Ike’s Cross of Iron Speech, 70 Years Later
If Dwight Eisenhower could somehow give his 1953 “Cross of Iron” address and his 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex to the American people today, I truly believe he’d be dismissed by the mainstream media (MSM) as a Putin puppet and as repeating Kremlin talking points. Why? Because Ike advocated for negotiation and peace instead of war; he documented how spending on weapons was intrinsically wasteful and a bane to democratic society; and he challenged citizens to be alert and knowledgeable, ready to take action against the growing power of a corporate-military nexus supported and strengthened by Congress.
To mark Ike’s integrity and wisdom, and also to update his cost calculations from 1953 for the present day, I wrote this article, my latest for TomDispatch.com. Again, the words of Ike, focusing on peace, the preciousness and burdens of democracy, and the dangers of militarism, are rarely if ever heard in our government and in the MSM today. And that suggests we are in a dark place indeed in this country of ours.
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 fundingwhere 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.
Updating Ike’s Cross of Iron Speech for Today
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.”
He concluded with a harrowing image: “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Ike’s cost breakdown of guns versus butter, weapons versus civilian goods, got me thinking recently: What would it look like if he could give that speech today? Are we getting more bang for the military megabucks we spend, or less? How much are Americans sacrificing to their wasteful and wanton god of war?
Let’s take a closer look. A conservative cost estimate for one of the Air Force’s new “heavy” strategic nuclear bombers, the B-21 Raider, is $750 million. A conservative estimate for a single new fighter plane, in this case the F-35 Lightning II, is $100 million. A single Navy destroyer, a Zumwalt-class ship, will be anywhere from $4 to $8 billion, but let’s just stick with the lower figure. Using those weapons, and some quick Internet sleuthing, here’s how Ike’s passage might read if he stood before us now:
“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick-veneer and reinforced concrete school in 75 cities. It is five electric power plants, each serving a town with 60,000 inhabitants. It is five fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 150 miles of pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with more than 12 million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 64,000 people.”
(Quick and dirty figures for the calculations above: $10 million per elementary school; $150 million per power plant [$5,000/kilowatt for 30,000 homes]; $150 million per hospital; $5 million per new mile of road; $8 per bushel of wheat; $250,000 per home for four people.)
Grim stats indeed! Admittedly, those are just ballpark figures, but taken together they show that the tradeoff between guns and butter — bombers and jet fighters on the one hand, schools and hospitals on the other — is considerably worse now than in Ike’s day. Yet Congress doesn’t seem to care, as Pentagon budgets continue to soar irrespective of huge cost overruns and failed audits (five in a row!), not to speak of failed wars.
Without irony, today’s MICC speaks of “investing” in weapons, yet, unlike Ike in 1953, today’s generals, the CEOs of the major weapons-making corporations, and members of Congress never bring up the lost opportunity costs of such “investments.” Imagine the better schools and hospitals this country could have today, the improved public transportation, more affordable housing, even bushels of wheat, for the cost of those prodigal weapons and the complex that goes with them. And perish the thought of acknowledging in any significant way how so many of those “investments” have failed spectacularly, including the Zumwalt-class destroyers and the Navy’s Freedom-class littoral combat ships that came to be known in the Pentagon as “little crappy ships.”
Speaking of wasteful warships, Ike was hardly the first person to notice how much they cost or what can be sacrificed in building them. In his prescient book The War in the Air, first published in 1907, H.G. Wells, the famed author who had envisioned an alien invasion of Earth in The War of the Worlds, denounced his own epoch’s obsession with ironclad battleships in a passage that eerily anticipated Ike’s powerful critique:
The cost of those battleships, Wells wrote, must be measured by:
“The lives of countless men… spent in their service, the splendid genius and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost—that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.”
Little could he imagine our own era’s “wasteful megatheria.” These days, substitute nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, aircraft carriers, and similar “modern” weapons for the ironclads of his era and the sentiment rings at least as true as it did then. (Interestingly, all those highly touted ironclads did nothing to avert the disaster of World War I and had little impact on its murderous course or ponderous duration.)
Returning to 1953, Eisenhower didn’t mince words about what the world faced if the iron cross mentality won out: at worst, nuclear war; at best, “a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system, or the Soviet system, or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.”
Ike’s worst-case scenario grows ever more likely today. Recently, Russia suspended the START treaty, the final nuclear deal still in operation, that oversaw reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. Instead of reductions, Russia, China, and the United States are now pursuing staggering “modernization” programs for their nuclear arsenals, an effort that may cost the American taxpayer nearly $2 trillion over the coming decades (though even such a huge sum matters little if most of us are dead from nuclear war).
In any case, the United States in 2023 clearly reflects Ike’s “cross of iron” scenario. It’s a country that’s become thoroughly militarized and so is slowly wasting away, marked increasingly by fear, deprivation, and unhappiness.
