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.
Citing an almost certainly pseudonymous military source named Major Mars, Black asserted that the War Department was acting "upon the advice of big business men and of the National Association of Manufacturers." Black noted that there was no specific legal authority for such a provision, and he predicted that munitions makers would exploit war hysteria to extract the highest possible price from the government. "If the American people really desire to prevent a repetition of 1917–18 they ought to demand full information about this War Department alliance with business interests; for experience has proved over and over the dangers to peace that lurk in the profits of war," Black wrote.
The article caught the eye of the editor of the Manitowoc Times in Wisconsin, who wrote an editorial accusing the War Department of "an outrageous assumption of power." This, in turn, caught the eye of the office of the assistant secretary of war, which felt the need to set both publications straight. A letter was drafted for Gen. George Van Horn Moseley to sign, politely pointing out to each publication that there was indeed a Congressional authorization for such mobilization, the National Defense Act of 1920. Furthermore, the general asserted that there was a public interest in rationalizing the military contracting process that had gone awry during World War I. The drafting, editing and mailing of the letters was overseen by an assistant within the War Department: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It appears The Nation never published this letter, but it hardly lost interest in the topic. While many national publications ignored or scratched their heads over Eisenhower’s farewell, The Nation applauded him for speaking "like the statesman and democratic leader we had so long hungered for him to become."
And thus, oddly, in the early days of John F. Kennedy’s administration—elected to increase military spending to close a mythical "missile gap"—there was an inadvertent alliance between the Eisenhower wing of the GOP and The Nation. In a confidential March 1961 memo to Eisenhower and—yes—Richard Nixon, longtime Ike aide Bryce Harlow boasted that the military-industrial-complex portion of the farewell speech "turns out to be curiously yeasty." He cited as evidence that "Nation magazine, of all things, has suddenly interested itself in the same thing, and has run a column on the subject written by Jerry Greene." (Greene would go on to publish a series of Nation columns on the military budget throughout 1961.)
This surely marks one of the few moments in history when top leaders of the Republican Party believed that political gain could emerge from aligning with The Nation to advocate curbs on military spending. The Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan created a spectacular split between the two institutions. But who knows? Extended Afghanistan-Iraq fatigue and mounting public debt might yet spark a reunion.