Listening to Ike’s Military-Industrial Complex Speech

W.J. Astore

May I make a suggestion to all my fellow Americans? Even if you’ve read it, even if you’ve listened to it before, listen again to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in 1961. It’s the speech in which he warned against America’s military-industrial complex, to which Ike wanted rightly to add Congress as well but decided against it.

You’ll hear some words in Ike’s address that you rarely hear in political discourse today. Words like liberty, charity, dignity, integrity, love, mutual respect, and that rarest word of all, peace. You’ll hear him speak of Americans as citizens, not just as consumers, and at the end you’ll hear him rejoice in becoming a private citizen as he prepared to leave the White House to his successor, John F. Kennedy.

You’ll also hear Ike deplore war as one who’d seen its horrors. Ike referred to 20th-century wars as “holocausts,” which they were, and of the need to avoid future wars as they could utterly destroy civilization if nuclear weapons were used in them. Ike called for disarmament in the cause of world peace, and when was the last time an American president made such a call?

Ike further urged Americans, despite this country’s military strength, to avoid arrogance. The strong must not dominate, Ike said, for the weak also deserve a say and a seat at the negotiating table. Ike talked about exercising power for the cause of world peace and human betterment, and that moral intellect and decent purpose should rule, not fear and hate.

Of course, this speech is best known for Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex, the immense U.S. military establishment “of vast proportions” as well as corporate weapons makers and the “disastrous rise” of their “misplaced power.” It’s vitally important we recognize how Ike framed his warning. His meaning is plain. He says the military-industrial complex, if allowed to grow unchecked, will endanger our liberties and our democratic processes. He says its immense power poses grave implications for the structure of our society. He calls on Americans, as alert and knowledgable citizens, to keep the Complex in check, and indeed to do their best to lessen its power.

Ike gave this address 60 years ago, and we have largely failed to heed his warning. We have allowed the military-industrial-Congressional complex to grow unchecked, so much so that the so-called national security state has become a fourth branch of government that gobbles up more than a trillion dollars a year while pursuing endless war around the globe.

As citizens (are we still citizens?), we are witnessing the slow death of our democracy, even as American militarism and repetitive undeclared wars have made the world a meaner, nastier place.

Our course of action is plain, as it was to Ike in 1961. Until we reject the holocaust of war and reduce as much as humanly possible the power of the military-industrial complex, America will remain on a catastrophic path that threatens the very existence of humanity.

Ike implored us to seek balance; to come together; to look toward the future; to cherish and protect our democratic institutions. He confessed he was disappointed in his own performance as president in ensuring disarmament and pursuing fair-minded diplomacy, but he enjoined us all to seek peace and to advance freedom around the world.

Why not do that?

Ike’s Warning (1961)

The 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.

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.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. 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.

22 thoughts on “Listening to Ike’s Military-Industrial Complex Speech

  1. I believe we have become used to viewing anything an outgoing President says as self-serving twaddle, absolving them of anything that didn’t go right during their time in office while claiming credit for anything that did. Make a quick scan of those who followed in Ike’s wake … feel free to contact me with the names of those who placed the interests of the American people above those of themselves and their friends/business associates.
    Plus, it’s 16 minutes long and doesn’t deal in American rah-rah, “buzz words,” slang, or catch phrases from popular culture.
    No one is going to deliver a speech like that in this year of grace, and no one would expect anyone to listen to it. Just get thee gone, get it on, and let the good times roll.
    And more, as they say, is the pity.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Without being draped in acres of “Old Glory” or surrounded by Pentagon grifters, the special interest groups du jour, assorted family & in-laws, or even backing dancers. However did he do it?
        And yes, in 16 minutes managing to say more than all subsequent farewell addresses combined.


  2. Bill–

    Damned if I can tell if this posted or not. If it hasnt, please take care of posting it for me, if you would, please. Hell it is 90 minutes of my life spent writing it so it ought to count for something I reckon.

