Eisenhower in his farewell address warned the American people about the United States Military Industrial Complex and its emerging power.

According to Wikipedia The US spends more on the military than the next 8 countries on the list combined. Several times the budget for the whole European Union. Is somehow President Eisenhower's warning related to the economy or was it the threat it could pose to the Americans' liberty?

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    One of the reasons why the United States is at the top of that list is that it has the second biggest economy. So it only needs to spend a moderately higher percentage of its GDP on the military to have a higher absolute spending. By the militarization index, which adjusts for population, the US is only the 29th most militarized. Only 7th in military personnel.
    – Brythan
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 19:40
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    It was a warning about the looming CEOcracy.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 22:32
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    @Brythan That would be important if the military needed to be some size with respect to the population of the country that supports it. But that's only the case if you're expecting to fight against your own population. If you're only expecting international conflicts, it doesn't matter how big your country is - just how big your (potential or actual) allies and enemies are. The US is at the top of the list because they want to utterly dominate military matters, regardless of who they're allied to or who they're afraid of. This would be harder with a weaker economy, but that's about it.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 8:14
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    "Is somehow President Eisenhower's warning related to the economy or was it the threat it could pose to the Americans' liberty?" Maybe both and even more. Anyway, it's not really clear what the questioner expects. An interpretation of Eisenhower's speech? Commented May 23, 2018 at 12:54
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    @code11 Quickly going through the budget it seems that only a small fraction of the expenses would scale with US area; much of it is about preventing a conflict on the US mainland, rather than fighting it.
    – Luaan
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 10:15

4 Answers 4


In his farewell speech of 1961, Eisenhower warned of growth of the 'military-industrial complex' and the 'potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.' It was a speech he began working on two years earlier and went through 21 drafts - which perhaps indicated the importance he placed upon this. Originally the phrase was 'military-industrial-congressional complex' but the word 'congressional' was crossed out and did not make it into the final speech.

The dangers that Eisenhower spoke of are not new, George Washington in 1796 warned of 'overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty.'

Times were different back then - there was a Cold War - and Einsenhower would have been worried about the cost of an arms race with the then Soviet Union and given that it at one point it spent a third of its GDP on its military this was a significant worry. The NPR point out that

Before the late 1950s, companies such as Ford built everything from jeeps to bombers but then went back to building cars. But that changed after the Korean War ... it kept a large standing army ... [and began] a technology race with the Soviets.

And this was also echoed by former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who in a speech in 2011 in the Eisenhower library said:

Does the number of warships we have, and are building really put America at risk when the US battle fleet is larger than the next 13 fleets combined - 11 of whom are our allies and partners?

This, then is an argument for cutting military spending. However, going back to Eisenhower's speech, as a warning it appears stronger than this. Perhaps more in line with his warning were the revelations by Edward Snowden on the extent and range of the surveillance by the NSA on its own domestic population. In a sense, everyone was now a suspect. The amount of information that the FBI had on Martin Luther King pales in significance compared to the kind of information that the NSA has on each and every citizen. Laws that were intended to protect citizens from unnecessary, intrusive and illegal surveillance were outpaced by technologies that were pushed through by a political will that believed in 'total information awareness' and 'full-spectrum dominance'. It's probably apposite to note that the NSA did not go to congress to gain sanction for this because more than likely, they knew they had a vanishing chance of getting it.

It's these kinds of abuses of the power invested in the 'military-industrial complex' that Eisenhower was warning of.

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    One thing to add to your good answer: a military complex needs an enemy, thus they can stir up trouble for no other reason than to "create" an enemy. The result is that they get a temporary conflict, but the country where they exist becomes hated by everyone.
    – Ms Jackson
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 19:20
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    <snark> I'm mostly certain that the NSA supercomputers won't be fooled by misspelling ‘Snowdwn’ </snark> Commented May 23, 2018 at 0:40
  • I'm having difficulty understanding "Does the number of warships we have, and are building really out America at risk when the US battle fleet is larger than the next 13 fleets combined". Maybe "out" should be "put"? Commented May 24, 2018 at 6:07
  • It is pertinent to, but rarely conjoined with the topic: years after the war were when Keynesian Economy really took of, taking credit for ending the Great Depression (with war, of course) and economic boom directly after the war. So it's logical that if war is good for the economy, we need more war... In any case I think this answer is much better than the one marked by OP.
    – user10424
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 14:55

Eisenhower's speech isn't strictly about the military-industrial complex, I at least read it as a general warning of how great concentrations of wealth/power in a construct (in this case, he uses the military industrial complex as an example, but it also mentions academia infused with government directed research funds) can lead to that construct having unintended impacts on democracy. At its core, he appears to be pointing out the precarious balancing act that a government has to make, or rather a well functioning one has to make. The balance between security vs liberty, desires vs necessity, short-term gain vs long-term gain, etc etc.

