In April 1953, newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a retired five-star Army general who had led the landings on D-Day in France in June 1944, gave his most powerful speech. It would become known as his “Cross of Iron” address. In it, Ike warned of the cost humanity would pay if Cold War competition led to a world dominated by wars and weaponry that couldn’t be reined in. In the immediate aftermath of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Ike extended an olive branch to the new leaders of that empire. He sought, he said, to put America and the world on a “highway to peace.” It was, of course, never to be, as this country’s emergent military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) chose instead to build a militarized (and highly profitable) highway to hell.
Eight years later, in his famous farewell address, a frustrated and alarmed president called out “the military-industrial complex,” prophetically warning of its anti-democratic nature and the disastrous rise of misplaced power that it represented. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, fully engaged in corralling, containing, and constraining it, he concluded, could save democracy and bolster peaceful methods and goals.
The MICC’s response was, of course, to ignore his warning, while waging a savage war on communism in the name of containing it. In the process, atrocious conflicts would be launched in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the contagion of war spread. Threatened with the possibility of peace in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the MICC bided its time with operations in Iraq (Desert Storm), Bosnia, and elsewhere, along with the expansion of NATO, until it could launch an unconstrained Global War on Terror in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those “good times” (filled with lost wars) lasted until 2021 and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Not to be deterred by the fizzling of the nightmarish war on terror, the MICC seized on a “new cold war” with China and Russia, which only surged when, in 2022, Vladimir Putin so disastrously invaded Ukraine (as the U.S. had once invaded Afghanistan and Iraq). Yet again, Americans were told that they faced implacable foes that could only be met with overwhelming military power and, of course, the funding that went with it — again in the name of deterrence and containment.
In a way, in 1953 and later in 1961, Ike, too, had been urging Americans to launch a war of containment, only against an internal foe: what he then labeled for the first time “the military-industrial complex.” For various reasons, we failed to heed his warnings. As a result, over the last 70 years, it has grown to dominate the federal government as well as American culture in a myriad of ways. Leaving aside funding where it’s beyond dominant, try movies, TV shows, video games, education, sports, you name it. Today, the MICC is remarkably uncontained. Ike’s words weren’t enough and, sadly, his actions too often conflicted with his vision (as in the CIA’s involvement in a coup in Iran in 1953). So, his worst nightmare did indeed come to pass. In 2023, along with much of the world, America does indeed hang from a cross of iron, hovering closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Perhaps the most quoted passage in that 1953 speech addressed the true cost of militarism, with Ike putting it in homespun, easily grasped, terms. He started by saying, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” (An aside: Can you imagine Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or any other recent president challenging Pentagon spending and militarism so brazenly?)
Ike then added:
“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”