It’s Never Too Late to Change Course
Only Americans, Ike once said, can truly hurt America. Meaning, to put the matter in a more positive context, only we can truly help save America. A vital first step is to put the word “peace” back in our national vocabulary.
“The peace we seek,” Ike explained 70 years ago, “founded upon a decent trust and cooperative effort among nations, can be fortified, not by weapons of war but by wheat and by cotton, by milk and by wool, by meat and timber and rice. These are words that translate into every language on earth. These are the needs that challenge this world in arms.”
The real needs of humanity haven’t changed since Ike’s time. Whether in 1953 or 2023, more guns won’t serve the cause of peace. They won’t provide succor. They’ll only stunt and starve us, to echo the words of H.G. Wells, while imperiling the lives and futures of our children.
This is no way of life at all, as Ike certainly would have noted, were he alive today.
Which is why the federal budget proposal released by President Biden for 2024 was both so painfully predictable and so immensely disappointing. Calamitously so. Biden’s proposal once again boosts spending on weaponry and war in a Pentagon budget now pegged at $886 billion. It will include yet more spending on nuclear weapons and envisions only further perpetual tensions with “near-peer” rivals China and Russia.
This past year, Congress added $45 billion more to that budget than even the president and the Pentagon requested, putting this country’s 2023 Pentagon budget at $858 billion. Clearly, a trillion-dollar Pentagon budget is in our collective future, perhaps as early as 2027. Perish the thought of how high it could soar, should the U.S. find itself in a shooting war with China or Russia (as the recent Russian downing of a U.S. drone in the Black Sea brought to mind). And if that war were to go nuclear…
The Pentagon’s soaring war budget broadcast a clear and shocking message to the world. In America’s creed, blessed are the warmakers and those martyrs crucified on its cross of iron.
This was hardly the message Ike sought to convey to the world 70 years ago this April. Yet it’s the message the MICC conveys with its grossly inflated military budgets and endless saber-rattling.
Yet one thing remains true today: it’s never too late to change course, to order an “about-face.” Sadly, lacking the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower, such an order won’t come from Joe Biden or Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or any other major candidate for president in 2024. It would have to come from us, collectively. It’s time to wise up, America. Together, it’s time to find an exit ramp from the highway to hell that we’ve been on since 1953 and look for the on-ramp to Ike’s highway to peace.
And once we’re on it, let’s push the pedal to the metal and never look back.
8 thoughts on “Dwight Eisenhower on the Cost of Permanent War”
with the reference to 9/11,
Essay November/December 1998 Issue United States Intelligence
Catastrophic Terrorism: Tackling the New Danger
By Ashton B. Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow
IMAGINING THE TRANSFORMING EVENT
In December 1998, Former US Defence Secretary Ash Carter, US Undersecretary of Defence John Deutch and Philip Zelikow, Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, colluded to write this in Foreign Affairs Journal,
A successful attack with weapons of mass destruction could certainly take thousands, or tens of thousands, of lives. If the device that exploded in 1993 under the World Trade Center had been nuclear, or had effectively dispersed a deadly pathogen, the resulting horror and chaos would have exceeded our ability to describe it.
Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949.
Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks.
I find it curious it happened just like that 3 years later, and one of the Authors was able to control what information the 9/11 Commission was able to see?
Reagan’s treason: October Surprise and the $23 million payoff
by Greg PalastMarch 20, 2023
This week, a Texas pol, Ben Barnes, confessed that he was personally involved—and therefore an eyewitness to–high treason: The Ronald Reagan campaign’s successful secret deal with the Iranian government to hold 52 Americans hostages so that Reagan could defeat Jimmy Carter.
Reagan’s skanky deal worked. In 1980, Carter’s failure to bring home the hostages destroyed his chance of reelection. Reagan ultimately would repay the favor from Iran’s murder-crats with weapons and even, for the Ayatollah Khomeini, a birthday cake from Reagan advisor Oliver North.
The question is, why now? Why did Barnes suddenly blow the whistle on this crime—and a crime it is—four decades late? His cute excuse, reported without question by the New York Times, is that, “History needs to know that this happened.”
Wrong. “History” doesn’t need to know—American voters needed to know about Reagan’s treason before the 1980 election.
So, then, why did Barnes squirrel away the truth for decades? Follow the money.
It’s a money trail that leads to two Bushes who would not have become president if not for Barnes’ silence about Iran—and Barnes’ omertà about another creepy Bush scheme………………………………….
In Ike’s own words, as read by family members: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=on3KFBXQI2E
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Thank you for this and the accompanying article in TomDispatch–
Sad to say that as well written by an accomplished career military/military historian, and
supported by a superb editor/publisher (Tom Englehardt) as these posts are, they will be largely unread and ignored by the very people who should be taking them to heart and to action in
beginning the long process of turning the ship of state away from dreams of empire and towards stewardship of our people and our planet.
