On Sept. 7, President Donald Trump responded to a question about his popularity among the troops — a recent poll pegged his approval rating among the military at 38% — by making a characteristically bold statement.
“I’m not saying the military’s in love with me — the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
Presidents accusing the military, or government generally, of being in bed with the arms industry is not a new thing. Most famously, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, warned of the dangers of the nation’s being in thrall to the “military-industrial complex”:
“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.”
When Eisenhower was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1915, the Army he joined resembled the frontier force of the post-Civil War era more than the industrial-age army it later became. In 1917, just prior to the US entering World War I, the Army’s troop strength was 127,000. Ike witnessed those numbers swell to nearly 4 million during that war. After the armistice, the Army quickly shrank to fewer than 150,000 troops as the country demobilized.
Eisenhower twiddled his fingers in the do-little garrison Army of the 1920s and ’30s. But as America prepared to enter World War II, Ike and the Army shared a meteoric rise. He went from major to general, and the Army went from fewer than 200,000 to nearly 7 million from 1936 to 1942. To Eisenhower, this waxing and waning was just the way things were supposed to work, based on his personal experience and knowledge of American history.
The Founding Fathers built the United States with the premise that large standing armies threatened a nation’s liberty. As Thomas Jefferson stated:
“There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation, and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors, that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot, but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army.”
The Second Amendment was partially a product of this idea. By having an armed citizenry, America didn’t need a large permanent military that could present a threat to liberty. The upshot was that the Army, and to a lesser extent the military as a whole, would expand and contract as the nation went from war to peace and back again.
In general, the Army needed to be only large enough to secure the country’s physical boundaries, garrison US possessions, and occasionally conduct an expeditionary campaign like the Spanish-American War. When a major conflict like the Civil War or World War I arose, America would draft its young men; when the fighting was over, they would go home.
Immediately after World War II, it appeared that this cycle was still in effect. From more than 12 million troops in 1945, by 1947, fewer than 1.6 million were still under arms and the number was trending downward. But less than five years after the end of World War II, communists invaded South Korea and normalized the existence of a large standing army. Conscription, previously only used as a temporary wartime measure, became a fixture of American life.
Still, following the Korean War, Eisenhower stood against hawks from both major parties and reduced the military budget by 27%. He reoriented the force away from the Army and toward the Air Force and a doctrine of massive retaliation with nuclear weapons in response to any Soviet attack.
He built up the nuclear arsenal specifically in order to reduce the need to match the Soviet Union soldier for soldier. Ike’s famous military-industrial complex speech wasn’t just some parting shot on his way out the door. As early as 1953, Eisenhower spoke powerfully about the tremendous social cost of military spending:
“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. 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.”
It was President John F. Kennedy’s “flexible response” doctrine, followed by the Vietnam War, that finally put the US on the permanent war footing that continues to this day. Since then, wars, both cold and hot, have come and gone, but the almost inexorable rise of defense spending has not.
Trump is right about the fact that companies that make products want to sell more of those products. And plenty of Americans believe the defense industry, with its army of lobbyists and practice of keeping generals and admirals as board members and consultants, has too much power in the halls of government.
Having served as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Eisenhower knew the scope of modern war and what it required, and he correctly framed the problem as excessive military spending during peacetime, not wartime.
While President Trump’s recent statement was superficially similar to Eisenhower’s, his record shows he doesn’t exactly see the issue the same way. The president has often railed against the country’s ongoing wars and sought to bring troops home from the Middle East and Afghanistan, but he also promised to make the military “so big, so powerful, so strong that no one will want to mess with us.” His solution to ISIS was right up the defense industry’s alley — “Bomb the shit out of them.” He famously bragged of refilling the previously empty stores of ammunition left by his predecessor.
Whatever one thinks of a stronger military as a policy goal, leaders in the Pentagon don’t order the use of force or appropriate funds. The president and Congress do.
While President Trump gave his comments as a riposte to a question about his support among the troops, Eisenhower gave his remarks as his farewell address in the thick of what would become a generations-long Cold War. He kept the military budget remarkably low, given public sentiment at the time.
President Eisenhower put his money where his mouth was because he was well aware of the value of a strong military, but also of American military history. He gave his warning about the military-industrial complex in peacetime, and his problem was not with the military, which he led as both a general and president. It was that the military was inordinately large in the absence of war.
Eisenhower’s statement was his attempt to give a sober warning of the costs such an approach entails. While Trump’s comment bore only superficial similarities, the intemperate statement highlights the need for a close examination of and debate around how America balances its priorities between guns and butter and where the military-industrial complex has led us.
Hopefully, the president’s words can remind us of the profundity of Eisenhower’s warning, and it will finally hit home.