Military-Industrial-Complex Thrives 54 Years After Eisenhower

Arnie Alpert on April 20, 2015

In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans that the rise of “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" posed a grave threat to American democracy.  Fifty-four years later, the warning still rings true.  As William Hartung explained on a recent New Hampshire speaking tour, corporations that earn billions from contracts to sell weapons to the Pentagon keep the profits flowing with campaign donations, lobbyists, a lucrative revolving door for military officers and civilian government officials, and even major gifts to the charities favored by the spouses of key members of Congress.  Eisenhower's call for an "alert and knowledgable citizenry" has as much urgency as ever.  

William Hartung at the Concord Friends Meetinghouse

(Arnie wrote this for NH Peace Action's newsletter.)

Congressman Buck McKeon’s list of campaign contributors looks like a “Who’s Who” – or perhaps a “What’s What” – of companies that sell weapons to the Pentagon.  The top five on his all-time list:  Lockheed-Martin, Northrup Grumman, General Atomics, General Dynamics, and Boeing, which between them donated almost $700,000 to his campaigns from 1991 to 2014, the years tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics.  

Representative McKeon, whose southern California district included several military bases and numerous manufacturing facilities for the weapons contractors, was a champion for ever higher levels of military spending and for armed intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.  From 2011 t0 2015, he chaired the House Armed Services Committee, whose decisions set priorities for military spending.  It’s no surprise that the corporations that take in billions each year from the Pentagon were his best buddies.

The cozy relationship between corporations that profit from militarism and the lawmakers who authorize funds for US warmaking is a prominent feature of what President Dwight Eisenhower famously called the “military industrial complex.” 

Eisenhower's Warning

Eisenhower introduced the term into the political vocabulary in a 1961 speech in which he described the rise of “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” declared the former five-star general.  “The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”

The president went on to warn, “In the councils of government, 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.”

Fifty-four years later, the “conjunction” between arms and politics is no longer new, but Eisenhower’s warning rings truer than ever. 

"Governing Under the Influence"

That’s why the American Friends Service Committee is calling attention to “Governing Under the Influence,” or GUI.  By activating volunteers to raise issues with the would-be presidents roaming around New Hampshire and Iowa, AFSC hopes to drive concerns about excessive corporate influence over government policy – for which the military-industrial-complex continues to be a stark example – into the heart of the country’s political discourse.  Already AFSC has trained hundreds of volunteers to be “bird dogs,” citizen activists who will put candidates on the spot with well-crafted questions that also raise awareness and get attention from reporters covering the campaign.   The GUI project has another branch at AFSC’s office in Des Moines, Iowa, and a dynamic website that keeps up-to-date calendars of candidate appearances, publishes reports of encounters with candidates, and provides ongoing analysis of the GUI syndrome.      

Military policy analyst William Hartung, who visited New Hampshire on a 4-day speaking tour sponsored by AFSC, NH Peace Action, and other groups, used Rep. McKeon’s campaign fundraising as an example of GUI.  In the post-Citizens United era of Super PACs and clandestine gifts to political groups, some of the techniques military contractors use to reward their political friends are “almost quaint,” Hartung said.  But there’s a lot more to it than campaign cash, he explained at talks in Durham, Henniker, Keene, Concord, Canterbury, and Manchester. 

866 Lobbyists for the Military Weapons Makers

First, there are lobbyists, hundreds of them, compared to a mere handful for organizations like Peace Action that advocate for lower levels of military spending.  The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying as well as campaign spending, says that “defense” lobbyists spent more than $126 million last year, an amount that doesn’t include activities for which Washington-based power brokers do not have to report.

According to the Center, 533 out of 866 registered lobbyists for “defense” companies were “revolvers,” i.e. individuals who have gone through the “revolving door” between government service and employment as lobbyists. 

Take Lockheed Martin, the number one military contractor, as an example.  It contracted with 21 firms last year on top of its own staff lobbyists to work Washington connections.  All told Lockheed has 96 lobbyists, two-thirds of whom have gone through the revolving door, among them former Senators Alphonse D’Amato, John Breaux, and Trent Lott, and former Congressmen Bart Stupak and Sonny Callahan.  In 2014, Lockheed spent half a million dollars on the services of the Podesta Group, headed by Tony Podesta and his brother John, who is in the news this week as the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s officially launched presidential campaign.   

