Military-industrial complex Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

President Eisenhower dedicated his farewell address to a warning about the dangers represented by the “military-industrial complex.” Since then, the term has been used to suggest the opportunities for collusion between defense contractors and government agencies that could cause corporate interests in amassing profit to overwhelm governmental interests in the welfare of the nation and its citizens.

On January 17, 1961, delivering his farewell address to the nation, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dwight D.Eisenhower acknowledged the dangers that accompanied the new need for standing defense. He expressed his worries, in particular, about the simultaneous growth in power of both the private arms industry and the national military bureaucracy:Military-industrial complex[military industrial complex]

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual–is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. . . . we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex. . . . We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

An earlier draft of the speech spoke still more explicitly of a “military-industrial-scientific complex.” Even in the final text, Eisenhower warned against both the “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money” and the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” The president had little remedy to recommend, except “statesmanship” and “balance,” but his naming of the problem was itself a lasting contribution.

Militarism and Its Dangers

In the United States, Republican leader Thomas Dewey asserted, “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Eisenhower’s speech continues to shape the debate over the proper relationship between business and government in general and that relationship within the defense industry in particular. The concept of the military-industrial complex serves as a reference point for critics who warn of the dangers of American militarism. It is also implicated in discussions of responsible oversight of the assignment and fulfillment of government contracts to private companies.

The immense military market tempts suppliers to secure government contracts by any means necessary. A “revolving door” system results in former bureaucrats gaining employment as executives in the very industries they were recently responsible for regulating, creating conflicts of interest, or the appearance of them. The scale of defense spending ensures fierce competition among countless individual communities–and their elected representatives–for contracts to build and service military bases and to develop and maintain weapons systems. In the resulting atmosphere of constant competition for governmental contracts, it becomes difficult to differentiate legitimate defense needs from pork-barrel spending.

On one hand, leftist critics such as Noam Chomsky and Henry Giroux argue that the vast power of corporations in pursuit of defense dollars can distort educational practice, democratic citizenship, and basic research. The tendency to privatize war as a business may further warp national priorities, at home and abroad. On the other hand, many believe that continuing development of a robust array of technologies to defend U.S. national security interests depends on the kind of innovativeness “free market” competition is thought to encourage. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex serves to highlight the ability of established market players to influence, in their drive for corporate profits, what counts as a national security interest.

American business and government have both grown enormously since Eisenhower issued his warning. In a globalized world, national boundaries and even national interests begin to seem less significant to multinational corporations trying to maximize their influence and profits. Moreover, as scholar James Adams points out, the balance between government and industry in terms of technological leadership has shifted significantly since the Cold War to favor civilian industries. Interconnections among business, government, and culture have expanded the military-industrial complex into an all-encompassing military-industrial-technological-entertainment-scientific-media-corporate matrix.

Science and Its Profits

Analysts have discerned the idea of the military-industrial complex in the work of sociologist C. Wright Mills and in still earlier cultural trends, but for Eisenhower it was largely a consequence of World War II. That war, during which atomic weapons (among other science-based innovations) were first developed, irreversibly shifted military attitudes toward scientific research. Under the leadership of such individuals as Vannevar Bush, VannevarBush, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s science adviser, the organization of academic scientists plainly contributed materially to military victory. Even before the end of the war, planning for the role of scientific research in postwar life was under way.

Those plans addressed the relationship between research and the military and business worlds. U.S. senator Harley Kilgore, HarleyKilgore of West Virginia, an active proponent of the postwar establishment of the National Science FoundationNational Science Foundation, argued that patents on inventions developed with public funds should fall into the public domain. Bush, on the other hand, argued that the ability to profit from intellectual property rights would drive innovation by private corporations, which should therefore retain patents even on publicly funded projects. Critics have viewed Bush’s laissez-faire approach as sustaining a system of “corporate welfare,” in which the risks and costs of innovation and investment are borne by the public (through subsidies, tax relief, bailouts, and so on), while the profits of successful ventures primarily benefit private companies. Supporters, however, believe that profit is the only motive powerful enough to drive the level of innovation necessary to keep Americans safe.

Further Reading
  • Adams, James. The Next World War: Computers Are the Weapons and the Front Line Is Everywhere. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Places the military-industrial complex in the context of the information revolution.
  • Borden, Penn. Civilian Indoctrination of the Military: World War I and Future Implications for the Military-Industrial Complex. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. Locates the origins of the complex during the early twentieth century Progressive era.
  • Giroux, Henry A. The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2007. Leftist critique of militarism’s influence on higher education.
  • Singer, P. W. Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. Updated ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007. General survey of the emergence of the business of twenty-first century war.
  • Turse, Nick. The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. New York: Henry Holt, 2008. Extension of the concept of the military-industrial complex to include military influence on all aspects of contemporary American culture.
  • Walker, Gregg B., ed. The Military-Industrial Complex: Eisenhower’s Warning Three Decades Later. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Anthology examining the implications of the concept of the military-industrial complex.
  • Weber, Rachel Nicole. Swords into Dow Shares: Governing the Decline of the Military-Industrial Complex. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Argues that the dependence of defense-industry businesses on public resources implies that corporate control should extend beyond shareholders.
  • Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Biography of one of the chief architects of the military-industrial-academic complex.

Arms industry

Government spending

Industrial research

American Industrial Revolution


World War II

Categories: History Content