President Eisenhower delivered his farewell address 50 years ago. Few expected the speech to include a warning of American liberty in peril. But, it did. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist," he proclaimed somberly.
Eisenhower warned that "in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." He feared that excessive defense spending might lead to collusion among defense industries, the Pentagon, and big government -- a cabal that would make decisions that suited them best, at the cost of undermining democracy.
The president's concern about a "military-industrial complex" was rooted in his distrust of Big Government. "Eisenhower was deeply concerned about the growth of the federal government and the systematic loss of state and local autonomy," writes Martin Medhurst, an expert on Ike's rhetoric. "He was concerned about a government that spent more than it took in. ..."
Ike turned out to be both right and wrong. He was wrong to fear that defense industries would pose a real threat to our freedom or our nation's economy. From 1958 to 1966 -- both before and after Ike's Jan. 17, 1961, speech -- military outlays as a share of the whole economy dropped significantly.
The industry has suffered through more tough times since then. From 1969 to 1975, the defense giants of the day -- McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, and Lockheed -- dropped 40 percent in size. After the Cold War, defense companies went through a breathtaking collapse.
Today, if you scan down the 2010 Fortune list of the largest U.S. corporations, you have to go all the way to 28 before you find a major defense contractor: Boeing. (And most of Boeing's business is not defense-related). Lockheed Martin, still primarily a defense company, barely cracks the top 50 -- at number 44.
Nevertheless, the Left still trumpets the threat of the Military-Industrial Complex as though the industry were bigger and badder than ever. "Even Ike was scared," they say. But they conspicuously fail to mention that the great danger Ike really worried about -- runaway government spending -- is upon us. And it, in fact, is bigger and badder than ever.
Ike was right. Unchecked government leads to unfettered spending -- and that is the real threat to our liberty and our wallets. In August, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen told CNN, "the most significant threat to our national security is our debt." He's right. The nation can't defend itself when Washington goes broke.
It is hard to imagine our economy growing when the feds borrow 42 cents for every dollar they spend, then soaking up investment capital so necessary to private-sector growth. Washington further hamstrings the private sector by layering on more and more expensive regulations -- which of course require even bigger, more expensive bureaucracies to enforce.
But the Left would rather gut defense spending so it can glut all the other agencies and departments of Big Government. Our security -- and fiscal sanity -- demands that Congress take a different course.
As a share of gross domestic product, Washington spends far less on the Pentagon today than it did in Ike's era. In our dangerous world, it makes little sense to cut defense ever further. Instead, Washington should insist we get the best value for every tax dollar spent. We must tackle the big problem that Ike really warned about -- government spending too much, on doing too much.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner