feared. A few stunning statistics courtesy of the Washington Post:
· Since 2001, the base defense budget (excluding the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan) has grown from $287 billion to $530 billion
· The United States spent 20% of the federal budget on defense in 2011
· Total expenditures on defense exceeded that of the next 13 countries combined
These are but a snapshot in the well-documented litany of astounding defense spending figures.
With this in mind, President Obama’s nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) is all the more important, particularly within the context of the looming “debt ceiling” debate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that, “the biggest problem we have at the moment is spending and debt.” That statement, in conjunction with the leverage Republicans hold going into the second round of budget talks, portends major spending cuts. Yet, it is unclear to what extent defense will be immune from that reality given that Republicans have generally opposed cuts to defense spending over the last several decades.
Thus, Senator Hagel (if approved) will walk into the Pentagon with an unenviable task at hand. He must take on not only the powerful military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned, but also members of his own party. Many have failed in the attempt. His would-be predecessors, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates took office expecting to curtail spending. Both accomplished relatively little in that regard.
Clearly, in the upcoming Senate hearings, there are important questions to ask the nominee: Why are you the most qualified to tackle the Pentagon’s budgetary excess? What in your background prepares you for the battle ahead? Why will you succeed where many decorated public servants from both parties before you largely failed?
How Hagel will handle transforming the Pentagon’s to meet both the security and fiscal requirements of the United States are far more important questions on which Seantors should focus than unfounded criticisms of anti-Semitism. Elected officials seem to believe that one’s voting record on Israel is the most important pre-requisite for the Pentagon’s top post. Fiscal responsibility jockeys for a distant second, even for the self-styled party of fiscal responsibility.
It remains to be seen whether or not Senator Hagel is the man for the job. I hope someone asks first.
Tony Lucadamo serves as Sr. Editor for the Virginia Policy Review. He is a Master's candidate studying at the University of Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.