    All well here. Unusually set summer so far and things are staying green, which is rare and nice.


    Yeah, Bill, I confess, I’ve never done a full listen to the speech and hell I ought to.

    But it isn’t rightly called the military-industrial-{congressional} complex. The key role of the academy needs noting. It isn’t just that the academy is the loyal servant of the M-I complex; it/they are a happily coopted bunch of essential happy servants to it.

    Story from the Luce empire days there. Time Magazine was the Luce empire’s leading mouthpiece, and part of that job was picking both those it deemed the deserving, and those it deemed the obstacles to overcome or eliminate. One of its designated deserving was Clark Kerr, Chancellor of the UCB, and then President of the UC system. Time promoted Kerr’s witticisms, which weren’t small–“A University Chancellor has three important jobs–providing sex for the students, parking for the faculty, and football for the alumni”–as well as his more serious statements.

    One of those more serious statements was his regular rubber-chicken circuit speech to California industrialists when he went out among them dragging a sack for more money for the UC system. The key industrialist sector in California was the aerospace industry then, and at varied public functions of theirs he’d tell them how important their companies were to the United States and its prevailing successfully in the ongoing Cold War. Kerr would point out that their critically important industries required more new scientists to imagine and create their new weapons, more engineers to design and manufacture them, and lots of liberal arts majors to coordinate everything and keep things running smoothly. Therefore, please give generously to the UC system, thankyou. Kerr got their support and money both.

    The Cold War might be over, but the American academy’s dependence on defense funding isn’t. I contend that that knowing which side of the slice is buttered on accounts for the near-complete silence from them over the last 20 years of our wrongful pointless futile wars of aggression we have been fighting, still are fighting. It is obscene that the obvious wrongfulness of things like our re-instituting torture as a national practice escapes discussion in all departments on campuses, not just law schools’. If something that obviously wrong doesn’t prompt professorial action in the classroom and in personal political engagement, then nothing else can either.

    Perhaps it isn’t that the academy is totally whored-out for DOD monies. What is possible, and worse, is that the culture of acceptance and conformity that is such a huge but mostly ignored part of our American society and people is just as bad in the academy, where it shouldn’t be and doesn’t belong. Acceptance and conformity are the enemies of critical thinking, and if there is this condition so strong in the American academy to account for and explain their silence for two decades of national wars of aggression, then in all the important purposes the American academy is failing itself and its duties and its responsibilities to the American nation and people.

    Don’t know. But I do know that the academy is a full if not equal partner to the Military and the Industrial and the Congressional in that complex Ike warned us of.

    Clark Kerr. Someone I ought to read more about–grew up on a farm and that never left him. The first victim of Ronald Reagan’s climb to political power. Kept off a LBJ administration cabinet post due to J. Edgar Hoover’s behind-the-scenes blacklisting/redbaiting. Seems to me a more decent than average human being, which is rare for someone high on the greasy pole.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks, Dan. Yes, academe has been bought off as well, willingly in most cases.

      Plus consider all the “think tanks” associated with universities that provide various rationales in support of U.S. imperial power projection and weapons sales. There are the brazen merchants of death, and then there are those in academe who defend the merchants and all their profits as serving democracy and freedom.

      It’s funny: I’ve yet to come across a freedom bomb, though we do have “peacekeeper” nuclear missiles …

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have one quibble about your post, sir. You say that we have “largely” failed to heed Ike’s warning. I submit that not only have we collectively completely ignored his warning, we’ve subverted it with all possible efforts.


    1. Yes, I should have deleted the “largely.” Trying to be too polite, like Ike was when he left Congress out of his final draft.


      1. All things considered, Ike’s omission was unfortunate. Not that mentioning our representative body would have made any difference, but at least he would have gone on record.


