RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to go back 50 years now, to the day that President Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation. He had just finished two terms in office, and it was just days before the new president, John F. Kennedy, was to be sworn in. In his speech, Eisenhower - who was a retired five-star Army general, the man who led the allies on D-Day - warned about what he called the immense military establishment that had joined with a large arms industry.
President DWIGHT EISENHOWER: 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.
MONTAGNE: The military-industrial complex. That's a phrase we've been hearing for years now, and it's a rallying cry for opponents of the military. Joining us to talk about the speech and about whether the military-industrial complex still exists, is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Why was Eisenhower worried about what he called the military-industrial complex?
BOWMAN: Well, Renee, for a few reasons. First of all, he was worried about the costs involved, how the money for the Pentagon was taking away from other areas - building hospitals and schools, both here and abroad.
He was also worried about an arms race with the Soviet Union. He said in the speech, that as someone who's seen the horrors and the lingering sadness of war, quote, "we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose."
He also went on to say that he was worried about the military and the arms industry getting so much power that they would be a threat to democracy - those are his words now - that civilians would lose control of this military-industrial complex.
MONTAGNE: But this very thing - this military-industrial complex - emerged while he was president.
BOWMAN: That's right. And Eisenhower had his own answer to that question in the speech. Let's listen.
President EISENHOWER: Until the last of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
BOWMAN: So that's one thing - a permanent arms industry. Before this, you would have companies like Ford, for example, they built everything from jeeps to bombers, then went back to building cars. Now, that changed after the Korean War.
MONTAGNE: So that's the industry part of it. What about the military half?
BOWMAN: Well, it's important to note that the military did not draw down its troops like it did after World War II. It kept a large standing Army and Marine Corps after Korea.
And, Renee, there's another thing, too. Eisenhower decided to rely more and more on nuclear weapons, which, of course, meant sophisticated technology. The Cold War, in essence, became a technology race with the Soviets. It required its own industry of very specialized systems. So a company like Ford, going from cars to Jeeps is one thing, cars to missile, is quite another.
MONTAGNE: So Eisenhower seems to have believed that he - and this is strong language - but in a sense, created a monster, then during his tenure, tried to put it on a leash.
BOWMAN: The Pentagon budget actually decreased throughout his presidency. He kept saying he wanted a budget the country could afford, and he upset all the military services with his budget cuts - especially the Air Force. And he knew the Pentagon had a tendency to overstate its case and always ask for more than what was needed.
Here's a great quote from Eisenhower. This was not in a speech, but just another quote from him: "The jet plane that roars overhead costs three quarters of a million dollars. That's more than a man will make in his lifetime. What world can afford this kind of thing for long?"
MONTAGNE: In that farewell speech, Eisenhower talks about the military and industry, but he did not mention Congress and its role in defense budgets.
BOWMAN: Congress has become much more of a player here. They call for weapons systems that not even the military wants. Now, in recent days, they're calling for an alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, this new stealthy warplane. And many lawmakers will argue, listen, this is for national security, it's necessary. But some will admit it's really all about jobs in their districts or states.
So a lot of times Congress will add to the Pentagon budget and the military doesn't really need this or want this.
MONTAGNE: What does Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex mean for America today?
BOWMAN: Well, it's still, that military-industrial complex is still with us, it's maybe even gotten stronger. And the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who like Eisenhower is from Kansas - and he keeps a portrait of Eisenhower, by the way, in his office at the Pentagon. Gates went to the Eisenhower Library last year and he talked about the insatiable appetite for more and more weapons.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which are our partners and allies? Is it a dire threat, that by 2020 the United Sates will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China? These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today.
MONTAGNE: And that's coming from the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. He almost sounds, Tom, as if the size of the U.S. military is beyond his control.
BOWMAN: That's right, but it's important to note Defense budgets go up but they also go down, for example, after Vietnam or the Cold War. Still, it's more difficult to cut the Pentagon spending today. There's a few reasons for that. There are only a handful of defense giants, which means you can't shop around for a better price. We used to have a number of companies. There used to be a Lockheed. There used to be a Martin Marietta. Now there's one company, Lockheed Martin.
The other thing is these companies are better at lobbying. They have slick TV/newspapers ads. And they also spread the jobs around the country, to lock in political support. So it is harder to cut these weapons systems but it's not impossible.
And here's Secretary Gates again, talking about that.
Secretary GATES: What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices, choices that will displease powerful people, both inside the Pentagon and out.
BOWMAN: Some say that one thing that could create the political will is the nation's budget deficit. Only that might force cuts in the overall Defense budget.
MONTAGNE: Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. It was 50 years ago today that President Eisenhower warned about America's military-industrial complex.
It's NPR News.