How the military-industrial complex lives on today

Author James Ledbetter.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

BOB MOON: Fifty years ago today -- in 1961, just days before John F. Kennedy took over the Oval Office -- Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his final speech as president. It would go down as one of the most memorable exit speeches for any president. A speech in which he warned about the growing influence of the military.

PRESIDENT DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: 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 out liberties or democratic process.

To help us understand what President Eisenhower meant we turn to James Ledbetter, editor at Reuters.com. His new book is called "Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex."
Welcome.

JAMES LEDBETTER: Thank you, Bob.

MOON: So what was President Eisenhower getting at when he made those remarks?

LEDBETTER: Eisenhower, who of course had been a five-star general and had led the Allied forces in World War II, really felt in the final years of his presidency, that the military and the Democratic Party were conspiring to increase military expenditures in a way for which there was no military need. There was a lot of fury about a so-called missile gap, that the United States was falling behind in producing missiles. Well, this wasn't true. Eisenhower knew it wasn't true, but he really couldn't divulge the source of his information, which was the U-2 Spy Plane data because it was top secret. So I think the farewell address was really an attempt to warn the nation that without some degree of supervision, there was no part of this military-industrial compass that was going to stop itself.

MOON: And he pointed out that this was really a new phenomenon in American history that the U.S. had no armaments industry until fairly recently and then we stopped drawing down our troops because I guess our perception of the threat was changed during the Cold War. Now, basically, we're being sold on a whole new number of threats. Let me play you a little bit of a promotional video from Northrop Grumman and ask you if you this is the kind of thing Eisenhower was envisioning.

NORTHRUP GRUMMAN VIDEO: Everything we know: The lives we lead, the communities we create, the enterprises we build are at risk every minute of every day. Threats to our health and financial well-being -- hackers, rogue states and terrorists...

So does fear feed the military-industrial complex or is it more nuanced than that?

LEDBETTER: Well, it is more nuanced. But it is definitely the case that fear fuels it. I love that you focused on advertising because it was, in fact, advertisements for military contractors that irked Eisenhower and his advisers. They would go through these aerospace journals, like "Aviation Week," and you flip through them and you see all of these ads for missile systems and guidance systems and satellite systems. And the thing that made them crazy was there was only one customer and that was the Pentagon, but I think you can argue that all of these ads are designed to sell the rest of us into accepting this sort of political and economic equation that makes these things necessary.

MOON: Anti-war activists often cling to Eisenhower's speech as an argument to stay out of conflict and decrease military spending. Is that really what he was suggesting, that we not build up our military?

LEDBETTER: No. Eisenhower was no pacifist and he believed in fighting the Cold War and winning it. However, he was very concerned that we would "win the Cold War" at any cost.

MOON: And Eisenhower warned that only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry could change that. Are we alert and knowledgeable today?

LEDBETTER: We are now spending -- depending on how you count the numbers -- something like a trillion dollars a year on the military. More in constant dollars than was the case at any time since World War II, and it's not clear that the military spending that we do today is the most effective and the most efficient. So I think that the same tensions that he identified are still there and sadly the solution is the same. It can't be done from the political process itself because there are too many beneficiaries -- Congress was a beneficiary, the military was a beneficiary. It has to come from the only thing that exists outside of the military-industrial complex and that is the minds of the people.

MOON: James Ledbetter is editor at Reuters.com. His new book is called "Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex." Thanks for joining us.

LEDBETTER: Thank you, Bob.

MOON: You can read a chapter from his book -- and hear an extended interview that explores the economic challenges in decoupling industry and the military. Find the audio extra in the sidebar link above.

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