The “military industrial complex” is a term referring to all the components of a nation’s military establishment, including the private businesses involved in producing weapons and other military equipment.
The term was popularized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used his last official speech to denounce the rise of the military industrial complex. Eisenhower warned that the growth of the defense industry posed a threat to democracy:
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. 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.
Eisenhower tied the problem of the military-industrial complex to what he saw as a larger issue of big government overshadowing individual enterprise and research. He argued that the “technological revolution” was making it harder and harder for the “solitary inventor” to compete with massive research facilities and government laboratories:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.
In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present.
Eisenhower himself was a retired five-star general who served as a commander of the Allied forces in World War II; he also orchestrated the D-Day invasion of France.
During Eisenhower’s presidency, the US military expanded more than at any other time in the nation’s history. The military retained a large standing army even after the close of the Korean war; the Cold War between the US and the USSR led to a steady, ongoing increase in military spending on the part of both nations.
The phrase “military industrial complex” was later adopted by many on the left who criticized the power of the defense industry. On the far left, Noam Chomsky argued that Eisenhower had not gone far enough in his warning, and that in fact, the entire modern economy was built around government controls:
I think Eisenhower’s warning was appropriate, but either he didn’t understand or else commentators don’t understand, but the military-industrial complex, as he called it, is actually the core of the modern economy. It’s not specifically military. The reason we have computers, the Internet, telecommunications, lasers, satellites, an aeronautical industry, tourism, run down the list, is because of a technique to ensure that the U.S. is not a free-enterprise economy. Some are more extreme than others in this respect.