I’m nearing 80, a Vietnam combat Vet, retired Psychiatrist who spent the last 5 years of his 40-year practice at the VA experiencing how broken the whole DoD /Congressional oversight/Veteran
support system has become, a lifelong Progressive Democrat now with 4 granddaughters:
Where is the next-generation leadership?
I’m an eclectic reader and an amateur historian,
but have become increasingly convinced that we are a fatally flawed species, endlessly pursuing
dominion over others and our fellow lifeforms and tiny, solitary planet, fouling our many nests as we go. Ah well, all of us will be long gone and the ongoing Age of Bacteria (see Stephen Jay Gould) can get back to rebalancing the oceans, the land, and the atmosphere in Peace.
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You’re welcome, Steve. Yes, we are fouling our nest, aren’t we? Perhaps we should add “crimes against the planet” to crimes against humanity.
And the nations were angry, and your WRATH is come, and the time of the dead, (Spiritually dead) that they should be judged, and that you should give reward to your servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear your name, small and great; and should destroy them which destroy the earth. (made in the image and likeness of God, humans are doing that)
Therefore rejoice, you heavens, and you that dwell in them. (the kingdom of heaven is WITHIN you)
Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great WRATH, because he knows that he has but a short time.
We see the Nations are angry and getting angrier. Science is telling us we are destroying the environment that sustains us, but who can discern WHICH WRATH IS WHICH?
You have devoted a number of recent postings, Bill, to extoling the “virtue” of Eisenhower for his rants as President about and against America’s so-called “Cross of Iron” and its “Military-Industrial Complex”; lamenting the fact that very few ~ if any ~ Americans paid the slightest bit of attention to what he was saying then. Let alone comprehended and acted upon it then. Or today.
And that Americans today are totally ignorant of what he said then, even tho his words are more applicable to America today than they were at that time, almost 70 years ago.
Eisenhower was inaugurated on 20jan53, seven months before the Korean War ended in the stalemate that exists to this day. He delivered his “Cross of Iron” speech on 16apr54, one month after Dien Bien Phu fell, and America’s bankrolling France’s doomed attempt to reclaim its colonial empire in Southeast Asia ended in total and complete failure. At least for everybody not making all kinds of money from that obscenity started by Truman shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s surrender, and dutifully carried on by Ike.
It has been noted a couple of times on recent BV Comments that Ike’s “M-I-C” speech could have only happened in the last 3 or so days of his presidency. That had it happened any sooner, Nixon would have become President long before 1969, much like LBJ assumed the throne in 1963.
In terms of its immediate impact on the Real World, the most important speech Eisenhower gave was neither his “Cross of Iron” nor “M-I-C” orations. Rather, it was his “Domino Theory” speech of 07apr54, nine days before his “CoI” rant.
That was when ~ referring to the spread of Communism specifically in Indochina ~ he declared: “Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_theory ]
And within one year of him proclaiming that bullshit, the US had installed Diem in Saigon, totally ignored the Geneva Accords that officially ended what the Vietnamese People term “The French [as opposed to “The American] War,” boycotted the national election on the leadership of a unified Vietnam, and laid the foundation for what ultimately kicked in after the US government’s and its media’s Lies about an incident in the Tonkin Gulf in August of 1964.
And the rest, as one wag put it, “is history.”
Given that America’s M-I-C desperately needed and wanted a War someplace, anyplace after Korea concluded, a valid hypothesis is that had Eisenhower not bought into and then sold his “domino theory” as it related specifically to Southeast Asia, Nixon would have again become President back in the 50s; again just like LBJ after Dallas.
Whatever potential for GOOD Ike’s Cross of Iron and M-I-C speeches might have had back then or still have, the EVIL propagated, perpetrated, and perpetuated by his “Domino Theory” rant renders those other two chats as totally irrelevant and meaningless then and now. Particularly for the Vietnamese People, their Land, Country, and Nation.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s a lot to talk about today, from what happened 20 years ago, the U.S. invasion to Iraq, to the Ukraine war. But let’s begin in the present, this latest news of the Xi-Putin summit, the Chinese peace plan that was offered, and Zelensky’s response to it. Do you see a path right now? Start off by talking about the significance of the summit.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, you know, we should not take at face value anything the parties say, whether we’re talking about Russia, China, Ukraine or the United States.
I think what impresses me is the evidence of Chinese diplomatic activism. And I say that also with reference to their role in bringing about the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Our diplomacy, American diplomacy, strikes me as reactive and unimaginative and ineffective. But I think Chinese diplomacy appears to be more imaginative and potentially more effective. What that says is — guess what — the world is changing in important and dramatic ways with regard to the distribution of power and influence worldwide. And this simply confirms, in a sense, what we’ve always known, or known for a long time, which is that, yes, indeed, China is emerging as a global superpower on a par with the United States of America………………………………………………………