  4. What an excellent parting speech! Yes, it was refreshing to listen to it again. The form as well as the content is telling. Here is a president who speaks in complete and coherent sentences!
    This was obviously a well worded and worked speech. No wasted words and packed with content.

    His comments about the purpose of America and its military to act as an agent of peace and for the improvement of humanity got me thinking about what went wrong in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It seems that there was no civilian – diplomatic strategy in those wars. There was only military strategy which was insufficient to win. The military is like a big dog, good at what it does but in need of a master. If the owner will not be the alpha dog, the dog will.

    Some key ideas discussed in On War ( Carl von Clausewitz ) include:[22]

    The dialectical approach to military analysis
    The methods of “critical analysis”
    The economic profit-seeking logic of commercial enterprise is equally applicable to the waging of war and negotiating for peace
    The relationship between political objectives and military objectives in war.

    The last point in particular was missing from the above wars. I do not mean the limited objectives of ‘stopping communism’ or ‘kicking out the Taliban’. Where was the historical view of what was happening? Where was the strategy of fixing the problems that caused the ‘bad guys’ to gain power? Vietnam was very different that Afghanistan in that the people, at least of North Vietnam, had already chosen their leader and the method for ending colonialism. We were going against the historical and cultural current there.

    Afghanistan? That country was so fractured by 20 years of war that it may have been impossible to find a consensus among the Afghans of what they wanted. Even the most skilled diplomats would have had a difficult task of devising a social – diplomatic strategy to guide the military. For this reason I do not blame the ‘dog’ that was let loose to roam freely on the property ( Afghanistan ), but the owner ( U.S. as in us )

    Perhaps leaving the Afghans alone to either fight the Taliban or live with them is the best course. If they successfully fight the Taliban off, they will have the pride of doing it for themselves. If they do not and find life intolerable under Taliban rule, they will have to throw them out by their own efforts, and again have the pride of doing it for themselves. It’s going to be ugly either way, and that is the pity of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice speech on your way out of office, Ike. If you had really meant a word of it, you’d have delivered it as an inaugural address in 1952 and again in 1956.

    And no thanks for your Vice President, the scurrilous, Red-baiting Richard Nixon. Ditto for the Dulles Brothers: John Foster (State) and Allen (CIA). I wound up spending a year-and-a-half in the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam because of these motherless cretins. Millions of Southeast Asians perished or had their lives uprooted because of them.

    And no thanks for driving religion into the public schools with that “under GAWD” addition to an already obnoxious Pledge of Subservience in 1954: what I always understood as The Eisenhower/McCarthy School Prayer, a clear violation of the Constitution’s Separation of Church and State, not to mention an abuse of captive school children.

    And I have it on good authority that generations of Iranians do not thank you for overthrowing their democratically elected government and installing the dictator, Shah Reza Pahlavi, as absolute ruler. The Middle East still reels from the effects of that imperial debacle.

    And no thanks for handing over the Bay of Pigs operation to your naive young successor, JFK, along with your recommendation that he get the U.S. more deeply involved in Laos. Laos!

    Finally, from the spectacular metastasis of the “Military-Industrial Complex” into the Lunatic Leviathan we have today, Eisenhower’s little speech has not exactly — shall we charitably say — had a discernible effect. Had he even done so little as to institute a Corporate War Profits Tax to actually pay for America’s military activities, he might have accomplished something that future administrations could build upon. But he didn’t. So his little speech remains just that: a little — and easily forgotten — speech.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes — perhaps it was too little too late. Now we don’t even get “too little.” We get nothing.

      More charitably, one might say Ike tried — and failed — to control the Complex. And if a five-star war hero like Ike couldn’t do it, who can?

      I still credit Ike with seeing the problem clearly and issuing his warning. If it was ignored or forgotten, that’s not Ike’s fault.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To Ike’s credit, the Korean “police action” came to an end a few months into his term; at least, he didn’t attempt to prolong the conflict.

