Eisenhower Warns of the Military-Industrial Complex

In his farewell address to the nation, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower discussed the necessity of national defense and security but warned against the potential insidious effects of a military-industrial complex should the private arms sector achieve an unwarranted degree of influence in America’s governance.

Summary of Event

On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed his half century of service to the American people with a farewell address in which he called for balance in the nation’s policies, especially with respect to the competing needs for fiscal responsibility and the maintenance of a strong military establishment. Inspired by President George Washington’s farewell address, Eisenhower challenged U.S. citizens to be vigilant with respect to military spending. His address gained fame for its warnings of the ill-effects of the “military-industrial complex,” defined by Eisenhower and his speech writers as the conjunction of the military establishment and civilian defense contractors (the word “congressional” was considered as part of the term, but that idea was abandoned). Cold War;arms race
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[kw]Eisenhower Warns of the Military-Industrial Complex (Jan. 17, 1961)
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[kw]Industrial Complex, Eisenhower Warns of the Military- (Jan. 17, 1961)
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[g]United States;Jan. 17, 1961: Eisenhower Warns of the Military-Industrial Complex[06810]
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Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;military-industrial complex[military industrial complex]
Moos, Malcolm C.
Williams, Ralph E.

Although he had been a hero in World War II as the general who led the Allied forces to victory in Europe, Eisenhower had a soldier’s dislike for war and its tragic toll on humanity, and as president he was alarmed by the possibility of another world war that could bring an end to civilization through the use of nuclear weapons. He also had a long-standing conviction that military expenditures represented a diversion of precious resources from the real needs of society, and that excessive and prolonged defense spending could be maintained only by resorting to a garrison state that would undermine democratic freedoms.

U.S. military expenditures dropped sharply with the demobilization that followed the end of World War II, but they quickly rose again during the Korean War. After taking office as president, Eisenhower negotiated an end to the Korean War. Keeping military expenditures under control, however, proved to be a long-term challenge. Despite his best efforts, expenditures for the military continued to take up more than half the federal budget during his time in office. He was particularly disturbed by the way in which defense contractors sought increased funding from the U.S. Congress through incessant lobbying and advertising, by the way the branches of the U.S. armed forces competed for more lavish and expensive weapons systems, and by the way members of Congress passed military appropriation bills that brought bases and jobs to their districts and used the bills for political advantage.

Eisenhower managed to keep his military subordinates in line when it came to public debate over the defense budget, but Democratic gains in the 1958 elections opened the door to congressional hearings in 1959 that allowed the generals and admirals to voice their dissent with Eisenhower’s policies. Controversy also arose over the existence of an alleged “missile gap” that would hand the Soviets a decisive advantage over the United States in the event of war. Although his sense of loyalty to subordinates restrained him from publicly expressing his disagreements with the military, Eisenhower found that the military chiefs were willing to go to Congress and even to the media with their demands for increased funding, a situation that left him angry and frustrated.

One of Eisenhower’s great heroes was President Washington. Washington, George As Eisenhower drew close to the end of his presidency, he decided to give a farewell address, as Washington had done in 1797. At the end of 1960, Eisenhower set his chief speech writer, Malcolm C. Moos, to work on drafting the address. Moos, a political scientist who had written of his own concerns about the dangers of the United States becoming a garrison state, enlisted the help of Commander Ralph E. Williams, an assistant to Eisenhower’s naval aide. Working closely, Moos and Williams crafted the term “military-industrial complex,” and with Eisenhower’s input the final wording for the speech was reached. The farewell address would be Eisenhower’s way of voicing concerns that had only deepened during his presidency. These concerns had been left unsaid because of an understanding Eisenhower had with his military chiefs, an understanding that the administration and the military would not publicly criticize one another.

Eisenhower delivered his farewell address on the evening of January 17, 1961, over national television from his office in the White House. After discussing the goals that he and the nation had pursued over the years, he warned that these goals were in jeopardy because of the global conflict with communism. He further cautioned that the temptation to secure solutions to the nation’s international policy must not interfere with domestic policy, and he singled out the military establishment and its attendant arms industry as an area of concern. While underlining the unquestioned need for national security in the face of global threats, he gave this warning: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” By being alert and knowledgeable, he said, Americans could do their part to ensure the maintenance of a proper balance between the national and the global. He challenged citizens to assume the watchdog role that he would no longer be able to perform. After extending his cautionary remarks to the area of scientific research, which he warned could become captive to a scientific-technological elite, Eisenhower concluded the address by expressing disappointment that more had not been done to achieve international disarmament during his presidency.


Eisenhower’s speech became, along with that of Washington, one of the two most famous farewell addresses given by a U.S. president. Eisenhower’s speech became notable in part because of the seeming irony of a speaker with Eisenhower’s military reputation and background raising an alarm about a military-industrial complex. It was an unusually revealing speech in which Eisenhower spoke of matters he had been thinking about for some time; he had never been able to express these issues publicly, and with such force and clarity. Also, the speech refuted the traditional wisdom that Eisenhower was a pedestrian speaker. It generated a polite reaction from the press and sparked debate among scholars, who questioned the existence of a military-industrial complex.

Eisenhower would not speak much about the subject after leaving office. In the 1960’s his warning resonated with those who opposed the war in Vietnam, the first of three periods of peak military spending during the decades that followed Eisenhower’s farewell address (the other two peak periods were the military buildup of the Reagan administration in the 1980’s and the actions following September 11, 2001).

Despite making it clear in his address that he did not question the need for military strength—considering it a vital necessity—and although he not did argue that the influence of the military-industrial complex had reached a dangerous level, Eisenhower provided ammunition to those who chose to view the military with suspicion. In the long run, external threats of communist aggression or international terrorism proved sufficient to periodically convince the American people to spend more on the military, Eisenhower’s warning notwithstanding. The address made a lasting mark on the nation’s political culture as well as popular culture, with clips of the speech being used as dramatic openings for at least two Hollywood motion pictures: JFK (1991) and Why We Fight (2005). Cold War;arms race
Military-industrial complex[Military industrial complex]

Further Reading

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. The President. Vol. 2 in Eisenhower. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A two-volume survey of Eisenhower’s life from the time he became president until his death in 1969. Provides background to the events that led up to and inspired the themes of the farewell address. Black-and-white photographs, notes.
  • Brinkley, Douglas. “Eisenhower the Dove.” American Heritage (September, 2001): 58-65. Tells the story behind the farewell address, including the missile-gap controversy, and argues that the speech set the tone for the antiwar dissent of the 1960’s.
  • Griffin, Charles J. G. “New Light on Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.” In Eisenhower’s War of Words: Rhetoric and Leadership, edited by Martin J. Medhurst. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994. Traces the evolution of the farewell address, with special emphasis on the role of Eisenhower’s speech writers and how their work illustrates the speech-writing process of the Eisenhower administration.
  • Herspring, Dale R. The Pentagon and the Presidency: Civil-Military Relations from FDR to George W. Bush. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. Covers civil-military relations in the United States from the perspective of presidents who sought to maintain civilian control. Includes a review of the budget battles fought between Eisenhower and his joint chiefs of staff in the years that led up to the farewell address.
  • Medhurst, Martin J. “Reconceptualizing Rhetorical History: Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 80 (May, 1994): 195-218. Provides a historical overview and textual analysis of Eisenhower’s speech, with a detailed comparison to George Washington’s farewell address.

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