Big Guns + Big Bucks= Bad News

Three nights before the end of his term, World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his last speech as President of the United States. Although it has been more than thirty years since, the power and telling accuracy of his words has only grown.

President Eisenhower began with traditional words of summary and celebration, but quickly turned to an unexpected subject: "Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. 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."

Eisenhower warned us in 1961 about the rise of a powerful and influential military industry. Looking over the developments of the past thirty years, his sense of alarm is clearly justified. By the 1990s, military spending dwarfed spending on other government programs.

Government spending on military programs involves payments to private military corporations. These corporations spend billions of taxpayer money developing weapons systems, then sell them back to the U.S. Defense Department, and to warmaking governments around the world. By 1991, two out of three nations on the globe received American-made weapons.

Continuing his farewell speech, Eisenhower warned us: "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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted."

Had we listened to Eisenhower's warning, we might have lived in a safer world. Unfortunately, we didn't, and the military industry's grip on our domestic and foreign policy has inexorably tightened as the years have passed.

How did these corporations of war get so much power? Sometimes, they've done it directly by buying off our representatives. In the 1996 elections, they donated over $11 million to presidential and congressional candidates. According to Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, "The best money the military-industrial complex spends is on campaign contributions."

Just in case good old-fashioned corruption doesn't work the way it's supposed to, military corporations make use of the second American vice: advertising. Huge contractors spend big bucks to produce slick videos designed especially for the Washington, D.C. television market. First, they set up the problem, as in this McDonnell-Douglas segment:

"With the perception of conflict diminished, tens of thousands of high-technology aerospace jobs are threatened, as are employers from coast to coast, spelling even more trouble for a fragile economy."

If a lack of conflict in the post-Cold War era is a problem for weapon manufacturers, you can guess what the solution is. And if you want conflict, you've got to have an enemy. Lockheed-Martin's ad makes it clear:

"The fact is civilized society is under seige. The world is populated by renegade nations and extremist factions willing to use any method available to spread their beliefs. These potential enemies continue to modernize and upgrade their military capabilities..."

The military industry's slick advertising operations and corrupting political contributions have had a more than tiny effect in shaping our policies of war. To back up these tactics, warmakers can always depend on the media. In this case, though, they donít have to bribe 'em: they own 'em outright! On television, for example, two out of the three major networks (CBS and NBC) are wholly owned subsidiaries of military contractors (Westinghouse and General Electric, respectively). According to Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University,
"It's not very likely that you're going to find a reporter suicidal enough to try to do a story that's going to win him the disfavor of the higher ups at the network, in the advertising department, or in the offices of the parent company, which may well be the parent company of a defense contractor."

So we shouldn't be so surprised when our representatives vote for ever larger defense budgets, when our executive branch readies itself for yet another bombing campaign, when our airwaves ring with military commercials and when our news media bat nary an eyelash. In an age when the decisions of our leaders cannot be trusted, and when the completeness of the information fed to us by our commercial media cannot be depended upon, we are forced to depend on ourselves. As President Eisenhower put it so well: "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

What would such a proper mesh look like? It's hard to imagine in time when the United States again and again plays the brinkmanship game of bombing campaigns. But maybe President Eisenhower had it right on the night of his farewell speech three decades ago:

"Down the long lane of history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.

Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield....

We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied;
that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full;
that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings;
that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities;
that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity;
that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth,
and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love."

Information used in this essay is taken from America's Defense Monitor, a program of the Center for Defense Information.

To read the full text of President Eisenhower's farewell speech, click here.

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