        And yes, he did leave the Bay of Pigs debacle for JFK to inherit, but that was mostly a CIA operation, according to my reading, and at that point, apparently nobody argued with Dulles. He was almost as powerful as J. Edgar at the FBI. Six months afterward, of course, JFK secured Dulles’ resignation, more quietly than JFK had originally planned, but Dulles had his revenge. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. Enough digression.


  6. A worthy speech, but I think that the problem lies beneath the MIC, it is wealth itself. The founders of the country were at ease with wealth and in fact were concerned that the vote be restricted as much as possible to property owners. Of course you can be sure that those property owners were first and foremost concerned with that property and would always vote to protect it. The land was vast and in the new nation it was always possible for an individual to get a piece, though it might mean heading for the frontier. While it wasn’t a great thing for a few to own huge amounts of property, possession of it was not a threat to the nation and there was a limit to how much land was available. Yes, land could be sold for money but then what could one do with that?

    Today the wealthy have gone far beyond land owning, being primarily investors whose income is from stocks and derivatives. The opportunities open for money now are worldwide. Instead of putting land ownership at the fore, it is now profit that must be protected and promoted. This is what is behind the MIC, it is a sure source of great profits protected with a mighty shield and mask of red, white and blue. It is also what is behind the lobbies that are so numerous and well funded. There is no separation of powers when dealing with wealth as all three branches are fully on board. While action would certainly have been taken if a landowner of the 19th century was holding 50 percent or more of the land in the nation, nothing is being done as the 1% engorge on 75% and more of the national wealth.

    Unlike property, you can’t see invested wealth. It takes real investigation to know who owns what parts of thousands of businesses. The Trump Organization has hundreds of “entities.” The IRS admits defeat in trying to audit the wealthy, just as the government admits defeat in auditing that vast enterprise for profit, the Defense Department. We can be and are being fleeced in broad daylight but it passes easily unlike someone owning 75% of the State of Indiana, for example. In that case anyone could travel to Indiana and see what was being done with the land, impressive even if only by KEEP OUT signs posted everywhere.

    Capitalism has been our cornucopia but it is going to be our undoing unless we address what has never been admitted as a problem – profit in itself and for itself alone. The fact that the US stood head and shoulders above the rest of the world after WW2 fooled us into thinking we were immune to the trouble that comes with capitalism; the flight to profit. Instead of taking pride in capitalism being regulated the least in the US, it should be obvious to everyone that this is killing us. We have seen over and over how the wealthy bail out on the US at every opportunity to make more money. The big three billionaires are leaving the planet to profit in space, of zero benefit to humanity. Ike was speaking of the tip of the iceberg.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very well put, Clif. We’ve come to worship wealth as America’s real god. Hence the prosperity gospel.

      So much of wealth now is intangible, almost imaginary in a way. If our system is ever truly disrupted, there are going to be a lot of “wealthy” people desperate for food and other basic necessities … not sure stock options and “derivatives” will help much then.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This final public proclamation from Ike makes me wonder….
    If he were alive today, would he have started a Word Press site and continued to harangue about the misdeeds of our current version of the MIC? Would he expose what he knows about war profiteering? Would he write a book and go on speaking engagements to eliminate all nuclear armaments? Would he organize a Peace March on Washington? Or would he just make a speech and enjoy the retirement?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ike was the one man with the cred, the political capital and the position to do something about the rise of the institutionalized military. He did nothing but issue a warning as he left. Too late. The deal was already done.

    Admittedly Ike has an antiquated view of presidential power which made any moves to counter the drift impossible. Still he didn’t even mention it till the end of his term and he even deleted the most important “congressional” part from the “military, industrial complex”. Why not mention it in1957? For the life of me I don’t get why this incident is held to be so important.

    Not that I think Ike could have turned the tide even if he put 100% effort into it. Human nature and societies that have achieved military success pretty much guaranteed the outcome we got. Admittedly we were lucky extensive nuclear war was avoided.

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