Dwight Eisenhower on the Cost of Permanent War

W.J. Astore

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 moviesTV showsvideo gameseducationsports, 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 feardeprivation, 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.

A Peculiar Form of American Madness

W.J. Astore

Heroification of the military is a strange mindset for any self-avowed democracy

America is touched by a peculiar form of collective madness that sees military action as creative rather than destructive, desirable rather than deplorable, and constitutive to democracy rather than corrosive to it.

This madness, this hubris, this elevation or heroification of the military and war has to end, or it will most certainly end America, if not the world.

Related to this, America advances and sustains a historical narrative based on triumphalism, exceptionalism, and goodness. We Americans see total military dominance as something to crow about, even as we insist that it’s our birthright as “exceptional” Americans. This mindset, or Zeitgeist if you will, enables and empowers a national security state that easily consumes more than half of federal discretionary spending each year. As long as this mindset persists, the MICC or MICIMATT will persist and continue to grow in reach and power.

So that’s my first big step in taming the military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think-tank complex. America’s mindset, its culture, must change. Change the mindset and you begin to change the deference if not adulation granted to the MICIMATT.

Change the mindset, weaken the blob. That was what Dwight D. Eisenhower had in mind in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953.1 Our peculiar form of militarized madness is simply no way of life at all for democracy or for the planet.

It won’t be easy because we’re taught to salute the military and support “our” beloved troops. We’re taught that corporations like Boeing and Raytheon are job-creators, even citizens. We look to Congress to represent us, even as its members thrive on corporate campaign contributions (bribes) while genuflecting to the generals and admirals. We look to the media for news and information even as those outlets are fueled by advertising dollars from companies like Boeing, if not owned by them. We look to “liberal” academia for new ideas even as colleges and universities compete for Pentagon research and development dollars. We look to think tanks for fresh approaches even as they’re funded by weapons contractors.

Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that the U.S. no longer sees peace as possible or even as desirable. Peace is rarely mentioned by U.S. political candidates or by the mainstream media. War is simply taken for granted; even worse, it’s seen as the health of the state.

That war is now seen as the health of the state is indeed a peculiar form of American madness. As the Christmas season approaches, is it too much to ask for sanity as in peace on earth and good will toward all?

1

Ike’s “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953 was brilliant in its clarity and power. Can you imagine any U.S. politician saying these words today?

“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. 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.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. 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.”

Military Spending Robs Workers and the Poor

Ike was unafraid of plain and cruel truths

W.J. Astore

Unless you’re working for Raytheon or some other weapons contractor, you’re being robbed whenever our government spends excessively on the military, which is always. $54 billion of your money was stolen from you and sent to Ukraine, with much of it going to Raytheon and similar merchants of death. More than $813 billion will be spent next year on the Pentagon, with roughly half of that being unnecessary for true national defense. Excessive military spending is a form of theft in which workers and the poor are the biggest victim.

My point here isn’t original. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said it nearly 70 years ago in 1953 in his brilliant “Cross of Iron” speech. In Ike’s words:

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. 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.

This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. 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. These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

Ike, a Republican, a retired five-star general, told it like it was, is, and remains. Excessive military spending isn’t a left-right issue. It isn’t a Democrat-Republican issue. It’s a class issue. It’s a moral issue. Ike knew this and was unafraid to say it.

Ike said we are crucifying ourselves with this militarized way of life. He chose this image deliberately for its Christian meaning and moral power. He spoke openly of “plain and cruel truths.” Ike, a true public servant, wanted to make a better America. He had no fear of the military-industrial-Congressional complex because he knew it so well and could resist its old siren song of perpetual war as being somehow in our national interest. I salute him for his honesty and his wisdom.

What do we need to do? We need to reject militarism, we need to reinvest in America, we need to reanimate our democracy, and we need to restore peace. We need more Americans to run and work on these 4 Rs. America needs a thoroughgoing reformation now or, mark my words, as my dad used to say, we will soon experience something far more disruptive and unpleasant.

Are All Wars Local?

Carl von Clausewitz. Postage stamp issued in 1981, 150 years after his death.

W.J. Astore

Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House when Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, liked the saying, “All politics is local.”

Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian theorist of war in the time of Napoleon, taught that war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means.

Does it follow from this that all wars are, in a sense, local?

It doesn’t seem so at first glance. Americans tend to see wars like Iraq and Afghanistan as distant events that are disconnected from our daily lives. (Obviously, if a loved one is in the military and deployed overseas, concern and connection are greatly heightened.)

But when we begin to see the local costs of war, fully to see them, the way they poison lives, infect and erode democracy, and compromise the very climate we live in, we may finally act to put a stop to war.

No matter how distant and obscure America’s wars may be (and who among us really knows what’s happening this minute in Somalia, to cite one example), there are effects that are local.  And until we calculate those costs, and confront the waste and inhumanity of them, we simply won’t work synergistically to end them.

What are some of these local costs? As President Eisenhower said in his famous “cross of iron” speech, every warship we build, every rocket we fire, every warplane we launch, represents a theft from those who hunger, a theft from projects such as building schools or repairing roads and bridges. Every dollar we spend on war is a dollar we don’t spend here in America on our own sustenance, our own health as a civil society. Meanwhile, the dreadful costs incurred by wasteful wars, which will eventually exceed $8 trillion for the Iraq and Afghan wars, drives up our national debt, which is then cited, rightly or wrongly, as a reason to curb domestic spending. Profligacy for war, austerity for ordinary Americans, seems to be the new American way. And it’s impoverishing our democracy and our civic culture.

Other effects of war would include the costs of aiding veterans who are wounded, whether in body or mind or both, in our local communities. It would include the militarization of local police forces with surplus military weaponry that is then used to suppress legitimate dissent. And, if you’ve lived on or near a military base, you’ve likely experienced noise pollution to go with environmental pollution and degradation, much of it kept classified or otherwise hidden from view.

America’s wars, in short, are never truly distant and disconnected from our lives. They are instead connected to us, shaping our vision of what’s possible and impossible, what’s inevitable and what’s preventable, what’s normal and what’s abnormal.

A state of permanent war is not normal, America. Its effects are all around us and they are not good. But the good news is that, just as the effects of war are local, so too can the fight against war be local. Raise your voice and take a stand against war. If all politics is local, the political fight against war can and should be local too.