Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

How Will Hagel Tackle the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower Warned of?

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower's farewell address, showing the phrase:

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower’s farewell address, showing the phrase the address made famous: “military-industrial complex”; the speech was delivered on January 17, 1961. PD

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 opening 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.”