Much public attention has been focused in recent weeks on Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, delivered fifty years ago this month and responsible for introducing the concept of the "military-industrial complex" into the English language.
A major reason for the enduring interest in the speech is that Eisenhower was a lifelong pillar of the military-industrial complex he criticized. His assessment of the dark side of America’s military machine would have been unusual coming from any American president; for it to come from a five-star general who had amassed and led one of the largest military forces in human history to win World War II was nothing short of astonishing. (And, of course, some might say hypocritical, given the massive buildup in America’s nuclear arsenal during the Eisenhower presidency, from about 1,000 weapons to about 23,000 by the time he delivered his speech.)
But it’s also true that the fundamental idea contained in Eisenhower’s farewell speech—the notion that public and private forces conspire to keep military spending high, threatening democracy and human liberty—did not originate with Eisenhower or the group of advisers who prepared his speech.
In slightly different form, the "merchants of death" thesis was one of the most potent political issues of the 1930s and early ’40s. This thesis captivated the antiwar American left, as represented by The Nation, as well as "prairie populist" Republicans and politically powerful World War I veterans, who believed that the United States had been duped by powerful military and financial interests into joining the Great War.
Indeed, there is a little-known episode from this era that directly ties Dwight Eisenhower to The Nation in a surprising way. Eisenhower spent much of the period between the wars performing different research and administrative tasks for the War Department. One of these tasks, begun in 1929, involved a close study of how the economy should be organized in case another major war enveloped it (thereby making Eisenhower as much an early architect of the military-industrial complex as he would later be a critic).
Virtually no one, inside or outside the military, approved of the way military procurement had been handled during World War I. The left excoriated "war profiteering," pointing to companies that had dramatically raised prices to supply much-needed matériel, while the War Department deplored shoddy equipment, inconsistent supplies and widespread cost overruns. Eisenhower was assigned to coordinate Congressional hearings into these matters and to assemble a draft report on how to better structure the relationship between the military and industry.
And so it came to pass that Eisenhower was reading The Nation, perhaps not entirely voluntarily, to learn about military spending and profiteering. In the summer of 1930 The Nation published a brief but unusual exposé titled, "The Profits of War." In it, a law professor named Forrest Reserve Black claimed to have seen internal War Department memorandums from 1924 indicating that for several years the government had been contracting with private manufacturers to supply matériel for a yet-to-be-declared war. According to Black, an agreement called the War Department Adjustable Price Contract guaranteed munitions makers a certain level of production and a price that would include a "normal" profit; the contract would come into effect upon a declaration of war or similar national emergency.