Unless Eisenhower had a follow up explanation for his speech (which I'm unaware of), a definitive 'what did he mean' probably doesn't exist. Outside of reading his speech, and interpreting it.

Text copy of the speech

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    I'd also argue that "what did he mean" isn't entirely relevant. Suppose he was here today doing an AMA, and we asked him "Did you mean THIS scary thing happening in our society today, or THAT scary thing happening in our society today?" Would the answer really matter? We should try to solve all the scary things. If he inspired someone to think critically about themselves and the world, does it matter exactly what he meant?
    – corsiKa
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 22:19
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    @corsiKa You're right if you're just interested in his speech as a though-provoking aid towards identifying scary things that need fixing. If however you're interested in using his speech as a way to glean insights about how he or people like him think, or to benefit from any wisdom he might've been trying to pass down, what he meant is very relevant.
    – mtraceur
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 1:26
  • @corsiKa: "Doctor, when you said it's going to kill me, did you mean my lung infection or my lung cancer?" Would the answer really matter?
    – user541686
    Commented May 24, 2018 at 5:37
  • Also, at the end of the day whatever he said is just a random speech by a politician. It doesn't have to be true and it doesn't have to be relevant in any way to what's happening in modern times. People give too much weight to quotes, as if quoting someone automatically makes you right. Commented May 26, 2018 at 7:53
  • No, while I won't deny the dangers of any great concentration of power, his concern is specifically about the military-industrial complex. In the american systems, money get politicans under control. What is more dangerous, that business that make profits from war and that have major influence over the politics ? Particularly, when you are facing a really strong opponent in a conventional way and a nuclear way.
    – xrorox
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 16:19

WWII did make US's war industry stretch to unconceivable limits. A gargantuan deal of funds and effort were also invested to develop nuclear weapon technology in order to end the war sending a clear message to those who dare to fight the US in the future.

However, at the end of the war, such enormous industrial conglomerate just cannot be stopped. OK, some part of it was diverted to other uses, but the specific parts were... specific.

Their power, influence on politics and strategic direction of nationwide events were mostly unrivaled. Some key people tried to change that, but were eventually wiped out of the way.

Korea, Cold War, Vietnam, and most conflicts since then were all forced. The need was synthetically generated and fed to the citizens to ultimately justify the need to use the machina. Many examples can document this. One of the most relevant would be the events -dismissed warnings- preceding 9/11.

This is just the point Eisenhower was warning us about. He was in, knew things, met people. And because he was able to anticipate the problem, he told us about it. But, I'm afraid we did nothing but make the problem bigger, and even more unstoppable.

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    I think it can be fairly argued that both the Korean and Vietnam wars were not "synthetically generated". Vietnam in particular may be blamed on mistaking nationalism with monolithic Communism, but the Kennedy, and later Johnson administrations believed they were countering a genuine threat. Iraq? That may be another story.
    – user9422
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 13:01
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    I would note Eisenhower had an important role in halting the Korean war, getting the US into Vietnam and while he initially a strong anti-cold war voice he was committed to containment for more than a decade at that point, so anticipating or warning about those is unexpected. I think you are using later thinking about the phrase, rather than Eisenhouwer's.
    – user9389
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 15:20
  • @mickeyf I do not mean to be categorical at all, but Korea was an overreaction to a deeply injected -synthetic- fear against communism in the U.S. citizenship, in conjunction with rumours of president Truman being weak -domestically speaking- against communism. Aside of that, it may well be one of the big ones after WWII, so the ploy was just forming, and needed some extra refinements.
    – DroidW
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 16:41
  • @not store bought dirt This is just an opinion, but in the farewell speech, it's quite apparent to me that he knew enough. And he told anyone who would listen. "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." Well, they rose, and we did let them not endanger, but take our liberties and democratic processes.
    – DroidW
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 16:46
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    I see how one can read it that way and I think the "sought" line right before adds to its impact. But I suggest the timing is poor for an anticipated threat in Korea and he was pretty serious about the dangers of communists, to the point that he clearly thought some involvement in Vietnam was correct.
    – user9389
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 18:09

One of the things Eisenhower warned about was about the development of this war-based economy. Apparently from 1797 to 1941, the United States mainly relied on civilian industries for private support during times of war with the government directly owning their own shipyards and weapons manufacturers. During World War II, there was a shift where private companies starting maintaining and expanding permanent defense divisions to sell defense products to the government. Many technologies like GPS and night-vision goggles went to the civilian market, but it led to many businesses having a focus on making money from selling weapons to combat enemies to the nation. During the Cold War, the defense industry became somewhat tied to the domestic economy, creating a situation where certain companies shutting down their defense departments could affect the regular economy & allows a 'military industrial complex' that needs constant fighting in order to keep these particular departments afloat. This shift, to some degree, is what Eisenhower was warning about.

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