Largely overlooked by most commentators was a second theme that Eisenhower had woven into his text. The essence of this theme was simplicity itself: spending on arms and armies is inherently undesirable. Even when seemingly necessary, it constitutes a misappropriation of scarce resources. By diverting social capital from productive to destructive purposes, war and the preparation for war deplete, rather than enhance, a nation’s strength. And while assertions of military necessity might camouflage the costs entailed, they can never negate them altogether.
In his 1956 book, The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia, dubbed this perspective “military metaphysics,” which he characterized as “the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military.” Those embracing this mind-set no longer considered genuine, lasting peace to be plausible. Rather, peace was at best a transitory condition, “a prelude to war or an interlude between wars.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates military metaphysics more vividly than the exponential growth of the U.S. nuclear stockpile that occurred during Eisenhower’s presidency. In 1952, when Ike was elected, that stockpile numbered some 1,000 warheads. By the time he passed the reins to John F. Kennedy in 1961, it consisted of more than 24,000 warheads, and it rapidly ascended later that decade to a peak of 31,000.
The Cold War, [Eisenhower] emphasized, had transformed the country’s approach to defending itself. In the past, “American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well.” But this reliance on improvisation no longer sufficed. The rivalry with the Soviet Union had “compelled” the United States “to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” As a consequence, “we annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.”
The “economic, political, even spiritual” reach of this conglomeration was immense, Eisenhower explained, extending to “every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” Although the president could not bring himself to question explicitly the need for this shift in policy, he warned of its implications. “Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved,” he said. “So is the very structure of our society.” With corporate officials routinely claiming the Pentagon’s top posts, and former military officers hiring themselves out to defense contractors, fundamental values were at risk.(…)
Having defined the problem, Eisenhower then advanced a striking solution: ultimate responsibility for democracy’s defense, he insisted, necessarily rested with the people themselves. Rather than according Washington deference, American citizens needed to exercise strict oversight. Counting on the national-security state to police itself—on members of Congress to set aside parochial concerns, corporate chieftains to put patriotism above profit, and military leaders to hew to the ethic of their profession—wouldn’t do the trick. “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 five decades since Eisenhower left the White House for his retirement home in Gettysburg, much has changed. The Soviet Union has disappeared. So too, for all practical purposes, has Communism itself. Yet in Washington, an aura of never-ending crisis still prevails—and with it, military metaphysics.(…)
The national-security state continues to grow in size, scope, and influence. In Ike’s day, for example, the CIA dominated the field of intelligence. Today, experts refer casually to an “intelligence community,” consisting of some 17 agencies.(…)
The spending spree extends well beyond intelligence. The Pentagon’s budget has more than doubled in the past decade, to some $700 billion per year. All told, the ostensible imperatives of national security thereby consume roughly half of all federal discretionary dollars. Even more astonishing, annual U.S. military outlays now approximate those of all other nations, friends as well as foes, combined.(…)
In the meantime, the revolving door connecting the world of soldiering to the world of arms purveyors continues to turn. For those at the top, the American military profession is that rare calling where retirement need not imply a reduced income. On the contrary: senior serving officers shed their uniforms not merely to take up golf or go fishing but with the reasonable expectation of raking in big money.(…)
In short, the guns-and-butter trade-off that Eisenhower foresaw in 1953 has become reality. To train, equip, and maintain one American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan for just one year costs a cool million dollars. Meanwhile, according to 2010 census figures, the number of Americans falling below the poverty line has swollen to one in every seven.