September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
When I was in college in the late 1960s, my disaffected classmates and I spent a good deal of time decrying the “military-industrial complex.”
I thought that Jerry Rubin probably had coined the phrase, but it might have been Abbie Huffman. I certainly never dreamed that it came from that amiable, dopey (yet at the same time, because of his military background, slightly sinister) old fud Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It did, though, as Douglas Brinkley explains in this issue, and thus Ike added to our historical vocabulary a phrase that will last as long as people remember the era that gave it birth. Has any other twentiethcentury President encapsulated so broad-reaching a concern so succinctly? It’s one more example of the coruscating intelligence that Eisenhower chose never to flaunt, but which allowed him to prevail in a job that combined the political complexities of Lincoln’s with military challenges nearly as daunting as those Washington faced.
The issue also contains a story by Stephen E. Ambrose, a close associate of Doug Brinkley (Ambrose founded the Eisenhower Center for American Studies in New Orleans; Brinkley is running it today), that gives us a slightly different perspective on the threat that Ike saw.
Ambrose’s story of the B-24s reminds us that as Eric Larrabee points out in his superb 1987 book Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants & Their War , “From the perspective of a later era, in which the phrase ‘military-industrial complex’ has come to have unfortunate connotations, the admission must be made that in those earlier days it served us well. Daring, innovation, rapid results, and quality achieved in quantity were made possible essentially because the two parties to the arrangement trusted and understood one another.”
In the straitened summer of 1939, when our army ranked nineteenth in the world’s inventory, below those of Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Romania, only a very few prescient souls believed that the coming struggle would be decided largely in the air. So Boeing, building prototype heavy bombers, met its payroll with bank loans; and the government, when it could, bought the results, believing they would work.
They did, but it was ugly work. Tank battles in the desert and carrier actions in the Pacific seem cleaner because everyone involved was a combatant. The most careful of strategic bombing raids meant dead mothers and maimed children. Yet the successful production of those planes—the B-17s, the B-24s, and, costliest gamble of the war, the B-29s—along with the skill with which they were deployed, surely saved millions more mothers and children as well as what I think it is not just rhetoric to call “civilization.”
That Eisenhower could win his war because of the militaryindustrial complex and a few years later warn Americans it might become a threat to the peace suggests not only the breadth of perception necessary to a soldier who can adapt to that scary thing, a “fluid situation.” It also suggests why history is the most immediate of disciplines. It’s never just a study of the past; it is always about how the past’s limitless facets catch the harsh dazzle of the present and send it back to us focused in a beam that can light the way ahead.