Fifty years ago today, on Jan. 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued his prophetic warning about the military-industrial complex, anticipating the increased political, economic, military and even cultural influence of the Pentagon and its allies. Several weeks earlier, he had privately told his senior advisers in the Oval Office of the White House, "God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn't know the military as well as I do." Several months after his inauguration in 1953, he warned against warfare that had "humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
Although the Cold War ended two decades ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, recent presidents have found no way out of increased military deployments and expenditures. Nor have they challenged the national security influence of the military. No president since Eisenhower has genuinely understood the dangers of the Pentagon's increasing influence over our national security policy. Eisenhower made sure that he was never outmaneuvered by his military advisers, particularly on such key issues as the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, which his immediate successors thoroughly bungled. President John F. Kennedy never understood that the Pentagon anticipated the failure of the CIA in Cuba in 1961 and hoped to use its air power to achieve success. President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to challenge pleas from the Pentagon for more force and additional troops in Vietnam until it was too late.
Unlike Kennedy and Johnson, Eisenhower ignored the hysteria of the bomber and missile gaps in the 1950s, as well as the heightened concerns about U.S. security in National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) in the late 1940s and the Gaither Report in the mid-1950s, which called for unnecessary increases in the strategic arsenal. Eisenhower ignored the many Democrats and Republicans who advocated for increased defense spending, and he even cut the military budget by 20 percent between 1953 and 1955 on the way to balancing the federal budget by 1956.
Eisenhower clashed with the military mindset from the very beginning of his presidency. He knew that his generals were wrong in proclaiming "political will" the major factor in military victory and would have shuddered when Gen. David Petraeus proclaimed recently that political will is the key factor for U.S. success in Afghanistan. Eisenhower knew that military demands for weaponry and resources were always based on inexplicable notions of "sufficiency," and he made sure that Pentagon briefings to Congress were countered by testimony from the intelligence community.
Henry A. Kissinger was one of the rare national security advisers and secretaries of state who understood Eisenhower's point of view. During the ratification process for the SALT I agreement in 1972, he countered conservative and military opposition to SALT and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with two questions the opponents of arms control could never answer: "What is strategic sufficiency? What would we do with strategic sufficiency if we had it?"
Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address in 1961 that the United States should not become a "garrison state," but 50 years later we have developed a garrison mentality with unprecedented military spending; continuous military deployments; exaggerated fears with regard to "Islamo-terrorism" and now cyberwars; and exaggerated aspirations with regard to counterinsurgency and nation-building. Eisenhower understood that the military-industrial complex fostered an inordinate belief in the omnipotence of American military power.
Finally, Eisenhower understood the limits and constraints on the use of force and did not fall prey to the type of planning that led to Kennedy's Bay of Pigs, Johnson's Vietnam, Ronald Reagan's Grenada, George W. Bush's Iraq, and now Barack Obama's Afghanistan. He started no wars and wisely settled for a stalemate in Korea. He stood alone in heavily criticizing the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, and he ignored criticism for not assisting the Hungarian uprising weeks later.
Unfortunately, with the possible exception of President Richard Nixon, we have not had a president who understood the military mindset and was willing to limit the influence of the military. Democrats such as Kennedy, Johnson and Bill Clinton, as well as Republicans such as Mr. Reagan and the two Presidents Bush, have deferred too readily to the military. They devoted too many resources to the military and often resorted to the use of power instead of diplomacy and statecraft.
The twin military setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, where failed counterinsurgency strategies have cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, should lead to a serious national security debate to prevent the mistakes of the past two decades. But President Obama finds himself in a position where the military wields far too much influence on Capitol Hill and within the intelligence community; controls too much of the weak U.S. economy; and has the leading policy voice on security issues. Instead of catering to the military, Mr. Obama would do well to heed the philosophy and advice of Eisenhower, who stood alone in understanding America's infatuation with military power.
Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Reversing the Militarization of the United States." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.