Generals Go Through the Revolving Door

It’s not just members of Congress and their staff.  A Boston Globe article by Bryan Bender reported, “From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.”  Bender reported that the Pentagon even sponsors seminars to teach retiring senior officers how to move from military service to a lucrative career with a military contractor. 

“In some years, the move from general staff to industry is a virtual clean sweep. Thirty-four out of 39 three- and four-star generals and admirals who retired in 2007 are now working in defense roles — nearly 90 percent,” Bender found.  Many of them also volunteer on Pentagon advisory committees. 

And the revolving door doesn’t just lead to K Street lobbying firms; it also opens the way to “think tanks” funded by the weapons makers and media institutions that cover politics. 

The impact of the contributions and the lobbying can be seen in a military budget in the vicinity of a trillion dollars a year if you add up the regular Defense Department appropriation, add the special war budget (now known as “Overseas Contingency Operations”), the Department of Energy’s allocation for nuclear weapons, the “homeland security” budget, the secret budgets of the CIA and NSA, and the expense of past wars.  “There’s a huge imbalance between what we spend on the military and what we spend on diplomacy,” Hartung said. 

$500 Million in Weapons Unaccounted For (and that's just in Yemen)

The Pentagon has so much money and so many weapons its 1.5 million employees can’t even keep track of it, Hartung explained.  That the agency can’t pass an audit is a fact that might even get attention from fiscal conservatives among the presidential contenders.  The fact that the Pentagon “is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen,” as the Washington Post reported in March, ought to get the attention of anyone with a shred of common sense.

Hartung also points to overseas weapons sales as another example of government on the side of the arms industry, which recently succeeded in moving arms sales licensing from the State Department to the Commerce Department.  (Lockheed Martin’s chief executive recently assured investors they don’t have to worry about peace breaking out if the USA and Iran ink a nuclear weapons agreement.  There’s enough “volatility” in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region to maintain a high demand for Lockheed’s products, she said.)

And then there’s what Hartung calls “party favors,” little gestures the weapons makers make for their friends.  When Rep. John Murtha headed the Armed Services Committee, Lockheed, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and General Dynamics spread their largess to the Johnstown PA symphony orchestra, where Murtha’s wife was a major supporter. “During the first six months of 2008, lobbyists, corporations and interest groups gave approximately $13 million to charities and nonprofit organizations in honor of more than 200 members of the House and Senate,” the NY Times reported

You can call it the military industrial complex, you can call it systemic corruption, you can call it GUI.  Whatever you call it, catering to the self-interest of giant corporations that profit from war is no way to run a government that is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Liberty and Democracy Endangered

That brings us back to Buck McKeon, who used to run the Armed Services Committee.   When his wife, Patricia Kunz McKeon, ran for the California Assembly in 2012, she of course needed to raise money for her campaign.  Although her pet issue was repeal of the state’s plastic bag tax, not arming the National Guard with missiles, military contractors were at her side with $34,000 in campaign contributions.  Lockheed Martin kicked in $3000, and while she didn’t win, they no doubt saw the expense as a good investment in their alliance with her powerful husband.

Buck McKeon retired from Congress last year, but he’s apparently not headed for a quiet retirement.  Instead, he has opened a consulting firm in Washington.  According to a press release sent out from The McKeon Group in February, “Mr. McKeon looks forward to using his background and experience to provide strategic advice to clients, while continuing to be outspoken for a strong national defense.”  The Center for Public Integrity reports he’s already lined up a contract with Aerojet Rocketdyne, “a world-recognized aerospace and defense leader providing propulsion and energetics to the space, missile defense, strategic, tactical missile and armaments areas in support of domestic and international markets.”

Sounding his prophetic warning about the perilous alliance between the armaments industry and the government, President Eisenhower said, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”

He also called for the awakening of “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to keep the government on the side of peace.  That’s us.  Get in touch with AFSC's NH Program, our Des Moines office, or NH Peace Action to get involved.

Author

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert

Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire Program, which he has led since 1981.  In that time he has been involved in movements for economic justice and affordable housing, civil and worker rights, peace and disarmament, abolition of the death penalty, and an end to racism and homophobia.