Pentagon quiet on ‘military-industrial complex’ 50th anniversary

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Pentagon likes to put up huge commemorative posters and placards reminding Defense Department employees to celebrate things like Black History Month, Asian-American Diversity Week, even Holocaust Remembrance Day – pretty much name it, and they’ve got a sign for it. 

Not appearing on any Pentagon hallway: a call to remember the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech, warning of the “military-industrial complex.” 

The poster makers missed an opportunity. The buzzword around Secretary of Defense Robert Gates heading into 2011, his last year of service, is “efficiencies.”  That is, Gates has ordered everyone to save money across the DOD and service branches by cutting or stopping programs, reducing the numbers of four-star generals, and eliminating thousands of contractors.

Just don’t call them defense “cuts,” Pentagon press staff constantly reminds reporters, because those DOD offices are planning to reinvest whatever savings they found back into their own budget.  It’s complicated, so read about it here.

Gates has claimed the Eisenhower mantle for his moves, giving a major speech at the Eisnehower Library in Abilene, Kan., in May 2010. He only half-jokingly said Eisenhower once got lost looking for his own Pentagon office, and more seriously laid out his plan to keep scaling back overbudget and overdue defense weapons systems, signaling what was to come. 

Gates was inspired by old White House meeting notes showing Eisenhower “exasperated” that “no one ever comes up to him and says, ‘Let’s get rid of something.’” 

“Looking back from today’s vantage point,” Gates said, “what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced.  This became increasingly rare in the decades that followed, despite the best efforts of some of my predecessors and other attempts at reform over the years.”

Gates was on a roll.

“Without exercising real diligence,” he continued later, “if nature takes its course, major weapons programs will devolve into pursuing the limits of what technology will bear without regard to cost or what a real world enemy can do….”

But “efficiencies” is not exactly the same as Eisenhower’s now poignant warnings. (Text of speech: here.)

This month has produced several commemorative articles on the true meaning of Eisenhower's Jan. 17, 1961, farewell address, such as here, here, and here

Even his granddaughter chimed in.

Not all of them are so fawning with “I told you so” reminders.

David Greenberg, Rutgers University professor of history and media studies, and a Woodrow Wilson International Center fellow, warns the “cult” of recent lovers of the speech “misleadingly recast Eisenhower—a lifelong internationalist and military man—as a veritable peacenik.”

“Eisenhower's fears about standing military power never outweighed his conviction that it was necessary,” Greenberg said.

Two other recent articles are worth a look. 

First, the Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender (disclosure: a friend and former colleague of mine) spent more than a year investigating the legacy of the military-industrial complex: rent-a-generals.  A whole generation of them.

Second, and perhaps my favorite take on the speeches actually was published five months ago by Peter Canellos, the Boston Globe’s editorial editor and former longtime Washington bureau chief (and my former boss).

Canellos wrote a truly eye-catching article that noted what most people never realize: the grainy, black and white clip of old Eisenhower warning about the post-World War II military buildup, and the forward-looking inauguration speech of young President John F. Kennedy delivering the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” occurred just three days apart.

(Read the text here. The original article is behind a paywall here. )

“In fact,” Canellos wrote, “they represented the final shots in a year-long duel between the two men.” It was Kennedy, propping up his campaign trail national security cred, who claimed Eisenhower, the Republican, had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviets.

“The gap didn't exist. (It's unclear when Kennedy, who was eventually briefed by the CIA, found out.) But so many military leaders, journalists, and defense contractors insisted it did exist that Kennedy gained significant political advantage, to Eisenhower's undying frustration.”

In the end, it didn’t matter.

“Eisenhower,” Canellos concluded, “spoke to a reality that America, five decades hence, still can’t fully accept.”



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